The Public Square
The idea that religion is the heart of culture and culture is the form of religion has been proposed in various ways by Christian thinkers over the years, and there is, I believe, a great deal to it. The danger, of course, is that it can lead to a smooth synthesis of religion and culture that typically ends up making religion superfluous. This was the case with the cultural Protestantism in Germany against which Karl Barth so magnificently posited his theological “Nein!” And it is, mutatis mutandis, the case with mainline/oldline Protestantism in this country today. It is a phenomenon that has been with us for a long time, as I was reminded upon having occasion to go back to George Henry Lewes’ The Life of Goethe, a book first published in 1855 that has gone through many editions.
Lewes, who was the common-law husband of novelist George Eliot for many years, is justly criticized for being too preoccupied with the young Goethe of Werther and the Sturm und Drang period, but his biography reveals, however inadvertently, a cultural optimism that could safely accommodate such melodramatics. The world was finally a good and solid place. As a child, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s doubts about conventional religion were raised when, during a terrible thunderstorm, he and his sister were dragged into a dark passage “where the whole household, distracted with fear, tried to conciliate the angry Deity by frightful groans and prayers.” Lewes writes: “Many children are thus made skeptics; but in a deeply reflective mind such thoughts never long abide, at least not under the influences of modern culture, which teaches that Evil is essentially a narrow finite thing, thrown into obscurity on any comprehensive view of the Universe; and that the amount of evil massed together from every quarter must be held as small compared with the broad beneficence of Nature.” Such complacence may be harder to maintain a century and a half later, but it is hardly rare today, even among those who are thought to have deeply reflective minds.
The month of Goethe’s birth, August 1749, Lewes writes, “was a momentous month to Germany, if only because it gave birth to the man whose influence on his nation has been greater than that of any man since Luther. . . . It was the middle of the eighteenth century: a period when the movement which had culminated in Luther was passing from religion to politics, and freedom of thought was translating itself into liberty of action. From theology the movement had communicated itself to philosophy, morals, and politics. The agitation was still mainly in the higher classes, but it was gradually descending to the lower. A period of deep unrest: big with events which would expand the conceptions of all men, and bewilder some of the wisest.” Lewes’ view of history in 1855 is at one with the standard account still to be found in many textbooks. “And was not the struggle of the whole eighteenth century a struggle for the recognition of individual worth, of Rights against Privileges, of Liberty against Tradition? Such also was the struggle of the sixteenth century. The Reformation was to Religion what the [French] Revolution was to Politics: a stand against the tyranny of Tradition—a battle for the rights of individual liberty of thought and action, against the absolute prescriptions of privileged classes.”
In this understanding, Luther’s legendary “quest for a gracious God” is turned on its head. It is possible to unite even Luther and Spinoza in the cause of individual liberation. Of Spinoza, Goethe wrote that he “seemed to unveil a clear, broad view over the material and moral world. But what especially riveted me to him was the boundless disinterestedness which shone forth in every sentence. That wonderful sentiment, ‘He who truly loves God must not require God to love him in return‘ . . . filled my mind.” Goethe was, says Lewes, boundlessly indifferent to this sect or that but nothing “could rob him of his love for the Holy Scriptures and for the Founder of Christianity. He therefore wrought out for his own private use a Christianity of his own.” How very modern; or, as moderns are given to saying today, how very postmodern.
“The old faith,” writes Lewes, “which for so long had made European life an organic unity, and which in its tottering weakness had received a mortal blow from Luther, was no longer universal, living, active, dominant; its place of universal directing power was vacant; a new faith had not arisen.” But a new faith was waiting to be born. Of the Weimar of his own day, Lewes writes: “The theologic fire has long burnt itself out in Thuringia. In Weimar, where Luther preached, another preacher came, whom we know as Goethe. In the old church there is one portrait of Luther, painted by his friend Lucas Kranach, greatly prized, as well it may be; but for this one portrait of Luther, there are a hundred of Goethe. It is not Luther, but Goethe, they think of here; poetry, not theology, is the glory of Weimar. And, corresponding with this, we find the dominant characteristic of the place to be no magnificent church, no picturesque ancient buildings, no visible image of the earlier ages, but the sweet serenity of a lovely park.” Lewes goes on to describe in detail Weimar’s park, designed by Goethe, as the metaphor of modernity’s achievement of sweet serenity.
References to Weimar today conjure very different images, images of anything but sweet serenity. The telling of the history of progress from Luther’s rebellion to Goethe’s well-designed park appears ludicrous today and rests, not incidentally, upon a caricature of Luther. The cultural nihilism associated with a later Weimar prepared the way for unspeakable horror. As John Paul II memorably said at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem: “How could man have such utter contempt for man? Because he had reached the point of contempt for God. Only a godless ideology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people.”
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the “tottering weakness” of the “old faith” (which Luther intended to serve, in his way) has become, to the surprise of many, the only confident, coherent, comprehensive, and compelling proposal for the future of the human project. Yet there are many others—in the academy, the arts, and not least in our churches—who, lost in the park’s ingenious labyrinth, continue the tradition of telling themselves the same old story of their liberation from the tyranny of tradition.
Singing the Lord’s Songs
Dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary church music is now very widespread, which may or may not mean that some remedy is at hand. There are many tellings of the story of “what went wrong,” and the other day I stumbled upon this telling by music critic Michael Howard. It is from his notes on the sleeve of an old 1974 Decca LP of Dvorak’s Mass in D Major. (For younger readers, LP means long-playing record.)
Anton Dvorak died in Prague on May 1, 1904 at the age of sixty-three. It had only been one year previously that Pope Pius X had issued his famous motu proprio which was to have such a devastating and impoverishing effect, albeit unintentionally, upon the music of the Roman Church. Pius X rightly wished to rid the Church of the rancid musical excesses with which it had become besotted in the latter part of the nineteenth century. But unfortunately, then as now, reforming zeal overexcited all too many ill-informed Princes of the Church, prelates, parish priests, and lay committees with monetary and other axes to grind—choral traditions were terminated, choirs disbanded; and all this not in honest terms of economy, or boredom, or time-saving but (in the guise of a spurious lip service to the Holy Father) on the grounds that glorious music, gloriously sung in a glorious building, was in some way a corruption of the true worship of Almighty God. Thus it came about that not only was the meretricious expelled from universal usage, but with it went virtually all the great music of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Hummel, Liszt and Bruckner, and of course Dvorak for good measure. These meddling pietists had not the wit to see that they were transparently flouting the true intentions of the 1903 encyclical, let alone that their witlessness prevented them from discriminating between some of the admittedly more shallow early Salzburg masses by Mozart and the penitent on his knees which we both hear and experience in the same composer’s Munich Kyrie.
The result, of course, was that religious music together with all other religious art found itself wearing the appalling clothing of mediocrity. T. S. Eliot, a propos Religion and Literature, said “For the great majority of people who love poetry, ‘religious poetry’ is a variety of minor poetry: the religious poet is not a poet who is treating the whole subject of poetry in a religious spirit, but . . . is leaving out what men consider their major passions, and thereby confessing his ignorance of them.” By the time, in 1948, Stravinsky offered his Latin Mass to the Church, Rome would have none of it. Even the music of Palestrina has suffered something of an eclipse, and it is interesting to note that earlier in the century because of public disregard for Elgar, Jaeger was able to write to Dorabella that nevertheless were there to be “a dull new oratorio by Mascagni or Perosi, the papers would have had columns of gossip and gush about those two frauds.” Now Perosi was appointed Musical Director of the Sistine Chapel in 1898, when he was barely twenty-six years old, and he was a principal adviser to Pope Pius X on the dicta of the 1903 encyclical. By 1905 he was constituted “Perpetual Master of the Pontifical Chapel”—and in spite of a mental breakdown in 1922, he returned to office within twelve months and remained there for many years to come.
It is painful to continue in too great detail on the history of music in church in the twentieth century. As always, church music spurned has taken its revenge and confounded the Church with the concert hall, the theatre, the opera house, and the gramophone record. Pitiful it is that we may study it, we may cherish it, and we may listen to it, but all too rarely may we use it in its proper context. Anyone who has been to High Mass in one of the fantastic churches in Prague will appreciate the depth of this tragedy.
Surely Michael Howard is right about the “appalling clothing of mediocrity.” It is not just the neglect of Mozart, Haydn, and Dvorak, or even Gregorian chant. And few of our local places of worship can or should try to match the “fantastic churches” of Prague. Among Protestants and Catholics, the last several decades have witnessed a wholesale debauch of musical sensibilities and the squandering of magnificent traditions. A price I pay for hanging out so much with evangelical Protestants and speaking at pro-life events is that I am exposed to the most barbarous of musical kitsch in both Catholic and Protestant camps. Why do such good people indulge such bad music? At a recent pro-life rally in the midwest there was no less than ten minutes of a group of young people with high decibel electronic guitars screaming over and over again, “I love you Jeeesus!” That was it. And the mainly middle-aged crowd went wild. A rock concert without talent or imagination.
It is not simply a matter of doing what is popular. In the traditions that have been squandered, there is much that is popular, in the best sense of that term. I was recently given a CD, Sing Lustily and With Good Courage, which includes “gallery hymns” of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band (CD-SDL-383). Here are magnificent renderings of “Who would true valour see” (John Bunyan), “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” (Charles Wesley), “The God of Abraham praise” (Thomas Olivers), and a dozen others that stir and form the souls of the gathered faithful glorifying God. The debased noises of unbridled subjectivism that are typical of what today is called entertainment worship are spiritual poison. We’re not talking mere aesthetics here. There is nothing mere about the beautiful. The three transcendentals—the good, the true, and the beautiful—are inextricably entangled. The degradation of one degrades the others.
“I love you Jeeesus!” Or at another meeting, an orgy of self-praise, “We Are Here and We are Ali-i-i-i-ve!” Well, good for you. Such junk is an embarrassment to Christianity. One wonders what a sensible outsider stumbling into such a gathering might think. He would likely beat a hasty exit, and I wouldn’t blame him. I would have, too, except I was scheduled to speak after the noise subsided. I saw in Christianity Today where one such group of sentimental bedlam was described as having “a joy that is contagious.” Contagious as in smallpox. The joy is painfully forced. “Look how joyful we are!” If this is joy, give me melancholy. Don’t tell me these people are sincere. The praise of God has nothing to do with being drenched by the agitated effusions of their sincerity. Sincerity is no excuse for tackiness. The world would be more beautiful and the Church more inviting were half the music directors in Christendom fired tomorrow. At least half. Christianity has over the centuries produced a musical heritage without parallel in human history. It is a great pity, for which some are criminally responsible, that most Christians are unaware of it. The circumstance described by Michael Howard in 1974 has dramatically deteriorated since then, and there is no end in sight.
There now, I feel better having got that off my chest. And please don’t tell me that this comment is too negative, that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. It is not I who extinguished the candles of our musical legacy. Anyway, as I have had occasion to say before, sometimes it’s helpful to curse the darkness. It keeps us from getting used to it.
Crisis of the House Divided
Of the making of lists there is no end. I am guilty, for instance, of having participated from time to time in the compiling of lists of the greatest books, or the most influential thinkers, or the most crucial turning points in history. For journals of opinion and academic groups, it’s a little like playing Scrabble. The formerly Lutheran and now Orthodox church historian Jaroslav Pelikan tells me that he’s always irritated by these “beauty contests” to elect the most important books—but not as irritated as he is when his books are not included. It should be noted that the selection in our books symposium of March 2000, marking the tenth anniversary of First Things, did not purport to be a list of the best of anything. Contributors were invited to discuss any book they wished, and for whatever reason; whether because it was the best or the worst or simply because it caught their fancy.
The subject of lists comes to mind because the University of Chicago has recently reprinted in a handsome paperback Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. Were I to succumb to an invitation to nominate the most important books ever written on the American experiment, there is no doubt that I would include this classic, which first appeared in 1959. The centerpiece of the book is the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but it is more than a historical study. Jaffa believes—correctly, in my judgment—that in those debates were joined the great questions of the American founding, and the later working out of that founding. His vindication of Lincoln is the more persuasive because he does his utmost to be fair to Douglas and his argument for “popular sovereignty.” Douglas contended that the question of slavery in the new territories should be left to popular vote and was no business of the federal government. Lincoln insisted that the Founders, while they compromised the question in order to form the Union, intended that slavery should be on “a course to ultimate extinction.”
To leave slavery to popular sentiment, he said, would result in the extension of slavery, and imperil the freedom of all. His fear was made the more urgent and immediate by the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which declared that the Constitution “expressly affirmed” a right to hold slaves as property. Jaffa convincingly depicts Lincoln not only as an astute politician and statesman but also as a moral philosopher of no little achievement. Crisis of the House Divided has a sharp polemical edge, for at the time there were numerous revisionist historians—including both Southern apologists and Northern liberals—who were taking the side of Douglas and casting Lincoln as either a knave or fool who was prepared to risk war in order to advance his own political ambitions. In the course of his telling of the story, Jaffa offers striking observations on what was at stake. For instance, on how Lincoln and his legacy contributed to a development of doctrine from the Declaration of Independence, Jaffa has this to say:
Lincoln’s morality then extends the full length of Jefferson’s, but it also goes further. Jefferson’s horizon, with its grounding in Locke, saw all commands to respect the rights of others as fundamentally hypothetical imperatives: if you do not wish to be a slave, then refrain from being a master. Lincoln agreed, but he also said in substance: he who wills freedom for himself must simultaneously will freedom for others. Lincoln’s imperative was not only hypothetical; it was categorical as well. Because all men by nature have an equal right to justice, all men have an equal duty to do justice, wholly irrespective of calculations as to self-interest. Or, to put it a little differently, our own happiness, our own welfare, cannot be conceived apart from our well-doing, or just action, and this well-doing is not merely the adding to our own security but the benefiting of others. Civil society for Lincoln, as for Aristotle and Burke, is a partnership “in every virtue and in all perfection.” And, while our duties to friends and fellow citizens take precedence over duties to those who are not friends or fellow citizens, the possibility of justice, and of injustice, exists in every relationship with every other human being. Indeed, if it was not possible to do justice to non-fellow citizens, the possibility of justice and friendship with fellow citizens would not exist. For civil society is the realization of a potentiality which must exist whenever man encounters his fellow, or it is not a potentiality anywhere. And that potentiality, for Lincoln, found its supreme expression in the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
These questions are of much more than historical interest. Today, among both Protestant and Catholic writers, there are those who claim that the American founding was thoroughly secularist, and even atheistic, in its presuppositions, and is therefore incompatible with Christian truth—whether that truth be described as “Bible law” (Protestant) or St. Augustine’s City of God (Catholic). I believe Jaffa, too, tends to exaggerate the role of Jefferson in the founding, and therefore the degree to which the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke dominated the ideas that informed the Revolution, as well as the writing and ratification of the Constitution. Be that as it may, Jaffa is surely correct in describing the development that Lincoln forced to explicit expression:
And we cannot help noticing that the Lockean interpretation of unalienable rights, which we have sketched, ultimately views such rights as reducible to passions. For the right to life and liberty is held to be indefeasible in Locke just because the passion for life, and for the necessary means thereto, is held to be indefeasible. But when Lincoln said, as he repeatedly did say in the debates, that Douglas’ “Don’t care” policy with respect to slavery was an absurdity, because it tolerated the notion that there was such a thing as a right to do wrong, he superimposed upon the Lockean doctrine of the unalienable right to liberty a very different conception of right. The Lockean idea of a right to liberty meant that no one can consistently appeal to my sense of right to give up my liberty, but it does not mean that a man who enslaves another violates the enslaver’s sense of what is right. Lincoln confounds the meaning of a right, meaning an indefeasible desire or passion, with what is right, meaning an objective state or condition in which justice is done.
It is perhaps obvious to note that the issues joined in the Lincoln-Douglas debates have the most direct relevance to the contemporary clash over abortion, just as the words and logic of Dred Scott strikingly parallel the words and logic of Roe v. Wade and its judicial progeny. As Lincoln said of slavery, so it must today be said of abortion, that the only morally coherent course is the course toward its ultimate extinction. As he declared that judicial efforts to outlaw that course were null and void, so today we must make clear that we are neither obliged nor intimidated by courts that arrogantly substitute their judgment for that of the elected representatives of the people and make a mockery of the indefeasible right to life, without which our constitutional order is built on sand. We have today many political leaders who are committed to the goal of “every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life.” But we have very few who are willing or able to make the case for the essential connection between “right” and “what is right” as Lincoln did in his debates with Douglas. For understanding the nature of the moral and political conflict in which we are engaged, there are few better places to start than with a careful reading of Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided.
To Choose and Be Chosen
There are Christians who are convinced that they believe and preach an “old time gospel” that is unchanged from the time of the New Testament, and there is merit in that if one understands the gospel to be Jesus Christ who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). But in fact the old time gospel—which is a new time phrase invented by American revivalism—was given form by the ponderings, disputes, and decisions of Church fathers, councils, theologians, reformers, and popes over the centuries. There is a striking similarity between religious fundamentalists who deny the development of doctrine and theorists of secularization who claim that any accommodation by religion to its surrounding culture is a deviation from its earlier “orthodoxy.” Both are fundamentalists; both subscribe to an idea of religion frozen in time. Orthodoxy, however, is a living tradition in both conversation and conflict with its surrounding worlds. In a fine formulation usually attributed to church historian Jaroslav Pelikan—although he says he got it from he knows not where—such tradition is the living faith of the dead, as distinct from traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living. Orthodoxy is a work in progress under the sign of eschatological promise.
The prophets of secularization, however, have still other objections to what I have been describing in this space as the incorrigible nature of Christian America. It is said, for instance, that the quality of religious commitment is radically changed in a secular and pluralistic society. Faith and commitment, according to this view, were more secure and certain when people lived under a “sacred canopy” in societies where religion was a matter of ascription rather than choice. It used to be that your religion was, so to speak, part of the core curriculum of your life; now everything, including religion, is an elective. Where religion is ascribed, it comes as a package of more or less arbitrary factors assigned by virtue of one’s birth or family; in a world of choice everything is up for grabs. Upon closer examination, however, it may be that the replacement of ascription by choice works more to the advantage of religion than of secularization.
Sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina writes: “For moderns—perhaps especially modern Americans—the ultimate criterion of identity and lifestyle validity is individual choice. It is by choosing a product, a mate, a lifestyle, or an identity that one makes it one’s very own, personal, special, and meaningful—not ‘merely’ something one inherits or assumes.” By choice, it is thought, I make something truly my own. The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in scathing terms about the modern cult of “sincerity and authenticity.” In a similar vein, Alasdair MacIntyre critiques “modern emotivism,” by which he means a disposition that reduces morality to a matter of individual “values.” Values, in turn, are created by whatever I happen to choose to value, with the result that the only truth that is discussible is what is “true for me” or “true for you.” Christian Smith, who wants to make the case that the modern ascendancy of choice strengthens religion, offers the piquant proposal that, in the absence of a sacred canopy, believers get along quite well with their “sacred umbrellas.” That is a suggestive image, but it tends to reinforce the idea of religion as something individualistic, private, and subcultural. The arbitrariness of a traditional religion of ascription is replaced by what appears to be the equal arbitrariness of individual choice.
Not Under My Control
In the biblical tradition, one might argue, it is not a matter of choosing but of being chosen. Clearly, God takes the initiative in choosing Abraham and his descendants, and keeps on choosing them even when they do not choose to be chosen. So also Jesus tells the disciples, “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). Yet the choice, so to speak, between choosing and being chosen is not so stark as it might seem. While the initiative lies with God, faith responds by choosing to be chosen. Such a response is not MacIntyre’s emotivism; it is not simply an assertion of individual preference. It is the acknowledgment of a decision having been made that is not under my control.
Thus the relationship between the traditional role of ascription and the modern role of choice is seen to be considerably more subtle than some have suggested. The believer is not just putting up his little sacred umbrella but is acknowledging his part in a world that is indeed under a sacred canopy of divine purpose. While the commitment to that purpose is intensely personal, it is not individualistic but communal. To choose to be chosen is to accept one’s part in the community of the chosen; for Jews, that means the children of Israel, and for Christians the Church. The common and deserved polemic against individualism must not be permitted to obscure biblical religion’s insistence upon the importance of the individual, understood as the dignity of the human person. Modernity’s stress upon choice can be debased in a way that turns everything, including religion, into a consumer product that “meets my needs.” It can also, however, accentuate my responsibility for choosing to be chosen, for deciding which community claims my allegiance. The subtlety of the relationship between ascription and choice is caught in the aphorism of Goethe: “What you have as heritage, / Take now as task; / For thus you will make it your own.”
Rather than pitting ascription against choice, my ascription is my choice. The German word for gift, Gabe, is closely related to the word for task, Aufgabe. Whether choice is understood as individualistic preference or as communal allegiance, the modern accent on choice would seem to work more in favor of religion than of secularization. Certainly the forms of Christianity available to contemporary Americans appeal to both individualistic and communal sensibilities, along lines that are commonly, if somewhat too simply, demarcated as Protestant or Catholic. Whether one chooses to be part of an association of people holding up their sacred umbrellas (Protestant) or part of an ecclesial community that presents itself as the sacred canopy encompassing all of reality (Catholic), the act of choice is not antithetical to, but is an essential component of, religious adherence.
“An Age of Transition”
The vitality of religion in America invites the questioning of many conventions in the way people have thought about modernity and secularization. Two terms that have played a large part in these discussions over the years are Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Briefly stated, Gemeinschaft is the solidarity of traditional community, religious and otherwise, where people “belong” at the deepest level of their being, where the answers to the big questions are a given transmitted from generation to generation, and where personal identity is bestowed. Gesellschaft, on the other hand, is the modern circumstance in which human relations are rational, instrumental, and directed to specific ends. It is the world of bureaucracy, rules, and impersonal interactions aimed at maximizing individual advantage. In this view, Gemeinschaft is religion-friendly, while Gesellschaft is the companion and agent of a world disenchanted and desacralized.
We should be skeptical, however, about whether things have changed as much as some theorists suggest, or whether they have changed in the ways they suggest. Recall again Adam’s remark to Eve on the way out of the garden, “My dear, we live in an age of transition.” Of course life is change and many things are different, but are the basic bonds of family, friendship, common origins, and kinship that much weaker today? Surely the society of Gesellschaft is much more complex, and there are layers upon layers of structures that were not there before, but one may suggest that they are erected upon a substratum of fundamental relationships that we associate with Gemeinschaft. For instance, the intensified threat of depersonalized and disenchanted structures may actually drive people to religion rather than away from it. Precisely as the surrounding world becomes more disenchanted and deprived of sacred meaning, the felt need increases to form communities that make sense of individual and corporate life.
A limited analogy (all analogies are limited) may be drawn with marriage. Is marriage stronger or weaker today than it was, say, a hundred years ago? One answer is given by citing the divorce rates. When more than a third of first marriages end in divorce, it would seem obvious that marriage is weaker today. At the same time, the argument can be made that marriage is stronger today in the sense that people expect more of it. Because they have unreasonably high expectations of marriage, they are disappointed and end up divorcing. But they end up divorcing only to marry again, and usually more successfully. The dynamic here is both paradoxical and perverse; because people invest so much in marriage, they demand so much from it; indeed they demand more than many marriages can deliver. A few people go on from marriage to marriage in search of their ideal of marriage. Many more decide to “play it safe” by being married without the formality of marriage—what used to be called, and is still sometimes called, common-law marriage. Yet others come to recognize that marriage is an institution and not an emotion; that the commitment to the relationship cannot be calculatingly contingent upon the satisfactions derived from it. At that point, as innumerable married couples testify, the satisfactions greatly increase.
As I say, the analogy is limited, but nonetheless instructive. From what we might call the “megaperspective” of modern rationalized explanation, the world is disenchanted and desacralized. In response to such a world, human beings flee to institutions of marriage and the family that are, in the phrase of the late Christopher Lasch, “a haven in a heartless world.” So also does the attraction of communities of religious meaning increase. We can view these, too, as sheltered enclaves or as little sacred umbrellas with which we desperately ward off the threat of “the real world.” But, once again, when the religion in question is Christianity something very different may be happening. Christianity provides an alternative definition of what constitutes “the real world.” It is, in the mind of many of its adherents, a much more reasonable and convincing definition of reality than those provided by secularism’s reductive rationality, materialism, or embrace of absurdity. But is it not also for many Christians a haven in a heartless world, a sheltered enclave, or a sacred umbrella held in the trembling hands of those seeking protection from what they suspect really is the real world? Yes, certainly. But the point is that the modern circumstance may be more conducive to religion than to secularism, whether that religion is “escapist” or is a boldly asserted redefinition of the real world.
We frequently hear it said that ours is a pluralistic society, and therefore inhospitable to religious commitment. In fact, in textbooks from grade school through graduate school, the two terms are often combined: “We live in an increasingly pluralistic and secular society.” The implication, often made explicit, is that society must be secular because it is pluralistic. Sometimes the point is that the social fact of pluralism requires giving up differences that make too much of a difference, especially religious differences. If they are not given up, they must be confined to the private sphere where they have no social consequence. This is one understanding of pluralism: the ignoring or denying of the differences that make the deepest difference. Another understanding of pluralism is that of a lively interaction of differences in tension, sometimes in conflict, and always in the hope of mutual enrichment.
That second understanding of pluralism has in recent decades achieved a certain cachet in liberal thought and practice. The once mayor of New York David Dinkins spoke of “the gorgeous mosaic” that has presumably replaced the earlier image of the American melting pot. Vice President Al Gore’s gaffe has been much remarked, when he translated e pluribus unum as “out of the one, many.” The acknowledgment of difference, indeed the celebration of difference, is most importantly evident in race relations, where the earlier ideal of black and white integration is replaced by the “identity politics” of African-Americanism. The celebration of pluralism in the general media and in policies aimed at “inclusiveness” typically extends to race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, but not to religion. Yet the reality of pluralism—the fact of people living in different worlds of moral and spiritual meaning—is also conducive to the strengthening of religious identities.
Such pluralism is most intensively experienced in cities. Just as earlier theories assumed that there is a connection between pluralism and secularization, so it was commonly claimed that urbanization undermines religious adherence and is therefore a major force in secularization. But precisely the opposite argument can also be made. New York City, for example, is a world of many worlds. It is a veritable hothouse of alternative lifestyles, subcultures, belief systems, and structures of communal cohesion. The stereotypical story line is the person coming from a small town to the big city in search of liberation from the confining mores and conformity of his past. In the great metropolis, it is said, we are free to be ourselves. Alternatively, it is said that in the city we enter into the freedom of a kind of universal existence that is unconstricted by the particularities from which we escaped.
At the same time, however, the experienced reality of the city is not that of a universalism but of a flourishing of parochialisms—from the mandatory liberalism of the Upper West Side, to the gay subculture of the West Village, to the ethnic familialism of Bensonhurst, to the wondrous potpourri of immigrant Elmhurst in Queens. In short, a world of many worlds, including worlds of religious belief, practice, and communal cohesion. The escape from the small town to the city is not from parochialism to cosmopolitanism but from the parochialism that oppresses to the parochialism that fits. “Parochial,” one notes, is related to “parish,” and the attraction of urban life is that you get to choose your parish.
How is it, then, that America can, at the same time, be so modern and so religious? That is the question we have been considering. We have looked briefly at some of the theories of the last century that assumed a necessary connection between modernity and secularization, and have discovered that the connection can work in exactly the opposite direction from that assumed by secularization theorists. Yes, some may object, but what about all those people who are not religious? Whether in the suburb or small town or urban center, one need not go far to find a large number of people who seem to all appearances not to be religious at all. Moreover, they describe themselves as nonreligious. Isn’t this evidence of secularization? Maybe, and maybe not.
We have already referred to the work of sociologist Christian Smith. In a recent national survey whose findings are consistent with much other survey research, he discovered that 9 percent of Americans describe themselves as “nonreligious,” meaning that they were raised to be but are not now religious. Upon closer examination, however, Smith discovered that 80 percent of these people did not mean that they had rejected religious beliefs, or even all religious practices. Certainly they had not suffered a “collapse of religious plausibility structures” (early Peter Berger) and, as a consequence, adopted naturalistic or secular worldviews. Rather, what they mean by saying that they are nonreligious is that they do not go to church, and in many cases have developed negative attitudes toward churches and clergy.
Yet 60 percent emphatically say that they believe in God and pray to Him often, and that the God to whom they pray is the same God in whom they were taught to believe in childhood. Less than 20 percent of that nonreligious 9 percent say they do not believe in God at all. Some of the “nonreligious” expressed gratitude to the researchers for bringing the matter to their attention, and resolved to put their religious life in order. Smith writes: “The vast majority of our religious ‘defectors,’ in other words, had not forsaken their religious worldviews and belief commitments and become secularized unbelievers. These [respondents] who identified themselves as ‘not religious’ are not literally not-religious. They simply had stopped participating in the worship services of organized religion, which is quite a different matter.”
Smith’s conclusion deserves to be read in full. The survey research, he says, suggests three things
First, very few “nonreligious” Americans are truly nonreligious—most in fact insist they are religious, but simply in a rather individualistic, disaffiliated way. Second, the primary basis of most people’s distance from organized religion typically has little to do with cognitive belief implausibility, per se; rather, distance from religion appears to be generated more by relational disruptions and the absence of strong relational ties to religion. Third, modernity itself does not appear to be the driving force at work undermining strong religious faith and practice; the primary reasons why religious defectors in contemporary America do not participate in organized religion are probably not very different from the kinds of reasons that would have estranged people from organized religion throughout human history (emphasis added).
Faith and Credulity
Smith’s last point brings us back to Andrew Greeley’s thought experiment in Unsecular Man. It may be that the on-the-ground social reality is that our time warrants the appellation “the age of faith” as much as, say, the thirteenth century. The later Peter Berger published A Distant Glory with the subtitle, “the quest for faith in an age of credulity.” The suggested distinction is between authentic faith and unreflective credulity, which is a distinction that all of us would want to maintain, while recognizing that our faith and what we view as our neighbor’s credulity are equally religious. The fact is that relatively few people are trained philosophers or social theorists. They do not fit the intellectual’s model of the modern who operates by “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Were they sociologists of religion, they might be keenly aware of the “cognitive dissonance” between their religious beliefs and their secular pursuits, but they are not.
This is not to say that the mental framework of their religious beliefs is unproblematic. Rather, they adhere to religion because it provides identity, fellowship, meaning, order, and a promise of purpose. A philosopher friend tells me, “I am a Christian because Christianity makes more sense of more facts than any other way of construing reality that I know of.” Since they are not philosophers, most people would not put it quite that way, but that would seem to be the gist of the matter. People experience problems, dissonances, puzzles, and confusions in what they believe, but these do not undermine what they believe. More often than not, it seems, such problems prompt them to explore more carefully, and adhere more closely to, their faith.
If religion is conceived as a product to be marketed, America historically has been, is now, and will likely be even more so in the future a bull market. The sociologists of religion who operate by the model of the competitive market have very impressively made their case against older theories of secularization. Religion as a consumer product is not necessarily an edifying phenomenon, nor is it an adequate way of understanding “Christian America Confused” and “Christian America Conflicted.” The modern, pluralistic, market-driven society is conducive to the flourishing of religion as a subculture—or, better, as a maddening array of subcultures. But the phrase “Christian America” suggests not a subculture but a culture. It is not uncommon today to read that we should abandon the notion that there is an American culture. America, it is said, is now a nation of subcultures. We all live now not in a culture but in a subculture, or in several subcultures. To the extent that is true, the amalgam of subcultures that we call American is in fact the culture of Christian America—incorrigible, confused, and conflicted.
While We’re At It
• I have no idea who or what Joanne Rowling had in mind when in her Harry Potter books she called the ordinary and non-magical world the Muggle world, but she surely could not have been thinking of the Muggletonians, who appear to have been anything but ordinary. Here is the dustjacket description from a new book from Oxford University Press, edited by T. L. Underwood, The Acts of the Witnesses: The Autobiography of Lodowick Muggleton and Other Early Muggletonian Writings: “The middle decades of the seventeenth century in England were marked by political and religious turmoil that included civil war, the execution of the king, the abolition of monarchy and episcopacy, and the establishment of a republican government with increased, yet limited, religious toleration. Over the past quarter century, scholars have developed particular interest in the more radical religious movements that arose in this tumultuous period, including Quakers, Seekers, Ranters, and Muggletonians. Drawing on material from a newly discovered archive, this book presents writings produced by the last group, an unusual sect founded in 1652 by John Reeve and Lodowick Muggleton. The Muggletonians are of special interest because they differ so dramatically from other religious groups of this time. Claiming that they were the last two witnesses of Revelation 11:3, Reeve and Muggleton acted as ultimate religious authorities on earth, blessing some people to eternal happiness and cursing others to everlasting damnation. Following Reeve’s death in 1658, Muggleton became sole leader of the movement that eventually took his name. Muggletonians were noted for their emphasis on Reeve and Muggleton’s authority (Muggleton claimed to ‘stand in God’s place’), their conception of God as a man between five and six feet tall who reigned in heaven some six miles above the earth, and the fact that their religious services consisted not of prayers and preachings, but of eating, drinking, singing, and discussing religious views in a local alehouse or home. Partly because they were not evangelistic, their numbers were never large, and by the twentieth century they were thought to be extinct. In the 1970s, however, Philip Noakes of Kent was identified as the ‘last Muggletonian’ and keeper of the group’s archive, which was acquired subsequently by the British Library.” One thought is that if Harry Potter and his friends finally take over, there may one day be a book based on papers supplied by the last Muggle. My second thought, however, is that that would be a pity. There is a great deal to be said for a Muggle world that produces such as the Muggletonians. Give me theological bull sessions in an alehouse and I’ll forgo the magic.
• According to a nationwide survey, almost nine out of ten (85 percent) of black Americans describe themselves as “happy,” three out of four (72 percent) think of themselves as “successful,” and half (50 percent) say they are “financially comfortable.” Blacks are also much more ostensibly religious than the general population. The top-rated (94 percent) goal in life is to have a close, personal relationship with God. That goal is rated above, for instance, good health or living comfortably. Ninety-two percent say they are “absolutely certain” that in times of crisis they can count on God answering their prayers. They are also substantially more likely to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it says. George Barna, head of the organization that conducted the research, says, “Placing the profile of whites and blacks side by side is like looking at people from different sides of the planet. While whites tend to be self-reliant, blacks are more likely to rely on God. Whites persevere on the basis of their drive to achieve, blacks on the basis of their faith.” These differences explain, says Barna, why efforts at black-white reconciliation so often fail. “Whites are trying to bring about reconciliation based on a white view of reality and within the context of white lifestyles and goals.” The data are not uninteresting, although the generalizations drawn may be dubious. A sense of personal responsibility, one might argue, can be grounded in reliance on God, and the drive to achieve can be sustained and informed by faith. But that’s an argument for another day.
• Pictures in Charisma, a magazine of pentecostal enthusiasms, show people pulling back their cheeks to expose teeth that the Holy Spirit allegedly fixed with gold fillings. Martin E. Marty reminds us that when televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was starting out he reacted memorably to such claims. He asked why God would use gold. Wouldn’t he fill teeth with teeth?
• Counterintuitive may be the word for the contention of Krishan Kumar, an English sociologist visiting at the University of Virginia, that Americans have what the English lack—a sense of national identity. With the Welsh and the Scots breaking away, and the Irish never included, plus the European Union making noises like a nation, it is becoming more of a problem. Kumar says, “I think the clue to the English is their imperial past. I’m finding increasingly interesting the comparisons between England and Russia. Both the Russians and the English have had huge empires, and they buried themselves in their empires without having to think very much about who they were separately from the empires. Further, the English and the Russians have had strong state traditions and their identities have come as often as not from the state-the monarchy, the Tsar—and usually in tandem with a state church—the Church of England, the Russian Orthodox church. There hasn’t really been a stress on the people or ‘the nation.’ In the United States, by contrast, the society has been much more closely identified with ‘the people’ (not in an ethnic sense, but in a civic one). This has meant that the same kinds of questions that were asked in classic nationalist movements: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? have already been asked in America, but far less so in England and Russia, until relatively recently, anyway.” Kumar does not say, but I expect he would agree, that the identity question for Russians was also postponed for seventy years by a Soviet empire with a quasi-religious ideology that answered, at least for many, the anxiety, Who are we?
• In Central Florida there is this billboard campaign that has, so to speak, God speaking to motorists. “We need to talk,” says one. Another, in a mode more stern, “Don’t make me come down there.” Yet another, “Do you think it’s hot here?” Then there is the downright threatening, “Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour longer.” Our old friend, the Nicotine Theological Journal, is not amused, noting that “taking God’s name in vain entails, among other sins, the perversion of God’s Word in profane jesting. . . . When the wages of sin is, well, a traffic jam, haven’t we lowered the stakes just a tad below hellfire and brimstone?” That may be a bit too heavy. While the line between kitsch and blasphemy may be hard to draw, the cutesy billboard messages undoubtedly trivialize the biblical understanding of God, pandering to “the man upstairs” mentality that makes near impossible an awareness either of divine judgment or of divine mercy. I expect there are some perfectly sincere folk in Florida who earnestly believe that they are recruiting contemporary advertising techniques to the service of God’s word. They should think again.
• So you want to be a millionaire? One way might be to become a Christian Scientist, if the Church of Christ, Scientist, divvied up its mega-endowments among its handful of members. But they don’t, and are not about to. The leadership does use the church’s considerable resources to sponsor lurches increasingly leftward on the political spectrum. Here, for instance, is an article on “human rights and divine law” in the Christian Science Journal. The author, Elise L. Moore, is explaining why divine law requires affirmative action and quota systems, allowing that “what seems logical from one perspective is onerous and unjust from another.” Her example is the Pharaoh ordering that all male babies of the Hebrews be killed. “What to the Egyptians seemed a social and political necessity was to the Hebrews the epitome of racial, religious, and gender prejudice.” Go down Moses, said the Lord, for they are committing racial, religious, and gender prejudice. I am sure Ms. Moore does not mean to suggest that the last offense might have been remedied by killing all the female babies as well. (This may be a first. I don’t think I’ve ever commented on the Church of Christ, Scientist, in this space. I promise not to make a habit of it.)
• The cultural corrosiveness of capitalism is a perennial subject, and sensibly so. Although it is not always addressed sensibly. Henry A. Giroux offers a distinctly leftist take on the subject in The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Rowman and Littlefield). Kenneth Anderson of American University reviews the book in the Times Literary Supplement, observing that “it is hard to resist the conclusion that Disney and predominant corporate America stand for a certain corporatist form of liberal politics and moderately progressive cultural views. Corporate America, especially those companies which produce consumer goods that depend upon culture, fashion, and advertising to sell them, is plainly not culturally conservative, as least not as that term is understood by American cultural conservatives; the American corporation freely inculcates progressive views, particularly in the matter of identity politics of race and gender, and tolerance and diversity, at the box office. How could corporate America be culturally conservative, when the only ironclad law of marketing is, and always will be, that sex sells? Giroux wants to say that, merely because it is not culturally conservative, it is not thereby ‘progressive’ in Giroux’s sense, and that that, finally, is its real failing. Still, it seems somewhat churlish of Giroux to go on insisting, on behalf of leftist cultural politics, that its efforts are merely a sop and do not go far enough; a more clear-sighted observer, coming perhaps from the cultural right, might have thought, rather, that Disney had offered to do a great deal of Giroux’s work for him and that he might be more properly grateful.” That having been said, Anderson is far from persuaded that matters would be improved by further fetters on the market. He concludes: “But if the alternative is for Giroux’s—or Pat Buchanan’s or Al Gore’s or George W. Bush’s—State to instruct us on what else to fill [public space] with, which is the strong if dangling implication of The MouseThat Roared, then we are better off as we are. One arrives at certain forms of libertarianism without enthusiasm, but as merely the least bad alternative.”
• Charles Murray, author, with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve, says he is still puzzled by the outrage of the left against their claim that there are inherent differences between the races in IQ and other factors bearing on one’s chances in life. After all, such a claim can be employed to advocate an expanded government role in equalizing life outcomes. Now Murray writes in “Deeper into the Brain” that we are facing a “neurogenetic revolution” in which biological factors will be discovered and made manipulatable not only relative to race and sex but also to many other group differences, such as those distinguishing “the English from the French, employed Swedes from unemployed Swedes, observant Christians from lapsed ones, and people who collect stamps from people who backpack.” Eugenics, he says, “is in disrepute because of Nazism,” but an older left—such as that of the Fabians and, he might have added, the Rockefeller Foundation—made no bones about the need for government policies that would encourage the lower classes to have fewer children and the better classes more. “The only difference,” he writes, “will be that the old eugenicists had to rely on a rough statement (‘the lower classes’) whereas eugenicists of the future will be able to be more precise (‘people with the following genetic profiles’).” In response to Mr. Murray’s puzzlement about the left, it might be noted that the utopian left must assume a literal and inherent equality among people if unhappy inequalities are to be blamed upon “the system,” thereby justifying the ambition to revolutionize the system. But, as Murray notes, there has been another stream of the left—abetted by many who think of themselves as conservatives—that despairs of the “inferior” and “defective” and believes they must be contained, reduced in number, or eliminated. This touches on what Murray has elsewhere called the growth of “custodial democracy,” and on the much-discussed question of whether Nazism was a phenomenon of the left or the right. “I confess to a certain optimism,” says Murray, about the neurogenetic revolution and the prospect of our deciding to redesign Homo sapiens. “One of the main reasons that couples have babies is to produce their baby, the product of their combined genes. . . . The popular voluntary uses of gene manipulation are likely to be ones that avoid birth defects and ones that lead to improved overall physical and mental abilities. I find it hard to get upset about that prospect.” That may well be true of the popular and voluntary aspects of the revolution, but Murray wisely acknowledges that his thoughts “are the ruminations of a twentieth-century man, destined to look as myopic a century from now as the predictions of nineteenth-century men about the twentieth.” Some who have thought about these matters in the past were not so very myopic. See, for instance, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as discussed by Leon Kass in the March issue.
• The journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity reports that researchers from Stanford and Duquesne universities have concluded that at least 200,000 Americans are “cyber-sex compulsives.” Compulsivity, as it is called, is defined as visiting pornographic web sites for eleven or more hours per week. Why eleven? Presumably ten hours per week can be excused as curiosity or occasional indulgence. Eleven is over the top. As Chesterton said, morality finally comes down to drawing a line somewhere.
• Bill Mahan of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, sent this item along and says it represents the decline from “Christian granite to social service gravel.” That’s not a bad way of putting it. The item is the newsletter of the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg. On the back page it carries the organization’s mission statement of 1900 under the heading THAT WAS THEN (in old English type). The statement reads: “We, the Young Women’s Christian Association of Harrisburg, a member of the Young Women’s Christian Association of the United States of America, declare our purpose to be: To build a fellowship of women and girls devoted to the task of realizing in our common life those ideals of personal and social living to which we are committed by our faith as Christians. In this endeavor we seek to understand Jesus, to share his love for all people, and to grow in the knowledge and love of God.” Then, under the heading THIS IS NOW (modern sans serif) there is the mission statement of 2000: “The YWCA of Greater Harrisburg emphasizes the empowerment of women and children by providing quality services designed to maximize their spiritual, emotional, educational, and physical development. It is committed to eliminating racism, sexism, and any other barrier or prejudice that impedes personal growth. It actively serves as an advocate and a resource to the community on issues that impact women and children.” The poignant fact is that the people who write such stuff are almost certainly sincere in believing that it represents progress.
• “The freedom of the Church,” meaning the ability of the Catholic Church to govern its own affairs, is hard-won. Only in the past century did Rome disentangle itself from sundry compromises with earthly states that claimed, for instance, the right to appoint or veto Rome’s appointment of bishops. Such conflicts go way back, for example to the great Investiture Controversy between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV of Germany, featuring the latter’s standing in the snow at Canossa begging for absolution in 1077. Today the Chinese regime defies the authority of Rome by appointing bishops to the Patriotic Church, and there is no Canossa in sight. On June 29, 1996, at the Jesuit house in Oxford, John Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, delivered a lecture much celebrated by progressive Catholics. He called for the “devolution” of ecclesial authority away from Rome and to local and national churches. Now the lecture has become a book, The Reform of the Papacy (Crossroad). (See FT review by Avery Dulles, June/July.) Veteran Catholic observer Russell Shaw notes that many of the subjects of reform included in the original lecture—priestly celibacy, divorce, remarriage, the ordination of women, etc.—are missing from the book. The idea of devolution (or “subsidiarity” in the Church) is still central, however. In fact, in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One), John Paul II asked for reflection, especially from Orthodox and Protestant churches, on how the exercise of the papal office might better serve Christian unity. Of course, Archbishop Quinn and others have every right to join the discussion. Shaw writes: “As the discussion proceeds, however, we need to keep in view the threats to Church unity that now exist not only in China but in the West. Progressive Catholics urging devolution don’t mean to damage ecclesial communion, but since when did people anticipate and intend all the consequences of what they do? ‘There is a legitimate and necessary place . . . for discussion of what is prudent at a given time in history,’ Archbishop Quinn said at Oxford. About that, he couldn’t be more right.”
• Although there are likely still homes where his picture hangs beside that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, John F. Kennedy, to put it gently, turned out to be a severe disappointment to Catholics who were so excited about having one of their own in the White House. Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame is prompted to reflection by a book on Robert Kennedy: “Ronald Steel’s new book on Bobby, In Love With Night, is chiefly concerned with showing that the younger brother was not as liberal as people thought, but then neither was the older brother. Both were sons of their father, after all. Whether the Kennedy brothers were liberal or conservative is not something one would fret too much about. It is their total secularization that is striking. They privatized their faith before any court suggested they should. Nor does it seem to have been a conscious, dramatic deed, however private. Being Catholic seems to have meant a plus or minus with the electorate and not much else. Father Andrew Greeley sometimes seems to suggest that we are all Kennedy Catholics now. All those beliefs and practices are negotiable, nothing that should bring us into collision with our fellow Americans. Now we divorce and abort and misbehave like everyone else—or so we are told. Sometimes I feel like Senator Grassley of Iowa, who, when told on one of the ineffable talk shows that everyone lies about sex, was dumbfounded. ‘I don’t!’ he cried, thereby becoming the butt of jokes. He, it was laughingly said, had nothing to lie about. How sophisticated we’ve become. But, of course, the laugh is on us.”
• I don’t say there aren’t too many lobbyists in Washington, although it is hard to know how many would be just the right number. And I confess to being more than a little skeptical about all the agitation for “campaign finance reform.” Money will always be in search of political influence, and will likely always find a path to it. A strong contender for the looniest idea of this political season is that, since government is corrupted by campaign financing, government should be put in control of campaign financing. (Ask the scandal-hit Christian Democrats in Germany, which has some of the strictest campaign finance laws in the world.) As to the excessive influence of lobbies, Chester E. Finn offers some incisive observations in his review of The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust by John B. Judis of the New Republic, a child of 1960s radicalism who would like to see it revived to challenge the “vested interests” clustered on K Street. Finn writes: “The picture, however, is not so simple. When does a worthy cause become a vested interest? When does a guardian of one’s own welfare turn into a ‘lobbyist’? And are lobbyists per se really a bad thing? After all, ours is a large and complex polity in which nobody can possibly represent himself in every forum or personally monitor the positions and votes of every elected official. By closely tracking affairs of state on behalf of our interests and enthusiasms, effective lobbyists, it might be argued, enable the rest of us to devote our energies to earning a living, raising a family, mowing the lawn, reading magazines, and making whoopee.” Finn, who is one of the country’s leading lights on education reform, goes on to note that there are lobbies, and then there are lobbies. “Without question, business is a powerful force in American politics. But it is by no means the only huge, policy-blocking concentration of power and self-interest in the land. In the field of education, for instance, it is not corporate America that keeps poor children trapped in rotten urban schools; it is, rather, mainly the teacher unions (the largest of which is headquartered not on K but on M Street in Washington), school-board associations, and myriad other groups that live off tax dollars.” Judis argues that in recent decades conservative and neoconservative views, as distinct from “disinterested” liberal views, have been receiving too much attention in the media. Of Judis’ argument that it is the job of the press to adjudicate between left and right by favoring the former and delegitimizing the latter, Finn observes in an aside, “It will surely come as news to many journalists that they have been remiss in their performance of this particular duty.”
• Buckets of ink have been spilt on the curious travels of “identity” through the cultural air that we breathe. This caught my eye the other day. It is Terry Golway’s column in the New York Observer and he is writing about Tommy Makem, a very successful Irish folk singer who is worried that his people may sell out their legacy to the European Union. “There’s nothing wrong with making money,” says Mr. Makem, “but if you lose your identity in the process, you’re gone forever.” It is unmistakably reminiscent of another who said, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world. . . .” Is identity today’s word for soul? For decades black musicians produced “soul music,” a mix of racialism and gospel. Do you suppose Mr. Makem had the words of Jesus in mind when he spoke as he did? It would seem more than likely, although they may be indelibly imprinted at some level below (or above) his consciousness. “If you lose your identity, you’re gone forever.” Eternal loss? Damnation? Should Christians be pleased, however ambivalently, with an understanding of soul that situates the individual in a corporate reality, in this case the Gaelic heritage? One does not want to overread what may have been a casual remark by an entertainer, but it is another illustration of the difficulty in discerning whether something is vestigially Christian, a Christian appropriation of a new cultural sensibility, or something like a new cult of “identity” posited against Christianity.
• One of the most striking differences between Protestant and Catholic clergy in parish ministry is that the former are typically bent on increasing the number of members while the latter are typically consumed by the tasks of serving the people they have. “If evangelizing means getting more people with a claim on my attention,” a priest friend remarks more than half seriously, “I don’t have time for it.” This touches on many problems of both institution and attitude, and they are helpfully addressed by a new project in Seattle, the Catherine of Sienna Institute. The institute has published a thirty-five-page pamphlet, “The Parish: Mission or Maintenance? The Untapped Potential of the Parish in the Formation of Lay Apostles,” by Father Michael Sweeney, O.P., and Sherry Ann Weddell. I imagine they would be glad to send a copy to anyone who asked for it, enclosing two dollars for their cost and trouble. (Catherine of Sienna Institute, 5050 8th Avenue NE, Seattle, Washington 98105.)
• According to Publishers Weekly, Thomas Nelson has published a book by John Eldredge, The Journey of Desire, which argues that “Christianity is not an invitation to become a moral person.” PW goes on to say, “Eldredge claims that a hunger for God, not an ethical reformation, should undergird Christianity.” If ever one might indulge the cliché of something being both/and rather than either/or, this might be the occasion.
• In a Commonweal cartoon, an aide says to the Senator: “You want to run a principled campaign? I’m afraid that gimmick’s been tried already.”
• Conservatives generally favor tradition, but from time to time a decision must be made that a cause is lost. Those who adamantly decline making that decision are commonly called reactionaries. Evelyn Waugh, for delightful instance. “Requested by a British journalist to comment on the upcoming elections of 1959, Waugh responded, ‘I have never voted in a parliamentary election. I shall not vote this year. . . . In the last three hundred years, particularly in the last hundred, the Crown has adopted what seems to me a very hazardous process of choosing advisers: popular election. Many great evils have resulted. . . . I do not aspire to advise my Sovereign in her choice of servants.’“
• Religion columnist Dale Turner writes in the Seattle Times endorsing the “right to die,” and the help of doctors in killing oneself. Nothing newsworthy in that, I suppose. The argument is familiar: “The quality of life is more important than mere length of life. Our cultural tradition holds that life has absolute value, but that is not really good enough anymore. Sometimes, no life would be better.” It seems we’ll just have to get a better cultural tradition. “God alone is not determining how long men and women shall live. Science and medicine now prolong the average span of life from in the thirties during early Colonial days to more than seventy now.” For the umpteenth time one points out that the life expectancy of a healthy young adult in the seventeenth century is not all that different from that of a healthy young adult today. The dramatic change has been in infant and child mortality. Go check out the ages of death in any old cemetery. As to the claim that doctor-assisted suicide may lead to a general devaluation of human life, Turner endorses the view, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” Right. Rape, cancer, war are not to be feared. They are only to be understood. “The right to die,” says Turner, “has equal validity to the right to live.” Not surprisingly, there is no evidence of Dale Turner’s commitment, never mind equal commitment, to the unborn child’s right to live.
• “We will no longer permit the killing of our children.” That’s Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund speaking, it says here, as she pounded the table. She is not talking about abortion. The above statement is immediately followed by “We lose eighty-four preschool children a year to guns, four thousand kids a year.” The adulatory cover story is puffing Edelman’s new “Crusade for Children.” Edelman, a long time ally of Hillary (“It Takes a Village”) Clinton, who served on her organization’s board, is a longtime advocate of a greatly expanded welfare state, government monopoly of education, and what is euphemistically called a woman’s reproductive rights. The same issue includes an editorial endorsing Edelman’s crusade and urging Christians to rally behind the educational philosophy of John Dewey. Oh yes, all this appears in the National Catholic Reporter (emphasis added).
• “Mysterianism,” permit me to suggest, is a word we can get along without. It occurs in a review of John Horgan’s The Undiscovered Mind (Free Press) by John F. Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown. Haught notes that Horgan debunks, among other things, evolutionary psychology, an offshoot of E. O. Wilson’s sociobiology. Horgan says evolutionary psychology is “a strangely inconsequential exercise.” It offers Darwinian explanations for social and psychological phenomena, but it cannot demonstrate experimentally that that explanation is better than others. Horgan writes, “Like neuroscientists, researchers in evolutionary psychology and artificial intelligence are both bumping up against the Humpty Dumpty dilemma. They can break the mind into pieces, but they have no idea how to put it together again.” Horgan is depressed by the thought that there appears to be a definitive limit to what scientific inquiry can tell us, and Haught thinks he shouldn’t be. Maybe, says Haught, “the undiscovered mind” should be viewed as “an exhilarating doorway to infinite mystery, as it has been for the truly great philosophers of the past.” Right. In Haught’s otherwise thoughtful review, however, this slips in: “The fact that mind evades complete objectification is not a signal of its irreducibility to mechanics. Our mental freedom is probably illusory, for there must be unspecifiable physical factors that quietly ‘cause’ all of our decisions.” Must be? Why? If reality truly participates in “infinite mystery,” there is no reason why it should be captive to “causes,” even in quotation marks. But let’s not call this view mysterianism. Humility will do, or, even better, simple honesty.
• The subject of reading or studying the Bible in public schools is a perennial. We have noted some recent initiatives in this connection, and it is obvious that readers are divided on the merits of trying to find some neutral way of treating the “Bible as literature.” In 1950 C. S. Lewis delivered a lecture on “The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version,” by which he meant, of course, the King James Version. He argued that the literary influence of the Bible was severely limited by its being so familiar. “This may sound paradoxical, but it is seriously meant. For three centuries, the Bible was so well known that hardly any word or phrase, except those which it shared with all English books whatever, could be borrowed without recognition. If you echoed the Bible everyone knew that you were echoing the Bible. And certain associations were called up in every reader’s mind—sacred associations. All your readers had heard it read, as a ritual or almost ritual act, at home, at school, and in church. This did not mean that reverence prevented all biblical echoes. It did mean that they would only be used either with conscious reverence or with conscious irreverence, either religiously or facetiously. There could be a pious use and a profane use: but there would be no ordinary use. Nearly all that was biblical was recognizably biblical, and all that was recognized was sacer, numinous; whether on that account to be respected or on that account to be flouted makes very little difference. Mark what Boswell says under Sat. April 3d 1773: ‘He [i.e., Dr. Johnson] disapproved of introducing scripture phrases into secular discourses. This seemed to me a question of some difficulty. A scripture expression may be used like a highly classical phrase to produce an instantaneous strong impression.’ ‘Like a highly classical phrase’—that is the point; and producing a strong impression. It is difficult to conceive conditions less favorable to that unobtrusive process of infiltration by which a profound literary influence usually operates. An influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep.” In other words, literary influence insinuates itself; it does not hit the reader over the head. Lewis took note of the displacement of the KJV by new translations, a process then just getting underway but now almost totally triumphant. The Revised Standard Version (not the New RSV) and the New International Version preserve much of the cadence of the KJV, but less and less do we have a common biblical vocabulary. The result is that the Bible can less and less be read as literature, since literature is texts composed of specific words. The Bible’s basic stories and images can be taught as history, since they are an inescapable part of our history. While much of contemporary pedagogy is set upon escaping from the inescapable, resistance to such unbounded liberationism is possible, and current efforts to promote Bible reading in the schools may be viewed as a resistance strategy. Those who understand that the Bible is to be read on its own terms of revelation and salvation history may well support such resistance strategies, but they will not expect too much from them in terms of spiritual benefit. Fifty years after Lewis’ lecture, proposals for the reading and study of the Bible that are neutral toward the truth of the Bible are as unsatisfactory as ever, and as, I expect, they ever will be.
• I don’t know how many Christians have been influenced by Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?, published last year by Zondervan. In that book, columnist Cal Thomas and Grand Rapids pastor Ed Dobson (who was associated with Moral Majority many years ago) excoriate the excesses of “the religious right,” and that is a target-rich environment. Many have read the book, however, as a counsel of political despair. Christians should withdraw from the public square and cultivate their own gardens. Writing in Touchstone, James Hitchcock of St. Louis University takes Thomas and Dobson to task: “But here lies the book’s most serious political failure, which is the authors’ apparently having forgotten what they once knew-that the modern state will not let people alone, will not allow them to live simply as their beliefs dictate. The modern state more and more moves towards what has been aptly called soft totalitarianism, in which it claims authority over every aspect of people’s lives. Until now conservative Christians have been the strongest bulwark against this tendency. Mischievously, Thomas and Dobson now urge them to withdraw from the fray.” Dobson suggests that Christians should close their independent schools and send their children to the government schools where they can serve as a leaven. Hitchcock is not impressed: “But when they do, they are not to press their own agenda, such as formal prayer, which Dobson opposes. Neither are they to be critics of official school policies, which would be the kind of ‘unloving’ behavior the authors condemn. Evidently Christians’ sole moral duty to the schools is to be cooperative. This is a view indistinguishable from that of the American Civil Liberties Union or People for the American Way, the antireligious group founded by Thomas’ friend Norman Lear.” There is a touch of impatience, but I think it is justified impatience, in Hitchcock’s conclusion: “Thomas and Dobson’s achievement is to offer Christians specious theological arguments why they should willingly cooperate in their own disenfranchisement.”
• Now that some of the dust has settled, I note that much of the press is in a no-hard-feelings mode toward Kenneth Starr. After trashing, slashing, and slandering him as a prosecutorial zealot, a religious fanatic, a partisan run amok, and a host of other very bad things, the New Republic and others tell us that he is really a very decent and capable guy who did the best that could be done with an independent prosecutor law that he himself had always opposed. So he isn’t the Devil incarnate after all. That’s good to know. As for Starr, in the aftermath of the impeachment, he has been nothing less than magnanimous. This in an interview with World: “I have values and beliefs. I am unashamedly a Christian. At the same time, I recognize that an individual called upon to carry on a responsibility has to be professional in carrying out that responsibility. If anything, the Christian perspective calls upon one to be more gracious, more understanding, and kinder than would a completely non-biblical perspective. . . . It is decidedly un-Christian to try to win at any cost.” As to the politicians involved and what the process tells us about the system, his magnanimity may be something of a stretch: “Whether one agrees or disagrees with the result, the process ran its course. The elected representatives of a vast democracy weighed for many weeks whether the elected President should be removed from office. . . . Not a single shot was fired, not a single tank took to the streets. Voices were raised and feelings ran high, but we worked our way through that ultimate governance question in a peaceful and orderly way. That is a great tribute to the wisdom of the structure of government that was given to us at the founding.” Will history judge him kindly? Starr seems not to be overly anxious on that score. “I don’t have a crystal ball. History will do what history will do. But I do know what the facts are: the President betrayed his moral trust with the American people. He betrayed it badly. He lied to the American people, and he lied in a court of law. That is a permanent blot on our government and on his stewardship specifically. It was my lot to be the cop on the beat. I was an honest cop.”
• I am struck by the advertisement that appears in evangelical magazines for Westminster Theological Seminary, the Presbyterian school in Philadelphia that is very much in the Anglo-Scot tradition of strait-laced orthodoxy. It has a big picture of founder . Gresham Machen, the formidable warrior against sundry modernisms who died in 1937. Beneath the picture, Dr. Machen asserts: “The Bible, which testifies of Christ, is the centre and core of that with which Westminster Seminary has to do.” One is inevitably reminded of Churchill’s response upon being reminded not to end sentences with a preposition: “That is pedantry up with which I will not put.” Pace D. G. Hart and other Westminster worthies, this is not a theological objection. But isn’t there a way to present this fine school that steers between the breezy and the starchy? (Incidental note: in double-checking Machen’s dates, I discover there is no entry for him in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. A major oversight.)
• So why are some conservatives so obsessed by sexual questions? It is a question frequently asked, and Joel Belz of World magazine has one not bad answer: “I have friends who wonder why some of us keep worrying about the issues of homosexuality and abortion. Why not put a little focus, they say, on the sins of racism and economic oppression? To which I think we need to respond: real as racism and economic oppression may be, I don’t know many folks who defend them as morally right. We may be insufficiently motivated and poorly mobilized to undo them—but at least we’re not running around claiming that racism is a virtue and that economic oppression should be expanded.”
• As with the weather, everybody complains about contemporary church architecture but nobody is doing anything about it. Well, not quite everybody. I suppose some contemporary church architects are pleased with what they have wrought. And it is not quite true that nobody is doing anything about it. There is, for instance, Professor Duncan Stroik, who with his colleagues at the University of Notre Dame has established a vibrant center for rethinking and reclaiming sacred space. With Italian partners, they have published a bilingual and beautifully illustrated book of 150 pages that demonstrates what is being done and what might be done in architecture that appropriates the fullness of tradition in a contemporary mode. Information about Riconquistare Lo Spazio Sacro/Reconquering Sacred Space and related initiatives may be obtained by writing Prof. Stroik at University of Notre Dame, Department of Architecture, Bond Hall, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556.
• Different and sometimes contradictory purposes are served by exaggerating what is commonly termed the “vocations crisis” in the Catholic priesthood. There are conservatives who inflate the problem as further evidence of all that has gone wrong since the Second Vatican Council, and progressives who happily join in the inflation to support their proposed solution—married priests and the ordination of women. Not surprisingly, many in the media seize upon the “crisis” as an additional sign that the Catholic Church—and, by extension, Christianity—is on a course of inevitable disarray and decline. These games have been going on for several decades now, and all the players are well practiced in their lines. The reality is somewhat different. At a recent press conference in Rome, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, presented statistics from the last twenty-five years that demonstrate, he said, that the vocations crisis, if that is what it was, is now past. In 1975, he noted, there were 60,000 seminarians studying for the priesthood, while at the end of 1999 there were 110,000, an increase of over 80 percent. In 1975, there were 6,600 ordinations, compared with nearly 9,000 in 1997. The number of priests who left active ministry between 1974 and 1997 has also been greatly exaggerated, with reports frequently counting those who died or retired because of old age. In fact, says the Cardinal, about 1 percent left between 1974 and 1997. “It is not really that big a number, but the press has made it seem big, and in our hearts it feels big,” he said. Of those who left, more than 9,500 have been readmitted to the priestly ministry, and many other applications for readmission are under study. The figures offered by the Cardinal are, of course, for the universal Church. The picture in the U.S. is spotty, with some dioceses overflowing with vocations while others fall far short of enough ordinations to maintain replacement level. In most dioceses, however, bishops express confidence about increasing numbers of vocations in the years ahead. The decline in vocations that hit bottom about twenty-five years ago has also occasioned rethinking about the responsibilities that require a priest. During the same years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of permanent deacons and lay ministries, especially in administrative and educational positions, and many think that is all to the good, while others worry that priests are being too narrowly confined to sacramental duties, turning them into presiders over what some call a sacramental assembly line. There is no precise formula for the right ratio of priests to people. In the U.S., the active Catholic population continues to increase, and in some dioceses the fear of “full pews, empty altars” that was so much discussed twenty years ago still seems very real. This is notably the case in rural areas and in smaller parishes. Whether in the U.S. or worldwide, however, it is not accurate to speak of a “vocations crisis.” There will always be a need for more priests, even as the Church, cultivating the expansion of the permanent diaconate and lay ministries, continues to redefine the tasks that require a priest. There is, and will always be, more than enough work for everyone. One recalls the words of Jesus about the abundance of the harvest and the scarcity of laborers. While it is a great sadness of recent decades that many men who had a priestly vocation did not fulfill their calling, the larger picture is one of sometimes painful but also promising development. Change should not be confused with crisis.
• Over many years now, Daniel Callahan has been one of the most incisive commentators on medicine and morality. A cofounder and first president of the Hastings Center, he is a pioneer of biomedical ethics, a perhaps inevitable specialty of which he has also become an intelligent critic. His most recent book is False Hopes (Simon & Schuster, 330 pages,, $24
) and the subtitle is an apt summary of its argument: “Why America’s Quest for Perfect Health Is a Recipe for Failure.” Callahan makes a persuasive case that the “war” against mortality is futile and wrongheaded; he urges us to accept a “natural life span” aided by “decent” but not unlimited medical care. He effectively debunks the exaggerated claims for medical achievements and the delusions of “perfect health,” offering a thorough critique of the hope for technological breakthroughs driven by the dynamics of the market. His arguments for accepting the limits of the human condition and a “steady-state” system of medicine attuned to those limits are filled with moral wisdom, but they are weakened by his failure to explain why present or significantly increased U.S. expenditures on medicine are not economically sustainable and by his nostalgia for the Western European and Canadian models of government-directed medical care that he recognizes are not economically sustainable. Throughout, he advocates a sense of moral and social “solidarity” that many believe has been shattered, not least by the unlimited abortion license that Callahan helped to establish by his influential 1970 study, Abortion: Law, Choice, and Morality. This is, then, an important but deeply flawed book. Callahan recognizes the threat of Huxley’s “brave new world” that is posed by unchecked technology and market forces, but seems incapable of mustering the strong moral arguments that are needed to undergird the solidarity required to resist that threat. Further, if death is the unqualified annihilation that Callahan suggests it is, people will understandably demand the utmost medical aid in resisting such an unmitigated catastrophe. Against the “false hopes” of medicine and technology, Callahan posits the wan hope that a politically effective majority will be persuaded to embrace his Stoic acceptance of inevitable limits, along with increased government regulation and rationing of health care. It does not seem very probable and, upon closer examination, does not seem desirable. Callahan admires the Western European sense of limits, but fails to ask whether that might be a part of why the societies of Western Europe are committing demographic suicide. Nonetheless, as a critique of much that is wrong with medicine in this country, False Hopes is a book that both informs and invites argument about questions of increasing consequence.
• In Poland, where 95 percent of the thirty-nine million people are Catholic, the government is worried about new religious sects. The interesting thing is, according to the Keston Institute, which monitors religion in Central and Eastern Europe, that the Catholic bishops apparently do not share the worry. Following the example of John Paul II, they are working hard at improving relations with the thirteen Christian denominations in Poland, which range from the 570,000 member Orthodox Church to the Baptist Union with its 7,000 members. Altogether, 139 religious groups are officially registered with the government, including seven Muslim, nine Hindu, and fourteen Buddhist. Stimulated by anxieties about sects in neighboring countries in the West, the government established an Inter-Ministerial Team on New Religious Movements, which has a budget and a few bureaucrats with nothing better to worry about. Better the government should relax and follow the example of the bishops.
• No, I do not have a thing about Orlando; it’s just that Orlando keeps doing these things. Now there is “The Holy Land Experience,” which is described as “A Living, Biblical Museum.” The ad declares, “It’s been 2000 years since the world has seen anything like this.” Really? They mean it is not like the Holy Land after all? Earnest advice: save up for another year and go experience the real thing.
• An impertinent Jesuit who teaches in Rome has come up with a “Post-Conciliar Catholic Lexicon.” Herewith a few of the items that are publishable in a family magazine:
Ultramontanist: Priest who wears clerical garb even when not en route to his arraignment.
Prophet: One who exposes the misbehavior of conservatives.
Scandalmonger: One who exposes the misbehavior of liberals.
Rosary: Beaded chain of unknown origin used to bind the hands of deceased clergymen in coffins.
Liturgical Participation: Process by which the faithful forfeit the prerogative to object to ritual innovations instituted by persons with master’s degrees.
Active Participation: Silent endurance.
Sin of Sodom: Inhospitality, as in Lot’s wife entertaining his guests with pretzel nuggets and celery sticks filled with generic cream cheese and saving the salted almonds and brie en croute for herself, thus bringing divine annihilation upon her fellow townsfolk.
Detraction: The sin of telling the truth about the lies told by a bishop.
Principle of Subsidiarity: The doctrine that decisions affecting the common good should be made at the lowest level of presumptive authority and enforced by the highest level of ecclesiastical discipline congruent to effecting the displacement of Catholic social doctrine with that of Whoopi Goldberg.
Five Glorious Mysteries: Dialogue, dynamic equivalence, recycling, diversity, and inclusive language.
Our Jesuit friend has never been accused of being one of those humorless conservatives.
• Some while back the New York Times Magazine did a remarkable story on the Scheibners, a large evangelical family in Pennsylvania. They homeschool and generally live a life of “selective separatism”—voting, paying taxes, working in the mainstream (he is an American Airlines pilot), and doing community service, but, as Mrs. Scheibner puts it, not participating “in those parts of the culture that do not bring glory to God.” The article was generally positive, the author noting that “it is hard not to see the Scheibners, conservative and law-abiding though they are, as rebels.” Writing in the liberal Christian Century, Miroslav Volf of Yale writes that mainliners tend to dismiss people such as the Scheibners for being reactionary and fundamentalist. That, he says, is a mistake. “If we can neither state what the gospel is nor have a clear notion of what constitutes the good life, we will more or less simply float along, like jellyfish with the tide. True, a belief in our ability to shape the wider culture is woven into the fabric of our identity. So we complain and we act. But in the absence of determinate beliefs and practices, our criticism and activism will be little more than one more way of floating along.”
• Thirty years ago, New York State passed, by one vote in the assembly, a bill legalizing most abortions. The New York Times had a big and celebrative front-page story, “‘70 Abortion Law: New York Said Yes, Stunning the Nation.” A hero of the story is George M. Michaels, who represented a dominantly Catholic district but “voted his conscience” after being pressed on the issue by his son, a rabbinical student. The Times view of Catholic politicians was very different. Father James T. Burtchaell examined the Times coverage at the time and, in his 1982 book Rachel Weeping, and Other Essays on Abortion, wrote this: “Catholic readers and others could not help noticing that Catholics were expected to vote out of conformity, while a Jewish legislator was praised for having voted out of conscience against his constituents’ presumed wishes. When they vote against abortion because of their own convictions, Catholics are dogmatic; when they do so to accommodate their constituents, they are craven. When non-Catholics vote against abortion because of their own convictions, they are unintelligible; when they do so to accommodate their constituents, they are under intense pressure. Put otherwise: when a majority want abortion from their legislators, that is democracy; when a majority do not want abortion, they follow what the Times calls ‘the politics of punishment.’“ It is thirty years later and not much has changed.
• Are Christianity and Judaism two different religions, or is it more accurate to say that they constitute a continuing disagreement within the history of one religion? That is among the questions addressed by Scott Bader-Saye’s Church and Israel After Christendom: The Politics of Election (Westview). (See FT review by David B. Hart, August/September.) George Lindbeck of Yale, writing in Theology Today, highlights one important aspect of the question addressed by the book: “It argues that God has unconditionally elected Israel and the Church to be the first fruits of God’s promise to bless all humankind in that redemptive seed of Abraham that is Israel and above all, Christians believe, Jesus Christ. The two portions of this divided people now live, however, in different parts of their shared story, separated overwhelmingly during most of their joint history by the sins of Christians. They share the same covenant: The ‘new’ testament intensifies rather than replaces the ‘old’ even in the Epistle to the Hebrews, not to mention Jeremiah. To suppose that there are two covenants, whether of the traditional successive type (as N. T. Wright maintains) or of the liberal parallel variety (as the late Paul van Buren proposed), is ‘to insulate the Church’s identity and mission from any necessary engagement with the Jews.’ That, in turn, is to deny in practice even if not doctrinal theory that Christians believe and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus. ‘Israel’s God is Trinity’ for Christians because to deny this is the worst kind of supersessionism, the Marcionite heresy that Israel’s God is not their own.”
• Three well-respected Protestant scholars noted for their work on religion and ethics decline to be interviewed for a television discussion dealing with same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays and lesbians. They have carefully developed positions in opposition to both. But they don’t want to talk about it publicly, and they ask Peter Steinfels of the New York Times not to reveal their names in his story on why they don’t want to talk about it. Anticipating how television would handle it, one scholar says it would be “Here’s Mr. Compassion, and here’s me.” The fear is that they would be tarred with the brush of “homophobia,” and, once that label is applied, whatever they have to say about anything else (homosexuality is hardly their main subject) would be discredited. Steinfels writes: “As thoughtful conservatives—at least on this issue—these three theologians confront not only media simplification but also the ideological intolerance and labeling rampant in university environments and the polarized atmosphere within the churches. Measured liberals may well face similar pressures: condemnations from angry conservatives on the other side and criticism from dissatisfied militants on their own. American culture is hypersensitive to censorship. What truly constrains full and open public discussion, however, may be far more subtle but no less effective.” But, of course, it is censorship, and of a very thuggish sort. When our Ramsey Colloquium published its very careful but clear statement, “The Homosexual Movement“ (March 1994), reports reached us from several campuses that gay activists had stolen that issue of FT from libraries. Gilbert Meilaender, who was then a professor at excruciatingly correct Oberlin College, signed the statement and offered a vivid report on the unpleasant consequences in “On Bringing One’s Life to a Point“ (November 1994). A professor at one of our most distinguished universities finally declined to sign because it would jeopardize his grant applications to major foundations. A lawyer at a prestigious law firm said she could not sign because any suggestion that she had moral or other objections to the homosexual movement would make the firm vulnerable to a future anti-discrimination suit. It would also prevent her from being made a partner, which has since happened. Tufts University has “decertified” an evangelical student group that refused to accept a lesbian activist as its leader. To their shame, other religious groups on campus—including those, such as the Catholic ministry, that at least formally disapprove of homosexual acts—have remained silent. (As of this writing, the group has been reinstated provisionally, pending a final decision by the student court later this fall.) The message is that even the most temperate and respectful expression of viewpoints that dissent from gay orthodoxy are beyond the pale. Let the record show that—on many campuses, in the media, and in other sectors of our society, including the churches—the homosexual movement is the most extreme, fanatical, nasty, and effective agent of censorship today. It operates not by argument but by intimidation. And the unhappy fact is that most people are easily intimidated. Such is the circumstance created by a movement incessantly declaring its devotion to inclusiveness, openness, sensitivity, and uncloseted honesty. Only ten years ago, the standard plea of the movement was, “Can’t we talk about it?” Today the plea has become the edict, “We’ll talk and you’ll shut up.” I continue to hope that the liberal tradition, rightly understood, will recover its nerve, at least in the university. I have been told that I am naive on that score, and maybe I am.
• It’s a matter of ignorance, says one party, to which another says it is a matter of arrogance, but I do not think we need choose between these explanations; ignorance safeguards arrogance, and arrogance provides immunity against the embarrassment of ignorance. The discussion is occasioned by philosopher Simon Blackburn’s review of philosopher Hilary Putnam’s most recent book, The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body, and World (Columbia University Press). The review appears in the New Republic, thus involving its book editor, along with Mr. Blackburn, in our search for the most adequate explanation. In the course of a long, somewhat catty, and self-consciously clever dissection, Mr. Blackburn finally gets to what he really does not like about Mr. Putnam. “I have heard it said, unkindly or not, that Putnam’s project in recent years has been to make the world safe for religion.” Unkindly or not? In the intellectual quarters frequented by Mr. Blackburn, it seems most unlikely that anyone would say such a thing kindly. Such a statement made in almost any academic quarters would certainly be taken as a put-down, suggesting as it does that Mr. Putnam’s philosophical cerebrations are tainted by ulterior motive or prejudice. In this case, the taint is damning indeed. Mr. Blackburn reminds us of the “attitudes that cling to the religious spirit, such as exclusiveness, sanctimoniousness, sectarianism, hostility to science, admiration for wishful thinking.” Not only that, but religious beliefs are “true or false” and, upon critical examination, “many of them are then found wanting or even risible.” Say it ain’t so, Simon. That such stuff and nonsense can still appear in a frequently respectable publication at the beginning of the twenty-first century is worth noticing. Perhaps it is part of TNR‘s devotion to protecting endangered species, such as the village atheist of yore. Mr. Blackburn does not specify whether he is deploring the spirit of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Secular Scientism, or just the spirit of “religion in general.” (On the incoherence of religion in general, see Paul Griffiths’ “The Very Idea of Religion“ in the May issue.) Hilary Putnam, in the tradition of William James and Wittgenstein, suggests that there may be more to reality and to our discernment of reality than is dreamt of in reductionist philosophies, but Mr. Blackburn is having none of it. How very small, quaint, and now increasingly fetid seems that intellectual enclave of defiant souls declaring their liberation from “the religious spirit.” How desperately they heap upon that spirit bigotry’s catalogue of reproaches. I do not know Simon Blackburn personally, and he may be a decent and intelligent fellow—he could even be a devout Christian or Jew—who made the mistake of knocking out a review on a day when he was quite unhinged by goodness knows what that went wrong. Whoever made the editorial decision to run the piece, however, presumably had more than a day to consider the wisdom of going public with a blast of platitudinous prejudice for which the little world of academic philosophy is still, unfortunately, a safe place.
• Another premature obituary, or so it seems. In recent decades, there has been much talk about post-denominational religion, meaning that people are largely indifferent to labels such as Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, that is the case when local clergy and lay leaders are indifferent to their denominational connection, but the larger picture is that local churches do care. “They use their own denominations’ educational materials, eschewing that of nondenominational, generic publishers. They carefully nurture their denominational patterns of worship, with their hymns, liturgy, and prayers closely allied with their larger traditions. The loyalists tend to identify their denominational mission with that of the larger church. They are involved in supporting global programs sponsored largely by their own mission and relief agencies.” Perhaps too much attention has been paid the Protestant “megachurches” that are usually and determinedly nondenominational, while religion-watchers have been slighting what goes on at First Presbyterian on the corner of Main and Olive Streets.
• We ran a generally positive notice of Robert Kaplan’s new book The Coming Anarchy (Random House), commending it for its anti-utopian realism about world affairs. Robert Kagan, who sometimes teams up with William Kristol of the Weekly Standard in promoting a vaulting vision of Pax Americana, does not like the book at all. He writes in the New Republic: “The real tragedy is that Kaplan’s realism precludes him from making the only appeal that can plausibly be made to the inhabitants of the world’s stretch limousines: the appeal of universal morality and common humanity. Why should we care what happens in West Africa? Kaplan tries to appeal to us on the pragmatic, material grounds of realism. If we do not pay attention, he warns, we will lose money, we will lose security, we will become sick with disease. Many realists believe that these arguments are not only legitimate, but also that they are the only arguments that are likely to persuade. They are wrong on both counts. The most powerful reason why Western liberals, why all Westerners, should care about West Africans is that they are human. And to the extent that we are indifferent to their suffering, to the extent that we would be complicit in denying them the natural, universal rights that we enjoy, we ourselves become less human.” Kagan has an important point, as does Kaplan. We should not have to choose, however, between the latter’s amoral realism and the former’s penchant for crusading moralism. Statecraft, one may be permitted to suggest, should be marked by a morally informed realism that presses toward what is possible under the conditions of a fallen world in which we tirelessly speak truth to power while knowing that force must be countered by force. I am not sure that Kagan would disagree with that, and am inclined to agree with him that Kaplan would.
• The day after Stenberg, the 5-4 Supreme Court decision approving partial-birth abortion, the New York Times ran a story on its political impact, noting that “the Republicans’ embrace in the last few years of eliminating late-term abortion allowed the party to maintain its anti-abortion position in a way that is more palatable to many voters than suggesting overturning the constitutional amendment allowing abortion.” Say what? It is true that, under a regime of the judicial usurpation of politics, the Court is in fact amending the Constitution with some regularity, but we have not quite reached the point where an election held among nine unelected lawyers is the same thing as a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. What the Republican platform calls for, of course, is a constitutional amendment overturning the Court’s 1973 arrogation of power in Roe v Wade.
• Parts of James Burtchaell’s acclaimed book The Dying of the Light, which tells the story of the disengagement of Christian higher education from Christianity, first appeared in these pages. The book played a significant part in the Catholic bishops’ overwhelming approval of the norms for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), which aims at reconnecting Catholic colleges and universities with Catholicism. The Holy Cross fathers, who run the University of Notre Dame, are not at all happy with Father Burtchaell, and he has been ordered not to speak or write on the questions addressed by the book. Fr. Edward T. Oakes, writing in Commonweal, observes: “When the nation’s most articulate defender of Ex Corde Ecclesiae is silenced, Catholics can at least be amused at this extra fillip of irony: that liberal academics in Catholic universities and their sponsoring religious orders are resorting to the very tactics that have made [several maverick twentieth-century theologians] the heroes of theological liberalism!”
• Garry Wills, I fear, is becoming increasingly crotchety and downright nasty in his treatment of John Paul II and the Church. But he is the New York Review of Books‘ in-house expert on all things Catholic. In a recent issue he offers an over-the-top version of the teaching that the Church is composed of sinners but is herself sinless. That, and the teaching that the Church should forgive sinners as Christ forgave sinners, is, he writes, “blasphemous” and a “deifying” of the Church. John Paul’s many confessions of wrongs done by the children of the Church are, says Wills, instances of “apology as propaganda,” aimed at making the Church look good. “They are asymptotic moves toward truth, which by definition do not reach it.” Asymptotic! That’s a low blow, even for Garry Wills. He complains that the Pope has not apologized for Pius XI’s censuring of an obscure interreligious dialogue called Friends of Israel back in 1928 because it compromised Catholic doctrine. Why do I have the feeling that, if John Paul mentioned that and fifty other particulars, Mr. Wills would come up with yet another particular that the Pope did not mention? Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said shortly before the Pope’s pilgrimage to Israel: “It is surely inappropriate to greet a heartfelt act of contrition with a pointed reminder of every act of wrongdoing that I think may have been left off the list. If every step forward is greeted with an attack, there is little incentive for additional steps to be taken.” Rabbi Yoffie was criticizing other Jewish organizations that refuse to take yes for an answer, but his point is as pertinent to the case of Mr. Wills. Israeli novelist Amos Oz said of the Pope in the Holy Land, “Generations on generations of Jews would have paid I know not what to have seen what we were part of today in Jerusalem. It is an epochal turning point, a revolution of great historical consequences.” Not so fast, says Garry Wills. The Church is still “lagging behind others in the recognition of such historical wrongs as the Inquisition, the war on science, the denigration of women, and the failure to denounce pogroms.” In fact, the Church, and John Paul in particular, have on many occasions addressed each of those subjects. It is not simply that Mr. Wills has not been paying attention; he seems to believe that contrition is not genuine unless self-accusations top the accusations of the most extreme anti-Catholic defamation. It has been said that suicide is the most sincere form of self-criticism, and it does seem that Mr. Wills, a Catholic, will not be satisfied until the Church apologizes for being Catholic. His curious role at the New York Review is to tell Jews and others that they should not accept Catholic contrition at face value. “We are much worse than you think!” he insists. But of course he means not “we” but “they.” What Mr. Wills has been doing for years in the New York Review he has recently perpetrated at book length in Papal Sin: The Structure of Deceit (see Russell Hittinger’s review in Briefly Noted, FT, August/September).
• The South African novelist J. M. Coetzee was invited to give Princeton’s Tanner Lecture on “human values” and went about it in an interesting way. He produced a story in which an aging novelist, called Elizabeth Costello, gives just such a lecture and chooses the topic of animal rights, advocating a position with which Mr. Coetzee is clearly sympathetic, as he has shown in his book The Lives of Animals (Princeton University Press). Roger Scruton, editor of the Salisbury Review, comments: “Ms. Costello argues that human beings and animals are so alike that the breeding of animals for meat, and the mass slaughter of the product, are not to be distinguished from the mass murders of the Holocaust. (The comparison provokes an understandably angry response from an old Jewish poet in Costello’s audience.) Costello’s arguments hinge on rhetorical questions, designed to shift the burden of proof. ‘What is so special,’ she asks, ‘about the form of consciousness we recognize that makes killing a bearer of it a crime, while killing an animal goes unpunished?’ Like Pilate, she does not stay for an answer. In any case, what she needs is not an answer but another question: ‘What is so special about the form of consciousness of a cat that enables it to kill incessantly without committing a crime?’ Such a question reminds us of the real difference between human beings and other animals: we are moral beings, they are not. We have knowledge of right and wrong, they do not. We are judged, they are not. We have duties, they do not. And—as an inescapable corollary—we have rights, they do not. Of course, that is only the first step. But the amazing thing, to me, is that the step is not taken either by Ms. Costello or by her immediate critics. The reason for this is clear. If we begin the debate as I have begun it, we are led at once into difficult areas of metaphysics. We must now explore the concepts of freedom, personality, and obligation, so as to understand how we, who are only animals, are nevertheless bound by obligations which we cannot escape. To make sense of this requires hard philosophical work; and this work is never engaged in by the defenders of animal rights, for whom emotional release is far too important to be compromised by reasoned reflection.” Cruelty to animals is, of course, a terrible thing: because it causes pain to the animal (only those who have never cared for an animal quibble about that), because it debases the human being who perpetrates it, and because it transgresses human criteria of morality. Scruton concludes: “The interesting thing about Ms. Costello is that she is troubled only by likenesses, and only by those that fuel her self-indulgent emotions. She keeps cats, but shows no awareness of the likeness between cats and serial killers, or of the resemblance between keeping a pet and keeping a sex-slave. Everything that she observes is carefully tailored to reinforce her contempt for other humans. And in this, at least, she is an accurate portrait of the typical campaigner for animal rights.” “Contempt for other humans” may not be “typical” of such campaigners, but they do, with distressing regularity and incoherence, pit the moral status of animals against the moral status of human beings when it is only and inescapably to the morality of human beings that they appeal. Presumably Ms. Costello does not lecture her cat on the rights of mice.
• Vice President Gore’s understanding of the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” is in need of “some clarification,” as the National Association of Evangelicals delicately puts it. The NAE cites Gore’s statement that he “would look for Justices of the Supreme Court who understand that our Constitution is a living and breathing document, that it was intended by our Founders to be interpreted in the light of the constantly evolving experience of the American people.” That view of a “living” Constitution, says the NAE, reduces it to what Jefferson called “a blank sheet of paper.” “If activist judges are free to read into the Constitution their own predilections, the people, as Lincoln said, ‘cease to be their own rulers.’ The Founders recognized that changes in the Constitution would be necessary from time to time, and therefore included an amendment process. That is how changes were to take place in our representative democracy, not under some ‘living’ Constitution rubric that permits unelected judges to decide what is good for us. In short, the Supreme Court was never intended to sit as a kind of continuing constitutional convention. Judicial activism—whether of the liberal or conservative stripe—cannot be squared with rule by ‘we the people.’” I confess to being a bit puzzled when people ask whether the debate over the judicial usurpation of politics is over. When it is over, the American experiment in representative democracy will be over.
• So what’s new to be said about “the religious right”? Well, there is this thought from Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, on the way the religious right is a barrier to what he calls the complete triumph of relativism and libertinism. “On this latter issue, I have long suspected that there is a parallel between the attitudes of many liberals today and the way the French took shelter under the American nuclear umbrella during the Cold War while simultaneously gratifying themselves with luxuriant outbursts of contempt against us. Such liberals, I think, are not quite so unhappy as they profess to be that there is a force in this country whose very existence helps set limits to libertine tendencies that they themselves worry about, especially when they have children, but that they do not know how to restrain and would lack the courage to fight even if they were in command of the necessary arguments. And so they rely on the ‘nuclear umbrella’ of the Christian right, while denouncing it all the more loudly as they quietly benefit from its protection.”
• At their general conference in May, the United Methodists adopted guidelines specifying that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) wishing to become Methodists must undergo instruction in the Christian faith and be baptized. Were it not for a recent brouhaha in these pages, that would hardly seem worthy of note.
• A sometime FT contributor, Professor Beau Weston, spotted this item. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Harrison County Council in Indiana voted to give $52,000 to St. Joseph Catholic School. The money comes from the Caesar’s Riverboat Casino. The paper reports that the attorney for the council says “they don’t see a problem with giving the money to St. Joseph because it was generated by Caesar’s, not by direct tax imposed by the county.” Render unto God what is Caesar’s.
• Father Avery Dulles examines whether there really is a “development of doctrine” in Catholic teaching on capital punishment. John Coons of the University of California at Berkeley detects a “populist redemption” in the surging movement for parental choice in education. Notre Dame’s Steven D. Smith makes a convincing case that some of the most respectable legal scholars writing today cannot really believe what they say about the judicial displacement of democracy. Faithful subscribers will not miss such forthcoming treasures, but what about those less fortunate folk? 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, New York 10010 (or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll-free 1-800-783-4903.
(While We’re At It): Statistics on black and white Americans, Barna Research Group press release, February 1, 2000. On God filling decayed teeth with gold, Christian Century, January 26, 2000. Krishan Kumar on English national identity, InSight: The Newsletter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Spring 2000. On Bible billboards, Nicotine Theological Journal, January 2000. Elise L. Moore on the divine imperative for affirmative action and quota systems, Christian Science Journal, February 2000. Henry A. Giroux’s The Mouse That Roared reviewed by Kenneth Anderson, Times Literary Supplement, February 4, 2000. “Deeper into the Brain” by Charles Murray, published by the American Enterprise Institute, February 2000. On “cyber-sex compulsives,” press release of the Family Research Council, March 2, 2000. “That Was Then” and “This Is Now,” The YW Window: Newsletter of the YMCA of Greater Harrisburg, January 2000. Archbishop John Quinn’s The Reform of the Papacy reviewed by Russell Shaw, Crisis, March 2000. In Love With Night by Ronald Steel reviewed by Ralph McInerny, Crisis, March 2000. John Judis’ The Paradox of American Democracy reviewed by Chester E. Finn, Commentary, March 2000. Terry Golway quoting Tommy Makem on Irish identity, New York Observer, March 20, 2000. On The Journey of Desire by John Eldredge, Publishers Weekly, March 6, 2000. Political cartoon on “principled campaign,” Commonweal, March 10, 2000. Evelyn Waugh on modern politics, quoted by Jerry Z. Muller, Public Interest, Spring 2000. Dale Turner on the “right to die,” Seattle Times, March 4, 2000. On Marian Wright Edelman, National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000. John Horgan’s The Undiscovered Mind reviewed by John F. Haught, Commonweal, March 24, 2000. The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version by C. S. Lewis (Fortress, 1963). Blinded by Might by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson reviewed by James Hitchcock, Touchstone, November/December 1999. Interview with Kenneth Starr, World, November 13, 1999. Joel Belz on sexual issues, racism, and economic oppression, World, January 22, 2000. Cardinal Hoyos on vocations, Catholic New York, April 6, 2000. On religious sects, press release from the Keston Institute, April 7, 2000. Miroslav Volf on mainline views toward separatist Christians, Christian Century, April 5, 2000. New York Times article on 1970 abortion law, April 9, 2000. Scott Bader-Saye’s Church and Israel After Christendom reviewed by George Lindbeck, Theology Today, April 2000. Peter Steinfels on theologians opposed to making homosexuality normative, New York Times, April 29, 2000. Simon Blackburn review of The Threefold Cord by Hilary Putnam, New Republic, April 17 and 24, 2000. On the continuing sense of identity among Protestant denominations, Religion Watch, April 2000. Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy reviewed by Robert Kagan, New Republic, April 10, 2000. On Republican desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, New York Times, June 29, 2000. Edward T. Oakes on the silencing of James Burtchaell, Commonweal, June 3, 2000. Garry Wills on John Paul II, New York Review of Books, May 25, 2000; Rabbi Eric Yoffie quoted on Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, Forward, March 24, 2000. Roger Scruton on animals and people, Salisbury Review, Spring 2000. Al Gore on living Constitution, NAE Washington Insight, May 2000. Norman Podhoretz on the religious right, National Review, April 3, 2000. On St. Joseph Catholic School and Caesar’s Riverboat Casino, Louisville Courier-Journal, April 8, 2000.