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Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 2-6.

Progress”Moral and Other

In an otherwise illuminating essay on “The Idea of Moral Progress” (August/September) , Richard John Neuhaus errs when he says that “thirty million Americans who are today officially counted as living in ‘poverty’ have, with relatively few exceptions, a standard of living that was considered ‘average’ only twenty“five years ago.” Would that it were so.

The poverty threshold, then as now, is defined by how much income it takes to purchase a minimally adequate diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan provides the basis for determining that threshold. On the tested assumption that poor people cannot ordinarily afford to spend more than one“third of their income on food, the government multiplies the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan diet by three to arrive at the poverty line. Studies have shown that even the least poor of the poor can barely afford this economy diet, and many low“income people above the poverty line cannot do so. Poverty in the United States, by definition, describes those usually unable to feed themselves adequately without additional help. This was an average standard of living in 1974?

Last year the poverty line stood at $16,813 a year for a family of four. Living on that clearly entails hardship enough”but we are talking about almost thirty“six million people below the poverty threshold, 41 percent of them getting less than half the poverty“line income.

Additional help does reach most, though far from all, of these in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs. By including noncash government assistance the number of people below the poverty line in 1997 drops from thirty“six million to twenty“seven million. Many are also helped by a vast network of private emergency programs, including food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens. But as those agencies testify, these combined efforts fall far short of meeting the need. The Census Bureau has documented one result in the first“ever official study of hunger and food security in the United States. The bureau survey of forty“five thousand households showed that the number of Americans severely hungry (two million), moderately hungry (nine million), or food insecure (twenty“four million) is almost the same as the number living in poverty.

The U.S. economy in general does show progress, but the number of Americans still living in poverty and often hunger might indicate moral backsliding, because that number has increased by 50 percent, from twenty“four million in 1974, despite huge overall economic gains.

A better example of progress is world hunger. During the same period the number of chronically undernourished people dropped from one“third to one“fifth of the population in developing countries, and even declined slightly in absolute numbers despite population growth. That’s dramatic progress and indicates that ending most hunger is not beyond human reach, God willing. And clearly God does so will.

Arthur Simon

President Emeritus

Bread for the World

Silver Spring, Maryland

In “The Idea of Moral Progress,” Richard John Neuhaus fails to distinguish what society as a whole knows from what individual members of society know and do. It might be true, for example, that progress in some field such as theoretical physics has reached a standstill (although the same could not be said of many other rapidly expanding fields of knowledge), but most individuals in society grasp only a tiny fraction of what is known about theoretical physics. Thus there is enormous potential for an increase in knowledge of all individuals, even if the field as a whole is stagnant.

Similarly, moral progress is best reflected by the actions of individuals, rather than by whether society invents new moral laws. There were those at the time of Columbus who argued that it was wrong to oppress or enslave other races. Moral progress in this area came about not because of new ideas, but rather because existing ideas were embraced by more and more individuals, who then became a force for social and political change.

In my opinion as a practicing scientist, claims that we are near the “end of knowledge” are wildly premature. As Father Neuhaus points out, similar claims made in past centuries seem quite amusing to us today. Even Gunther Stents’ relatively recent claims that molecular biology was stagnant can only seem absurd to us a few decades later as biologists are on the verge of mapping the complete genomes of several organisms (including humans), are developing cures for genetic diseases, and are routinely cloning mammals. Whether these developments are all for the good is a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that they represent a phenomenal increase in knowledge within the relatively few years since Stents’ pessimistic assessment of the field. Fr. Neuhaus quotes the pessimists, but fails to give equal time to those who see the coming years as a golden age of science. (For a highly optimistic view, see E. O. Wilson’s recent book Consilience .) In a similar fashion, repeated cries over the centuries of imminent moral collapse likely offer more insight into the mood of the authors than they do into the actual state of the times.

I will not venture an opinion on whether we are currently experiencing moral progress or decay, although my assessment of history is that humanity has made considerable moral progress over the long haul. In some sense it is moot, because the correct course for us in either case is, as Fr. Neuhaus suggests, to witness to the truth as best we are able.

Steven C. Pennings

University of Georgia Marine Institute

Sapelo Island, Georgia

RJN replies:

Arthur Simon is a friend and I am pleased to have worked with him in launching Bread for the World (BFW) many years ago. I finally resigned from the board in amicable disagreement over questions not unrelated to the subject of his letter. Exaggerated statements about poverty in the U.S. undermine the initial and important mission of BFW. Official poverty rates are estimated on the basis of reported annual household income , whereas material deprivation should be measured by patterns of consumption .

This is explained and elaborately documented by Nicholas Eberstadt in his 1995 study The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and Misrule . The facts are that 40 percent of the officially poor in America own their own homes, 72 percent have washing machines, 60 percent own microwave ovens, 92 percent have color television sets, and 72 percent own one or more cars. Most of today’s officially poor have a standard of living that twenty“five years ago was considered middle“or lower“middle class. Nor are food banks and similar programs an accurate measure, since supplying things free creates its own market which will be defined in terms of “need” by both suppliers and receivers.

Nor should we give credence to Census Bureau claims about hunger”whether severe, moderate, or merely “food insecure.” How would the Census Bureau know? Reputable studies indicate that poor Americans are, in disproportion to the general population, overweight”mainly because they consume more (and less economical) junk food.

All that being said, there are of course hungry people, including hungry children, in the U.S. With relatively few exceptions, they are not hungry for economic reasons but for personal or behavioral reasons such as mental disability, alcoholism, drug addiction, and parental neglect. These people require attention and care, best provided by non-governmental agencies. To the extent that BFW addresses such needs, rather than serving as a lobby for the further expansion of inflated and frequently counterproductive government welfare programs, it is to be warmly commended.

I thank Steven C. Pennings for his thoughtful amendments to my argument. Whether the likelihood is the end of science or a golden age, and how either relates to moral decline, are questions beyond any capacity or need to answer. We are agreed on what we are to do.

What Kind of Awakening?

In his otherwise thoughtful analysis of the aftermath of the Littleton, Colorado, shootings ( “Awakening at Littleton,” August/September ), J. Bottum implies that the position Dr. Ed Dobson and I take in our book Blinded By Might: Can The Religious Right Save America? is defeatist and that we “offer a counsel of despair about the American soul.” Far from it.

Our position is that believers should engage government. They just should not marry it. Our collective problems are primarily moral and spiritual, not economic and political. The latter can best be addressed by government. The former are the unique preserve of God’s people, His Church.

We question the assumption that to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord is to accept the conservative Republican agenda. We also question whether sinners, redeemed though some may be, have the power to impose righteousness on the unrighteous. Has President Clinton “converted” many people to his way of thinking on issues with which they disagree?

Some believed that the day of deliverance had arrived when Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in forty years. Newt Gingrich was hailed as a political savior. Yes, he kept the “Contract With America,” but he voided a second marriage contract in favor of the company of yet another woman. How can politicians be trusted to impose morality on America when many can’t impose it on themselves?

We have historic precedent for the corruption that comes, not to the state, but to the Church, when some try to execute a shotgun wedding between the temporal and eternal kingdoms. Recently, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said that campaign finance reform is a religious issue because “every human being is a person of dignity and worth as a child of God” and that “in our democracy a signal of that dignity and worth is a fair and just electoral process.” The NCC, however, is pro“choice on abortion and is generally viewed as a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. This is the direction in which conservative Christians are heading. Unless they pull up short, they risk becoming appendages of the Republican Party and compromising eternal truth in exchange for the illusion of political influence.

Those who bear the name of Christ must not confuse the two kingdoms. Believers can and should vote, run for office, even lobby legislators. But they should not place ultimate, or even primary, faith in government to reach and convert the human soul. That is a task reserved by God for Himself. The ordained should speak to cultural issues only where the Bible clearly speaks to them. They should avoid partisan politics because it demeans and diminishes the primary message they have been uniquely set apart to preach. Many of those who once preached against political involvement during the civil rights and antiwar eras now preach in favor of it, citing the same Bible, but different verses. Were they wrong then and right now, or the reverse?

When the Church appropriates the power that is unique to it”the power to transform a heart”it sees results. When it engages in spiritual alchemy”using the power of the state to advance the Kingdom of God”it substitutes a message that can transform for one that cannot. It also reduces God’s messengers to the “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal” of lobbyists who petition government for attention. The threat is never to the state, but to the Church, which is compromised by those who have more interest in religious votes than in the Truth of the One they represent.

Cal Thomas

Los Angeles Times

The martyrdom of Cassie Bernall is indeed inspiring. For those convinced that the truth is worth dying for, her life is raised to the highest significance. J. Bottum rightly asserts that the image of this young lady offering her ultimate confession in the school library, with a gun to her head, is sufficiently potent to change hearts. We should hope and believe such change is possible.

But Mr. Bottum’s follow“up suggestion, that a large“scale change is presently at work in the hearts of many Americans, is another matter. The difficulty in accepting Mr. Bottum’s suggestion is in the examples he cites.

That Oprah Winfrey scrambled to schedule Cassie Bernall’s parents on “her enormously popular television program” is no great cause to rejoice. For the trouble is not that truth receives no airtime, but that through the eyes of mass media the average viewer sees no qualitative distinctions in “news.” It’s either more information or merely entertainment . After all, everyone knows there are people who believe in God, just as there are people who believe in Martians and people who will follow madmen to Jonestown or the mountains. But is Cassie Bernall being presented as a sign of ultimate Truth or merely today’s celebrity? The media are not choosy about whom they exploit.

In August, a rally was held at Columbine High School to “celebrate” the reopening of its doors. Many students were wearing identical T“shirts. A journalist described the event as “more MTV spring break than memorial service.” One student was quoted: “I was so excited, I felt like I was on a sugar high.” In an age of loneliness and hype, many are grasping for the newest “Real Right Thing” (as Walker Percy called it.) When strangers fly in from Florida, New York, and California (the three most transient states in the country) to attend Cassie Bernall’s funeral, one trusts in the sincerity of their motives but questions whether their actions are not somewhat impulsive and extreme. True, they are grasping, and in this case, one hopes, for the right thing; but when the thrill wears off and a new sensation comes along, will the name of Cassie Bernall be shelved alongside Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr.?

As for politicians, one should retain a healthy skepticism. Our faithful President has consistently reminded us that public and heartfelt regret is a far cry from actual repentance.

Mr. Bottum concludes his article with Simone Weil’s definitions of real good and real evil. No doubt Weil would envy Cassie Bernall’s mode of departure from this world and see it as both an example of real good and proof that in the darkest moments there are sparks of hope. But in light of Weil’s apprehension of the collective mentality, I suspect she’d look for signs of real transformation less in the media, rallies, and public confessions and more in sober“minded reactions to the presence of real evil. As Jacques Maritain once said, “Our epoch feels itself too far gone not to cry out to Heaven”but at times as a sick man cries for morphine, not for health . . . . Henceforth we shall expect the great danger of the age from a would“be religion and a would“be spirit.”

Stephen Chamberlain

Newburyport, Massachusetts

What’s Natural?

J. Budziszewski’s review of Homosexuality and American Public Life (August/ September) notes Gerard V. Bradley’s view that homosexual marriage would mean “the demolition of marriage.” That argument undermines the case for true natural law, which rests on a holistic reading of Scripture. Homophobia is based on a narrow reading of Scripture, one that has lost sight of the forest for a few trees.

As Edward T. Oakes notes in his penetrating essay “Pascal: The First Modern Christian” in the same issue, Pascal recognized “the essential animality of human nature, right through to the soul.” To me, this truth warrants a special toleration of sexual peccadillos, because of sex’s affinity with love, and because love atones ( kippur in Hebrew) for a multitude of sins (Proverbs 10:12).

To appreciate the fallacy in the so“called “natural law” opposition to homosexual marriage, one need only consider the more serious threat posed by adultery, as defined by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Adultery encompasses not only looking in order to lust (Matthew 5:28; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:8: “the eye is never satisfied with seeing”), but also divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:32, 19:9). Divorce, unlike homosexual marriage, is a direct threat to heterosexual marriage. Yet nowhere to be seen is (pseudo) “natural law” opposition to serially monogamous adultery, or, for that matter, to divorce“and“remarriage to the same person (termed an “abomination” in Deuteronomy 25:4).

Mr. Budziszewski says not a word about hate crime. For him I suppose it’s just too bad some haters may use his judgment against homosexuals as cover for their hatred, too bad it’s so easy to scapegoat a minority group already deemed “bad,” and too bad hatred and self“hatred feed on each other and some haters hate their own homosexual inclinations. For him, natural law is cut“and“dried, black“and“white, something we “can’t not know””black is black, white is white, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Mark Peterson

Charlottesville, Virginia

J. Budziszewski replies:

Mark Peterson’s first argument runs like this: Love atones; sex is like love; therefore sexual sin is self“atoning. If the paraphrase is not already sufficient to reveal the fallacy, consider that the love that atones is a commitment of the will to the true good of another. Sex that contravenes our bodily, emotional, and spiritual design cannot be ordered to the good.

The second argument is that no one can claim to be serious about marriage unless he opposes not only sodomy but also serial adultery. Right, and that’s why I affirm the indissolubility of marriage; easy divorce is a prime example of how one bad thing leads to another, in this case the loss of the ability to make any distinctions about sexual acts at all. So what’s the problem?

For his third argument, my correspondent holds that to say something is wrong with sodomy is to encourage the hatred of those who practice it. Please, Mr. Peterson, pay attention. What I hold is that sodomy is bad “for you,” a path to death, a form of self“destruction. To speak hard truth is not to hate; it is to love my neighbor better than he loves himself. I beg you, do not seek death; seek life.

Making the Divide

In response to his critics on the issue of contraception ( Correspondence, August/September ), James Nuechterlein repeats the claim that Catholics are more divided on contraception than Protestants.

I would not deny the fact that many Catholic couples use contraception in spite of what the Church teaches. But I also recall what happened twelve years ago when I and three hundred mostly Protestant pro“lifers were arrested in Atlanta at the Democratic National Convention. Since there was not room for us in Atlanta’s jails, they put us all together in makeshift dormitories on a farm outside the city. Thirty of those arrested were preachers and one was a priest. Every day we listened to several of the preachers, and magnificent preaching it was. Randall Terry, who organized the rescue that led to the arrests, spoke after the others and amazed me with his eloquence.

When the preachers had had their turns, they invited the priest to speak. First he told us few Catholics to pray for him because he was going to talk about something controversial”contraception. He proceeded to condemn it roundly, saying it was even worse than abortion.

Then a remarkable thing happened: Terry stood up and agreed with the priest. I can remember him saying, “We have been sold a bill of goods.” Even more remarkably, at least half a dozen of the preachers followed with personal anecdotes illustrating their own anti“contraception convictions. Now I’m sure among those hundreds of Protestants there were many who approved of contraception, but none of them said a word.

Maybe Protestants are more divided on contraception than Catholics.

John Dunkle

Shillington, Pennsylvania

James Nuechterlein replies:

John Dunkle offers a striking anecdote, but, as I assume he would agree, anecdotes are not by themselves arguments. In any case, I am astonished that a Catholic priest would argue that contraception is worse than abortion. Surely that is not the teaching of the Church.


An essay in the October issue, “Angelism and the Provincial Self,” referred to Richard Dawkins as a Nobel Prize laureate. He is not. He is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. We apologize to our readers and to the Nobel Prize committee.