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Rossetti’s Art

Living within a stone’s throw of the nation’s leading collection of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood art housed at the Delaware Art Museum, I was familiar with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s art but not his poetry. I therefore appreciate having been enlightened by Brian Patrick Eha’s “Rossetti the Unmodern” (January 2024) about the man as a poet. Rossetti’s art features serene, aloof women (often redheads) in sumptuous settings, usually surrounded by flowers that convey their own hidden meanings. Eha’s highlighting of the artist’s poetry brought me to a fuller understanding of the spirit that inspired his paintings. I agree with Eha that Rossetti’s complex and multilayered oeuvre provides a view of timeless human nature that still resonates today.

Michael Reilly
wilmington, delaware

Brian Patrick Eha replies:

I’m pleased to receive Michael Reilly’s comments, and I am glad for the part I could play in opening his eyes to another side of an artist he has long admired. Though of necessity I gave them scant attention in my essay, I, too, have appreciated Rossetti’s paintings for many years. His visual art—and, indeed, his whole project—seems to me both radical and conservative, in a uniquely nineteenth-century way. (John Ruskin and Sir James Murray, father of the OED, are two other figures from that era who don’t slot neatly into our sociopolitical categories.) In another context, the scholar Robert Harbison wrote a sentence that strikes me as an apt description of the Pre-Raphaelite movement: “We’re forging a new consciousness, but we do it by picking around in the bones of various pasts.” At its best, Rossetti’s intensity of vision saves his paintings—with their hieratic forms, flattened foregrounds, and religious or Arthurian subjects—from cloying sentimentality. On a more personal note, my own wife is a redhead of the Pre-Raphaelite kind: slender and luminously fair-skinned, with a long willowy neck and heavy tresses. My enjoyment of Rossetti’s work is therefore perhaps overdetermined. Life does, at times, imitate art.

The Elephant in the Room

It’s comforting to know that Josh Hawley is thinking about America’s “shared moral order” (“Our Christian Nation,” February 2024). Yet his thesis that our populace must vigorously “re-Christianize the great institutions” seems strikingly at odds with the contours of modernity.

A historian by training, the senator eloquently details how America’s two founding idealsindividual liberty and constitutional governmentoriginated with Christianity. Yet he takes for granted that Christianity is a necessary condition for their continued survival. One can just as easily say that these ideals are self-reinforcing and here to stay even in an increasingly secular society (like how an adult butterfly survives post-metamorphosis without its cocoon).

Most people support social and political arrangements that benefit them. Belief in individual liberty undergirds the free commerce and expression that make Americans prosperous and otherwise happy. And popular approval of constitutionalism ensures the crucial survival of a stable political system. Even with the destructive social attitudes of today’s far left, America overwhelmingly remains a free, stable, and rich country. Would you raise your kids anywhere else?

The elephant in the room is that most Americans have stopped identifying as religious, especially our elites. Even fewer are Christian, and among them, only a slim majority consider Christianity very important to their lives. On top of this, a much smaller number of Americans seemingly extend their Christian faith to decisions at the ballot box. Referendums to quash constitutional rights to abortion last year failed miserably in Kansas and Kentucky. Yes, Kansas and Kentucky

Hawley’s proposals to fight the left once again on school prayer and religious iconography in public settings seem all but doomed. “Re-Christianization” can’t be done democratically with a population that doesn’t care about Christianity. If America demands a shared moral framework, then it will have to stem from mutual interests between secular and religious people.

Jonathan Carroll
chester springs, pennsylvania

Senator Hawley makes many good points in “Our Christian Nation,” particularly regarding a Christian economy, though reforming capitalism is bound to get him into hot water with his own party. And that’s a persistent flaw in his argument. His demon is always the “left,” ignoring the faux-Christians on the right. More than two dozen Christian Republicans voted to enshrine same-sex marriage as the law of the land. Through my work at the American Family Project, I have seen how the Republican establishment stands firmly with many of the ills that Hawley bemoans: the pharmaceutical industry, free trade, tax handouts to large corporations, immigration to keep wages low, and, let me add, forever wars.

With respect to forever wars, a Christian foreign policy is long overdue. Hawley skirts foreign policy almost entirely. To protect the supply chains for our very un-Christian consumer economy, our foreign policy is based on the power projection of our military—a military that hasn’t had an unadulterated major victory since our invasion of Grenada. Yet the defense budget, now well over $800 billion, is a sacred cow for the faux-Christians.

A Christian foreign policy might start with “Love your enemies” and “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” concentrating on the projection of love in the form of diplomacy. This would entail mutual respect and understanding of other countries, especially the most vulnerable.

Tom McDonough
washington, d.c.

Senator Josh Hawley decries the diminishing role of Christianity within the United States and calls for a return to biblical principles. Early in his essay, he cites Christopher Dawson’s cultural thesis of “a common moral order and a common religious ideal.” What Hawley gets right is that the United States is losing its identity, though he then descends into a polemic against the left that skewers his argument. His portrayal of Christianity in the United States is myopic, drawing stark contrasts between conservative Christians and the secular left. He neglects to acknowledge that Christianity transcends the progressive and conservative binary. He critiques conservative Christians for embracing the fusionism of Republican political policies of “anti-communism, free-market economics, and social conservatism.” Yet Hawley fails to highlight how progressive Christianity is also cultural by nature. 

Martin Luther’s quote from On the Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is free to all, subject to none. A Christian is dutiful, servant of all, subject to all,” captures the Christian freedom of service to neighbor. The early churches founded by Peter, Paul, and the other apostles were communal in nature. Paul’s letters to the churches were focused on remaining together as a community. The early religious settlements in the United States were also grounded in this need. Some of these early religious communities include Pietist Lutherans who settled in the Northeast and Missouri-Synod Lutherans who settled in the Midwest. These communities focused on the need to grow and protect their communities in the New World. The Christian imperative for community runs counter to the individualistic narrative that has become more prominent in recent decades.

Kristin Klade and Thomas Johnston
fort worth, texas

Womanly Heart

I thank Dan Hitchens for his excellent piece, “Joan of Arc, Gender Theorist” (February 2024). The attempt to co-opt St. Joan and strip her of her womanliness has been heartbreaking to witness because it so neatly dismantles the dramatic and anthropological heart of her tale: God uses ordinary people for extraordinary graces.

The Chosen One trope is the idea that only those of us who bear a secret sign or have some special suffering can really make a difference in the world. The attempt to make St. Joan an outsider-by-birth, a kind of transgender “chosen one,” seems to be the worst example of this phenomenon. St. Joan does not triumph because of some inexplicable, mysterious essence within herself. If we want to see a character in the tale with an identity crisis, then we must look rather at King Charles VII. Instead, sweet Joan triumphs because she is not worried about her own identity. It is the lack of inner turmoil that makes her story so compelling. She knows precisely who—and what—she is: a Catholic, a follower of the true monarch, a woman.

What these misguided interpretations of St. Joan’s story overlook is the absolute consistency of her personality—and that trait makes her story inspiring. The womanly heart that longed to sit by her mother in Domrémy and spin is the same heart that ordered the charge at Orléans. It was a heart that loved home, both the little village by the river and the land of France. Crucially, she loved it as a woman loves, and as Charles VII and his male advisers could not. Hitchens’s piece is invaluable.

Jane Scharl
royal oak, michigan

Dan Hitchens replies:

My thanks to Jane Scharl for this perceptive letter. In the end, trans ideology can only be overcome by a Christian understanding of man and woman. That, surely, is one great task for today’s theologiansand for artists, too.

Say No More

Russell Moore has gone from prophet to punching bag in the eyes of First Things. Daniel Strand’s “War on the Culture War” (February 2024) makes that clear, and it is troubling.

In October 2016, R. R. Reno introduced Moore as “one of the most important voices speaking for faithful Christians in the public square.” In his Erasmus Lecture, “Can the Religious Right be Saved?,” Moore invoked this magazine’s founder:

During the scandals of the Clinton administration, Richard John Neuhaus warned us about the consequences of a national acceptance of a public loss of character. Neuhaus, a priest but no choirboy, knew that morally tainted politicians and leaders will always be with us, as they have been in the past. “The difference is that our intellectual leadership, the media and the then-mainline churches did not tell the morally slovenly sector of the electorate that they were right in their indifference to character.” Neuhaus knew that what was new was not the presence of sin but the loss of a sense of shame.

Apparently, Moore’s perspective has not changed in his latest book, but he is now labeled one of the “new crop of perpetual evangelical critics.” What Moore, channeling Neuhaus, sees as a shameful embrace of Donald Trump, is portrayed by Strand as a “reasonable transaction.” Strand notes the key upside, Dobbs, but waves away Moore’s concerns before concluding that “the recent evangelical reaction is a sign of spiritual health.”

Strand sees Moore as implying “that evangelicals didn’t choose the lesser of two evils; they chose evil.” I suspect Moore is concerned that many evangelicals no longer see their 2016 choice as involving any evil at all, as evidenced by new choices now being made. One could “stand for the natural family and against the toxic ideologies of our elites” without standing for the serial adulterer and chronic liar Trump. Isaiah rightly saw calling evil good and good evil as a source of woe, not a sign of health.

Moore is not beyond critique, but the responses to him doing what he has done for a decade can best be used as a mirror. In 2016 it merited a standing ovation. In 2024 it resulted in a sneering review. Moore closed in 2016 with a reminder that we are always “being overheard, in our statements and in our silences.” May the leaders of this important institution be able to look back on what is said and not said during the rest of 2024 and, with good reason, feel no shame.

John Murdock
bloomburg, texas

Philosophy sans Theology

I am writing in deep appreciation of Matthew Rose’s “A Rabbi for Christians” (February 2024). Rose sketches Soloveitchik’s main critiques of Christianity in a manner that demonstrates how tremendously helpful those critiques are to Christian believers who today are seeking to avoid the dead ends that characterize religiously liberal versions of Christianity. 

Rose also explains the difference between fulfillment of Torah in the new Temple and new exodus of the Messiah on the one hand, and the abrogation and spiritualization of Torah on the other. Finally, he makes clear the extraordinary power and subtlety of Soloveitchik’s philosophical insights into the human condition of the believer in the contemporary world. This puts me in mind of a serious problem in much academic philosophy today. I recently edited a manuscript on Newman’s Grammar of Assent that I had hoped would be received into a prestigious series of “Critical Guides.” The guides focus on the greatest works of philosophy over the centuries. 

Sadly, the manuscript was rejected on the grounds that Newman’s Grammar is not philosophyapparently because there is serious Catholic theology in it. The manuscript had contained professional theologiansnot only professional philosophersamong its contributors. This led me to ponder on how gravely weakened “philosophy” is when works by explicitly religious thinkers are excluded. Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith and Halakhic Man were far more philosophically rich than almost anything written in the twentieth century. The same was true for Newman’s Grammar in the nineteenth century. 

Fortunately, there are philosophy programs that at least include texts by figures such as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Luc Marion. Yet the more explicit the theology, the less attention the texts seem to receive from the philosophical guild.

Along with the works of such figures as Augustine, Maximus, Maimonides, and Aquinas, the works of Soloveitchik belong to the renewal of the life of wisdom that has already begun in some places.

Matthew Levering
mundelein seminary
mundelein, illinois

Image by Halloween HJB, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.