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The Public Square

The Gods of Left and Right

We are regularly cautioned against stereotypes, and rightly so. A stereotype is a type or image that is unchangeable, as though carved in stone (from the Greek stereos, meaning solid). On the other hand, stereotypes exist because certain images or impressions are so often reinforced by experience. This is true of stereotypes of all sorts—national, racial, ethnic, religious, occupational. In fact, stereotypes are essential to daily living. They make up a large part of the stock of wisdom that we call common sense. As Jesse Jackson observed in an unguarded moment, if you see five young white males coming from a Bible class on one side of the street and five young black males hanging out on the other side, you have no trouble in knowing which side of the street you want to be on. Stereotypes are also essential to most forms of humor. Lawyer jokes would not be funny were there not so many lawyers who are that way. Drag queens must fit the stereotype of drag queens or they simply are not drag queens, and television sitcoms are entirely dependent upon playing off, and against, stereotypes—whether of the inner city, white suburbia, the rural South, or interfering mothers-in-law.

Stereotypes also and inevitably make up a large part of our thinking about big questions such as religion and politics, and about the ways in which those two big questions get strangely entangled. For instance, we often encounter, not least of all in these pages, the stereotype of mainline/oldline/sideline Protestantism as a pitifully dispirited world of uncertain belief joined to desperate trendiness and institutional decline. Within oldline Protestantism there are many exceptions, but that is the stereotype because it is so persistently reinforced by what old-line Protestants, especially the more visible and vocal of them, say and do. The precipitous decline of liberal Protestantism is frequently viewed as a phenomenon of the last few decades, but the stereotype of religious liberalism as desiccated and dying goes back much further in time. Of the New England Protestantism that he knew, Herman Melville wrote in 1876,

Rome and the Atheist have gained:
These two shall fight it out—these two;
Protestantism being retained
For base of operations sly
by Atheism.

It is the case that many leaders of what might be called the politics of atheism have been but one step or one generation removed from the liberal Protestant pulpit. An outstanding instance was the enormously influential John Dewey, who proposed to Americans that they replace their traditional religion with a “common faith” of socialist struggle. Dewey is claimed as intellectual godfather, so to speak, by Richard Rorty, a person of considerable influence in today’s academy. On the political side of the strange entanglement of religion and politics, there are also stereotypes that have been reinforced over the years. Ever since the French Revolution formally divided the house, we have had a left and a right, with the attendant stereotypes of each. From time to time, voices are raised urging us to get beyond such labels, beyond left and right, beyond liberal and conservative. Such voices belong to those who are aptly called “beyondists” and they are usually located on the left.

An Occasion to Look Again

Inevitable though they are, stereotypes should be regularly challenged. At least they should be reexamined, to see whether our assumptions fit the facts. While they have an impressive solidity, stereotypes, too, need to be readjusted on occasion. A good occasion for reexamining the religion and politics of left and right is offered by Richard Rorty’s recent little book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard University Press). Engaging Rorty’s stereotypes can also result in a honing of our own. Of stereotypes Rorty has no shortage. The stereotypes begin with the defining differences between left and right. The difference is marvelously simple: The left is for change, the right is against change. “For the right,” says Rorty, “never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the left’s struggle for social justice as mere trouble making, as utopian foolishness. The left, by definition, is the party of hope.”

You say it is risible to claim that figures such as Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, William Bennett, and Robert Bork think the country is basically in good shape, and you are right. But stay with me. I assure you Professor Rorty is a man of influence, and the lectures collected in Achieving Our Country have become a much-discussed point of reference on the left. What defines the left, says Rorty, is commitment to social justice, and social justice is defined, in turn, by the socialized redistribution of wealth. The defining cause of the left is, says Rorty, “substituting social justice for individual freedom as our country’s principal goal.” In this light it becomes apparent that the term “conservative intellectual” is an oxymoron. “For intellectuals are supposed to be aware of, and speak to, issues of social justice. But even the most learned and thoughtful of current conservatives ridicule those who raise such issues.”

In response to that, I am tempted to describe in detail what is happening in conservative circles these days. For instance, a recent meeting at the conservative Manhattan Institute that brought together hundreds of leaders to learn from and help support black and Hispanic organizers working through faith-based agencies to transform the lives of the poor, especially young people, coping with drugs, criminal gangs, fatherless families, and other burdens. But I will resist the temptation, except to note that in cities across the country, and generally under conservative auspices, such street-level programs of personal and community renewal are rapidly multiplying. Nothing comparable is happening on the left. And, of course, it is conservatives who are pressing for the basic justice of parental choice in education, a choice taken for granted by the affluent. But our interest here is in the stereotypes of Mr. Rorty, and none of these concerns counts as “social justice” in his view since they are not aimed at advancing the redistribution of wealth under the auspices of the state. On the contrary, such efforts are reactionary because they have personal freedom, responsibility, and opportunity, rather than Mr. Rorty’s “social justice,” as their principal goal.

The Name of the Dream

An appendix to Achieving Our Country is a eulogy of the late Irving Howe, a political saint of Mr. Rorty’s vision of the left. Toward the end of his life, Howe averred that, despite all the crushing disappointments of “real existent socialism,” it remained the case that “socialism is the name of our dream.” For Rorty, that dream is nothing less than a religion, of whom the chief apostles are Walt Whitman and John Dewey, and of which America is the New Jerusalem. “They wanted Americans,” writes Rorty, “to take pride in what America might, all by itself and by its own lights, make of itself, rather than in America’s obedience to any authority—even the authority of God.” Especially the authority of God. He quotes Whitman:

And I call to mankind. Be not curious about God.
For I who am curious about each am not curious
about God.

Whitman and Dewey, writes Rorty, “wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire.” “They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul.” In what some might take as an idolatrously perverse patriotism, Rorty admiringly quotes Whitman’s exclamation, “How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance!” The older forms of religion have long been superfluous, even obstacles, to the dream. “Whitman and Dewey, I have argued, gave us all the romance, and all the spiritual uplift, we Americans need to go about our public business.” This religion of patriotic fervor sets Rorty against other leftisms with their “semi-conscious anti-Americanism, which they carried over from the rage of the late sixties.”

The “spiritual uplift” supplied by the religion of social justice is not simply for “public business” but also for personal redemption. Unlike Marx and others who tried to turn socialism into a science and thought they knew what would happen, Rorty’s religion is radically open to, adamantly insistent upon, the new—making possible a life of “pure, joyous hope.” The past, including Christianity, contributes to his childlike piety of limitless possibility. “The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular from Christianity, is not instruction about the authority under which we should live, but suggestions about how to make ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.” Americans must embrace an endless revolution of new beginnings; every achievement is but prelude to another radically new beginning. “This new culture will be better because it will contain more variety in unity—it will be a tapestry in which more strands have been woven together. But this tapestry, too, will eventually have to be torn to shreds in order that a larger one may be woven, in order that the past may not obstruct the future.”

Yet Rorty insists that such soaring flights of socialist devotion must be tethered to the “real politics” of incremental change in using the state to combat capitalist exploitation—capitalist exploitation being the religion of the right. He is withering in his critique of an academic left that has become “spectatorial” in its obsession with “theory” that is disengaged from the real world. The university is, for Rorty, the ecclesial magisterium of the religion of social justice, and it is today threatened by heretics. The academic left should understand that “It’s the economy, stupid,” but is instead captive to theory and culture. “Leftists in the academy,” he complains, “have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the right in making cultural issues central to public debate.” In calling the left to return to an older economics-based reformism, however, Rorty is careful not to appear threatening to the cultural, and especially the sexual and gender concerns, that have so preoccupied the left in recent years.

The Return of Original Sin

Nonetheless, the academic theorists on the left are undermining the Whitmanesque hope of limitless possibility. The disciples of Foucault dismiss that hope as naive “humanism.” “Hopelessness,” says Rorty, “has become fashionable on the left—principled, theorized, philosophical hopelessness.” “I see this preference for knowledge over hope as repeating the move made by leftist intellectuals who, earlier in the century, got their Hegelianism from Marx rather than Dewey.” Put differently, they prefer scientific theory to utopian religion. Theorists on the left, says Rorty, are guilty of reintroducing the concept of original sin. The Foucauldian suspicion of “power” is “reminiscent of the ubiquity of Satan, and thus of the ubiquity of original sin.” By way of sharpest contrast, “the repudiation of the concept of sin was at the heart of Dewey and Whitman’s civic religion.”

The betrayal of the intellectuals takes many forms, in Rorty’s judgment. He criticizes the undercutting of our common identity as Americans, the elect people, by an obsession with group identity and the politics of victimization. “If the cultural left insists on its present strategy—on asking us to respect one another in our differences rather than asking us to cease noticing those differences—it will have to find a new way of creating a sense of commonality at the level of national politics.” This comes as an aside that Rorty does not develop, but it sounds suspiciously like support for racial integration and opposition to affirmative action and quotas, which are of course causes of a conservative hue. It is perhaps not surprising that in this connection Rorty dares only to hint at the vastness of the gap between his left and the left now regnant in the university. He dare not alienate that left entirely if he is to have any takers for his proposal that the left should “emerge from the academy into the public square,” returning to what he calls the real world of politics.

Rorty’s proposal is deeply colored by nostalgia for a world that was. His grandfather was Walter Rauschenbusch, the foremost champion of the Protestant “social gospel” movement, and it is to that creed, revised by Dewey to free it from an inconvenient God, that he would be faithful. “Because a lot of my relatives helped write and administer New Deal legislation,” he recalls, “I associated leftism with a constant need for new laws and new bureaucratic initiatives which would redistribute the wealth produced by the capitalist system.” In that progressive circle of his childhood—the circle of the La Follette family and the reformist bureaucrats and academics of Madison, Wisconsin—“American patriotism, redistributionist economics, anticommunism, and Deweyan pragmatism went together easily and naturally. I think of that circle as typical of the reformist American left of the first half of the century.”

Rorty is an old liberal, and he deplores the way in which, in the 1960s, the left pitted radicals against liberals. At the same time, as was the pattern then among liberal parents of radical children, he is a good liberal in being very “understanding” of why people such as he had to be excommunicated for a time. Of the radicals he says, “Their loss of patience was the result of perfectly justified, wholly sincere moral indignation—moral indignation which, the New Left rightly sensed, we reformists were too tired and too battered to feel.” At the same time, he pleads that he and those like him should now be welcomed back into the fold. The academic theorists of the cultural left––those who have been distracted by “mostly apocalyptic French and German philosophy” at the expense of political economy—must recognize that they now need as allies “what remains of the pre-sixties reformist left.” What remains is, in his view, substantial. “That saving remnant consists largely of labor lawyers and labor organizers, congressional staffers, low-level bureaucrats hoping to rescue the welfare state from the Republicans, journalists, social workers, and people who work for foundations.” Rorty’s description of the saving remnant is pretty much like the conspiracy that gives some conservatives nightmares.

His hope for the future is in the universities that will once again recognize that they are the training ground for the formation of intellectuals, meaning people committed to social justice. “Each new generation of students ought to think of American leftism as having a long and glorious history,” he writes. And his hope is in labor unions that are devoted to the real politics of putting an end to capitalist exploitation. “If the intellectuals and the unions could ever get back together again, and could reconstitute the kind of left which existed in the forties and fifties, the first decade of the twenty-first century might conceivably be a Second Progressive Era.” Rorty’s is a wan hope, for he seems to know that between the Foucauldian academics and the besieged unionism of John Sweeney’s AFL-CIO a great gulf is fixed. Achieving Our Country is a poignant plea to heal that breach, and since Rorty knows that his book will be read more by professors than by plumbers, he stretches his liberalism to appease both the academic apocalypticists of despair and the leftists of sexual and cultural liberation. They have made mistakes, but he understands and is ready to forgive. They are not the enemy. The enemy is the right.

The Remnant at a Loss

Achieving Our Country is a curious book, but a useful study in stereotypes. After all that has happened in recent decades, Rorty’s left is defined, quite simply, by socialism. To his credit, he has always wanted to be an anti-Communist socialist, but a socialist nonetheless. It follows that Rorty’s right is defined by what he views as uncritical support for laissez faire capitalism. Over the years few thinkers have done as much as Rorty to advance theories of “anti-foundationalism.” All “truths,” he has taught, are socially constructed “all the way down.” Now he is distressed that his academic epigones have extended deconstructionist theory to his socialist dream, and are not amenable to being converted to his messianic religion of America as the Redeemer Nation of limitless possibilities.

Rorty and his “saving remnant” of old liberals are at a loss. The left that has turned to cultural politics has long since abandoned Rorty’s all too simple stereotype of the right. In its promotion of “reproductive rights,” “alternative families,” “same-sex marriage,” “multiculturalism,” and much else, the left is on the front line of what counts as real politics today. Rorty is an echo of an earlier time. He quotes Grandfather Rauschenbusch railing against capitalist “servants of Mammon... who have cloaked their extortion with the gospel of Christ.” Such are the fusty clichés of history book stereotypes. The clichés are untouched by the reality of the moral, social, and cultural conflicts at the heart of contemporary politics. In his fixation on the economic, Rorty is, ironically, the perfect counterpart to much of the “country club” leadership of the Republican Party. For instance, not once in Achieving Our Country is there a mention of abortion, the single most determinative question in the alignment of the forces in cultural and moral conflict today, which is to say in the real politics of our time. Nor is it an accident that the single most important variable in attitudes toward abortion—and most other issues in conflict—is religious commitment. Not, of course, commitment to the religion of Whitman and Dewey. As John Dewey found out in 1934 when he published his creed, A Common Faith, most Americans already had a religion and were not inclined to exchange it for his.

Now Richard Rorty, heir to the mantle of Dewey’s pragmatism, is discovering the price of the anti-foundationalism that he so successfully championed. Without foundations, there are no truths that can mandate radical change, and the stereotypes of left and right by which he defines “social justice,” along with his religio-patriotic flights of “pure, joyous hope” in limitless change, seem no more than quaint and fanciful. Without foundations, choices are finally arbitrary, and Rorty’s reasons for choosing the failed political atheism that is one step removed from the liberal Protestant pulpit is less than convincing. With Whitman, he affirms the “refusal to believe in the existence of Truth, in the sense of something not made by human hands, something which has authority over human beings.” Rorty’s truth is not immune from that great refusal. People, including most intellectuals on the left, might be forgiven for questioning why the truth of Rorty’s social justice should have authority over them, or over Rorty, for that matter. Pragmatism as a philosophy, its proponents insist, is more than a matter of what works, but it ought to work better than that. 

Bringing Matters to a Head

There are some things, says George McKenna of City College of New York, that simply are not to be discussed. Inherent racial differences is one of them. Distinctive gender roles is another. Defending the Holocaust is yet another. But suppose—just suppose—that in the name of free academic discourse the uncrossable boundaries were crossed. On the Holocaust, for instance, asks McKenna, what if a free-thinking academic were to argue thus: “The Nazis did terrible things, but their mistake was in the minor premise. They were right to speak of life unworthy of life (lebensunwertes Leben), but wrong to apply it wholesale to the Jews. Some Jews, yes, the defective ones. But also defective Gentiles.”

Enter the ethics of Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher recently appointed to a professorship of Bioethics at Princeton’s Center for Human Values. His claim is, in a nutshell, “Some members of our species are persons: some members of our species are not.”

That’s the easy part. It only gets tricky when we try to figure out which ones of us are not persons. Singer has a little list: the unborn, the newborn, old people with Alzheimer’s, young people in some condition of unconsciousness, the mentally retarded, and the “defective.” In fact, there seem to be only two good reasons for letting anyone live at all: one’s potential usefulness to society and the capacity of one’s death to make another grieve. (What would happen, McKenna asks, if one were mourned only by socially useless persons?)

Singer has done us a great service, according to McKenna, in working out the full implications of abortion on demand. Singer bites the bullet, McKenna writes: “If we can kill the ones inside, we can kill the ones outside.... With murderous logic, Singer has ripped away all the respectable drapery from the culture of death; he has given us a frontal look at it in all its nakedness, without a fig leaf, the full monty.” Infanticide is the next step after abortion, and Singer very reasonably suggests a twenty-eight day trial period in which parents can decide whether or not their baby deserves to live. (Woe to the colicky newborn!) Any sort of defect would be reason enough to dispatch the child, for instance, with Down syndrome, spina bifida, or even hemophilia.

But there’s no reason to stop there. If we can kill the defective at one end of the life span, why not eliminate those at the other end too? “Show me the difference,” McKenna imagines Singer saying, “between an eight-and-a-half month fetus and a baby—show me the difference between abortion and infanticide—show me the difference between the reasoning powers of a smart dog and a senile old lady—show me why it’s more humane to starve her to death than to give her a lethal injection!”

If the worth of defective children and mindless old people can be denied, why not the worth of others who are inconvenient? If we can abort a hemophiliac fetus, lethally inject a screaming three-week-old, and put drooling grandmothers to sleep, why not poison grouchy husbands or mail a bomb to troublesome IRS agents? But McKenna’s point is that, in Singer’s view, there is nothing inherently valuable about any human being. That would be “speciesism,” the fallacy of thinking that there is any material reason why a human being of any age or kind, simply because he is a human being, has more worth than, say, a pig or, for that matter, a cockroach. Of course, Singer is opposed to random actions. He insists that killings should be carefully regulated by the state.

McKenna’s conclusion is that Singer’s way of thinking is to be expected from one who has abandoned the biblical ethic. “The ethic of the specialness of human life is integrally, inseparably tied to Judeo-Christianity,” McKenna writes. The inevitable alternative to the old commandments are Singer’s new commandments: “Recognize that the worth of human life varies,” “Use active means to take innocent human life,” and so on. McKenna admits his own discomfort with the conclusion he comes to, but he believes that “there is no purely secular ethic of human life.” “Without Judeo-Christianity, all we have is empirical observation, i.e., what we see with our eyes.”

McKenna is right in thinking that Singer’s appointment at Princeton doesn’t have to be a cataclysm. It can, rather, be a catalyst. “We act into history,” McKenna reminds us, “and what we say and do right now can nudge events in quite different directions.... Princeton has declared as legitimate, as academically respectable, a line of reasoning that could culminate in a moral catastrophe. But it could also set the stage for the rediscovery and regeneration of America’s moral roots.”

McKenna may be right in suggesting that Singer’s appointment can helpfully bring matters to a head. Singer has said that he sometimes thinks he and the Pope are the only ones who understand what is involved in the controversy over abortion and related issues. It really is an either/or question. Either, like the Pope, you believe that all human beings—no matter how small, weak, or handicapped—have a right to be protected, or, with Singer, you adopt the doctrine of lebensunwertes Leben and recognize the need to eliminate the unfit. I have two cautions, however, about McKenna’s incisive critique. First, it is not only the Judeo-Christian ethic that provides a foundation for the protection of human life. Other religious traditions do that too. I expect McKenna would agree, but it needs to be said. With respect to our society, and Western Civilization more generally, he is entirely right in accenting the biblical ethic. Second, we should be hesitant to dismiss the efforts of secularists who try to construct an ethic of moral sanity without reference to metaphysics or the rules of religion and tradition. I share McKenna’s skepticism about whether it can be done in a convincing way, but when moral sanity is in short supply we need everybody we can get. In the final judgment, it may be the greater treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Short of that final judgment, however, we should be grateful that such secularists are trying to do the right thing. 

The Impertinence of Protesting Aggression

An editor at the New York Times recently remarked that the use of the term “culture war” is dangerously inflammatory. I think it’s a useable and useful term. I do not use it as much as the Times does, and I think it should not be used in a way that precludes the conversation and persuasion that should be, but is not, the ordinary mode of public discourse. The prestige media is generally blind to its own belligerency in the culture war; it champions as courageous the exercise of free speech that is vituperative and slanderous while simultaneously calling for civility, and condemning as uncivil even the measured responses of those who are slandered. Perhaps because the remark of the editor was on my mind, I was struck by several items in just this morning’s Times. Two cases illustrate the point.

In the arts section there is a long and laudatory profile by Alan Riding of the recent Nobel laureate in literature, José Saramago. The novels and other writings of this Portuguese writer have for years been noted for their strident atheism and attacks on the Catholic Church. When the Nobel was announced, the semi-official Vatican paper, L’Osservatore Romano, noted that, for the second year in a row, the Nobel in literature had been given to someone conspicuous for the virulence of his anti-Catholicism. Last year it went to Dario Fo of Italy, who is less a writer than a comedian in the music hall tradition of Benny Hill. He has, for instance, a routine in which an aged pope, hobbling on his cane, gropes young girls. Really hilarious stuff. The Times notes that the Vatican is not happy that the Nobel has again gone to “someone it perceives to be antireligious.” That “perceives” is a nice touch. You know how thin-skinned those Catholics are.

Saramago was a staunch Stalinist and is still an unreconstructed member of the Communist Party. That doesn’t faze Mr. Riding. He writes, “Perhaps most intriguing is this atheist writer’s fascination with religion. In [his book] The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, it is apparent that he knows his Bible, and he treats the figure of Jesus with compassion, as a victim of a power struggle between God and the Devil. But his underlying message is that religion has turned man against man in wars, massacres, exterminations, autos-da-fe and the like, ‘all in the name of God.’“ It is presumably very creative to point out that terrible things have been done in the name of religion, and to depict the Church as being on the side of the Devil against a God in whom the writer does not believe. According to Saramago, Jesus is of course the representative of the revolutionary proletariat, and of course there is no mention of the horrors perpetrated in the name of atheism by the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and others. Alan Riding finds this cliché of agitprop hack-writing “most intriguing.”

In response to the Vatican displeasure with the award of the Nobel to Fo and Comrade Saramago, the Times quotes the latter: “Why does the Vatican get involved in these things? Why doesn’t it keep itself busy with prayers? Why doesn’t it instead open its cupboards and reveal the skeletons it has inside?” In sum, how dare the Vatican interfere in the elevated world of literature just because the Catholic Church is viciously traduced? What business is that of the Vatican? The Nobel laureate mugger is offended by the impertinent protest of the muggee. Perhaps it would have been wiser if L’Osservatore Romano had not commented and thus inadvertently bestowed a certain status upon the Nobel Prize for Literature. But, despite its history, the Nobel, like the New York Times, should not be excluded from the circle of conversation by the friends of civility. Attention should be paid, in the hope that their incivility is not incorrigible.

Pushing the Hot Buttons

The second item this morning is the Times‘ editorial on the narrow (seven to six) vote by which the Miami-Dade County Commission in Florida approved a “gay rights” law. Of course the Times, which is undoubtedly the most influential voice of the gay movement in the country, is pleased by the vote, but the editors note that their victory is fragile. The popular defeat of a similar law twenty years ago under the leadership of actress Anita Bryant “spurred the rise of the religious right,” the editors observe, and the same thing could happen again. By passing the ordinance, the civic, business, and political leaders show how much they have “grown” in the interim, but there is a problem with the people. The editors note that, since the ordinance exempted religious organizations, it was not opposed by the Catholic archdiocese. But there is still the Christian Coalition and other obstacles to progress.

“The population of the county has shifted in ways that could lessen support for gay rights,” the editorial observes. “Its residents are poorer, fewer of them are Jewish or middle class, and many more of them are socially conservative Roman Catholic Hispanic immigrants than a generation ago.” If there is a referendum on the ordinance, “it will be a pitched battle that could charge the national political atmosphere once again.” “With the next presidential election in sight, neither the Christian Coalition nor gay activists who felt they played an important role in Bill Clinton’s victory will want to lose the second battle of Miami.” Talk about inflammatory. The editors push the hot buttons: liberal Jews; the famously poor, uneducated, and easily led “religious right”; culturally benighted Hispanics; Catholicism and immigration. It is a potent mixture for the anticipated conflagration that is “the second battle of Miami.” The editors may well be right in their political analysis of what is happening in Miami, and the paper is legally entitled to applaud the antireligious ravings of unrepentant Stalinists, but it would become the editors to refrain from lecturing others about the incivility of speaking about the culture war which their paper is so aggressively waging. 

Their History and Ours

Those who have not read the book itself know from Gilbert Meilaender’s insightful review essay of it (November 1997) that Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations is an argument to be reckoned with. O’Donovan was our Erasmus Lecturer last year, and that was the occasion of a very lively and productive exchange on biblical truth and the right ordering of society. A special issue of Studies in Christian Ethics is given to responses to Desire, along with O’Donovan’s response to the responses. Rabbi David Novak and I both wrote responses, and both touched on O’Donovan’s treatment of Jewish-Christian relations and Israel. In his response to O’Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas proposed that Jewish-Christian questions should be approached from the Shoah. O’Donovan does not agree.

He writes: “I can understand why the Shoah is a deeply preoccupying theme in Jewish reflection, and long will be. I can understand why it is a preoccupying theme in German reflection, and therefore also in Christian German reflection. I can understand why the Vatican, given its entanglement with the powers in the Second World War, could not just let the matter lie. But I cannot take the Shoah seriously as a Christian event. I can feel implicated and ashamed by the thirteenth-century anti-Jewish rhetoric of that great English bishop-theologian, Robert Grosseteste, to whose diocese and university I belong. I can recognize his logic, an anti-capitalist logic, as a Christian logic; and so I can acknowledge it as my own logic, too, and acknowledge responsibility for such careless exposition as allowed that logic to feed unthinking prejudices. I can see that there was a history of anti-Jewish attitudes in Christendom, fed by Christian mistakes, which, as a Christian theologian, I have a duty to identify, acknowledge, and set right. But I cannot see that the Shoah is derived from any spiritual history other than that of modern neo-paganism. As a citizen of the United Kingdom I can acknowledge collective responsibility for how Palestine was administered before 1948, and can understand how difficulties faced by Jews and Palestinians today were fed by characteristic failures in the British colonial imagination.... But any attempt on the part of a British Christian to claim a share of responsibility for the Shoah would be, at best, a tasteless piece of play-acting; and at worst, what perverted desire to command good and evil, I wonder, might possibly motivate such a claim? When it comes to repentance, the first condition of sincerity is sobriety.”

Sobriety is certainly in order. Too often in Jewish-Christian exchanges, Jews play the Holocaust as trump, and Christians, on cue, engage in unseemly and implausible rites of self-denigration. But neither is it satisfactory to say that the “Shoah is derived from [no] spiritual history other than that of modern neo-paganism.” To be sure, Hitler was as anti-Christian as he was anti-Jewish (and, in significant part, anti-Christian because he was anti-Jewish), and the policies of the Holocaust were based on neo-pagan ideology. Nonetheless, many Christians, in Germany and elsewhere, were complicit in “the teaching of contempt” toward Jews over the centuries. Without that teaching, it seems unlikely that Hitler could have targeted the Jews as he did, or would have had the measure of acquiescence in his policies that he did. Christians far removed in time and space from the Shoah should nonetheless have a vibrant sense of solidarity in the Body of Christ that enables us, indeed requires us, to recognize our involvement in both the terrible sins and heroic virtues of those who were there.

In this connection, I recommend a little booklet just out from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholics Remember the Holocaust. It includes fifteen statements from various episcopal conferences and individual bishops in Europe and North America, as well as the Holy See’s “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah,” with accompanying commentaries. Also included is a useful bibliography on these questions. Oliver O’Donovan is surely right that our reflection on the Jewish-Christian connection should not begin, and certainly cannot end, with the Holocaust. The Holocaust stands against, and for the most part outside, the history that is ours as Jews and Christians. But, it is important to remember, not entirely outside. Treating the Holocaust as the central event in Jewish-Christian relations, however, grievously distorts both Judaism and Christianity. As David Novak has written elsewhere, “As a Jew, I do not get up in the morning to curse Hitler but to glorify the God of Israel.”

While We’re At It

• This from her obituary in the New York Times. Several years before she died at age ninety-seven, Paula Kissinger, Henry’s mother, fell in the kitchen and was unconscious for several hours. She was put on a life-support system, and later the doctors wanted to remove it, telling Henry that, if she survived, she would not be able to think or speak. Henry replied, “You don’t know my mother.” Several days later she awoke and asked him, “What day is it?” He told her it was Tuesday, and she said, “Cancel my ten o’clock dentist appointment.” Good for her. Good for her son.

• It is perhaps an encouraging sign when the lawyers are worried. All this talk about the judicial usurpation of politics is getting through. Philip S. Anderson, president of the American Bar Association, writes in the ABA Journal that his group, together with the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, and the League of Women Voters is sponsoring a national conference to educate people “on public perceptions of our judiciary.” In addition to a flock of professors, Supreme Court Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen Breyer will lead the effort. They are, one might note, Justices who are more a part of the problem than of the solution. But then, the stated purpose of this “educational” project is to defend the “independence of the judiciary,” a.k.a. the judicial usurpation of politics. According to Mr. Anderson, in the American founding, “The judiciary was intended to be a check on the other branches of government to protect the people against an abuse of power.” That would come as news to Madison, Hamilton, and others who were quite explicit about three branches, each designed to check against abuses by the others. The ABA and the other sponsors are obviously, if understandably, engaged in a propaganda effort to defend the status quo, whereby the judiciary arrogates to itself not only the sole right to interpret the Constitution but also the right to make law and direct the execution of the laws it makes. In this scheme, the other two branches become ancillary to the judiciary, the superiority (i.e., “independence”) of which is not to be questioned. As to the presumably self-governing people, they get to vote from time and time, and to hope their representatives will plead their case before our judicial rulers. The ABA has good reason to be concerned about “public perceptions of our judiciary”—and about public worry that the judiciary, and with it the government, really does belong to the legal establishment that it serves.

• I have already mentioned this quality newsletter written by David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values. It’s called Propositions, and the following item on a question of great importance gives you some idea of the incisive manner in which it cuts through the cant: “Which variable most accurately predicts the likelihood of criminal behavior by a young man? His skin color? His family’s income? His or his parents’ level of education? Where he lives? Or whether or not he lives with his father? Well, all of these variables matter; everything is connected; no single study is definitive; and blah, blah, blah. But the scholarly evidence continues to mount that fatherlessness is the single most important predictor. A new study by Cynthia C. Harper of the University of Pennsylvania and Sara S. McLanahan of Princeton examines a nationally representative sample of 6,403 teenage boys who were followed over a period of fifteen years, up to their early thirties. Of boys who were living in mother-headed families at age fourteen, about 13 percent had been incarcerated by their early thirties. For boys from father-present homes, the figure is 5 percent. But of course one could argue—and I have found, whenever I speak to groups on this issue, that many people strongly believe—that this finding, properly understood, actually points less to father-absence ‘per se’ than to other, presumably more potent variables such as poverty or racism. So in their study, Harper and McLanahan ‘controlled’ for a wide variety of factors, including race, income, residential instability, urban location, neighborhoods with a high proportion of single mothers, parents’ education, the child’s cognitive ability, and child support payments. None of these factors could explain—could do what some scholars call ‘make go away’—the strong relationship between fatherlessness and the risk of incarceration. Even after all the controls, fatherless boys were twice as likely as boys living with two parents to have been incarcerated. Moreover: ‘For each year spent in a nonintact family, the odds of incarceration rise 5 percent.’ Can’t stepfathers substitute in this regard for fathers? Apparently not: ‘Youths living in stepparent families face odds of incarceration 2.9 times as high as those in mother-father households.’ In fact: ‘The odds for youths from stepparent families are similar to those from youths who do not live with any parents, although these children, in addition to not having any parents care for them, are selected for more difficult family circumstances.’ When single mothers remarry, it seems that many boys do not so much gain a father as lose some of their mother’s attention and support. Another recent study by William S. Comanor and Llad Phillips of the University of California at Santa Barbara reaches similar conclusions: ‘Examining the likelihood that boys will be stopped, charged, or convicted of a crime between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two, we find that the single most important factor, more relevant even than family income, is the presence of the father in the home. The probability of delinquency, measured in this way, is typically twice as high in cases where the father is absent than when he is present.’ This study, too, looked at the role of stepfathers and boyfriends: ‘There is strong evidence that delinquency rates are lower when the mother is alone with her son than when she has invited another man into the house. To be sure, these rates are not as low as when the father is present, but they clearly indicate the stepfathers or boyfriends are not the solution. There is no statistical difference between rates with father-mother families and those with fathers and stepmothers, while delinquency rates are much higher with mothers and stepfathers.’”

• Whose ball is in whose court is not entirely certain at the moment. Rome and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) planned to have before the end of 1998 a festive joint signing of the Joint Declaration (JD) on justification by faith, which would signify a lifting of the mutual anathemas of the sixteenth century. But then things were thrown into a cocked hat by Rome’s raising of challenges to what had presumably been agreed (see “Setback in Rome,” Public Square, October 1998). Now Rome insists that its questions about JD were misinterpreted, and it wants to go ahead with the signing. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of LWF, says, “We had hoped we could have signed by now, but joint signature can take place only if there is a common understanding of what is being signed.” Bishop Christian Krause, president of LWF, thinks it will take a while to get to the joint signing. “We are in the last phase of a thirty-year dialogue. What is six more months?” Rome says it expects a joint signing before the end of the year.

• The same might be said of Stanford, Princeton, or Yale, but let’s stick with Harvard for the moment. The case for affirmative action (a.k.a. quotas), which was recently reiterated by Harvard’s ex-President Derek Bok at book length, is that certain sectors of the population are “underrepresented.” Ron Unz, the author of the successful California initiative limiting bilingual education, points out that the flip side of that is that other sectors are overrepresented. Asians, for example, are 2 to 3 percent of the American population but are nearly 20 percent of Harvard undergraduates. Jews are 2 percent of the population, but a quarter to a third of Harvard students identify themselves as Jewish. Thus Asians and Jews are approximately 50 percent of the student body, leaving the other half for 95 percent of the country. There are quota slots for black (8 percent) and Hispanic (7 percent) enrollment, and then there are a large number of foreign students. Thus, says Mr. Unz, “it seems likely that non-Jewish white Americans represent no more than a quarter of Harvard undergraduates, even though this group constitutes nearly 75 percent of the population at large, resulting in a degree of underrepresentation far more severe than that of blacks, Hispanics, or any other minority group.” Even among non-Jewish whites, given the number of Northeastern WASPs at Harvard, one might ask about the representation of, say, Southern evangelical Protestants or Italian Catholics, who surely belong in any school that cherishes “diversity.” Defenders of affirmative action might propose a policy of drastically reducing the number of Asians and Jews, but that, notes Mr. Unz, “would be controversial to say the least.” He concludes that the much-discussed hostility of “angry white males” to affirmative action may, in fact, reflect the great majority of Americans who feel discriminated against by institutions such as Harvard that are springboards for entrance into the country’s leadership elite. The entire idea of representation (whether “over” or “under”) is inherently unworkable and sorely in need of debunking. Institutions—whether universities, businesses, or even churches—are designed to fulfill some purpose, and different people will be differently qualified for or interested in that purpose. The institution should faithfully represent the purpose for which it was designed, not the demographic data provided by the U.S. Census. Unless the promoters of quotas in elite universities are prepared to drastically reduce the number of Asians and Jews, and to open such schools to identifiable groups that are now excluded, their claim to be concerned about justice—even justice-as-representation—rings hollow. But on the entire question of affirmative action, those who want to end it, not mend it, have, in my judgment, the better part of the argument.

• The new norms for implementing the 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae could be “disastrous” for Catholic higher education in the U.S., say the editors of America. The norms require that presidents of institutions, teachers of theology, and a majority of the boards of trustees be “faithful Catholics.” America opines: “For Catholic colleges and universities that live in a world of accrediting associations and government regulation, the adoption of such norms would reverse three decades of development.” Precisely.

• Massachusetts has the third-highest percentage of wealthy people—those making more than $100,000 per year—and ranks dead last among the states in giving to charity. Arkansas ranks first, Mississippi second, followed by South Dakota, Louisiana, and Oklahoma—all among the nine poorest states. Might it have something to do with the Bay State being so heavily Catholic? Quite possibly. Catholics hear little about stewardship and almost nothing about tithing. In addition, where institutions are old and well-established, people tend to assume that somebody else is taking care of the bills. Moreover, Catholic parishes tend to be very large and there is a correlation between large parishes and low giving. Then too, Massachusetts has a tradition of big government (remember “Taxachusetts”?) that discourages voluntary giving. Such factors help explain but do not excuse. (Please hold the letters. I know there are exceptions. For instance, the Boston subscriber who just sent a very generous check in support of FT. May her tribe multiply.)

• In a generally balanced survey of the interaction of religion and U.S. foreign policy, historian Leo Ribuffo of George Washington University concludes with his worries—some legitimate and some a bit far-fetched—about the implications of the recently enacted law requiring the U.S. to take religious persecution into account in its dealings with other countries. Professor Ribuffo, with apologies for sounding like an echo from the sixties, says he is concerned about “cultural imperialism.” “Finally,” he writes in the National Interest, “is it ever acceptable for countries to preserve atheistic systems or religious homogeneity?” “If not, then non-Christians might plausibly complain that [the act] promotes the world’s foremost evangelical religion, Christianity, which also happens to be the majority religion of the United States.” If one believes that religious freedom is a human right—a proposition unanimously affirmed by the entire human rights tradition—then the answer to his question has to be in the negative. The conclusion that Prof. Ribuffo draws from that might be taken as an inadvertent acknowledgment that there is a necessary connection between human rights and Christianity. It is at least somewhat strange that the National Interest should be joining with Chinese and sundry other dictatorships in claiming that U.S. concern about human rights is an instance of cultural imperialism.

• Once again, Alan Wolfe’s One Nation After All, a rather sanguine book based on interviews with two hundred presumably typical middle-class Americans which concludes that our chief, and maybe only, virtue as a people is tolerance. William Galston writes in the Public Interest: “I think Wolfe pulls his punches a bit; the evidence he presents permits us to raise far more serious questions. A choice-based conception of social life leads to instrumental bonds, a cult of conflict avoidance, an absence of real engagement, and a loss of seriousness. Worst of all, it is hard to see how this new morality provides any basis for sacrifice, in either personal or civic life. Marriages are ended when they become inconvenient; religions are selected like new fashions in the mall and then cast aside when they cease to meet our personal needs. Forty years ago, young men assumed that they would have to serve in the armed forces, regardless of how they felt about it. Today, fewer and fewer have any experience (civilian or military) of service undertaken out of civic, moral, and legal duty rather than a personal quest for meaning (or college subsidies). This new morality—do what you choose, when you choose, without fear of legal coercion or social disapproval—is an experiment without precedent in human history. Perhaps it will succeed; I doubt it. At some point, we will be called upon for sacrifices that we can’t pay others to make on our behalf. And then we will see whether the self-protective nonjudgmentalism Wolfe so ably describes constitutes an adequate basis for a free society.”

• I see the government of Israel, through its ambassador to the Holy See, has taken it upon itself to tell the Catholic Church that it must not canonize Pius XII. The Pope’s “cause” was entered in 1965 and is presumably moving along at the listless pace for which the Curia is famous. The intervention of a foreign state in the Church’s deliberation about who should be recognized as a saint did raise a few eyebrows among clerks who have accumulated a vast number of testimonials to the sanctity and heroism of Pius XII, including Jewish testimonials. There is, for instance, the Anti-Defamation League Bulletin of October 1958 (“Pope Pius XII and the Jews”), which offers unstinting praise for his efforts on behalf of the Jews throughout the war. The article cites the Jewish News Bulletin, which said upon the June 1944 entrance of the Allies into Rome, “The full story of the help given to our people by the Church cannot be told, for obvious reasons, until after the war.” After the war it was told, for a time. Until Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy in 1964 and the decision of some circles in organized Jewry that ingratitude and the smearing of the Catholic Church generally, and of Pius XII in particular, would be good for the Jews. It is most regrettable that the government of Israel seems to agree. Such attacks are not good for anybody.

• I suppose it is to be expected at the end of a century. I’ve noticed the number of writers taking a long look backward, and especially the frequency of the thought that the big horrors started with World War I. Allan Massie writes in the Spectator (London): “The final irony is that half a century after the second of these wars we have arrived at the position that the first was supposed by its advocates to have been fought to prevent: the creation of a European Union dominated by Germany—a union, moreover, into which we have reluctantly been drawn in contradiction of the wisest principles of British policy for centuries. Choosing to fight in 1914 condemned Germany and Europe to Hitler, Russia and Europe to Stalin, the whole continent, and then the world, to war again twenty-five years later, and has finally condemned us to our present condition, forced to choose between being a satellite of the USA or a province of the European Union.” Or what if the terms of surrender had been different in World War I, or if the Hapsburg Empire and the Czar had been left standing? Such thoughts provide a Niebuhrian sense of the ironies of history, a salutary antidote when reading some contemporary Wilsonians on Pax Americana.

• In a comment titled “Grasping for the Gold” (November 1998), I noted the increasingly unseemly business of lawyers and Jewish agencies who are exploiting the Holocaust for profit. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has now expressed similar concerns. “A new ‘industry’ has sprung up,” he writes, “spearheaded by lawyers and institutions, in an effort to get what they call ‘justice’ for Holocaust victims.” “As a Holocaust survivor, I question for whom they speak and how they define ‘justice.’ The focus must remain on discovering the truth, on revealing and owning up to the past.” Individuals who have specific claims have a right to pursue them, but lawyers who view Holocaust survivors as “clients” for class-action bonanzas are something else. “There is no place for ambulance chasers in this serious and sacred undertaking,” says Foxman. He is ambivalent about the $1.25 billion that the Swiss banks finally came up with. “Yes, we got a check, but what about morality, reconciliation, and confronting the past? The Swiss have yet to come to grips with the realities that their history, not the Jews, is their enemy, and that settlement was not blackmail but a moral debt they should have paid voluntarily.” But of course it was a kind of blackmail; the money was extracted under dire threats by the World Jewish Congress and others against Swiss financial and business interests. Predictably, the result was an increase of anti-Jewish sentiment in Switzerland, and in other countries under similar pressure. “I fear that all the talk about Holocaust-era assets is skewing the Holocaust,” Foxman writes, “making the century’s last word on the Holocaust that the Jews died not because they were Jews, but because they had bank accounts, gold, art, and property.” Mr. Foxman’s challenge to a Holocaust restitution industry that has gone wildly out of control is most welcome. There are many lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, and Mr. Foxman is on solid ground in fearing that “Those lessons will be diminished and skewed by the efforts to put money over morality.”

• For many years I edited Forum Letter, an independent Lutheran publication, and I still read it with appreciation. The December issue discusses the “Formula of Agreement” by which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) established full altar and pulpit fellowship (comparable to what Catholics mean by “full communion”) with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other Reformed bodies. Historically, Lutherans and Calvinists have sharply disagreed about, inter alia, the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The concern is that the Lutheran insistence on the Real Presence is gravely compromised, if not abandoned, in the “Formula of Agreement.” Pastor Frank Senn of the ELCA believes, however, that the church assembly’s action on this question is but part of a much bigger problem: “The highest authority in the ELCA is a 1,000-member churchwide assembly that is brought together for a week every two years. Such an assembly can be subject to mood swings in its own deliberations and in the wider church in which truth becomes almost irrelevant. Even ecumenical councils could be subject to mood swings, but what balances the force of passing moods is an awareness on the part of bishops and theologians that they represent the apostolic tradition in the decisions they must make. The ELCA churchwide assembly is not capable of ‘teaching’ with authority, in spite of its constitutional legitimacy, because it is 60 percent composed of lay people who are not, in the words of the Augsburg Confession, Article 14, ‘regularly called’ to the teaching office in the Church. So the collapse of confessional doctrine, ecclesiology, liturgical norms, and moral teaching follows as a matter of course. We see this reflected in the decisions of this past summer. This churchwide assembly entered into full communion with churches with whom we do not have agreement in eucharistic faith and practice; it could not seize an opportunity to begin a process of restoring a polity [the historic episcopate] that its own Confessions prefer; it did not think to remove from a statement on The Use of the Means of Grace a provision that allows bishops to authorize lay persons to preside at the Eucharist; and it was unable to order the church’s board of pensions to stop paying for abortions through its health plan. In each case the decision made required no change of the status quo. I wonder what would have been the fate of the Formula of Agreement if it had required polity changes on our part. This is the actual ELCA authority-structure with which other churches must deal once we move past the stage of dialogue to the stage of implementing real ecclesiastical-political relationships of full communion or altar and pulpit fellowship.”

• R. C. Sproul, visiting professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has been one of the most persistent and strident critics of the initiative known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” or ECT. In a recent issue of Modern Reformation he again goes on the attack. Referring to the first statement, “ECT I,” issued in 1994 (see FT, May 1994), Sproul smells mendacity. That statement said that evangelicals and Catholics affirm together “justification by grace through faith because of Christ.” Four and a half years later, Sproul writes: “In a letter circulated to the signatories of ECT I written by Richard John Neuhaus, the chief Roman Catholic architect of the document, he asks the question, ‘Do we mean the same thing by the words used?’ He answers his own question with the emphatic words: ‘of course not.’” What I wrote in May 1994 was this: “That is a fact; we do together affirm that formulation [about justification]. Do we all mean exactly the same thing by it? Of course not. The fact is that there are very significant differences between and among both evangelicals and Catholics as to how that formulation is most adequately adumbrated.” Fulfilling the promise made in that first statement, ECT participants have continued to work together on theological problems and in 1997 produced a common statement on justification, “The Gift of Salvation” (see FT, January 1998). To suggest that my earlier letter applies to that later statement is, to put it gently, misleading. The search for understanding begins with saying what we can say together, and conscientiously exploring what we mean by what we say in order to say it better. That is what ECT has been doing over the years. Honest critics can be helpful to that endeavor.

• Here is a picture by Stephen Kroninger in the Progressive, under the title “Honest Living.” A cartoon Jesus is nailed to the cross, crown of thorns and wounds and all, holding a smoking rifle. At the foot of the cross, in a pool of blood, lies a contorted body in white coat and stethoscope. In case you don’t get it, the background is a faded newspaper article with the headline “Sniper Kills Abortion Doctor in His Home.” This is what, in some circles, passes as “progressive.” The artist, clearly, is in need of loving admonition. His e-mail address, which he appends to his cartoon, is

• The asserted right to sex without consequences reaches what may be a new low. According to the Washington Post, Peter Wallis and Kellie Smith shacked up for a while, she got pregnant and now has given birth to a baby girl. Wallis says she had agreed to use the pill and is suing her for becoming pregnant against his will, accusing her of “intentionally acquiring and misusing” his semen. Smith contends that she was on the pill and got pregnant by accident. In addition, her legal filing contends that she could not have stolen his sperm because “he surrendered any right of possession to his semen when he transferred it during voluntary sexual intercourse.” Wallis is worried about having to pay child support and charges Smith with breach of contract. Some men’s groups are supportive of Wallis, complaining it is not right that women alone have the choice of aborting or giving birth. Professor Barbara Katz Rothman of City University of New York counters with, “You are coming up against an absolute fact of life. Men are not the ones who get pregnant.” Facts of life yet. Even absolute facts of life. Maybe there is still hope.

• Let me stipulate, as the lawyers say, that I have great respect for the work of Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University. We have welcomed his writing in these pages. I do wonder, however, about his recent article in America which reports, among many other things, that only 11 percent of young Catholics in the U.S. (age eighteen to twenty-nine) agree with the Church’s teaching that premarital sex is wrong. “It will take all the wisdom and charity we can muster to manage today’s polarization on these topics,” Hoge writes. “The chance of bringing back the pre-1960s assent of Catholics to Church teachings on sexuality is zero. We need to have an open discussion of the present situation and new efforts to forge moral teachings that are authoritative and inspiring to tomorrow’s Catholics.” Certainly we want to inspire tomorrow’s Catholics, and today’s, for that matter, but it is not clear how the Church can “forge” moral teachings that contradict what the Church, claiming the authority of Scripture and tradition, has taught in the past. And what is this about “bringing back” the assent of an earlier era? Data in the same article indicate that in 1970 only 18 percent of those who were then the “young Catholics” agreed with the Church about premarital sex. The difference between 11 and 18 percent is not all that big. Is it not possible that, then and now, there is some connection between being young and unmarried, on the one hand, and thinking that premarital sex is okay, on the other? I don’t have methodologically rigorous social-scientific research findings to back it up, but common sense and human nature do suggest an answer to that question.

• “Never apologize. Never explain.” I’ve seen that attributed to different people, and it has always struck me as superlatively dumb. Never to apologize and never to explain is the end of friendship and reflection. But maybe the people who say that aren’t interested in friendship or reflection. And I probably should not even have mentioned it, since here I am complaining about something in a comment that I intended as an apology for seeming to complain so much. I know people really like this section of the journal because they so persistently and emphatically say they do. But I confess that, in putting together this month’s installment of The Public Square, I am dissatisfied. It occurs to me that too much of it is too cranky. “How can you comment on so much that is depressing,” a reader asks, “and remain so cheerful?” The question prompted the reflection that I do not comment as often as I probably should on so much I come across that is cheering. I expect I should do something about that. I mentioned some months back the editors of a magazine who do not call this section The Public Square but The Public Scold. They may have a point. Those who like this section the way it has been for almost ten years should not worry; I’m not undergoing a delayed mid-life crisis, and there’s little chance that I’m going to flip into a mode of cock-eyed optimism. But my new year’s resolve in writing this commentary is to avail myself of more opportunities to praise, or at least to commend what is commendable. We’ll see how well I keep to that. It will not be easy. To cite but one difficulty, I promised that I would, at some point when there is a pause in the political soap opera, do something along the lines of an omnium gatherum reflection on the Clinton presidency, and several of you have reminded me of that promise. I don’t know how one can turn that into something edifying. (In the event anybody was wondering, I thought editor Jim Nuechterlein was dead wrong in opposing impeachment, though I shared some of the anxieties that led him into his error.) If you will bear with this self-referential indulgence a bit more, I should say that the above-mentioned dissatisfaction has been gaining on me in the last year. Part of it is that January 10 marked the sixth anniversary of the emergency cancer surgery in which I almost died (some doctors thought I had died), and it is only this year that it has really come home to me that I may in fact be around for a long time. (As you know, five years without any symptoms is usually taken to be the mark of complete remission.) I also want to do different kinds of writing. This January Appointment in Rome: The Church in America Awakening was published. That was fun, and the responses have been greatly encouraging. A radically different kind of writing is Death on a Friday Afternoon: Being an Account of What We Have Done to God, which will be out from Basic Books later this year. It is a theological-devotional reflection on the seven last words from the cross and, at the risk of immodesty, I think it may be the best thing I have written. (The risk is not so great, since the comparison is only with my own books.) I intend to do more in that genre—very different from the political, ecclesiastical, and culture war contretemps that supply the grist for The Public Square. But again, not to worry; I’m not hieing myself off to a monastery. Although I’ve thought about it from time to time. I value too much the friendship I have with many thousands of you through this commentary. A further consideration is that my bishop, Cardinal O’Connor, says I should be doing what I’m doing, and I took an oath to obey him. Anyway, I expect I’m addicted to the contretemps. So what is this item about then? Maybe, since I don’t send out Christmas cards, never mind one of those end-of-the-year letters, this is simply a response to those of you who have asked how I’m doing. The answer is: Very well, thank you, and, most of all, thank God. Mainly, this is a word of apology and explanation in the service of friendship and reflection. Once again, do not worry; there will, God willing, be another Public Square next month. If I’m not mistaken, I feel a bout of the old crankiness coming on.

• The deadline is April 5, so, if you’re interested, you’d better get moving. It’s the annual seminar in beautiful Krakow, Poland, from July 6 through 24, and there are ten fellowships for American students. The subject is “The Free Society and the Third Millennium,” and the faculty includes Michael Novak, George Weigel, Father Maciej Zieba, Russell Hittinger, and myself. Fellowships include everything except travel costs to Krakow and back. Applications should be accompanied by a two hundred word paragraph on the nature of liberty, a longer writing sample, a C.V., and a short letter explaining why you want to attend, all to be sent to Erica Carson at American Enterprise Institute, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. For more information, call: 202-862-7152; fax: 202-862-5821; e-mail:

• Gary W. Taylor writes from Seminario del Buen, Acapulco, Mexico: “I’m still working on my list of friends (been thinking about it for two years now), but I liked it better in the old days when you pleaded and shared stories of horror and of love to motivate us. That polite little note that we get now is boring.” He is referring, of course, to my earlier practice of inviting lists of prospective subscribers to whom we would send free sample copies. We still would. Other readers have said they were irritated by those (I thought ever so entertaining) pleas. Perhaps Mr. Taylor is right and we should reinstitute them. On the other hand, we still haven’t received his list. So here, once again, is the boring little note: We will be happy to send a sample issue of this journal to people you think are likely subscribers. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010 (or e-mail to On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll-free 1-800-783-4903.


George McKenna essay “Acting Into History,” Human Life Review, Fall 1998. New York Times editorial on the term “culture war,” December 3, 1998. Oliver O’Donovan on Christianity and the Holocaust in Studies in Christian Ethics, Volume 11, Number 2.

While We’re At It: Paula Kissinger obituary, New York Times, November 16, 1998. Philip S. Anderson on “public perceptions of our judiciary,” ABA Journal, November 1998. David Blankenhorn on fatherlessness, Propositions, Fall 1998. Ron Unz on affirmative action, Wall Street Journal, November 16, 1998. On Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Catholic higher education in the U.S., America, November 14, 1998. On earning and giving in Massachusetts, Boston Globe, October 25, 1998. Leo Ribuffo on cultural imperialism and human rights, National Interest, Summer 1998. William Galston on a choice-based conception of social life, Public Interest, Fall 1998. On Israeli ambassador to Vatican urging against canonizing Pius XII, New York Times, November 4, 1998. Abraham Foxman on exploiting the Holocaust, Wall Street Journal, December 4, 1998. On “Formula of Agreement” in the ELCA, Forum Letter, December 1998. R. C. Sproul on ECT, Modern Reformation, September/October 1998. On cartoon of Jesus with a smoking rifle, Progressive, December 1998. On man suing woman for getting pregnant, Washington Post, November 23, 1998. Dean Hoge on young Catholics’ views on premarital sex, America, November 21, 1998.