Robert Bellah of the University of California, Berkeley, is surely among the most influential commentators on religion and American public life. In the late sixties he was instrumental in reviving the discussion about “civil religion”—a discussion that still goes on and has, all in all, enhanced our understanding of the problems of moral legitimation in the American social experiment. More recently, Bellah was the lead author of Habits of the Heart, which has become one of the most frequently quoted texts when the subject turns to how Americans try to make moral sense of their lives.
The single most persistent theme in Bellah’s writing is the relationship between the individual and community. He recently took up that theme again in an address at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), “The Role of the Church in a Changing Society.” His intention is to reflect on the meaning of the Revolution of 1989 in Eastern Europe, and to ask what it means, or should mean, for Americans. He announces, “I will take the unpopular position that the triumph of capitalism should lead us not to triumphalism but to self- reflection.” One notes parenthetically that—at Berkeley, LSTC, and most everywhere else in the American academy—his is the popular position. The truly unpopular position would be to defy regnant orthodoxies by suggesting that the outcome of the Cold War is, however ambiguously, a vindication of democratic capitalism.
As is Bellah’s wont, much of his essay is given over to an attack on what he understands by capitalism. What he understands by capitalism is extreme libertarianism, a “market imperialism” in which every good, including the common good, is consumed by the endless competitive quest for consumer satisfaction. Milton Friedman’s wrongheaded indifference to the role of moral judgment in ordering our common life is, for Bellah, of the essence of capitalism. But Friedman is mild compared to those who Bellah thinks are more consistent proponents of capitalism. He cites, for example, Elizabeth Landes and Richard Posner, who advocate a free market in babies in which baby prices would be quoted as prices of soybean futures are quoted. “We may not be surprised,” writes Bellah, “that the French speak of American capitalism as le capitalisme sauvage, savage capitalism.”
Parenthetically again, one notes that French intellectuals talked that way in the 1960s, before the “turn to the right” that led to a warm embrace of democratic capitalism, also in the American mode. More to the point, Bellah’s critique of capitalism seems to depend upon his caricature of capitalism. He does not seem to be aware that conservative journals such as National Review and conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation are as vigorous as he is in rejecting the libertarianism he deplores. In Charles Taylor’s useful phrase (Sources of the Self), Bellah’s case for social democracy or democratic socialism depends upon his continuing to offer a “depreciatory account” of its alternatives. Such classic pro-capitalist thinkers as Bertrand de Jouvenel (The Ethics of Redistribution) were more rigorous than Bellah in their withering critique of “maximizing satisfactions,” and of the market as a comprehensive mechanism for ordering social relations. Today, Christian thinkers such as Michael Novak and Robert Benne are giving exhaustive attention to democratic capitalism as a “political economy” that requires the most careful concern for questions of culture, morality, and community. In short, the version of capitalism so enthusiastically, and so cheaply, attacked by Bellah has few defenders outside the superannuated circle of those who mistook Ayn Rand for a philosopher. He does not seem to realize that, if social democracy is the alternative to that capitalism, William F. Buckley, Jr. is a social democrat. Bellah’s capitalism is a straw man that he puts on exhibition in order to define, by contrast, his very popular “unpopular” position.
That is a great shame, because Bellah otherwise has useful things to say about the dangers of radical individualism, and about the importance of community and communities. “We know,” he writes, “that without institutional support, without role models and exemplary stories, few people are able to withstand the pressures of consumerism and competition all alone. It is here that all the institutions that embody moral standards are important, and the church in my opinion is chief among them.” Precisely. That is what proponents of democratic capitalism such as Michael Novak have been saying for years. That is a key part of the “mediating structures” project that Peter Berger and this writer have been advancing. That is what “old right” conservatives mean when they argue that “the cultural agenda” must have priority in reordering our public life. Controlling one’s exasperation, one must ask in a civil manner: Where has Robert Bellah been the last decade and more?
Despite his appreciation of culture, community, participation, and mediating structures, Bellah seems to be stuck, he seems to want to be stuck, in the statist mode of social democracy. It appears to be his belief system, and depreciatory accounts must be given of any alternatives that threaten that system. World events are interpreted in a light that supports his commitment. Thus he writes, “The drift in Europe is toward social democracy and not toward savage capitalism.” In France? In Britain? In Germany? About the last Bellah writes, “A reunited Germany will in all probability produce a Social Democratic government.” And this in the year that East Germans, mainly Protestant, voted overwhelmingly for a conservative alliance led by the Catholic-oriented Christian Democrats of Helmut Kohl. This in a year in which almost all observers agree that elections in Eastern Europe are explained most cogently by the desire of people to move as quickly as possible toward democracy and a market economy, and away from any ideology tainted by socialism.
So the question is not only where Bellah has been during the arguments of recent intellectual history; the question is: Where is Robert Bellah now? He tells us. He is, it seems, in a world of half a century ago, in a world that shaped his understanding of “social justice,” in a world that gave him the faith that he is determined to keep. After surveying what he views as the emerging triumph of democratic socialism in Europe, he writes: “Even though, after the experience of the last ten years, a return to the American version of social democracy, namely a renewal of the New Deal effort to create a more just and caring society, may seem both unexpected and deeply gratifying, it is an eventuality for which we should prepare with both hope and a degree of prophetic distance.” His is the wan hope for a return to the status quo ante —for a restoration of the way things used to be.
Robert Bellah is a preacher, and a very effective one. Habits of the Heart is a jeremiad. Remove the concluding chapter that is an unconvincing advertisement for democratic socialism, and it is a needed jeremiad. In a free society, warnings against unbridled consumption and unbridled competition are always in order. Whether under the auspices of capitalism or socialism, life that is dominated by the economic factor is deadly. Bellah is right about that, although he fails to see that, as a matter of historical experience, it is the ideology of socialism that has most brutally subordinated everything to the economic. Bellah is also right in understanding that the things that make for a truly human life have little to do with economic self-aggrandizement, and everything to do with communities of memory, allegiance, mutual aid, and transcendent commitment. And surely he is right to say that, among such communities, none is more important than the community constituted by religious belief.
Robert Bellah is an influential thinker, and we should therefore be grateful that he joins many others in saying these important things that will always need saying. When Bellah moves from the cultural to the political and economic, however, he becomes a backward-looking restorationist, nostalgic for the statist solutions of the past. What is required today is a reformist vision of public policies that will empower people to take charge of their lives in their freely chosen communities of allegiance and mutual aid. This way lies the promise of vibrant pluralism replacing the repressive monisms produced by the failed schemes of social democracy. Standing in the way of that promise are habits of the mind shaped by a world that is now definitively, and deservedly, past.
1857 and 1990
Commonweal, the Catholic lay journal, has been doing some fine editorial opining on the twists and turns of the abortion debate. And that is probably why Governor Mario Cuomo of New York chose that forum to explain in detail some of his own twists and turns on the issue. Like Commonweal, we found the Governor’s explanation thoroughly disappointing. (Unlike Commonweal, we are not so impressed by Cuomo’s previous contributions to the moral debate, and we think that New York bishops have challenged Cuomo chiefly because he has challenged them.) The editors respond to Cuomo’s explanation with a citation from Lincoln in the debates with Stephen Douglas: “He who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” With respect to slavery, it will be recalled, Douglas took the position of “personally opposed, but . . . ”
Commonweal observes: “As in 1857 with the Dred Scott decision, so in 1990 with Roe: our political culture is again caught up in a fierce struggle over whether some human lives can be placed beyond the protection of the law. Public opinion is where it has always been, mostly in the middle, unwilling to have all abortions banned, yet troubled by the availability of abortion virtually on demand, the practical consequence of Roe. But, with the Webster decision of last July, a question that had seemed closed now appears to be open; the states are in a position to test how far the Supreme Court will reshape its 1973 ruling.” In this new situation of legislative possibilities and obligations, the editors ask, “Why hasn’t Governor Mario Cuomo stepped forth as a molder of consensus?” The editors cite a number of issues on which they think the Governor has demonstrated “moral wisdom married to rhetorical power.” Abortion is not among those issues. “If indeed he takes abortion seriously as a direct assault on life, the tenor of his finely calibrated comments do not finally seem to connect with that reality,” the editorial concludes.
The Constitution and Public Theology
Could the U.S. Constitution be written today? If not, why should we order public life in accord with a document whose presuppositions we no longer accept? These are among the questions usefully raised by Max Stackhouse of Andover Newton in an essay dealing with the Bill of Rights (An Unsettled Arena, White and Zimmerman, eds., Eerdmans). Reflecting on the Senate hearings in connection with Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Stackhouse suggests that both the conservative (“original understanding”) hermeneutic and the liberal (“Zeitgeist”) hermeneutic for interpreting the Constitution missed the point.
“Neither side,” he writes, “seemed to realize that the basic issues of the Constitution are a mixture of religious, moral, and metaphysical presuppositions that, in combination, illumine the most reliable bases of public polity and policy. We may call that combination ‘public theology.’ What it points to is ignored (or held suspect) by the most influential theorists and by the most active groups of our day. Indeed, one crisis of America today is this: if we did not have the Constitution, we would not be able to write one because the most vigorous intellectual and sociopolitical forces press in directions opposed to precisely those presuppositions that made the Constitution possible. They have, in many ways, been deconstructed.”
What Stackhouse means by “public theology” has to do with basic, and sometimes vague, ideas about God, human nature, power, and history. They are among the truths that the Founders deemed to be “self-evident.” Such public theology is to be carefully distinguished from “confessional theology,” for it is deliberately unspecific about doctrine, although, to be sure, indisputably drawn from the biblical substance of Western civilization. Stackhouse writes, “I am not, of course, arguing that those who wrote the Constitution were consciously thinking of theology in the way it might be taught in a seminary . . . I am suggesting that key presuppositions about God, the world, and the basic character of ‘covenant’ (but neither le contrat social nor the Zeitgeist) provided the background beliefs of those who drafted the Constitution; that they had been vigorously debated for several centuries so that they had become ‘second nature’; and that they were shared by the people in the colonies enough that they would agree to accept what they rendered as true, just, and practicable.”
In almost every field, certainly including law, the “hermeneutics of suspicion” has gained the upper hand. When the Founders said “We hold these truths,” it is asserted today, they were less interested in truths than in rhetorical justifications for certain power relationships. Even if they did mean what they said about “God and all that,” others observe, we cannot mean it today. The Founders claimed those truths sharply limited the sphere of government, keeping it under a transcendent judgment that was to be more fully articulated in the “private” (read nongovernmental) sphere. But, Stackhouse argues, if their principles “are not valid, and hence deserve to be forgotten, then the reason for honoring the Constitution becomes moot, and the idea of constitutionalism as governance by laws rather than by arbitrary power proves to be a false one.” The conclusion, he suggests, is inescapable: “We should then throw our energies into the naked struggle for power, for then everything private is politicized and politics becomes fateful for every private possibility. The strong, the rich, the unscrupulous will win, and nothing could or should constrain them. If that is the way things really are, the quest for a reliable hermeneutic—in politics, in jurisprudence, in theology—is at best a ploy to mask private interests.” Stackhouse ends on a note of rather wan hope. “It is questionable whether we have a Constitution that can endure if the people are not convicted about the validity of the principles on which it is based.”
Bias of Modernity
Of course “the people” today undoubtedly do share the basic presuppositions of the Founders. At least the overwhelming majority do. The hermeneutics of suspicion is promoted by a relatively small leadership sector, also in the courts and law schools. There are dangers, however, in encouraging a populist uprising of “the people” against their presumed betters. Stackhouse is on the right track in arguing in a forceful and scholarly manner for a new appreciation of constituting presuppositions. But it may be a mistake to call those presuppositions theology, even if one emphasizes that it is public rather than confessional theology.
The term public theology is accurate enough, but it runs headlong into the formative bias of modernity. More than anything else, modernity defines itself in sharp distinction from religion. To be modern is to be secular. Sometimes that maxim assumes a militantly antireligious expression, more often it means that religion is firmly confined to the private sphere of life. If there is to be a hopeful move toward “postmodernity,” it will likely be effected not by calling intellectual leaderships to embrace public theology but by firmly nudging them toward greater reflectiveness about their moral, and even metaphysical, presuppositions.
To be sure, rigorous intellectual reflection on the nature of moral “goods” may well result in reflecting on the Good, and then they will indeed be doing public theology, although probably not calling it by that name. Yet the gravamen of Stackhouse’s argument is surely correct: If we do not share the presuppositions of the Constitution, the moral authority of the Constitution has been eviscerated. Stare decisis, the authority of precedent, is an important rule for judicial decisions, but it cannot serve as the foundation of justice itself. Those who framed and ratified the Constitution believed that it was just by the lights of their publicly articulated presuppositions about God, human nature, and the way the world works. When those lights are extinguished, it is then true that “the reason for honoring the Constitution becomes moot, and the idea of constitutionalism as governance by laws rather than by arbitrary will and power proves to be a false one.”
God and the Market
We don’t have anything quite like it south of the border. The Christian Labour Association of Canada is a nationwide network of believers who hope to be a leaven in that country’s thinking and practice about the connections between ethics, business, and labor. In its publication, The Guide, Ed Vanderkloet, one of the editors, reflects on legitimate and illegitimate interventions in the market. “Many years ago there was a man who belonged to the same church as I did and who started a grocery store. He became rather indignant when fellow church members did not buy his groceries, and he appealed to St. Paul’s admonition that we should do good ‘especially to those of the household of faith.’ Meanwhile his prices were consistently higher than those at Dominion and A&P. In effect this man was turning the church community into a business relationship. And that is a rather dubious business.
“It is true that the market is not a deity that infallibly determines the right price and just wages. It does not ensure human happiness and social justice. Human intervention is often a God-given duty. We are called to do justice, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, says the Book of Micah. But market forces are nevertheless very real and we ignore them at our own peril, as the Communists have found out. That even applies to the labour market. If we do, we simply price ourselves out of the market.
“We should affirm our belief in a free market, just as we must insist on a free family, a free church, a free country, a free press, a free labour union, and free enterprise. As long as we remember that these free institutions turn into instruments of injustice and oppression when people forget their mandate to use those freedoms for the service of God and neighbour.”
Christians vs. Christians
A current story of world-changing proportions is the dramatic growth of conservative Protestantism in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World. The Latin American case is detailed in David Martin’s Tongues of Fire (Blackwell), which will receive further notice in these pages. It is widely accepted that in the very near future Guatemala will become the first Latin American country with a Protestant majority. To the alarm of Roman Catholic hierarchs and liberation theologians alike, at least twenty-five million Brazilians have in recent years left the church to join what Catholic authorities pejoratively call “the sects.” The rapidly growing number of Evangelicals in Peru played a critical role in advancing the political fortunes of recently elected president Alberto Fujimori. And so the story unfolds across the continent.
The phenomenon was highlighted also in Pope John Paul II’s visit to Mexico this past May. The 1990 census is expected to show that, of eighty-six million Mexicans, at least six million are Protestants. Whereas being Catholic is often a nominal factor in the Mexican cultural package, the Evangelical converts tend to be better educated, harder working, and eager to evangelize their fellow citizens. It is likely that Roman Catholics are already a minority in some states of Mexico. John Paul II repeatedly took note of these changes during his visit. In a Mexico City suburb, he urged listeners to seek “a more solid training in the truths of our Catholic faith so as to form a front against the solicitations of the sects and groups that try to pull you away from the true fold of the Good Pastor.” In Villahermosa he declared that no Catholic in Mexico “can consider himself exempt” from the duty to bring defectors back to the church. “I would like to meet with you one by one to tell you: come back to the fold of the church, your mother,” the Pope said.
Other Roman Catholic leaders are less polite in addressing this new situation. They accuse the Evangelicals of being a front for the CIA, the Rockefellers, and other putative masters of Yankee imperialism. “The Yankees are interested in changing the mentality of the Mexican, and that’s why they are starting with the most profound, the religious, mentality,” says Bishop Javier Lozano Barragan of Zacatecas. “The sects are the vanguard of an effort to change Mexican culture.” To which the Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches respond that it is the church of Rome that depends on outsiders for identity, authority, and financing. In visiting a country, the Pope almost always includes an “ecumenical encounter.” In Mexico, the Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish communities were invited, but “the sects” were very pointedly excluded. “You do not have dialogue with bandits,” Bishop Lozano explained.
The explosion of conservative Protestantism draws mixed reviews in this country. Liberals in the oldline churches deplore this turn of events because, they complain, the passion for social justice is replaced by “pie in the sky” piety. That is a longstanding liberal complaint against Evangelicalism in this country as well, although it tends to make less sense as Evangelicals here, as in Latin America, become more politically assertive. In reality, the dispute is over very different understandings of terms such as social justice. At a recent conference in Washington, John O’Sullivan, editor of National Review, offered a different perspective. “I am a Catholic,” said O’Sullivan, “so I have to have mixed feelings about the growth of Protestantism in Latin America. But these people get up in the morning, they go to work. they take care of their children, and they’re faithful to their wives. So I expect that, all in all, the growth of Protestantism is a good thing for Latin America.” Similarly, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, also a Catholic, has long held the view that Latin America needs a strong dose of what Max Weber called the Protestant (meaning Calvinist) work ethic.
The Ecumenical Obligation
In addition to the political and economic implications of Protestant expansionism in Latin America, some difficult ecumenical questions are raised. Referring to “the separated brethren” as bandits would seem to fit neither the letter nor the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. It is possible that the non-Roman churches of more “respectable” lineage (e.g., Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran) feel almost as threatened by “the sects” as do the Catholics, although in Latin America they have a great deal less to threaten. In the last quarter century these churches have developed in-depth dialogues with Rome, aimed (however remotely) at ecclesial reconciliation. It would be sociologically understandable, but theologically problematic, if in the Third World these more established churches formed a kind of de facto alliance with Catholicism against the Evangelicals (including those Evangelicals who call themselves Fundamentalists).
At the same time, in facing Catholicism, there is no doubt that the new Protestants are in the attack mode, not the dialogue mode. That is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. They call Rome the Whore of Babylon and Rome calls them sectarian bandits, and the hostility mounts from there. It is a sorry but perhaps inevitable fact that faiths that are on the offensive need a clearly defined enemy, and for Evangelicals in Latin America that enemy is Catholicism. The competition between Catholics and Evangelicals, one can hope, might lead to a renewal of Christian faith and life in Latin America. Most Catholics recognize that the “culture Catholicism” of that continent has long been sheltered from challenge, and has, as a consequence, fallen into slovenly ways. Competition leading to renewal, however, is the long-term hope. The more immediate prospect is an escalation of mutual hostilities.
Rome has a particular obligation to urge Catholic leaders in Latin America not to let the hostilities swamp the church’s commitment to Christian unity. We say that that is Rome’s particular obligation because, unlike most Evangelicals, Catholicism has a developed doctrine of the Church (an ecclesiology) that entails a comprehensive ecumenical claim. Catholicism cannot have one ecclesiology and ecumenical agenda for Europe and North America, where establishment Protestantism is friendly, and another for those parts of the world where Catholicism is under attack. If Catholicism does not keep the idea of Christian unity alive in Latin America, it will surely become the victim of growing hostilities between Christians. That said, however, the prospect would seem to be one of growing hostilities in the years ahead. It will perhaps take decades for Evangelicalism in Latin America to feel secure enough to even think about the imperatives of ecumenism. The hope is that those imperatives will not have been entirely forgotten when that time comes, if that time comes.
Of the proposing of historical “what ifs” there is no end. And a good thing, too. Pondering “what ifs” is a good antidote to historical determinisms, reminding us of the contingency (and, maybe, providential guidance) in human affairs. Pondering “what ifs” is not the chief purpose of Heiko Oberman’s remarkable new book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (Yale), but it is useful also for that purpose. Oberman joggles conventional wisdoms on a number of scores. For instance, it is commonly said that one of the consequences of the Lutheran Reformation was to put the church under the control of the princes rather than the control of Rome. Oberman makes a different argument: “The supreme ecclesiastical authority of the German prince was not a result of the Reformation, as is often claimed: it preceded the Reformation and provided the cradle for its early emergence and ultimate survival.”
The contest for ecclesiastical control, says Oberman, was not between the princes and Rome but between the princes and the emperor. The emergence of a German identity, including a national church loosely in communion with Rome, was “sacrificed to a medieval imperial dream.” The Hapsburg emperors—from Frederick III through his son Maximilian I to the latter’s grandson Charles V—succeeded in dividing the German princes by pitting nationalism against the princes’ desire for gain from imperial glory. At one point, the princes were planning to hold a national council to address the issues raised by the Luther controversy, and here enters the intriguing “what if.”
“If a German church assembly had actually taken place in Speyer in 1524, the explosive force of reformation would in all probability have been channeled into a reform program and thus defused. Priests would have been granted permission to marry and laymen to receive the chalice. Church taxes would have been nationalized, and Rome most likely excluded from ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Germany. Of course all this would have been no more than the treatment of symptoms, in the Erasmian spirit of peaceful piety and communal concord. The Gospel of the Cross, which Luther had discovered for a Church persecuted, would have been silenced in the ensuing atmosphere of reasonable compromise and pious reform zeal. Yet it was the emperor’s religious policy [in preventing such a German council] that—contrary to its own objectives—enabled the powers Luther had unleashed to bring about radical change in theology, the Church, and the balance of power in Europe.”
Had things gone differently, what might have been the consequences for Germany, Europe, the church, and Western civilization? There are many who might think that Oberman’s speculative scenario would have been a happier course than what did happen. In any case, the nice thing about asking “what ifs” is that we don’t need to know the answers.
The Gift of Jacques Ellul
Few people have had such a positive influence on Christian thought in the last thirty years as Jacques Ellul, now retired professor of law and sociology at the University of Bordeaux. Author of more than forty books, Ellul’s work on technology and his theological arguments drawing on the thought of Karl Barth have usually cut against the grain with a creative abrasiveness that is hard to ignore. Now we have What I Believe (Eerdmans), a kind of summing up of what Ellul understands himself to have been saying over all these years.
The essays range widely, from the perils of the computerized mind to what the book of Revelation has to say about the connections between the city of man and the City of God. Some orthodox Christians will be provoked, others will no doubt be entirely put off, by Ellul’s argument for “universalism,” the belief that, ultimately, all will be saved. But it is an argument very much worth engaging. On this and other subjects, Ellul is nothing if not straightforward. He discusses, for instance, the false religions (mainly political) in which millions have sought “meaning” in this century. He deplores the influence of the nineteenth-century philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, and of his many imitators who claim that the Christian understanding of God is merely a projection of human desires, aspirations, or values. The claim that God is an absolutized value “was simplistic and puerile,” Ellul writes. “For one thing, we have no idea of what the absolute or the infinite is. We cannot say anything about it or assimilate it. To talk about an absolutized value might be to talk about God, but it is not possible for human beings to absolutize anything.”
According to Ellul, the only God who can be known is the God of revelation. “In regard to the innumerable attacks made upon God, we may simply say that those who make them do not know what they are talking about. Often with just cause they are attacking the image of God that in a given time and place people have made. But this is their own image of God, made for convenience—it is not God. A commonly repeated formula that is now accepted as self-evident is that we have made God in our own image. But to say this is not to know what one is saying; it is childish prattle. For if God is God, then all that we can say about him is just our own approximation or perception, as when a child takes a pail of seawater, stirs it until it foams, and then says he is carrying the ocean and its waves. On our own we know nothing about God. Only when he chooses to reveal a tiny part of his being do we achieve a tiny knowledge and recognition. In this revelation God has to put himself on our level of apprehension, on our cultural and intellectual level, if what he wants to communicate is to be accessible. Thus there are variations, not because God is variable, but because those whom he addresses are. He uses the most appropriate means to establish communication with us—the word.”
The Anti-Cult Business
In court cases around the country, people are claiming damages for being “brainwashed” or “coercively persuaded” by various cults, or new religions. The Unification Church (“Moonies”) has been especially hard hit in such cases. To their credit, most of the “established” churches in the country, guided by Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches, have strongly defended the “free exercise” rights of new religions under the First Amendment. Nonetheless, the anti-cult business is thriving. In the lead are groups such as the American Family Foundation, which publishes the Cultic Studies Journal: Psychological Manipulation and Society. Social scientists and psychologists, such as Margaret Singer and Richard Ofshe of the University of California, Berkeley, do well in giving “expert testimony” in cases involving alleged brainwashing.
H. Newton Malony of Fuller Theological Seminary takes exception to what is going on. “The truth of the Christian faith does not need preservation by attacks on other religions which are framed in sociological or psychological terms. This does not mean that I think that violations of civil and criminal law do not occur in religious groups, old or new. The freedom of religion . . . does not protect a religion from the law of the land. However, I am convinced that so called ‘cults’ have a right to exist and that they are innocent until proven guilty. I feel sure that, while the readers of Cultic Studies Journal might disagree with much that I have said, they would agree that where sociologists and psychologists are asked to testify in cases where religions are being accused of transgressions, they should only do so with the widely standardized procedures of their discipline and should not present themselves as experts if they have made prior judgments about the guilt or innocence of the accused group.”
The problem is the corruption of academe when biases are dressed up as “scientific expertise.” The even greater problem is the implicit invitation to the courts to adjudicate between voluntary and involuntary, authentic and coerced, religious commitment. Courts that accept the invitation are inevitably entangled in the business of regulating religious belief and practice, precisely what the First Amendment forbids. Unless the present pattern is checked, no religious community is safe from the demand for legal damages from disaffected members. In addition, the notion that individuals, especially adults, are not responsible for the decisions they make can only further erode the basis of civil society. The anti-cult business is bad for religion and bad for the public order. It says it is opposing prejudice, fanaticism, and hysteria, but it is in fact part of the disease for which it claims to be the cure.
The Truth, You Say
A philosopher friend comes up with an intriguing idea. He offers it in a whimsical mode, but he may be on to more than he suspects. His idea has to do with the ideas of another philosopher, Richard Rorty of the University of Virginia. Rorty advances the view that we ought to give up our bad habit of trying to determine what is “true” in the sense of what statements correspond with reality. Truth, Rorty suggests, is what our peers let us get away with saying. This, says the aforementioned friend, makes available a number of interesting possibilities. Operating by Rorty’s notion of truth, for instance, a good way to get rid of war and violence is to bring it about by whatever means (bribery might be one way) that our peers will let us get away with saying that there isn’t any such thing; for then it would be true that there isn’t any such thing, and then of course there wouldn’t be any such thing. The same, he elaborates, goes for disease, poverty, hell, and the national debt. He suspects that most philosophical peers would not require a bribe of much more than $10,000 or so to permit the administration to get away with saying that there is no national debt but, instead, a national surplus of, say, four trillion dollars. Thus, for a national investment of a couple of million we could realize a return of some five trillion. And all this, he indicates, could probably be done in a couple of months. But our friend goes on to note that, since many of Rorty’s peers will not let him get away with saying that truth is what our peers let us get away with saying, it turns out that what Rorty says truth is is false. So it seems that the national debt, along with the other unpleasant realities mentioned, is still with us. If the reader finds all this impossibly confusing, take it up with Richard Rorty.
The Gospel of Therapy
Evangelical commentator Ken Myers finds himself in Christian bookstores from time to time, and he is not always happy with what he comes across there. For instance, there is this rash of “codependency” publishing—apparently countless books offering techniques and “steps” for correcting one life disorder or another. Myers writes: “Even if these books weren’t theologically dubious, they have more subtly destructive effects. Codependency thinking shares the modern infatuation with technique. Most self-help books, Christian or otherwise, suggest that it is a suitable goal to strive to become a technician of the inner life. The scientism of modern times has infected even devotional literature of our day, as the life of the spirit (and life in the Spirit) is reduced to formulas, neat diagrams, and twelve-step plans. ‘Functional rationalization’ is what the sociologists call it, this conceit that all of life can be systematized into a set of interlocking flow-charts.”
Myers acknowledges that some people may really be helped by all this, at least in the sense that they feel better and believe they are better able to cope. But, being one of those stubbornly orthodox types, he doesn’t think that’s enough. While not every psychological or emotional disturbance is really a spiritual problem, he writes, it is certainly false to think “that sin is simply an addiction and that redemption is simply a matter of therapy.” Then, in a vein that Augustine might appreciate: “Obviously the Church has not been successful in communicating to our therapeutically minded culture that Christians do not see redemption as a process of self-actualization or healing, but as the objective work of Jesus Christ, applied spiritually and sovereignly. Codependency theory says that my inner self is really alright; it’s just that this disease, this addiction, this alien, other thing, caused by other people, is keeping my true self from thriving. Christianity teaches that if my true self had its way, it would destroy God. My bad habits are as much a part of my self as my good habits, habits being (as classical Christianity understood) the preferred habituation of my will.” In other words, being ourselves is not the solution to the way we are. The solution, as odd as it may seem, is dependency upon the radically Other who is for us. But a culture shaped by “the triumph of the therapeutic” (Philip Rieff) is powerfully resistant to that proposition.
It used to be—with people like Plato and Aristotle, for instance—that arguments were thought to have a kind of vertical “lift” or “pull” to them. Lift or pull would cause someone to assent to an argument, the argument had a “cause” in the sense of mind meeting truth and being drawn to it. This lift or pull, says Wayne Booth of the University of Chicago (Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent), was distinguished from horizontal “push” provided by historical or biological forces. But now, writes Booth, “motivism” has taken over—everything is to be explained by hidden motives of push. He explains: “Popularized versions of Marxism and Freudianism and positivism have spread the dogma to the ‘intellectual masses’ who take up ideas in novels, political controversy, middlebrow magazines, and freshman English anthologies. By now it has almost scriptural force: in the beginning was not the word but the causal chain, and his name was sometimes Chemistry and sometimes Drive or Desire, but never Lift or even Pull. And it came to pass that Error was born, and his chosen name was Reason, but his real name was Rationalization. And Rationalization and its wicked prophets did undertake to undermine Push, claiming that reasoning about values, about purposes, could alter Push’s unalterable path. But the true prophets were able to unmask the wicked prophets, showing that their vaunted reasonings were themselves clearly dictated by Push. And, lo, there was nothing that anyone could say about anything that could not be unmasked and shown to be truly another manifestation of Push’s eternal power. And when men did engage in debate about their deepest concerns, they found that each man could say unto his brother, Racca, thou fool.”
Albert Shanker’s Legacy
Of policy proposals that might assist the urban poor and provide a measure of greater justice for all parents and children in this society, few have the attractiveness of educational choice. Educational choice, if we are realistic about it, means breaking the public school monopoly on government funds. Vouchers and tuition tax credits are among the possible ways of advancing such a major reform. Regrettably but understandably, genuine choice is rigorously opposed by a floundering educational establishment. Enter Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker is one of the more decent and thoughtful people in American public life. He is at that point in his life, however, where it seems that he cannot bring himself to break from the increasingly indefensible cause in which he has made his career.
That cause is protecting the monopoly on government money for the sake of unionized teachers who are increasingly demoralized by the failed enterprise that is public education. To be sure, the failure is hardly universal. Perhaps a majority of American parents are, whether or not they should be, reasonably satisfied with the public schools their children attend. More affluent Americans do have educational choice, and they routinely exercise it by choosing to live in communities with better schools. The public school teachers of the urban poor also exercise a choice by sending their own children to religious or other non-government schools. It is the millions of lower-income people in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles who have no choice. Their children go where they are told, which means to bureaucratically stagnant institutions in which teachers have little incentive to care about parental concerns or student progress.
The public school system of New York City has about a million pupils. Mr. Shanker, among others, regularly acknowledges that those schools are tragically failing both children and parents. Of a hundred children entering first grade, it is likely that ten, maybe fifteen, will leave high school with an education that prepares them for college or for a job that requires minimal literacy. There is no serious argument about the facts. The astonishing thing is that there is not more public outrage over the scandal the facts reflect. Any other enterprise that failed to achieve its stated goal 85 or 90 percent of the time would be the object of powerful demands for reform. One important reason, maybe the most important reason, why that does not happen in this case is that the people who are in the best position to make effective demands do not send their children to the government schools in question. In addition, the political army of unionized teachers has a deep vested interest in maintaining the present system, no matter what the human cost paid by the children and families of the poor.
Mr. Shanker’s union buys space for his weekly column in the New York Times. The column is titled “Where We Stand.” Mr. Shanker and his union stand pat. In a recent installment, he discusses, once again, the failure of the schools and the need for reform. Once again he makes clear that “reform” means more money for going on with business as usual. Mr. Shanker apparently does not see the sad humor in his ending the column by quoting from a piece he wrote twenty years ago: “If we are to have educational reform and a responsible program of accountability, we need . . . a long-term commitment of funds from federal, state, and city government so that educators, parents, and community groups can devote themselves to school improvement instead of the unrelenting battle to hold on to what they already have.” It is, however, only the educators who are trying to hold on to what they have. Moreover, in the last twenty years, billions of dollars in additional money have been poured into the public schools in our urban areas. It becomes painfully obvious that there might be an inverse relationship between increased expenditure and educational performance.
It is not that Mr. Shanker and his unionized teachers are bad people. On the contrary, we expect that most teachers would welcome an alternative to the bureaucratically overloaded system that works for incompetents and timeservers rather than students. By respecting and nurturing the role of parents and families in education, schools of choice would help rebuild the infrastructure of communities on the edge of disintegration. The many arguments for such a long overdue reform are by now well known. The chief “argument” against reform is that it is assumed that it would reduce the security and power of unionized teachers. Having stood pat for decades, Albert Shanker could now crown his career by taking a stand for realistic reform. Because he is a decent man, we cannot imagine that he is satisfied with leaving as his legacy a system that pits the interests of the union against educational freedom and achievement. It is not worthy of him to spend his remaining active years as an apologist for the conservative ideology of a counterproductive state enterprise and its client groups.
Sources of Judgment
One can be sure that the complaints about the “intrusion” of religion in the abortion debate will continue to abound. And they never abound so abundantly as when the subject turns to the Roman Catholic bishops. The subject then makes a nice excuse for venting anti-religious bias in general, plus a narrowly stifling view of “church-state separationism,” and all seasoned with the anti-Catholicism that is almost the last bigotry left to respectably sensitized Americans. Charles Krauthammer, as is his wont, cuts through the obscurantisms very nicely. First he notes, as many others have, that the bishops are hardly “imposing” anything on Catholic public officials who are, after all. Catholic by choice. Second, the “hypocrisy” of those who cheer the bishops’ public intervention on some questions (civil rights, economics, nuclear policy) but condemn the bishops when they speak out on abortion comes in for some incisive treatment. But especially well put, we thought, was this reflection on the sources of moral judgment in a democracy: “The other liberal complaint is that since the Catholic position on abortion is religiously derived, if it ultimately becomes law, that constitutes an imposition of religion. This argument is nonsense too. Under American concepts of political pluralism, it makes no difference from where a belief comes. Whether it comes from church teaching, inner conviction, or some trash novel, the legitimacy of any belief rests ultimately on its content, not on its origin. It is absurd to hold that a pro-abortion position derived from, say, Paul Ehrlich’s overpopulation doomsday scenario is legitimate, but an antiabortion position derived from Scripture is a violation of the First Amendment. The provenance of an opinion has nothing to do with its legitimacy as a contender for public opinion”and as candidate for becoming public law.”
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ At the end of March, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin offered once again a major reflection on the abortion debate and moral/political responsibility. The reporter for America, the Jesuit magazine, was generally favorable, indeed effusive. The Cardinal’s address was “incisive,” “brilliant,” “a fine contribution,” and succeeded “admirably.” He notes the way in which Bernardin made clear that the slogan, “Government shouldn’t interfere with your choice,” hides the more sinister reality, “Moral judgments and legal arrangements shouldn’t interfere with your taking innocent human life.” Nonetheless, America is worried about the way the Cardinal “tracks back and forth across the liberal/conservative spectrum.” Bernardin said, “Many Catholics, politicians and ordinary citizens, will disagree on strategies of implementation to lessen and prevent abortions.” America calls that a liberal statement. Bernardin also said, “The position of a public figure who is personally opposed to abortion, but not publicly opposed in terms of any specific choices, is an unacceptable fulfillment of a public role.” That, says America, is conservative. Whatever conservative and liberal mean in this context, it would seem that the Cardinal is simply being consistent. How, pray tell, can politicians “lessen and prevent abortions” without opposing “specific choices” to abort? Once again, America exhibits an excessive eagerness to protect politicians from the consequences of what they profess to believe.
♦ What is the point at which an opinion achieves the status of being a monolithic orthodoxy? The folks at Harvard and Radcliffe sent out a questionnaire to the class of 1965, and received 778 returns. Among many other questions, people were asked where they stand on disputed public issues from sanctions against South Africa to the use of nuclear power. On only two issues did agreement reach as high as 90 percent. Eighty-eight percent of Harvard alumni and 98 percent of Radcliffe favor handgun control. The other issue, of course, is abortion. Ninety-two percent of Harvard and 96 percent of Radcliffe favor the “legal right to abortion.” A combined 3 percent are undecided, and 5 percent opposed. And yet people persist in talking about the alleged gap between our elite educational institutions and the American people. (One statistic we can’t figure out is that 22 percent of the Harvard alumni say they are remarried, while only 17 percent report that they have been divorced or widowed. Is bigamy making a comeback in our leadership class?)
♦ The governing board of the National Council of Churches has met again. The council’s Commission on Family Ministries and Human Sexuality proposed a statement calling on church leaders to name family violence as a sin and refer abuse victims to the police. “The most dangerous place for a child to grow up is in the family, and the most dangerous place for a woman is in a relationship,” said the Rev. Marie Fortune on behalf of the Commission. Compared to what? you may well be tempted to ask. Don’t.
♦ Our colleague Jean Bethke Elshtain recently moved from the University of Massachusetts to Vanderbilt. She writes about the perdurance of unabashed anti-Catholicism in that institution and that part of the country. But she is by no means discouraged. “In my view . . . this remnant of old-style nativism is an anomaly. When I moved to Nashville, many of my Northeastern friends thought I was heading toward that place on ancient maps where the known world ends and terra incognita begins; where, the mapmakers believed, ‘there be dragons.’ Yet on a number of issues, especially race, the New South is far ahead of what might be called, at this point, the Old North. With demographers and political observers reporting that a reverse migration of blacks back to the South is now occurring, the contrast between North and South on race questions will tilt even more in favor of the New South.”
♦ On a Wink from God and The Pretzel Man & Other Dutch Country Pomes are two little books of poetry printed back to back in one volume. They are by Lutheran pastor Bertram Gilbert and, while we do not suggest that Yeats or Eliot should step aside, the poems are very nice indeed. Wink probes the corners of familiar biblical stories in sometimes surprising ways. The volume sells for $8.00 and is available from the author: Bertram Gilbert, 409 South Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
♦ Excuse us for once again quoting Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia. It is just that he says so many quotable things. The following from an address to the Polish Sejm and Senate illustrates why the Revolution of 1989 in the East may provide wisdom for the cultural rejuvenation of the West: “The most dangerous enemy today is no longer the dark forces of totalitarianism, the various hostile and plotting mafias, but our own bad qualities. My presidential program is, therefore, to bring spirituality, moral responsibility, humaneness, and humility into politics and, in that respect, to make clear that there is something higher above us, that our deeds do not disappear into the black hole of time but are recorded somewhere and judged, that we have neither the right nor a reason to think that we understand everything and that we can do everything.
“I think that the Poles, with their strong religiousness, which is embodied in the admirable person of the Pope whom they have given to the world, can understand my modest presidential intentions.”
♦ Lift up a rock or, in this case, open the mailbox, and you never know what you’ll find. This time it’s a mailing from Ichthys Books, published by one Ray M. Jurjevich, Ph.D. of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Ichthys offers “Pro-American and Pro-Christian Books for Strong-Minded and Patriotic People.” Included are “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and selected anti-Israel effusions from famed linguist Noam Chomsky. Dr. Jurjevich’s enemies list is impressive: “Atheistic Freemasons, Leftist-Liberals, Modernist ‘Christians,’ Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderbergers, Trilateralists, ACLU, Talmudic Foes of Christ, Jewish Monopolies and Cartels, Christian Zionists, Israel-Firsters,” and on and on. The good news is that in his covering letter the bad doctor says he is desperately trying to raise $10,000 to get out his book. The F.O.J. Syndrome in America. (F.O.J. stands for “Fear of Jews.”) The country is in such pitiful shape, he says, that fearless truth-speakers like himself have to depend on the one-tenth of one percent of the population that is still patriotic. Given his definition of patriotic, patriots should be pleased. (Who or what are Bilderbergers?)
A Personal Note
Many readers are no doubt aware that I was recently received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. I will gladly send to those requesting it a short statement of the theological and ecumenical reasons for this decision. I will continue as Director of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and as Editor-in-Chief of this journal. Be assured that this decision constitutes no change in the mission of the institute and the journal. That mission is to advance, in a thoroughly ecumenical and interreligious manner, a religiously informed public philosophy for societies that aspire to freedom and virtue.
Bellah essay in Currents in Theology and Mission, June, 1990; Commonweal on Cuomo, April 6, 1990; Vanderkloet on the market, April 1990; Pope’s comments in Mexico, New York Times, May 12, 1990; Oberman on Luther, pp. 20, 29; Malony on the anti-cult business, Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1989; Myers on gospel of therapy in Genesis, 26 Feb. 1990; Booth quoted in Genesis, March 12, 1990; Shanker on education. New York Times, May 27, 1990; Krauthammer on abortion, Washington Post, March 23, 1990; America on Bernardin, April 7, 1990; Data on Harvard and Radcliffe from “25th Reunion Questionnaire”; NCC and family violence, Pittsburgh Times, May 18, 1990; Elshtain on South and North, Commonweal, April 6, 1990; Havel quoted in the New York Review of Books, March 29, 1990.