Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!
Anti-Christian America?

As usual, I find myself in substantial agreement with much that Midge Decter writes (“A Jew in Anti-Christian America,” October 1995) ”in this instance, especially her healthy refusal to become paranoid about the glitches in the dominant society, and especially also her concern for Israel’s security and well-being. If the largest vital Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities in the world are to live together in America in mutual civility and good humor, her quality of spiritual robustness combines with a sense of humor to create a better model than the litigants who make a Federal case out of every impoliteness or indiscretion.

Since I made the pilgrimage from Iowa to New York City about the same time she made the trek east from Minnesota, many of her discoveries about American religiosity may resonate with mine for reasons other than purely rational.

Why does the article, with which I agree in substance, leave me unhappy? Pondering this, I must conclude that my historical perspective is quite different; I cannot accept as true the concept of contemporary America as “anti-Christian.” At best, such an idea has a place in an overwrought political or evangelistic sermon. But such an overheated setting can just as well give welcome to the truths conveyed by the shout that “God is dead!” or “Yet forty days and [the city] shall be destroyed!”

We could say that America is appallingly religious, confusing “spirituality” and “patriotism” and “Christianity” in an (un)holy and sweet-smelling potpourri. But then why is an intellectual as well versed in the Bible as Midge Decter yet unable to identify that sweet smell of incense with the idolatrous “high places” (1 Kings 3:2)? We could say with some church historians that America is the last great intact block of the nineteenth-century Kulturreligion (“Christendom”). We might hear the cultural historians who say America is “ post- Christian,” or the lively evangelists who proclaim it “ pre -Christian.” But “ anti -Christian” it is not.

Militant anticlericalism and atheism have been the characteristic products of the union of church and state, particularly since the Enlightenment exposed alternative systems of being. Religious liberty, with its “free churches” (a generic term), does not arouse the kind of hatred of Christianity that appeared in European Christendom in its decline.

But religious liberty, with its voluntary participation and support, also requires that a distinction be made between “Christians” and gentiles”a distinction that neither Jews nor Christians have been accustomed to make in Europe, where of the 96 percent “Christians” counted in a Lutheran country less than 5 percent have any effective connection with the church, and of the 99 percent “Christians” counted in a Roman Catholic land only 11 percent go to one confession and one mass a year.

What has been the course of Christianity in the New World? For half of our history in English, French, and Spanish North America, we followed the model of European state churches. But from the beginning there were Mennonites, radical Puritan churches (e.g., Baptists, Quakers), radical Pietist churches (e.g., Brethren, Moravians) and other radical reformers who always made the necessary separation between the claims of the faith and the ways of the world. It cannot be said that these Christians, far more influential in America than ever in European Christendom, “did not think about it” (i.e., “Christian America”). Thinking about it and talking about it and living the differences between the present reality and the coming Kingdom was their major activity.

Christianity in America is no longer a chip off European “Christendom”: with the Virginia Bill (1786) and First Amendment (1789–91) it became religiously unique, although now its setting and style are shared with the new and vital Christians of Africa and the Pacific Rim. Midge Decter would serve well herself and the rest of us to remember the uniqueness of the American experiment in religious liberty, which, among other things, means that America is a gentile country, with substantial minorities of Protestants and Roman Catholics and a smaller minority of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, and other proferred options.

Franklin H. Littell
Professor Emeritus of Religion, Temple University
Philadelphia, PA

Midge Decter’s otherwise compelling article seems to me to have a major flaw. She writes that an indictment of the European Enlightment as the source of “our troubles” is “at once too convenient and too iniquitously ungrateful for either a Jew or a Christian to entertain.”

Indeed, it would be criminal for Jews to make light of the hope of liberty (and, sometimes, of the reality of liberty) that the Enlightenment awakened. I agree. Letting the Enlightenment wholly off the hook, she locates the source of our troubles in a less hallowed time: the sixties. It was the sixties that sanctified a mounting civilizational hubris (“why not?”); an egoism indifferent to everything but its own hedonism (“so what?”).

I do not think that this is an adequate or fair Jewish response to the sixties. The period deserves, at least, the same qualified ambivalence as the Enlightenment, for much of Jewish worth emerged from it. I doubt that the surge of Jewish studies in the universities or of scholarly and popular work on Jewish mysticism would have occured without the cultural upheavals and reorientations of the sixties. I doubt that the havurah movement and the energy it tapped for a generation of rabbis and lay leaders could have occurred without the sixties. (Would there be any Chabad houses on American college campuses?)

The sixties gave a new cachet and legitimacy to ethnicity and spirituality. American Jewish life has been a beneficiary. There remains, of course, much about that period and its effects to regret. Certainly, it was not entirely “good for the Jews.” But it seems to me “too convenient” to ignore its contributions.

Alan Mittleman
Muhlenberg College
Allentown, PA

Midge Decter replies:

First, let me thank both my correspondents for their kind words. As for Professor Littell’s argument with me, I am frankly at something of a loss to understand what he really means when he calls America a “gentile country with substantial minorities of Protestants and Roman Catholics,” etc. Gentile? This seems to me a very odd use of the term. Is it not, perhaps, merely a euphemism? Does he not, when all is said and done, really mean a secular country? If that is what he does mean, the answer to him is, “Well, yes and no.” There are surely a lot of secularists around; if there weren’t, we wouldn’t all be engaged in this discussion in the first place. But it still, as the old joke has it, seems to make all the difference in the world whether you are a Christian secularist or a Marxist secularist. Joking aside, the American Revolution was not the French Revolution. That in fact was, and remains, its glory”it was a product not of the new intellectuals against the old order but of people seeking to manage their political affairs in a decent and enlightened manner. The kind of tolerance that is uniquely enshrined in the American political order, while, to be sure, not “a chip off European Christendom,” was on the other hand certainly not born in some mythically neutral “gentiledom,” either. True, it is the product of a long historical process, but surely the view of man central to that process was Jewish–Christian, rather than merely “a proferred option.”

With Alan Mittleman, I’m afraid, the differences run so deep they cannot be bridged. If he finds the havurah movement to have been a source of spiritual energy, and I understand it”correctly, as I believe history will one day show”as an attempt to import some of the attitudinal junk food of the counterculture into the theory and practice of Judaism, what can we say to one another? There remain only a couple of details to sort out. The great interest in Jewish mysticism of the sixties had little to do with scholarship, and the great scholarship in the field of Jewish mysticism had nothing to do with the sixties. The Chabad houses on American college campuses initially owed much of their momentum to the fact that they were undertaking to rescue young Jewish druggies and other kids who were feeling the pain of the emptiness of their own culture and making religious penitents of them. Now they represent not the result of, but precisely a counterforce to, the various “isms” that are the legacy of those radical years and that have been permitted to worm their way into the fabric of Jewish relgious life.

Whose Jerusalem?

The Public Square article “There Is Only One Jerusalem” (October 1995) struck me as unusually aggressive and hateful as to its attitude to the historic Jewish claim to Jerusalem. Such a hostile tone is fortunately not often heard anymore, except in leftist PLO circles where reason and historic facts do not count.

The 3,000 years of history of Jerusalem have been an almost unbroken history of one nation or religion after the other attempting to wrest the city from the Jews, as if the whole world cannot tolerate the idea that Jews, too, have a capital of their own. Starting with Assyrian King Sennacherib, Babylonia’s Nebuchadnezzar, Greece’s Antiochus Epiphanes, Rome’s Pompeii, Titus, Vespasian, and Hadrian, the Muslim armies of Omar, the Christian Crusaders, down to today’s PLO, all have one thing in common: Jerusalem must not belong to the Jews.

It is true, as Father Neuhaus writes, that certain events in Christian history took place in Jerusalem. But what were they and how long did they last? Whatever the Gospels tell us about Jesus, his visit to Jerusalem and ultimate execution by the Romans there took place because he was a Jew, like all others who visited Jerusalem to attend the Jewish Temple. His presence there lasted only a few days.

When Fr. Neuhaus invokes the argument that “Christian sons also fought for it and won,” he presumably refers to the valiant Crusaders who in 1099 captured Jerusalem and promptly butchered every Jew in the city. Not much of a claim.

As to the Muslim claim, we all know that Jerusalem is not mentioned a single time in the Koran (but 825 times in the Hebrew Bible) and that the Aksa Mosque of today was the Church of St. Mary of the Byzantine Christians till eighty years after Muhammad’s death. Even if we accept the legend (appropriately called “mirage” in Arabic) of Muhammad’s flight to heaven on his horse Baraq (which is only found in a few Arab sources), one can ask how long the hoof of that horse rested on the Rock of the Mountain to propel itself heavenward.

How can these short-lived episodes compare with the Jewish history of Jerusalem, which goes back 3,000 years to King David? . . .

As to the complaint that the Christian population in Jerusalem (and in Bethlehem) is dwindling, every unbiased Christian in Israel will tell you that this is caused by Muslim pressure. Pastor John Willem van der Heuven, the head of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, has often begged the world to maintain Israeli rule over Jerusalem and Bethlehem, lest the Christian shrines there share the fate of churches in Lebanon during the PLO occupation, when they were destroyed and Christian worshippers massacred. Not to speak of the Jewish synagogues in Jerusalem, every one of which was destroyed by the Jordanians during their nineteen-year occupation of the city . . . .

For those who want all shrines protected in the future, the best guarantee is a Jewish rule over an undivided Jerusalem, the eternal Jewish capital.

Manfred R. Lehmann
Leadership Committee for a Free Middle East
Miami, FL

RJN replies:

The comment was not hostile. It was sharply critical of what I took to be the New Republic’s peremptory dismissal of Christian and Muslim interests in Jerusalem. I will leave it to Muslims to respond to the significance of the horse’s hoof, but in Christian conviction the point is not that Jesus was in Jerusalem “only a few days,” but that in those few days the world’s redemption was accomplished. More comprehensively, from the Psalms that are prayed also by Christians through the book of Revelation, the earthly Jerusalem is symbolically entangled with the promise of the heavenly Jerusalem. For a considered examination of these questions, I again recommend Robert L. Wilken’s The Land Called Holy (Yale University Press). As to whether Jewish governance is the best guarantee for all the interests involved, I said as much in my original comment.

Against Swinishness

Peter L. Berger, in his “Military Necessities” (October 1995) , has inadvertently made an excellent case for Christian nonparticipation in the military. To quote Mr. Berger: “Like it or not, a measure of swinishness has been intrinsic to what makes soldiers tick.” That any man (or woman) created in the image of God should be trained to kill efficiently on command, and in the process should become “swinish,” is a tragedy. For a Christian to subject himself to such training, and thus deliberately debase God’s image within himself, verges on blasphemy . . . .

Paul C. Fox, M.D. Farmington, PA

While Peter Berger’s comments about gays and women in combat units provide some basis for limiting their participation, he does not discuss the most important consideration. Combat units should be manned (personned?) not with the most benign or even average situations in mind but with the worst.

The mining of the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts during the Gulf War is a recent case in point. The superhuman effort required to shore bulkheads, patch underwater holes in the hull, and perform many other essential damage control actions would not have been possible had a large fraction of the crew been women. They just don’t have the necessary strength and leverage. As it was, the saving of the ship was a near-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington described his victory at Waterloo . . . .

Robert C. Whitten
Cupertino, CA

Science and Infallibility

Surely, the scholarly Avery Dulles (“The Gospel of Life: A Symposium,” October 1995) knows that one may not kill what is even doubtfully “not yet a human person.” I may not even shoot at a moving target that I presume is a deer when I have any suspicion that it may be human.

The “science” upon which much abortion bioethics is based has been disproven and is false. I dare any biological scientist to establish that the embryo in the early stages is not yet a full human person as a subject of rights. The redefinition of pregnancy as beginning at implantation has been invented as a pure fiction to rationalize abortion of a “pre-embryo,” a term that no responsible human embryologist accepts as valid . . . . Neither Dulles nor Fr. Richard McCormick can scientifically establish that “the embryo in early stages is not yet a fully human person.” The scientific evidence since Roe v. Wade is overwhelmingly against any scientific support for it or the later Webster decision . . . .

On another point, there appears to be no formula to guarantee that an infallible teaching must be accepted as such. One can always, it seems, deny an irreformable teaching to be infallibly taught by requiring a formula for definition that nowhere previously exists. On this basis someone could deny the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption as infallibly taught. . . .

Vernon Sattler, C.Ss.R.
Professor Emeritus University of Scranton
Scranton, PA

Avery Dulles replies:

Father Sattler evidently holds that there can be no justified doubts regarding the presence of “fully human life” in the early stages of the development of the embryo, but many experts disagree. I do not know how one could prove the presence of a spiritual soul from the moment of conception, and the Pope, as I interpret him, allows for some legitimate diversity of opinion on this point. I accept the principle that forbids the direct killing of even doubtful human life. Whether other moral theologians agree is for them to say.

The question whether the three key propositions in Evangelium Vitae are infallible will continue to be discussed. One reason for hesitation is the statement of Cardinal Ratzinger that the term “infallible,” present in earlier drafts, was dropped from the final text. Whether one uses the term “infallible” or not, one must recognize that the Pope claims to be setting forth the universal and definitive teaching of the magisterium, based on Scripture and Tradition. He does not, however, invoke his powers to make an ex cathedra definition, with all the canonical consequences that such a definition would entail. Earlier popes, in proclaiming the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, declared them to be dogmas revealed by God, to be believed on a motive of divine faith under pain of heresy. No such language is contained in the present encyclical. As Ratzinger said in his press conference, John Paul II stopped “short of the formality of dogmatization.” Father Sattler seems to overlook this difference, which I take to be significant.

More Than a Rant

Janet Marsden’s review of E. Michael Jones’ biography of Cardinal Krol (October 1995) begins by calling it “a disjointed rant,” but proceeds to underscore its extraordinary importance. As a biography of the Cardinal, it departs at times from His Eminence, seeming to use him merely as a point of departure to explore other things. Even so, the Cardinal comes out standing tall. At least with respect to two issues in which I was deeply involved”government family planning and freedom of parental choice in education”I can testify to Jones’ accuracy in describing what proved to be fateful developments.

The first issue concerned not merely the unprecedented idea of using taxpayers’ money to promote contraception but also that of bringing the coercive power of government to bear upon the poor. The Gruening family planning bill, described by Mr. Jones, was designed as an opening move for American population control. Disgracefully, critics of Humanae Vitae within the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) deliberately undermined the efforts of Archbishops Krol and O’Boyle (and, notably, Bishop John Wright) to oppose the Gruening bill and its Planned Parenthood supporters. I deem it a blessing that Jones was granted full access to the Krol files so that the story of those events could at last be brought to light. Unhappily, the major constitutional issues involved in government family planning still remain largely unconfronted . . . .

Thanks to Cardinal O’Boyle, the Human Life and Natural Family Planning Foundation came into existence in 1968 as a positive response to Paul VI’s call in Humanae Vitae for scientific research on human reproduction. All too widely in the Church today that encyclical is a dead letter and pastoral instruction on its precepts largely nonexistent. It is hence not surprising that the population planners have greatly succeeded. But the genesis of their whole development can be found in the events of thirty years ago. Church leaders today should learn from those events, and for that Mr. Jones is “must” reading.

The second issue in Mr. Jones’ book that I can personally say he deals with accurately is that of freedom of parental choice in education. His story of the events that culminated in the Lemon and Tilton cases is highly instructive in light of the continuing efforts today of Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and evangelicals to achieve parental freedom. As in the case of government family planning, forces within the Church sabotaged the best efforts of the best of our bishops. This came about by the move of NCWC staff to bring about a Supreme Court decision in line with the secular academic thinking among Catholic educators that Mr. Jones so well describes. That effort succeeded in the case known as Tilton v. Richardson . First Things readers interested in that development will find the picture completed in my book, Mere Creatures of the State.

The NCWC bankrolled a legal defense of federal grants to colleges in Connecticut based on the secularization of those colleges. The success of that defense gives Catholic college presidents today the pretext (“Without federal money, we will have to close our doors”) to defy Ex Corde Ecclesiae ”John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities”and those few bishops who insist on observance of that document.

William B. Ball
Harrisburg, PA

Whose Obstacle?

I read with interest “That They May Be One” (Public Square, October 1995) . As a well-educated religious woman, I don’t comprehend Father Neuhaus’ rather jaundiced statement that women’s ordination is “a major obstacle to unity.” Let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a change: rather, many Anglicans and Lutherans have looked at sexism as the sin that it is, and have called women as ministers for their churches. The Vatican, on the other hand, continues with business as usual, refusing to admit that its sexist attitudes are a major stumbling block . . . .

Carol Bodenheimer
Winston Salem, NC

Not Necessarily PC

David Love Glazer (“FT Goes PC?” Correspondence, October 1995) complains about RJN’s use of “a politically correct their in place of the grammatically correct his” in the examples “Anyone can, for instance, publish a novel titled Moby Dick , so long as they put their name on it” and “Everybody worth their salt in sociology . . . “ Mr. Glazer takes this as the first step on the slippery slope toward transmogrifying God the Father/Son into God the Parent/Child. In fact, these are two distinct cases. I agree with him on the stupidity of the latter, but it does us no good to mix it with the former. A letter does not permit full explication of the problem, but I can give some indications.

To begin with, English does not have a generic he. The generic-he rule of English grammar was invented in the eighteenth century. As nearly as I can tell, it first appeared in a grammar by a man named Dinnsen in 1731. He reasoned approximately as Mr. Glazer did: everybody is singular but not explicitly feminine; therefore, it must be masculine and should be replaced by he.

There are three flaws in this reasoning. First, the initial premise is wrong. Everybody is not necessarily singular: Everybody waved at the guest of honor and she (or he, depending on the guest’s sex) waved back at them. Second, though everybody is not explicitly feminine, neither is it explicitly masculine. Thus the second premise is incomplete. As a result, the inferences drawn by Dinnsen and Mr. Glazer do not follow. It is at least as valid to reason that, since everybody is not explicitly masculine, it must be feminine and should be replaced by she. Of course, this is also an incorrect conclusion.

Conversely, English does have a generic pronoun, and it is they. Alfred the Great used it in the ninth century and so did Cardinal Newman in the nineteenth.The former defined Old English, and the latter is generally recognized as a good stylist of Modern English. Neither was a barbarian. Moreover, I conducted an extensive study in the early 1980s. In truly generic cases, somebody, everybody, nobody, and the like are replaced by they almost 85 percent of the time, by he or you about 6 percent of the time each, and by he/she about 3 percent of the time. Thus, even after two and a half centuries of indoctrination by English teachers (all of mine were women), the generic-he rule is not observed. I do sympathize with Mr. Glazer on this basis, however: women (teachers) made him learn the rule and now women (militant feminists) attack anyone who observes what women taught him.

To take another case, consider the masculine pronoun in “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This usage is the result of a translation from a language with a structure differing from that of English in having grammatical gender. I haven’t the space to expand on this question here. Suffice it to say that a better translation would be “Whoever has ears to hear, let ‘em hear.” The listener can then decide whether the ‘em is a contraction of them or of him.

In short, RJN stands falsely accused, and as a professional linguist who has published extensively but to no avail on the above subjects, I argue for dismissal of the charges.

However, in the matter of the neutering of God, I suspect Neuhaus, Glazer, and I agree. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that Jesus was male, so God the Son is a factual epithet. The Holy Child also has its place, but its place does not include usurpation of the Son. He is obligatory for Jesus. Nor should it be necessary to point out that Jesus referred to His Father, Who had sent Him. The correct pronoun for father is also he. There is no pronominal reference obligatory for the Holy Spirit. But since two of the three persons are He and since we are dealing with one God, He cannot possibly be wrong. Anyone who finds it offensive can do whatever they like, but they should not be permitted to bully the rest of us into denying both Scripture and Tradition.

I hope this clears things up.

William J. Sullivan
Gainesville, FL

Northernizing the Evangelicals

I would like to point out that, in addition to demonstrating wishful thinking, Michael Lind’s New Republic article profoundly misunderstands the historic role of evangelical Protestantism in American public life (“Conservatism? What Conservatism?” Public Square, October 1995) .

Rather than southernizing the nation, politically active evangelicals have themselves been “northernized” in their attitudes. This is ably pointed out in James Reichley’s book Religion in American Public Life (Brookings, 1985) and in D. G. Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

Like the northern Protestants of the nineteenth century, today’s politically active evangelicals (Southern and otherwise) support family values and a more accommodationist understanding of the First Amendment. Southern evangelicals have also publicly repented of their previous quiescence in the face of racial injustice and have sought better relations with black Christians. This trend is further reinforced by the Southern evangelicals’ emphasis on world mission and outreach in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is most unjust to link Southern evangelicalism as a whole with doctrines of white supremacy or separatism or anti-Semitism. I’m a Catholic myself and disagree with evangelical Protestants on many important issues, but I don’t like seeing them gratuitously slandered.

Another striking development in Southern evangelicalism is a neo-Puritan encouragement of economic initiative, education, and the work ethic. Not that these concerns have ever been absent in the South, but they show a mentality quite different from both old-style Southern conservatism and sixties-style liberalism. Like their northern antecedents in Lincoln’s day, the new evangelicals have naturally been drawn to the Republican Party. . . .

So I think Michael Lind would be more accurate to say that Northern church life and Lincoln’s GOP have at last taken root in the South”and under the rubric of conservatism, yet!

Who would have expected it?

W. Robert Aufill
Princeton, NJ