More Americans attend church or synagogue each week of the year than attend professional sports events in an entire year. Think about it. The legendary man from Mars who read our prestige press and watched network news for a year would think Americans are obsessed with sports and politics, with a small minority at the margins interested in matters religious. Or consider this: More Americans are in church every month than vote in presidential elections every four years.
The comparison with sports was first worked out by George Cornell, veteran religion writer for the Associated Press. In 1980, sports attendance totaled 356 million. That includes both professional and college football, baseball, basketball, and hockey—both major and minor leagues—plus auto racing, soccer, tennis, boxing, flat and harness racing, and even dog racing. Attendance at churches and synagogues was thirteen times greater, totaling 4.7 billion. In other words, more Americans attended worship services in a single month than attended any sports event whatever in the entire year.
Gate receipts of professional football, baseball, and basketball in 1980 totaled $423 million. Contributions to religion totaled $22.1 billion—51 times more than people put into the three biggest sports. Yet, according to Cornell, the ratio of news space given to religion and sports is almost precisely the reverse. One yardstick of people’s interests is where they put their time and money. They invested 13 times more of their hours and 51 times more of their money in religion than in sports. While Cornell has not toted up the figures since 1980, all the evidence suggests that the pattern has not changed in the last twelve years, except that the tilt of popular interest may now be even more heavily in favor of religion.
Cornell further observes that the media attention lavished on sports is typically of a promotional nature, ballyhooing the excitements and satisfactions of the games. Religion reporting, as often as not, is of a downputting character, focusing on the squabbles and strange behavior of those odd people who are “still interested in that sort of thing.” Not a few prominent sports and political reporters were “promoted” from the lowly religion beat where they began their careers. Studies by Robert — and others have demonstrated again and again the enormous “religion gap” between journalists and news editors, on the one hand, and the American people, on the other. Along with most of the miseducated elites teaching in universities, journalists tend to assume that America is a secular society that is troubled at the edges by the vestigial phenomenon of religion.
Willfully Inexpert Experts
Put differently, religion is far and away the largest network of voluntary associational behavior in American life. Yet this comes as a shock to most of the putative experts on American life in journalism and academe. After encountering the shock, it seems that most revert to a willful indifference to this overriding fact about America. Such reversion is encouraged by the company they keep in their respective guilds where everybody “just knows” that ours is, or is rapidly becoming, a secular society. Not to put too fine a point on it, most of the putative authorities on America in academe and the media are ignorant of one of the most salient features of the America that is hidden from them, and are apparently determined to remain so. Others are simply contemptuous of that America and determined to keep it hidden from their readers and viewers.
This is a powerfully important factor in the culture wars. In the last number of years—beginning with “born again” Jimmy Carter in 1976 and the religious right a little later—academic and media elites were alerted to a religion factor that had not, to their surprise and manifest chagrin, “gone away.” With the folding of such high-profile groups as Moral Majority, they heaved a collective sigh of relief. If religion had not gone away, they thought, at least it was off their political radar screens. Little do they realize that Moral Majority and its like were but temporary instruments for triggering the Christian activism that is now one of the most potent forces in our political life. And, of course, politics is but one small slice of the American reality. The name of the game in American public life today is culture, which engages some of the most fevered issues also in politics—abortion being first on the list.
So the question might be asked: Are the academic and media elites more or less aware of the religion factor than they were, say, ten years ago? At this point, any answer must be impressionistic and our impression is skewed by the regular reading of the New York Times and fifty or more other opinion-making papers and magazines. Our hunch is that the answer is that they are more aware. But the reaction to this awareness is exceedingly peculiar. Instead of taking the hidden America more seriously, there seems to be a drift toward creating not so much a counterculture as a defensive culture. That is to say, the secularized elites are forming a kind of cultural backwater that they declare to be the inevitable future, once America gets over its passing regression to religion and associated political conservatisms.
Consider the Clarence Thomas hearings, possibly the most significant event in the culture wars of the last ten years. Every stop was pulled and every viciousness exploited to prevent Judge Thomas from being confirmed. Those orchestrating the Anita Hill attack were given almost unlimited exposure on television. One feminist law professor, a putative expert on sexual harassment, actually said on network television, “The less credible her charges are, the more credible they are. The less evidence is the more evidence. That’s the way it is with sexual harassment.” Such assertions reflect a desperately, indeed hysterically, defensive mindset. After Thomas was confirmed, a feminist organization held a banquet here at the Waldorf Astoria, with Anita Hill (“the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment”) as guest of honor. Asked by a reporter whether she was not concerned that most Americans, including most women (remember there was no “gender gap” here), rejected Ms. Hill’s allegations, the president of the organization replied, “Not at all. We are more enlightened than most Americans.” That is the voice of aspiring arrogance from a hysterically defensive subculture.
It is a subculture, however, that still acts as though it is the establishment, and in some important respects is the establishment. Of course events such as the Thomas hearings have to do with more, and with less, than the religion of the hidden nation that is unsecular America. But the religious, cultural, and political factors are maddeningly entangled with one another. In fact, they cannot be separated, and sometimes can hardly be distinguished. So frustrating is the challenge that sectors of the establishment have turned themselves into little enclaves of what they deem to be right thinking. Cognitively, they live in “another country” of their own creation.
The New York Times: Partisan or Just Silly?
But of course we labor under the daily reading of the New York Times. Astute observers of journalism have noted that the Times has become in recent years an essentially silly newspaper. The choice of front-page stories that have little to do with anything of consequence that has actually happened (the “news” that is fit to print) and the blatant editorializing in what are supposed to be news reports have discouraged many who counted on the Times to maintain “standards.” The line between columnist and reporter is increasingly fudged. If your views are correct, you no longer get promoted to a column-every cub reporter begins with one. And, of course, on the editorial page the silly season reigns unchallenged.
But we expect it is more than silliness or self-indulgence or the abandonment of what were called journalistic standards. The editorial page of the Times is a daily report on what is being thought in “another country.” Keep in mind that some of our good friends have been members of the editorial board. In recent years, however, they are allowed to speak up only to let the record show that the majority heard from the America of which it is not part. On family policy, parental authority, the feminist agenda, homosexuality, AIDS, teenage promiscuity, church-state relations, the exclusion of religion from public discourse—on these questions and much else the editorial page speaks for a besieged secularized minority, and does so in its former tones of the establishment institution giving counsel to the nation.
On Mother’s Day, 1991, the Times editorially endorsed, in opposition to the hierarchical and patriarchal religion of the Bible, the worship of the goddess Gaia. It is quite wondrous to behold. The editorials of the nation’s most prestigious medium frequently read like messages not simply from another country but from another planet. Be assured that we talk with these people. Alas, to little avail. They seem equally convinced that we are a messenger from some strange subculture radically at variance with the America they think they know. And to think that some people say they do not know what is meant when people talk about America being embroiled in a Kulturkampf.
We confess that we have no sure idea as to how all this is going to turn out. It seems to us that the hidden America is obvious enough to all who have eyes to see. But then, George Cornell has been pressing his argument with Associated Press and other media for more than thirty years, with slight effect. Politics, sports, entertainment, economics—that is what America is really all about, insist the mandarins of our public discourse. Moreover, they believe politics is essentially about economics (the “bread and butter” issue), sports is obsessional distraction, and entertainment (meaning “culture” as in ballet or rock) is the cutting edge of ideas and “lifestyles.” Meanwhile the great majority of Americans talk and think and pray about how to live, about the difference between right and wrong, about whether their children will be decent people, and about the will of God. What Chesterton called this “nation with the soul of a church” continues to be that, and ever more so. For better and for worse, it is the fact. The alleged experts on the nation cannot understand its soul because they refuse to take account of the church that is at the center of what is, for them, the hidden America.
With due respect to that estimable evangelical magazine, one issue of Christianity Today does not a revolution make. But it may be something more than a straw in the wind that CT devotes a good chunk of an issue to a symposium on the question, “Is Birth Control Christian?” Everybody knows that this has been a big question among Roman Catholics, and much disputed since the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. But some evangelical Protestants are now beginning to ask whether they (or their grandparents) didn’t go along too readily with the lifting of Protestant inhibitions about contraception that began back in the 1930s. According to the magazine’s survey, nine out of ten CT readers who are married have used some form of contraception, and in the case of 37 percent of couples at least one spouse is sterilized. Now, it seems, people are having second thoughts.
The editors note that all participants in the symposium are agreed “that children are a blessing from the Lord. Unfortunately, it is easy to forget that truth when the technological nature of birth control makes fertility seem like a disease that needs to be cured. And when the prophets of overpopulation make children seem like parasites on a withering planet. And when the harpies of radical feminism make childbearing seem like a roadblock on the highway to economic justice.”
Debra Evans, a writer on women’s issues, reports that she went on the pill when she was fifteen years old, and has regretted it ever since. “Providing the pill (and other forms of contraception) to an unmarried woman does more than prevent her from getting pregnant; it may also erode her ability to say no to sex. It can make her more vulnerable to the pressures of a man in search of physical gratification. The potential for sexual abuse, fornication, sexual addictions, adultery, and the perpetration of double standards grows instead of diminishes. The pill was not designed to treat or cure anything, but only to make sex easy. Women come out losers. ‘Baby-proofing’ them increases the odds of their being sexually used by, and sexually using, men . . . . I wonder: Might Madonna actually be a mass-marketed version of Aldous Huxley’s Lenina—who embodied eroticism, but was disgusted by pregnancy and motherhood? Will cultural attempts to remake women into wombless and milk-free objects continue to backfire? Could the hypereroticization of women prove to be the ultimate turnoff? Does nature have something to teach us after all?”
The CT symposium includes other thoughtful observations, one by Father James Burtchaell, a frequent contributor to this journal, who says that, while he believes contraception is not in itself morally objectionable, the fending off of children has corrupted Christian marriage. In a brief historical sketch of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, Michael J. Gorman (Abortion and the Early Church, InterVarsity Press) scores Augustine for his “negative” attitudes but ends on this note: “Modern society tends to so exalt sexual pleasure as to separate it entirely from sex’s procreative context. For centuries the church has correctly understood that this has dangerous consequences. Has not such a separation contributed to increased acceptance of premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sex, as well as abortion?” The question would seem to be rhetorical.
Despite all the loose talk about the church being obsessed with sex, conservative Protestants have been rather slow in challenging some cultural directions, such as contraception and abortion. (As we have noted before, on the eve of Roe v. Wade the Southern Baptist Convention was calling for liberalized abortion laws.) Some Catholics have to bite their tongues to keep from reminding their evangelical brothers and sisters that they are playing catch-up. Such Catholics, however, need to be reminded that the Church’s teaching on these questions has not been pastorally presented to the Catholic faithful with notable success. Nonetheless, on these and other “social issues,” the evangelical-Catholic convergence is a significant dynamic in the culture wars.
Secularists who view that convergence as threatening routinely sound the alarm that contraception will become the next prohibited item once Roe is overturned and protective laws are in place for the unborn. That, one can assert with high confidence, is nonsense. No one, Catholic or Protestant, is making the argument that contraception (except by abortifacients such as RU-486) is an issue of public justice that is to be remedied by law. There is a bright line, as the lawyers say, between contraception and abortion in that the latter is viewed as the killing of innocent human life. That being noted, it is a matter of potential moment that evangelical Protestants are beginning to have Catholic-like thoughts about contraception. As we said, one issue of CT does not a revolution make, nor even indicate a clear direction. The editors hedge their conclusions and are so very careful not to be “legalistic” about contraception. At the same time, the current discussion of birth control among evangelicals does have the appearance of fleshing out a more comprehensive and coherent approach to a Christian understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family that is under relentless cultural assault.
The Correct New Testament
The people at Wittenburg Door (yes, they know Wittenberg is spelled with an “e”) think they are so very funny. They are. They think it is past time for Christians, and evangelical Protestants in particular, to get attuned to the times. The feminists at the National Council of Churches who put out that inclusive language lectionary are altogether too timid. A Bible that is relevant to TODAY!!! needs a much more thorough reworking, and the editors show us how to go about it.
Here, for example, is the Wittenburg Door version of Mark 8:13-19: “And he went around to the other side of the hill and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he nominated twelve to be with him, and to be sent out to dialogue and to have authority to cast out racists; Simon, whom he surnamed Shabazz; James, the son of Zebedee and John the lover of James, whom he named Boaner-Gays, that is thighs of thunder; Tawana and N’krumna, Mary Magdalene and Salome, Hirioshi, and Jugdesh; Running Buffalo; Che the Zealot; and Judas the Caucasian who betrayed him.”
Or consider this politically superior rendition of Matthew 12:10-13: “And behold, there was a person who was manually challenged. And they asked Jesus, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath? Not that there was anything particularly wrong with him in the first place, mind you!’ so that they might accuse him of bias against the differently abled. He said to them, ‘What person of you, if he or she has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a sheep than a man! But people have rights too. So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the person, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And the person stretched it out, and it was temporarily abled like the other.”
The improved version of Mark 10:46-52 should meet with the approval of the right thinking: “And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great multitude, Bartimaeus, a visually challenged welfare recipient, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Child of David and Michael or Bathsheba, or Abishag, have solidarity with me!’ And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’ And throwing off his mantle he sprang up with great agility unmatched by most sighted folk, and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And the visually challenged person said to him, ‘Comrade, affirm me in my differently abledness.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go, your way, your attitude has proven your wellness; indeed, you are weller than the rest of us.’”
Then there is Mark 2:16-17: “And the scribes and Pharisees said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with Republicans and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are temporarily abled have no need of a physician, but then, neither do the differently abled. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why I eat with them.’ “ Having stolen so shamelessly from this delightfully mischievous publication, it seems only fair that we tell you how to get a sample copy with an eye to subscribing: Write Wittenburg Door, 1565 Cliff Road, Suite 3-450, Saint Paul, MN 55122-9956.
Dawn Ravenell, a thirteen-year-old black child, entered Eastern Women’s Center in New York and signed the surgical consent for an abortion (New York State has no provision for parental notice or consent). She was twenty-one weeks pregnant, the abortion was bungled, she suffered a cardiac arrest in the clinic, slipped into a coma, and died eighteen days later in the hospital. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, one-time abortionist turned prolife champion, interviewed her parents who live in Brooklyn.
Dr. Nathanson: Your first notification was that this daughter of yours was in Roosevelt Hospital in a coma.
Mr. Ravenell: Right—she’s fighting for her life. That’s what they told me. They told me I had to come in right away, that Dawn is here at that hospital fighting for her life.
Dr. Nathanson: Those are the words they used?
Mr. Ravenell: That’s what they said. I was going—how could she be fighting for her life—she left this morning, going to school, looking healthy, never been sick.
Dr. Nathanson: She told you she was going to school that day?
Mrs. Ravenell: She had never been sick. We couldn’t understand how she was in Manhattan fighting for her life.
Dr. Nathanson: So you were stricken, literally staggered by the news?
Mrs. Ravenell: I had to constantly while I was in the hospital sitting there—they were running tests—I had to keep my hand over my mouth to keep from screaming in horror.
I could not believe this was happening. I said this is a bad dream, I’m going to wake up and this would not have happened. How can people intrude themselves into my life, make decisions for my child, and then tell me to come pick up the pieces after you’ve made a mess. This is what you’re saying to me: you have nothing to do with the decision that was made, but now we’re finished, so you come and pick up the pieces—there are no pieces left to pick up—you have killed a perfectly beautiful lady, and for what?
I kept asking the doctor, how could this happen, how could they do this to my child without my knowledge, and he said to me, “Mrs. Ravenell, I’m not an attorney, I’m trying to do everything I can for your daughter medically, but you have to look into those avenues on your own.”
Dr. Nathanson reflects: “It is odd—and utterly inexplicable to us—how Americans can act so swiftly and decisively to protect their young in circumstances which pose only a minor, rather remote threat to their lives, but virtually neglect them in other much more hazardous settings. According to figures released by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, from October 1989 through September 1990, more than 200 items (toys, rattles, clothing, blankets) were recalled because they were judged to be dangerous for use by children—yet a thirteen-year-old girl is allowed by law literally to sign her life away when confronted by a formidable surgical procedure such as late abortion.”
From Chic to Orthodox
The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars is a growing organization that is ordinarily described as conservative. Who would have thought, say, twenty-five years ago that Catholic academics who are supportive of the Pope would be described as a conservative minority? In the FCS newsletter Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame, the group’s new president, reflects on the time when, in religious houses and seminaries, the Martyrology was read at the beginning of common meals. There is now, he writes, a very long list of martyrs who have been suppressed or sidelined by the regnant “progressivism” in the Catholic academy. Orthodoxy has now become dissent, and dissent the new orthodoxy.
“A quarter of a century ago, dissident moral theology might have seemed a hothouse affair, a tempest in campus theology departments, academics exhibiting the ecclesiastical equivalent of radical chic. Perhaps bishops then thought that no theologian really believed that a case could be made for infidelity, abortion, homosexuality—outside classroom discussion, that is. It began tentatively, full of qualifications, seeming to make room reluctantly for that rare case when, thanks to proportionalism, one might do what was generally evil. Dissent grew bold. Exception ceased to be exceptional. A spirit of antinomianism took hold. Dissident moral theology, too long tolerated, never really opposed, is now bearing its fruit.
“It is said that the Catholic population of the United States is becoming more and more indistinguishable from the population at large so far as divorce, abortion, extramarital sex, and the rest of the lubricious litany of liberation goes. But how many have ever heard the teachings of the Church on sexual morality expressed, let alone explained and defined?”
For more information about FCS, write Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, St. John’s University, Jamaica, NY 11439.
Pluralism Against Itself
Whether church and state should recognize something called homosexual marriage is the subject of a thoughtful exchange in Commonweal, the Catholic biweekly. The editors weigh in with their own thoughtful (or so it seems to us) conclusion:
“To accept some form of moral or teleological equivalence between homosexual and heterosexual acts is to radically alter the centrality of secular morality in our most basic understanding of the human project. Such a ‘liberation’ can only further erode our most intimate and deeply felt ties to the future and the sacrifice that requires of us. The ethos of marital heterosexuality imposes upon us a sense of participation in a moral project that transcends our own immediate needs and wants. If the experience of the last twenty-five years has taught us anything, it is that human institutions are not infinitely malleable: the fragility of marriage, the permeability of families, and the incidence of haphazard arrangements for the care and rearing of children are there for all to contemplate. By giving each of us a compelling stake in the future, marriage takes the paradoxical energies of sexuality and harnesses them to the greater social good of providing for subsequent generations. Heterosexual marriage turns us back to the regenerative body and confronts us with the mystery of the other and the joys of human creation in a way same-sex marriage cannot. In an age when, from abortion to euthanasia, technology puts greater and greater power over life into our own hands, the ties that bind each of us to the larger human moral community must be strengthened rather than attenuated.
“Can such values be admitted to the public debate? The answer is that we cannot hope to sustain a public life without them. Political philosopher Michael Sandel warns that ‘a politics that’s empty of larger meanings—moral, spiritual meanings, or for that matter, that’s empty of any sense of a shared project—is not a democracy that can sustain itself.’ Pluralism, in other words, can defeat itself by so relativizing all values that the value of pluralism itself cannot be defended.”
When Speaking in Public
The debate over natural law and its connections with positive law—a debate to which this journal has contributed possibly more than its fair share—is not likely to end before the Eschaton. The argument has been made that natural law, and perhaps even the purposes of God known through special revelation, can and should be made legally effective in a society that is democratic (i.e., deriving its legitimacy from the convictions of its people). In a public square of diverse and often conflicting convictions, however, it is generally both wrong and counterproductive to contend that something should be the law “because it is God’s will.” So such arguments are usually “translated” into language about serving a “secular” purpose. David M. Smolin, professor of law at Samford University, explains why he is uneasy about that but then goes on to say more.
Yet, as a practical matter, the Christian must often translate his theological conviction regarding the limits of state power into non-theological language. The Christian is free to use technical legal terminology such as “secular purpose” and to translate religiously derived standards into “secular” purposes. Such translations are not dishonest or disingenuous. Indeed, these translations of theological concepts into secular concepts are laudable and necessary. Many writers have urged religious persons participating in the public square to speak in a language that is accessible and understandable to those of other faiths and beliefs. The translation of religious concepts into “secular” or “mediating” language is an attempt to live at peace and in dialogue in this mortal life with those of differing faiths and philosophies. The Christian introspective processes can never be “secular,” because the Christian is required to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” and live entirely under and for God. The Christian may, however, translate these introspections into publicly accessible language as a way of facilitating what Augustine called “common cause . . . in what concerns our purely human living.”
These “secular” translations, however necessary and useful, can never replace the richer theological introspection and intra-Christian dialogue that truly guides the Christian. The secular translations, moreover, are often inferior, intellectually and aesthetically. Secular language is not necessarily distortive or unstable, but is open to these vices when its speakers treat as autonomous and self-sustaining that which is contingent and dependent. Nonetheless, given a world filled with fallen humanity, in which the wheat and the chaff are mixed, the risks of misunderstanding and abuse are unavoidable.
James Tunsetead Burthcaell, Colleague and Friend
On the basis of rumors and second-hand information, the National Catholic Reporter published exceedingly damaging charges of sexual misconduct against Father James T. Burtchaell, who is a frequent contributor to, and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of, this journal. Fr. Burtchaell belongs to the Community of the Holy Cross which is connected with the University of Notre Dame, of which he was a tenured professor and provost. The NCR story, picked up by the wire services and widely disseminated, has no doubt come to the attention of many of our readers. Tragically, some of the charges are true. Fr. Burtchaell has confessed and repented of the wrong that he did, and knows himself to be part, as are we all, of a community of forgiven sinners. We believe that he has emerged from this experience a better man and a better priest. An extremely gifted scholar and writer, James Burtchaell will continue his association with this journal, and we look forward to what we have no doubt will be his important contributions in the future. Fr. Burtchaell has issued the following statement:
Last year when I began a research leave from teaching I acknowledged to my provincial superior and the Notre Dame administration that I had behaved towards some former university students in ways that were wrong, and which I very much regretted. The administration asked me to resign from my professorship. After twenty-five years of very active service, that was not easy to contemplate. But other unrelated reasons of my own persuaded me to accede to their request, and I agreed to submit my resignation effective at the end of this academic year.
I saw what I had done as a default in my responsibilities as a priest, a member of a religious brotherhood, and a mentor: one that I had greater reason to deplore than did those who wished me to leave.
It is now nearly a year and a half since the issue arose. My concern since then has ranged well beyond the actual points of complaint, for it would be foolish to scrape off only some rust and then paint over the rest. With wise professional help and loving support I have been trying to inventory the full range of forces and faults that have compromised my self and my service over the years. I have been making amends by offering an apology to people I had offended and receiving their forgiveness, and I have been trying to submit to whatever transformation the Lord affords me. It has been a strenuous and difficult time, but a time of chastening, conversion, and peace.
Outwardly, things have not been so peaceful. I shall leave Notre Dame, which became my home forty years ago this fall. But that will be a timely way to learn better that one is a sojourner here, not a resident.
And there has been humiliation. My friends have always said I could benefit by some humiliation. I don’t know if they had this much in mind, but the Lord evidently did, and I must take it as his gift.
Some of my colleagues and my confreres have launched what they know of my story on the winds of biodegradable gossip. Journalists were approached to ensure that some version of it would appear in the press, and eventually a journal that deals in this genre published what it could make of it. The story as written, in which innuendo supplements, enhances, and replaces information, implies some things that are not true. My real faults are concern enough without fictional ones besides.
Among the weaknesses I am still grappling with in this time of moral and self-review, anger remains a bedevilment. I am vexed at myself for spoiling service with selfishness. I am grieved by a few of my brothers, colleagues and confreres who seem to wish annihilation more than conversion. I have preached the relentless love of Jesus who died devoted to those who destroyed him, yet I find I am not yet his good enough disciple in forgiving. Pray that I may yet be. In the end, everything is a grace.
While We’re At It
♦ Back in the 1960s, Peter Collier and David Horowitz edited the New Left magazine Ramparts, which may be remembered by some of our more senior readers. In a 1984 article in the Washington Post they explained why there were voting for Ronald Reagan. Along the way they have written bestsellers on American dynasties (The Rockefellers and The Kennedys) as well as a blistering critique of the 1960s, Destructive Generation. Now they have pulled together essays and reflections (if high polemics can be called reflections) in Deconstructing the Left (Second Thoughts Books, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, MD 20706, $14.95). It covers just about everything in public controversy from Vietnam to the Gulf War, from AIDS to Tom Hayden’s “populism.” Collier and Horowitz are frequently criticized for being as enthusiastically rightist as they were once enthusiastically leftist. They aren’t much bothered by the charge. “One of our friends,” they write, “once said that lapsed radicals like ourselves are always condemned to regard the Left as their Great White Whale. There is probably an element of truth in this. If so, this book is a record of our sightings of the beast. We may not yet have set the final harpoon, but we have given chase.” Deconstructing the Left provides vicarious participation in adventures, high and low, on the chase.
♦ In York, Pennsylvania, Karl Chambers, age twenty-eight, was charged with robbing, beating, and killing a seventy-year-old woman. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court voided the sentence and ordered a new hearing. It seems that in his closing argument to the jury District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert said, “Karl Chambers has taken a life. As the Bible says, ‘And the murderer shall be put to death.’ “ Justice Nicholas Papadakos of the Supreme Court warned prosecutors that they could be subject to disciplinary action if they used the Bible or any other religious reference in support of the death penalty. Mr. Rebert said, “I don’t know of any God-fearing prosecutor that has not used some scriptural or religious reference in arguing to a jury.” He called the voiding of the sentence “outrageous, incredibly ludicrous, and completely ridiculous.” Given current judicial extremism on “the separation of church and state,” we, on the other hand, find the Pennsylvania decision credibly ludicrous.
♦ The redoubtable Avery Dulles, a regular contributor to these pages, recently inaugurated a lectureship in theology at Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia. What he said about Catholic education obviously has broader application. “The great sociopolitical problems of the present day, which are of interest to most university students, have theological dimensions that should not be neglected in a Catholic university. Human rights, if they are to have any solidity, must be grounded in the eternal law of God. Were it not for the human relation to the transcendent, conscience would have no special rights; it might, indeed, be dismissed as a kind of Freudian superego. Human equality, without its foundation in God’s creative plan, could be rejected as a myth, and justice could be redefined as the interest of the stronger. The responsible use of natural resources and the proper respect for the integrity of nature, when studied at Catholic institutions, must be seen in relation to the doctrine of creation. The ethics of war and peace, so ardently debated during the past few months, are inseparable from principles of justice that are at root theological.”
♦ We were going to say that Eastern Orthodoxy tends to slip between the cracks in most discussions of American religion. But we are instructed that the metaphor is slipping through the cracks between the boards. Whatever, Orthodoxy does not get the attention it deserves. A welcome remedy is American Orthodoxy: A Quarterly Newsletter of Orthodox Opinion, the first issue of which has now arrived. It is edited by Fr. Alexander Webster and published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. You might want to secure a sample copy by writing Ethics and Public Policy Center at 1015 15th Street, NW, Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20005.
♦ “We call upon the leaders of all faiths to join us in a ‘Will to Live’ campaign. Let every religious leader in this land dedicate the next twelve months to teaching, preaching, and counseling the community at large on the reasons we are here and the ways to find meaning in life even when it is hard.” That is from a statement on euthanasia issued by the Union for Traditional Judaism. (The Union might be described as Conservative Judaism that is religiously conservative.) For a complete copy of the statement and more information, write Rabbi Ronald Price, 261 East Lincoln Avenue, Mount Vernon, NY 10552.
♦ A reader protests Rabbi David Novak’s observation (“When Jews Are Christians,” November 1991) that there has been distinct progress in Jewish-Christian relations. As evidence to the contrary, he cites the March 1989 newsletter of the World Jewish Congress that there was an increase of Christian missionary activity aimed at Jews in Cambridge, England. How many Jews and how many missionary-minded Christians are there in Cambridge, one wonders. Further evidence from the same newsletter, dated June 1989, is that a Msgr. Richard Williamson in Quebec publicly denies that the Holocaust happened. More recently (October 1989), it is reported that a Christian minister, one Pete Peters, distributed anti-Semitic literature at a public school meeting in Colville, Washington. We don’t know about the accuracy of these reports, but, if this is a sample of the evidence to the contrary, we’ll stick with David Novak.
♦ Like many Brits, Kenneth Minogue likes America awfully, but he also has deep misgivings. He spent three months with us recently and went back wondering how we, and our young people in particular, could be both so good and so bad. “For most of the American young,” Minogue writes in the Sunday Telegraph (London), “there is only one basic problem: the simple matter of achieving satisfaction and avoiding frustration.” Even in their virtues, such as when they help out in various voluntary programs, they cannot articulate a reason that goes beyond the assertion that it makes them feel good. Words such as duty, courage, heroism, and honesty are not part of their vocabulary. If notions of guilt and sin are still current, they are attached chiefly to having the wrong opinions on this or that. Minogue writes: “One remarkable piece of evidence is the way that the nicest and least offensive of American students will publicly confess to racism. This wimpish passion to confess must be understood in terms of the dominant doctrine that America is institutionally racist, and that the very worst people are those who will not admit it, indeed who even may not be aware of it. Faced with this Orwellian instrument of mental torture, students understandably settle for the lesser rap. Confession at least allows them to demonstrate the valued thing called ‘sensitivity.’ Young white males in particular carry a heavy burden of political incorrectness, and must work hard at demonstrating themselves innocent of both racism and sexism not to mention lookism, ableism, and all the other public crimes of a despotic code.” Minogue’s conclusion is that morality in America is becoming exclusively a matter of ideological commitment, and that, he thinks, is a form of decadence. “A powerful religious tradition in America may be a source of strength,” he adds, “although religion has shown little immunity to the current fashions.” What Kenneth Minogue learned in America is, it seems, nought for our comfort.
♦ The governor of the state in which we live is given to ruminating in public. At the 92nd Street “Y,” he recently gave a little talk in response to the question, “Who is God?” He used to have some pretty standard ideas on that subject, he says, but then he read Teilhard de Chardin. “Faith, he said, is not a call to escape the world but to embrace it. Creation is not an elaborate testing ground, but an invitation to join in the work of restoration. God created the world, but he did not finish it. He left that to us.” All of which can no doubt be construed in an unexceptionable manner. What all this means, says Mario Cuomo, is that the government should engage in “benevolent activism.” He regrets that so many people do not agree with him on that. “But most Americans understand that today there is, indeed, more money for savings and loans, but less for saving addicts; more money for bombs, but less for babies. More rich, more poor than ever.” In the same issue of America that carried this cant, the governor is quoted as saying, “Decide exactly what you have to achieve. Do you want to help people, or do you want to be powerful?” Maybe that means that the Teilhardian Omega Point of Mr. Cuomo’s vocation is to retire from politics so that he can help people. Or maybe it means that the power to engage in “benevolent activism” is true weakness. Or maybe it means nothing at all.
♦ The self-dramatizing conceits of artists and intellectuals know no bounds. The other day Norman Mailer was over at the United Nations demonstrating with his kind. They were marking the second anniversary of Salman Rushdie’s peek-a-boo seclusion from Muslims who want to do him in. The group carried signs declaring, “We Are All Rushdies.” Mailer expatiated on the death-defying dangers of being a writer in our kind of society. (Your latest novel might get a lousy review by John Simon in the New York Times.) Then we came across this by Andrew Solomon reflecting on the failed coup in Moscow last year. “Ordinary Soviet citizens,” he writes, “often seemed interested only in having cheap food available.” Not so with the intelligentsia. At the great moment of testing, “The intelligentsia understood it was the strongest champion of freedom. Though few of its members were ardent supporters of Boris Yeltsin, they accepted that it was necessary to join the tens of thousands of Muscovites who supported him unreservedly. Outside his headquarters at the parliament, there began a mass gathering of the minds of Moscow. I met dozens of old friends; people were constantly calling one another’s names.” Yes indeed. Never mind that minds that are amenable to mass gatherings of minds belonged, during seventy-four years of Communism, to pampered collaborators with the regime. At the great moment of defiance, writes Solomon, “intellectuals brought to this activity a clarity so brilliant that it swayed everyone they encountered: their gift was the gift of shared insight, their weapon the ability to communicate.” To the amazement of “ordinary people” everywhere, many, perhaps most, intellectuals seem to believe the preening tripe of their self-advertisements. Oh yes, Mr. Mailer indicates that he regrets that, unlike Salman Rushdie, nobody is threatening his life, despite his literary courage. It is no doubt the terrible price he must pay for living in a society of ordinary people.
♦ It used to be that people misbehaved in all sorts of ways but did so with a guilty conscience, insofar as they had a conscience. No longer. Patrick Riley, in a doctoral thesis titled Chastity and the Common Good, notes the switch in the meaning of hypocrisy that accompanied the sexual revolution launched in the 1960s. “Until that unhappy period, hypocrisy had been the tribute that vice paid to virtue; it now became the epithet that vice hurled at virtue.” That bears more than a moment’s reflection.
“Is Birth Control Christian?” in Christianity Today, November 11, 1991. On teen abortions, Bernadell Technical Bulletin, published by Adelle and Bernard Nathanson and available from P.O. Box 1897, New York, NY 10113. Ralph McInerny on dissident Catholic theology in FCS newsletter, December 1991. On homosexual marriage, Commonweal, November 22, 1991. David M. Smolin on translating theological convictions into secular terms in “The Enforcement of Natural Law by the State,” University of Dayton Law Review, Vol. 16 No. 2. Chambers case reported in the New York Times, November 10, 1991. Cuomo quotations from America, November 16, 1991.