Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Elizabeth Achtemeier, professor of Bible at Union Theological Seminary, Virginia, has flatly asserted that radical feminist theology is “another religion.” Some may think that judgment excessive. After all, there are many women who think of themselves as feminists and are also determined to be orthodox Christians. Here the distinction between feminist and radical feminist comes into play. Women (and men) who say they are feminists often mean to say no more than that they think women should be treated more fairly than they have been treated in the past. They want the views, influences, and experiences of women to be taken more fully into account. They want women to have a greater opportunity to participate in all activities where gender differences are not pertinent. No sensible person can argue against feminism so defined. But such feminism has little or nothing to do with feminist theology today.

There is a world of difference between feminism as fairness and feminism as ideology. Feminist theology, almost by definition, reflects the second kind of feminism. Unfortunately, ideological feminism frequently succeeds in infiltrating feminism as fairness. One reason for that is that women who feel frustrated in their quest for fairness are susceptible to the suggestion that unfairness is “systemic,” is built into the very structure of Christianity. That suggestion, indeed that dogma, is the keystone of feminist theology. Feminist theology may be expressed in “moderate” or “radical” forms, but the enterprise itself is inherently radical. This is very helpfully clarified by Carter Heyward, one of the foremost practitioners of feminist theology, in a recent essay.

Heyward, who teaches at the Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts, is the author of, among other books, Speaking of Christ: A Lesbian Feminist Voice and Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God. In the present essay (“Suffering, redemption, and Christ: Shifting the grounds of feminist Christology”), Heyward surveys a slew of recent books in feminist theology. indicating the ways in which they reflect the growing tensions between feminism and historic Christianity. Heyward herself is convinced that the time has come for feminists to move beyond being “reactive to more conventional presentations of Jesus Christ.” The challenge, she writes, is for feminists to help “one another dare ‘re-image redemption.’”

There is an increasing awareness, according to Heyward, that feminists have been hampered by trying to do theology within a normative context that is alien to their own experience. She writes, “For white Christian [sic] feminists, our senses of primary vocational accountability are drawn away from the magisterium toward one another and other participants in the ongoing struggles for justice, sanity, and compassion.” Something like a new feminist magisterium, or teaching authority, is required. If one is to be in some significant sense a Christian feminist, this requires, in turn, a “re-imaging” of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The history of Jesus and what the Church has made of him must be sharply relativized. As Heyward puts it, “Our christological boundaries neither begin nor end with the Jesus-story, but rather with our passion.” (Emphasis hers.)

She indicates what is meant by “our passion” in current feminist thought: “the quality of our lives-in-relation to others, including Jesus, who may or may not be, for us, the Christ, Savior, or Lord. The roles Jesus plays for us may vary, depending upon how we have come to know ourselves in relation to the Jesus story and Christian tradition. These new boundaries invite us to live passionate lives which are, by definition, redemptive–from a Christian perspective, christic.” Here we come upon an interesting play on the connection between passion and redemption. It is not the passion ( viz suffering) of Jesus that works our redemption but the incorporation of Jesus into our passion (including erotic passion) that redeems him as a “christic” figure.

As Heyward understands the development of feminist theology, incorporating Jesus is optional, while passion is definitely not. “Passion is the foundational quality of human being, the most sacred dimension of who we are. It is sensual, embodied knowledge of ourselves as connected rightly to one another, in mutually empowering relationship. . . . [It is] an intense yearning to share and celebrate our liberated/liberating lives.” Heyward recognizes that the jargon of empowerment and liberation may, for many feminists, have no connection with Jesus or Christianity. This need not be excessively troubling to feminist theology, however. “The specifically ‘Christian’ character of our heritage and faith-community may keep the Jesus-story alive for us,” she writes. It depends on what role Jesus has played in our own stories.

“If ‘Jesus’ has been largely positive, as he has been for many within the African-American religious tradition,” Heyward writes, “the character of his ongoing presence can indeed redeem African Americans. If ‘Jesus’ has been negative, as in many instances of sexual abuse in his name, it may be that the power of women’s commitments to suffer no more abuse may have to redeem Jesus.” She agrees with “womanist theologian” Jacquelyn Grant that Jesus has been redeeming black women, just as black women have been redeeming Jesus. The situation is somewhat more complex for white womanist theologians in these “christofascist” (Dorothee Soelle) times. By “christofascism” Heyward means “the ideology set in place by Reagan-Bush,” and apparently Jesus and white people in general are guilty of some complicity in it. “It is an ideology of violence toward women, people of color, the earth and its many creatures, lesbians and gaymen, and all who are old, poor, ill, differently-abled or in any other way deviant from the ‘normative human being’ (the white, economically privileged, ostensibly heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian male).”

In this climate of christofascism, Heyward writes, “It is not enough to ordain women, clean up sexist language, hire women and people of color, or otherwise merely rearrange the theological furniture.” As useful as such ameliorative measures may be to the radical feminist agenda, they clearly do not get to the heart of the matter. They must be seen as preliminary moves in attacking “the entire theological structure [that is] damaged by the heterosexism, racism, classism, imperialism, and other dynamics of domination and control set in place long ago and still pervasive.” In the view of womanist theology, the heart of the matter is the Christian doctrine of atonement. As Heyward and Beverly Harrison have written, that doctrine “represents the sadomasochism of Christian teaching at its most transparent.” Heyward cites the recent work of Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker who ask, “Is it any wonder that there is so much abuse in modern society when the predominant image or theology of the culture is of ‘divine child abuse’–God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of his own son?”

The lesbian feminist voice of unremitting rage, to which Carter Heyward and others would give expression, is, as claimed, the vanguard of feminist theology; and that theology is, as claimed, determinedly radical. That is to say, it is radical in its rejection of historic Christianity. At the same time, it is meekly accommodating toward the impassioned prejudices that still prevail in the most leftward backwaters of the elite culture, right down to descrying the “fascism” of what is described as America’s pseudo-democracy. Despite the heavy breathing of the literature, the so very familiar worldview of feminist theology is touchingly tired and tattered. Heavy breathing is perhaps required to artificially respire the rages and rhetorics of the sixties that most of the culture has long since left behind. As sociologists remind us, religion is a “soft institution,” and no institution in religion is softer than the divinity school. In that light it is perhaps not surprising that theological education is amenable to serving as the final resting place for radicalisms past, including the variant that is “womanist theology.” But whatever the sociological explanation, Carter Heyward and her colleagues helpfully clarify what Elizabeth Achtemeier means when she says that feminist theology is “another religion.”

Martin Luther King and Human Nature

One takes wisdom where it is to be found, although it must be admitted that The Nation, flagship journal of the storm-tossed left, seems an unlikely source. The subject is Ralph David Abernathy’s autobiography, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down, and the very uncivil attack on Abernathy by the civil rights establishment because he wrote with unexpected candor about the sexual proclivities of Martin Luther King, Jr. Your editor has discussed the controversy in some detail (Commentary, February), including why it has raised the hackles of some professional blacks. (The chief reason is that, inadvertently or not, Abernathy’s book undercuts the claim that the present civil rights establishment is a continuation of the movement led by King from 1956 to his death in 1968.)

But now in The Nation Peter Marin expands on the questions the book raises about virtue and the political left. “What I’d like,” he writes, “is for everyone to leave Abernathy alone.” If Abernathy is telling the truth, and Marin sensibly thinks he is, we may even owe him a debt of gratitude. Marin’s reasoning may at first sound like a liberal cliche. “If King possessed a truth, as he did, and if his words sounded in the heart as they did because they carried the truth, how can another truth injure it? For the truth is all of a piece; it is what we must live with, like it or not; and its presence, no matter how it hurts or seems to destroy (and make no mistake, truth always destroys), also heals. It makes us whole and sets us free, even when it is a truth as small and unimportant as the truth of King’s sexual life.”

The truth, Marin suggests, may even set some people free to recognize the reality of original sin, or at least the ambiguity of the human condition. “We on the left have got to recognize what few Americans want to acknowledge, whatever their politics: that virtue is always partial, that good and bad are mixed in every policy and every person, that the correctness of one’s moral or political position is no guarantee of ultimate virtue or superiority and that vision, virtue, and goodness grow side by side with, and even out of, human error and corruption. Those who do not understand this will forever remain shrill children.” The shrill children of partisan passion do not find that easy to take. “That, of course, often has not been enough for most of us who hold passionate views. What we believe (or hope) is that opinions, convictions, or praxis somehow make us better than others. It is not justice alone that draws us, inspires us. It is also the greedy and vain dream of being somehow better than others, not only more ‘right’ but also more holy.”

Marin has been around on the left and thinks there are larger lessons to be learned. “There has always been on the left, at least as long as I’ve been alive, a desperate need for a sensed superiority or even purity–a kind of moral hygiene through which large numbers of people vigorously and hungrily assert, through politics, a need for a feeling of virtue. We tend to see those who oppose us as villains, or of the Devil’s party and somehow by nature inferior to us. This was clear in the 1960s, especially in the supposed sexual revolution, when every sexual preference or activity was presented as healthy, or a social good, and where those who were not flagrantly sexual, or homosexual, or bisexual, were perceived as repressed and sick. Each person, in relation to sexuality as well as politics, tended to insist that his or her own preference or idiosyncrasy was in itself a source of virtue, wisdom, or salvation.”

Stridency, Self-Righteousness, and Unrighteousness

He condemns the moral stridency of the prolife movement (being proabortion is de rigueur on the left), but then he adds, “That stridency is often more than matched on our side, where all those who oppose abortion are seen as knaves, dupes, or oppressors. We seem unable to credit them with a concern for life, or a muddled love for it, somehow equal to our own.” Marin’s point is that we are all very fallible human beings, and that the left has a harder time accepting that because it undermines confidence in “the larger dream of the perfectibility of human nature or the social order.” He ends up on this note: “We do know that King was not a perfect man, or maybe not even a ‘good’ man. Again, so what? . . . I’m not bothered by the fact that King was immersed in life, whatever shape it may have taken, a few hours before his death . . . ”

Marin’s critique of the self-righteousness of the left is welcome, and it must be readily acknowledged that there is similar self-righteousness on the right, although usually based on quite different reasoning. That said, however, one suspects there is something basically flawed in an argument that puts “good” in quotation marks. What is basically wrong in Marin’s argument is that it is an argument for libertinism. Maybe King was not a good man. “So what?” Marin asks. Some answers to that are: So the nation, and black youth in particular, are deprived of a model to emulate; so many Christians, and blacks in particular, feel betrayed by a pastor who contradicted in private what he preached in public; so cynicism about virtue, both private and public, is given a big boost.

Good, Great, and Flawed

Now our view is that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good man in many and important respects, and, in historical terms, a great man. But cutting through his life was a deep moral incoherence, a servitude to the commands of Eros. What Peter Marin does not say is that King might more nobly have coped with his devils if such servitude had not been approved, even celebrated, on the left. One of the saddest parts of Abernathy’s book is that, in all their years as closest friends, he only once dared to raise with King the question of his womanizing, and then not because it was morally wrong but because the FBI knew about it and would use it against King and his cause. Indeed, Abernathy indicates that King’s adulteries were not that different from the habits of other leaders in the movement of the time. Contra Marin, the lesson to be learned by the left is not that nobody’s perfect (as valuable as that lesson is), but that the left’s laissez-faire sexual ethics ends up in the ruination of lives. The prime examples today are the teenage girls of the black underclass made pregnant by studs who defiantly say, “So what? Dr. King did it.”

Biology and Culture

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, curiously enough, is celebrated by some who profess to be proponents of cultural conservatism and its religious foundations. Wilson is among the foremost champions of a rigid and dogmatic scientism whose hostility to religion might aptly be called rabid. In his view, the pretensions of religion and moral philosophy only occlude the “scientific” fact that our ideas and behaviors are “wired in” by natural selection, producing “gut feelings” which are “largely unconscious and irrational.”

What we mistakenly take to be the “oracle” of moral or religious wisdom, he writes, “resides in the deep emotional centers of the brain, most probably within the limbic system.” We are biologically “programmed” to think and act as we do, and it is no more than human conceit to seek justifying “reasons” beyond biological determinism. “Human behavior,” he writes in On Human Nature, “like the deepest capacities for emotional response which drive and guide it, is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function.”

As Charles Taylor explains in his brilliant book, Sources of the Self, Wilson represents a position of scientistic reductionism that has quite “swallowed up” morality, and makes it impossible to give any account of the good or the goods by which life might be morally ordered. Having discarded the traditional moral justifications, including religion, Wilson says that he still wants to “see beyond the blind decision-making process of natural selection and to envision the history and future of our genes against the background of the entire human species.” His reductionist premises, however, provide no way to escape the trap of biological fate.

Why, then, should some cultural conservatives be celebrating Edward O. Wilson? The answer, we expect, is that there is a small sidestream of conservatism that is obsessed with the idea of keeping, as Wilson says, human genetic material intact. According to that conservatism, the traditions it prizes are grounded not so much in culture, philosophy, and religion as in biology, race, and good genetic stock. From that it follows that we should severely restrict immigration and the growth of inferior population groups, while, at the same time, adopting policies that secure the dominance of the presumably purer “genetic material” that gave birth to our civilization. This position is, in our judgment, as morally odious as it is intellectually muddled. On the other hand, in the continuing sorting out of political and intellectual alignments, it is perhaps useful to have some conservatives so publicly take their stand with such as Edward O. Wilson. It helps other conservatives understand more clearly the kind of conservatives that they are not.

Watching the Numbers

The Princeton Religion Research Center, headed by George Gallup, Jr., renders an important service by its regular monitoring of the religious scene. Many of the more interesting results are included in The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90s (Gallup and Jim Castelii, Macmillan). The essential message is no surprise: America continues to be incorrigibly religious. In recent studies much attention has been paid the growing number of “unchurched,” the people who claim no religious affiliation. They were 6% in 1947, 2% in 1967, and are now 8%. Among the interesting points made by Gallup and Castelii, however, is that the unchurched are in important respects no less religious than the churched. In many cases, it seems, they are unchurched because they haven’t found a church that meets their spiritual expectations.

Among those who do claim a church, there have been significant shifts over the last two decades. For instance, in 1967 14% of the population was Methodist, while only 9% is today. The Presbyterian decline is even more dramatic, from 6% to 3%, while Episcopalians have gone from 3% to 2%. Baptists and Lutherans have held steady at, respectively, 20% and 6%. (The Episcopalian figure reminds us of a question we first heard posed by our colleague Michael Novak. “Women,” he noted, “are 52% of the population, blacks are 12%, Hispanics are 10%, the handicapped are 5%, and Episcopalians are 2%.” The question: “Which of the above groups does not think of itself as a minority?”)

Jews have suffered a severe decline, from 5% of the population in 1947 to 2% today. Of course there is the important factor that Jewish identity has to do with both ethnicity and religion, and, for the majority of Jews, mainly with ethnicity. Some secular Jews, when asked about their religious affiliation, may answer “none,” and therefore end up in the “unchurched” column. The number of religiously practicing Jews in the country may be smaller than the number of Orthodox Christians (Greek, Rumanian, Russian, etc.). Yet, very much unlike the case with Jews, the Orthodox presence in America seems to be almost invisible. Orthodox Christianity is hardly a blip on the American cultural screen, although on the world scene and in terms of theological weight, it is the major alternative to the Christianity of the West. Indicative of Orthodoxy’s invisibility is that, in the 278 pages of The People’s Religion, it gets one sentence in passing.

The most dramatic change of recent decades is the growth of Roman Catholicism. In 1947, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by a 3.5 to 1 margin (69% to 20%). In 1987, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by only a 2 to 1 margin (57% to 28%). Significantly, the gap is even narrower among young people. Among those age 18 to 24, 49% say they are Protestant and 31% say they are Catholic. With the percentage of Protestants hovering around 50%, Gallup and Castelli note, the time is not far off when “nominal Protestants will no longer make up a majority of the American people.” They further suggest that in the early decades of the next century “Catholics could vie with Protestants as the dominant religious group in America.” That, we would suggest, is not quite accurate. Catholics are now the dominant religious group in America, at least numerically. And that for the simple reason that the category of “Protestants” does not constitute a “religious group.” “Protestant” denotes nothing more than non-Catholic, non-Orthodox, non-Jewish, or non-unchurched. Religiously and sociologically, for instance, the differences between Assemblies of God or independent Baptist, on the one hand, and Lutheran or Episcopalian, on the other, are greater than the differences between the latter two and Catholics. Employing a generous definition of “Evangelical,” one could argue that there are as many Evangelicals as Roman Catholics. But they, too, do not constitute a “religious group” in quite the same way. Those identified as Evangelicals are spread across denominational lines and have no common institutional expression.

Of course, it might be objected that the diversities and contradictions within Catholicism are such that it does not count as a “religious group” either. But that is pushing matters. The fact is that, for all their differences, Catholics know what church it is they think they belong to when they say they are Catholics. No other association that warrants the term “religious group” is anywhere near as large as the Roman Catholic Church. So, if we are to speak about a dominant religious group in America today, it is clearly Catholics. But, one must immediately add, “at least numerically.” For it is just as clear that Catholics are not dominant culturally. And there are those who would argue that Catholicism in America has been so pervasively “Protestantized” that, in the end, it will reinforce rather than challenge the Protestant hegemony in American culture. On that view, the role of sustaining Protestantism’s “Righteous Empire” (Marty) is now passing from the liberal oldline churches to Roman Catholicism.

Whether or not one finds that view persuasive, it should be obvious that the story of religion in America will increasingly be the story of Catholicism in America. Within Catholicism there are worlds within worlds, and the same is true of the more amorphous phenomenon of Evangelicalism. But these two forces, Catholicism and Evangelicalism, now have the leading part in shaping the future of religion in America and, if religion is the heart of culture, the future of America. Those in our cultural elites who still think of Catholicism as an immigrant intrusion and of born-again Christianity as a species of primitivism are having a hard time coming to terms with that reality.

Theology Today

“Oh God, Poor God” is an incisive and sadly droll report on the state of contemporary theology by William J. Abraham of Perkins School of Theology. Writing in The American Scholar, Abraham notes that the theological guild in oldline Protestantism and, increasingly, in Roman Catholicism has quite abandoned the classical themes and texts of the Christian tradition. Varieties of liberationist and feminist theology, he says, have succeeded in establishing the rigid orthodoxy that the Gospel must be made “meaningful” to the modern world, and any gospel deemed to be meaningful thereby becomes the Gospel. Meaningful, in turn, is defined in terms of political liberation from real or alleged oppressions. With only the most superficial familiarity with the Christian texts–none of them considered authoritative–theology students are expected in a semester or two to come up with their own creed, which they are then sent out to inflict upon hapless congregations. Meanwhile, the business of teaching theology has become an intellectual embarrassment. Abraham writes:

“What this means is that the theologian has become intellectually lazy. This laziness is initially expressed in a lamentable failure to deal with the sociological and philosophical issues related to the fundamental claims that are being advanced. The habit begins because of the omission of these disciplines from the basic training of theologians. Sociology of religion hardly exists at the master of divinity level, and philosophy of religion is not taken very seriously. Even at the graduate level, the introduction to these disciplines is perfunctory; insufficient time is given for the maturing theologian to find his or her bearings in the relevant material. Where philosophy is taken seriously, the approach tends to be in the tradition of Hegel and Heidegger, with disparaging glances directed here and there at the debate in recent Anglo-American philosophy on the nature of religious language. As a result, the most astonishing claims about the nature of society, or about the relation between interests and truth, or about the character and meaning of religious discourse, or about the fundamental character of all knowledge, or about the rationality of religious belief can be advanced without any sense of internal self-criticism and with unchallengeable dogmatism. Moral passion displaces intellectual rigor; righteous indignation and thinly veiled anger do service for analytical skill; primary sources in the field, including that of approved authorities like Marx, are treated as already read; worse still, opponents are dismissed because they do not belong to the favored group or class. By wielding a set of code words and by stitching together a diverse set of elusive sociological and philosophical jargon, the theologian is able to give the impression that we are confronted by a passionate and enduring vision of reality. In truth, what we have for the most part is the skillful reworking and expansion of the dregs of the Western political Enlightenment. It is small wonder that those who thirst for God as a living reality and yearn for the company of the saints and martyrs in the community of God’s grace turn aside in disappointment; they have been looking for bread and have been once more offered a stone.”

But all is not lost. Abraham discerns signs of hope in two developments. First, there is a dramatic growth in the number of professional philosophers who are picking up the classical questions of theology that the theologians have abandoned. (Among North Americans, he mentions William Alston, George Mavrodes, Peter Van Inwagen, Robert Adams, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eleanore Stump, Alan Donagan, and Alasdair MacIntyre.) Second, he thinks that Eastern Orthodoxy, small though it is in this country, is keeping the tradition alive and may become the provocation that will one day recall the churches of the West to “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude).

At points Abraham paints with a broad brush. There are more theologians than he suspects who have not bowed the knee to the baalism of political relevance. And some of the work being done by Evangelicals and other conservative Christians is more intellectually impressive than he indicates. Yet his depiction of academic theology today is essentially correct. The marginalization and exclusion of theology in contemporary intellectual life is in large part the achievement of theologians. An English sociologist, not himself a Christian, put it to Abraham this way: “Modern theologians are so worried about being kicked in the ditch by the modern world that they hastily jump into it to avoid that fate.” That does not say it all, but it says a great deal about theology today.

Politics and Class

Among the merits of Robert Bork’s The Tempting of America is the remarkable way in which it makes accessible to the lay reader current developments in legal theory and practice. Indeed, the book is much more about jurisprudence than it is about the trial of Robert Bork by the hanging judges Edward Kennedy, Joe Biden, and their colleagues in the Senate. Bork’s incisive critique of what is happening in the law schools suggests that it is not that different from what is happening in many other fields, including religion. Myriad revisionisms and deconstructionisms are eroding the foundations of law itself. Bork’s argument that judges are morally required to limit themselves to the “original understanding” of the Constitution is premised on what should be obvious: if courts are not bound by the Constitution, citizens may wonder why they should be bound by the courts.

Bork allows that many judges and law professors probably do not understand the destructive process that they are helping to further. However, he carefully and amply documents the fact that many others know precisely what they are up to, making no secret of their intention to use the imperial judiciary in order to replace democratic governance with the rule of the “knowledge class.” As with the “death of God” and the abolition of authoritative texts in theology, so the death of law opens the way for the masters of symbolic knowledge to give free rein to their will to power. After reading Bork’s description of the state of legal theory, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the intellectual historian, wrote him: “This is precisely the situation in literature and history–abstract, abstruse, highly methodological–the point of which is to relativize the disciplines thoroughly. Any methodology becomes permissible (except, of course, the traditional one), and any reading of the texts becomes legitimate (except, of course, that of the author). The purpose is not only to create a new privileged mandarin class who alone are competent to interpret the text, but also to re-create the discipline de novo so as the better to politicize it, to create a tabula rasa upon which anything can be written. Original understanding is to the law what traditional, factual, documentary history is to the historian.”

Whether in law, literature, history, or theology, a methodology that is respectful of “original understanding” does not ignore hermeneutical problems. Original understanding comprehends the cultural and historical “conditionings” that obsess the professional complexifiers who are so skilled at warding off the threat of clarity. It is understood that the interpreter cannot get inside the mind of the authors of the Constitution or the biblical texts. But it is also understood that the text has a public meaning that is historically accessible and therefore not subject to the unbridled subjectivism of those who would take words captive to their own purposes. The importance of The Tempting of America reaches far beyond legal theory and the temptation of the courts to displace republican self-governance. It is a lucid and disturbing analysis of the legal dimension of a much more comprehensive war for the control of the culture. Those who think that talk about class struggle is exaggerated have likely not been paying close attention to the political success of the knowledge class at Harvard Divinity School as well as Harvard Law School, not to mention hundreds of other schools of lesser prominence.

Ambushed on the Road to Damascus

We have been waiting for the controversy that such a document should surely arouse. But there has been an eerie, perhaps embarrassed, silence after the initial and enthusiastic story by Marjorie Hyer in the Washington Post. The document in question is “The Road to Damascus: Kairos and Conversion.” Appearing toward the end of last year, it was allegedly signed by more than two thousand “Third World theologians” and was “coordinated” by Sojourners and the Center of Concern, two self-declared radical groups in Washington, D.C. The gist of this remarkable statement is that there is a conspiracy of “right-wing Christians” who support Western imperialism, for which mortal and unrepented sinning such Christians are declared excommunicate.

“The Road to Damascus” paints with an astonishingly broad brush. The only sinner named is the respected Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington think tank concerned about democracy and religious liberty around the world. But the document leaves no doubt that there is “a conspiracy so vast” (J. McCarthy) that there are thousands who must now be excluded from the Body of Christ. The Christian world is sharply divided between the children of darkness and the children of light, according to this statement. The children of darkness are “the religious right, right-wing Christianity, state theology, the theology of reconciliation, the neo-Christendom movements, and anti-communist evangelicals.” In the other corner are the children of light: “liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology, minjung theology, theology of struggle, the Church of the poor, the progressive Church, and basic Christian communities.”

The children of darkness are in thrall to capitalism, imperialism, and anti-Communism, they “serve the idols of death rather than the God of life,” have turned Christianity into a “weapon against the people,” and are therefore guilty of “heresy and apostasy, hypocrisy and blasphemy.” The children of light in the liberationist struggle, on the other hand, resist exploitative neo-colonialism, recognizing that “most Third World countries are still dominated by one or more imperial power–the United States, Japan, and Western Europe.” Critics of liberationist theologies, we are told, have set themselves against the saving work of God in history. While most of the signatories are unknown in this country (the category of “theologians” is very broadly defined), one is struck by the names of eight bishops from the Philippines. Since John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger have issued very stiff criticisms of liberationist theologies, one wonders if these bishops really mean to say that they too are excommunicate. And, if so, one wonders further what church these bishops now think they belong to.

In fact, “The Road to Damascus” does suggest that a new church has been founded. The People’s Church of the Anti-Imperialist Struggle. According to this document, “the truth of Christian faith” has little or nothing to do with faith in Christ, Scripture, or the classic creeds, and everything to do with a socio-economic analysis of class struggle. The credal key, as might be expected, is “the preferential option for the poor.” Perhaps the invocation of “the preferential option” explains in part the silence to which this strange document has been treated by the church press in this country. Nobody wants to be perceived as opposing those who speak for the poor. Given the creedal status accorded its socio-economic analysis, however, it would seem that the document is deserving of more careful examination.

Examining the Prophecy

George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (yet another Washington think tank) has read the document with care and offers some pertinent observations in American Purpose: “The time is long past when those who most loudly proclaim their ‘preferential option for the poor’ should be given the benefit of the doubt. The world has learned some things about poverty and wealth, development and underdevelopment, these last few decades or so. We have learned that human resources and capital are as important, and probably more important, than natural resources. We have learned that market-oriented economies are far more likely to raise the poor’s standard of living than state-centered or command economies. We have learned that the entrepreneurial energies of the people of the Third World are being strangled by a thick net of mercantilist and modern statist regulations. We have learned that postindependence dictators in the Third World are often more corrupt than their former colonial masters. We have learned that aggregate amounts of foreign aid are no index of successful development in the recipient nation. And we have learned that when people are actually given the choice, they inevitably opt for the kinds of economies that allow them to function as free economic actors.

Yet the sponsors and authors of the Damascus document seem wholly innocent of all this. Twenty years ago there may have been an excuse for such extraordinary ignorance of empirical reality. But now there is no excuse. One is ignorant of these things either because one is culpably lazy and not paying very much attention or because one finds truth ideologically unsettling. In either case, the result is bad news for the poor, for whom one had supposedly ‘opted.’”

Ideology and Christian Faith

As shoddy and stale as the socio-economic analysis in “The Road to Damascus” may be, much more troubling is the statement’s equation of its ideology with the Christian faith. Morally troubling also is the role of Sojourners and the Center of Concern in all of this. They claim theirs was only the modest role of coordinating publicity for a statement that is the product of years of indigenous study by Christians in seven Third World countries. We tried to believe that but were forced to give up. The ideas and jargon in the document are the conventional cant routinely issuing from organizations such as Sojourners and the Center of Concern. In a world where socialist ideology and practice are being daily discredited, it is more probable that the language of “The Road to Damascus” was crafted in First World enclaves of true believers in an idea that is comatose, if not dead. This, it might be noted, may indeed be an instance of imperialism. Playing on Lenin’s title, it could be called “Radicalism: The Last Stage of Imperialism.”

By agreeing to sign this strident and thoroughly wrongheaded polemic, it would seem that thousands of Christians in poor countries have allowed themselves to be ambushed by ideological imperialists who are not above exploiting the poor to amplify their own discontents. That is very sad, and one can almost sympathize with more responsible Christians in this country who wanted to let it pass in silence. When, however, a substantial number of Christians declare a substantial number of other Christians to be excommunicate, attention must be paid.

The Revolution Stops Here

John Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, succeeded in drawing considerable attention to himself a while back with the publication of Living in Sin? In that book and subsequent statements he has, with relentless self-appreciation, declared that he is an absolutely open-minded prelate. He bravely condemns the trials and inquisitions by which the church has in the past repressed the healthy juices of good, clean sex. The favorite bishop of Integrity, the Episcopalian gay-activist group, Spong has come out foursquare for the ratification of homosexual marriages and other creative family arrangements. Traditional rules are breezily dismissed as the hang-ups of people who refuse to recognize that Christianity is but a human construct of symbols and myths that must evolve in order to “come to terms with our revolutionary new situation.” All the more reason for the bishop’s embarrassment over a recent ecclesiastical trial, the first in the 113-year history of the diocese of Newark. At least we hope the bishop is embarrassed. In that trial George G. Swanson was found guilty of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. What could possibly warrant such a verdict in the so very permissive diocese of Newark? Surely not abandoning his wife for another woman, or setting up housekeeping with his boyfriend, or publicly denying the deity of Christ. All those things are amply covered by the bishop’s blessing of accommodations to our allegedly revolutionary age. No, it seems that Fr. Swanson publicly accused the bishop of greedily wanting to get his hands on $575,115, the insurance money that Swanson’s parish received after its church burned down in 1986. Sodomy, adultery, and heresy are all very well, but when it comes to matters of real importance–like money and public criticism of John Spong–the revolution has clearly gone too far. Perhaps in his next book the very open-minded bishop of Newark will find some good words for selective repression, even for ecclesiastical trials.


♦ A host of controversies in the churches swirl around the use of “inclusive” language, especially in liturgy. Gender relations, sexual oppression, hierarchy vs. autonomy, textual authority vs. contextualization–all become embroiled in the newspeak of “inclusivity.” About the best, most balanced, even, we dare to say, the most inclusive discussion of these disputes is Alvin F. Kimel’s “The Holy Trinity Meets Ashtoreth: A Critique of ‘Inclusive’ Liturgies.” Originally published in the Anglican Theological Review, the essay is available in pamphlet form for $2, including postage, from Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Ave, Suite 400, NY, NY 10010 (11.50 per for five or more copies).

♦ In abortion debates the alternative of adoption is frequently raised, and is frequently dismissed as an “unrealistic” remnant from the way the world used to be. Adoption Factbook, however, makes clear that adoption continues to be a large and important part of American life. Libraries and the public-policy community need to have this 277 page manual filled with facts and reports on programs that work. It is published by the National Committee for Adoption (Mrs. George Bush, Chairman) and is available for $39.95, plus $2 postage, from the Committee at 1930 Seventeenth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.

Evangelicals and Foreign Policy is out, in the event that you were waiting for it. Essays by Alberto R. Coll, Dean C. Curry, James Davison Hunter, and your editor. Michael Novak describes it as “[a] splendid introduction to political realism, and a magnificent account of the ‘return from exile’ and into mainstream politics of some of America’s most energetic citizens.” Mark Amstutz of Wheaton calls it “essential reading.” The fact that they’re friends doesn’t mean that they’re not telling the truth. Edited by Michael Cromartie, Evangelicals and Foreign Policy is available for $10.95 from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1030 Fifteenth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.

♦ In the last decade and more there has been a resurgence of interest in law and religion. One reason is that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment has come under increasing pressure by expansionist government regulation. Another reason is that there is a growing awareness of the difficulties in maintaining the legitimacy of law apart from moral and religious grounding. A good way to stay on top of discussions in this field is by attending to the Journal of Law and Religion. For further information, write the journal at Hamline University School of Law, 1536 Hewitt Ave., St. Paul, MN 55104.

♦ We don’t know quite what to make of it, but it would seem to be not without cultural significance. Each year New York State reports the most popular names given babies. In the past year, Michael and Jessica held onto first place, but Brian and Danielle fared poorly. For boys, Michael has been at the top of the chart for seventeen years straight. Edging out Robert for tenth place, John staged a comeback; and Anthony, knocking Brian off the chart, rallied. For girls, Jessica is at the top for the second year, while Danielle was replaced by Samantha. The most popular boys’ names: Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Daniel, Joseph, Andrew, Steven, Anthony, David, and John. For girls: Jessica, Amanda, Ashley, Jennifer, Sara, Nicole, Stephanie, Christine, Samantha, and Melissa. The question: Why is it that all the boys’ names are biblical or of religious significance, while the girls’ names tend to be merely cute? One answer: Parents take boys more seriously than girls. Another answer: Girls are cuter than boys. The reader may have a better answer.


Feminist Faith, Christianity and Crisis, December II, 1989. Marin on King, December 25, 1989. Weigel, American Purpose, November 1989. Naming, New York Times, December 28, 1989.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift