Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!


(November 1999)

Of Law and Morality

It is a profound service for Robert H. Bork in “Thomas More for Our Season” (June/July) to recognize a distinction between law and morality, and then retract that distinction out of fear of the disorder that would follow from “absorption with self.” What makes Judge Bork’s article so valuable is that it reveals the fundamental factor underlying the conservative positivist’s rejection of natural law. On his analysis, when the judge or social critic appeals to a standard beyond the (positive) law, he is necessarily referring to mere “individual conscience,” i.e., to “the urges of self.” This constitutes surrender to the culture of the 1960s in which we fell victim to moral relativism and subsequent social and legal disorder.

Judge Bork’s argument is sound only if the appeal beyond the positive law is restricted to the subjective and personal. But this is precisely the issue before us, not only in legal theory but in the culture wars generally: Is there an objective standard, knowable to man, in light of which human behavior, including the rulings of courts and the statutes of legislatures, may be judged? Individuals as disparate as C. S. Lewis and Abraham Lincoln (as well as contemporary commentators such as Hadley Arkes and Harry Jaffa) argue that there is. Conservative positivists such as Judge Bork, yielding to modernist skepticism, claim that there is not. For them any appeal to the transcendent in matters of law or policy is mere “individualism” that “produces the substitution of private morality for public law and duty.”

When the chips are down, conservative positivists join the much more numerous and influential liberal and postmodern theorists who see in any appeal to higher things only whim, chaos, and a return to religious wars of conscience. Judge Bork is doubtless correct that many unwise and unjust rulings have come from jurists who shroud personal prejudice in the trappings of appeals to the higher things. But upon what authority can the positivist criticize these rulings of the courts and similarly grounded statutes issuing from the legislatures?

Jon M. Fennell

Naperville, Illinois

When I approached Robert H. Bork’s article, I suspected he would have something to say about Martin Luther. He did. Unfortunately, he went to the well of skewed secondary sources to enlist a phantom Luther as a foil. A portion of the article pitted a Luther painted up as a moral anarchist being unmasked by “The Man for All Seasons.”

Anyone familiar with Luther’s writings knows that the Reformer detested lawlessness as much as he eschewed legalism. His harsh words against the civil disobedience of those who participated in the Peasants’ Revolt are a testimony of Luther’s paradoxical view of justification. He held that although we are not justified by works, the justified man works. Whenever Luther spoke against “laws” it was against human laws that he believed contradicted God’s sacred laws revealed in Scripture, or that implied that in order to be saved one had to improve upon Christ’s perfect salvific work.

(The Rev.) Peter M. Kurowski

St. Paul Lutheran Church

California, Maryland

As I understand his article, the one thing that Robert H. Bork most admires in Thomas More’s character is his steadfast loyalty and adherence to “the law,” even when that law departed at times from what his moral conscience taught him was right . And yet Judge Bork has frequently in the past, in this journal and elsewhere, lambasted the U.S. Supreme Court for judicial usurpation of legislative powers and for failing to reverse erroneous past decisions such as Roe v. Wade (1972) when it had a chance, as in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). Other critics, if not Bork himself, have ridiculed Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter for basing their decision to reaffirm Roe on adherence to past holdings”in other words, “the law””and the doctrine of stare decisis , notwithstanding moral and legal reservations about the correctness of those holdings. How then”and this is the question I pose to Judge Bork”did these Justices act any less admirably than Thomas More?

Barton L. Ingraham

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Robert H. Bork tells us that “obedience to constituted authority” was the center of Thomas More’s morality and suggests that such a worldview has great merit. Judge Bork’s descriptive point about More’s morality may be true, but his defense of More’s philosophy is quite weak.

It seems safe to say that More would have condemned the American revolutionaries as traitors. We should not forget that many of the colonists remained loyal to England during the war. Indeed, many of the loyalists fled to Canada after the peace treaty was signed. If More had been on the scene, he probably would have wanted the British Army to crush the rebellion. And he likely would have approved the hanging of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and other revolutionary leaders. Judge Bork does not grapple with the startling implications of More’s worldview.

Judge Bork condemns jury nullification as a “pernicious practice,” but again, he does not grapple seriously with the implications of his statement. At the time of the founding, the doctrine of jury nullification was considered part and parcel of what a jury trial was all about. To take just one example, John Adams said, “It is not only [the juror’s] right, but his duty . . . to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.” Juries were considered an important bulwark of liberty because they were not a part of the state’s law enforcement apparatus. Judge Bork does not have to support jury nullification, but as a leading advocate of an “originalist” jurisprudence, he should explain why he parts company with the Founders on this issue.

Thomas More was a man who had the courage of his convictions. Courage is certainly an admirable trait, but it seems to me that one should be wary of More’s zealous commitment to the notion of “obedience to constituted authority.”

Timothy Lynch

Center for Constitutional Studies

Washington, D.C.

Robert H. Bork’s “Thomas More for Our Season” brings clarity to Thomas More the man and to the complex relationships between religion and law. I entirely agree with his focus on the issues of law and morality and agree with him when he declares that More thought “morality was superior to both human law and the will of the sovereign.” Given this prelude, I was amazed to read his subsequent discussion of Bill Clinton’s clear mendacity and Augusto Pinochet’s extradition for his well-documented crimes against humanity. For Judge Bork there is “no doubt” that Clinton obstructed justice and tampered with witnesses while at the same time Pinochet “allegedly” had murders committed. If this is how morality affects law, we’re doomed. It would appear that morality for Judge Bork is a state of mind that shifts with the wind as advantage would have it. For Grenada and Pinochet, he offers the old and extremely lame excuse that these had some moral justification because they allegedly saved people from the evils of communism. What Judge Bork has forgotten (and what More didn’t) is the difference between good and bad, and between important and irrelevant. This is what morality is all about.

Henry Schultz

Santa Clarita, California

I was extremely disappointed in Robert H. Bork’s defense of Augusto Pinochet. Admittedly, the arrest of Pinochet could set some uncomfortable precedents for other world leaders (but how, when international law is barely law at all, remains a question). Even more readily admitted is the fact that communism was and still is “an assault upon the human soul.” Judge Bork claims that Pinochet saved Chile from a “Marxist dictatorship and the despotism, horrors, and bloodshed all such regimes inevitably bring.” Bork’s dishonesty comes in not noting that these things happened in Chile not under Salvador Allende (the alleged Marxist dictator), but instead were unleashed by Pinochet himself.

Allende was elected in 1970 with 36 percent of the vote and later approved as president of Chile by the Chilean Congress, in which Unidad Popular (Allende’s party) did not have a majority. From 1970 until the coup in 1973 that put Pinochet in power, a large part, if not the majority part, of the political, social, and economic instability in Chile under Allende was the result of United States involvement in Chilean politics on behalf of Allende’s enemies. From 1962 to 1970, the Central Intelligence Agency spent $11 million to help prevent Allende from being elected. Between 1970 and 1973, the CIA spent another $8 million to “destabilize” the Chilean economy.

After the coup, the turmoil in Chile had a new source: the “savior,” Pinochet. His four-man junta abolished civil liberties, dissolved the national congress, banned unions, outlawed strikes and collective bargaining, and removed Allende’s agrarian and economic reforms. The Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional , Chile’s secret police, jailed (often in one of at least six concentration camps), tortured, and murdered thousands of Chileans, all under the guidance of Colonel Walter Rauff, a former Nazi who supervised the murder of Jews at Auschwitz. Pinochet remained the unelected dictator of Chile for nearly twenty years, inflicting on his country the very horrors Judge Bork congratulates him for having prevented, which is a bit of double-speak the most egregious moral relativist could be proud of. All in all, Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile was the antithesis of the rule of law (whether man’s or God’s law), and would surely prompt the extreme disapproval of not only Thomas More but also of any person truly concerned with justice and the limits of just government.

Mark L. Chance

Houston, Texas

Robert H. Bork replies:

Jon M. Fennell confuses the role of judges, on the one hand, and that of legislators and citizens, on the other. A judge is not supposed to be a maker of policy but an interpreter of the intentions of those with the authority to make policy, whether through statutes or the Constitution. We probably differ as to the sources and substance of natural law, but that law should guide legislators and the public, not courts. Natural law, in the sense that Mr. Fennell means, is as vulnerable to subjectivism as is other law. If pressed to think in those categories, Harry Blackmun and his colleagues would have insisted that Roe v. Wade expressed natural law. Mr. Fennell would hand judges yet another excuse to do as they wish.

The Reverend Peter M. Kurowski’s insistence that Martin Luther was devoted to the rule of law fails to convince me. The “skewed secondary source” I used was a direct quote of Luther in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of More. Luther there appears to be speaking of human law, which was to be ignored when it contradicted “God’s sacred laws revealed in Scripture.” In that respect, Luther did disagree with More, and I much prefer More’s side of the argument.

Barton L. Ingraham to the contrary notwithstanding, the Justices who offered stare decisis as a reason for reaffirming Roe v. Wade are not to be equated with More. Roe was an unconstitutional usurpation of legislative power by judges. The Constitution itself far outweighs anything a Court may say in falsifying the document. Imagine that a judge prior to More had plainly tortured a false meaning out of a statute. Should More passively accept the deformity and repeat the falsity? I doubt that he would, but if he did, he would indeed be no more admirable than the Justices who accept the constitutional outrage of Roe . We ought not make a shrine of stare decisis in order to preserve a flagrant distortion of the law.

It is quite possible that Thomas More, as Timothy Lynch suggests, would have condemned the American revolutionaries as traitors. Many Americans of the time did just that. I do not find that “startling,” though one may agree or disagree with it. The notion that “jury nullification,” far from being a “pernicious practice,” was intended by the Founders, rests on an unwarranted extrapolation. In colonial and revolutionary times, Americans preferred juries to judges because jurors were fellow Americans and judges were royal appointees enforcing English law regarded as oppressive. The jury was, in short, a body of potential civil disobedients in the struggle against the Crown. There is no similar justification for a modern jury engaging in a revolutionary struggle against a legislature their fellow Americans elected. I doubt that the Founders would have applauded the O. J. Simpson verdict, however sincerely each juror vo ted “according to his own best understand ing, judgment, and conscience.”

Messrs. Henry Schultz and Mark L. Chance are agitated by my view that General Pinochet should not be extradited from the United Kingdom to stand trial in Spain. My original article spoke to most of their concerns. It is more than a bit nauseating to hear of a law forbidding “crimes against humanity” when it is obvious that what is involved is not law but politicized force. It is worth noting that both French and Spanish courts have dismissed Pinochet-type proceedings against Fidel Castro. This “law” applies only to leaders and citizens of small, powerless countries on the right while the most murderous leaders of powerful or leftist countries (e.g., China and Cuba) are courted, flattered, and feted. The Spanish magistrate wants to try Pinochet for the killings of Chileans and six Spaniards. The former matter should be regarded as concluded by the agreement under which Pinochet relinquished power (if it is to be abrogated, that is a matter for Chileans) and the latter is a subject for negotiation between the Spanish and Chilean governments. What is proposed instead is foreign judicial interference in a Chilean domestic political settlement and in Spain’s conduct of foreign relations.

To take this position does not require an assessment of Pinochet’s behavior. Still, there is something to be said on that subject. Mr. Chance writes a brief for Salvador Allende, placing the blame for much of what happened on the CIA and Pinochet. This is the distorted account propagated by the left and accepted by the American media. The CIA was practically irrelevant in the destabilization of Chile created by Allende’s policies. U.S. involvement consisted of financial support for opposition newspapers and radio stations and for democratic political parties. If Mr. Chance calls that “destabilization,” he is welcome to the word. The fight against the radical left in Chile involved bloodshed and oppression, but it is also true of the Allende government, as Eduardo Frei, a former president of Chile put it: “There is no doubt that what was eventually envisaged was a government of a totalitarian type. No doubt whatever.” For a balanced assessment, I recommend Modern Chile 1970-1989: A Critical History , by Mark Falcoff, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute.

Whether Thomas More would, on the whole, have approved Pinochet’s actions must remain an open question; he did, after all, approve the execution of Protestant proselytizers as threats to men’s salvation. I would say to both Mr. Schultz and Mr. Chance that righteous indignation is no substitute for moral judgment informed by facts and by comparison of relative goods and evils. One need not idealize Pinochet to see that, granting his very real sins, under very difficult circumstances he performed a valuable service in saving Chile from communism. If there is one thing bitter and repeated experience has taught us, it is that the Communists would not have relinquished power to democratic processes as he did.


In “Bill Clinton and the American Character” (June/July) , Richard John Neuhaus assumes that Christians must be involved in “cultural engagement.” He quotes Charles Colson, who says that he “can’t imagine anything more self-defeating, or more ill-timed” than “battle-weary evangelicals abandoning cultural engagement.” He declares such a position both “unbiblical” and a desertion of the cause “just when we are on the verge of making a historic breakthrough.”

Indeed, Mr. Colson says we are charged with bringing “Christ’s redemption to all of life” and must know that “despair is (probably) a sin.” However, those two biblical propositions do not yield a mandate for immersion in affairs of the state. Such a mandate seems more likely to issue from the presuppositions of the National Prayer Breakfast that Father Neuhaus calls “an annual orgy of civil religion in devotion to Americanism and a mostly unnamed God.”

It is not surprising for Fr. Neuhaus to stand on the low foundations of civil religion in his pulpit on the Public Square. Like most American Christians he has internalized the “common assumption” that God probably carries a blue passport and happily shares honors with the stars and stripes on church platforms. When my son (born in the Dominican Republic) was about five years old, he wondered aloud why people in a large Denver church were singing “I’m Proud To Be an American” in the worship service. Now eighteen, he is cutting through the inherent contradictions.

I will not be depressed even if the Pope, Colson, and Neuhaus are wrong (I hope they are not) about the coming “springtime of Christianity.” As a believer I find God’s mercies to be “new every morning” regardless of the disasters of the day.

William T. Hunter, Jr.

Santo Domingo,

Dominican Republic

Richard John Neuhaus’ “Bill Clinton and the American Character” is an impressive essay. However, I think he dismisses too easily Shelby Steele’s argument about a generational shift in what defines morality and virtue. Trashing “bourgeois morality” became an integral part of the New Left’s struggle against war, racism, sexism, and all the other isms it came up with. This mindset captured the culture in the 1970s. Once the Cold War was over, its political triumph was a matter of time. Only a few of us went to Oxford, but too many of us “inhaled,” slept around, and protested the iniquities of “Amerika.” We cannot condemn Bill Clinton without condemning ourselves. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I’ll grant that Baby Boomers were the foot soldiers rather than the leaders of the 1960s cultural revolutions. I’ll even admit that we aren’t all reprobates. But the reprobates rule and have ways of dealing with dissent. Invective works: traditionalists have been demonized as the dreaded fanatics of the Religious Right. The repentant can be neutralized by exposure of what they did before they saw the error of their ways. But the reprobate rule mainly by seduction. In a culture saturated with sex, most will succumb. Most who succumb will grow addicted to their vices and will defend a regime that guarantees them. (Journalist Nina Burleigh said it best when she said that she’d gladly service the President for keeping abortion legal.) Blackmail and exposure will neutralize those who turn against the regime (Hyde, Barr, and Livingston, for example). After thirty-plus years of cultural decay, there are plenty of targets for the Larry Flynts of this world.

Evan M. Duncan

Alexandria, Virginia

My thanks to Richard John Neuhaus for his recap of current punditry on what Clintongate tells us about the American character. The spectrum and intensity of opinion, like billowing smoke, lead one to expect something is being revealed about the nation and its people, but precisely what is hard to say. Allow me a try.

The political life of this country has always been tempted to oligarchy. Although regularly repulsed in the first century of our existence, the temptation has remained strong. In the present century, given new recruitment from plutocrats and immigrants, given expanded control stemming from economic integration and broadcast media, the oligarchs have managed a revolt against the rule of the demos . Like Augustus, they have merely kept the trappings of the republic. For several decades now the government of the United States has been a functioning oligarchy operating under the guise of democratic forms.

The Clinton presidency marks an interesting oligarchical evolution. Not only are the special people above common folk, their laws and religious constraints, but their superiority extends to moral goodness. They are better than us. Their “lies” are not lies but demonstrations of cleverness; their “sexual predations” are not moral turpitude, but rather expressions of natural exuberance; their “corruption and graft” merely demonstrates an acute sense of business. Above all, their “arrogance” reflects nothing so much as the splendid enlightenment that exudes from their personalities and that is confirmed so readily by their courtiers.

J. R. Breton

Walpole, Massachusetts

Richard John Neuhaus attempts to evaluate the American character in light of the Clinton mess. Many of the changes in American culture mentioned in the essay, such as Shelby Steele’s concept of “virtue-by-identification,” are a sign of a deeper change in our culture pointed out by social historian Warren Susman. He tracks the shift in emphasis from “character” to “personality” that gradually occurred during the twentieth century. While electronic media have certainly aided this shift, it predates radio and TV. According to Professor Susman, it is connected to an increased need to “express the self” in a developing consumerist mass society.

The triumph of personality over character is confirmed by my students, many of whom seem to conflate the two in favor of personality. Character as inner strength and mor al attitude seems irrelevant or un at tainable. “All politicians are corrupt” is a common sentiment, so why not pick someone who looks good on MTV?

Given that this cultural situation developed over the past century, it may mean that contemporary Americans can’t be blamed for opting for personality over character. But it does mean that we, especially Christians, bear a responsibility for pointing out something that is now intrinsic to our culture, and at least seeing that our own communities don’t succumb to it.

Michael Jindra

Bethany Lutheran College

Mankato, Minnesota

Much of Richard John Neuhaus’ “Bill Clinton and the American Character” is a thorough, well-researched review of Clinton’s odious odyssey that evoked in many of us a sense of shame just for being American.

Father Neuhaus recalls the reactions of Catholic leaders, and”lamentably”another wavelet of shame is the lot of us Catholics who squirmed as we suffered through homilies of pious platitudes introduced by the nonjudgmental: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Normally, I doff my cap”respectfully and submissively”to theologians and bishops who expatiate on Holy Writ, but permit me to, as logicians say, distinguish the major premise: “Let him who is without the combined sins of perjury, adultery, obstruction of justice, sexual adventurism, and, maybe, of rape cast the first stone.”

My theologically uneducated guess is that many truckloads of stones would be needed for the party.

Ernest Siciliano

Newton, Massachusetts

“Bill Clinton and the American Character” is a neat summation of the impeachment, but Bill Clinton does not have, as Richard John Neuhaus suggests, a form of autism. Autism is characterized by a deficit of social interaction or social intelligence. Mr. Clinton, however, is impressively socially intelligent. This is his great gift. He endeavors always to “connect” with people, and is very often successful. Autistic people don’t understand the value of such connecting. The President understands it only too well.

Mr. Clinton’s lies and his propensity to shut himself off from negative public opinion reflect only a strong desire to retain political power. When he has seemed to be oblivious to everything else, it has always been over something vitally important to his political future. His “compartmentalization” can be likened to a badger fighting off an intruder more closely than it can be likened to the actions of an autistic person.

Brian W. Donnelly, M.D.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I was impressed by Richard John Neuhaus’ thoughtful, perceptive analysis of the phenomenon of Bill Clinton in relation to American culture. I would like to add one other possible reason why so many people defend the President and see him as an innocent victim, or even a hero. I think the President benefits from the “Tom Jones” syndrome in popular culture.

The 1963 movie version of Henry Fielding’s novel presented Tom Jones as a good-hearted, lovable scamp, a kind of Robin Hood of the bedroom. Tom was always in trouble with women, but he was basically innocent and harmless. Everyone loved him, except for the nasty hypocrites who were the real villains of the movie. Many of the hard-edged comedies of the 1970s, such as M.A.S.H. and Animal House , followed basically the same theme.

Doesn’t this sound a lot like the liberals’ scenario of the Bill Clinton mess, with Clinton playing the Tom Jones role and the Republicans the role of the villainous hypocrites? Bill Clinton is Tom Jones, according to the liberals”a good-hearted, lovable rogue who triumphs over the evil hypocrites who are out to get him. There is a problem with that scenario, however. Movies are not real life. Real life is far more complicated than the movies.

In real life, Bill Clinton is not Tom Jones. Tom Jones, in the movie, was a poor, persecuted, naive young man, hardly more than a boy. Older and more experienced women were constantly taking advantage of him. But this description hardly applies to President Clinton. Clinton is the most powerful man in the world, and is certainly not naive or persecuted. Unlike Tom Jones, he preys upon women who are young or vulnerable. The President is certainly not the harmless, innocent scamp that Tom Jones was portrayed as being.

If we were to compare Bill Clinton to a fictional character, a better comparison might be J. R. Ewing of Dallas ”a ruthless man who is willing to do whatever he needs to do to gain and hold power and to crush his enemies.

(The Rev.) David J. Armstrong

St. John’s United Church of Christ

Egg Harbor City, New Jersey

McGrath on Calvin

In his “Calvin and the Christian Calling” (June/July) , Alister McGrath expresses hope that American evangelicals can learn from the French Reformer that believers are called to engage the world with the gospel. While the thought of evangelicals poring over Calvin’s works and taking to the streets is an interesting one, I have serious reservations about the ability of any thinker to mobilize this group in any significant fashion.

The social and cultural malaise common to much of the evangelical world and lamented so vocally by its leading thinkers is so deeply ingrained that the words and deeds of any theologian, no matter how impressive, are unlikely to have lasting impact on evangelical social attitudes. This ethos, which unites believers as disparate as Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and garden variety Bible Church goers, can at times become the object of sophisticated theological analysis, as readers of First Things are aware. More often it remains implicit, where it is difficult to address and challenge. And because this ethos makes Calvin’s idea of a church acting as leaven in society so unnatural to most evangelicals, I fear that Professor McGrath’s hope will remain unfulfilled.

Perhaps the chief characteristic of the evangelical ethos is an ecclesiology that resembles something like a baptized version of the social contract, in which individual believers, having made their decision to follow Christ, subsequently decide to join a group comprised of other like-minded individuals. To “be a Christian” has little if anything to do with belonging to a community. Faith, fidelity, and fulfillment are viewed strictly in terms of the individual believer’s relationship with God. The church is simply what happens when these individuals get together to publicly celebrate their faith. But when Jesus is presented primarily as “my personal savior,” as he so often is in the evangelical world, the church and all of the traditional means used to encourage and deepen the communion of the saints”sacraments, ritual, the clergy, and tradition itself, which includes thinkers like Calvin”can easily become irrelevant.

An important ingredient in the evangelical model of the church is the principle of separation from “the world,” a principle that continues to plague any attempt to break down the barriers behind which evangelicals hide. Ironically, this separation was perhaps the most characteristic trait of a group that Calvin spent considerable time and effort trying to refute, the so-called Anabaptists. Many if not most evangelicals follow Anabaptism here, which helps to explain why they are so nervous about the diverse forms of public discourse, including the arts, politics, and social action. Prof. McGrath is correct to chide evangelicals, and indeed all Christians, for choosing to remain “safely behind the barricades” that isolate them from social problems. But what other option is there if you believe that human sociality is not essential to Christianity? If the communion of the saints is expendable, what is to be said about any kind of involvement with “sinners”?

Prof. McGrath addresses none of the important questions that arise here, as he seems to have ignored Calvin’s ambivalence regarding the continuing goodness and integrity of the world and the connection this ambivalence has to the evangelical disdain for social involvement. Even someone who has never previously read a line from Calvin could detect, upon reading Prof. McGrath’s piece, something of Calvin’s uncertainty regarding the status of creation after the fall. It should be noted that Calvin often did celebrate the splendors of God’s handiwork, including the human part of it, and that those who think he only disparaged the world as hopelessly corrupted and depraved have read him poorly.

I’ve always thought that one measure of Calvin’s ability as a theologian was his ability to hold an ambivalent view of the fallen world and yet take such an active role in calling Christians to that world, flaws and corruptions notwithstanding. American evangelicals are typically more consistent on these points. As one evangelical friend of mine”paraphrasing a noted nineteenth-century evangelist”asked me concerning Christian social involvement, “Why polish the brass handrails on a sinking ship?” Why not focus our energies on the more important and fruitful work of evangelizing lost souls and better preparing our own for heaven? The needs of a fallen world seem rather irrelevant to people whose ethos expresses itself through individualism and indifference to that world.

Anthony DiStefano

Mesa, Arizona

Thank you for publishing Alister McGrath’s very well done essay on John Calvin. Calvin has much in him that is appealing, but Professor McGrath does not mention the Catholic objection to him. Calvin, when all is said and done, is responsible for the disenchantment of the Catholic world, what Max Weber called the Entzau berung der Welt . It is nothing less than God’s removal from his creation. No wonder Calvinists normally abandon God rather quickly. Geneva was hardly Calvinist even in Rousseau’s day, and a half century later d’Alembert got Genevan Calvinists into trouble by congratulating the Genevan clergy for not believing in orthodox Christianity. Calvinist Harvard was already Unitarian in the late eighteenth century. Calvinism survived only in the backwaters of Friesland and Scotland and perhaps Transylvania. All in all Calvin’s influence has not been a good one.

Norman Ravitch

Department of History

University of California, Riverside

Alister McGrath rightly points out that John Calvin helped the Christian understand that he “has a vocation to serve God in the world”in every sphere of human existence”lending a new dignity and meaning to ordinary work.”

A fundamental problem with Professor McGrath’s essay is his exhortation”ostensibly based upon Calvin’s theology”that Christians are “called to be priests to the world, purifying and sanctifying its everyday life from within.” This exhortation does not and could not come from John Calvin’s theology.

In order for a Christian to purposefully purify and sanctify the world, he must have a vital interest in the world. He must believe that the world is essentially good (although fallen), has its end in Christ, and that he is actually able to participate here and now with Christ to sanctify the world. But Calvin had no vital interest in the world; his theology was purely theocentric. He believed, as Prof. McGrath points out, that “creation is neither blessed nor desirable in itself.” How can the Christian hold this position and at the same time desire to sanctify the world? How can the Christian possibly be effective leaven while remaining indifferent about the loaf?

An alternative and integral doctrine of vocation is based upon incarnational theology, which was both rescued and developed by Thomas Aquinas. The starting point of the Angelic Doctor was, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, “the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the world.” Simply stated, this song of praise led (albeit slowly) to a doctrine of vocation whereby man is taught to pursue holiness by serving God and man on the basis of his gifts and within the circumstances of his daily life. However, the key difference between the two doctrines is that the doctrine that developed from St. Thomas affirms the world and directly impels man to engage it. The Christian who lives according to this doctrine of vocation understands that the fallen creation, including every person, public institution, and the whole natural order, has been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. Further, he understands that the creation has its end in Christ and that he has the great privilege of participating with Christ in its sanctification and purification through his calling.

Joshua Miller

Lexington, Kentucky

I want to commend First Things for publishing Alister McGrath’s excellent article, “Calvin and the Christian Calling.” With historical insight, Professor McGrath shows why Calvin remains an important source for Christian political thought. However, perhaps because of the brevity of the article, he presents a somewhat one-sided picture of Calvin’s social ethics, ignoring Calvin’s deep concern with the imago dei and the poor.

Citing Calvin’s discussion of 2 Thessalonians 10, Prof. McGrath notes Calvin’s heavy emphasis on the value of labor. Moreover, he rightly refers to Calvin’s circumstances in Geneva to account for this emphasis on work. However, Prof. McGrath says little about Calvin’s continual insistence that state and society have a moral obligation to help the poor. For example, in his famous exegesis of the Decalogue, Calvin argues that the Eighth Commandment not only prohibits theft, but also obliges us to be concerned with the material welfare of our neighbors ( Institutes , II, viii, 45). The ethical ground for this obligation is that all humans are made in God’s image, and love of neighbor requires that we value the imago dei in all that we do. When governments and other associations allow people to starve or suffer extreme poverty, they denigrate the divine image.

This theme of the imago dei and poverty appears throughout Calvin’s sermons and commentaries (see in particular his Sermons from Job and his Sermons on 2 Samuel ), and I find it odd that Prof. McGrath never mentions it. In discussing usury, he does say that “Calvin was sensitive to the pressures upon capital in a more or less free market, and believed that the ethical aims of the usury prohibition could be safeguarded by other means.” However, he fails to mention Calvin’s radical reinterpretation of the usury prohibition. In his commentaries on the Pentateuch, Calvin argues that those granting loans are morally forbidden from charging interest to the poor. Such policies violate equity and detract from human dignity.

Today, a proposal to provide interest-free loans to the poor would strike many Americans as politically radical. However, my point is neither to locate Calvin on our own impoverished political spectrum, nor deny that he affirms a moral obligation to contribute to the common good. Instead, I am suggesting that any retrieval of Calvin’s ethic must acknowledge his deep concern for the poor and his accent on the imago dei .

Derek Jeffreys

Chicago, Illinois

What Hungary Needs

I certainly don’t wish to denigrate Richard Grenier’s wonderful essay “Letter from Budapest” (June/July) , but I would like to offer my observations from a trip I made to Hungary a few years ago.

What is most discouraging are the ubiquitous kiosks on city corners, sometimes next to churches and synagogues, displaying from top to bottom nothing but lurid nudie magazines. Budapest is known worldwide for sex clubs that wouldn’t be tolerated here even by the most liberal minded under our First Amendment protection. And right along the quay side of the Danube at the Forum Hotel, almost any evening there is a continual parade of prostitutes, some of whom stop to chat with the local police.

I am very much in love with Hungary and its people, but I see a beautiful woman in a cheap dress with the hem pulled up above the knee and looking longingly toward the West. It is obvious in conversations with the young that Hungarians have become intoxicated with the allurements of Western culture, mostly for the worse. They have adopted cohabitation, free love, the pill, and drugs. Statistics on abortion, suicide, alcoholism, and life expectancy are among the worst in Europe.

Hungary doesn’t need our movies or videos, our pills or drugs, nor our armaments. What Hungary is in dire need of is spirituality and the human values it encompasses.

Lawrence E. Petrus

Rocky River, Ohio

Christianity and Homosexuality

After reading “Gays, Lesbians, and Lutherans” (June/July) by James Nuechterlein, my immediate feelings were a mixture of confusion and profound disappointment; far, far better if not more enlightened commentary than this is what I have come to expect from First Things.

To attack the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Division for Outreach with such blatant contemptuous sarcasm for making an effort to extend a welcoming hand to human beings who have been marginalized solely due to prejudices stemming from ancient desert tribal prohibitions is unconscionable. Mr. Nuechterlein has fallen headlong into the impossible position of the more hysterical fundamentalist hate-mongers who maintain that any accommodation made towards gays and lesbians is “promoting homosexuality.”

It is inconceivable that in this day and age rational, educated people could demand that anyone disguise the accidents of his or her birth as well as swear to total celibacy as the price of admission to worship God. The whole concept flies in the face of what civilization is all about; neither is it very far removed from the spirit of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.

I am a Roman Catholic and a gay man who has been in a monogamous relationship for twenty-five years; I have witnessed the serial marriages and divorces of my siblings and relatives, and while I do not believe in the sacramentality of gay marriages, I most certainly do demand the legal and social rights and privileges accorded to straight marriages.

Insofar as the Bible is littered with ancient, bizarre prohibitions, now ignored, homosexuality is clung to with amazing tenacity; did the prophets indicate which rules were iron-clad and which negotiable? The ELCA has done a thoughtful thing, and all should applaud it.

Douglas Hammerich

Citrus Heights, California

James Nuechterlein replies:

Douglas Hammerich thinks he has a quarrel with me. The tone and content of his letter, however, reveals that his problem”and that of the ethical solipsists in liberal churches such as the ELCA”is much larger than that. Just for starters, there is 2,000 years of Christian teaching, which cannot be dis posed of by tired argument-by-insult complaints about “ancient, bi zarre prohibitions,” “fundamentalist hate-mon gers,” and “Nuremberg laws.”

The State of Quebec

Preston Jones (“Quebec After Catholicism,” June/July) is evidently too young to remember Quebec under Maurice Duplessis, but I am not. At that time, the French-speaking majority in Quebec suffered substantial discrimination in employment, education, and housing. The province was ruled by a tiny Anglophone minority, for whom Duplessis acted as agent. The Church was silent about this state of affairs and thus was perceived by many to be complicit in it.

So it is really not surprising that when the Quebecois began to take control of their own political life, there was an anticlerical element in their movement. A similar thing has happened in other countries (Ireland, for example) where members of the Church hierarchy were slow to recognize their flock’s legitimate aspirations to self-government. In other cases, such as Lithuania in the last century, the Church has been better attuned to people’s political aspirations and has suffered no such backlash.

Mr. Jones seems also to have missed the theatricality and the wit in Charles de Gaulle’s famous ” Vive le Québec libre! ” At the time, it seemed to me a marvelous tweaking of Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy. Despite all its fine rhetoric about the self-determination of peoples (see, for example, the Atlantic Charter), the Anglophone establishment was apoplectic to see its grand ideas being taken seriously in its own backyard.

Austin L. Hughes

State College, Pennsylvania

Preston Jones states the conventional wisdom of the Canadian media and academy that Catholicism is no longer relevant to Quebec nationalism. So the story goes, and Mr. Jones reiterates, Catholicism ceased to be relevant as a result of the so-called Quiet Revolution in Quebec in the 1960s. The article seems like a rebuttal to my own article in the November 1998 issue of Catholic World Report , in which I show how Catholicism remains an important component of Quebec nationalism.

As I type this letter, I am back from a trip to Montreal, where the city recently celebrated the most patriotic day of the year in Quebec, St. Jean Baptiste Day, celebrated every year on June 24. That Quebec has an official patron saint whose feast day is a public holiday throughout the province is one exhibit in a large body of evidence that Quebec nationalism still has a strong Catholic content.

Should Mr. Jones have a reply, I suggest it is predictable. He will cite the secular agenda of the current separatist government in Quebec, as he has already pointed out that Church power in the French-speaking province is not what it once was. But the hard core, rank-and-file separatists (as opposed to the Franco phone elite) cherish the Catholic roots of Quebec nationalism. It might even bode well for Canada’s national unity that such a schism is rising within the ranks of Quebec separatists.

As to Mr. Jones’ reference to Quebec clergy being silenced, perhaps he does not read Canadian newspapers. Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte, archbishop of Montreal, made several headlines on New Year’s Day of 1998 by declaring that Quebec will decide its own destiny regardless of any opinion issued by the Supreme Court of Canada as to the province’s right to secession. And Cardinal Turcotte’s words are of more concern in federalist circles than anything separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard has to say.

John O’Neill

Detroit, Michigan

Preston Jones replies:

Austin L. Hughes, whom I thank for writing, is correct about Quebec’s economy and Maurice Duplessis’ friendliness towards Quebec’s Anglo minority. But I doubt that that had a lot to do with average Quebeckers abandoning the Catholic Church. I rather suspect that most Quebeckers left the Church because, following Duplessis’ death, their new elite did so. French Quebec has always been, and remains, a conformist society. The absence of any real political and cultural debate there, save on the matters of the preservation of the French language and secession from Canada, is a perennial embarrassment. (Take on Quebec’s abortion policy in public and watch what happens.) As for De Gaulle’s theatrics, Mr. Hughes makes a good point. But Quebec’s nationalists don’t usually bring that up in their public musings, and those among the European French who have supported Quebecois nationalism since the late 1960s do not perceive De Gaulle to have been joking.

Which brings me to John O’Neill’s letter. I am sorry to say that I didn’t read his article in the Catholic World Report , though I’d be happy to do so. Mr. O’Neill’s point about the St. Jean Baptiste holiday in Quebec is unconvincing. (I’ve been in Quebec for a few of those myself.) To present the persistence of this now secular annual fete as proof that “Quebec nationalism still has a strong Catholic content” is a bit like saying that, by virtue of its name, Corpus Christi, Texas, is a holy city. In any case, Mr. O’Neill would do well to hold his fire until he is able to distinguish between Quebecois nationalism and Quebecois se paratism. Furthermore, does Mr. O’Neill really want to maintain that a single op-ed piece on a political”not an expressly religious or moral”matter by Cardinal Turcotte amounts to serious cultural engagement? The debauched moderator of the United Church of Canada gets into the papers too. What does that really prove? Finally, as far as Mr. O’Neill’s “rank-and-file separatists” who “cherish [their] Catholic roots” are concerned, the fact is that Quebec’s committed Catholics (a clear minority) tend to be federalists, not separatists. Aside from the fact that most of these Quebeckers are now in late middle age and are therefore more conservative than their younger compatriots, they do not support secession because their identity as French Canadians in communion with their Catholic history is secure.

The First Novelist

In an otherwise interesting and informative review of Richard White’s biography of Daniel Defoe (June/July) , Philip Zaleski says “Defoe reinvented himself . . . and became, in 1719, the world’s first novelist.”

Leaving aside important precursors such as the Greek Aristides, Petronius, Boccaccio, or the great Picar esque novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), certainly the first plaque in the Hall of Fame of novelists belongs to none other than Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote (first English translation by Thomas Shelton in 1612).

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe could be described as the first English novel, but it certainly was neither Europe’s nor the world’s first novel. It almost goes without saying that Don Quixote is a great influence on all English and Western literature, not excluding Robinson Crusoe .

Thomas Jefferson felt compelled to teach himself Spanish so he could read the great masterpiece in the original Castillian. Thomas Mann felt it was the one novel that justified being read from cover to cover every ten years, for truly each time it seemed a greater book. Harold Bloom has said Cervantes is a universal genius in the first ranks of the Western Canon, “the only possible peer of Dante and Shakespeare.” Truly the paterfamilias of the Western novel is Don Miguel Cervantes, and we could sooner forget Homer, Virgil, Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Michael Jordan, Pele, Hank Aaron, or Babe Ruth (with apologies to Ms. Brandi Chastain)! Eurocentrism is one thing, but it is an error to suppose that England is an island and the mother of all good things. Leave something to the Greeks, the Poles, the Spanish, and the Scots.

Richard K. Munro

Bakersfield, California

Philip Zaleski replies:

My thanks to Mr. Munro for his feisty letter. I must quibble with a few of his contentions. Ranking Cervantes above Virgil is one thing; ranking him above Babe Ruth is another, as all lovers of mystical games (and what is Don Quixote’s quest but that?) must agree. As for Thomas Mann’s assertion that Don Quixote is the one novel worth reading every ten years, I reply with the words of Mr. Betteridge in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone , who reads Robinson Crusoe every ten days or so, and who says of it, “I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life.” Finally, in regard to my statement that Robinson Crusoe is the world’s first novel, Mr. Munro is right. I should have written “first English novel” or perhaps “first modern novel.” For the sake of the weightier matters discussed above, I happily concede the point.

Faith & Historical Criticism

Gary A. Anderson, in his review of Richard Friedman’s new book The Hidden Book in the Bible (June/July) , makes the following statement: “Only fundamentalists would dispute the historical layering implied by source criticism.” The problem here is three-fold:

1) It is incorrect. Traditional Judaism explicitly and completely rejects biblical criticism and its conclusions, declaring, “The Torah that is in our possession today is the exact Torah that was given to Moses at Sinai.” This statement is one of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, and is one line of a song ( Yigdal ) sung by most Jews on Friday night.

2) Professor Anderson uses “fundamentalist” as a pejorative”as though a “fundamentalist” is someone who is in capable of serious scho larly thought. Such prejudice is unfortunately common in the scholarly world, but I should hope First Things would make an effort to avoid this.

3) It is intellectually and morally wrong. In the words of Rabbi Barry Freundel, “No one has ever been moved to a stronger relationship with G-d by the documentary hypothesis.” One of the (many) problems with the documentary hypothesis is that it undermines the idea of a moral standard”everything that is forbidden becomes a mere “cultural prejudice.”

David Barak

Washington, D.C.

Gary A. Anderson replies:

On point one, see the superb essay of Jon Levenson, “The Eighth Principle of Judaism” in the Journal of Religion , 68 (1998). Not all traditional Jews reject biblical criticism in toto.

On point two, I use the term “fundamentalist” to mark the big divide intellectually (not necessarily in terms of practice) between those who hold their primary sources up to the rigors of historical criticism and those who don’t. For Jews the primary sticking point is whether Moses is the author of the entire law; for Christians, the positing of an historical Jesus who does not exactly match the Christ of faith. I am sorry if the term offends, but I know no other way to mark this difference briefly.

On point three, I would concede the tenor of Mr. Barak’s criticism. Historical criticism puts the organ of human reason at the helm of the interpretive project. Yet many modern persons cannot be persuaded by a faith that appears unreasonable. I am reminded of an aphorism attributed to the late Jewish philosopher Ernst Simon: “Those with whom I pray I cannot talk to; those with whom I can talk, I cannot pray.” Retaining a vital piety and moral rigor within a framework of historical-critical reflection is not an easy matter. But we do have leaders in this effort: the likes of Moshe Greenberg, Jon Levenson, Brevard Childs, and Richard Hays, among others.

Pius XII and the Jews

I must take issue with Richard John Neuhaus’ complaint about Jewish objections to the beatification of Pope Pius XII (While We’re At It, June/July) . I write as a committed Catholic who does not take lightly the campaign currently waged against Christianity and Catholicism in particular. However, I do not find anything remarkable about the Jewish community’s objection to the possible beatification of Eugenio Pacelli. It would, I admit, be helpful were we to hear concurrent condemnations of Roosevelt and Churchill, but the people of Israel have every right to comment on a man whose actions were intimately bound up with their survival during World War II.

The defenses of Pius XII are hollow and ignoble. One hears that he opened convents to Italian Jews and that he was persuaded to take a more passive attitude only by the Nazi reaction to the declaration of the Dutch bishops. That simply will not do. The existence of the Jewish people is a living icon of Christ’s presence in the world. Our Lord was made man as a Jew and lived among Jews throughout his life. This if nothing else marks the Jewish people as crucial to the economy and mystery of salvation. The slaughter of European Jewry was not only horrific genocide but also nothing less than an attack on Our Lord himself, and the proper Christian response was Bonhoeffer’s, not Pacelli’s. The call for Christians during the period of the annihilation of European Jewry was witness and resistance even if it involved martyrdom.

The argument that a more forceful stand by Pius XII would have invited more severe Nazi reprisals strikes me as the most disingenuous and disturbing of all. More severe? What exactly would count as more severe? For the Jewish community nothing could have been more severe. If one means that there would have been reprisals against the Christian community, so be it. It is central to Christian belief, as I understand it, that the time of trial may come when we must risk and if need be offer our lives. If a flawed and fallible man like Oskar Schindler, “one of the least observant sons of the Church” as he has been called, understood this, it is inexcusable that the Vicar of Christ should not have risked everything to save our fathers in faith. John Paul II would do no less, which makes his efforts to beatify Eugenio Pacelli all the more puzzling.

Robert Alpert

Newton, Massachusetts

RJN replies:

As I said, I hold no brief for the beatification of Pius XII, nor do I possess Mr. Alpert’s certitude about what he should or should not have done in circumstances the rest of us have been spared. I do not think Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s support of tyrannicide can be turned into a generalizable principle; I wonder if “so be it” is not a somewhat callous response to the prospect of reprisals against others; and I am sure that the Catholic Church is competent to decide the status of Pius XII without the diplomatic assistance of the State of Israel.

Something to Meditate On

Regarding Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s dinner conversation with President Bill Clinton (While We’re At It, June/July) : I was surprised to discover Clinton’s favorite book is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

The President should reread XII.17: “If it is not right, don’t do it; if it is not true, don’t say it.”

Joan D. Roach

Norristown, Pennsylvania