No Authority

As a practicing general pediatrician, I appreciated Dr. Leonard Sax’s article “Don’t Ask the Kids” in the October issue of First Things. Sax makes some very helpful suggestions for parents struggling to raise respectful children, but his emphasis is misplaced in advocating primarily a more assertive parenting style. Today’s parents are timid because they lack moral confidence or an understanding of themselves as transcendent beings engaged in a serious moral endeavor. When Sax says, “Legitimate authority establishes a stable moral universe for children,” he has it exactly backward.

R. Allan Stanford
benton, arkansas

Leonard Sax responds:

I thank R. Allan Stanford for his thoughtful comments. I agree completely that many parents today “lack moral confidence.” Indeed, I devoted a big chunk of my latest book The Collapse of Parenting to making the case that good parenting must rest on an absolute moral framework. I warned parents against the relativism which is so pervasive in American society today.

Why do parents lack moral confidence? In my article, I tried to show how societal changes over the past five decades have made traditional notions of authority seem obsolete. The undermining of parental authority did not take place primarily because any study proved that authoritative parenting was harmful. Parental authority just went out of fashion; it reminded people too much of black-and-white television, transistor radios, and Oldsmobiles.

If that is so, then how can we empower parents to regain moral confidence? In The Collapse of Parenting, I showed how kids raised without parental authority are more likely to become obese, more likely to develop psychiatric disorders, and more likely to be fragile. I also showed that the Western moral tradition, which I traced back to the Romans, the Greeks, and the Hebrews, has always embraced parental authority. Affirming parental authority requires that we regard the past not as a series of mistakes to be ignored but as a potential source of wisdom to be drawn upon where appropriate. Nobody wants to return to the 1950s: That era was racist and sexist. But kids need authoritative parents, even if it is unfashionable to say so.

Useless Truth

Michael Hanby’s cri de coeur regarding the absolutism of technocracy (October 2016) is in the tradition of Christian critiques of technology going back to Canadian philosopher George Grant’s “Technology and Justice” (1986) and even Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” (1964). Both Grant and Hanby point out that our modern concept of knowledge increasingly takes the form of a criterion of manipulation. As Grant puts it, “Our paradigm is that we have knowledge when we represent anything to ourselves as object, and question it, so that it will give us its reasons.” These “reasons” are Hanby’s “facts to analyze and synthesize.” The critical problem, as both Grant and Hanby point out, is that when our very thought processes are bound inside a context fixed by a technocratic society, anything not provided by that society becomes literally inconceivable.

Fortunately, the fact that Hanby wrote and First Things published his article shows that we have not yet reached that point. But millions of non–First Things readers already have, as evidenced by the bitter fruits of the sexual revolution, the defacement of bodies, and the other problems Hanby notes. And Hanby himself is more a part of that culture than he seems to realize, judging from his offhand remark that he “was even grateful for air conditioning before it was condemned.” I don’t know about Washington, D. C., but here in Texas nobody I know is condemning air conditioning—they are still grateful.

Technocracy is not yet universal. And that is the hope—a duty for Christians—that we still have. Though Hanby doesn’t mention the arts, I think they may be one of the best ways Christians can “rediscover the ‘uselessness’ of a truth” in a way that could spread from dedicated Christians to the wider culture. But Christian artists, and Christians in general, will first have to be educated to know the truth when they see it, and to reject false things. And that alone will take a generation, even if we start now.

Karl D. Stephan
san marcos, texas

Michael Hanby’s proposed remedy for technocratic absolutism is “the renewal of the Christian mind,” which seems quite right. But I doubt this can take the shape that his brief comments suggest. Though he doesn’t spell out what it means to “renew our tradition of speculative reflection on fundamental questions,” the emphasis seems to be on the work of philosophers or intellectuals, who teach Christians to see the world anew. Speculative thinking cannot bear this burden, even if arguments like Hanby’s are a great help in articulating the problems that many people obscurely sense.

In one of his good moments, Hegel said that “the owl of Minerva takes flight at evening,” which I take to mean that systematic, speculative inquiry always follows upon a developed practice or way or life. Philosophy, in other words, does not lead the way. The arguments of intellectuals are visibly influential mainly when they distill tendencies already afoot in the world. If a vision like Hanby’s goes as much against the grain of the zeitgeist as he argues, its best work will be to spark conversion toward a better grounded or less compromised way of life, which can be the fertile soil needed for “true theory.” The practical life may not be first in itself, but it is first for us.

I don’t mean to be anti-intellectual, but to locate speculative reason in its rightful place in our common life and in the way forward. As the rest of Hanby’s article bears out so well, our civilization was not seduced away from theoria by argument; we were distracted by our own power and the things we can make. Neither is “the contemplative dimension of reason” likely to flower again in the dry ground of today’s academic discourse. The vocation of contemplative prayer is a more likely source, and the beauty of a widely followed Christian way of life that witnesses to the “useless truth” of creation. We can hardly think like Christians if we do not live like Christians.

Mark Hoipkemier
south bend, indiana

Michael Hanby responds:

I am honored that Karl D. Stephan saw fit to mention my work in the same company as the late George Grant and Jacques Ellul. I have learned a great deal from them, especially Grant. American Christians would benefit tremendously from renewed attention to his thought. My remark about air conditioning was a passing reference to Laudato Si’, where it comes in for some harsh treatment. (I hope readers will otherwise recognize an affinity between my analysis and Pope Francis’s Guardini-inspired critique of the “technocratic paradigm.”) Behind this attempt at humor was a more serious attempt to differentiate my case from a merely moral critique of technology and to respond in advance to the tiresome complaint that because one enjoys the copious benefits of modern science and technology, one is somehow ungrateful and hypocritical to attempt to understand or criticize its inner logic. Otherwise I agree with Stephan. I grew up too close to Texas to ever forget the blessings of air conditioning, and of course Washington, D.C. can be miserable any time of year. Especially this year.

I appreciate Mark Hoipkemier’s beautiful remarks, and I wholeheartedly agree with him that “we can hardly think like Christians if we do not live like Christians.” I think it is equally true, however, that we cannot live like Christians if we do not think like Christians. In which case, it cannot simply be that “speculative inquiry always follows upon a developed practice or way or life,” but rather in the way that last ends are also first causes, speculative inquiry and a truly human way of life always follow upon each other.Consequently my argument does not mean that it falls to philosophers and intellectuals simply to teach the rest of the Church to see the world anew; indeed often times the reverse is the case. There are many gifts, but the same Spirit. But it does mean that the Church and the world would be better served if those who had a vocation to think and to teach were to think more philosophically and theologically and less politically, therapeutically, and sociologically. This requires both praxis and vision at once, and so Hoipkemier is absolutely correct to suggest that the renewal of the Christian mind depends ultimately upon rediscovery of the vocation to contemplative prayer, not as a means to that renewal, but as an end in itself and the source and goal of our common life.

Cold Worriers

Peter Hitchens undertakes the praiseworthy but perilous task of empathizing with a people and a culture as different from ours as the Russians (“The Cold War is Over,” October 2016). He makes a laudable attempt to separate the “real” Russia—the Russia of Orthodox Christianity, of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy—from the dreadful USSR. If only one could do that! How nice it would be if, by analogy, one could cleanly separate the Germany of Schiller and Goethe, of Bach and Beethoven, from the Third Reich.

Alas, one can’t. We must face the troubling question of what it is in the culture, the history, and the psychology of a nation like Russia (or, again, Germany) that impelled so many of its people to enthusiastically support one of the most murderous regimes in history. How could Holy Russia provide the fertile ground for the poisonous seeds of a godless German philosophy, never intended for such a backward country, to mutate and flourish as Bolshevism? How can so many of today’s Russians—by contrast with today’s Germans—look with pride on their totalitarian past? Hitchens does not even approach the question. Nor does he take up the intriguing issue of how Marxism-Leninism could fit so neatly in the niche in the Russian psyche once occupied by the Orthodox faith.

Hitchens denies that Russia is expansionist—despite the historian Kliuchevsky’s famous statement that the essential fact of Russian history is colonial settlement (and that was before Stalin grabbed half of Europe in 1945). Of course, he excludes from his definition of “expansion” the annexation of “zones that Moscow once controlled.” By that logic, Britain could seize India, and Germany could take most of Europe, without being guilty of expansionism. Hitchens minimizes what he misleadingly calls the “repossession” of the Crimea. Tell it to the Crimean Tatars, who settled the peninsula centuries before Russians set foot there. He calls this a “limited and minor action,” “the ugly but unexceptional act of a regional power.” One could have said the same of Germany’s seizure of the Sudetenland, which another Briton so blandly dismissed in 1938.

Ukraine is not merely a southern secessionist region, or some random strip of land fought over by rival empires. Nor is it simply a remnant of a colony speaking a foreign tongue, with heady pretensions to independence. It is a direct descendant of medieval Kievan Rus, with a distinct religious, cultural, and political heritage as well as a tradition of statehood stretching from at least the seventeenth century. But imperio-colonial condescension cannot acknowledge such realities.

To call the participants in the Maidan of 2013–2014—who, incidentally, included clergy of the major Christian churches—a “mob” is rather like dismissing the American revolutionaries of 1775 as “rabble.” Even worse, it is to copy out of the Kremlin playbook: The epithet “violent mob” is part of the standard lexicon of Putin’s propaganda machine. And the unproven assertion, which Hitchens implicitly endorses—that this “mob” was abetted by a hostile United States acting through its overt and covert agents—is part of Putin’s ploy to reinterpret Russian neo-imperialism as justified self-defense from the latest anti-Russian crusade.

That millions of Russians also accept the Kremlin’s view of reality does not make it true, any more than its Defense Ministry’s recent assertion that it was Poland that was really responsible for starting World War II. It is as if, in an otherwise praiseworthy attempt to understand the German people, one were to defend the annexation of the Sudetenland as a necessary defensive measure.

One of the pitfalls of empathizing with a nation is complicity in its darker prejudices and delusions. Peter Hitchens has fallen into the trap.

Andrew Sorokowski
north bethesda, maryland

I’d like to take this opportunity to offer the highest praise for Peter Hitchens’s article, “The Cold War is Over.” As an Orthodox priest and as a student of things Russian (I majored in what was known as Soviet and Eastern European Studies back in the day), I have been waiting for someone to finally offer a sensible and sensitive antidote to the ridiculous hyperbole about a new Cold War and the vast evil of Vladimir Putin (no Stalin, just a rather middling tyrant). It has been somewhat unnerving (and not a little amusing, in a dark sort of way) to watch the media and political class, both left and right, hyperventilate about Big Bad Russia every time the Russian president sneezes westward.

Hitchens’s comparison of the current situation in Russia with a hypothetical situation here in the United States (in which the outcomes of the real Cold War are reversed and a hostile pro-Russian state is established on our border in Quebec) is a refreshing reminder of the magnitude of the change in reality since the actual Cold War. Russia has had to face a muscular and intrusive NATO and E.U. less than a hundred kilometers from St. Petersburg—its second capital. Imagine the Warsaw Pact and Comintern that close to New York!

Beyond all that, while Putin’s state is hardly a paradigm of democracy, it is nowhere near as repressive as its predecessor. Religious belief is no longer a reason to be locked out of any possibility of professional advancement, and neither is its opposite—atheism. One does not get in trouble for advocating a different system of government, but for threatening the interests of the semi-mafia in control of the country. And, unlike the reality in a number of states allied with us, people are not executed for adultery, theft, homosexuality, apostasy, and so on. It would be unthinkable in Russia for a policy of execution for profit (through organ harvesting) to emerge.

The sometimes-admissible complaints about Putin’s Ukraine policy are again vastly overwrought. Ukraine and Russia share a common and deep historical, religious, and cultural bond that extends back a thousand years. One third of the “Ukrainians” are ethnic Russian (and constitute a large majority in the eastern third of the country). The Crimean Peninsula was Russian until Khrushchev gave it away in 1954 in a pique against Stalin’s perceived favoring of the Russians—an utterly meaningless act at a time when all power was concentrated in Moscow and nationalism of any kind was brutally suppressed.

But the most touching and profound references in Hitchens’s article were about the suffering of the Russian people at the hands of the murderous Communist regime and as a result of invasion by hostile neighbors. In four years, the racist horror of the Nazi invasion resulted in at least twenty million Russian deaths. Previous invasions by the Swedes, Poles, and French had as their intended goal the destruction of the Russian nation. Thus, Russians hardly have to be paranoid to fear the intentions of NATO and E.U. agitation in Ukraine and the Baltics. A language which defines security in the negative (“without danger”) surely indicates a reality very different from our own. Hitchens does not excuse Putin’s every act; he (rightly) considers him a thug, but he puts those actions in a context that ought to at least make us more sympathetic to the Russian people (who support Putin in numbers that any Western politician would envy). I expect that Hitchens will take a lot of hits for his article. I could spend many pages praising it. Thank you, Mr. Hitchens.

The Very Rev. Fr. John Daly
worcester, massachusetts

I grew up in Communist Romania and visited Russia last month, so I read with great interest Peter Hitchens’s article “The Cold War is Over.” The article is, to paraphrase the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a hodgepodge of fine feeling and bad history.

I join the author in feeling good about the fall of the monstrous Communist dictatorship that was the USSR. Regarding what replaced it, though, I found a more accurate image in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, the recent book by a British author of Russian origin, Peter Pomerantsev. To quote from the book’s review in the New York Times, in Russia “‘reality’ is scripted by the dark forces inside the Kremlin. Fake opposition parties engage in fake opposition to those who rule, a fake justice system goes through the motions of the legal process, and the fake television news shapes what Russia’s 143 million citizens are allowed to see.” There are just three national TV stations and all three are controlled by the Kremlin. Opposition politicians and journalists are frequently murdered. The economic system is one vast kleptocracy: A chosen few amassed fast riches by looting assets from the collapsed USSR economy. However, these oligarchs keep their wealth at the pleasure of the Kremlin and when they displease the Kremlin they are dispossessed, forced into exile, imprisoned, or killed.

I also join the author in his warm feelings for the reopening of Orthodox churches and monasteries closed under the Communists or converted into museums of atheism. Regretfully, though, the Russian Orthodox Church remains (as always) a servile supporter of the government’s nationalist objectives. In exchange for uncritical support, the Russian Orthodox Church gets a quasi monopoly on religion, enforced by the Kremlin. In a July 2016 law aimed mainly at fast-growing Protestant denominations, it became illegal to share one’s faith outside government-approved buildings. In Russia it is now illegal, for example, to email friends to invite them to a religious service or to host a prayer meeting in your home.

The most confusing part of the article regards Russia’s foreign affairs. I will limit my criticism to two points.

First, the author justifies the expansion into neighboring territories controlled by neighboring sovereign states (Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova) by pointing out that this “supposed aggression” occurred in “zones that Moscow once controlled.” The author praises the “unprecedented peaceful withdrawal” of Russia from 700,000 square miles of territory. Well, I don’t know the exact square mileage of the modern colonial empire of Britain, but India alone was 1.3 million square miles, and after World War II, the British withdrew peacefully. Imperial powers don’t “abandon control”—they are pushed out. Once this happens, the former colonial power has no right to intervene in a former colony.

Second, he dismisses the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula as “a limited and minor action in the context of this conquered and reconquered stretch of soil, the ugly but unexceptional act of a regional power.” Does our British author remember the siren song of appeasement, when Neville Chamberlain felt that Hitler surely would be satisfied once he got Czechoslovakia? Putin has made no secret that he wants the Baltic republics, as well as some of the natural-resource-rich Central Asian republics in which he foments unrest.

Communism in Eastern Europe was imposed by Soviet tanks at the end of World War II and preserved by Soviet tanks afterward. When the USSR collapsed, Eastern Europe chose capitalism and democracy. Communism proved to be for them the longest and most painful road from capitalism to capitalism (and democracy). Not for Russia. Uniquely, Russia moved from Communism to authoritarianism at home and irredentism abroad. Today’s Russia threatens its neighbors and chooses to ally itself with all the bad actors on the international scene: Iran, Syria, and China. The author is right that the Cold War with the old Soviet Union is over because the old USSR collapsed. But the new Russia became a new threat.

Dan Negrea
new york, new york

Peter Hitchens responds:

Andrew Sorokowski, despite his civilized approach, is still trapped in the assumptions I seek to dispel. I make no attempt to separate the “real” Russia from the dreadful USSR. The Soviet horror entirely swallowed Russia, though sad ruined traces of what had been could still be seen. My concern is in separating the present Russian Federation from the USSR. I don’t know how he knows that Russians “enthusiastically support[ed]” the Bolshevik regime, or how Marxism-Leninism supposedly flourished there. They were never asked. Russia was a free country, in which fair elections were held, only from February to October (old style) 1917, after which the German-financed Bolsheviks dispersed the elected Constituent Assembly and assumed power through a violent putsch. They maintained that power through murder, famine, secret police terror, and the merciless indoctrination of children. No further free consultation of the Russian people took place for more than seventy years afterward. Likewise I do not think very many Russians “look with pride on their totalitarian past.” They may be proud of their stoicism in war, but that is a different thing.

I have nothing against Ukraine. I just think its people and government would be foolish to imagine that Russia would be unmoved by its new alignment with the E.U., NATO, and the United States. If this is such a sensible, necessary idea, then why did all previous Ukrainian governments since independence avoid it?

I do not “deny” that Russia has been expansionist. That would be absurd. All empires have been expansionist, though currently only China and the European Union can claim this distinction. I say that it is not now expansionist nor likely to become so again. It will be very lucky if it holds on to the Asian territory it seized from China for very much longer. Modern Russia has not annexed any territory which it formerly controlled, except for Crimea. As for the Crimean Tatars, they have fared no worse under Russian rule than they did under Ukrainian rule.

But if Ukraine’s independence, rightly secured by a referendum rightly unobstructed by Moscow in 1991, is legitimate, why did Ukraine block a similar referendum in Crimea in 1992, in which a majority would certainly have voted to leave Kiev’s jurisdiction? And if Ukraine really wanted to defuse the question, why did it repeatedly make an issue of Sevastopol and also treat its Russian minority so meanly? It is silly to equate this with Germany’s seizure of the Sudetenland, which had never previously been ruled from Berlin. Any level-headed person must see that the differences are far more significant than the similarities. A far closer parallel is Turkey’s seizure of Northern Cyprus after the Nikos Sampson putsch in Nicosia.

No doubt there were peaceful, well-intentioned participants in the Maidan protests. Likewise there were such people in the mob that supported the Gottwald putsch in Prague in 1948. But there were also others. In Kiev, these included the people who managed to kill 14 police officers (by the official Ukrainian government count). Those who did not support or aid or excuse this were not a mob. Those who did were one. Nobody disputes that large sums were spent by the U.S. and the E.U. on “civil society” organizations for years before these events. Western politicians and diplomats openly sided with a mass demonstration seeking a deep change in Ukraine’s foreign alignment, from neutral to pro-NATO. The CIA director, John Brennan, also personally visited Kiev in the following April, presumably not for the restaurants and the nightlife. Only a fool would deny that Russia has an active secret involvement in Ukraine. Likewise, only a fool would imagine that the West was not equally active.

Dan Negrea makes an important point about the servility of the Russian Orthodox to the state. I agree with this criticism, and would only say that such servility is not universal among Orthodox priests or believers. But I would still rather have the Orthodox Church than the CPSU, any day.

I don’t justify any expansion. Britain did not withdraw peacefully from its Asian Empire. Its eventual panicked withdrawal from India, bungled and bloody beyond belief (and leaving behind the intractable problems of India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh for others to solve, or not solve), was the consequence of defeat by Japan at Singapore in 1942, perhaps the single gravest failure of British arms in all our history. This destroyed British authority throughout the world, a loss that proved irrecoverable. It is arguable that our departure was rather more violent and reluctant than the USSR’s from its empire, especially if you include the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, the final withdrawal from Palestine and the Suez episode of sixty years ago.

If people are going to employ the term “appeasement” in that “here we go again” tone, then they had better learn what it means. It also applies to Churchill and Roosevelt’s surrender of Eastern Europe to Stalin at Yalta, the shocking ethnic clearances which accompanied it, and to the repeated “land for peace” deals which the U.S. has sought to force on Israel in the fanciful belief that these will bring peace. We all do it, all the time.

But it does not in fact apply to the Russian recapture of Crimea (where Moscow had legally stationed troops under the Kharkiv Pact). This event is not remotely comparable with any of these diplomatic episodes. It forms no discernible part of a wider irredentism, and was not conceded by the West in the belief that it would bring peace. In fact it was not conceded at all, not that anyone thinks this will make much difference.

I am told that Putin has “made no secret that he wants the Baltic republics.” Has he? His declaration on this subject has passed me by and is certainly a secret from me. Where may I read or see it? Russia could seize these countries in a week if it chose, but has left them alone since 1991, both before and after they joined an anti-Russian alliance, and despite the poor treatment some of them have given to their Russian minorities. As for Russia “choosing to ally itself with all the bad actors” on the international scene, I am not sure this is an exclusively Russian failing. It seems to me that Western relations with China are pretty close. China seems more or less to own the U.S., and the UK recently hosted President Xi at Buckingham Palace. Our wonderful police roughed up some Tibetan protestors to make him happy, while allowing Chinese yahoos to drown out pro-democracy demonstrators in the heart of London. Iran is pretty grim, but in a contest to choose the worst country in the Middle East it would lose badly to the West’s ally, Saudi Arabia. Likewise with Syria: No doubt the Assad state is foully repressive, but so are those of Bahrain and Egypt, our close friends. This really isn’t a good versus evil confrontation.

Parks and Reformation

With thanks to Michael Lewis for an excellent review of Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks, Olmsted was indeed a genius and “a product of New England Puritanism in its final manifestation, having been born just as its Calvinist core was dissolving into Transcendentalism.” It’s instructive to unpack, however, what was retained and what was lost from that “Calvinist core.”
Central Park’s submerged transverse roads—what Lewis calls the most brilliant innovation of the Central Park’s design—like the obscuring of human figures in Hudson River School paintings, maps onto the Puritan notion that sinfulness comes into the world with human persons. But whereas that same view of sin led Puritans to emphasize work as the arena of moral and spiritual formation, reformers of Olmsted’s era, troubled by the mind-numbing nature of factory toil, turned toward leisure.
Because leisure was also problematic, ranging as it did from the crass commercialization of Coney Island to the violence of the Astor Place Riot, many members of the middle class created separate spaces—Adirondack camps and the “legitimate theatre.” Methodists similarly created their own retreat spaces—Ocean Grove and the Chautauqua Institution. And Unitarians advocated public amusements where the humble classes would have the privilege of enjoying entertainments created and controlled by the right kind of people (such as Unitarians)—libraries, museums, and parks.
The “amusement question” thus became a significant Christ-and-culture issue: assimilate, separate, imitate, or integrate. Unitarians adored Olmsted, for the park essentially enacted their integrationist theology of culture.

Despite its aesthetic success, one wonders whether the park ever accomplished the moral improvement for which Olmsted aimed. Indeed, one wonders whether a religious-cultural project without the religion ever can succeed. Assimilation is a powerful force, and cultural tastes are at least as likely to be leveled down as leveled up. After all, when it comes to nineteenth-century leisure, the looming figure is not Olmsted, but Barnum.

Karl E. Johnson
cornell university
ithaca, new york

Michael J. Lewis responds:

Karl E. Johnson proposes that the reforming impulse in American Puritanism shifted during the nineteenth century from “work as the arena of moral and spiritual formation . . . toward leisure.” Where Puritanism had once stressed the spiritual well-being of the individual, it now stressed the social well-being of the collective, as expressed in the Unitarian preoccupation with those instruments of public culture, “libraries, museums, and parks.”

I find this a persuasive thesis. Of course, Olmsted was brought up in a Congregationalist household, although the intellectual matrix in which he operated was profoundly Unitarian. One sees this not only in his parks. He owed his position as executive secretary to the Sanitary Commission, that Civil War forerunner to the Red Cross, to the prominent Unitarian minister Rev. Henry W. Bellows. The Commission’s comprehensive program of tending to the moral and physical welfare of soldiers is in the spirit of the “integrationist theology of culture” that Johnson cites, and it helped confirm Olmsted in his determination to make his parks moral as well as physical entities.

Such an ambitious thesis, and one stressing the Unitarian component in these developments, deserves treatment at book length. It is certainly needed. It is a great paradox that as the field of art history has become increasingly consumed by matters of race, class, and gender, it has become increasingly embarrassed by the subject of religion. Even the most scrupulous of contemporary monographs routinely gloss over the question of early religious experience. And yet it is a conspicuous fact that the principal founders of modern architecture in America were all the products of intensely Unitarian backgrounds—not only Frank Lloyd Wright but also Louis Sullivan, Frank Furness, and H. H. Richardson (Olmsted’s neighbor and frequent collaborator, as well as the great-grandson of Joseph Priestly).

Johnson does not mention the cause of Abolition but surely this played as much a role as did the “mind-numbing nature of factory toil” in directing Puritan thought away from matters spiritual and toward social activism. When modern Unitarianism emerged out of traditional Calvinism, it discarded one crucial component of its Calvinist legacy: a recognition of the deep and rapturous human longing for personal salvation. The Abolitionist cause, for many Unitarians, offered an earthly form of personal salvation. The reformist energies brought together by the movement did not disperse with Emancipation but would attach themselves to other forms of social activism, including the establishment of parks and other cultural institutions.

Johnson asks if Olmsted’s parks fulfilled their agenda of moral improvement. I suspect they did, if only as an object lesson in civic idealism, and the belief that the dedication of public space to the common good is a worthy goal. We could use more such examples of civic virtue. He also asks if programs of moral improvement that are not anchored on a religious foundation must inevitably decline into mere entertainment and amusement. The answer, alas, is probably yes.