Christian groups called “Adventist” trace their roots to 1844, the year that some had fixed for the advent, or Second Coming, of Christ. Although now more cautious about setting definite dates, Adventists still live in expectation of an imminent return, and it perhaps follows that they do not work themselves up about the long-term culture-forming tasks of Christianity. The largest group is the Seventh-day Adventists with about 700,000 members in this country. They publish Liberty, which bills itself as “a magazine of religious freedom,” and is a mainstay of “strict separationist” thinking about the relationship between church and state. Adventists describe themselves as “staunchly Protestant,” which means in this case that they tend to a rather definite anti-Catholicism. Not least among the errors of the papacy, in their view, is the establishment of Sunday as the Christian sabbath.
A recent issue of Liberty featured the threat of the Pope, with the collusion of George Bush and others, taking over the political leadership of the new world order. The cover pictures the Pope sitting on a throne that is inscribed “The New World Order,” with Bush and Gorbachev flanking him on lesser seats of power. While that may seem somewhat bizarre, it would be a mistake to underestimate the influence of Liberty and of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in agitating church-state questions. With world headquarters in Washington, D.C, the Adventists maintain a very large and well-funded staff for whom strict separationism is both central dogma and high-priority cause.
Another recent issue of Liberty devotes its cover and eight pages of text to “The Naked Public Square.” We are told: “The editors of Liberty find much to applaud and to criticize in Neuhaus’ views. It is because we find them to be in part meritorious and in toto provocative that we asked spokesmen for national organizations often heard in the Public Square to respond to them.” The balance between applause and criticism might be inferred from the title given the entire discussion: “The Naked Public Square and Other Fairy Tales.” The spokesmen for organizations prominent in the national debate are Robert L. Maddox of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Barry W. Lynn of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Oliver S. Thomas of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
To Review and Clarify
There is little new in the objections raised to the arguments advanced by this writer over the years, but perhaps the very familiarity of the objections provides a seasonable opportunity to review and clarify what is, and what is not, meant by saying that the public square is naked. All three critics go to some length to point out that religion is flourishing in America, religious individuals as well as churches regularly speak out on public issues, and religious institutions enjoy benefits such as tax exemption; ergo, the public square is not naked of religion and the influence of religion. Maddox of Americans United rehearses the unhappy history of the union of church and state in coercing consciences. Remember, he cautions us, the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of Michael Servetus in Calvin’s Geneva. Being a temperate man, he allows that “the products of church-state cooperation in America today are obviously less extreme.” But there are similar problems, he says, such as Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, almost getting the city to permit a bond issue in its favor (later overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court), and such as the rabbi who prayed at a school graduation in Rhode Island. Americans should know, says Maddox, that if the Supreme Court upholds the graduation prayer, it “could directly affect them and their right to follow their own consciences.”
Lynn of the ACLU contends that religion can do what it wants, except when public funds are involved. “Watering at the public trough means you have to accept public water standards. These days too many religious institutions want both the absolute right to define their ‘mission’ and the collateral right to have the taxpayers fund it.” He is worried that President Bush, among others, has overstepped the separationist line in official proclamations by “quoting from the Bible and encouraging religious worship.” Of course “all citizens have the right to proclaim the ‘truth’ about public policy to anyone who will listen.” But that is not the case when religion touches government, or vice versa. “Those who serve as agents of government have the legal responsibility not to use that official status to advance the cause of a particular faith or all faiths,” says Lynn. But there is, he insists, no naked public square.
Thomas of the Joint Baptist Committee is obviously fed up with people who wave The Naked Public Square in his face. “[Neuhaus’] book was readily found in the hands of preachers and pundits across the nation who used it to support their argument . . . that government has become increasingly indifferent, even hostile, to religion.” Far from there being a naked public square, “what I have found is a public square that is not only well-clothed in the garb of religion but perhaps a bit overdressed.” Once again, we are told that religion flourishes, religious lobbies are active in the political arena, and, Thomas notes approvingly, government grants assist religious groups “in providing housing for the homeless, day care, food, health care, higher education, and numerous other worthwhile services.” All that is required, says Thomas, is “that government remain neutral in matters of religion.” He deplores the Arizona legislature’s declaring this to be a Christian nation, and favors our church-state relations over those of Western Europe “where there is prayer in the schools but the churches are empty.” So much for the idea of the naked public square, Thomas concludes.
A few brief responses: Yes, religion flourishes in America. It is therefore all the more intolerable that, in a democracy where over 90 percent of the people identify themselves as Christians and Jews, the government, the media, and major cultural institutions tend to exclude the religion factor from our public life. Yes, religious groups regularly (even obsessively) lobby on public issues. Nobody that we know has ever suggested that the free exercise of religion and free speech have been entirely eliminated from American life. Yes, the Spanish Inquisition was awful, and Calvin’s Geneva was a gravely flawed experiment. We do well to remember, however, that in somewhat more contemporary history, such as this century, the great tyrannies have been virulently secular and most specifically at war with Judaism and Christianity. Hitler and Stalin in full genocidal swing killed more people in an hour of any given afternoon than did the Inquisition in two centuries. To suggest that the prayer of the Rhode Island rabbi denies people “their right to follow their own consciences” and raises the specter of the Spanish Inquisition is slightly fanciful, or perhaps the word is hysterical.
The refusal to let Liberty University benefit from a municipal bond issue is a clear instance of penalizing the free exercise of religion. Nobody disputes the fact that there would have been no problem if the university had agreed to eliminate religion as an essential component of its reason for being. Schools that insist upon freely exercising their religion will not receive government help; those that do not so insist will get it. This is not neutrality; this is—in effect if not in intent—hostility. To their great shame, numerous colleges and universities, both Protestant and Catholic, have in recent decades diluted or abandoned religious teaching in order to accommodate that hostility.
Lynn from the ACLU has the virtue of being straightforward: Where there is government involvement there must be government control. That means religion must be eliminated because otherwise taxpayers who are nonbelievers would be paying for its support. Since, through regulation and funding, expansive government is involved almost everywhere, whether directly or indirectly, it follows that religion must be eliminated almost everywhere. It is a simple formula, and a chief reason for the naked public square. President Bush and other “agents of government” may be religious in private, but they must not speak or act in a way that betrays their convictions in public, lest they use their “status” to advance the cause of religion. Mind, government officials and government-assisted programs can promote any other ideology or conviction, so long as it is not identified as “religious.” Whereas it was once thought that the government was to protect the free exercise of religion, it is now flatly asserted that, where government goes, the free exercise of religion must stop.
Mr. Thomas is a different case. If he is not being disingenuous, he is certainly less than candid. He knows better. His posture is perhaps one reason why the Southern Baptist Convention and others have withdrawn support from his Baptist Joint Committee. We hold no brief for the legislature of Arizona, and the notion that this is a Christian nation strikes us as more false than true, but it has nothing to do with the subject at hand. Thomas’ citing of government grants to religious groups working with the poor and needy is germane, and he knows full well the innumerable cases in which such assistance is contingent upon the groups eliminating anything distinctively religious in their program. The day this is being written, the pastor of the Moravian Church on 28th and Lexington, which runs one of New York’s largest feeding programs, was informed by the city that he must discontinue his weekly morale-boosting talk to the men and women who come for free food. Never mind that he says he does not teach Christian doctrine (one may wonder why not), it is a government program and his being a clergyman might give the appearance of advancing religion.
Thomas knows full well that such instances of the repression of religious freedom, some petty and some gross, can be multiplied by the thousands around the country. Many of them, of course, have to do with government schools, where government is anything but “neutral” toward the exercise of religion. Putting aside legal disputes about the meaning of the religion clause of the First Amendment, it is past time to candidly recognize a simple fact. In a society that is strongly and pervasively religious, it is not possible to have a government that is both democratic and, at the same time, indifferent or hostile to religion. One solution is to do away with expansive government, but that does not seem likely to happen any time soon. Another is to set the government against the deepest convictions of the people, which convictions are inseparable from religion and upon which convictions the moral legitimacy of the government depends, and that is the abandonment of democracy. The latter is the course advanced, however inadvertently, by the extreme proponents of “strict separationism” between church and state—extremists such as Maddox, Lynn, and Thomas.
Neutrality that is Neutral
A personal note may be permitted. This writer formed much of his thinking on church-state relations during his many years as pastor of a large, black, and very poor parish in Brooklyn. Most of the members were on welfare and they supported the parish generously. The undeniable reality is that St. John the Evangelist—its preaching, teaching, worship, evangelizing, and every other aspect of its mission—was supported by public funds. Or, as the ACLU would have it. the church was “watering at the public trough” and “nonbelievers” were paying for a religious mission of which they undoubtedly would not approve. If one insists upon putting it that way, churches and ministries such as St. John the Evangelist are tax-supported religious institutions. Were we to follow through on the perverse logic of the extreme separationists, welfare recipients should be forbidden to give a part of their welfare check to such institutions. So far as we know, not even the ACLU has proposed that, although it would seem to be required by the principles that it espouses.
Were such a policy to be adopted, it would cripple, if not destroy, the already desperately struggling churches and religious agencies in our poorest neighborhoods. It would involve government policing of individual behavior in a way that would inevitably violate rights that, unlike free exercise rights, the ACLU does care about. It would result in a situation where welfare recipients would be permitted to spend government funds on liquor, lottery tickets, and pornography—on anything, in short, that is not constitutionally “tainted” by a connection with religion. For these and other reasons, the ACLU, Americans United, the Baptist Joint Committee, and Seventh-day Adventists do not propose a policy that would seem to be required by the separationist principles that they do propose. They would undoubtedly respond that, for many practical reasons, they do not want to “go so far” as to forbid welfare recipients to support religious institutions. Perhaps it is not too much to ask that they reexamine the principles that, consistently applied, require going so far.
An alternative principle is that the government should be truly neutral toward religion. If a government program advances a legitimate public purpose, as democratically determined, it is a matter of indifference as to whether it also aids religion. (We say public purpose rather than “secular” purpose, which is too often the language of the courts, and which too often implies hostility to religion.) Thus the public purpose of welfare payments is to provide a “safety net” for people who otherwise cannot make it. If such people decide that their individual and communal welfare requires the ministry of the church, that is their decision. Similarly with the instances cited by Mr. Thomas where the government assists sundry projects operated under religious auspices—in housing, day care, providing for the homeless, and higher education. If the sponsors of such programs intend (as we believe they should intend) that they should also advance their religious mission, that is a matter of complete indifference to the state. The government’s interest, the public interest, is only that the programs help the people that they are intended to help.
Parents and Schools
And, of course, the same principle applies in education. As our law has long declared, the primary responsibility for rearing children rests with their parents. There is a necessary public interest in wanting children to be reared with the knowledge, skills, and habits that make for good citizens. The monopoly of public funds by government schools began in the early nineteenth century when our societal elites (Horace Mann & Co.) decided that the parents of the unwashed immigrant hordes could not be trusted to rear their children “properly.” Backed by the coercive force of the state, the “common school” (later called the public school) took on the task of “Americanizing” the children of immigrants. Not surprisingly, Americanizing meant Christianizing, and Christianizing meant Protestantizing, and Protestantizing meant the doctrinally diluted Protestantism of cultural mandarins such as Horace Mann. (This curious story has been set forth in many studies, most recently by Charles L. Glenn in The Myth of the Common School, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.)
The government establishment of the public school as our national church worked reasonably well—or at least it was politically sustainable—until the late 1940s. Then the extreme separationists, led by such as the formidable Leo Pfeffer, began to challenge, and challenge successfully, components of public education as an unconstitutional “establishment of religion.” They were in large part right, of course. The bland Protestantism of the common school was an imposition upon many—upon Catholics and Jews most notably, but also upon Protestants of more particular conviction, as well as upon those who rejected religion altogether. The removal of religion and religiously based morality from the government school has not resulted in “neutrality” but in a religio-moral vacuum that is aptly described as the naked public classroom. Many contend, with considerable justice, that the vacuum has been filled with the quasi-religion of “secular humanism.” All should be able to agree that the systematic exclusion of religion and matters associated with religion from the public school is not neutrality but hostility.
Is there anything that we systematically exclude if not for the reason that we are hostile to it? Almost everybody has a list of what should be excluded from the public school classroom, but the lists do not agree. For example: obscenity, Marxism, militarism, racism, homosexualist advocacy, eurocentrism, nativism, radical feminism, homophobia, and much more. Mr. Lynn says that the ACLU recognizes that such decisions “are value-laden, conceived within a sometimes clear, but more regularly cloudy, ethical framework.” So who should decide? Which of the many clear and cloudy frameworks should be determinative? In education, it would seem that those who have the most immediate responsibility and greatest competence for the rearing of children should decide, namely, the parents.
If there is a public interest in the education of children (and there certainly is), and if there is to be public funding for education (which seems almost inevitable), public justice requires that the dollars follow the decisions of parents and children about what kind of education they want. This is an elementary claim of liberty, and Maddox, Lynn, and Thomas, together with a magazine titled Liberty, all claim to be great champions of liberty. Except when people use their liberty in ways of which they disapprove. Except when people elect an education informed by a clear (or cloudy) ethical framework that is religious.
In the case of the ACLU one can understand this, for it is an organization dominated by a militantly secularist ideology. Americans United is somewhat different. It used to be called Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and there is perhaps a continuing anxiety about how Catholics and Jews might “abuse” the free exercise of religion by educating their children to be Catholics and Jews. But why the Baptist Joint Committee should be so set against helping people to school their children under Baptist auspices is something of a puzzle. Certainly many Baptists are puzzled, which is one reason why the Committee is increasingly isolated and ineffectual.
Is, then, the naked public square a “fairy tale”? We can let the extreme separationists answer the question. Messrs. Maddox, Lynn, and Thomas, along with the editors of Liberty, make very clear why the square is as naked as it is, and why, if they have their way, it will become more naked still. There is comfort to be derived from the fact that they raise their alarums in such a defensive mode, indeed in tones of desperation not untouched by hysteria. They seem to know that—socially, politically, and judicially— the tide is turning. What they see as a growing threat to what they mistakenly call “the Establishment Clause” others recognize as a renewal of democratic governance in which the state will no longer hinder but will, as the First Amendment promises, protect the free exercise of religion.
An Abortion “Compromise”
There is no denying that MacNeil-Lehrer is one of the better things on television, even with the frequently vacuous editorial opinings of Roger Rosenblatt that have become a regular feature at program’s end. Rosenblatt, who makes the main part of his living with Life magazine, has recently published Life Itself (Random House). Among other things, it purports to tell us “how to end the abortion war.” Rosenblatt writes: “In the 4,000-year-old history extending from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages and into the present, every civilization has taken abortion with utmost seriousness. Yet ours seems to be the only civilization to have engaged in an emotional and intellectual civil war over the issue.”
That is partly true. Large parts of the ancient world were as casual about abortion as about infanticide. The more pertinent truth is that the United States, as Judge John Noonan has pointed out again and again in connection with Roe v. Wade, is the only modern nation that has simply abolished abortion law altogether. But Rosenblatt is right about the civil war.
He is also right in noting the intense religiousness that has marked, and continues to mark, American public life. He is hard on the Catholic Church, which, he says, is “so agitated that it has entered into an unlikely, if not unholy, alliance with evangelical churches in the pro-life camp.” He further notes that the great majority of Americans “in the middle” tend to resist the moral permissiveness that characterizes both the cultural elites and the underclass. He recognizes that the civil war could become more than just emotional and intellectual unless some solution is found. “The ideal solution,” he writes, “would consist of a combination of laws, attitudes, and actions that would go toward satisfying both the rights of citizens and the doubts held by most of them.”
By the “rights of citizens,” he makes clear, he means the right to abortion. The objection that babies are being killed is what he describes as “doubts.” As it happens, Rosenblatt believes that he has a solution. It is called “permit but discourage.” This requires no change in the laws. He explicitly excludes “ideas like parental consent or notification, already the law in some states, which, however: well-intentioned, only whittle away at individual freedoms.” “Permit but discourage” means that abortion would continue as usual, but we would leave no doubt that we take it seriously and feel awfully bad about it. In terms of the legal and public policy battles over abortion, Rosenblatt’s proposal to the pro-choice and pro-life antagonists is: Let’s compromise and leave things the way the pro-choice people want them left.
Mr. Rosenblatt would likely object to that characterization. He insists that he really wants change. He writes: “The key element for all is to create social conditions in which abortion will be increasingly unnecessary . . . . Were we once again to work actively toward creating a country where everyone had the same health care, the same sex education, the same opportunity for economic survival, the same sense of personal dignity and worth, we would see both fewer abortions and a more respectable America.” This is very touching, and promises an answer to almost everything. Name a social problem and people like Mr. Rosenblatt have a solution: Let’s create a much better world and then the problems will go away. This is called “getting to the root” of whatever ails society. “Meanwhile,” he tells us in effect, “pending the arrival of this proposed Utopia, let’s continue to do things my way.”
The formula of “permit but discourage” should not be dismissed out of hand. The more comprehensive protection of the unborn does require more than changes in law and public policy. Changes in moral and cultural attitudes are at least equally important, and without them changes in law and public policy cannot be effected or sustained. Surely we can agree with Mr. Rosenblatt that it is better if abortion is treated seriously rather than frivolously, as though it were a matter of moral indifference. “Permit but discourage” is of little help, however, in addressing the question of “how to end the abortion war.” There have been slight variations over the years, but the evidence is that about 20 percent of American adults believe abortion is murder and should be prohibited, and a somewhat smaller number favor the existing situation of abortion on demand. When asked the circumstances in which abortion should be permitted, approximately 75 percent of Americans say it should not be permitted for the reasons that 95 percent of abortions are currently obtained. In sum, the abortion war will be ended, if ever, when changes in moral and cultural attitudes are joined to legal changes much more protective of the unborn. If that is the case, Mr. Rosenblatt’s “permit but discourage,” while no doubt well intended, is little more than a liberal sentiment, an expression of regret over the alleged need to maintain the status quo.
Good news from the school condom front, or so it would seem. New York City—followed by San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles—has been giving out free condoms to high school kids who, as everybody knows, are “sexually active” anyway and therefore not susceptible to “preaching” about abstinence. Free condoms, the public was assured, would meet a compelling need in reducing the number of school children contracting AIDS and other diseases. After the first few months of the program in New York, reports are that the students aren’t much interested.
In one high school of 2,900 students, “barely 20 condoms a week are requested.” Barely 20, one may infer, probably means less than twenty. What’s wrong here? The teachers and school counselors interviewed sound downright embarrassed about it. Says one 16-year-old girl, quite simply, “Most of us are not sexually active.” The principal of the high school where the program has flopped so magnificently explains that maybe it is because kids have to study so much. The implication would seem to be that they are letting homework get in the way of sex. As has been pointed out in these pages, those who argue that “everybody is doing it” and therefore concern must focus on their doing it “safely” typically ignore the majority of teenagers who are not “doing it” (see “AIDS: Deadly Confusions Compounded,” February). Even those who do not qualify as virgins usually are not “sexually active” in the routinely promiscuous manner portrayed by the condom champions.
Nor, according to the New York City report, does the non-demand for condoms indicate that large numbers of children are having sex without condoms. The same teachers and counselors say that the students are keenly attentive to, and seem to be persuaded by, teaching about the dangers of “unprotected sex.” The conclusion at this preliminary stage would seem to be that high school students are much more sexually disciplined than the educational experts had so confidently claimed. Undeterred, the Board of Education has announced that it will continue to promote condom distribution throughout the system since, as everybody knows, it is futile to “preach abstinence” to kids who are doing it anyway. The “success” of the condom program depends upon students wanting condoms. It would seem to follow that the successful promotion of “safe sex” requires the promotion of sex. The New York report suggests that a large number of students who have other things on their minds are telling their sexually agitated teachers to cool it.
According to some Washington beltway insiders, the multi-million dollar Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is one of the most effective pro-abortion organizations around today. It is the more effective, they say, because it is not officially pro-abortion. It is for defending children, and who can be against that? But it apparently is not for defending unborn children. And it seems equally cool to the possibility of adoption for the children of women who are not prepared to be mothers. So CDF opposition to “children having children” is, it is suggested, tantamount to promoting abortion. CDF which is the creation of Marian Wright Edelman, a black woman of very considerable achievements, is funded by major foundations and corporations backing “abortion rights.” Chairman of its board is Hillary Rodham, a zealous feminist who only recently has agreed to be identified as Hillary Clinton, wife of the Arkansas governor and presidential candidate. On issue after issue, it is noted, CDF vigorously backs the Kennedy-led Democratic left on child and family policies.
It is the more curious, therefore, that CDF seems to have a growing influence in shaping the posture of the religious lobbies in Washington—including the lobbies of evangelical and Catholic organizations—on such policies. It is noted that a formidable lobbyist now with CDF was for many years an executive with the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). The national organization of Catholic Charities appears to be on the friendliest terms with CDF. Such close collaboration with formally pro-life religious groups would be harder to maintain were CDF officially to proclaim the pro-abortion position that, say the same Washington insiders, “everybody knows” it in fact favors. Those who are of a mind to pay attention to their church’s political witness in Washington might want to raise appropriate questions about the role of CDF. It does seem improbable that folk such as Marian Wright Edelman and Hillary Clinton really share the goals espoused by most evangelicals and Catholics when it comes to defending all children and strengthening the American family.
Holy Alliances, Happy Coincidences, and Providence
The sensationalized account by Carl Bernstein in Time magazine on the “holy alliance” between the Reagan Administration and the Vatican in overthrowing Communism has caused quite a sensation in some quarters. Stripped down to its facts, the report contained few, if any, surprises. That John Paul II and Ronald Reagan thought Communism a great evil was hardly a well-kept secret. Nor did they hide the fact that, unlike most leaders religious and political, they thought Communism was not a forever phenomenon with which the world had to make its peace. With the electric response to a Polish pope and the rise of Solidarity, then: was an obvious coincidence of interests in pressing the weaknesses of the Communist regime.
A coincidence of interests is not an alliance. The breathless prose of Time notwithstanding, the meetings between Vatican and White House officials recounted in its story were in the normal course of relationships. As for the meeting between Reagan and the Pope in 1982, it seems quite natural that they would have discussed the fact that they had both just survived assassination attempts and agreed that God no doubt had a purpose in saving their lives. We would not downplay for a moment the role of this papacy in bringing Communism to an end in Poland, and consequently throughout the evil empire. While historians can be as stupid as anyone else, we fully expect that future history books will give high marks to both John Paul II and Ronald Reagan for their part in these momentous changes.
The truly frenzied left—the National Catholic Reporter, for instance—has seized upon the Time story with unbridled zeal. Now, according to NCR, it is finally revealed why the Holy See was so cool to Marxist insurrections and liberation theology in Latin America. Now we know why the Pope has been appointing conservative bishops in the United States. Now we can understand the Vatican’s hostility to the liberationist version of “the preferential option for the poor.” The reason is obvious: Under John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, “a right-wing political option has been masquerading as the magisterium and has now been found out, exposed.” Under the terms of the putative alliance, the Vatican took orders from the Reagan White House, even to the point, it is suggested, of letting the Central Intelligence Agency decide who would be appointed to the American episcopate.
What really galls NCR is that, under John Paul II, the Holy See abandoned its “evenhandedness” in dealing with Communism and the capitalist West. With earlier popes, the Church, says NCR, “tried to remain ‘equidistant’ between Stalinism and ‘the free world.’” (The quotes around “free world” are worth noting.) John Paul II, on the other hand, thought that, between totalitarianism and freedom, the Church’s witness and influence should be on the side of freedom, and the editors of NCR will not forgive him for that alleged deviation from papal policy. Pope John XXIII, they say, was able to “talk with both sides” in the global conflict. “He believed that the Soviets might actually become more human if you treated them in human fashion. He has been vindicated.” (The reader will be forgiven for reading that statement more than twice in the hope of extracting from it something that approximates intelligibility.)
The Time account of the “holy alliance” is, all in all, celebratory. For NCR the story is the political equivalent of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. The former is hype and the latter is hysteria. As best we can judge, the truth is that John Paul II and Ronald Reagan shared an understanding of the evil and the vulnerability of the Communist tyranny, and, each in his appropriate sphere of influence, acted courageously to bring that tyranny to an end. As a consequence, the world is a much, much safer place for freedom and other human goods. Of course the decisive factor, lamentably missing from almost all the discussions of these events, is Providence.
While We’re At It
♦ With “Human Sexuality and the Christian Faith,” the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) may be heading for a donnybrook similar to that which rocked the Presbyterians (USA) a while back. So says Pastor Leonard Klein of York, Pennsylvania, writing in Forum Letter. He and many others are of the view that the study document sent out by the ELCA has very little to do with the Christian faith and a great deal to do with dehumanizing patterns of sexuality. In language that has become tediously familiar in such documents, the study says that Christians must “dialogue with Scripture,” and then goes on to assert that “we need to listen to the cries, fears, and joys of people” who have problems with what for many centuries were thought to be (mistakenly, it seems) Christian ethics. The most sensible thing to do, Klein concludes, is to chuck the entire enterprise.
“As is so often the case in contemporary biblical interpretation, no forest ever comes into focus from among the trees. It would, if we remembered that the authoritative witness of the whole canon of Scripture provides our direction. From the creation story to the splendid vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven as a bride adorned to meet her groom, the Bible assumes the glory and the norm of the heterosexual co-humanity of our kind. It calls the faithful to different vocations: some to sexual love of one who is disturbingly other and to the attendant parenting of children, others to the vocation of celibate service to the community and the Kingdom without those joys or burdens.
“Now, we’re sinners and we mess this up right well, just like everything else. The ecstatic power and pleasure of sex are more than most of us can handle well. We sin. The church must deal pastorally and graciously with those whose struggle with eros does not go by the book. We provide the support, counsel, aid, and comfort of the church to those who have been damaged by the tortuous complexity, sins, and abuses for which our sexuality provide occasion. As forgiven sinners, we occasionally have a good laugh about the whole thing. This is not all that hard, folks. We didn’t need a self-important task force to teach us this. In point of fact we didn’t need the task force at all. We had all we needed already, lacking only the guts and brains to use it. The test now will be to see whether the church, particularly its ordained leadership and its bishops, will summon the courage and insight to reject the study and to do the right thing. Once again the right thing would be to ‘just say thanks’ to the committee and send them home. And to fire the prime movers.”
♦ The editors of a book that we briefly noted in a recent issue have taken us to task, and deservedly so. The book is Political Order and the Pluralistic Structure of Society, edited by James W. Skillen and Rockne M. McCarthy, and published by Scholars Press. The briefly noted was misleading on two scores. While the anthology does include substantial and welcome material from the Abraham Kuyper tradition of religious and social thought, it is by no means limited to that. Two additional sections of the book include a wide representation of readings in other Protestant as well as Roman Catholic social thought. Moreover, the price of the 421-page paperback edition is $24.95, not $34.95, which is not at all bad as books are priced today. In sum, we hope the editors will accept our apologies and others will accept our recommendation of this volume for libraries and for classroom teachers looking for a fine reader in Christian social thought.
♦ Hollywood continues to do its part to promote euthanasia in the form of “physician-assisted suicide.” A while back, for instance, there was the ABC film, “Last Wish,” in which a daughter (Patty Duke) lovingly helps her mother (Maureen Stapleton) to kill herself. Despite enormous hoopla, the program did not even make the top twenty in the Nielson ratings, which may suggest that most Americans have a healthy resistance to having ideological indoctrination forced upon them. (Aside: A recent PBS documentary on Edward R. Murrow declared that “he had responsibility for the largest classroom in America.” The hubris of such an assertion, that a nation of children is sitting at their feet awaiting instruction, apparently does not occur to the masters of the media.) In “Last Wish” the doctors and hospital staff are depicted as heartless technicians who care about nothing more than medically indicated “survival” at whatever cost to the patient. Richard Doerflinger of the United States Catholic Conference comments: “Ironically, however, the movie itself suggests one argument against legalizing physician-assisted suicide. If most physicians are anything like the insensitive brutes in this film, we shouldn’t trust them to change the oil in our cars, let alone put new powers over life and death in their hands. But logic doesn’t amount to much in the entertainment/propaganda business.”
♦ In a recent issue we referred in passing to the 30 million or more Catholics who attend Mass each week. Some folk who are in the religion numbers-crunching business tell us that, while nobody knows for sure, the figure is probably closer to 20 million. Thirty million plus, they say, would be accurate for monthly attendance. We have not counted recently and so are in no position to argue.
♦ Publishers Weekly reviews, favorably, a book on the Gulf war that is titled George Bush’s War. The author is described as one “who seems to have no political ax to grind.” As we read on, we discover that his “findings” are “familiar but alarming.” For “personal and political motives [Bush] dragged a reluctant military with him into war, played politics with Congress over the right to launch a war—and clearly exceeded his constitutional role in the process.” The legacy of the war is disastrous, and it was all so unnecessary, for the author contends that Saddam “would have bargained a solution had Bush not kept insulting him and elevating him to a monster.” The thing worth pondering is that the editors of Publishers Weekly probably do believe that the author has no political ax to grind, that he is simply giving an evenhanded account of the self-evidently true.
♦ James Wall, editor of Christian Century, flirts with the incorrect in a reflection on an article by Irving Kristol. Wall writes, “In the manner of fellow neoconservatives Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, Kristol tends to have much greater confidence in the American Way than the biblical prophetic tradition permits. But to their credit, these three have consistently stood as enemies of secularism, the dominant faith of our culture.” Why, thank you, Jim. But please, just how much confidence in the American Way does the biblical prophetic tradition permit?
♦ The Baltimore Declaration is stirring a salutary stir among Episcopalians. It is a ringing affirmation of theological, moral, and missional truths that once identified what was called “the Christian tradition.” Episcopalians all over the country are signing it by the thousands, and some have, rather ecumenically, called it a new 95 Theses. It seems the drafters of the declaration think the church should be at least as open to answers as to questions, and might even consider giving faith equal pulpit time with doubt. Where such revolutionary ideas are likely to take the church nobody knows, but Episcopalians (and others whose churches exhibit similar symptoms) could do worse than write Fr. Alvin Kimel (12701 Hall Shop Rd., Highland, MD 20777) and ask for a copy of the Baltimore Declaration. Be polite and send a dollar for his trouble.
♦ Perhaps more so than among us, our British cousins are having little moments of truth in the aftermath of Communism’s demise. In the London Sunday Telegraph, David Sexton reports on some public discussions. “Martin Jacques, editor of the recently extinguished journal Marxism Today, was struggling to find words adequate to the collapse of his life’s work. He left the Communist Party last week, he admitted, after the revelations that the KGB had been funding it. ‘This came as an enormous shock, to me,’ he claimed. ‘If I’d ever suspected that that had been the case, I wouldn’t have been a member.’” Then there is the case of Eric Hobsbawm, an intellectual stalwart of the left for many years. The chairman asked him very delicately, “I don’t want to put you on the spot about this, Eric . . . but you are in a special position as having been a lifelong Communist and having your intellectual reputation [at stake]. It would be very interesting to hear one or two personal reflections from you about the situation as you now see it.” Sexton reports: “At length Hobsbawm crept, gracelessly, up to an admission that the Communist system had been ‘fundamentally flawed—because, if you like, of the absence of, not just the market but, if you like . . . well, let’s put it like this, freedom.’“ We like. The same week that we read that public television here had a somewhat less than candid program lionizing American Communists of the 1940s and 1950s and their fellow travelers as the persecuted idealists of liberalism in a hurry.
♦ Boston University, at the instigation of its president, John Silber, has assumed management responsibilities for the Chelsea School District. One thing the School District decided to do was to distribute condoms to high school students in order to save lives threatened by AIDS. Edwin J. Delattre, dean of BU’s School of Education, gave a speech urging that the decision be reversed. In the course of his remarks he cited the following report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Dr. Theresa Crenshaw, a member of the national AIDS Commission and past president of American Association of Sex Education Counselors and Therapists told a Washington conference of having addressed an international meeting of 800 sexologists: ‘Most of them,’ she said, ‘recommended condoms to their clients and students. I asked them if they had available the partner of their dreams, and knew that person carried the virus, would they have sex, depending on a condom for protection? No one raised their hand. After a long delay, one timid hand surfaced from the back of the room. I told them that it was irresponsible to give advice to others that they would not follow themselves. The point is, putting a mere balloon between a healthy body and a deadly disease is not safe.’” Delattre comments: “I want all of our students in Chelsea to know what is at stake here—and, above all, what lies in their power alone, not ours, to accomplish decisively in the way of saving lives. I want them to know that betting your life—or letting someone else bet your life—on a condom is a gamble that only one in eight hundred experts on sexual behavior is willing to risk, and that if our own students behave otherwise, they make a mockery of their stated commitment, expressed over and over again in this room, to saving lives. And I want all the students who have taken it upon themselves to distribute condoms in Chelsea High School to know that this is the gamble they have invited their classmates to take—and this, in a community where health officials themselves express fear over current levels of AIDS in the population.” (For a copy of the complete address, write Dean Delattre, School of Education, Boston University, 605 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215.)
♦ Controversy continues over Georgetown University’s officially sponsoring a pro-abortion campus organization, “GU Choice.” A number of Catholics petitioned James Cardinal Hickey of Washington, D.C, to lift the university’s credentials as a “Catholic” institution, and the Cardinal has apparently passed that question on to Rome. Georgetown’s president, Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan, defends the school’s policy by arguing, inter alia, that the university supports other enterprises with which it disagrees, such as programs in Judaic and Islamic studies. The analogy, one might gently suggest, does not hear close examination. Meanwhile, other Catholic institutions are responding differently. The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, also a Jesuit school, has firmly turned down a student request that a pro-abortion group receive official sponsorship. After affirming the importance of “intelligent discussion and debate on issues such as abortion,” the administration declared: “Nevertheless, Holy Cross wishes publicly to affirm and hear witness to Catholic Christianity’s longstanding insight that all human life is sacred in the mystery of its origins and that abortion thus cannot he condoned . . . . The College, therefore, will not grant official recognition to any organization that seeks to or is perceived to advance a right to abortion, nor will it allow College funds to he used to such purpose.” The conclusion is preceded by some curious ponderings about the need for the school “to be faithful to two important intellectual traditions”—that of the modern Enlightenment and that of Christian faith. (One might suggest that the idea of a Christian university encompasses what is legitimate in the Enlightenment, thereby making it part of the Christian tradition.) Nonetheless, a confused preface did not get in the way of a lucid decision that unabashedly declares that bearing witness is part of what it means to he a Catholic, even a Jesuit, school.
♦ So why do some readers get more than one First Things promotion piece in the mail? (Some report getting three or four.) If you already are a subscriber, you shouldn’t be getting any invitations to subscribe. We will not bore you with the technical reasons why there are complications. (The editors don’t quite understand it themselves, although our very competent publication manager says it can’t be helped.) But we do have a most definite suggestion about what to do with extra invitations to subscribe: pass them on to friends who should subscribe.
Sources: Liberty magazine on the New World Order and the Pope, November/December 1991. On condom distribution in schools. New York Times, January 30, 1992. On collaboration between the Pope and the Reagan Administration, National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 1992. Leonard Klein on ELCA sexuality report, Lutheran Forum, February 3, 1992. Richard Doerflinger on doctor-assisted suicide in National Right to Life News, February 4, 1992. James Wall on American neoconservatives in Christian Century, October 16, 1991. David Sexton on British Communists in the Sunday Telegraph, December 1, 1991. On GU Choice, Crossroads, November/December 1991, published by Holy Cross.