Marriage in Ireland, common core, wrestling cancer, etc
by R. R. Reno
Writing in National Review (“President Obama’s Civic Religion”), David French observes an irony in President Obama’s statements about religion and public life. The president has declared himself “a big believer in the separation of church and state,” saying he’s “very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.” Yet the church he attended in Chicago is part of the United Church of Christ (UCC), a very liberal Protestant denomination that, lo and behold, strongly identifies itself with a full laundry list of political causes that align almost perfectly with the positions advanced in The Nation. These days it seems politics is the mission of the UCC. It’s a PAC at prayer. French contrasts this with the official statements of identity and mission put out by the Southern Baptist Convention and other conservative denominations. They “focus on man’s relationship to God while providing minimal to non-existent commentary on public policy.” Yet it’s those conservative Christians who are theocrats, not the politics-saturated liberal ones. Suspiciously self-serving rhetoric, that.
In November, firstthings.com sponsored the Marriage Pledge, an initiative drafted by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz calling for priests and pastors to renounce the power invested in them by the state to sign government marriage certificates. The pledge anticipates an expansion of a politically driven redefinition of marriage and seeks to make crystal clear the difference between Christian marriage and government marriage. Some signed. Most demurred.
But in Ireland there seems to be an interest in something like the Marriage Pledge. The push for same-sex marriage there has been ongoing. In a 2013 statement, the Irish bishops observed, “Over 70% of marriages in the Republic are celebrated by couples choosing the Christian celebration of marriage with both elements (civil marriage and church marriage) taking place within the same ceremony. Any change to the definition of marriage would create great difficulties and in the light of this if there were two totally different definitions of marriage the Church could no longer carry out the civil element.”
On May 22, Ireland will vote on a referendum redefining marriage to allow people of the same sex to wed. In April, a spokesman for the Irish bishop made observations along the same lines. “If the referendum is passed the Church’s view and the State’s view of marriage will be radically different. It’s reasonable that the bishops may decide to separate the two.” Entirely cogent—and exactly the reasoning behind the Marriage Pledge. And just as reasonable in the American context.
In the April issue, Richard Mouw penned a fine review of Michael McVicar’s book on Rousas Rushdoony, a cult figure of sorts in single-malt Calvinist circles. Rushdoony formulated something called Christian Reconstructionism, which theorized the reconstruction of society along strictly biblical lines. Whatever one thinks of the particulars (count me a skeptic), it’s fair to say that Rushdoony and Rushdoonyites cultivate a creative interpretive imagination, and not just with respect to the Bible. Consider this response to Mouw’s review by Joel McDurmon. “Briefly, let’s consider for a moment the nature of what’s really going on here. It looks merely like another book reviewed by another academic figure. But it is so much more! Look at all the pieces and put them together: a liberal academic imprint (UNC Press), a prominent neoevangelical seminary name (Mouw), a secular religion professor (the new author, Michael McVicar), and the premier neoconservative public-policy publication in the country (First Things) have all joined hands in a great drum circle to create a united front against the dreaded enemy of God’s Law and its modern proponents.” The title of this particular blog post: “And now, the whole ideological world gangs up on Christian Reconstruction.”
In the May Public Square, I exercised renegade canonical authority by pronouncing Metuchen an archdiocese when, in fact, it was and remains a diocese. The occasion for that error on my part was an exasperated response to the shameful way in which the Diocese of Metuchen treated Patricia Jannuzzi, a parochial school teacher who in March was “outed” as “anti-gay” for having posted on her Facebook page endorsements of the Church’s teaching on sex, marriage, and the family. The postings have a slap-dash blog quality. But the substance is pretty much in line with what popes have been saying. Nevertheless, Jannuzzi promptly was suspended from her job as a teacher at Immaculata High School in Somerville, New Jersey. I am happy to report that church officials there seem to be corrigible. She was reinstated in April.
Good for the Archdiocese of Omaha (and, yes, it is an archdiocese). The speech coach at Skutt Catholic High School announced that he was engaged to marry another man. His contract has not been renewed. There were outcries of discrimination and injustice. An archdiocesan spokesman responded, saying the action was justified by the fact that the teacher was not “upholding the teachings of the Church.” Obviously. When a Catholic teacher decides to marry someone of the same sex, he’s not just failing to uphold the Church’s teaching. He’s also actively and publicly contradicting the Church’s teaching. I don’t think any fair-minded person can possibly think it’s discriminatory or unjust for a church to fire teachers who say in their words and actions that the church’s teachings are wrong and should be rejected.
The wheel of history is always turning. Since the sexual revolution, progressives have focused on teaching kids how to have sex and not get pregnant. Sterile sex was the holy grail. That’s changing. The New York Times recently reported on Sex and Society, the nonprofit group in Denmark that does most of the sex education in schools there. The organization is shifting its emphasis. Now sex ed teachers are talking about pregnancy as something good, something to be sought, not avoided.
The pro-natal approach reflects a growing trend in Europe, one fueled by the fear of demographic decline, which is a reasonable fear given the very low birthrates in many European countries. There’s a consensus now in favor of pro-family policies, which even include advertising campaigns encouraging young Europeans to make babies. The population control mentality that became so powerful in the 1970s is finally giving way to reality: The West is more likely to suffer from too few people than too many. The upshot is an emerging neo-traditionalism, or at least the presentiments of a neo-traditionalism. The rationales for a renewed focus on the family are pragmatic rather than religious and moral. Thus neo-traditionalism rather than traditional traditionalism. But it’s a reversal nevertheless.
One of the most notorious recent instances of mob hysteria was the cyber-lynching of the O’Connor family. They are the proprietors of Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, who said that, if asked, they would not cater a gay wedding. Patrick Deneen recounts the aggression of the One Percent in this issue (“The Power Elite”). The good news is that the story did not end there. The same tech world that joined the propaganda campaign against Indiana’s RFRA created GoFundMe, a web-based fundraising site. Sympathizers set up a campaign to support the O’Connor family. As I write, more than $800,000 has been donated.
As long as we’re on the topic of hysteria, let’s take a look at the statement issued by San Francisco State University President Leslie Wong.
I am dismayed, if not extremely disappointed, in the recent legislation signed into law in Indiana. It is unconscionable for this great University to spend its resources in a state that attempts to legislate discrimination of any kind.
By this note, I am informing the campus community that no San Francisco State University funds from any source—general funds or auxiliary—will be used to support employee or student travel to Indiana. This action is effective today, Monday, March 30, 2015, until further notice. Any travel authorized prior to today may proceed as planned with approval of the appropriate vice president.
We are researching similar legislation reputed to be existent in other states to determine further action.
As a member of the NCAA Division II President’s Council, I will not attend a required meeting of the Council to be held in April in Indianapolis. A copy of this note is being sent to NCAA President Mark Emmert and to CSU Chancellor Timothy White.
Our commitment to social justice on this campus remains a point of pride for me. The vice presidents, deans and Academic Senate’s Executive Committee all endorse this action.
As I mentioned in my Public Square, the new Establishment, like the Old Establishment, is fond of its moral superiority, even to the point of grotesque mischaracterization (the RFRA “legislating discrimination”!) and preening moral grandiosity (social justice “remains a point of pride for me”). All this is weirdly combined with the serene lack of actual knowledge about life outside the charmed circle of the Great and the Good—“We are researching similar legislation reputed to be existent in other states . . .”
Over the course of a week or more in April, New York students in grades three through eight take Common Core tests. This year an organized boycott has led many parents to refuse to allow their kids to be tested. An official counting won’t be available until summer, but it seems more than 10 percent of students refused to take the test, more than double last year’s rate of recusancy.
The anti-testing movement is a hodge-podge. New York adopted Common Core, a nationwide set of educational standards, and some parents object to them as a federal takeover of education. Others resist the tests because of the view that standardized testing adversely affects minorities. Here in New York, teachers unions are resisting efforts to make increasing use of the tests in teacher evaluations. Finally, there’s a general sense that the new tests encourage teachers to teach to the test, which many parents see as a diminution and narrowing of the education their kids are getting. (My own children complained of exactly that when their schools geared up for No Child Left Behind testing.)
Whether wise or counterproductive, the opt-out movement’s mounting success seems part of a larger trend. Polling suggests that we’re growing more and more distrustful of institutions, including (perhaps especially) public education. Common Core and regular testing may be sensible ways to encourage reform and improvement in public education today. But an atmosphere of distrust makes even good ideas hard to implement. Which in a way reassures me. As I outline in this month’s Public Square, the Establishment is feeling its oats and exercising its power. It’s reassuring to know that ordinary citizens are distrustful of the institutions the Establishment controls. One anti-testing website urges resistance to “corporate educational reform,” perhaps referring to the outsized influence that mega-wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates and other members of the donorocracy now have on educational reform. On the whole I’d say it’s an earned distrust.
Get paid to donate! Sound a bit contradictory? That’s of no moment for California Cryobank, which solicits “donors” to its sperm “bank.” Here’s the pitch: “Although compensation should not be the only reason for becoming a sperm donor, we are aware of the considerable time and expense involved in becoming a donor.” So “donors” are “reimbursed.” (Yes, their website really says that.) No unpleasant “selling” of your paternity! The reproductive industry—oops, I meant to say reproductive community—isn’t about making money, though investors are . . . what’s the right word? . . . yes, of course, “reimbursed.” Why not you too? Do a good deed—deeds—and earn up to $1500 per month!
Speaking of “reimbursements” for “considerable time and expense,” I’m reminded of a recent New York Times article. It detailed the very large donations (millions of dollars) to Clinton-controlled foundations from businessmen interested in closing a deal to sell Uranium One, a company with mining interests in the United States, to a Russian company while Hillary was Secretary of State. There’s no suggestion that any laws were broken, though it doesn’t smell good. But that’s not what stuck in my mind. Instead, it was this sentence: “Shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.” Nice work if you can get it.
We paid Western Theological Seminary professor Todd Billings absolutely nothing for his appearance at our offices on April 7, and it was priceless. He was recently stricken with a deadly blood cancer and underwent chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. In order to keep up with friends and colleagues during his treatment, Todd posted on CarePages.com. Thankfully, they encouraged him to turn those posts into a book, which was published this spring: Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, one of the richest and wisest and most theologically profound books I’ve ever read on sickness, suffering, and death. Recently we published an article based on one of the book’s chapters, “Undying Love” (December 2014).
As I said, Todd came in early April for one of our ad hoc evening events here at the First Things office. He didn’t give a lecture. Rejoicing in Lament is not a book to lecture on. Instead, I asked him some questions, and during the course of the evening Todd gave us a great gift, which was unfussy, fundamental theological reflection on the hard realities of this mortal coil. You can watch a recording of this conversation with Todd on our website (click the Events tab at the top) or by visiting our collection of videos at vimeo.com/firstthings.