I enjoyed a very pleasant though sadly short visit to my former hometown. It was mid-April. The weather was mild, and Aeolus welcomed me with soft breezes rather than the usual rough winds of the Great Plains. The redbud trees were radiantly abloom in the spring sunshine. I had coffee with old friends and ran into former students from my days as a professor of theology at Creighton University, some of whom now have children in college, a sharp reminder that I’m no longer young.
My purpose for travel was to speak at the spring gala for St. Barnabas Classical Academy. A micro-institution, St. Barnabas is part of a larger movement that bids fair to have a significant influence in the years to come.
The last decade has seen a dramatic uptick in foundings of classical schools. Many such schools are explicitly Catholic, though some are more generally Christian. These green shoots are encouraging. For more than a generation, parents have rebelled against the mediocrity of our educational establishment. The ideological takeover of schools has accelerated this alienation. Wokery damages more than public education. In many dioceses, parochial schools have conformed to lightly theologized versions of progressive ideology that both politicize curricula and undermine the faith. Those concerned to promote cultural literacy, educational rigor, moral formation, and spiritual integrity have not stood idle. With an American genius for initiative and institution-building, they have established education co-ops that meet in private homes, started schools on shoestring budgets using a few classrooms lent by sympathetic parish priests, and raised money to rent buildings, hire teachers, and provide scholarships.
I have visited many institutions like St. Barnabas and spoken to many people involved in classical education. I’m impressed by the commitment of the teachers, many of them woefully underpaid. They understand that they are doing something of incalculable importance, not just for the students under their care, but for the Church and our society. I admire parents who take their children out of “regular” schools and enroll them in classical academies. New and often underfunded schools have limitations: few sports teams, if any, and meager resources. But these parents correctly assess the urgency of our present situation. Mainstream education is captive to perverse and destructive ideas.
The gala was held in the cavernous gymnasium of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church School on Q Street. More than one hundred people sipped wine out of plastic cups, circulating to view the items available for the silent auction and gathering in clutches to chat. The school’s art teacher introduced himself: “Hi, I’m another R. Reno, Ron Reno.” We speculated that we’re probably twelfth cousins twice removed (whatever that means). The students served dinner. We sat in folding chairs and ate (very good) lasagna off plastic plates. The student choir sang. The gala organizer reminded us that we could go online to place our bids in the silent auction. The chairman of the board made a pitch for donations. I gave my short speech. It was all very ordinary—and wonderful.
The school gets its name from the parish that sponsored its foundation a few years ago. I thought it fitting, therefore, to attend Sunday Mass at St. Barnabas Catholic Church on 40th Street. But I had a further motive. St. Barnabas was once Episcopalian. After Pope Benedict promulgated Anglicanorum Coetibus and established the Anglican Ordinariate, the parish came into communion with the Bishop of Rome. Under this arrangement, St. Barnabas celebrates the Mass with an adaptation of the Roman Rite that uses language from the Anglican tradition of worship in English.
For a visitor, the most evident difference is the preservation of the older English second-person familiar: “thee,” “thy,” and “thou.” Although I had never attended a Mass celebrated in a parish of the Anglican Ordinariate, I did not experience the Mass as a visitor. Baptized in the Episcopal Church, I am old enough to have grown up with the 1928 Prayer Book, a version of the Book of Common Prayer that, unlike the revisions implemented in my teenage years, preserved a great deal of Thomas Cranmer’s beautiful translations of the medieval Latin liturgy.
There was no service book in my pew, but the words came back to me readily: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.” “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”
The Comfortable Words before the offertory and the priest’s intonation of achingly familiar prayers evoked memories that washed over me: the clip-on bow tie my mother affixed to my collar as we drove to church; the stirrings of my restless cousins in the next pew; racing out with them when the service ended. Into the church courtyard we’d spill, and under the dogwood trees we’d drink lemonade and eat cucumber sandwiches with the bread crusts torn off.
My friend dropped me off at Eppley Airfield late on Sunday afternoon. A few scattered clouds stood like lonely sentinels in the limitless sky. I am and always will be a child of Baltimore, Maryland. But I lived more than twenty years in Omaha, the longest span of my life in one place. They were decades of raising children, being woven into the fabric of a community, and finding (being found by) the Church. What are the right words as I board the plane? The simplest, I suppose: Thank you.
Race and Racism
I have no illusions about racism. As a child growing up in Maryland, I heard racist sentiments expressed in crude ways that today’s protocols prevent me from recounting here. George Wallace had fans among some of my friends’ parents. Working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, I heard a great deal of race-based derision in the back-and-forth among the kitchen staff. In the hallways of my high school, there were race-motivated fistfights. I sigh sadly thinking about it. And I don’t pretend that a black man my age, no matter how successful in post-civil-rights America, will not have rather different and perhaps more pointed thoughts about those years.
But in my life, I’ve learned other things as well. In the 1990s, I served as the lay leader of an Episcopal church on the decaying north side of Omaha. This church had recently been formed through the merger of an all-black congregation with an all-white one. Until some white liberals from outside the neighborhood joined out of a commitment to racial reconciliation, the black members were more likely to have college degrees than the white members. It was a small church, and I came to know almost everyone. Some church members had suffered humiliating racial discrimination. But most wrenching of all was the story of an elderly white woman. Maggie grew up in a small Nebraska town, the illegitimate daughter of the town prostitute. Now eighty, she told me with an edge in her voice, “I learned as a young child how to fight off the men.” The Evil One, like our Savior, does not discriminate on the basis of race.
My family’s involvement in that church led us to host a young refugee from South Sudan, one of the “Lost Boys” orphaned by the civil war in that country (although, in truth, Paul’s family was intact and had sent him and his brother out of war-torn Sudan to the refugee camp in Kenya because it had a school). I enrolled him in the majority-minority high school my children attended. From the Dinka tribe, Paul was jet-black, rail-thin, very tall, sharply dressed, and carried himself like an aristocrat. At school he stood out as an African among African Americans. When I took him to the government office to sign up for Medicaid, he balked at the question about his racial identity. He did not want to mark the box “African American.” I asked why. He told me he was offended by the disrespect his black classmates at the high school showed their teachers. He summed up: “It’s a bad tribe.” I pointed to the option labeled “other,” and suggested he write in “Sudanese American.” He found this very satisfying.
During this time, Nathaniel Garang Anyieth, Bishop of Bor in Sudan, visited the United States for a few months. Our home was his base while he traveled around the country to preach and teach among the Dinka diaspora. One evening, I invited some liberal Catholic friends from Creighton to join us for dinner. Feeling mischievous, I asked Bishop Nathaniel whether he considered Christianity a “European” religion. He replied, “The Apostle Paul brought Christianity from the Holy Land to Europe. The European people brought Christianity to Africa. And we will bring it back to the Holy Land. Even now, among the Muslims, there are conversions!” I’ll never forget the distressed expressions on the faces of my friends. They were devoted to interreligious dialogue.
I count myself blessed in many ways, which is to say I know I’m “privileged.” I’d have to be blind not to recognize my advantages in life, given the struggles, damage, and suffering I’ve seen in the lives of others. And I don’t doubt that racial discrimination contributes its share to human ruin. If this leads Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and other race-fixated writers, pundits, and activists to range among my privileges the white color of my skin, then so be it. But I reject their pinioned thinking. To plot the world’s miseries, sufferings, and crimes so narrowly on a black-white axis strikes me as folly. The same holds for honor, joy, kindness, and the graces of life. I have found race to be an unreliable tool for understanding oneself and others. I prefer to think and judge in accord with the old wisdom. It speaks of honor and integrity, generosity and magnanimity, courage and temperance, faith, forgiveness, and love.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Timothy Fuller on the priorities of liberal education: “Liberal learning is bold in philosophy and modest in politics.” Our age reverses the proper emphasis. Institutions of higher education are bold in political dogma and reticent to the point of silence when it comes to transcendent truths. This is one reason why we have so little liberality of mind and so much political correctness.
♦ The commissioner of Major League Baseball repeated the slander that Georgia election laws are racist and withdrew the All-Star game from Atlanta. The decision came during a storm of corporate denunciation of an electoral law more permissive than what is found in many states controlled by Democrats, including our president’s home state. As one wag put it, even the Devil is pulling his fiddling contest out of Georgia. Count me among those who plan not to watch any baseball games in 2021.
♦ Keira Bell was a troubled fourteen-year-old living in England. Daughter of an unemployed, alcoholic mother, she was distressed by the physical changes brought on by puberty. Her mother and others suggested that perhaps she really wanted to be a boy. Keira adopted their idea. At age fifteen, she was referred by a government psychologist to the Gender Identity Development Service. By age sixteen, she was being given a drug regimen of puberty blockers. The National Health Service continued its ministrations with a double mastectomy at twenty. After that surgery, Bell came to some realizations: “I recognized that gender dysphoria was a symptom of my overall misery, not its cause.” Looking back, she says, “I had so many issues that it was comforting to think I really had only one that needed solving: I was a male in a female body. But it was the job of the professionals to consider all my co-morbidities, not just to affirm my naive hope that everything could be solved with hormones and surgery.” Bell sums up: “I was an unhappy girl who needed help. Instead, I was treated like an experiment.”
Some years ago, I asked Paul McHugh, former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, what could stop the medical profession’s adoption of the monstrously destructive transgender ideology. He replied, “When these kids grow up and realize what has been done to them, the lawsuits will be ruinous.” Bell did exactly that. In 2020, a panel of High Court judges issued a unanimous verdict to the effect that Bell’s treatment amounted to an unscientific experiment with life-altering consequences. The Court severely restricted the use of puberty blockers and hormone treatments for children under sixteen. The clinic is appealing the ruling.
It is my hope that people like Keira Bell find the right malpractice lawyers and win billions of dollars in damages. For those severely harmed by the transgender mania, this would be a good start toward something like justice.
♦ The Harvard Crimson reports that 3 percent of faculty at that august institution describe themselves as conservative. Nearly 78 percent say they are liberal or very liberal, and fewer than 20 percent call themselves moderate. Between 2017 and 2020, Harvard faculty gave $744,143 to Democrats; $3,010 went to Republicans.
Baby Boomer grandees wonder over today’s polarization and partisan rancor. Its causes are many, but among the most significant has been the catastrophic failure of higher education to serve as a model of civil and reasoned debate. Baby Boomer leaders have allowed academia to become a rigid and closed monoculture that punishes the slightest dissent from progressive orthodoxies, even as elite institutions pat themselves on the back for their purported “diversity.”
When I was a child, the United States was completing a social transformation in which black Americans, less than 15 percent of the citizenry, rebelled against their unequal treatment and insisted upon their place in society. I estimate that the alienated conservative and conservative-populist portions of the American population exceed 30 percent. These groups are almost completely unrepresented in mainstream institutions, where they are much more likely to be mocked (ignorant victims of conspiracy theories) and derided (xenophobic, racist) than welcomed, or even permitted to enter. The failure to remedy this situation—which, if unaddressed, will lead to explosive consequences—shows how irresponsible our leadership class has become.
♦ Lifeway Research conducted a survey of churchgoers, asking about their religious practice during the pandemic. One answer stood out: Churchgoers aged eighteen to twenty-nine were the age cohort most likely to say they went to church more often, with 22 percent reporting that they increased their participation in in-person services. The Lifeway polling confirms what a friend who is the chaplain at a large Boston-area university reports: an uptick of students at Mass. Mark this trend down in the “silver lining” column for 2020.
♦ New York is on its way to legalizing prostitution. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced that his office will no longer prosecute prostitution cases. The same strategy paved the way for marijuana legalization. In 2018, Vance announced non-prosecution of possession. Police saw the futility of arresting lawbreakers and stopped issuing citations. Smoking joints on the street became de facto legalized. The New York Legislature formalized the reality on the ground with a law legalizing marijuana this year. Expect full legalization of “sex work” by the end of the decade, if not sooner.
♦ Legalizing marijuana and prostitution are part of the overarching policy of moral deregulation that our establishment has endorsed for the last two generations: no-fault divorce, the abortion license, lifting taboos against homosexuality, normalizing pornography, blurring distinctions between men and women, and more. That our leaders should endorse moral deregulation in the face of 80,000 drug overdose deaths per year, declining marriage rates and rising illegitimacy rates, a broken male-female dance, increases in anomie, isolation, and suicide is astounding.
♦ In a survey of conservative responses to post-sixties feminism (“Feminism—What the Critics Miss,” Modern Age, Winter 2021), Scott Yenor observes a misplaced confidence that natural differences between men and women will invariably win out. The core commitment of feminist doctrine is the Independent Woman. Her priorities of “credentials and careerism,” rather than “marriage and momism,” have shaped a great deal of educational, cultural, and economic policy, with far-reaching effects:
Feminists have rightly seen that how a people translates maleness and femaleness into daily life is a political question. We are now into our third generation of feminist education under this new sexual constitution that attaches honor to the Independent Woman and stigmatizes the idea of male provision and initiation. Ever fewer girls are instructed in the virtues of housekeeping or praised if they aim to keep house: if it doesn’t fit in with a life plan for careerism, it is not honored. As a result, marriage ages have climbed. Marriage rates have declined. Birth rates decline ever more. The age of first birth climbs. More women, each generation, have no children and go through life without marrying. Male irresponsibility in the form of pornography, virtual-reality relationships, compulsive video-game playing, or underemployment escalates. These results are sown into the nature of feminism.
The most recent COVID relief bill and the proposed infrastructure bill provide many billions of dollars to subsidize childcare. These allocations benefit only mothers who work outside the home. “Credentials and careerism” are thus amped up by government spending, and this, as Yenor observes, further undermines “marriage and momism.” Our goals as a nation should be the opposite. Progressives are correct: Parents need help. But government spending must go directly to families. Sen. Josh Hawley’s proposed Parent Tax Credit ($6,000 for single parents, $12,000 for married parents) points in the right direction. This approach allows mothers and fathers to choose how to balance work with homemaking, rather than presuming the career-oriented, work-and-childcare approach.
♦ We launch our spring fundraising campaign in late May. First Things has been blessed with devoted readers. These are difficult times. But there is great opportunity if we stand firmly and confidently in the truth—which is exactly what we plan to do at First Things. I hope you will remain committed to our success and give generously.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.