Maybe we have been too hard on the editorial page of the most influential of our parish newspapers. Over the years, the New York Times’ editorial writers have been indifferent or hostile to the role of religion in our common life. Any impingement of religion on spheres that the Times deems “public” raises strident cries about violating “the separation of church and state.” But now the Times has got religion.
Admittedly, it is a rather odd variety of religion. An editorial titled “The Ultimate Mother” begins this way: “Some of the people gathered on the Adirondack hillside called the woman a priestess, others a witch. She filled a bowl with water and pondered it for a few moments. Then she passed it to the person on her right, asking the group to concentrate on the water, putting into it prayers for their families, friends, community.” The editors warmly approve.
They note that “goddess worship . . . is rooted in reverence for the ultimate mother, for woman as the giver of life.” In societies that practiced goddess worship “life was peaceful, cooperative, and egalitarian, while in societies focused on the male gods it was violent, authoritarian, and stratified. In addition, the goddess-based cultures cherished earth as nurturer of humankind.” We are told that “goddess worship resonates with modern environmentalism, and in particular with the Gaia Hypothesis”the theory, named for the earth goddess of the ancient Greeks, that the Earth and its biosphere behave like a single living organism.” “Much goddess worship,” the editors note approvingly, “centers on the classic elements—earth, water, wind, and fire—and recognizes spirits resident in animals and trees.”
The editors admit that goddess worship has prompted ridicule from some quarters. “But if it appears flaky on the surface, it still warrants sympathy and respect. For it proceeds from values of nurturing, peace, and harmony with nature—values as profoundly humane as motherhood itself.” It is perhaps too much to hope that what is now the official religion of the New York Times will lead to editorial reconsideration of the meaning of motherhood, nurture, and harmony with respect to the unborn.
Observers have noted that under the rule of top editor Max Frankel the Times has become increasingly quirky. One never knows what spasm will next seize the gray matriarch of American journalism. Therefore, it is said, the editorials, while maintaining their accustomed tone of insufferable pretentiousness, can no longer be taken all that seriously. Perhaps so. It does seem worth remarking, however, when—in a society where 94 percent of the people say they believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the country’s most prestigious paper editorially declares itself against the “male gods” and in favor of goddess worship. “The Ultimate Mother” should be kept in mind when reading the Times’ frequent editorial frettings about how our nation’s leaders are out of touch with the American people. The Times, needless to say, presumes to speak for the people.
Searching for the Vital Center
E. J. Dionne, Jr. is among the most intelligent and fundamentally decent journalists in the major leagues today. Formerly with the New York Times and now with the Washington Post, he has written a book that has received, deservedly, wide attention. Why Americans Hate Politics (Simon and Schuster) is not for people who hate politics. It is an analysis of what has gone wrong over the last thirty years with our political culture. According to Dionne, the New Left that began in the 1960s entered a curious and inadvertent alliance with conservatism in devastating the liberalism represented by The Vital Center, published in 1949 by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Dionne wants to reconstitute that vital center.
In its lurch leftward, says Dionne, liberalism alienated “the restive middle class” and turned most Americans off politics altogether. Conservatives, especially the neoconservatives who emerged as a force in the late 1970s, capitalized on this alienation by waging war against government and, implicitly, against politics itself. There are many pieces to Dionne’s argument, and they do not always hang together, but his basic point is that the kind of liberalism he wants to espouse now has the chance to return our politics to a more elevated form of democratic discourse. The chance is there, he believes, because conservatism has reached an impasse. The libertarian and traditionalist streams of conservatism that William F. Buckley and the National Review succeeded in patching together for a long time are now breaking apart.
Dionne makes a great deal of the much-publicized clashes between paleoconservatives and neoconservatives. The traditionalist paleos declared open war on the neos over many questions, but the split became most evident in the reemergence of right-wing isolationism during the crisis in the Gulf. One suspects Dionne makes much too much of these little wars. There is columnist Pat Buchanan, hut then it is hard to name even three or four other opinion makers with any kind of national constituency who fit the description of paleo-conservative. The notion that conservative ranks are deeply split and the conservative movement has come to a screeching halt is dearly cherished by those who, like E.J. Dionne, long for the reappearance of a liberalism with which they can identify without embarrassment.
All who esteem republican virtue and democratic discourse must share Dionne’s desire for a politics that rises above the frequently nasty left/right polarizations of recent decades. He describes his hook as “an inchoate demand . . . for an end to ideological confrontations that are largely irrelevant to the 1990s. It is a demand for steadiness, for social peace, for broad tolerance, for more egalitarian economic policies, for economic growth. It is the politics of the restive majority, the great American middle.” Wishing, however, will not make it so.
Dionne has a remarkably benign view of the forces that are chiefly prosecuting the cultural wars that he deplores. For instance, this on feminist and homosexual activisms: “Feminists demanding equality for women were not selfish souls who put the children second; they were rational human beings responding to a world that had been vastly transformed, and to which they wished to make their own contribution. Gays demanding tolerance were not looking to insult the heterosexual world; they were simply asking that they not be picked on, ridiculed, and discriminated against.” But surely Mr. Dionne is familiar with the declared purposes of NOW and ACT-UR just for starters. There undoubtedly are feminists and gays of more moderate disposition, but it is folly to overlook the impact of movements that are utterly serious in their outspoken determination to effect cultural revolution. And it is passing strange that Dionne, whose chief political concern is for the Democratic Party, tends to downplay the degree to which that institution is in deep hock to the most extremist sectors of those movements.
Dionne recognizes the shadow cast over his wistful hope for a kinder and gentler politics by the question of abortion. “If any one issue is obstructing the formation of such a center, it is abortion.” His solution? “The right-to-life movement needs to accept that its primary task is not political but moral.” With stunning understatement, he observes, “Accepting that abortion will remain largely legal indefinitely is not a happy prospect for the right-to-life movement.” Of course the pro-life movement is not about to accept that. Suggesting that a political and cultural struggle be resolved by one side giving up its cause is not likely to prove very persuasive. To be sure, the pro-life movement is about much more than politics, but in a democracy such as ours political struggle is itself a potent instrument in advancing the moral education for which Dionne rightly calls.
Every student of Aristotle, Locke, or Burke will readily second Dionne’s call for a more elevated public discourse. Yet democracy is now and always has been a rough and raucous process. Like Dionne, we may well deplore the money and media nexus that dominates political campaigning while, unlike Dionne, we may also believe that very substantive questions about the common good were joined, for instance, in the 1988 contest between Bush and Dukakis. We may not like it, but our society is engaged in a Kulturkampf, a war over the values, symbols, and truths by which we ought to order our life together. Behaving in as civil a manner as we can muster, we will just have to see the conflict through.
One wonders if E. J. Dionne and many like him are valiantly resisting the recognition that they are neoconservatives. Almost all that he endorses—the critique of current liberalisms, the affirmation of family and republican virtue, the importance of mediating structures in redesigning social policies, the embrace of bourgeois values, the need to include the marginalized in the mainstream of economic productivity, the leading role of America in international affairs, the critical significance of religion in public life—are planks, so to speak, in the neoconservative platform. Maybe someday the vital center for which Mr. Dionne yearns will once again be called liberalism. Maybe the insistence of Dionne and others that they really are liberals will help that to happen. Who knows? But for the present and foreseeable future that vital center is called neoconservatism. Labels aside, however. Why Americans Hate Politics is an engagingly wise analysis of what happens when political schemes are divorced from moral foundations.
Debasing the National Interest
Dances With Wolves seemed to grab all the Academy Awards on offer. James Bowman, American correspondent of the London Spectator, says he is not surprised, and makes some connections with church pronouncements on the Gulf war in an essay titled “Of Bishops and Redskins.” Lieutenant John Dunbar, the hero of the film who goes native with the Sioux, is so very American. The film, says Bowman, “consists of a kind of cultural suicide—a deliberate choice of exclusion from the people to whom, by birth and breeding, Dunbar belongs.” So also, he contends, the Catholic bishops and oldline churches exhibited a deep alienation from the country of their birth and breeding. Bowman thinks he knows why the National Council of Churches declared the resort to military force to be “illogical.” The NCC was asking, in effect: “How can we oppose Iraq’s war-making on behalf of its national interest by making war on behalf of our national interest?” Bowman has a ready response. “The answer, of course, is a very simple one: because we are us and not them, because their national interest is not ours but theirs; and when the two come in conflict we are on the side not of theirs but of ours.” (Bowman is writing, not incidentally, in that provocative journal, The National Interest.)
Like the NCC, the Catholic bishops appealed to universal principles of justice that, according to Bowman, evade the obviousness of that simple answer. “The Catholic bishops who so generously offered their advice to President Bush on how to transcend his American perspective and make war like a god—punishing only the guilty and allowing even them every chance to redeem themselves—were speaking, paradoxically, less as representatives of the church universal than as this kind of rather provincial American universalist.” It is in the nature of American particularism. Bowman contends, to aspire to the universal.
Bowman makes interesting points, but he is challenging much more than an American idiosyncrasy. No doubt there is in some sectors of religious leadership a deep alienation from this country and its role in the world, but the Jewish and Christian traditions are incorrigibly concerned about justice, and justice is inescapably conceived in universal terms. We say inescapably because these traditions profess one God who is Lord of all. To be faithful is to do His will as best His will can be discerned. Bowman and those of like mind would be more persuasive if they stopped polemicizing against universalism and explained, instead, why in the universal scheme of things calculations of national interest may be a more important component of justice than many religious leaders tend to allow. To reduce the case for the national interest to birth and breeding or blood and soil is to assure that national interest will continue to be excluded from otherwise morally serious considerations of justice.
Mr. Bowman may be right that Dances With Wolves is a celebration of cultural suicide. It is a bent toward suicide that is widespread in America at present. In the film, he observes, “the lonely frontier is beautiful and beautifully photographed; the Indians are all warm, funny, gentle, noble, and handsome people while the only representations of civilization, the white soldiers, are sneaky, vicious, illiterate, homicidal, ugly, and anti-intellectual.” The problem with the film, in that case, is not that Lt. Dunbar chooses the Sioux over the community of his birth and breeding but that the film falsely portrays the alternatives. Likewise, the problem with the bishops is not that they refused to choose “us” against “them” in the war but that they failed to appreciate the ways in which our national interest may, in fact, also serve a universal good. If the moral argument for national interest is, as Bowman seems to suggest, no more than an appeal to tribalism, it is no moral argument at all. It is precisely in concern for the universal that national interests”ours and others”must be taken into moral account.
More No-Fault Prophecy
Bishop Herbert Chilstrom of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was a point man for mainline agitations against the U.S. response to Saddam Hussein’s aggression in Kuwait. For instance, on December 21, Chilstrom wrote a sharp rebuke to President Bush. “I believe you to be an honorable man, committed to peace. But I am equally convinced that unless you bend every effort to avoid war, including allowing much more time for sanctions to take effect, you will be responsible for leading the United States and the world into one of the darkest chapters of human history.” Some months later. Pastor Russell Saltzmann, editor of Forum Letter, looks back and asks some searching questions. His complaint is not that Chilstrom took the “wrong” position on the Six Week War. He does note that Lutherans in Congress and elsewhere came down on both sides of that question, and he wonders why the bishop used his office to so vigorously support one side against the other.
Saltzmann observes: “This world abounds in political pundits, each of them all too eager to offer their various admonishments. Our church leadership should be very cautious of becoming just one more voice in a cacophony of competing claims. What this world does lack are people seriously willing to apply the Word of God—critically, spiritually, sensitively, and above all else, pastorally—to the specific situations where our people find themselves. We are too easily seduced by the inflated idea that our church officials are not only capable of exercising influence in the political world, but mandated to do it. This does not say we should never take political stands; rare exceptions always exist. But when we do, we should be very aware that ordination imparts no special abilities in the affairs of this world and the principle duties of the pastoral vocation that ordination does impart abide elsewhere.”
Of course there is nothing uniquely Lutheran about this. Comparable reflections are warranted in almost all our churches where chattering ecclesiastics ventilate their partisan sentiments in no-fault prophecy, blithely walking away from a long string of falsified pronouncements, moving on to the next crisis that requires their “moral insight.” One would think that a sense of embarrassment, if nothing else, would induce some pause for reflection and self-criticism. Alas, that is not the way it works with no-fault prophets. Their business is to call others to self-examination and repentance.
On the Monument Hill of the late establishment Protestantism (a.k.a. Morningside Heights), three venerable institutions of what some think to be the fading religious left rallied themselves to hold a conference following their “prophetic” debacles during the Six Week War in the Gulf. They are Union Theological Seminary, Riverside Church, and the National Council of Churches. The conference was titled “Bridging the Gulf: Between the Prophetic and the Pastoral,” and was described as “a conference for clergy, laity, and seminarians on ministry in the aftermath of war.” In large part, the prophets had gathered to lick their wounds and address the embarrassment of being leaders without followers.
Major participants included Richard Butler of Christianity and Crisis, a little magazine that trashes the Reinhold Niebuhr legacy that it claims, Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary of the National Council, William Sloane Coffin, whom many will remember from radicalisms past, Larry Rasmussen, moralist and expert on why Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it all wrong, and the indefatigable Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who has become court theologian to liberal Protestantism in the ruins. All were outspoken opponents of the U.S. response to Iraq’s aggression who carefully modulated their indictment of American policy. Sometimes that policy was murderous and genocidal, while in more temperate statements it was simply criminal madness.
Their assertions about the nature and costs of military action having been so massively falsified, they gathered at Union Seminary to try to figure out what went wrong. Workshop topics reflected the deep ambivalences that riddled the gathering. There was, for instance, “Patriotism and the Church”Glory Theology?” There was also, “Confronting the Church’s Sense of Powerlessness.” The power and the glory, not to mention the kingdom, of religious hegemony are courageously eschewed by those who confuse cultural marginality with bearing the cross. The assembled prophets concluded that the main thing that went wrong is that Christians in America paid them very little attention. The pastoral intuition that ordinary Christians might be possessed of good sense did not get much of a hearing. The Gulf only dramatized the still expanding gulf between a superannuated prophetic elite and the people who are the church in this society. We hasten to add that true prophets are frequently, even typically, rejected. The problem is with the conceit that being rejected makes one a prophet. The problem is compounded by putative prophets who so palpably want power and turn to being more “pastoral” in order to regain the influence that they have lost, thus debasing the prophetic and the pastoral alike.
We are aware of at least two publishers who are planning books on the justice of the Gulf War. They are aiming for publication during the presidential election season and, although it may not be their explicit purpose, the effect will likely be to dim somewhat the glow of moral rectitude surrounding President Bush’s policy. It will be recalled that the Catholic bishops played an important role in challenging that policy well before the American-led coalition responded militarily to Saddam Hussein’s aggression.
Now Fr. Francis X. Winters of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University goes back to take a close look at what the bishops said, and whether it holds up. Last November Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), informed President Bush that there was “a significant consensus” among the bishops that resort to military force “would likely violate” several principles pertinent to a just war. There was, therefore, “a moral imperative” that sanctions be continued.
Fr. Winters, writing in Commonweal, alludes to the rather scant historical scholarship on the use of sanctions in cases of international conflict, and ends up a bit puzzled. “This evidence suggests that sanctions are a two-edged sword, capable of triggering aggression as well as reversing it. The moral and political ambiguity of the historical record of the resort to sanctions in the case of ‘annexation’ is a matter of historical record. What, then, was the intellectual and moral basis of Archbishop Pilarczyk’s endorsement of sanctions as ‘a moral imperative’ in the present instance? His text did not elaborate.”
Pilarczyk and other bishops also made the point that the use of military force could only be a “last resort” after all other means of settlement had been exhausted. Winters notes, however, that the principle of last resort has normally been understood to apply to the party that initiates war. He continues: “In this case, of course, that party was Iraq, which violated the territorial integrity of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Once Kuwait was invaded by Saddam Hussein in violation of the criterion of last resort, just war theory accorded an immediate right of armed resistance to Kuwait and whatever allies it could speedily gather. To argue that, after being invaded, the wronged nation must negotiate with the aggressor for an unspecified period of time, while the aggressor pillages the conquered nation, is, some have argued, to stand the just war theory on its head.”
Winters reports on an address by Archbishop John Roach, chairman of the bishops’ International Policy Committee. Speaking more than a month after the coalition’s military response. Roach respectfully dissented from Pilarczyk’s claim that there was in the NCCB a “significant consensus” against the justice of the war. “I do not believe,” said Roach, “that our conference as a whole has a sufficiently clear consensus at this time to offer a decisive and united judgment on the overall moral justification of this war.” “The bishops’ conference,” he added, “ is a diverse body that functions best when we act with unity.” Since they could not act with unity on this matter. Roach proposes that the question of the justice or injustice of the war reverts to what Winters calls “the court of first resort, the deliberation of the local bishop, speaking to the faithful of his own diocese.”
There is much confusion in all our churches about when and how leaderships should speak to public issues. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, has a much more developed idea of episcopal authority in this connection than do most others. In the months leading up to, during, and after the Gulf War, the NCCB gave an uncertain sound that invited many Catholics to claim the church’s support in their opposition to U.S. policy. Francis Winters’ revisitation of how that happened offers some valuable lessons for the future—lessons not only for Catholic bishops.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) has adopted a statement titled “Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use.” As such statements go, this one is relatively cautious. Yet there is no doubt that it represents an ideological endorsement of feminist claims that standard English is “exclusivist.” It is, one fears, a triumph of “male sensitivity” intimidated by what a putatively increasing number of women “perceive to be” the case. The statement also raises questions about the role of preaching and teaching in the church. It says, for instance: “Translation should not expand upon the text, but the church recognizes that in certain circumstances a particular text may be expanded to reflect adequately the intended meaning of the pericope. In all cases, these adaptations must remain faithful to the intent of the original text.” As numerous literary scholars have argued, the actual text and the “intent” are inseparable. Surely it is the task of preaching and teaching to elaborate upon the text, explaining its many possible “meanings.” To change the text in order to eliminate what may offend some is to deny the people of God the opportunity to wrestle with the scriptural word.
The statement ingenuously concludes that the use of “inclusive language . . . should not draw attention to itself.” But of course it inescapably does draw attention to the victory of those who are given license to change what they do not like in the constituting texts of the Christian community. Some bishops congratulated themselves for resisting “more radical changes,” failing to recognize that any change made on the ideological grounds set forth is radical indeed. And of course there is no evidence that the great majority of women in the church do “feel excluded” by the use of standard American English. Naturally, radical feminists claim that the problem is that those women have not had their “consciousness raised.” Regrettably, the bishops have given new and unwarranted credibility to that claim.
Political Religion: Reporting on the Reporters
We now have the second volume of Martin E. Marty’s Modern American Religion (University of Chicago Press). The first, covering the years 1893-1919, appeared five years ago and was titled The Irony of It All. The second. The Noise of Conflict, takes up the story from 1919 to 1941. The prolific University of Chicago writer has ploughed this field many times before, in The Righteous Empire, Pilgrims in Their Own Land, and related books. But his interest does not flag as he keeps turning up new anecdotes with which to lace the telling of the story once again. In the view of some. Modern American Religion will be Marty’s magnum opus, the definitive recapitulation of his life-long reflection on the American religious situation.
A Journalist’s Journalist
Marty’s telling of the story is very political, very Protestant, and very liberal. It is also very journalistic. There are no doubt strengths and weaknesses attending each of these factors. Marty has been called a journalist’s journalist, and it is not surprising that prominent reporters have hailed the present work as the “standard account” of American religion. It is, among other things, the account that journalists have proposed over the decades. As Marty puts it, he has “reported on their reports.” Nowhere, else is one likely to find such a useful compendium of items on American religion retrieved from the now yellowed newspapers of the past. Retrieval is not all that we might want from an historian, hut it is not unimportant. The basic story line adopted by Marty is determined by what appears on the front pages. Religion news is usually buried in the inside, “below the fold,” as they say. It is the achievement of Marty to have exhumed for us the religion news, showing how it reflected, and sometimes influenced, what he simply calls “the nonreligious arena.”
American journalism is very political, and Mr. Marty’s construal of American religion follows suit. The usual textbook histories tend to shortchange religion, and Marty fills in the gaps. The story line remains unchallenged: 1919-1921 was about the “Red Scare” following World War I, then came the Ku Klux Klan, labor agitations, the Depression, presidential campaigns, and debates over preparations for another war. Marty chronicles how religion mirrored and impinged upon these developments in what some view as “the real world,” which is to say the world of politics. He observes that the present work “does not aspire to be an original contribution to social history.” “More nearly,” he writes, “it is a form of political history in that its topic is power and influence in the polis, the human city, the republic, though its first preoccupation is not with political events. It is best described as an essay in cultural history.” Yet more nearly, one might suggest, it is a compilation of cultural and religious developments refracted through the journalistic lens of politics. While this approach undoubtedly has its merits, it does produce the impression that religion is derivative or epiphenomenal.
“This,” writes Marty, “is a story of public religion, of the various faiths as they vied to shape the nation, of the rhetoric of leaders and the kinds of actions their followers undertook.” In other words, it is not the story of “Modern American Religion” but the story of religion’s interaction with “the nonreligious arena.” The constituting “stuff” of religion”such as worship, doctrine, morality, and ecclesiology”is, for the most part, worthy of note only when it makes an appearance on the political stage. Politics holds center stage. Thus, for example, Marty writes of Warren G. Harding that he “stood above” all the religious figures of the time “by the mere fact of his having held highest office.” Thus, also, Marty discusses the public debate over immigration policy in the 1920s. “How did Americans interpret their action religiously?” he asks. He answers: “One turns instinctively to the White House, where the presidents as priests of public religion translated the symbols of national change.” Mr. Marty’s is emphatically a history of American religion “from above,” not “from below.” And “above” means the commanding heights of political power.
A Protestant Tale . . .
As Marty’s is a very political account, it is also a very Protestant account. At the center of the chronicle are the “brand name” Protestant churches. “Others, like the Mormons and Christian Scientists, were definitely at the periphery. On the boundary between the center and the periphery in standard analyses were several very large groups: Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, and Jewish in particular.” If religion itself is at the periphery in the “standard analyses,” the various religious groupings are either at the center or periphery of the periphery. For Marty, there would seem to be no doubt that brand-name or mainline Protestantism is at the center of the religious periphery in the telling of the American story. Although, to be sure, at other points he says that he embraces a “pluralistic” understanding of America in which there is no center, only many centers.
Mr. Marty returns again and again to the question posed by French observer Andre Siegfried in the early part of the century: “Will America remain Protestant and Anglo-Saxon?” Marty suggests that the answer is yes. After the modernist-fundamentalist wars, however, that answer must be qualified. “With no single and immediate outside force to supplant Protestants and Anglo-Saxons in their national house,” Marty writes, “the issue then became which Protestants, which Anglo-Saxons would win that house divided.” He quotes a 1924 editorial in Christian Century (of which Marty is now an editor) arguing that two worlds had clashed in those wars, “the world of tradition and the world of modernism. One is scholastic, static, authoritarian, individualistic; the other is vital, dynamic, free, social.” These are the “two religions” of American Protestantism.
At a later point, discussing the end of the Depression era, Marty mentions “post-Protestant America.” But that appears to be a momentary deviation from his firmly Protestant tale. Toward the end of his account, Marty writes, “All the changes in Jewish, Catholic, and the rest of American religious life in the public order necessarily meant some adjustment in the still dominant Protestant order and approach.” What happened within Protestantism “would have taken place whether or not there had been any non-Protestants around.” The latter is a remarkable statement in view of what he has earlier acknowledged about the influence of other forces.
For example, while Mr. Marty relentlessly downplays the impact of militant secularism in the 1920s and 1930s, he recognizes that religious modernism was in large part motored by a desire for acceptance in terms of thoroughly secular criteria of respectability. In addition, among the “non-Protest-ants around” were the Catholics. Early on, Marty writes that “it was the Catholics who were most left out and who in response became the chief menace of the mirrored self to original-stock American Protestantism.” If the “mirrored self” of Protestantism depended upon the “menace” of Catholicism, it hardly seems that the story of Protestantism was so self-contained as Marty suggests. His account reflects, one suspects, the embedded self of a chronicler to whom those who are not mainline Protestants are fixedly “others.” The story of American religion would be little different, we are told, had they not been around.
And a Liberal Tale
It perhaps follows that Marty’s is also a very liberal account of American religion. In his vocabulary, modernists are “moderates” while fundamentalists are “zealots.” In the Protestant wars, the bizarre and fanatical on the right are ranged against those who are portrayed as sometimes misguided idealists on the left. When it comes to his discussion of political extremism in the worlds of religion, there is a large and ready cast of players on the right. Then, eager to be “balanced” in his treatment of extremisms, Marty writes, “If the focus here has been not on mainstream conservatives but on the right with a capital R, . . . it is only fair to go in search of their counterparts who embodied the left with a capital L.” Marty going “in search of” leftist extremism in mainline Protestantism puts one in mind of a fish swimming around in search of water.
In his search he does come up with Father Divine and a few admitted members of the Communist Party. But others, whom some might deem extreme leftists, turn out to be only, as it used to be said, liberals in a hurry. Marty readily recognizes the fatuity of certain brands of liberalism. There is, for instance, the Methodist bishop who declared in 1920 that there is no reason to listen to “the dismal croakings of the chronic pessimist,” because this is “the best hour of the best day of the best week of the best month of the best year of the best decade of the best century that this world has ever seen.” But the excesses of the more hard-core left tend to escape Mr. Marty. For instance, those in the liberal establishment who opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal because it might “save capitalism” and preclude the needed revolution were, well, somewhat immoderate.
Marty’s search for the extreme left does turn up Harry E. Ward of Union Seminary, New York. But then we read: “For all the stir [that Ward caused], he rejected Leninism and, while not a pacifist, he also did not advocate violent revolution or overt class warfare.” A little later we are told, “Lenin, in Ward’s most incredible stretching of things, was turned into an icon, a sort of religious figure.” Of Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler, Marty writes that “only hard-core members of the Communist Party could stomach that bond.” Ward, although presumably not a member of the party, publicly defended the pact. The confused account of Ward is an exception in this account. Others on the left who might ordinarily be described as extremists here turn out to be idealists a little ahead of their time. Marty’s failure to find much extremism on the left is likely related to his own political perspective. He cites, for instance, Bertrand Russell’s observation of 1927: “Russia and America will become world focal points for two conflicting and intolerant creeds.” Of that grotesque formula of moral equivalence between flawed democracy and brutal totalitarianism, Marty says that it possessed “some prescience.”
Mr. Marty’s manner of reporting on the reporters tends to determine both attention paid and interpretation offered. For instance. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s “Red Scare” of 1919, which lasted barely a year, is the centerpiece of a full chapter devoted to the dangers of the attacks launched by “100 Percent Americans.” What he calls the “oft-told tale” of the 1925 Scopes trial is told once again, and told in the same manner that it has been oft-told before. One looks in vain for a hint of critical reflection, maybe even revisionism, such as that provided by Garry Wills in his account of the Scopes episode in his recent Under God. But Marty is not in the business of revising the standard account provided by the reporters. For him the Scopes trial was just a matter of “fundamentalists [who] desired the sanction of civil authority for their dogmas.” Perhaps a popular history of this sort does not lend itself to the exercise of intellectual curiosity or imagination, but one wonders if Mr. Marty has not restrained himself unduly.
To be sure, Marty intends to offer some revisions, but they are all revisions of what he takes to be conservative stereotypes of a “mythic past.” The myth is that there was once a secure Protestant consensus that shaped and guided American culture. In the “noise of conflict” that he chronicles, he does demonstrate that the past was hardly tranquil, if that needed to be demonstrated. He also traces the ways in which mainline liberalism outmaneuvered the fundamentalists (the forebears of today’s evangelicals) in gaining cultural respectability and control of ecclesiastical machinery, while losing much of its constituency and religious energy.
Mr. Marty is somewhat less convincing when he repeatedly asserts that the mainline was surrendering its hegemony “gracefully.” By his own account, and much more clearly by other accounts, the liberal establishment fought tooth and nail against the “enemy” of evangelical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism. That was the case with the churches connected to the old Federal Council of Churches and it unquestionably continues today with the National Council of Churches. But despite the process of the sidelining of the mainline—a process to which Marty is not indifferent—the mainline remains, in his view, the center of the political periphery that is “modern American religion.”
Against the idea of a “mythic past” that he attributes to those with whom he disagrees, Marty urges that today’s noises of religious conflict are little more than more of the same. One may be permitted to wonder. Consider current agitations in the churches over abortion, radical feminism, divorce, homosexuality, and proposed redefinitions of the family. One is not constructing a mythic past in noting that, on all these questions, there was a secure Protestant (and Catholic and Jewish) consensus in 1941 and well beyond. Moreover, it is near inconceivable that the Federal Council of Churches would have declared—as the National Council of Churches recently did declare—that the history of America since 1492 must be condemned as one of conquest, exploitation, racism, sexism, and genocide. Contra Marty’s insouciant accentuation of continuities, much has changed, and changed radically. Perhaps his promised third volume in this series will take that more adequately into account.
On the other hand, the “pluralism” of “multiple centers” that Marty affirms does, at other times, suggest that there has been a fundamental change. “Such a pluralism,” he writes, “shows positive concern for a republic in which citizens aspire to some measure of common conversation and even a basic consensus, but sees this aspiration better fed on common stories and intentions than on privileging one religious complex, for example a Christian America or a ‘Judeo-Christian society.’” The argument is that there may have been, in the putatively mythic past, some justification for speaking of this as a Christian or Judeo-Christian society, but no longer. The implication is that shared religious traditions now have little part in providing the common stories and intentions for “some measure of common conversation.”
Minimizing Public Religion
As is the case in the present book, the truly common stories are presumably those to be found in “the nonreligious arena,” in the public arena, in the political arena. Further, it does seem odd to talk about “privileging” the Jewish and Christian traditions in this society. According to the massive City University of New York study earlier this year, nearly 90 percent of the American people identify themselves religiously as Jews or Christians. (Only 7.5 percent claim no religion.) In a democracy, is taking public cognizance of the beliefs of 90 percent of the people appropriately described as “privileging one religious complex”?
As mentioned earlier, the first two volumes of Marty’s project are useful manuals, filling in the religion news that did not appear on the front pages of political history. But, in a way that seems strange for an historian of American religion, he appears to suggest that the contests and altercations within American religion really are not that important. The titles of the first two volumes—The Irony of It All and The Noise of Conflict—reflect an attitude of slightly amused disengagement. They are written from an authorial perspective that implies that it is above it all, and invites the reader to assume a similar posture. After all the noise of conflict, what difference did it make? The world goes on. The argument and tone of the second volume in particular suggest that it might better have been titled Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing.
Marty repeatedly returns to the observation that, for all the violence of religious rhetoric, from 1919 to 1941 only four deaths resulted from religious conflict. This, the unsuspecting reader might conclude, is the real achievement and contribution of modern American religion, that it has so little disturbed the civil peace, that it has not seriously disrupted the real world of “the nonreligious arena.” Americans, writes Marty, “paid respects to the power of religion to reach and express the deepest of human needs, the most profound sources of individual and social life.” But, in his telling, religion has hut slight significance as a source for sustaining and guiding the life of the republic. Religion is chiefly a passionate, fevered, turbulent, and slightly mad force that is to he carefully contained. Not to worry, however, the threat is not all that serious. In the twenty-two years recounted here, religion killed only four people.
The Noise of Conflict is, in sum, very political, very mainline Protestant, very liberal, and very upbeat in a disengaged sort of way. As a popular political history of mainline Protestantism, the first two volumes of Marty’s project make a contribution. There is nothing wrong with writing the story of religion as refracted through politics and a very particular political perspective. Indeed it is a useful thing to have. One will have to look elsewhere, however, for a history of American religion in which American religion holds center stage. That said, we should not he surprised if journalists who share Mr. Marty’s view of things, and who are the reporters on whose reports Mr. Marty reports, continue to acclaim his project as “the standard account.”
While We’re at It
♦ You may have seen the Gallup data indicating that 78 percent of Americans believe in heaven and 60 percent in hell (up from the previous 1952 highs of 72 percent and 58 percent). Some religion observers have made much of the point that only 4 percent of respondents think they are going to hell. This, these critics say, suggests the optimistic superficiality of popular religion in America. We would not deny the shallowness of much popular religion, hut the criticism does not wash in this instance. Christian teaching is that sinners who accept salvation offered in Jesus Christ can trust that they’re going to heaven. There would seem, therefore, to he no inconsistency between 60 percent believing in hell hut only 4 percent thinking that that is their destination. We mention this only because the alleged inconsistency has become a staple among some religion commentators.
♦ The problem of “religion and power in the public sphere” is the subject of a reflection by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. He suggests it is not sufficient for the church to limit itself to the “vertical relations” between man and God. The church must also attend to the culture, recognizing “the centrality of public culture in shaping morality.” Although “dialogue and persuasion must he religion’s first impulse in the public sector, we cannot automatically exclude the possibility that, at certain moments, religious groups may have to move into the power mode in order to preserve certain basic moral values in a society.” He is sorry that Catholicism did not play much of a part in the abolition of slavery and activism for “basic political rights for women” in the early part of the century. He indicates that the Catholic Church made up for that, in part, by its active support for the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s, and by its participation in the civil rights movement of later decades. The Cardinal has undoubtedly put his finger on a cluster of important questions, hut one wonders what is meant by the church moving into “the power mode.” That is to say, what influence do churches possibly have apart from “dialogue and persuasion”? Perhaps they can, on occasion, bring financial pressures to hear, hut even their economic power is entirely dependent upon voluntary gifts resulting from the churches’ persuasive force. The “power mode,” on the other hand, depends upon the ability to bring legal, police, or military force to hear. Religious groups have, and should have, no access whatever to such force. Possibly the Cardinal is referring to voting power. But the exercise of voting power is totally dependent upon dialogue and persuasion. The suggestion that the Catholic Church or other religious groups have the option of resorting to “the power mode” is unfortunate. It is not easy to square it with Pope John Paul II’s assertion in his recent encyclical Redemptoris Missio: “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.”
♦ There they go again. The “Jesus Seminar” reaps a good deal of publicity every year or two with its votes on what is and what is not “authentic” in the gospel accounts. The group was organized in 1985 by Robert Funk, a former professor of New Testament, in order to combat fundamentalism. What it has succeeded in doing is discrediting a good deal of biblical scholarship. This year the seminar voted that only 20 percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus were really his. Father Raymond Brown, the distinguished Catholic expert on the New Testament, says Funk’s methods are “totally incompatible” with good scholarship. Father Brown is a charitable fellow. Nonetheless, one may he reasonably sure that a school of journalists will again take the bait the next time the Jesus Seminar votes the Bible up or, much more likely, down.
♦ In the March issue we commented on public television’s pop psychologist, John Bradshaw, author of The Inner Child and other dangerous pap. Mrs. Claire Ducker of Austin, Texas, agrees with most of what was said, hut then this: “These [followers of the Bradshaw cult] are not, for the most part, ‘the masses exercising their discontent on an excess of leisure,’ hut deeply wounded individuals, who do make up a rather substantial and growing proportion of the population.” She believes that the churches have failed to respond to their needs and thus “have abandoned perhaps a third to half of the population to the feel-good blandishments of John Bradshaw and his ilk.” Also, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston writes to set the record straight about Bradshaw having been a priest. He never was, although for a time he did study for the priesthood with the Basilian Fathers in Houston. If Bradshaw does think he was a priest, notes the bishop, “perhaps that is part of his inner child’s desire that was never realized.”
♦ We have earlier drawn attention to the Durham Declaration, a fine statement by a group of United Methodists on the abortion dispute. William Willimon, dean of chapel at Duke University, has done a commentary on that declaration, and he makes a point that all our churches would do well to take to heart: “Stanley Hauerwas has noted that when the American Quakers began their debate over slavery, they chose to focus first upon their own members who held slaves. Quakers thus made slavery an intra-church dispute before they made it a larger social issue. They put their own house in order before they gave advice to the wider society. They took their own language and faith viewpoint with primary seriousness before they used the language and concerns of the wider society. Most mainline Protestant ethical thought has taken the opposite approach. The Durham Declaration is distinctive because, as few other public statements by the church on the abortion issue, it shows a determination on the part of a group of Christians to use their own distinctively baptismal discourse. Utterly missing from this document is any reference to either ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’ language. The church has been all too willing to begin ethical discussions by letting public policy questions determine the scope and the purpose of discussion. The result has been that rarely has the church had anything distinctive to offer public discussion. What we offer is nothing more than a secular solution with Christian veneer. It is clear that the Durham Declaration intends for United Methodists to think about abortion, not first as the society’s problem but as our problem. It is clear, throughout the document, that here is a church talking about an ethical issue as a church issue. The document charges that United Methodists have not discussed abortion rightly because we feared division. We reduced ‘the abortion problem to private choice and to just another issue for partisan politics.’ The result was a selective application of detached truths from Scripture, rather than a comprehensive and distinctive approach to abortion which arises out of our unique, communal affirmation of the gospel.”
♦ The board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Commission for Church in Society has approved “Abortion: A Proposed Social Statement.” The statement, which must be approved by the church’s general assembly, says it wants to avoid both “extremes” in the abortion debate. There are “sound reasons” for abortion when there is a clear threat to the life of the woman, when there are “extreme abnormalities of the fetus which will result in severe suffering and early death,” and when “the pregnancy occurs when both parties do not participate willingly in sexual intercourse,” especially in cases of rape and incest. The statement says, “The position of this church is that government has a legitimate role in regulating abortion.” “This church,” it continues, “opposes the total lack of regulation of abortion [and] legislation which would outlaw abortion in all circumstances.” While the ELCA statement may be theologically and morally incoherent, pro-life proponents who take an incremental approach to protecting the unborn have reason to be encouraged. If adopted, the statement would seem to take this five million-plus church body out of the camp that is desperately trying to sustain support for the 1973 abortion decision, Roe v. Wade. The ELCA statement is unmistakably one of political compromise, but a measure of moral reflectiveness is remarkable in light of the fact that the committee was heavily stacked in favor of the “right” to abortion. Pro-lifers in the ELCA are opposing the statement, as they no doubt should. That body could and should do much better in terms of a coherent ethic of responsibility to the vulnerable. If the statement is approved, however, we do well to remember that many expected the ELCA, like most other oldline bodies, to do much worse.
♦ We remarked a while back on Gallup’s finding that Easter doesn’t rank very high with Americans when it comes to “favorite holidays,” and we proposed a few reasons why that might be the case. Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops comes up with another and, now that he mentions it, it should have been obvious. “If people think of a ‘holiday’ as time off from the usual workday,” writes Doerflinger, “Easter is a ‘weekend’ rather than a ‘holiday.’ If they think of a holiday as a ‘holyday’ (as in ‘holyday of obligation’), most Catholics will not think of Easter because church attendance would be obligatory in any event.” But of course. Doerflinger adds the thought that, if people were asked which are the most important “feast days” in the Christian calendar, Easter would no doubt come off much better. What does all this have to do with religion and public life? Don’t ask.
♦ We regularly mention opinion polls and other survey research data on the state of religion. And some readers just as regularly tell us that we should be skeptical about such data. But we know that. Here is an item that will undoubtedly reinforce the skepticism of the skeptics. A recent poll of 1,100 people in Great Britain found that 85 percent say that they are Christian and 12 percent say they have no religion. Then the had news. Thirty-four percent of respondents did not know what happened on the first Easter Sunday, 39 percent did not know what happened on Good Friday, and 50 percent were unable to say outside which city Jesus was crucified. As he was being enthroned. Dr. George Carey might have had reason to ponder the finding that only 12 percent were able to name him as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Re-evangelization, anyone?
♦ A friend who keeps an eye on the Cambridge Divines sends us the bulletin from the chapel of Harvard Divinity School. There is this: “It’s a Baby! Kevin Cranston, Visiting Lecturer on Ministry, and his lover, John Enos, proudly announce the birth of their daughter, Amber Enos Cranston. Baby and Mom are great.” And there is this: “Poetry As Prophecy: A literary analysis of religious text. A lecture by Dr. Suheil Bushrui, Kahlil Gibran Professor in Values and Peace at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland.” Then there is this: “‘He Speaks for the Trees.’ Lou Gold, a modern-day Lorax, will speak for the trees of Oregon’s Siskyou National Forest on Monday, 7:00 p.m. in Sever Hall.” Still more: “Days of Deepening. The HDS Chaplain’s Office is sponsoring two one-day retreats where participants will consider the question, ‘In the midst of studies and work, where is God/Justice/Life inviting you?’“ Or you might want to sign up for this eight-week class: “Belly Dancing and Women’s Spirituality. Learn to use muscles you never knew you had, wear exotic costumes, and enjoy moving all parts of your body to sensual Middle Eastern rhythms.” Lest you think HDS has abandoned its constituting mission, there was also this on Good Friday: “Remembrance of the Death of Jesus (to 3 p.m.).” For some reason our friend refers to the Cambridge Divines as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Theologians, which doesn’t seem very nice of him.
Editorial on goddess worship in the New York Times, May 12, 1991. James Bowman on the churches’ foreign policy in The National Interest, Spring 1991. Pastor Russell Saltzmann on no-fault prophecy in Forum Letter, April 25, 1991. Father Winters on the NCCB, Commonweal, April 5, 1991. NCCB statement on inclusive language in Origins, November 29, 1990. Cardinal Bernardin address in Origins, December 6, 1990. Father Brown on the Jesus Seminar in National and International Religion Report, Vol. 5, No. 6. Will Willimon on the Durham Declaration in Christian Century, February 27, 1991. Religious data on Britain cited in the National Christian Reporter, April 12, 1991.