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

Food Fight

R. R. Reno’s response to my “pushback” shows that he is not convinced of the gravity of the harms of conventional farming and agribusiness, nor the substantial benefits of small-scale, sustainable farming (“Inequality and Agency,” March). In other words, for Reno, what is primarily at issue here is not health (of land, animals, eaters, farmers, community), but merely taste. He enjoys tasty, local, sustainable, artisanal cheese, beer, and bread, but does not voice concerns about the exploitation of the land, animals, farmers, eaters, and communities involved in much of conventional farming and agribusiness. Therefore, it makes sense that he says “but, please, let’s not confuse all this with virtue.”

I love tasty food—as Reno points out, who doesn’t? However, let this be very clear: I did not become a small-scale, sustainable farmer because I have an exceptional palate. Rather, I believe that what is at issue here is good stewardship and its resultant health; therefore, virtue is exactly what we are talking about. It is vicious to (knowingly or unknowingly) damage the gifts God has given us—gifts of land, animals, our ­bodies, and those of our families and neighbors. Therefore, in very particular ways, I believe my work is ­virtuous work—the work of caring for the gifts God has given me and loving my neighbors (present and future) with healthy land and food.

Now this brings us to the crux of the matter. Am I right? Are conventional farming and agribusiness, as they relate to stewardship and health, so bad? And is small-scale, sustainable farming so good? If Reno wants to dismiss the ethical dimension of this issue, he will have to convince me that what happens in a confined poultry house from start to finish—and its complete impact on land, chicken, farmer, eater, community—is ­ethically defensible, especially in the face of the viable and sensible alternatives offered by operations like my own. (Some naysayers argue that you cannot “feed the world” with my kind of farming. This is not true, but I will not take up that extended argument here.)

Virtuous Christians respect and care for God’s gifts and provide themselves, their families, and others with one of the most fundamental human goods—health. Therefore, if Christians are convinced by arguments explaining the general poor stewardship and harm of conventional ­farming and agribusiness and the general good stewardship and health of small-scale, sustainable farming, then they must take this issue ­seriously.

Please do not let the liberal elite shoddily and incoherently “own” this issue. This is our virtue to claim, and live, and fully articulate! We could start with a prayer from the Mundelein Psalter: “God our creator, you gave us the earth to cultivate and the sun to serve our needs. Help us to spend this day for your glory and our neighbor’s good.”

Jesse Straight
warrenton, virginia

Many thanks to R. R. Reno for his support of diverse farmers. My husband and two of his brothers run a dairy farm. They care for eight hundred animals, working long hours in conditions often uncomfortable and unpleasant because they love this soil where their ancestors walked, they consider themselves stewards of God’s creation, and they feel called to feed the hungry. Thanks to these men, who are not wealthy, and other “mechanized” farmers of their ilk, the world eats.

Jesse Straight and other small-scale farmers offer a special service to their like-minded neighbors. But everyone needs to eat, not just locavores, foodies, and the health-­conscious. ­Organic practices simply cannot sustain the levels of production necessary to feed the world.

Modern practices keep food costs lower in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. We spend less of our income on food than any other country. But according to a 2011 USDA consumer expenditure survey, spending patterns are rising. Reno noted that the “economic top 20 percent has gained a near monopoly on social capital.” This echelon is also setting the tone for what’s acceptable to eat. People are starting to be afraid of food that isn’t organic. This is absurd. Food from other farmers is safe, healthy, and subject to extensive regulation. The trendy marketing campaigns that influence organic eating do no service to the poor. If food has to be organic, it can’t be plentiful and it won’t be cheap.

On Human Rights Day, last December 10, Pope Francis prayed that God would “inspire leaders of government and of business, as well as all the world’s citizens, to find just and charitable solutions to end hunger by assuring that all people enjoy the right to food.” Perhaps we citizens can make a contribution to feeding the hungry by transcending the “upper 20 percent” standards not just for morality, but for meat and milk too.

Gina Loehr
marian university
fond du lac, wisconsin

Labeling Desires

The point of Michael Hannon’s article “Against Heterosexuality” (March) that I find most interesting and valuable is the idea that “heterosexuals” have attempted to wrest their own non-procreative sex out of its traditionally sinful realm while leaving “homosexuals” behind.

In American culture today, we speak of the dichotomy between same-sex relations and opposite-sex relations, as opposed to sex ordered for the purpose of procreation and sex not ordered for the purpose of procreation. We appear to have made this shift without understanding what it means for our institutions; the Christian rationale behind marriage being a solely opposite-sex institution is rooted in a commitment to preserving the union between procreation and family, not revulsion to same-sex attraction. But when no-fault divorce and contraception have become so commonplace, little remains of the original arguments.

To proclaim that sex must be restricted to opposite-sex couples in order to ensure that sex exists only in marriages and for procreative purposes obviously has deep roots in a coherent moral tradition. But when married couples use contraception, divorces are common even among Christians, and premarital sex is not the grave taboo it once was, where is the rationale for keeping up a barrier against same-sex relations, other than misplaced fear and xenophobic revulsion?

I think Hannon and I actually agree that the debate should be about the procreative/non-­procreative ­sexual dichotomy and not the same-sex/opposite-sex dichotomy, and that we differ only in what the solution should be; this subject is the area in which I would have preferred a stronger and less assumptive argument. The debate, then, is a lot harder for my side to win; the arguments for sex ordered toward procreation within marriage are much stronger than “man-­woman good, man-man/woman-woman bad.” But at least we’ll be having the right discussion.

Gavin Byrnes
washington, d.c.

Michael Hannon’s argument against labeling individuals as homosexual or heterosexual and instead focusing on the morality (using natural law) of their sexual acts makes eminent sense in the abstract. However, classifications such as these can be useful for purposes of research or treatment in science and law. The labels are primarily a shorthand way of referencing sexual attractions and desires.

What is far more difficult—after Vatican II—is articulating a consistent Catholic sexual morality. When even the Holy Father says “Who am I to judge?” in answer to a reporter’s question about homosexuality, there is little clarity for ordinary Catholics. I graduated from an Augus­tinian college in 1965 with six credits in the theology of marriage, reinforcing all the teaching of my high school ­religious sisters. While natural law and Augustine’s moral theology might be difficult for some, the rules derived from them were understood by ordinary Catholics: Sexual intimacy is permissible only in a sacramental marriage between one man and one woman, and the purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. All the rest is commentary!

Then Vatican II brought a sea change. Gaudium et Spes says marriage “is not instituted solely for procreation.” There follow verbose passages about union, mutual love, and support, etc., sentiments one finds in romantic poetry and in the sincere expressions of homosexual lovers for each other. And of course, this is followed by a discussion of acceptable birth regulation—in order to limit the natural ends of the goods of marriage? Natural law had not changed, but Catholics and their goals had. Try to explain to an RCIA class the moral difference between a pill and an ovulation kit used with the same contraceptive intent!

Yes, we have been educated in fine distinctions, while the overall landscape has become hazy. Hannon has presented us with another fine linguistic distinction.

Jan Hicks
oak ridge, tennessee

Michael Hannon’s essay was the most volatile mixture of truth and hokum I have read in a long time. He makes two fine points: First, regardless of inner desires, we Christians are accountable to behavioral standards set forth in classic Christian sexual ethics, which inevitably revolve around the Christian teaching on marriage; and second, the current definitions of internal desires are a mess. Facebook now lists twenty-nine different self-definitions of gender identity. Christian sexual ethics should not take them seriously.

Now for the hokum: his claim that there are no persisting internal desires in the vast majority of men and women that are properly ordered toward others of the opposite sex. Those sorts of desires are present—and must be disciplined by the virtue of chastity—in at least 95 percent of the world’s men and women. And it seems that for a small minority of men and women there are persisting but disordered sexual desires for the same sex. Between those two poles there seems to be a lot of mixture and confusion. But to deny that there is an orientation toward heterosexuality in most men and women is to deny what centuries of biblical wisdom and human experience have told us. Heterosexuality is no social construction.

Robert Benne
roanoke college
salem, virginia

Michael Hannon makes an essential point: Labels matter. I would add that labels matter especially in narratives, and that the narrative that controls the labels controls the argument, for labels are themselves bits of the story.

But labels are useful to the degree they define intrinsic attributes. Therein is the argument concerning sexual orientation. Both sides are fighting the battle on the question of whether homosexuals are “wired” for homosexuality, that is, whether there is an intrinsic neurochemical basis for sexual orientation. Hannon does not even address that issue. I invite him to do so in his future writing on the subject.

Frank Pray
newport beach, california

I appreciate Michael Hannon’s piece a good deal, but I fail to see why “­heterosexuality” is necessarilytied to pride as a structure, or that ­Hannon has made the case that it is. “Heterosexuality” only dethrones ­Jesus as the norm if we think that ­Jesus’ life and ministry somehow subvert the normative (creation) order of opposite-sex sexual desires, even if we do not use the language of “orientation” to describe those desires.

The singleness of Jesus does not put same-sex desires and opposite-sex desires on the same moral plane. It is, after all, not simply sexual acts that Christ suggests he is interested in, but the whole stable of thoughts, intentions, and dispositions that make up our inner life (Matt. 5:28–30). While Hannon agrees with this, “­orientation” emphasizes the stabilityof those desires. But if the end is good and the desire itself moral, then naming the stability of recurrence seems like it adds nothing to the moral ­evaluation of those desires.

Recurring sexual desires of any sort are not themselves a sign of holiness, but recurring sexual desires toward a member of the same sex raise questions that such desires toward a member of the opposite sex do not. Eliminating the aspect of “recurring stability” from those desires—or what has come to be known in shorthand as our “orientation”—doesn’t eliminate the deeper “heteronormativity” implied in the logic of Scripture. If nothing else, Jesus has a bride, and there is no understanding his life as the pattern for our lives without grasping the deep, mutually fulfilling, stable, and recurring desires at the heart of their union.

“Heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” can indeed be done away with. I agree with Hannon on this. But the reasons we provide for tossing them overboard still matter, and we ought to be careful what we send over with them.

Matthew Lee Anderson
oxford, united kingdom

Like Michael Hannon, I cautiously appropriate Foucault in my own study, and think him generally correct that “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” are modern social constructs. But there must be a significant caveat for the Christian.

Serious anthropological research leaves in no doubt the fact that both opposite-sex and same-sex erotic desires are cross-cultural phenomena. These desires are not constituted by culture, only shaped by it. It may be an anachronism to call Oscar Wilde “gay,” for example, but what he was nevertheless seems to have been a different instance of that something of which “gay” is the contemporary instance. One can, of course, follow Foucault, denying that there is any “something” here, but only if one ­follows Foucault’s near-total nominalism—a position that is both counterintuitive and problematic for Christians.

The clear implication of Hannon’s argument is that, because “sexual identity” is socially constructed, it does not exist in any meaningful sense and can therefore be dispensed with. Yet social constructs per se are real and even necessary to our nature, even if particular constructs are not de essentia naturae humanae.

Imagine Jack. Jack is gay, and American. Both are social constructs. It does not pertain to human quiddity, for example, to have a “national identity,” which is a social construct only made possible, obviously, by the evolution of the concept of “nation.” Yet though neither being gay nor being American, nor even having “sexual” or “national” identities, is essential to what it means for Jack to be human, those things may be part of what makes Jack the particular ­human we call “Jack.”

To deny that Jack is gay (or American) may not be to deny his humanity, but it is an attempt to break down who he is as a particular human individual, and it has never been an aim of orthodox Christianity to engage in this sort of ideological project of deconstructing and reconstructing people. Rather, as St. Paul admonishes, though we are each a “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), “in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor. 7:24).

Aaron Taylor
boston, massachusetts

Michael Hannon replies:

When it comes to moral conclusions, presumably I have less common ground with Gavin Byrnes than with any of my other correspondents. But for that very reason, I find his letter extremely encouraging, because it aims to take our massive disagreement and make it constructive. Byrnes complains that, once I had moved us from the playing field of heterosexual vs. homosexual to that of marital vs. nonmarital (where being marital includes being procreative in kind), I did not play the game through to the end and give a larger argument attacking nonmarital sex. But unfortunately, making the Christian case against sexual libertinism would require more space than I had there—or than I have here—and plenty of ink has been spilt on that clash elsewhere.

Suffice it to say that settling this question will most likely require answering some other, much larger, questions: Does this universe have a Creator? Does he care how I live? Has he used my human nature and natural reason to communicate that care? And has he underscored those moral teachings in revelation? In other words, what separates the classical Christian position on sex from the contemporary anything-goes ­alternative is not one simple argument, but an entire worldview. ­Naturally, I would love to invite ­Byrnes to convert to the ­Christian worldview, beginning and ending in the love of our Lord. But I’d be a proud fool to expect I could ­inspire that conversion in five ­thousand words.

I am sympathetic to Jan Hicks’s concerns regarding post-conciliar catechesis. Yet while I would agree with her that we should keep marriage and its natural fruits at the center of our sexual ethics, I would caution her not to dismiss all “commentary” out of hand. Building sexual morality around marriage makes our philosophical distinctions accurate, not irrelevant.

I hope one such distinction can dispel Robert Benne’s objection. In attacking heterosexuality as a pernicious social construct, I was not denying that the vast majority of people are far more likely to be ­sexually aroused by a member of the opposite sex than by one of their own sex. I was simply arguing that that accidental fact should not constitute an essential psychological identity for anyone, and that the frequent occurrence of this identity could never ground a proscription against same-sex ­sodomy anyway.

I want to be very clear about this: “Heterosexual” is not just a neutral shorthand for “would tend to prefer an opposite-sex sexual partner.” We do not—and in our culture, cannot—use this terminology in that sanitized, unassuming way. The language of sexual orientation is inseparable from the lies that support it: (1) that our sexual desires reveal a fundamental facet of our being, our “sexuality”; (2) that we have a moral obligation to discover and express that key aspect of ourselves; and (3) that we will not be happy until we do so. To call oneself a heterosexual is to actively situate oneself within this false tradition, and to implicitly endorse the deterministic anthropology and hedonistic ethics that inform these un-Christian classifications.

Briefly, to Frank Pray, while polls and experiments may report ­percentage breakdowns between heterosexuals and homosexuals, such studies do not prove that sexual ­orientation is a natural property. They just build it in as an unexamined premise.

Matthew Lee Anderson is certainly right that “the singleness of Jesus does not put same-sex desires and opposite-sex desires on the same moral plane,” and I am terribly sorry if I seemed to imply otherwise! In noting that Christ is the standard for evaluating sexual vice and virtue, I only meant that human nature itself is the relevant measure—as John Paul II liked to remind us, Christ reveals man to himself—not some recurring subjective experience of unspecified desire for the opposite sex, which is what “heterosexuality” signifies for us. So I agree with ­Anderson that sexual complementarity is a ­necessary ingredient in virtuous sexual desire, but I am sure he would agree with me that it’s not a sufficient one.

In short, the problem with “heteronormativity” is not that it insists on sexual difference; it’s that it fails to insist on anything else. By fetishizing just one aspect of chastity—namely, the sex of the objects of one’s most frequent sexual attractions—this reductionist ethic wreaks havoc on the intellectual and moral lives of its practitioners, especially those in its heterosexual control group. We shouldn’t stop asserting that man and woman were sexually designed for one another, but we must contextualize that vital truth in a way that mere “heteronormativity” does not allow. Man was not naturally designed to give himself sexually to women in general, but to a wife, and that in a very specific way.

In response to Aaron Taylor, while same-sex lust is indeed a cross-­cultural phenomenon, the conceptual scheme by which we understand it still matters, and as I tried to show, ours is faulty. Of course, the fact that something is a social construct does not mean that we must destroy it; it just means that it’s possible to do so. But when a construct is detracting more from our flourishing than it’s adding—especially if it’s already on the way out—I do think we ought to try our best to eliminate it. The point isn’t that we should have no social constructs, but that we should have good social constructs.

Finally, I vehemently disagree with Taylor that the Christian faith does not require the deconstruction and reconstruction of its adherents. “He must increase, but I must decrease” extends to all facets of our lives, and it often involves a drastic revolution in our self-understanding. Christ and his Church meet us where we are, yes. But they do not leave us there, nor do they necessarily begin by agreeing with our account of the location.

Damn Yankees

I write to express my dismay about this unfortunate sentence in your March “While We’re At It”: “For those who care, in the office we have three Red Sox fans and one Yankees fan (he grew up in Brooklyn so he can’t help it).”

It is difficult to believe that any Christian magazine could write off one of its own as beyond redemption based on the tired left-wing rationale that he is a mere product of his ­environment.

Since evangelical zeal seems to have faded on the sixth floor, let me offer some conversion strategies:

Embrace the young man without warning on a regular basis and whisper in his ear, “We’ll get you past this Yankees thing.”

Surreptitiously remove tokens of idolatry from his luxurious cubicle and replace them with inspirational symbols of Red Sox Nation.

Over coffee, quietly raise theological questions such as, “What do you think Steinbrenner and A-Rod will discuss in hell?”

I could go on, of course, but I assume that by now First Things is appropriately contrite.

A. M. Juster
belmont, massachusetts


As I am what J. Budziszewski might term a Neo-Pagan (I am Wiccan), I feel compelled to respond to his essay “Evangelizing Neo-Pagans” (March). Budziszewski writes: “The neo-pagan pretends, when it suits him, that there is no morality.” I take ferocious offense at this, as would any other Pagan I know. One would think that any believer who took his convictions seriously would be similarly offended at such a charge. Can you imagine such a slur against any other religion being tolerated? Although there is nothing to stop a modern Pagan from descending into a life of sinful indulgence and excess, there is nothing to stop anyone from doing so.

To say that the fear of God’s displeasure is a meaningful restraining force on Christian believers is enough to make a cat laugh. We are left with the observation that the only true control on one’s behavior, as feeble and often ineffective as it is, is self-­control. Although it is not as well known as the Ten Commandments, there is the Wiccan Rede, which tells us to harm no one. This directive means more than physical harm; it extends to any malfeasance, any ­cruelty, or any action that would impose one’s will on someone else. There are many who take this seriously.

It can be argued that we are all responsible for our own behavior. But when we fail, as we do every day, the modern Pagan does not feel the need to confess to God and hope for forgiveness. Instead, he sees (or, we can hope he sees) that he alone is responsible for his failures and must make amends where he can; he must ask forgiveness not of God, but of the human being he has hurt. Budziszewski never explains why he feels it is necessary for Christians to proselytize to (modern-day) Pagans. Perhaps he feels the reason is so self-apparent that no explanation is needed. Perhaps he feels it is for our own good.

Perhaps he doesn’t realize that this is potentially disagreeable. If Budziszewski would successfully witness to Pagans, I would suggest that he learn about our theologies, and resist the temptation to look upon us as wayward children upon whom fatherly guidance is justly imposed.

Amy L. Finkel
alpharetta, georgia

J. Budziszewski struck one of the key problems we face. The world has been taught that the problem with guilt is that one has it. Guilt comes from outside of us: parents, social mores, institutional religion. The solution is for the individual to learn to ignore the guilt on the inside. This is the polar opposite of historic Christianity, which says guilt comes from inside—what we are and do that is short of the glory of God—and the solution is outside of us in Christ crucified for us and for what we have done.

From where did neo-paganism learn this? Not theology, not history, not the hard sciences, but ­psychology. It’s even harder for shepherds to bring sheep home from the psychologized pew because many splinters have been left to fester.

Paul R. Harris
austin, texas

J. Budziszewski replies:

Amy Finkel’s letter presents several difficulties. One is that I was writing about the default neo-paganism of our culture, which, like ancient paganism, is not so much a creed as a stance. Wicca is a much narrower slice of the contemporary scene, a creedal neo-paganism, one with articles of faith. Another difficulty is that she accuses me of so many views I did not express, for example the ­absurd opinion that we need not make amends to persons we have hurt. She does raise one real issue: Am I wrong to say that the neo-­pagan pretends, when it suits him, that there is no morality? That large numbers of people do make this pretense when it suits them is too ­obvious to belabor. Still, she thinks her creedal neo-paganism, Wicca, is an exception. Is it?

No. Though it does not suit Wiccans to say that there is no morality, their problem comes to much the same thing, for the morality which it suits them to propose has no content. To say “Harm no one” is to say nothing unless we are also told who counts as someone and what counts as harm. Besides, if we aren’t told what counts as imposition, then to say one must never “impose one’s will on someone else” makes moral law unenforceable. For example, the majority of Wiccans support abortion, for they are free to deny that the baby is someone who is harmed. Although a minority of Wiccans do think abortion imposes harm, even they think it should be allowed, because they would not want to impose their will upon—well, upon those who are doing the imposing. You see, I do know something about Wiccan theology.

Thanks to Paul Harris for his kind words. I would offer only one friendly amendment: The problem is not with psychology per se, but with the reductionist psychology which says man is just stuff and conscience is just a euphemism for inhibitions pumped in from outside. A few psychologists do try to base their work on a Christian view of the human person, for ­example the scholars of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in ­Arlington, Virginia.


Engraved in stone on the attic above the entrance to Columbia’s Low Library built in 1895 are the words “For the Advancement of the Public Good and the Glory of Almighty God.” Brigham Young University’s version of that are the words from Mormon Scripture: “The Glory of God Is Intelligence.” Ralph Hancock poses this question in “Keeping Faith in Provo” (March): Are Mormon scholars today promoting the glory of God?

The essay clearly draws the battle lines: the ambitious, narrow, worldly scholars who refuse to address the large human questions and seek only fame in the modern academy versus the religiously faithful who stand by the eternal principles even at the expense of their careers. That way of putting it is not quite just. ­Compassion for the position of gays in modern society is as genuinely Mormon (and Christian) as is the defense of the family. The debate is not on the axis of religion against the world but the reconciliation of conflicting righteous principles.

The definition of the contending parties is also a little off-key. The Mormon way is not to define some of our fellow Saints as benighted aliens beyond the pale but to work together to solve difficult problems. Making our religion relevant to modern problems deserves our best effort, but in all things we must be governed by the compassion and good will that lie at the heart of our faith.

Richard Bushman
columbia university
new york, new york

As one of the very few non-LDS faculty members at BYU, I perhaps bring a different theological perspective to bear. (I am a member of a Protestant, nondenominational church.) Nevertheless, I generally agree with Ralph Hancock’s reading of BYU’s ­dilemma. His assessment of the tensions between reductionism and holism and between secular training and religious devotion seems generally on target. I also agree that these tensions have led to a compartmentalization between ­professional and private worldviews that are frequently incompatible, if not ­incommensurable.

I do take issue, however, with ­Hancock when he states that the ­natural sciences are “for the most part . . . safely insulated from the questions of ultimate purpose that condition our understanding of the meaning of education.” I recognize here that his terms are more than a bit abstract, and thus somewhat difficult to discern precisely. Still, the context of this sentence becomes clearer when he talks about how the value-laden “paradigms and assumptions” of the social sciences and humanities have contributed to the problematic conditioning of our understanding of education. I should add that I am on record in several publications supporting this assertion about psychology in particular.

However, I wonder why Hancock appears to give the natural sciences a pass in this regard. Are not the natural sciences just as captured by ­value-laden paradigms and assumptions? If so, what prevents them, even “for the most part,” from participating in the conditioning of our understanding of education, not to mention the tensions between reductionism and holism? My own experience is that students who major in the natural sciences rather routinely exhibit a host of conditioned understandings of their education, including: considering reductionism the only way to approach knowledge advancement; viewing measurement and even general evaluation as synonymous with quantification; understanding rigor to mean abstracting away (e.g., the laboratory tradition) from the thick context of our practical lives; equating experience with observation; perceiving “nebulous entities” like meaning as either not existing or not mattering.

I realize that the natural sciences often get a pass in these kinds of discussions, but I would contend they should not.

Brent D. Slife
brigham young university
provo, utah

Ralph Hancock points out that the qualifications for tenure at BYU are more closely related to the values of mainstream academia than those of BYU’s unique mission. This is no surprise to anyone who has been churned through the academic system. “Publish or perish” is a reality for all professors, and it demands a level of specialization that in many cases mandates blindness to the ­larger questions of human meaning.

This blindness, as Hancock notes, is perhaps less detrimental outside of the humanities and social sciences. But what about within the social ­sciences, where questions of what is good and just intersect with the moral standards that the LDS Church proclaims to be true? How can, for example, a political philosophy professor at BYU be held to publishing the content of their research (for tenure) in a ­situation that mainstream academia will constantly resist? And in conforming to mainstream academic tenure standards, is BYU losing talented professors who are best equipped to prepare students to consider changing moral foundations, but lack professionally accepted venues through which to publish what they teach and study?

In my short time at BYU, I watched one of the best professors of my academic career be denied tenure for failing to meet publishing requirements that were always going to be an uphill battle in his field. Additionally, in my own graduate work at the University of Utah, I faced extreme difficulty in completing my thesis because I chose a topic that did not conform to mainstream academia. The response was clear: Conform or leave.

An extension of Hancock’s question may be even more relevant: Are BYU students equipped to consider and respond to the shifting moral foundations of modern society? And can we expect them to be if the institutions that educate them do not reward faculty for producing students capable of thinking this way?

Kristen Robinson Doe

college station, texas

I applaud Ralph Hancock’s commitment to the religious mission of his university. I further applaud his call for an alliance between mission-based universities in order to articulate the meaning of a university in larger society.

I must, however, quibble with his criticism of “bilingualism,” as he calls it—“an ability to speak both the language of the academy and the language of revealed truths.” For, assuming it is not contrary to the university’s mission, taking on the language of the academy in scholarship need not include suppressing perennial questions in the classroom, nor does it by necessity lead to secularization of ­religious universities, as Hancock suggests. One can quite overtly and openly engage in religious discussion in the classroom while avoiding it in one’s scholarship without compartmentalization, because the two activities call for different aims and language.

In fact, it is one thing to avoid hyper-specialization in the classroom—a place where first principles are discussed—but it is quite another to avoid it in the academy, which prizes scientific analysis and originality. If religious scholars and religious institutions, for that matter, want to show the world that the faithful can be reasonable, they must engage in the pursuits of their fields, which usually demand specialization. In this way, we can model to our students how to be in the world, but not of the world, while showing the culture that it cannot ignore the religiously minded.

Sarah Klitenic Wear
franciscan university of steubenville
steubenville, ohio

Ralph Hancock replies:

I appreciate Richard Bushman’s attention to my article, but I’m afraid he leaves me with the most banal of author’s responses: His critique seems to refer to some article other than the one I wrote. I spoke of challenges and warned of tendencies; he sees “battle lines.” He simplifies the challenge I describe in order to dismiss it as based on “the axis of religion against the world.” To be sure, I intend in my article to present the reader (­especially the BYU reader) with a challenging alternative—but it cannot be simply reduced to the religion/world dichotomy.

Bushman likens BYU’s “The Glory of God Is Intelligence” to Columbia University’s “For the Advancement of the Public Good and the Glory of Almighty God”; I would tend rather to distinguish the two mottos. I spoke not at all of “promoting the glory of God”; I spoke of asking questions that the secular academy (with a view, ultimately, to the human good, or rather, human progress) necessarily tends to suppress. My concern was and remains first and foremost intellectual, since I trust the religious benefits to follow from the most venturesome thinking. My argument is not for some holy campaign, as Bushman suggests, but for a good ol’ liberal arts education as most conducive to the full exercise of divine intelligence.

So the Columbia motto, with its pursuit of two separate aims, seems to me a better description of BYU’s current, authoritative mainstream than of the alternative I ask to be considered. The risks inherent in assuming a dichotomy between the human and the divine and thus skipping the question of the good are apparent, I think, in Bushman’s reference to “compassion for the position of gays in modern society.” This assumes that “compassion” is automatically identical with Christian charity, or that one can truly care for a person without knowing who a person truly is, and thus what is truly good for a being created in God’s image. Is it not possible that a “defense of the family,” properly understood, would be essential to informing our charity with regard to self-identified “gays”?

Brother Bushman and I are both believing Latter-day Saints, and this is ultimately far more important than our differences. But our differences matter for the future of LDS education. The “battle lines” between “religion” and “the world” presuppose a certain, constricted understanding of reason that ought to be questioned from both directions—that’s really the sum and substance of my analysis of and my hope for BYU.

I thank Brent Slife for his support of my critique of the compartmentalization that prevails in the social sciences and humanities at BYU (as elsewhere, of course), and even more for his valuable work as a teacher and scholar in questioning this compartmentalization. On the question of the natural sciences, I can only welcome his suggestions.

I also thank Kristen Robinson Doe for citing particular cases of great relevance to my argument—although it should also be mentioned that political philosophy is one surviving sub-discipline (my own, it turns out) in which the big questions can still be explored. Even more importantly, she vividly frames the essential questions BYU faces: Are we preparing students to face the moral and ideological challenges they will face in today’s world? And can this challenge be met without revisiting the incentive ­structure that powerfully shapes academic careers?

Sarah Klitenic Wear seems to share my concern about compartmentalization, but she in fact endorses a view of reason that identifies it with scientific specialization. She is right about the value of specialization and its important role in any educational institution. The question I mean to raise is whether specialization should always have the last word. It is not enough to persuade secular peers “that the faithful can be reasonable,” for what passes as “reasonable” often is not. Academics, secular and religious alike, need to admit this in order to advance a respectful dialogue between faith and reason, one that would challenge both to be better.  

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift