The Public Square
La Revanche de Dieu was the French title and it caused something of a stir there. Here the book by Giles Kepel is called The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World (Pennsylvania State University Press, $35). We were struck by this comment in the Economist: “In the contentious admixture of politics and religion, Mr. Kepel is most unusual in not seeking to press a particular view, still less to win converts for any religion or none. . . . And he is persuasive when he concludes that, for better and worse, the political influence of religion will be much greater than it has been in the recent past, not least because today’s religious activists are better educated, better off, and more articulate than yesterday’s.” It is but one of many such comments in recent years, often from unlikely sources and usually expressed in uneasy tones. The assumed link between modernity and secularization did not hold. History is not turning out the way we were educated to think it would. Religion is back, and in a very big way.
There is something to what the Economist says about the educational factor, no doubt. On the world scene there are today more well-educated and articulate Muslims than was the case, say, forty years ago. Well-educated and articulate, that is, in Western terms, which enables them to more confidently challenge the hegemony of secular liberal ideas generated by the West. Here in the U.S., the Economist‘s generalization would apply to Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, both of whom were more marginal—some say ghettoized—forty years ago. On the other hand, there were hosts of well-educated, well-off, and articulate religious activists of oldline Protestantism in the past. If religion did not seem to be politically influential (i.e., politically intrusive) then, it is likely because oldline activism was basically in sync with what secular liberalism defined as progress. The civil rights movement that segued into the anti-Vietnam War movement and then into sundry movements of what used to be called the counterculture is the outstanding case in point.
In the current culture wars over everything from abortion to homosexual rights and parental choice in education, however, religious activism is typically contrary to the elite liberal idea of progress. Therefore it is perceived that “the political influence of religion is greater.” Religion in this context means culturally conservative religion. Liberal religious activism is by no means dead, although its institutional base has been weakened by the continuing decline of the oldline churches. But such activism is not very visible; it is not likely to occasion comments about the growing influence of religion in public life. In oldline Protestantism, the demise of Christianity and Crisis last year was a significant sign. The Christian Century picked up its shrunken subscription list, but seems disinclined to pick up its banner of more or less uncritical leftism. Among Catholics, the National Catholic Reporter appears to do well, being packed with advertisements for courses and institutes pressing sixtiesh agendas that otherwise show up nowhere on the American political screen. The audience may be ageing, but the NCR academic and catechetical networks are constant. Others may want to debate whether that is a case of keeping the faith or being stuck in a time warp.
On the Left
Outside the churches in which it is based, religious activism on the left does not get much attention these days for a number of reasons. One reason is that the advocacy of the oldline church-and-society curia (among, for example, Presbyterians USA, United Methodists, Episcopalians, and ELCA Lutherans) is not readily distinguishable from the positions advanced by, say, the editorial board of the New York Times or from the conventional wisdom in the faculty lounges of the nation’s colleges and universities. In such elite centers of opinion and influence, what the oldline churches have to say is neither threatening nor very interesting. That was not always the case. Thirty and more years ago—with respect to civil rights, Vietnam, and various social agitations—religious activism was seen to play an important part in providing moral legitimation for movements of change. One thinks of groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, and about individuals such as the Berrigan brothers, William Sloane Coffin, and, in a category by himself, Martin Luther King, Jr. For anyone under forty, these are all names from the olden days.
It might be argued that one reason the religious left seems inconsequential, even nonexistent, is that the secular left no longer needs it. What in the 1960s was called “the long march through the institutions” has now been accomplished, and yesterday’s revolutionaries have become, without changing their minds about much of importance, today’s establishment. This new “correlation of forces” (as the Marxists used to say) should not be exaggerated. The long march has largely triumphed in the media, the universities, the big foundations, the liberal churches, and much of the business elite. Those are impressive conquests, to be sure, but even in those worlds the conquest is not total. And those worlds do not control our political culture, as is evident in the continuing ascendancy of conservatism in our public life. To speak of such an ascendancy assumes, of course, that the presidential election of 1992 was a fluke in which the winning candidate, although presenting himself as a conservative Democrat, received fewer votes than Michael Dukakis in 1988, and now appears to be anything but ascendant.
But back to religious activism and why we hear incessantly about the religious right but almost never about the religious left. In most political and cultural analyses, the religious left does not figure because it is no longer important to the establishmentarian left; it is superfluous. There is no felt need for its moral legitimation, if indeed it is capable of providing such. Thirty years ago, the editorial pages of the prestige media referred respectfully to pronouncements by, for example, the National Council of Churches. That simply does not happen today. Many editorialists are probably not aware that there is something called the National Council of Churches. As Stanley Rothman and others have suggested, that may be because of a growing indifference to religion among media elites. But one notes that the same elites are keenly aware of, hysterically aware of, the religious right. The religious left is still very much there, but it does not threaten and it does not offer anything that the culture elites view as substantively or strategically valuable. There are one or two exceptions. The homosexual movement, which is now securely ensconced in large sectors of the elite, does seek moral legitimation from the religious left in the form of ordaining active gays and blessing same-sex unions. And some liberal churches stil provide moral cover for the unlimited abortion license. Other exceptions do not come readily to mind.
In his insightful study Representing God, sociologist Allen Hertzke analyzes the ways in which churches of all varieties can be effective “mediating institutions” by giving their members a voice in the American polity, and also by interpreting public debates to their own constituencies. But on the most critical issue in our culture wars, namely abortion, there is an important disparity between left and right. Hertzke notes that conservative religious lobbies generally take a stronger pro-life position than their constituencies, while liberal lobbies are more strongly pro-choice than their supporters. The important disparity is this: conservative denominations represent their most active and most committed members in taking a strong pro-life position; liberal denominations, taking a strong pro-choice position, are representing the view of their least active and least committed members. American Baptists are pro-choice and Southern Baptists are pro-life, but an active American Baptist is more likely to be pro-life than a less active Southern Baptist. The same pattern holds for Catholics, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Lutherans, and apparently everybody else. The crucial factor is participation; the more a church member is active and committed, the more likely that person will be pro-life. And the divide over abortion is far and away the most important defining line with respect to other agitated questions in our public life.
What is perceived as the growing influence of religion in our public life is probably real enough. But the perception is heightened by the fact that the religion getting attention is the religion that challenges the status quo, namely, the “religious right.” Conservatives will continue to complain, and understandably so, that it is unfair for the media to keep on talking about the religious right while almost never mentioning the religious left. But the unfairness, if unfairness it be, will likely continue. For the reasons discussed above, in the view of those who shape the media story lines the religious left does not matter. It makes little or no substantive contribution in terms of ideas or moral legitimacy; and it has long since been evident that its constituency is typically the least committed of the churches most in decline. To paraphrase Stalin: How many divisions does the religious left have? Unlike Stalin’s colossal misjudgment of the pope, that seems a reasonable question.
One might ask whether we have not reached a sorry state when religion is discussed in terms of divisions for fighting political and cultural wars. That is an excellent question, and the answer is that we have reached the sorry state when such discussion is inescapable. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton has carefully examined the ways in which the major church bodies are riddled through and through with the polarized politics of our society. The politicizing of religion and the religionizing of politics go hand in hand. One can understand the complaint that it was the liberals who started it: back in the 1960s, back in the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s, back in the social gospel movement of the late nineteenth century. Now, the conservatives say, the religious left is discovering that two can play at the game of politics. And there does seem to be a kind of rough justice in that way of looking at matters. Rough justice and great danger.
Keeping Politics in its Place
Because politics is a function of culture and at the heart of culture is morality and at the heart of morality is religion, there is a necessary and unavoidable interaction between politics and religion. But the conflation of politics and religion is the death of authentic politics and the death of authentic religion. In the Christian account of things, politics deals with the penultimate, with proximate justice in a fallen world where we await the right ordering of all things in the genuinely new politics of the Kingdom Come. Faith attends to transcendent truth that encompasses and informs our earthly tasks, including politics, but can never be taken captive to such tasks. The conflation of politics and religion that results in religionized politics cannot help but seem threatening, not only to secularists but to Christians and Jews who understand the modesty and fragility of the political project. It cannot help but appear as “La Revanche de Dieu,” a sword of vengeance wielded by those who presume to act as punishing angels of the Lord.
We have little doubt that the political influence of religion will come in for increasing attention in the years ahead. Alternative plausibility structures (as Peter Berger calls them) have collapsed or are collapsing. The comatose state of secular liberal theory will not likely be reversed by the desperate efforts of John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and their like. Secularists such as Richard Rorty and his friends have long been doing their ironic jig on liberalism’s grave. And outside academic covens of impenetrable nostalgia, the quasi-religious worldview of Marxist socialism, once so uncritically embraced, is being forgotten with embarrassed haste. New ideologies will emerge, no doubt. As Orwell observed, there seems to be almost no limit to what intellectuals can invent to believe. But for the foreseeable future it seems to be the case, as it has not been the case for more than two hundred years, that the only plausibility structures left standing are religious. More precisely, religion—notably the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—offer the only comprehensive belief systems that command the allegiance of hundreds of millions of people and propose, however confusedly, a direction toward the right ordering of the world.
This is not an unqualifiedly good thing, nor is it to say that religion is unchallenged. The challenges are legion and have many names: unfaith, bad faith, hedonism, hubris, and nihilism. In addition, a credible case can be made that technology and science have become quasi-religious belief systems that will, as Jacques Ellul and others have warned, undo the human project—and that sooner rather than later. And of course the ascendancy of religion is not an unqualifiedly good thing because religion, as a human enterprise, is as riddled with corruption and potential for evil as any other enterprise of sinful humanity. In some ways the dangers are greater with religion. Religion’s invocation of absolute authority can excite fanaticism, and can exclude critical challenges just as rigorously as religion itself has frequently been excluded from public discourse in the modern era.
Although there is no way of avoiding that danger altogether, three observations are in order. First, the capacity for ideological craziness seems to be a permanent feature of the human condition. Second, the primary instances in the modern world of such craziness turning murderously mad have been fanatically antireligious in character, from the Great Terror of the French Revolution to Marxism-Leninism and Nazism in this century. Third, when religion degenerates into ideology—becoming a set of ideas in the service of political power—the resources for correction are found within religion itself. This is notably true of the prophetically self-critical tradition of the Bible and, in the Christian rendering of reality, of the cross as the definitive judgment upon earthly pretensions to power.
Cause of Freedom, Claims of Truth
So where does this leave us with respect to the widespread and growing anxiety about the political influence of religion? We cannot tell the anxious that there is nothing to worry about. There is a great deal to worry about in terms of the debasement of both religion and politics. Not only can we agree with the anxious that there is much to be anxious about, but we must caution enthusiastic religionists that their ascendancy cannot be unambiguously equated with the will of God and the advancement of the common good. At the same time, it is surely cause for thanksgiving that the great spasms of militant secularism seem to be exhausting themselves, at least for now. The third millennium portends a continuing resurgence of religion’s public potency, especially in the case of Islam and Christianity. On the world scene, Islam is not monolithic. The trick is to nurture and encourage those Muslim developments that are compatible with and can even strengthen the achievements of democratic pluralism, achievements that owe a great debt to liberalism.
Elsewhere, the public resurgence of religion marks a new chapter in a very long Christian story of trying to figure out the right relationship between Church and culture, Christ and Caesar, the city of God and the city of man. There is no reason to assume that this or the next generation is going to get that relationship any more nearly correct than did the Christians at the time of Theodosius, Charlemagne, or Jonathan Edwards. When Jesus said His followers were to be in but not of the world He was proposing a conundrum that awaits eschatological resolution. Meanwhile, we have no choice but to work at getting it right, or at least at getting it less wrong than we often have in the past. Among Christians, it seems that the larger part of that work will have to be done by Catholics and evangelical Protestants. This is a reality boldly faced by the declaration “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” published in the May issue.
In this country, the pattern of “convergence and cooperation” affirmed in that declaration will continue to be referred to by some, with fear and loathing, as “the religious right.” One hopes that more will come to recognize that the political reengagement of religiously inspired citizens and their call to greater moral reflectiveness about how we ought to live together is a sign of the rejuvenation of a democratic experiment returned to its founding presuppositions. “We hold these truths” was the beginning of the conversation that launched this experiment, and it should now be obvious to all that the experiment cannot be sustained by a secular liberalism that divorced the cause of freedom from the claims of truth. Those who now fear publicly resurgent religion will in time, one hopes, come to recognize that freedom grounded in moral truth provides a greater security for virtues cherished by old-fashioned liberals—openness, rationality, tolerance, and mutual respect. But that may take a long time.
Meanwhile, the culture war will be prosecuted, whether we like it or not. And the question of abortion—the question of who belongs to the community that is protected in law and life—will continue to be at the center of the many battles of the culture war. The more strident defenders of the status quo will continue to rail against the “religious right,” and invoke the “separation of church and state,” by which they mean the separation of religion and religiously based moral judgment from public life. One can predict with absolute certainty that there will continue to be excesses by religious activists that will warrant the most robust railing. But all things considered, the continuing resurgence of publicly potent religion seems all but inevitable. As aforesaid, that is not unqualifiedly good news; and we are well reminded that history is notorious for playing surprises both cruel and benign. If the culture war and the political influence of religion work out along the lines here suggested, however, one hopes that those who welcome and those who fear this development will come to recognize it not as the revenge but as the mercy of God.
We Superior Few
“Radicals are the ones who first protest, liberals are the ones who join them when their protest has begun to be heard, and conservatives accept or at least live with what the liberals finally win.” So far Joseph Fletcher, he of “situation ethics” fame, in a autobiographical sketch written shortly before his death in 1991. When he was young, he was “an ideologue and doctrinaire, which took shape in two guises, Socialist and Christian. The first to die out was the socialism, then the Christianity.” What never died out was the smugness, although he does not put it quite that way.
Looking back on his contributions to biomedical ethics, he writes: “I have seen legal and medical triumphs for such ‘radical’ innovative practices as artificial insemination and inovulation, in vitro fertilization (test tube babies), genetic engineering, brain-death statutes, germ and embryo freezing, the patient’s right to know, transsexualization, and DNA splitting and recombination. We have won the wars for voluntary abortion and sterilization and will soon have completed the roster of states with right-to-die laws. All these things and more, in both categories, were radical by definition and by general sentiment, and yet all of them have been won. Let it not be said that radicals are ineffective—only that they tend to pay a lot personally for what they gain, as liberals do not—at least comparatively.”
Not, in fact, that Mr. Fletcher, a comfortably ensconced Episcopalian clergyman (which he remained to the end of his life, long after his Christianity “died out”) and tenured professor at the University of Virginia, ever had to pay that much for his radicalism. Of his life he writes: “It was good, all of it. I knew many people, of all kinds and stations, in many parts of the world; had an exciting intellectual life, a superb family; lived in pleasant homes almost always, some of them beautiful; and our children had the great advantage of top-grade schooling and friends.”
The above is from Joseph Fletcher: Memoir of an Ex-Radical, a new book of essays in appreciation of Fletcher edited by Kenneth Vaux and issued by Westminster/John Knox Press. Fletcher’s putative achievements in biomedical ethics are by no means so secure as he assumed. And, far from having the courage to be radical, his life’s work was one of going with the flow of technological ambition and moral permissiveness. His autobiographical reflection confirms the impression of an affably arrogant man who was born to a life of privilege and security and never had the wit to recognize that he had cast his lot with the barbarians who were willing to make him a minor celebrity in exchange for lending his prestige to their project of destroying the world from which he so richly benefited. May God have mercy on his soul.
Protestantism Then and Now
“Traditional Protestantism lived off of the Catholic elements in its own reality; its bishops stood in historical connection with the bishops of the Catholic age; its liturgical worship kept close to the Roman mass; its confessions reaffirmed the dogmatic truths of the ecumenical councils, and claimed to be teaching nothing new; it emphatically rejected heresies old and new.” That was then and this is now, says Carl Braaten, director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology in Northfield, Minnesota. Writing in Lutheran Forum, Braaten says that Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it right in the 1930s when he observed that Protestantism in America had never experienced the Reformation. “It has been given to Americans less than any other people in the world to achieve the visible unity of the church of God on earth,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “It has been given to Americans more than any other people in the world to manifest a pluralism of Christian beliefs and denominations.”
“Anything (or almost anything) goes” has long been the motto of American Protestantism, according to Bonhoeffer and Braaten. Harold Bloom got a large part of it right, says Braaten, when he wrote in The American Religion (1992) that the religion of Americans has been historically and is today gnosticism. Against tradition, canon, communal structure, or anything that looks like external authority, the gnostic follows his real or imagined star, believing that “at the apex of every human soul there exists a spark of the light of God.” In the past, says Braaten, the ravages of gnosticism were held in check by denominational institutions and habits that were recognized as being more or less authoritative, plus an engrained sense of accountability to Scripture and historical orthodoxy. Not now. What is to be done? Some, Braaten says, will take the road to Rome or Orthodoxy. Some might try to reconstitute a traditional Protestantism by defining themselves, in the mode of the sixteenth century, in opposition to Catholicism. But after Vatican II, he suggests, that makes no theological sense. Braaten does have a proposal:
“We may look for paths of renewal that move through and across the denominations, working for a common future in which Christians and churches will visibly confess the one apostolic faith in one eucharistic fellowship. We will be wise to look for allies wherever we can find them, and not go fishing only in Lutheran fjords. This is an ecumenical road, and as such not a new one, but one whose plausibility and relevance are seriously being questioned by those taking other roads. Whether one is Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Methodist or something else does not matter much in terms of the current struggle for the basic biblical contents of faith, the authority of dogma and confession, and fidelity to the Gospel in eucharistic fellowship. While the ecclesial substance of the Protestant denominations is dissolving into the poisoned gruel of the American Religion, whether on the fundamentalist right or the progressivist left, there are struggle groups within each dedicated to the renewal of the Evangelical and Catholic elements inherent in the originating impulses of the various Protestant traditions. There may have been some wild reformers who intended to start a Bible church without catholic substance, but Luther, Calvin, and Wesley were not among them. Nevertheless, in all the churches that bear their stamp, there has been a diminution of catholic substance and orthodox doctrine coupled with a syncretistic amalgamation of neo-pagan elements.”
In their article, “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline” (FT, March 1993), Benton Johnson and colleagues made a compelling case that the heart of the crisis is the failure to transmit the faith in a way that elicits the allegiance of the successor generation. Braaten agrees with the sociological analysis of Johnson et al., but focuses attention on the fact that there is no shared understanding of what is the faith that is to be transmitted. The crisis of Protestantism is a perennial topic, and it is always in order to caution against crisis-mongering. But from the modernist controversies of the early part of this century, through the analyses of such as H. Richard Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the 1930s, up to the likes of Bloom and Braaten today, there is a continuum of reflection on a Protestantism that has apparently lost its reason for being. This has been going on for almost a century now. There was a brief break, a resurgence of theological confidence and excitement, represented by Reinhold Niebuhr and, most notably, by Karl Barth. But that was decades ago and now looks like no more than a momentary deviance from the theme of decline and dissolution.
Of course in all the oldline liberal denominations one can find congregations that are enclaves of vibrant faith and life in earnest conversation with orthodox Christianity. Then too, the sundry liberationisms from authority that Braaten and others deplore undoubtedly do provide spiritual excitements for many people. But such a diverse religious marketplace merely confirms Harold Bloom’s observations about gnosticism and Bonhoeffer’s doleful reflections about degenerate pluralism. To be sure, there are evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants who believe that they are not embroiled in the crisis because the old-time religion is secured by a nineteenth-century Protestant dogma of biblical inerrancy. That way is not available to the communities that chiefly concern Braaten. There is a problem with scriptural authority but, agreeing with New Testament scholar Martin Kahler, Braaten insists that it cannot be resolved without addressing the question of the Church. He writes:
“Another matter of high priority must be the recovery of the authority of Scripture. The teaching of the Bible in theological schools is in the grip of gnosticism, the belief that it is necessary to appeal away from the plain sense of Scripture to a higher knowledge that lies above or behind the text. The aim of biblical studies is to put students ‘in the know’ so that they will be privy to an esoteric knowledge that even most intelligent and educated folks cannot get from their reading of the Scriptures in Hebrew, Greek, or English. The effect is paralysis on those not privy to this higher knowledge. The newly initiated are in bondage to their masters and cite their authority. Often their opinions stand in stark opposition to the biblical foundations of the classical dogmatics of the church, whether in their witness to the triune God, the Divine-Human Person of Jesus Christ, and so forth.
“The result is an ‘ugly broad ditch’ (Lessing) between dogmatics that teaches what the church believes (lex orandi lex credendi) and exegesis that is obedient to the ‘papacy of sophisticated scholarship’ (Martin Kahler). A deep hiatus runs through every seminary curriculum, as every somewhat alert student will discover in short order. The authority of the Bible is not autonomous. When people cease to believe in the church, they will soon cease to believe in the church’s Book. We can hardly imagine that the huge hiatus between exegesis and dogmatics will give way to a greater unity of theology until the divided churches resolve their differences into a greater unity of the church. For the Bible by itself, as Ernst Kasemann said, can be invoked to support a multiplicity of confessions. If the Bible as a whole and in all its parts is not also read backwards in light of the Holy Spirit at work in the early catholic church and subsequently, the Bible will have no more authority than any other primitive document from antiquity.”
Pluralism and Wrong Answers
Because the U.S. Census does not ask about religion, we must rely upon other sources to know how Americans identify themselves religiously. Especially valuable in this connection was a nationwide survey conducted by the City University of New York, the results of which are now brought together in One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society by Barry A. Kosman and Seymour P. Lachman (Harmony). One reason commonly given for the exclusion or muting of religion in our public life is that we are now a “pluralistic” society in which it cannot be assumed that, for instance, the Judeo-Christian ethic is broadly shared. The Kosman-Lachman findings make complete hash of that contention, and it is worth noting that their findings are confirmed by Gallup and other studies.
Statistically at least, America is as much a Christian nation as it ever was, and perhaps more so. Of all Americans, 86.2 percent identify themselves as Christian, with all but 14 percent of those claiming to belong to a specific denomination. Jews are 1.8 percent, which is moved up to 2.2 percent if one counts those who say they are cultural or ethnic, but not religious, Jews. All the other religions put together (Muslim, Unitarian, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American, Sikh, etc.) account for 1.5 percent of the population, while 8.2 percent of Americans say they have no religion. According to these studies, there are 1.5 million Muslims, with 40 percent of them being native black Americans.
The allegedly “exploding” Muslim population is frequently cited by those who contend for the religio-cultural balkanization of America. Muslim organizations claim figures as high as seven million, and these claims are often cited in news stories. For perfectly understandable reasons, minority groups tend to inflate their figures, a relatively innocent vice except when it plays into the hands of those with a more dubious agenda. In this case the dubious agenda is to relegate Christian views to a marginal status in public discourse. Of course many Christians are no more than nominal, and of course there is no one view held by Christians on a host of disputed questions, and of course a hundred other important qualifications. But one of the most elementary facts about America is that its people are overwhelmingly Christian in their own understanding, and that they and many who are not Christian assume that the moral baseline of the society is the Judeo-Christian ethic. Acknowledging that does not answer the many questions that vex our public life, but to ignore it is a guaranteed formula for getting the wrong answers.
Questions Hard and Soft
It seems a long time ago that political theorists and policy wonks confidently declared that the hard realities of social behavior were economic and power relationships, while things such as culture, values, beliefs, and communal ties were soft and squishy. That simply reflects the fact that the harder questions, the questions we find it hard to deal with, we dismiss as soft, while those matters that we can more easily count and control we call hard. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago that public policy types were still playing that trick. Some readers will no doubt remember the slogan of the Clinton campaign in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Few things now sound more stupid when the economy s more or less in order while the Clinton Administration is awash in questions of character, values, and cultural conflict. All those soft questions that are really hard.
The Brookings Institute has brought out Values and Public Policy (edited by Henry J. Aaron et al.), and a fine book it is. But it is a little cloying to have Brookings congratulating itself on the discovery that, outside the public policy and academic elites, there is a real America where values matter. It is good that Brookings has caught up, but they are playing catch-up to Heritage and other think tanks that long since discovered the facts of life that most Americans had taken for granted all along. But this is no time to be churlish. Values and Public Policy has a number of excellent essays, notably those by James Q. Wilson on the underclass, David Popenoe on the family, and Nathan Glazer on multiculturalism. (Although between Glazer and Arthur Schlesinger on multiculturalism in the schools, Schlesinger does seem to see the dangers more acutely.)
Wilson emerges from his stunningly detailed study of the evidence with some definite conclusions about what ought to be done. “Our object ought to be to increase the number of urban young men who marry and remain married. Of all the institutions through which people may pass—schools, employers, the military—marriage has the largest effect. For every race and at every age, married men live longer than unmarried men and have lower rates of homicide, suicide, accidents, and mental illness. Crime rates are lower for married than unmarried men and incomes are higher. It is less likely for drug dealers to be married than for young men who are not dealers. Infant mortality rates are higher for unmarried than for married women, whether black or white, and these differences cannot be explained by differences in income or availability of medical care. So substantial is this difference that an unmarried woman with a college education is more likely to have her infant die than is a married woman with less than a high school education.”
“Something must be done about this,” responds the concerned citizen, echoing the New York Times editorial page, both having in mind some new government program backed by substantial funding to demonstrate that we’re serious. Not so fast, says Wilson: “The federal government is a powerful but clumsy giant, not very adept at identifying, evaluating, and encouraging individuals who need help. It is good at passing laws, transferring funds, and multiplying regulations. These are necessary functions, but out of place in the realm of personal redemption. A government program to foster personal redemption will come equipped with standardized budgets, buy-America rules, minority set-asides, quarterly reporting requirements, and environmental impact statements and, in all likelihood, a thinly disguised bias against any kind of involvement with churches. There may be a better way: public funds sent to private foundations that in turn do the identifying, evaluating, and encouraging, all on the basis of carefully negotiated charters that free these intermediaries from most governmental constraints. I have no example to cite, but people who wish to think seriously about changing the culture of poverty had better start inventing one.”
In fact, we think there are examples to cite, but that’s for another day. Today it is sufficient to welcome the Brookings Institute to the culture wars, and to warmly recommend Values and Public Policy.
Getting Real About Welfare
Sometimes it is called the cold turkey approach to welfare reform, and most commentators dismissed it as entirely too draconian. In recent months, however, Charles Murray has made remarkable headway in persuading people to look again at what he calls the single most important problem facing the country—out of wedlock births. One reason the climate has changed is that Murray has effectively emphasized that the problem is by no means limited to the urban, mostly black, underclass. In that sector of the population, the incidence of babies being born without the father accepting responsibility for the child is now above 80 percent of all births (for the black population as a whole, including middle class blacks, it is above 60 percent). Murray has caught attention by pointing out that there has also been a dramatic increase in white illegitimacy. The incidence of white women, mainly very young women, giving birth to children out of wedlock is now about what it was for black women thirty years ago. At the rate things are going, according to the Murray argument, the social and moral disaster of the urban underclass will in the foreseeable future become the social and moral disaster of American society as such.
The Murray analysis—if not the Murray prescription for dealing with the problem—is now widely accepted. Even the Clinton Administration is speaking in tones of urgency about the need to reduce teenage pregnancy and out of wedlock births. Of course some who talk that way have nothing more in mind than expanding sex education, handing out condoms, and encouraging girls to have abortions. The Murray prescription follows from the Murray analysis. The reason so many girls have been having babies on their own over the last decades is that it seems so easy, even attractive, to have a baby on your own. The welfare system is so designed as to encourage the practice. Young girls are understandably attracted to the idea of being independent, being given an apartment and income of their own, and having a baby to love and be loved by. All of this is made possible by AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), food stamps, medicaid, and related welfare benefits.
Only a little while ago, talk about out of wedlock births as a problem was condemned as “blaming the victim.” The chattering classes actually seemed enamored of the phenomenon, viewing it as another instance of the welcome emergence of “alternative forms of family.” That has changed in the last couple of years in the light of studies—confirming commonsensical expectations—that the consequences of fatherlessness are catastrophic for children. Not for all children without fathers, of course, but the chances are greatly multiplied that fatherless children will end up with lives marred by educational failure, unemployment and unemployability, drug addiction, and criminal behavior. Those with lives so marred have a strong tendency to mar the lives of others. At an early age the boys also become fathers of other fatherless children who repeat the same dismal cycle. There is now broad agreement on this general picture. As First Things author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote last year in the Atlantic, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” and those who had vilified Quayle for his comments on Murphy Brown and her baby nodded their heads in assent (without, for the most part, acknowledging that, if Dan Quayle was right, they were dead wrong).
The Murray prescription is to take away the incentives for irresponsibly bringing children into the world, and to replace them with powerful disincentives. More precisely, he proposes the elimination of welfare support for single mothers with children. The proposal has the charm of simplicity. On a given day it would be announced that nine months and a day from now there will be no AFDC for single women having a baby. There would be a grandmother clause, so to speak, for women and children already dependent on welfare, and provisions for extraordinary circumstances at the edges. But the basic proposition is unmistakably clear: If you have a baby that you can’t support, the government is not going support it for you; no free apartment, no income. In such a new dispensation, it is suggested, parents, families, churches, and others would have every reason to discourage children from having children. It might even bring back the legendary shotgun as an inducement for young men to marry the girls whom they “get in a family way.” Put differently, the government would withdraw the welfare incentive and leave it to families and communities to supply the informal disincentives that, in combination, would dramatically reduce the incidence of young women having babies that they cannot support.
A very major obstacle to this proposal is that some of its proponents seem all too relaxed about the prospect that it would increase the number of abortions. There is no reason, however, to assume that an increase in abortions is either necessary or probable. The proposal imaginatively designed and presented could change attitudes not only toward having babies but also toward sexual behavior (the two are, to all but some intellectuals, inseparably related). The desired change is from sex understood in terms of recreation and kicks to sex understood in terms of responsibility and consequences.
No reform is likely to affect the desire of young men to copulate with young women. Women, however, can be given support in saying no. Under the present welfare system, she asks, “What if I get pregnant?” He says, “Maybe I’ll marry you and support the baby. If not, you can have the baby, go on welfare, and get your own apartment. Or you can have an abortion.” Under the proposed reform, the answer is very different. It’s either marrying her or getting an abortion. Or maybe her family will be willing to help raise the baby, but maybe not. Or she can have the baby and place it for adoption, but nobody gets pregnant with that in mind. And maybe she doesn’t want to marry the fellow, or doesn’t trust his promise to marry her. In this significantly more difficult circumstance, the alternative that is positively attractive to many girls—having a baby, an apartment, and a guaranteed income from the state—is simply not available. The effect of the Murray proposal is to create strong reasons against irresponsibly bringing babies into the world, and strong reasons against getting pregnant outside of marriage.
In considering whether the Murray proposal would increase or decrease the number of abortions, one takes into account that most people think that having an abortion is a very wrong thing to do—women somewhat more than men, and black women somewhat more than white women. (See the relevant data in James D. Hunter’s Before the Shooting Begins.) Such women may have an abortion in circumstances that they define as a crisis, but they still think that it is awfully wrong, that it is tantamount to murder. “What happens if I get pregnant?” she asks. If the only believable answer is that she can get an abortion, she is given a very strong reason for saying no to the importunate young man. In sum, the possible result of the Murray proposal is less casual sexual intercourse, fewer out of wedlock pregnancies, fewer abortions, and, just maybe, more marriages. As aforesaid, the desired move is from the sex of recreation and kicks to the sex of responsibility and consequences.
Three things we know. First, public policy proposals are notoriously vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences. We know that we do not know what would happen were it announced that AFDC assistance would be ended at a date definite. Second, the Murray proposal is not going to get very far if it is tied to the acceptance of more abortions. The attitude of liberals to Murray’s ideas ranges from suspicion to rage, while conservative support is by no means as strong as conservative opposition to abortion. Third, the analysis and proposals advanced by Charles Murray are deserving of the most careful attention. The present welfare situation, with all the tragedy of blighted lives for young women and their children, is not inevitable. It was not always this way and it need not continue this way. It was not this way thirty years ago. Something happened, and it happened in part because of well-intended but dumb welfare policies. The present reality of more than 80 percent of the children of the urban underclass being born to single mothers is morally intolerable. A future with 50 percent or more of all American children born to single mothers would be socially and economically unsustainable. These are the grim facts to be faced by those who are ready to get real about welfare reform.
Shul, State, and the Price of Being Different
Only in New York. When the Grand Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was around the corner from us at Beth Israel Hospital and on a respirator, the Daily News had a story headlined, “State to provide counseling if rebbe dies.” The “if” is not unimportant, for the ninety-two-year-old rebbe did not discourage hopes that he was the Messiah or Moshiach. Cruising the neighborhood those days were “Moshiach Tanks,” mobile homes bearing the sign, “Your Center for Information on Immediate Arrival of Moshiach,” and broadcasting tapes of the rebbe’s teaching. The Lubavitcher Hasidim led by the rebbe are based across the river in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, but on the night of his ninety-second birthday thousands gathered in a park next to the hospital here. The men and boys in fur hats, broad-brimmed felt hats, long black coats, flowing beards, and other eighteenth-century fashions favored by the Hasidim made an impressive spectacle.
That the state had a program of grief therapy to deal with the rebbe’s death is not surprising. It may seem like the ultimate pretension of the nanny state for it to think it is required to console a community of religious believers, but that is to miss the point. The Lubavitcher community is a very big political player in the state and the city, as well as in Israel. The Grand Rebbe commanded a voting bloc to which Mayor Giuliani owed his election, and it is not incidental that Governor Cuomo is running again this year. The state’s grief program, called “Operation Survival,” was run by psychiatrists and other therapists, including rabbis, approved by the Lubavitchers. In effect the community was consoling itself, but the consolation was funded by the state. It has long been understood in New York that the Lubavitchers have a plenary dispensation from church-state law in their relationship to government. What the Grand Rebbe wanted the Grand Rebbe got, more or less, but mainly more. Forgetting that fact of political life in New York made David Dinkins a candidate for grief therapy. All in all, it is a pretty sensible arrangement, although not one that can be recommended for general application. Certainly it is much more sensible than the extremism of church-state separationists who think it the duty of government to ride roughshod over what is viewed as the inconvenience of religion.
Not that the state is always so accommodating. Consider the Kiryas Joel school district and its case now before the Supreme Court. The Hasidim of the village of Kiryas Joel have the misfortune, at least in this instance, of being Satmar rather than Lubavitcher, and of being upstate where they established their village in 1977. Their mode is one of withdrawal from the world, and they pay a price in diminished political clout. Some years ago they did get the state to let them have their own school district for purposes of receiving state aid for their disabled children. Nobody claims that they are using state funds for religious education, but the complaint is made that everything, absolutely everything, those Satmars do is influenced by their religion. That complaint is no doubt justified. Wouldn’t it be nice if the same complaint could be made about, for instance, Catholics or Methodists? In any event, the usual suspects have brought suit alleging that the Kiryas Joel school arrangement violates the separation of church and state (in this case, shul and state).
Nathan Lewin, the Washington attorney leading the case for Kiryas Joel, offers some cogent observations on the argument of his opponents. “The respondents and their amici have not, however, suggested that a geographic area populated overwhelmingly by Methodists, Baptists, Mormons, Episcopalians, or Catholics is constitutionally disabled from providing local municipal services. Indeed, it appears that even if a town’s residents were overwhelmingly or entirely Jewish in their religious affiliation, few of the amici would raise an eyebrow over their right to elect a sheriff or vote for a school board. It is crystal-clear from the briefs of our adversaries, however, that this case is different only because the population of Kiryas Joel takes its religion seriously. Kiryas Joel’s residents are not just Jews. They are Jews who believe that, in various respects, they are required by divine command to live as their Jewish ancestors did centuries ago. A citizenry that is as totally committed to its faith and religious observances as are the Satmar Hasidim cannot, our adversaries contend, be trusted to exercise the secular power of self-governance that may be enjoyed by other American citizens.”
Once again, it seems, the free exercise of religion, originally privileged in constitutional law, is now penalized. Are the Satmars of Kiryas Joel hurting anyone? It seems not. By all reports, they are industrious and law-abiding citizens. They are taking care of their own, and receiving from the state only the aid given to other communities. The problem is that their community is different, and that their difference is religious in nature. The National Education Association, which has submitted one of the most strident amicus briefs against Kiryas Joel, cannot abide an exception to its secular monopoly on public funds for education. Difference cannot be tolerated and, if the difference is religious in nature, it can be legally squelched; all this, of course, under the auspices of the liberal doctrine of pluralism. In this twisted doctrine of pluralism, it is required that everybody be alike. The Satmar Jews sin against pluralism by being exclusively Satmar Jews. If they were to be “inclusive” and dilute their identity as Satmars, then we would presumably have a more pluralistic society. No, dear reader, there is nothing wrong with your head; it really does make no sense.
We note with satisfaction that Catholic and Protestant groups have submitted amicus briefs in strong support of Kiryas Joel. The Lubavitchers and Satmars do not loom large on the national scene, but church-state law has typically been decided, for better and for worse, at the societal margins. And eternal vigilance, as the venerable founder might have said, is the price to be paid for keeping the separationist extremists at bay. We need to keep working at it, knowing full well that the tensions between the disputed sovereignties of church and state will not be satisfactorily resolved until Moshiach comes—or, as some of us are persuaded, comes again.
Virtue Rewarded, Occasionally
Michael Novak has won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Being a bit ahead of the curve (although we knew nothing about this award), we offered an extensive tribute to Novak’s achievements some months ago (“The Novak Achievement,” Public Square, October 1993). The Templeton Prize, which is accompanied by about one million dollars, is an additional sign of vindication for a thinker who has for the last two decades courageously worked against the grain in advancing the argument for democratic capitalism. The Prize, now in its twenty-third year, has previously been awarded to, among others, Mother Teresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Billy Graham, and Charles Colson. While this sign of vindication is no doubt important to Novak, more important was the embrace of some of his key arguments in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.
Although Novak’s critics have tried hard to obscure the fact, the burden of his argument, beginning with The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1982, is that the poor need to be more fully included within the circle of productivity and exchange that is the free market. Also in this respect, he is reinforcing the insistence of John Paul II in Centesimus Annus that capitalism as actually practiced must be made morally accountable to all whom it affects. After the ignominious failure of all the socialisms that have been tried, perhaps the air will soon clear, making possible some fresh thinking about the connections between culture, politics, and economics. The optimal way of making those connections Novak calls democratic capitalism. When our academic and media mandarins do finally come out of the hangover induced by their socialist indulgence, they could do a lot worse than start to get their bearings by examining Novak’s proposal.
The Silent Streets of Boston
Boston did not have one; New York did. The Massachusetts high court ruled that gays and lesbians had a right to march as a group in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Rather than conform to the ruling, the sponsors decided there would be no parade for the first time in more than ninety years. Last year in New York, gay organizations, supported by former mayor David Dinkins, tried to get a similar ruling but the court went the other way, deciding that the parade was not a public (i.e., government) activity and the sponsors had First Amendment rights to determine the message of their own parade. The New York parade this year was a rousing, raucous success. Reportedly, a substantial number of people came down from Boston for the festivities they had been denied at home.
The brouhaha over St. Patrick’s will strike many as a small thing, but there are larger concerns engaged—about the meaning of “public” and about the strategies of minority representation. In both Boston and New York, homosexual activists claimed that homosexuals have traditionally been excluded from the parades. But of course that cannot be right. Almost as certain as anything can be, given the incidence of homosexuality in society, many homosexuals have marched on St. Patrick’s Day over the years. But they marched as part of groups that were celebrating what the parade is intended to celebrate. The interesting claim now is that the sponsors of the parade must include their corporate celebration of the homosexual lifestyle, which they, along with the sponsors and participants, acknowledge is alien to the stated purpose of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The logic is that, if I disagree with the purpose of your parade, you are obliged to parade my disagreement. Since a parade is obviously an expression of what people want to express, this is pretty close to contending that, if I disagree with what you are saying, you are obliged to articulate my disagreement, or else shut up.
Those who disagree with the message that the parade intends to communicate can stand on the sidewalk and hold up signs declaring, for instance, “I think your parade stinks!” That point was made by a Hibernian parade sponsor on a television news show, to which the response was: “Yes, but such protestors would face hostility from the crowds. Gays need the protection of being in the parade itself.” So, if you parade for a particular purpose, and the parade attracts crowds who are enthusiastic about that purpose, your parade must include those who oppose that purpose. By this way of thinking, if it is truly inclusive, your parade will have no purpose; or at least it will have no purpose with which any group of political consequence might disagree—which is another way of saying that it will have no purpose.
The purpose of a St. Patrick’s parade does not include saying anything about homosexuality except in the indirect sense that it aims to support a Catholic heritage that is critical of homosexual acts, along with adultery, theft, racism, gluttony, and a host of other behaviors to which human beings are prone. The parade, its sponsors insist, is not about sexuality. Just as adamantly, the gay activists insist that “the personal is the political” and therefore everything is about sexuality, and to pretend that something is not about sexuality is in fact to support the repressive heterosexual hegemony. This all gets terribly convoluted. Christians are accused of being obsessed with sexuality, and with homosexuality in particular. That hardly seems to be the case. Most would just as soon drop the subject, or not pick it up in the first place. Nobody thought the St. Patrick’s Day Parade had anything to do with sexuality, never mind homosexuality, until homosexual activists asserted that it has everything to do with sexuality because it had nothing to do with sexuality. That a Massachusetts court succumbed to this line of illogic is not entirely surprising. Otherwise healthy minds in the academy, the media, and the several churches have not survived the test any better.
The editorial writers of the New York Times think they have a way out of all this. Of course they believe the Massachusetts court was right and the New York court was wrong. The New York parade is morally “stained,” they say, because the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) is not allowed to demonstrate in the parade. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani decided to march in the parade and thereby, according to the Times, sent “a divisive, needlessly cruel message.” He should not march in a parade that “denigrates part of the city,” but, if he does, the editorialists have a suggestion: “Mr. Giuliani needs to distance himself from this benighted display of bigotry. If he cannot do that, then since he attends all parades, let him also visit the gay group’s counter-parade.” In other words, a measure of evenhandedness is achieved if the mayor also marches in a parade that is organized to protest the parade in which he is going to march. Civility is presumably to be found midway between conflicting moral condemnations. Maybe the way to be mayor of all the people is to go to the gay parade and shout “Bigot!” at the St. Pat’s Parade, and then move over to the St. Pat’s Parade and shout “Queer!” at the gays. But of course the symmetry does not hold, for in this case nobody is shouting except the homosexual activists and the Times.
Boston and New York, like most major cities, also have gay pride parades. The suggestion is made that those who are unhappy with the disruption of St. Patrick’s festivities should get back by insisting that they be allowed to march in those parades carrying signs such as “Straight is Great!” That is a perfectly dumb idea that can only exacerbate the politicizing and polarizing of everything. Gay pride parades are probably with us for the foreseeable future. Most Americans avert their eyes in embarrassment, or view them as occasion for jokes, usually on the smutty side. The general attitude is one of letting these people do their thing so long as, to paraphrase the Victorian lady, they do not frighten the horses excessively. That is quite possibly the attitude also of most homosexuals, who want only to be left alone and are mortified by the adolescent antics of the self-designated “queers” of gay activism.
What frightens fair-minded people who care about our common life is the way in which the courts are used to “privilege” the expression of one difference (e.g., homosexuality) in order to undermine the expression of others (e.g., Irish Catholic heritage). Rights are pitted against rights, the one cancelling the other. And of course all this is done to advance a distorted doctrine of diversity and pluralism that destroys diversity and pluralism—a doctrine to which the silent streets of Boston bore doleful witness this St. Patrick’s Day.
While We’re At It
• There is an army of used-to-be Catholic writers who wistfully wish in print that they could still be part of the color and vitalities of Catholic life, but they have, alas, outgrown that sort of thing. Graham Greene exemplified the tradition that has now declined to the likes of Mary Gordon. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison joins the camp with her “Arguing with the Pope” in the April issue of Harper’s. She covers the World Youth Day in Denver and finds much to praise, if only the Pope didn’t hold to those terribly outdated notions about sex and such. (Actually, there’s no “and such”; it’s all sex that seems to bother her.) She tells us that while flying back to New York from Denver she struggled to understand the connection between sex and the Incarnation. Then this, as though it follows naturally: “While aboard Shepherd One, the Pope enjoyed a choice of roasted veal, beef tenderloin pignoli, chervil chicken, salmon with linguine, caviar, Godiva chocolates, and Haagen-Dazs, resting in a custom-made curtained bed that took the space of four seats on the 767 plane.” Perhaps she means to suggest that her struggles over sex might have been eased had the food on her flight been better. The more probable reading is a criticism of the Pope who has the luxury of both easy answers on sex and special privileges on airplanes. In truth, Harrison has the easy answer on sex, which is that sex should be easy, and her struggle is over the fact that it isn’t. Regarding the Pope’s airplane accommodations, anyone who has ever flown business class knows about those fancy menus they hand out. Whichever choice you make inevitably demonstrates the truth of the adage that airplane food is to food what military music is to music. Then there is the bed. So a seventy-four-year-old man after the grinding schedule of his visits here and there should sit for nine hours in coach surrounded by a pack of barbaric reporters such as Barbara Grizzuti Harrison? “Yes,” a friend to whom we mentioned this objected, “but would Jesus fly first class?” Would Jesus ask a dumb question like that? Would Jesus write for Harper’s ? Would Jesus be as wearied as is your editor with the feather-brained poseurs of moral struggle? As for Ms. Harrison, confessions are at noon, five p.m., and by appointment.
• The Lancet is the premier journal of the British medical establishment and in it an R. V. Short discusses the shattering experience of teaching medical students who just won’t learn. At the beginning of a course with 150 students he handed out a questionnaire and discovered that 27 percent thought that Charles Darwin was wrong about our having evolved from an African ape-like ancestor and fully 54 percent thought there was life after death. In order to clear their minds of such nonsense, Short loaded the course with required readings of evolutionary doctrine. At the end of the course he used the same questionnaire to see how many minds had been cured. “To my utter dismay, there were no statistically significant changes in any of the answers to any of the questions. I was shattered. I believe in the truth of evolution and still regard it as the most exciting fundamental concept. . . . So why had I failed in my efforts to teach the concept to my students? Is the scientific evidence on the origins of mankind now so overwhelming that failure to believe is no longer acceptable, or are we dealing with fundamental concepts of life and death that are emotional and irrational and hence beyond the reach of scientific logic? At best, perhaps I have sown a few seeds of truth that will take time to germinate. At worst, maybe I should retire from teaching.” It is the shattering experience all too well known by the commissars and inquisitors of the one true faith. At best, R. V. Short might rethink the dogmas to which he is bound. At second best, retire.
• RU-486, the “abortion pill,” turns out to be not what it was cracked up to be. Still banned in this country because pharmaceutical companies fear boycotts by pro-lifers and, perhaps even more, the threat of lawsuits over unknown side-effects, some Americans are going to Britain for RU-486 abortions. According to the New York Times, the experience is harrowing. It involves long periods in bed, repeated clinic visits, and excruciating labor pains of six hours or more to expel the fetus. Nonetheless, one woman who could have obtained an easier abortion in Philadelphia thought the RU-486 ordeal had “psychological advantages.” She explained, “I didn’t want to just zip in and be put to sleep and zip out in two hours with it all done. In a way, that would have been too easy. This was a big painful decision for me. I would have felt irresponsible if it had just been over with like that. I wanted to remember this all my life. I never want to do it again.” One recognizes a moral sensibility there, however perverse. She seems to believe that it is necessary to make atonement by suffering for having done something very wrong. Another young woman from Boston explains her choice of an RU-486 abortion this way: “It was worth it to me because I couldn’t bear the thought of a doctor going in and tearing something out of my body. It’s such a violent intrusive act. This felt more natural. My body did all the work.” The assumed moral status of what is “natural” is intriguing. For a long time people have been celebrating natural child birth. Now we have natural child killing.
• In a speech observing the 150th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Archbishop Rembert Weakland urged Catholics to take a more sympathetic tack toward feminism. According to the Milwaukee Journal, “He compared feminism to some scientific discoveries, such as those made by Galileo and Darwin.” Weakland said, “I would hope that we could avoid forever the term ‘radical feminism.’ I’m not quite sure I know what it means but if anybody wants to use a derogatory term, that’s the one they throw out.” He said “Christian feminism must be biblical, gender inclusive, and culturally inclusive, in solidarity with the weakest in society, and ecologically sensitive.” Let’s see, have we left anything out? John Martin Henni, the first bishop of Milwaukee, would no doubt have been amazed to see what the diocese has come to in just 150 years.
• Deploring the few favorable presentations of homosexuality in children’s books, Michael Thomas Ford writes in Publishers Weekly that a double standard is at work. He quotes an editor who complains that discussions of homosexuality automatically focus on the bedroom. “When you say ‘heterosexual,’ people do not automatically think in terms of sex. When you say ‘homosexual,’ suddenly everything turns automatically to sex. But children are not thinking about sex—adults are.” It seems there is a bundle of confusions there. First, you only say “heterosexual” in order to distinguish from “homosexual.” Second, “homosexual” (as in “gay”) is precisely, exclusively, and inescapably about sex acts. The doing of certain things sexually is what distinguishes homosexuals from other people. As gays are always telling us, in every other respect they are just like everybody else. Third, what is the point of favorably presenting homosexuals in children’s books if not to get children to think about what it means to be homosexual, namely sex? Mr. Ford, it says here, is currently working on a book about the lives of gay and lesbian teenagers. Without reference to the bedroom, presumably.
• “Religious Right’s New Crusade: Crucify Health Care Reform.” That’s the heading in the New York Observer for Joe Conason’s column favoring the government takeover of the medical system. He concludes: “In its alliance with the insurance industry and the Republican protectors of big business, the Religious Right seeks to reward only the health care profiteers. Apparently, its Scripture-spouting leaders have forgotten the gospels: Jesus healed the sick-and he did it for free.” Not to mention His multiplication of the food supply. There is something bracingly straightforward about Mr. Conason’s casting of the state in the role of Messiah.
• The British Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, thought he owed his friend George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, an explanation when he joined the many notable figures who are leaving the Church of England to become Roman Catholic. Gummer expressed his love for the C of E and concluded, “I will not disguise my sadness in leaving nor the joy which comes from full communion with the Universal Church.” A problem for Gummer and many others is that, in the way that the C of E decided to ordain women to the priesthood, it acted like a national denomination rather than a branch of the Church Catholic. In this view, isolation or independence from Catholic consensus and communion is a form of sectarianism. In his response, Dr. Carey objects that Gummer seems to think that the title Catholic is “the sole property of one section of the Church Universal.” He writes: “This latter belief has not been the historic position of the Church of England, which has never denied that all the Churches you specify, namely the Methodist and the United Reformed, together with the Roman Catholic, are part of the ‘Holy, Catholic Church.’“ “For these reasons,” Carey continues, “I firmly believe that we should avoid the use of ‘sect’ and ‘sectarian’ in this context. It denigrates our sister Churches like those of the Methodist and Reformed traditions. . . . It also causes offence to those of us who remain loyal to the Church of England and to the Anglican Communion.” As best we can understand Dr. Carey’s position, he seems to be saying that there is no such thing as a sect and therefore the C of E cannot be a sect. To simply remove from Christian history the categories of sect, schism, and heresy is radical revisionism indeed. Perhaps Dr. Carey will want to reconsider his response to Mr. Gummer, as he earlier reconsidered, and retracted, his assertion that those who oppose the ordination of women are in “grave heresy.” In any event, the questions engaging Mr. Gummer, Dr. Carey, and so many others go to the heart of what is meant by “Church,” and how these questions are resolved will reconfigure the Christian reality in the twenty-first century.
• One has to admire these folks who stubbornly track everything appearing on the dreadful tube. The Media Research Center does that relentlessly, and has prepared an eleven-page report detailing television’s recent sins of omission and commission in dealing with religion. “Faith in a Box” is available for $2 from MRC at 113 South West Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
• Yes, Virginia, there still is a National Council of Churches, although just barely. It has gone through “restructuring” several times in recent years, and is now in the process of a more thorough “transformation.” General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell reports that the situation “is not becoming stabilized.” The oldline Protestant churches that brought it into being and supported it financially now don’t have enough money for their own programs. Campbell recently announced that the NCC is “moving towards greater reliance on grants from foundations and government, and this would require different, more flexible, patterns of hiring and using staff.” Environmental issues were cited as an area where grant monies are available. The prospect of the NCC becoming a think tank, which is what institutions supported by project grants are usually called, is not uninteresting. At least we would hear no more about the NCC “representing forty million American Christians.” Come to think of it, the NCC has not been talking that way for a few years. In fact, it has hardly been heard from for a few years. Odd the twists of history. The offices that house our publisher, the Institute on Religion and Public Life (RPL), are the very offices in which the NCC was launched forty-plus years ago. Maybe we should bring things full circle—merge the two think tanks, RPL and the NCC, and chalk it up to irony. Of course it would have to be understood that we are in no position to assume their liabilities.
• In our local paper it got three and a half inches at the bottom of page twenty. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was completely cleared of all charges of sexual misconduct. From media to Bernardin: “Here’s your reputation back, your Eminence. We had a lot of fun with it and wish you luck in putting things back together again.” The sordid role of reporters in this affair, and most shamelessly of CNN, should find a prominent place in journalism’s hall of infamy, but it probably won’t, the competition for space being so stiff. As for the accuser of Cardinal Bernardin and his memory retrieval induced by hypnosis, this is as good an occasion as any to mention the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (3401 Market St., Philadelphia, PA 19104). The FMS Foundation specializes in helping those who are victimized by false accusations of incest, sexual abuse, and other wrongs.
• Recall the cancellation of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston after a Massachusetts court ruled that a gay and lesbian contingent had the right to march. Cathleen Finn declares: “I am really gratified to know that as an Irish-American bisexual woman, the court recognizes my right to take my place among the Irish-American community in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. On the other hand, I’m severely saddened that there was no parade this year.” Then recall the line from Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
• Justice Harry A. Blackmun, he of Roe v. Wade infamy, recently emoted all over the front pages about how he has “personally anguished” about capital punishment and has concluded that the death penalty is “unconstitutional.” As Justice Scalia and numerous scholars promptly pointed out, his conclusion has everything to do with his feelings, which may well be on target, and nothing to do with the Constitution. Blackmun later visited Harvard Law School where, according to the Harvard Law Record, a packed hall greeted him with an “extended standing ovation.” After his presentation, applause turned into a second standing ovation. The paper says that “Blackmun appeared somewhat taken aback” by the enthusiasm. “I wasn’t sure whether my views would be popular here,” he said. Apparently he was under the impression that Harvard Law School is a hotbed of pro-life agitation and support for capital punishment. Reading on: “Despite the stress of law school, Blackmun urged students not to let themselves become afflicted with self-doubt.” He said he once doubted whether he was qualified to sit on the Supreme Court, but he managed to get over it. “The justice reminded students, ‘The reason you’re here is because you belong here.’“ He’s not the kind of man to pander to an audience, this Justice Blackmun. In response to student questions, he accused today’s Supreme Court of being “conservative.” He assured them that he did not intend to retire any time soon. “I want to hang around and prevent those jokers from overruling Roe, “ he said. (The next week he announced his retirement.) In contrast to Blackmun, Justice Scalia is routinely criticized for being partisan and expressing himself in a manner not in keeping with the dignity of the Court.
• Mrs. Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund and Secretary General of the Conference on Population and Development to be held in Cairo this September, was received in March by John Paul II. In an extended address, the Pope had some kind words for the Cairo conference but did not hold back in expressing “grave concern” about elements of the draft final document for Cairo. The document is indifferent to the family, ignores the moral status of the unborn, and violates the 1984 international agreement of Mexico City that “in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” John Paul said, “The vision of sexuality which inspires the document is individualistic. Marriage is ignored, as if it were something of the past. An institution as natural, universal, and fundamental as the family cannot be manipulated without causing serious damage to the fabric and stability of society.” The Clinton Administration has declared its wholehearted support for the approach to population and development articulated in the draft final document for Cairo.
• Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan says, “One absorbing chapter follows another,” and it is true that the chapters are in sequence. Andrew Hacker, one of the last analysts to believe that the problems of the urban underclass are explained mostly by reference to white racism, says, “Masterful in conception and execution, Who We Are provides an original and indispensable portrait of America.” At the risk of sounding churlish, Who We Are: A Portrait of America (Times Books) is unoriginal and eminently dispensable. Written by Sam Roberts, urban affairs columnist for the New York Times, the book tells you many things you never wanted to know. How many Americans dispose of their waste by public sewer, cesspool, or “other means.” The number of one-bedroom and four-bedroom homes, and the ratio of automobiles to homes. And of course an awful lot of numbers about income, how many people commute, and educational levels achieved. What does not receive even one mention in this “portrait of America” is the most important associational pattern of identity and behavior in American life, namely, religion. To be fair, Roberts is working off U.S. Census data, and the census does not ask about religion or politics or social views. But apparently it does not occur to Roberts even to mention the missing factors. The sorry fact is that journalists and social analysts really do believe that they understand America by toting up all kinds of socioeconomic numbers without reference to what studies have shown is the most important single variable in predicting social attitudes and behavior—that variable being, of course, religious participation. Alright, so we have said this kind of thing before. But please note that we have not lost our capacity to be astonished by the obtuseness of otherwise intelligent people. Absent the allegiances and differences that make the greatest difference, most Americans will not recognize themselves in what is pretentiously presented as “a portrait of America.”
• Like the irrepressible yawn, another campaign is launched, a call to arms is issued, the trumpet is sounded once again—all against the great threat of students praying in public schools. The usual belligerents have been rounded up: the American Jewish Committee, the Joint Baptist Committee, the Religious Action Center of Hebrew Union College, the Episcopal Church, and People for the American Way. Apparently the AJC is the point organization on this one. In a letter to be sent to thousands of school superintendents and teachers, the usual arguments are made about the separation of church and state, along with the also usual reminder that students are free to pray privately and silently. Several points might be made in response. First, while school prayer is not near the top of our list of things that something must be done about, it is just silly to pretend that its elimination in the 1960s was not a major step toward the secularization of the classroom. Second, the argument that some students might be offended undermines the goal of helping young people to live with genuine pluralism, including religious pluralism. Third, theologically generalized formulations in prayer need not, as alleged, “trivialize” prayer, any more than pledging allegiance to “one nation under God” is trivial. (Why don’t these groups bite the bullet and go after the Pledge of Allegiance?) Fourth, the letter’s piously expressed anxiety about making the schools a “battleground over religion” is disingenuous. “We urge all people,” says the letter, “to declare a permanent cease-fire on this issue.” But so far as we can see the ACLU and the groups promoting this letter are the only ones firing. They do succeed in rousing populist resentment. An increasing number of parents, school boards, and legislators have been heard whispering Cicero’s famous retort, Tutene? Atque cuius exercitus? (You and whose army?) Maybe the only good thing that will come of this is that kids who are fed almost any sexual or ideological madness in school and are absolutely forbidden only cigarettes and prayer will come to think that prayer must be a pretty exciting thing to do. Extremism in the cause of the strict separation of church and state works in mysterious ways. This brief comment is by no means all that needs to be said about school prayer and the secularization of the public school classroom. But this call for “a permanent cease-fire” amounts to telling those who disagree to shut up. That is not the way to cultivate urgently necessary discussion about culture, morality, and religion in public education.
• The use of Prozac and similar drugs is, one might say in light of the hallucogenic connection, mushrooming. If it makes people feel better, why not? In response to that question, Leon Kass of the University of Chicago has some sobering thoughts: “Finally, what of those technologies for the soul, only now being marshaled, to combat depression, dementia, stress, and schizophrenia? What of applied psychology and neurochemistry, behavior modification and psychopharmacology? If modern life contributes mightily to unhappiness, can we not bring technology to the rescue? Can we not make good on the Cartesian promise to make men stronger and better in mind and in heart by understanding the material basis of aggression, desire, grief, pain, and pleasure? Would this not be the noblest form of mastery, the production of artful self-command, without the need for self-sacrifice and self-restraint? On the contrary. Here man’s final technical conquest of his own nature would almost certainly leave mankind utterly enfeebled. This form of mastery would be identical with utter dehumanization. Read Huxley’s Brave New World, read C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, read Nietzsche’s account of the last man, and then read the newspapers. Homogenization, mediocrity, pacification, drug-induced contentment, debasement of taste, souls without loves and longings—these are the inevitable results of making the essence of human nature the last project for technical mastery. In his moment of triumph, Promethean man will also become a contented cow. Like Midas, technological man is cursed to acquire precisely what he wished for, only to discover—painfully and too late—that what he wished for is not exactly what he wanted. Or, worse than Midas, he may be so dehumanized in the process that he is even unaware that he is no longer truly human.” The above is from Technology in the Western Political Tradition, edited by Arthur M. Melzer and friends (Cornell University Press). Other essays of particular note in the same volume are Stanley Jaki on the medieval basis of modern science, Wilson Carey McWilliams on America as the technological republic, and William Galston on what technology does to the theory and practice of liberal democracy.
• The indefatigible Richard Stith of Valparaiso Law School points out that, while we discussed some items appearing in Life Advocate a few months ago, we did not let readers know how they can get hold of that very useful publication. Life Advocate offers a valuable overview of news and ideas relative to pro-life activism and is available for $30 per year by writing P.O. Box 13656, Portland, OR 97213.
• In a book dedicated to his “husband,” gay advocate Richard D. Mohr contends that we all have to gain by the achievement of the homosexual agenda, including the full acceptance of homosexuals in the military (A More Perfect Union: Why Straight America Must Stand Up for Gay Rights, Beacon). Along the way he provides a vision of a wistfully wise and gentle world that inspires his advocacy. “It will allow everyone to have a more relaxed view of human agency and experience the universe as a more hospitable, commodious, and, in turn, respect-worthy abode. The citizen need not define himself as conqueror, need not view the universe and others as something that must be subjugated to or killed by his intrusive presence in order to be good. One need not invade others to be what one is. One may be open to being, rather than stand in opposition to it. Reason can then include a healthy element of contemplation, rather than being limited to instrumental uses, calculations of utility, and the analysis of things into manageable parts. We will be less in need of grace, for we shall be more graceful. We will be less in need of divine intervention, for we will stand more receptive to each other. We can worry less about being ineffectual and weak. We will be more merciful to those who fail, for we will have less to prove in ourselves. A kinder, gentler nation will finally become a live possibility. We will be more self-contained and self-confident, even as we are more easily able to make connections with each other. We will be more productive when we view productivity as creation and care rather than as management and control. We will be more self-sufficient, as we release for individual flourishing the massive cultural energy now wasted in the anxiety required to prop up the false symbol of self-sufficiency—impenetrability.” Apart from its double entendres, it is a vision so fragile in its implausibility and so touchingly captive to its desires that it is understandable that many Americans who are not homosexual find it quite disarming. To challenge it strikes them as simply mean. The alternative is to relax and let it be, and maybe even cheer the poignant thing on, just a little. It is a vision marked by the gracefulness that offers itself as consolation for the loss of grace.
• Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress, first published in 1980, is reprinted by Transaction with a new introduction in which the author reflects on the book’s reception and the probable fate of the idea of progress. “Far from being obstacles or barriers the thoughts of progress by the ancients and Christians alike were steps toward the modern idea of progress. In Augustine, intellectual child of the Greeks as well as of the Jews, to this day preeminent theologian in Christian history, there are all the essential ingredients of the modern idea of progress: the vision of an unfolding, cumulative advancement of the human race in time—a unified, single human race, be it emphasized—a single time frame for all the peoples and epochs of the past and present, the conception of time as a linear, single flow, the use of evolving stages and epochs in the history of humanity, belief in the necessary, as well as sacred character of mankind’s history as set forth in the Old Testament, and, finally, the envisagement of a future, distinctly utopian end of history when the saved would go to eternal heaven. As I have tried to show in this book, all that was necessary for the rationalists of the modern era was to secularize, to remove God or relegate God to a distance, and the modern idea of progress would have been achieved. What was required when the death of God took place in the nineteenth century was some kind of purportedly scientific essence or process that was labeled Geist or ended in ism. Thus, especially in the nineteenth century, the flood of entelechies to explain the progressive character of human history without having to resuscitate Augustine’s God. Weltgeist, Urgeist, Naturgeist, Dialectic, First Cause, the Unknowable—these are some of the words that became fashionable in the nineteenth century, one and all made to cover phenomena that a century earlier had been covered by reference to God.” In our present circumstance Nisbet observes that other utopias such as communism and socialism “are in discredit at the moment, perhaps to remain so indefinitely.” As for the idea of progress itself, we are still basking in its afterglow but “these premises are eroding fatefully and fatally.” Lest that sound excessively doleful, he adds, “But no one can be sure in these matters.” That is always a wise proviso.
• Writing in Faith & Renewal, Paul Kyle proposes “a renewed vision of married life in Christ: the perfect partnership, plundering hell and populating heaven through power-filled prayer, precision parenting, and potent proclamation of the gospel.” Perhaps someone will be so kind as to direct him to a twelve-step program for the alliterately addicted.
• Civic, educational, and religious groups confabbed in Seattle to fret about the perennial question of values and young people (who apparently do not have enough, or have the wrong kind, or whatever). Linda Popov, cofounder of the Virtues Project, was there. She explained that “values are difficult to teach because they are so intertwined with religion and culture.” Certainly we want to keep our distance from religion and culture. Then there is this: “The Virtues Project, sponsored in part by the Church Council of Greater Seattle, has prepared a value-free curriculum to teach virtues.” Presumably the pro-and anti-virtue sides get equal time.
• And now for an encouraging item from, of all places, Detroit. Shortly after arriving at that scene of urban devastation as Catholic archbishop, Adam Maida proposed to the Economic Club of Detroit that everybody should get behind a program to establish ecumenical, Christ-centered schools for inner city children. Not everybody responded, of course, but a heartening number of religious, business, and civic leaders caught the vision. The result, three years later, is The Cornerstone Schools, a project that is giving the lie to the claim that “educational reform” is a fairy tale. Cornerstone is a program that might well be emulated in other cities and towns. For more information, write Dr. Norma Henry, Executive Director, 1234 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226.
• There was in the April issue a brief notice of the death of Christopher Lasch. Something more should be said. Kit Lasch served on our Editorial Advisory Board and was a dear friend. He was a gentleman—very gentle and very manly. With The Culture of Narcissism and other works, he helped many thoughtful Americans make the move from the leftisms of the 1960s to a more critical understanding of the cultural boundaries of the political. Speaking at his memorial service, Jean Elshtain agreed with his own assessment that his entire life’s work was an exploration of “limits and hope.” In the long and painful months in which he was dying of cancer, he pressed to finish The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, which will be published this fall. Dale Vree, editor of New Oxford Review, knew Kit Lasch well and has written about him in a most compelling way. Vree is very much a Catholic and thinks Lasch edged up to becoming one, but finally, says Vree, he is to be counted among “some of the best friends of the Church” who could not quite come in. He is, Vree suggests, in the “best friends” company of such as Simone Weil, Henri Bergson, Henry Adams, and C. S. Lewis. Vree writes, “All his life he set high standards, and he died as he lived. Christopher Lasch died, I have no doubt, a holy death.” And so for Kit Lasch the prayer from the Commendation of the Dead: May choirs of angels welcome you and lead you to the bosom of Abraham, and there where Lazarus is poor no more may you find eternal rest.
On Kepel’s bbok The Revenge of God, Economist, Carl Braaten on Protestantism in Lutheran Forum, Lent 1994. On Lubavitcher Hasidim, New York Daily News, March 23, 1994. Peter Steinfels on Michael Novak in New York Times, March 9, 1994. On St. Patrick’s Day Parade, New York Times editorial, March 15, 1994. R.V. Short on medical students, Lancet, February 26, 1994. On RU-486 abortion pill, New York Times, March 23, 1993. Archbishop Weakland quoted in Milwaukee Journal, March 20, 1994. Michael Thomas Ford on presentations of homosexuality in children’s books, Publishers Weekly, February 21, 1994. Joe Conason on Jesus and health care, New York Observer, March 21, 1994. Joan Campbell on NCC, Ecumenical Press Serice, March 3, 1994. On St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston, New York Times, March 12, 1994. On Justice Blackmun, Harvard Law Record, March 11, 1994. Pope on Cairo conference, news release from Holy See at U.N. On school prayer, letter from American Jewish Committee, March 1994. Paul Kyle on married life, Faith & Renewal, March/April 1994. On Virtues Project and value-free virtues, The Progress, March 10, 1994. Dale Vree on Christopher Lasch, New Oxford Review, April 1994.