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

Elect Voters

At the outset of his thoughtful “The Evangelical Voter” (February), John G. West complains that the Romney campaign did not do more to cultivate Evangelical support while it did establish “outreach groups” for Catholics and Jews. But this was pure show—a not-too-vigorous effort where the superannuated outreach group (average age: seventy-five) was composed of six former ambassadors to the Vatican, one of whom, remarkably, is also an advisory council member of the leftist Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

West suggests that Evangelicals need some persuasion about economics, but we might ask the Catholic in the pew whether he’s ever even heard the word “subsidiarity”—part of Catholic social doctrine. It is interesting to learn from West that Evangelicals, more than mainline Protestants and Catholics, emphasize staffing their social service agencies with those who espouse their faith. Isn’t there a serious lesson here for the Catholics whose eagerness for federal funds attenuates their evangelism?

He also mentions the issue of religious freedom. It is certainly salutary that the Catholic Church has learned from the American experience about religious freedom (see Dignitatis Humanae) and suddenly become a devotee. In fact, the recent episcopal efforts in this regard have demonstrated more focus than we saw for years on the pro-life front, which was often buried in USCCB verbal snow or “seamless garment” discussion.

While there is certainly no such thing today as the “Catholic vote” (unified by issues and/or effective leadership), the majority of Catholics did vote for Obama, and we are informed by Catholic News Service that there is a “historic high” of 163 Catholics in the new Congress.

But history tells us that the label is meaningless as an indicator of legislative behavior. Consider the abortion issue in the states: It is the heavily Protestant South, not the Catholic states of the Northeast, that leads the way in abortion-inhibiting legislation (informed consent, mandatory waiting periods, sonograms, etc.). In short, millions of Catholics and their elected representatives are uninformed as to their obligations.

Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) tells us, unsurprisingly, that the wordy emanations from the USCCB are largely unread. Few Catholic bishops have spoken clearly, and even fewer have acted to implement Canon 915 with respect to receiving Communion. “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8).

Charles Molineaux
McLean, Virginia

While John G. West avows to woo Evangelicals, he really demonstrates the descent of Evangelicalism from theology to politics. The term “Evangelical” has typically complied more with cultural conservatism than with orthodox Christianity. In fact, his four suggestions only hint at Christianity. If Evangelicals are looking for more authentic personal testimonies regarding the faith of political candidates, what part of Romney’s stated belief in Joseph Smith’s revelation in the forests of Pennsylvania would sway the vote of an Evangelical who adheres to a uniquely inspired Bible?

Where in Jesus’ preference for the poor are conservative economic policies when liberalism seems more in line with Christ’s manifesto to “release captives and free the oppressed”? If a pro-life position on abortion is the litmus test for Evangelicals, how does that track with supporting a death penalty that guarantees the killing of adult life, often innocent life? If the right to critique Darwinism is at stake, how does that advance a biblical theology of a good creation and the sacredness of all life—a more positive approach than a reactionary Evangelicalism evolved from a world-denying fundamentalism?

Finally, what part of the “message of salvation” is distinct from Evangelicals’ “social service efforts for the poor”? Is that not the historic gnostic split of soul and body? Was Jesus misguided when linking a final assessment for total salvation with feeding, clothing, and visiting the poor as an integrated approach for humanity as body, mind, soul, and spirit? West shows his cards at the end of his article when he finally mentions the Republican political project, which he had masked before as his alleged concern for a suspiciously Christian Evangelical voter.

Paul O. Bischoff
Wheaton, Illinois

John G. West replies:

I am grateful to Charles Molineaux for providing valuable insights with regard to the Catholic community and American politics. I hope his comments are widely read and pondered. I am grateful to Paul O. Bischoff for a different reason. His comments substantiate one of the main points of my article: Namely, there are Evangelicals who still need to be persuaded of the justness of conservative economic policies.

Bischoff seems to believe that Christians should support economic liberalism as a matter of course. But it is hard to ignore the damage the cradle-to-grave welfare state has inflicted on the poorest among us, damage documented by many scholars, including my fellow Evangelical Marvin Olasky. As a Christian, it is precisely because I believe economic freedom, limited government, and private philanthropy supply better means of promoting human flourishing that I think they are worth defending.

I find it odd that he calls for an “integrated” approach to social service endeavors but then is perturbed when I defend Evangelical ministries that adopt a genuinely integrated approach by combining material help with Bible study, worship, and spiritual mentoring. If any Christians are currently promoting a “gnostic split of soul and body,” it is those on the left who seem satisfied with social programs that feed the body but starve the soul and, even worse, turn a blind eye to growing efforts by the government to discriminate against faith-based charities that are serious about ministering to the whole person.

Bischoff ends his letter by complaining that I directed my advice to Republican candidates. Believe me, if I thought any Democrats would listen, I would have been happy to advise them.

As someone who voted for one of the very few pro-life Democratic politicians left in my home state in the last election, I would love for there to be more openness among Democrats to the views of Evangelicals. But it is a striking testament to the ineffectualness of the Evangelical left that the current Democratic party establishment seems so monolithic in its hostility to mainstream Evangelical concerns, including religious liberty.

Absolving Yale

Helen Rittelmeyer’s complaint (“Sex in the Meritocracy,” February) against Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale is not that Harden is wrong about Yale’s decline and loss of moral purpose, but that it doesn’t matter. Yale, once a great institution with some moral purpose, is now an institution without moral purpose. It sponsors Sex Week and offers gender-blind room assignments.

Students cannot solve this moral problem on their own, Rittelmeyer admits, but Yale can’t be part of the solution, much less a leader. Students need a moral vision, but not from Yale. Others, including St. Thomas More Chapel, must lead, especially by building their own separate single-sex dorms, for example, which won’t work in Yale’s college system. Yale itself could, of course, do the same rather than promote the hook-up culture.

I am a board member of Covenant House Alaska, a shelter and program for throw-away and runaway youth. We recently searched for videos and other material to help our kids understand the damage caused to them by the hook-up culture and, instead, to think about real personal relationships. We couldn’t find any message except “use condoms.” Without a sense of the need for relationships and basic moral purpose, these kids will be unable to be good parents, thus paving the way for the next generation of Covenant House kids.

That is on the lower end of the social scale and discouraging enough, but now I find that on the higher end of the scale, my alma mater promotes the same base philosophy. Harden reports that students don’t date anymore. Rittelmeyer says it is all a drive to perfection, including sex. I await the inclusion of sex finals and grades at Yale, all, presumably, A’s.

The decline of marriage and sexual and parental responsibility, and the inexorable defining deviance down, leave me to conclude that the future is grim. The churches and places like Covenant House can pick up some of the pieces, but they will be exactly that—pieces. Yale won’t even do that. Instead, it promotes the wreckage. Rittelmeyer is wrong to absolve Yale of this responsibility.

Robert B. Flint
Anchorage, Alaska

Just War

In his article “Afghanistan, Justice, and War” (February), Paul D. Miller correctly asserts that war cannot serve its own end, but should instead serve the ends of peace by creating the necessary conditions for security. For this reason, I find Paul J. Griffiths’ somewhat flippant remark that the analogy of the Good Samaritan applies “not at all [to] the U.S. Army” to be ill thought out. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the robbers had already left their victim. They have not done so in Afghanistan. It is true enough that the Good Samaritan’s instruments were water, oil, and bandages, but if the robbers were still present, he might have needed a sword.

That being said, I would strongly question whether our de facto goals in Afghanistan are those of the “Good Samaritan.” At Expeditionary Warfare School, we learn to think of the joint environment as pertaining not only to the different military services, but also to nonmilitary organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). How, we are taught to ask, do we employ USAID to defeat the enemy?

The question is, at times, an entirely valid one, but defeating the enemy alone is not playing the Good Samaritan. So when does the paradigm change? When does USAID stop working for the military, and the military start working for USAID? When do we stop talking about “the war in Afghanistan” and start talking about “the reconstruction of Afghanistan” (bolstered, though it may be, by a significant U.S. military presence)?

Unfortunately, we can pretty well expect this change not to happen in Afghanistan for the simple reason that we have not even begun to think of how to do it. Our tactical commanders know how to win wars with USAID, but do USAID leaders know how to rebuild with the military? I agree with Miller that we have a responsibility to help the Afghans secure and rebuild their country.

Justice demands this for any country we invade (justly or unjustly), and none of his critics questions the justice of the initial invasion. However, in order to have a “reasonable chance of success” in the creation of a lasting peace, we will need to drastically change what we are actually doing. If our mentality remains that of a nation at war, we can expect to reap the fruits of war, and lasting peace will remain elusive.

First Lieutenant Martin Bordelon (USMC)
Camp Arifjan, Kuwait
Lt. Bordelon’s opinions are his own.

Paul D. Miller undermines his otherwise strong argument for U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan by stating an error commonly repeated throughout the media. He claims that the “United States overthrew the [Taliban] Afghan government in 2001.” This oft-repeated mistake is presumably based on the necessary but incomplete help provided by U.S. air support and a few special forces advisors attached to Afghan anti-Taliban resistance.

However, it overlooks the fact that it was those Afghan resistance ground forces—military and sometimes civilian—who ousted the Taliban from almost every Afghan city and province. After all, no one surrenders to an airplane, and with the exception of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, the Afghans had taken every major city before the arrival of regular U.S. ground forces. Even the taking of Kandahar was done mostly by Afghans.

This continuing neglect of the Afghan contribution by U.S. media and policymakers can only have a demoralizing effect on the alliance between Kabul and Washington, an alliance that Miller cites as a reason for a continued U.S. military presence. In addition to discouraging the Afghans, unawareness of their contribution has made American soldiers more susceptible to suspecting Afghans, thus leading to incidents that endanger or kill people who are probably our allies. Such incidents can only create a much more hostile situation for Americans in Afghanistan.

It is desirable to rebuild the real alliance with Afghanistan that served both nations so well immediately after 9/11. But as Miller observes, like all alliances, it must be based on mutual respect. Grateful and public acknowledgement of the Afghan people’s vital contributions in the dark days after 9/11 will show them the respect needed to strengthen our bonds with them. The neglect of those contributions helped the Taliban regain enough hearts and minds to rebuild their crippled movement. To continue this neglect will only help them more and endanger Americans in Afghanistan and our Afghan allies.

Howard Williams
San Francisco, California

Paul D. Miller replies:

I am humbled by the attention given my article about the justice of the war in Afghanistan. I broadly agree with Lt. Michael Bordelon that the United States would benefit by readjusting its strategy of intervention—a topic on which I have written elsewhere. He is certainly right that the nation could do better at integrating civilian components like USAID with stabilization operations.

Howard Williams helpfully reminds us we would be remiss if we overlooked the Afghans’ crucial contribution to their own war effort. He may underestimate the crucial role played by American air power and special forces that turned the tide of the Northern Alliance’s losing war effort in 2001, but he is nonetheless correct that the war is ultimately the Afghans’ to win or lose. And George Weigel has defended, perhaps better than I did, our responsibility to work towards a just order among nations.

If I may take the chance to respond to my respondents in the issue itself, Andrew Bacevich, Mark C. Henrie, and Paul J. Griffiths raise a number of challenging questions—many, however, peripheral to my main point.

Bacevich rehearses his well-practiced critique of the war in Iraq and accuses me of ignoring the effects of that war, which is true, since I wrote about a different war. He criticizes me for failing to specify how to rebuild Afghanistan or what to do about Pakistan, topics too vast for an essay focused on the moral dimensions of intervention, not the practical means of its execution (and I have written elsewhere on both subjects anyway, as he surely knows).

He accuses me of exaggerating the threat from the Taliban because they do not directly threaten the American homeland. I acknowledged the Taliban are a threat to the United States only insofar as they were part of a global jihadist movement, various spokesmen for which repeatedly and publicly express their intent to kill Americans.

Henrie accuses me of using just war theory to expand the opportunities for war, apparently dismissing my concluding remark about how much I loathe war. As a veteran of the war I wrote about, I had rather hoped to be given the benefit of the doubt on that matter.

Henrie also misunderstands my argument about our obligation to defend the global liberal order. It is very much an obligation founded on self-interest, since the United States is the primary beneficiary of that order, as well as its primary architect. And he reads too much into my use of “global” rather than “international.”

Griffiths shows his ignorance of Afghan history when he accepts a return to the civil war of the 1990s if it means a stop to the war of the last decade. The current war is a small skirmish that has killed relatively few people compared to the ethnic cleansing and atrocities of the 1990s. He argues we should withdraw soldiers but send doctors and teachers, but does not explain who will protect the latter when civil war erupts around them.

The potentially most damaging criticism, one that both Griffiths and Bacevich make, is that defending the war in Afghanistan must necessarily imply a universal obligation to fight injustice everywhere. In seeking to defend the justice of the war in Afghanistan, I was writing about how to justify such wars, not limit them, which would require another article.

I did, nonetheless, gesture towards what such limits might look like when I wrote that we bear a responsibility to intervene when our security is at stake, in cases of exceptional evil, or when we have specifically promised aid and alliance. Very few places meet any of those criteria. Afghanistan, remarkably, meets all three.

Popes and Presidents

Michael Novak argues persuasively that the American founders premised rights upon duties owed to the Creator, and that our political institutions and freedoms are endangered by our cultural elites who have redefined our rights tradition (“Constitutionally Catholic,” February). He echoes George Washington’s admonition: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Yet perhaps the relationship between rights, religion, and American democracy is not so tidy. While our rights tradition stems from a belief in a moral order independent of government, a strong case can be made that our system of limited and dispersed power depends even more profoundly upon an appreciation of human imperfectibility. Religion might teach of duties and soften the inherent corruption of leaders and the governed alike, but the founders knew that the virtue of the nation was by no means assured, no matter what religious commitments its civic leaders might have.

The unorthodox religious beliefs of founders like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who embodied Enlightenment ideals as much as Christian thought, and Tocqueville’s own dubious Catholic credentials, suggest that many of those who extolled religion’s importance also struggled privately with it. On the other hand, those professing faith could be no friends to liberty. Christians could invoke biblical justifications for slavery just as easily as they could proclaim that all men are created equal. It is a tribute to Christianity that it contains resources to correct the oppressive purposes for which it can equally easily be used.

Sin and moral decay are historical constants within and outside of Christianity. Hence Alexander Hamilton asked wryly, “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we . . . are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”

The more earnest George Washington wondered, “Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

The founders expected the worst of humanity and constructed government accordingly. Today’s American elites continue our long tradition of living up to their expectations.

Seana Sugrue
Ave Maria University
Naples, Florida

Michael Novak identifies certain affinities between Catholic social teaching and the “original American” tradition of political thought, and he argues that Catholic intellectual resources should be put in the service of the classically American strand of liberalism.

By glossing quickly over the dissimilarities between Catholic social teaching and American conservatism, however, he seems to minimize the distinctiveness of Catholic social teaching as a political philosophy in its own right. A reader of his article might be quite surprised to learn that Leo XIII declared as early as 1891 that “the public administration must . . . provide for the welfare and comfort of the working classes”; or that so recent an encyclical as Centesimus Annus pronounced that “the mass of the poor [who] have no resources of their own to fall back on . . . must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State,” and that “wage-earners . . . should be specially cared for and protected by the Government.” John XXIII was by no means acting under foreign influence when he declared medical care a right and lauded “systems of social insurance and social security.”

It is telling that Novak seems to ascribe such teachings to the malign influence of the French. For if it turned out that Catholic social teaching was a coherent body of thought, an articulation of the political implications of the gospel reducible neither to progressive liberalism, democratic socialism, or laissez-faire “conservatism”—then one might find it a genuine and mutually exclusive alternative to right and left.

It may even be the case that faithful Catholics cannot avoid choosing between the standard American political options and the dictates of their faith. By presenting a domesticated version of Catholic social theory, I worry that Michael Novak continues the venerable American tradition of rendering faith subservient to politics.

Thomas Martin Cothran
Lexington, Kentucky

Michael Novak replies:

Both of my good commentators set a high standard of succinctness, self-discipline, and kindliness, for which I thank them.

Seana Sugrue is quite right that one of the most impressive contributions of the thought of the American founders is their emphasis on human sinfulness and imperfectibility. That accounts for their care about checks and balances, the division of powers, and “other auxiliary precautions” (Madison) against human social vices. I ought to have said more about this in my article.

This emphasis on sin, as Graham Walker has written, is probably due to the great influence of St. Augustine on American Protestant thought, partly through Jonathan Edwards at Princeton and his successor John Witherspoon (“the most influential professor in American history”), and partly through the “Puritan scholastics” of New England. One easily accessible place to see this vision of sin in practice is the first six chapters of The Federalist , and passim.

I am sorry to say this after Thomas Martin Cothran’s expressed nervousness about my comparisons of Catholic social thought and the social thought of the American founders: The Americans’ persistent emphasis on human sinfulness seems to me more in touch with human experience than does papal social thought since 1891. To bring this theme into Catholic social thought, moreover, would not make the latter less Catholic but more so.

Pope John Paul II makes clear in more than one place that Catholic social thought is not an ideology, to be set beside liberalism, the European social market, socialism, communism, Italian fascism, etc. No, its roots are far different (although all these ideologies feature thinkers who root them, ultimately, in Christian inspirations).

However, it is undeniable that the world of reference in the papal encyclicals from 1891 until Pope John XXIII is almost wholly Eurocentric. It appeals to movements and events in Europe during that period. Its authors and chief commentators seem virtually not to know of The Federalist or Lincoln on “subsidiarity,” the Land Grant College Act, the Homestead Act, the First Amendment, the great writings of John Adams. At Vatican II, it is true, the stunning work of John Courtney Murray, S.J., suddenly burst upon European Catholic consciousness.

Nor has European Catholic social teaching shown much awareness of great social writings in Latin America, such as that of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the progenitor of human rights thinking in the Americas, predating Locke and the North Americans.

My humble judgment after fifty years in this field is that “Catholic” social teaching as grasped and expressed by Europeans is at this point far less Catholic than it should be. Its reach into human experience ought to be far more universal, and far more open to the true diversity of continental social experience and reflection.

For example, when Pope John XXIII spoke of medical care as a “right,” he used that term in a far different sense from the use of “right” in, say, the Declaration of Independence and in the Bill of Rights. Not many scholars have well explored crucial differences in these two very different concepts, masked by the use of the same word.

One of the achievements of the Reagan administration was to bring into the Republican party an acceptance of the basic principles of the welfare state, such as that the resourceless poor properly turn to the state as a last resort for needed assistance. But such a turn is not costless, and its actual results for the poor are often not as proponents happily predicted. Some scholars interpret this general consensus on Social Security and Medicare and cognate programs as evidence that Catholic social teaching, through the influence of Msgr. Ryan, “The Right Reverend New Dealer,” poured into the bloodstream of American progressivism.

I am almost eighty years old and hope soon to be in the presence of my Maker and Judge and Father and Friend. How all these intellectual arguments will end up, and with which conclusions, is of far less excitement for me than it once was. Yet to my dying day I cannot believe that Catholic social teaching is all that it might well become—particularly that it has drawn on as much Catholic experience outside the European circle as it ought to.

Plus, I really do believe with Hannah Arendt, in her book On Revolution, that the American experiment is the “noblest work of European Man” in history. Even though at present it is neglected, overlooked, and virtually unknown among European Catholics, who tend, indeed, to look down on us.

With Sugrue, I concur that much today is very sick in our culture, both in popular culture (that is, mass-produced culture) and in our several cultural elites. And if that continues, it may do us in rather soon. The tie between us and the intellectual capital of the founders has been pretty well hacked through.