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In “Marriage Matters” (“Public Square,” November), R. R. Reno wondered how such a display of “public” immorality—same-sex marriage—could be greeted without comment. He worried that, in the presence of a gay married couple, acting as if everything were “normal and fine” would be to “bear false witness.”

I have the same reaction after reading Reno’s very public column. To act as if everything were normal and fine after digesting something so antithetical to the Gospel would be to bear false witness. So let me take his advice, avoid “accommodation,” and speak up: Didn’t Jesus say a thing or two about self-righteous Pharisees?

Amy Shipley
Key Biscayne, Florida

R. R. Reno replies:

In the New Testament, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of a mere outward piety that disguises the corrupt heart within. Thus the term pharisaical refers to the effort to appear holier-than-thou while in private largely ignoring divine commands.

My reflection on gay marriage was meant to say that the danger we face is precisely that of pharisaical hypocrisy. Here I sit, writing as the editor of First Things, penning columns defending the moral truth about human sexuality, marriage, and the natural family—and my commitments to civility and friendship tempt me to carry on in my private life as if none of those truths really matter.

If I just smile and accept and affirm in my private life what I publically reject—and I sometimes, indeed often, do—then I am a Pharisee in a painfully exact sense: a whited sepulcher outwardly ornamented with orthodox convictions but inwardly filled with decay.


First Freedom

Thomas Farr gives a meaty analysis of the challenges facing American attempts to promote religious freedom abroad (“Our Failed Religious Freedom Policy,” November). But he neglects one key element in his history of the State Department’s International Religious Freedom office, which may help clarify that institution’s place in the nation’s foreign policy community.

Since the International Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1998, administrations from both parties have entrusted the role of ambassador-at-large exclusively to people who come from the world of Christian ministry, not diplomacy. Suzan Johnson Cook was no exception, having served for many years as a Baptist pastor in New York. Faced with limited resources and a lowly place in the Department’s chain of command, Johnson Cook was arguably most visible for her outreach to religious communities in the United States—time and energy that may have been better spent elsewhere. She resigned from the position in October.

Secretary Kerry recently established a separate Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives. Many religious freedom advocates believe this move will provide a partner that will help mobilize Americans in defense of those suffering from religious oppression worldwide. They also hope that President Obama’s nominee to replace Johnson Cook will be someone already familiar with the structure of the State Department, the tools of diplomacy, and the mechanisms of human rights policy.

As Farr points out, the discourse of human rights is popular in the current administration. A future ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom would do well to harness this precedent in order to speak out for those who face religious persecution in their own countries.

For American diplomats, it is sometimes uncomfortable to acknowledge that restrictions on religious freedom around the world disproportionately affect Christians. Nevertheless, effective American leadership in this sphere will benefit members of all faiths, from Muslims in Burma to Scientologists in Western Europe to atheists in Saudi Arabia. With a better-equipped ambassador-at-large who understands the gravity of the threats posed to religious liberty by foreign governments and nonstate actors, the United States can position itself as a supporter of just laws and of societies that grant all their citizens a generously understood freedom of religion.

Ivan Plis
Arlington, Virginia

Thomas Farr’s views are read widely and taken seriously by current government officials, and as a former member of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, I’m saddened to say I agree with much of the evidence and argument Thomas Farr puts forth. The problem with his article lies in what he does not say. For Farr, the Obama administration’s IRF cup is not just half empty, it’s nearly dry.

No fair-minded observer can argue that that cup overfloweth, but it’s at least half full. With his laser focus on specific IRF policy shortcomings, Farr, if I can switch analogies, misses the forest for the trees.

He misses the fact that the Obama administration has made tremendous strides in incorporating religion into American diplomacy. Spurred on by President Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world and by Secretary Clinton’s vision for civil-society engagement, over the past few years State Department officials have developed a series of faith-related initiatives, including the Religion and Global Affairs Forum, Interfaith Working Group, Interagency Religion and Global Affairs Working Group, Religious Engagement Report (2010), and the high-level Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group.

All of these efforts culminated in the creation of the State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives. The office reports directly to the secretary of state and is spearheading implementation of the new U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement.

The State Department’s great leap faithward bodes well for the long-term success of our IRF policy—though much work remains to be done. Two of the greatest obstacles to IRF in the past have been the cultural aversion to religion and the bureaucratic isolation of the IRF office at the State Department.

But with the dramatically increased diplomatic attention to religious factors in international affairs, that organizational culture is rapidly changing for the better, and the IRF office has enjoyed unprecedented access to senior levels of the State Department as well as the White House and other agencies. Some of this momentum stalled under the previous IRF ambassador, but I trust her successor will effectively leverage the newfound openness and access.

I wholeheartedly agree with Farr that religious freedom is foundational for any healthy society. But busy diplomats are likely to always view IRF as just one of many messy human-rights issues, peripheral to American interests. There is enormous value in Farr’s project of making the case for religious freedom in its own right, but to convince policymakers and implementers we must also incorporate religious freedom within a broader framework of strategic religious engagement. And that’s precisely what this administration has begun to do.

Judd Birdsall
Cambridge University
Cambridge, United Kingdom


Thomas F. Farr replies:

Ivan Plis argues, quite correctly, that if American policy is to be successful it must be led by an ambassador with diplomatic experience and an understanding of how to get things done at Foggy Bottom. As of this writing the president has not nominated anyone to replace the recently departed ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook. Whether the ­nominee meets the qualifications Plis sets out will tell us a great deal about the administration’s seriousness, or lack thereof.

Moreover, speed is important. It took the Obama administration over two years to get Johnson Cook into the job. Given that only three years remain for this president, there is every reason to move quickly. There is an enormous amount of work to be done and no absence of talented candidates. Once the nominee emerges, the White House must press the Democratic Senate to confirm immediately.

If, however, the administration drags its feet as it has in the past, or the nominee is not qualified, the verdict will be confirmed: Religious freedom is not a priority for Barack Obama or John Kerry.

Judd Birdsall—a former State Department official now completing his Ph.D. at Cambridge—is a rising star in the religious freedom firmament. All of us should earnestly hope that his “glass half full” analysis is correct. Indeed, the large number of initiatives he lists is impressive.

The problem is that so far this list betokens little more than a bevy of meetings at the State Department. They have had little impact in the Middle Eastern dens of persecution or anywhere else. Nor is it clear what “unprecedented access to senior levels of the State Department” accomplishes.

Robert Seiple, the first religious freedom ambassador, was personally chosen by President Clinton and was deeply admired by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But Seiple, like his successors, had little support from the American foreign policy establishment. That must change.

It is gratifying that both Plis and Birdsall believe that advancing religious freedom is an urgent necessity for the United States, both the right thing to do and critical for our own national security. We should all hope that the current administration agrees.

Social Gospel

Gary Dorrien speaks of an ecumenical “national church” symbolized by mainline Protestantism’s flagship periodical, the Christian Century (“America’s Mainline,” November). He notes with irony that the term “mainline” refers to the small numbers of American churchgoers still “overrepresented in the corridors of power.”

He charts the rise and fall of the “Social Gospel.” Here we have white liberalism’s distortion suggesting that social needs to modify gospel to include justice, mercy, and compassion. There is no black Christian in America who’d ever understand “gospel” without inferring “social” and the dismantling of systemic injustice. Dorrien concludes his compelling article by rightfully exposing the mainline’s contribution to racism in America.

Dorrien’s diagnosis of how the Christian Century and liberal Protes­tantism have missed the boat is spot-on. A future authentic American church that is Christian must shed its accommodations to power and be led by nonwhite, ethnic Christian communities.

Paul O. Bischoff
Wheaton, Illinois


Gary Dorrien replies:

I am grateful for Paul Bischoff’s good letter. However, as I am currently writing a two-volume work on the black Social Gospel tradition that runs from Reverdy Ransom and Ida Wells-Barnett to Martin Luther King Jr. ?and beyond, I feel compelled to caution that there has never been a monolithic “black church” that viewed the gospel as inherently social. The black church is wondrously various.

Moreover, there were white Social Gospelers who stood up for the dignity and rights of African Americans even during the worst phase of white abuse, between 1890 and 1910. Algernon Crapsey, Herbert Seeley Bigelow, Charles Spahr, and Newell Dwight Hillis were among them. But there were never enough of these spiritual descendants of the abolitionists, and they did not write the books by which we remember the Social Gospel.


I share Michael Root’s lament that the understanding of Christian freedom in Between Autonomy and Dependence, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland’s recent statement on the family, would have Luther spinning in his grave (“Reforming the German Family,” November). I also share his concluding observation that “what is needed is an understanding of freedom that owes more to Luther and St. Paul and less to contemporary movements of social liberation.” It would have been even better if Root had fleshed that alternative out a little more for readers of First Things.

In his great biography of Luther, Martin Brecht detailed the reformer’s anger and disillusionment at the end of his life at the dissolute morals of his congregation, in his own eyes a pastoral failure, that brought him to the verge of despair. Not a few Lutheran clergy today, at least those who have not bought into the EKD’s theology of freedom as “the equality of all persons and realizing justice within the family,” are in a similar state of pastoral angst as they watch social decay unfold before their eyes, aided and abetted by cheerleading coming, of all places, from the church.

Well, more precisely, the Volkskirche. Is it surprising that a people’s church, doing the chaplaincy work of the modern state and feeding at the trough of state-collected church taxes, would make theological adjustments to serve its actual clientele? How else could it stay in business?

Pastorally the Church of Jesus Christ ministers in mercy to all comers without regard to their sexual orientation or common-law marriages, even as it lifts up the better way of lifelong fidelity of man and woman in analogy to Christ’s love for the Church and the Church’s love for Christ. The normativity of that “one-flesh” union stands in judgment over married and single and otherwise alike.

As bad as the EKD’s after-the-fact theological rationalizations are, what is worse is the ecclesiology that makes doctrinal theology after the fact. 

Paul R. Hinlicky
Roanoke College
Salem, Virginia

Islam’s Endurance

Robert Louis Wilken touches upon a still prevalent problem: “Since the eleventh century, Christians in the West had been writing about it [Islam], but few had firsthand knowledge” (“Saracens and Dominicans,” November). He asserts that “most writers relied upon a few polemical works” and that “they drew on the same sources.”

Perhaps starting with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and certainly after 9/11, the West rediscovered what had seemed to be a long-dormant and even irrelevant religion—which turned out to be anything but. And political, intelligence, military, and religious writers continue to rely upon a few polemical works and similar sources.

I remember how the French during the Franco–Algerian War of 1954–62 perceived and feared “the Soviet Fleet at Mers-el-Kébir” if Gallic force of arms would fail. Owing to Islam’s grip on the populace, that turned out to be as false a fear in as vain a mission as American hopes of creating western-type democracies in the Middle East. Force of arms did ultimately fail, and yet Islam remains, while the Soviet Union is in the dustbin of history.

But we still know so little firsthand.

Capt. Raymond J. Brown, ?USCG (Ret.)
Londonderry, New Hampshire

Robert Louis Wilken replies:

Raymond Brown makes a good point: Few Westerners have any knowledge of Islam. What most Americans know is based largely on news stories about Islamic terrorism. Few have read a book about Islam, much less studied its history or theology, its laws or practices.

Yet for Christians, Islam is not an alien religion. It emerged out of a world formed by Judaism and Christianity and draws extensively on biblical traditions, like those about the patriarchs of ancient Israel (Joseph), the Virgin Mary, and Jesus. As my review of A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq showed, Christians, though critical of Muslim teachings, have the capacity to understand the spiritual wisdom of Islam.

Brown is also correct that Islam has extraordinary staying power. It is sobering to consider that, when in the seventh century Islam exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula, Christianity was the dominant religion in the lands east of the Mediterranean, yet today Christians are a dwindling minority. In North Africa (Tunisia and Algeria), the home of St. Augustine, there are no indigenous Christian communities reaching back to antiquity. What Christianity exists there was brought by the French in the nineteenth century.

By contrast, once Islam establishes itself, it remains. Even a country like Turkey, which was radically secularized under Atatürk in the early twentieth century, has undergone a religious—that is, Islamic—revival in the past several decades. It is inconceivable that something similar would happen with Christianity in France. This strange, yet familiar, religion is now inescapably part of the world in which we live and will live.

Political Garanimals

In a move that is becoming increasingly popular in Thomistic circles, Andrew A. Latham has expressed his sympathy for the thesis of Alasdair MacIntyre and Patrick Deneen that the political theory undergirding the liberal state is antithetical to human flourishing (“Pursuit of Felicitas,” November). But contra that dynamic duo, he wants to argue that the liberal state itself could be salvaged for eudaimonistic purposes simply by exchanging such contractarian individualism for either a Thomistic or an Augustinian alternative. Eudaimonists should celebrate and conserve the liberal state, he thinks, so long as we can endow it with a better official philosophy.

I share Latham’s MacIntyrean concerns, and I find his game plan fascinating. However, I remain skeptical of this proposed solution for three distinct but interrelated reasons.

First, Latham’s swap-out strategy suggests that political theories and political structures can be mixed and matched like Garanimals outfits. He underemphasizes the intricate interrelation between doxa and praxis, and he thereby overlooks that many elements of the liberal political order are uniquely well suited to serving the ends of liberalism but are in fact antagonistic to those of eudaimonism. Religious indifferentism is an obvious example.

Scale is another. While bigger-is-better is great for commercial state-sponsored individual libertinism-within-limits, the present size of America makes happiness of the Aristotelian variety all but impossible to attain. Aristotle himself advises a polis population cap of well under 100,000, in book 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics. We’re presently at about 314 million.

As James Chastek once commented, “At some point the size of a government hits a tipping point where it no longer is the action of us but of an It; and we can no longer look to it as an institution within which we exercise political life but only as a Leviathan that we must appease with tax-offerings and paperwork and exploit for whatever resources it might offer us.” To quote MacIntyre himself, “It is only insofar as those features of the polis which provide an essential context for . . . the ­Aristotelian schema of practical reasoning can be reembodied in one’s own life and that of one’s time and place that one can be an Aristotelian.”

Editing the explicit justification of the liberal state, as Latham is proposing, does not give us that essential context; it just pays it irrelevant lip service while leaving the individualist order in place.

Second, Latham’s determination to conserve the liberal state, and his contention that this gives us Aristotelians a more workable agenda at present, seems to imply that it is the MacIntyrean-Deneenian political order that our contemporaries find so distasteful, rather than the moral philosophy informing it. This strikes me as false.

While many Americans may have a sort of knee-jerk, gag-reflex reaction against more extreme forms of monarchy or caste, nevertheless, at the end of the day their reverence for the finer details of the American system of government seems pretty shallow, whereas their allegiance to its underlying philosophy is nothing if not zealous. In a word, Americans love condoms and Bentleys far more than checks and balances.

Third and finally, Latham’s praise of governmentally ensured conditions for flourishing, which allow individual citizens “to pursue their final ends as they understand them,” smuggles in a quintessentially liberal individualist-statist conception of the private–public divide, which leads him to dramatically overrate the status quo. In reality, the private space that the liberal government bequeaths to eudaimonism is too small a container to hold it, because the good life for us political rational animals necessarily encompasses the public realm as well. Political flourishing is an essential aspect of human flourishing.

Such anachronistic confusion also lends a strange tone to Latham’s endorsement of political Augustinianism. It is true that St. Augustine was highly cynical about the amount of good the human city could accomplish, leading him to articulate a political program far humbler than that of St. Thomas Aquinas. But Latham seems to endorse this program with a smile, enthusiastically encouraging us eudaimonists to hop aboard the Augustinian campaign float.

For Augustine himself, however, this political prognosis was a tragic one, guaranteeing that comprehensive natural flourishing would be unavailable to postlapsarian political man in the present life. If the most the state can do is keep everyone noncombative and nourished (if even that) and then leave them to try to thrive privately without governmental interference, then our flourishing is never going to advance far.

Maybe St. Augustine was right that this is the best we can hope for on this side of heaven, and maybe Latham is right that this is the best we can push for in American politics today. I remain unconvinced on both counts, but even if I’m wrong, for God’s sake, let’s not be happy about it.

Michael W. Hannon
New York, New York

Andrew A. Latham replies:

At its most basic, the argument I tried to make in my original article was that Augustine’s political vision provides contemporary eudaimonists with a way of thinking about the state that is considerably more hopeful than the politics of despair articulated by Deneen, MacIntyre, and Hannon. Specifically, Augustine’s vision suggests that, if we fight prudently, we can check the metastasization of the liberal state into a postliberal behemoth and maintain a political and social space within which eudaimonists can pursue felicitas—not individually, but within those institutions like the Catholic Church that make such a project possible and meaningful.

What I would add here is that I think such a strategy of prudence necessarily entails abandoning increasingly untenable positions on the battlefield of the “common good” (which, as Augustine argued, is nonsense anyway) and withdrawing instead to the more defensible terrain of intermediate goods. In this connection, I would argue that the decisive battle of this age will not be fought over same-sex marriage or some other issue grounded in disagreements over anthropology, the common good, or the final ends to be promoted by the state.

Rather, it will be fought over the nature, meaning, and institutional expression of the most important of all intermediate goods: religious liberty. An Augustinian strategy, then, dictates that we focus our political energies on defining and defending this “first liberty.” If we can prevail in this connection—and, given the institutions that the founders of the republic bequeathed us, I believe we can—the eudaimonist project will not be extinguished. If, however, we continue to dissipate our energies fighting battles that we cannot possibly win, then the final outcome is pretty obvious: The eudaimonist project will disappear from the face of the earth.

Like Hannon, I’m not thrilled about any of this (I promise I wasn’t smiling as I wrote the article), but ultimately I really see no alternative. These are the times in which we live; this, it seems to me, is the only realistic option available to us. And maybe this is the real difference between Hannon and me: I see the terrible truth of the late modern condition and argue that we need a political theory appropriate to that condition; Hannon, on the other hand, recoils from the reality of the late modern condition and offers . . . nothing.

Assad’s Evil

I read with great interest R. R. Reno’s arguments in “Against Symbolic Killing” opposing President Obama’s request for an authorization of force in Syria (“Public Square,” November). I must admit that I had many of the same doubts. The factor that most weighed on my mind was the obvious lack of any clear strategic plan. Unfortunately, President Obama defined no clear path to victory—indeed, he all but claimed victory impossible.

Reno is certainly right to stress that the probability of success is an important just war concept. His claim that “symbolic killing” is wrong sounds convincing on its face but, if elevated to a principle, leads us inevitably to the conclusions that deterrent actions of any kind are inherently immoral and that warlike activity is permissible only when it will inevitably lead to total victory. I don’t think such an all-or-nothing attitude fits the moral complexity of the Middle East.

With respect to Syria, for example, two mitigating factors must be taken into account. First, if the United States does nothing, we will have an ironclad guarantee of failure—which means that millions of people will be uprooted and many tens, and perhaps hundreds, of thousands will die horrific deaths. Second, the Assad regime itself is the primary cause of the war and the main impediment to its resolution. Therefore, almost anything that contributes to weakening the regime is laudable.

As Americans, we had good reason to ask whether our president was behaving prudently when he advised using force. As moral beings, however, we had no reason to feel that his cause was unjust.

Although Reno did not mention the plight of Christians in his piece, one frequently hears that the Assad regime is their ally and protector against Islamic extremism. The people who make this argument have very short memories.

During the Iraq war, the Assad regime funneled al-Qaeda fighters across the border so that they could slaughter Iraqi Christians and Shi’ites—to say nothing of American soldiers. Before that, when Syria was occupying Lebanon, the regime showed scant concern for the welfare of Christians. On the contrary, it frequently launched attacks against Christian groups, assassinated their leaders (including two presidents), and terrorized intellectuals and journalists. The tender mercies of the Syrian occupation included the brutal siege and bombardment of Christian towns and cities during the Lebanese civil war (such as Achrafieh in 1978, which was besieged and relentlessly shelled for one hundred days, and Zahleh in 1981).

Assad is not a reliable enemy of al-Qaeda. He is not a friend of the United States. And he is no defender of Christians. When it comes to brutality he is almost in a class of his own. Only one other regime, North Korea, surpasses his in that category. Any factor that weakens him is on the side of the angels.

Michael Doran
Brookings Institute
Washington, D.C.

R. R. Reno replies:

Michael Doran provides many good reasons to regard the Assad regime as a bad actor in the Middle East. These reasons almost certainly provide the basic moral justification for an American policy that aims to change the regime. Doran knows much more about the realities on the ground than I can ever hope to learn, so I’m inclined to defer to his judgment.

He does, however, raise an interesting point about deterrence and symbolic killing. As the Cold War heated up and nuclear arsenals grew, moralists debated the ethical legitimacy of deterrence. Was it permissible to threaten a massive counter-response that has no regard for civilian immunity—mutually assured destruction, as it was called? Jesuitical casuists (practicing a noble if often mocked profession) distinguished between threatening and intending. The war game theorists at the RAND Corporation guffawed, observing that nuclear deterrence won’t work if your adversary doesn’t think you’re serious about intending what you threaten.

I’m something of a squish on our strategy of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, in part because it worked, and in part because the stakes were so high, so very, very high. But I don’t like the idea of fudging moral principle and think it corruptive to do so, and therefore want to limit my fudging. We need to maintain as firm a stance as possible: Do not intend immoral killing, even in order to achieve some other good, including the good of chastising, deterring, or in some way weakening the Assad regime.

This principle does not rule out all violence. We could bomb Assad’s military assets to weaken his ability to triumph over rebel forces and protect civilians. We could impose a no-fly zone with the same objective. A drone strike to kill Assad or his top commanders could be justified, again as a means to ensuring an end to the regime.

These uses of lethal force are limited. (Every American use of force since 1945 has been limited.) But they’re also purposeful and therefore can be morally assessed by reference to their stated goal. That’s not true for symbolic killing.


Aesthetic Fascism

Lucy Hughes-Hallett makes some questionable assessments in her Gabriele d’Annunzio, but she gets one essential thing right: The “two D’Annunzios” are one and the same. I can’t say the same for Mattia Ferraresi, who scrupulously separates the poet from the bloodmonger in his review (“Death’s Lover,” November).

Who backpedals when confronted with the sanguine reality of d’Annunzio, afraid too ungingerly to touch his “nefarious” nationalism, or the “salacious” episodes of his life. Who wants to see d’Annunzio, and Wilde and Caravaggio along with him, judged by his works without respect to his life—although, as even Ferraresi admits, d’Annunzio’s life was itself his magnum opus.

Who has, in short, missed the point.

The pagan, warlike, womanizing character of d’Annunzio is not incidental but essential to the sublimity of his poetic works. All derive from the same source. D’Annunzio was one of the most eloquent champions of a zeitgeist, a spirit of purging the calcified old world with the entwined swords of passion and death. He was not unique in this—his was the same fervor that gripped Marinetti’s Futurists, that animated the arditi who marched with Mussolini, that spurred Italian daredevils to fly higher, drive faster, cut it closer to the edge.

Fascism was itself a heavily aesthetic phenomenon. It was created in the minds of the poets long before the march on Rome, and the politics flowed from their notions of beauty. Would we expect anything less from an Italian movement? D’Annunzio said his government at Carnaro existed for the sake of music. His politics and his poetry, his violence and his sublimity—these things are simply not separable.

Ferraresi may be wary of being thought sympathetic to Mussolini or his forebears. But he has done a disservice to Hughes-Hallett, whose work he barely reviews, and whose premise of a one-and-the-same d’Annunzio he casually undermines. I’m left with a bland taste in my mouth from the “misunderstood poet with a life we’d best forget about” image that he conjures to fill the gaps he creates. Considering the dynamism of the real d’Annunzio, this is profoundly ironic and deeply disappointing.

Brian Herzog von Hoefling
Cambridge, Massachusetts