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Wed, 01 Oct 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Historians generally agree that the best that can be said for the presidency of Jimmy Carter is that it was a mixed bag. The common (and I think correct) view is that the one-term Carter administration, unfocused in purpose and inept and unlucky in practice, concluded short of disaster but far from success. The same unenthusiastic judgment, it turns out, applies to Randall Balmer’s new biography of the nation’s thirty-ninth President. His lukewarm defense of his subject,
Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter,
is at best workmanlike and for the most part pedestrian. More important, Balmer gets wrong the matter that concerns him most: Carter’s tangled relations with the Evangelical Christian community.
Thu, 01 Mar 2012 00:00:00 -0500 American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation
by Michael Kazin
Knopf, 329 pages, $27.95
]]>Ideology and Transcendencehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/05/ideology-and-transcendence
Sun, 15 May 2011 00:00:00 -0400 Everyone thinks ideologically, but no one wants to admit it. Most of our responses to events in public life are immediate, firm, and quite untouched by reflection. When I react to a particular political development with enthusiasm or dismay, or to someones political judgment with
Yes, that is the way things are
That is pernicious nonsense
, I am typically acting according to instinct, not rational evaluation. And I am pretty sure Im not alone. When it comes to politics, we all, most of the time, operate on intellectual autopilot.
We are from infancy creatures of habit, and as we learn to think seriously for ourselves our habits of cognition about politics and life take on increasingly consistent and stable form. We each create a framework of understanding that shapes our reaction to new events and information. The longer we live, the more elaborate that framework becomes. By middle age, at the latest, we almost all have worked out an integrated set of ideas and beliefs about how the world works and ought to work.
Which is to say we have developed an ideology”and ideologies are laborsaving devices. They automatically process and make sense of what the latest news cycle has to offer. Its hard to imagine our functioning without them. In their absence, after all, we would all face the absurd and impossible prospect of each day recreating from the chaos of information that washes over us a coherent structure of meaning.
Indulgence in ideological thinking may be all but inescapable, but that does not prevent our developing bad consciences”and no small amount of self-deception”about it. Most people are loath to concede that their reactions to events are programmed and reflexive, that they consider new situations or information with anything but disinterested intelligence and objective analysis. Yet a moments reflection reveals the truth: We may prefer to think ourselves immune to ideologically determined snap judgments, but who among us is not certain that he detects them every day in most of the people around him?
The fact that we are all susceptible to ideological thinking does not mean, of course, that we are helpless before it. Even the most knee-jerk conservative is not conservative all the time about everything; he will at some point on some issue depart from the conservative consensus. The most mindless of partisans will now and then stumble on an independent thought. And we do have
thoughts. We have instinctive ideological reactions to most things, but we sometimes, on reflection, change our minds.
Sometimes, indeed, we change them radically and comprehensively. Once fully formed, ideologies are durable things, but mid-life conversions are hardly unknown. The transition of
founding editor Richard John Neuhaus from left to right, for example, was unusual but not shocking. A considerable number of his fellow neoconservatives had followed the same intellectual trajectory.
And in at least occasional instances, the twice born become the thrice born. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, during his service in the Nixon administration, was perhaps the most prominent of the left-to-right neocons”though the term was not yet in common use”but after his election to the United States Senate as a Democrat in 1976 he reclaimed his identity as a liberal (if a sometimes idiosyncratic one).
The question of why people change their minds takes us to the prior matter of how they make them up in the first place. The making of an ideology is normally a lengthy process; it is also, finally, a mysterious one. Children in the first instance almost always take up their parents view of things, including their politics. But even those who never repudiate that initial unthinking choice feel the need to think their way into it for themselves. No one wants to admit”even if in some deep sense it may be true”that hes a Republican because his father was one. (Or, for that matter, that hes
a Republican because his father was one.)
We need reasons for our ideological identities that make intellectual sense to us. Yet we know”again, if only by looking at others”that rational deliberation is but one, and not necessarily the most important, of the factors that determine where we will make our ideological home. Beyond our parents example (and a majority of people duplicate their parents politics and general outlook on life), there are economic and social interests, racial and ethnic characteristics, religious convictions, the influence of peers and respected authority figures, and the myriad other things”including, not incidentally, genetic predisposition”that go into making us the kind of people we are.
However we arrive at them, ideologies do shape our thinking. (And, by extension, our associations: In George Wills nice phrase, ideas cluster and people cluster politically.) The trick is to not let our cognitive instincts take over our thinking entirely. The cultivation of self-doubt is an intellectual and moral virtue, even if, pushed too far, it can leave us incapable of decisive action. As RJN regularly reminded us, we need to learn the fine art of acting in the courage of uncertainty. (In his case, truth be told, the acting part came more naturally than the uncertainty.)
People of faith need to be especially sensitive to ideologys lures. It is not for nothing that Enlightenment thinkers, in the aftermath of the post-Reformation wars of religion, sought a domesticated Christianity purged of the doctrinal certainties and intensities that had torn Europe apart. It took Catholics and Protestants a long time to realize (in another Neuhaus formulation) that it is Gods will that we not kill each other over disagreements about Gods will.
Still today, we too commonly witness putative spokesmen for the Deity invoking the gospel in serene assurance that it mandates a particular set of comprehensive political preferences. Pat Robertson or Jim Wallis, take your choice.
In light of Christianitys unenviable record of encouraging ideologies of the most rigid and militant sort, one sympathetically recalls Herbert Butterfields advice in
Christianity and History
(1950) that we should Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted. But perhaps, as my friend Wilfred McClay has argued recently in these pages (Whig History at Eighty, March), that puts the matter too baldly. While he agrees that it is presumptuous of us too readily to claim knowledge of Gods purposes in history, McClay asks whether it is not another, and perhaps greater, presumption for us un-Godly creatures to assume a Gods-eye view of events that comfortably relieves us of the broadly civilizing tasks it is given us to pursue as best we can.
It is the assurance of the gospel that should free Christians from the compulsion to grasp for the illusory assurances that ideologies put on offer. It is not wrong for us to attempt to discern, according to our best lights, that set of beliefs about human flourishing that most adequately approximates, however provisionally and imperfectly, the God-given ends of justice in a fallen world. That is what in any case people do by nature. But even as we are well advised to put not our faith in princes, so also does it make equivalent sense not to place on our schemes of human betterment more moral weight than they can bear.
We look foolish enough at our most undeceived. It only adds to the spectacle when we rely, often quite mindlessly, on the flimsy imitations of the transcendent with which, sustained only by occasional glimpses of the real thing, we on our pilgrim way are condemned to make do.
]]>Living with Inequalityhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/04/living-with-inequality
Fri, 01 Apr 2011 00:00:00 -0400 Inequality is, always and everywhere, a fact of economic life. It is also, always and everywhere, a recurring subject of moral controversy. Americans have for the most part avoided preoccupation with the topic”they have generally worried more about equality of opportunity than of results”but our recent economic difficulties have made concerns about distribution of income more pressing and intense than usual.
In one sense, the contemporary debate about inequality has lost much of its customary edge. The disappearance of socialism as a live political option in the West has eliminated from discussion the radical ideal of essential equality of condition. We are all capitalists now, and in all capitalist economies”which is to say in all modern economic life”the question is not the existence of inequality but its extent. Given human differences, a free economy simply will be an unequal one; the matter at issue is how to discern when, and under what circumstances, inequality becomes inequity.
The narrowing of the question has not much dampened the moral fervor it generates. Not, at least, on the left. Liberals typically assume that inequality is a major and remediable problem; that it results, more often than not, from flaws in the socioeconomic system; and that even where it reflects differences in individual ability and effort it ought to be reduced to the amount required for efficient allocation of economic resources. Not the least of John Rawls contributions to modern liberal theory is his further specifying the allowable amount as that which provides the maximum marginal benefit to the least advantaged. (Rawls unfortunately revealed no algorithm for arriving at that optimal condition.)
Conservatives, in their usual muddling way, have no comparable formula for addressing the problem”to the extent, that is, that they concede there is a problem. People on the right generally suppose that, assuming free and fair competition (a large assumption), the prevailing distribution of economic rewards, however unequal, is natural”reward corresponds to effort”and therefore just. Efforts at redistribution by the government, in this view, have no basis in justice (society ought not be in the business of coercing charity) and typically serve only to hamper economic efficiency and to restrict personal liberty.
Only libertarians of the strict observance resist all government intervention on principle. Most American conservatives, for example, accept the need for a social safety net to provide assistance to those who, for any number of legitimate reasons, cannot make it on their own. But conservatives expect that intervention to avoid destitution will apply only to a small, and mostly non-continuing, segment of the population. They recognize that while poverty rates dont vary much”they have hovered in the 11-to-15 percent range since the 1960s”the identity of those in poverty at particular times changes significantly. Many people move in and out of poverty over the course of a lifetime. In any case, conservatives distinguish intervention to reduce hardship from efforts directed specifically toward making incomes more equal.
Much of the popular concern about inequality stems from the implicit assumption that inequality and poverty are intimately associated. But that need not be the case. If, through some fortuitous economic circumstance, we could tomorrow double the income of every American family, we would greatly reduce poverty but we would reduce inequality not at all. Surely, however, the problem of inequality would, in most peoples eyes, be significantly diminished. (The problem would be unresolved for those who define poverty in relative, not absolute terms, but such people, one can safely assume, are in a small minority; not many Americans would lose sleep over inequality if no Americans lacked economic necessities.)
Still, the connection between inequality and hard times is so prevalent in folk wisdom that expressions of alarm over the nations distribution of income followed in the wake of the recent economic downturn pretty much as night follows day. And those concerns were not without foundation. A long post-1945 trend toward greater equality petered out in the early 1970s, and since then economic rewards have gone disproportionately to those already well off, especially to the very well off. That development was little remarked on as long as the economy remained healthy, but it has come prominently to attention since the onset of the economic nosedive in late 2007.
The causes involved in the renewed trend to inequality are varied and complex”family structure, education, immigration, weakening of trade unions, international competition, technology, decline of industry, politics and public policy”and analysts emphasize those factors that coincide with their ideological inclinations. Critics interested in relating inequality to economic decline have focused their attention on the activities of Wall Street”the shorthand term for all those involved in the world of high finance. Not since the Great Depression have bankers and financiers been such objects of condemnation, a situation that, in almost everyones view, is very much of their own making.
Even were their behavior unrelated to our economic difficulties (which few suppose), the leaders of finance would be suspect for their enormous wealth. Attitudes toward the rich vary greatly. Few of us begrudge Kobe Bryant his millions: We know we could duplicate neither his fadeaway jumper nor his ability to draw people to part with large amounts of money to watch him shoot it. Similarly, we more or less happily indulge the wealth of anyone”artist, inventor, entertainer, entrepreneur”whose work clearly contributes to some perceived public good. Not so with those who gain wealth from manipulating financial instruments. Build a better mousetrap, fine; devise an arcane derivative for the futures market, not so fine.
Yet, leaving the matter of the financial elite aside, few economists would draw a direct causative line from distribution of income to the Great Recession. The two are separate, if sometimes related, issues, and, as everyone concedes, some degree of inequality is intrinsic to capitalism. In any case, while we may presently have more of it than is necessary or economically good for us”though specification in such matters is difficult”the argument about inequality is not primarily an economic one.
How people vary in their thinking about inequality can be got at through a thought experiment. Imagine that we could tomorrow begin the world over from scratch. Imagine further that we would begin with equal economic resources in a system of open and fair competition where the only differences among competitors would have to do with their own effort and ability. What do you expect would result? If youre a typical liberal, a world much closer to the egalitarian ideal than what presently obtains; if youre a typical conservative, a world with the greater range of inequality that has characterized the American experience.
Or, to get at the matter from a different angle, imagine the economy as a pie. At any given time, we as individuals and families have different-sized slices of that pie. What do we think should be done to improve the condition of those whose slices are the smallest? The inclination of liberals is to find a way to slice the pieces more evenly; that of conservatives is to leave the relative size of the slices to themselves and concentrate instead on baking a larger pie so that the least well off, along with everyone else, improve their situation. In the real world, of course, most people would opt for some combination of the two approaches, but it is the initial inclination”and resulting policy emphasis”that divides us left and right. From those differing inclinations come significantly different views of the proper role of government in the economy. We finally wind up, at the end of the path those inclinations lead us along, either as social democrats or democratic capitalists.
Transnational comparisons indicate that, in the perennial tradeoff between freedom and equality, Americans differ from most Europeans in preferring freedom. They assume”or so their preferences would indicate”that inequality is not always, or even most of the time, evidence of inequity. It is not for them the moral outrage that so many of their intellectuals tell them it should be. And that commendable absence of outrage reminds us that, as much in the moral life as elsewhere, nothing takes precedence over common sense.
]]>RJN and First Thingshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/03/rjn-and-first-things
Tue, 01 Mar 2011 00:00:00 -0500 This issue marks the beginning of
twenty-second year of publication, and every new publishing cycle invites reflection on what it is that we are about. And to think about
is to think, inevitably, about its founding editor, Richard John Neuhaus.
Ive been thinking about Richard a lot lately. As I write this in mid-January, weve recently celebrated the second anniversary of his death on January 8, 2009, with a memorial Mass at the Church of Our Saviour. (I loved the Latin liturgy and Fr. George Rutlers gracious and engaging homily; I hated the part where, as a member of the Lutheran church Richard left behind, I could not participate in the sacrament.) I now sit temporarily in the editorial chair he occupied for some twenty years. More personally still, Im living in his apartment at the Community of Christ townhouse on E. 19th Street, the apartment in which I spent untold hours as his guest and in which his presence is everywhere. The rooms are intimately familiar, and yet I cannot feel truly at home there. Its his place and always will be.
Especially the bathroom. Richards bathroom wasnt”isnt”like anybody elses. His life is on the walls, depicted in pictures and memorabilia. Its chronologically scattershot, but if you look carefully its all there. Theres the childhood and adolescence with his formidable parents and six siblings in the Lutheran parsonage in Pembroke, Ontario; the class of 1960 at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and ordination in upstate New York; the exciting pastorate at St. Johns in Brooklyn, with RJN preaching, talking on TV, leading marches against the Vietnam War and for civil rights; various awards, organizational meetings, honorary degrees, and travels abroad from the years when the balance shifted from parish pastor to public intellectual; the beginnings of
and entrance into the Catholic priesthood and almost dying of cancer the first time; a whole raft of Catholic ecclesial occasions and FT public events; finally, from the late years, many conventional shots of Richard amid family and friends at home and at the cottage in the Ottawa Valley.
There are presidents and popes, a half-centurys gallery of celebrities from Bill Buckley to Jack Kemp to John J. OConnor, causes past (a pin for George McGovern, another urging Boycott Scab Grapes) and causes perennial (Abortion Kills, Choose Life). And lots you cant categorize: a dog sitting improbably on its butt and looking forlorn, a print of nineteenth-century Lutheran theologian C. F. W. Walther, doggerel lines of verse on a postcard from Ralph McInerny, a truly ugly portrait of Richard as a young man by an artist unknown. When I moved in last October, my wife suggested I take it all down lest it overwhelm me. But I decided that I hadnt it in me to desecrate a shrine.
Im not the only one, of course, to feel Richards presence. The entire
project carries on in his long shadow. We know hes gone and we know the work he began is now fully ours to keep alive, but we still look to his example to keep us on the right track.
The hardest thing to perpetuate is his ecumenical reach. On that early summer day in 1990 when he told me of his intention to become a Catholic priest, he insisted that the momentous change in his life would in no way affect the work and mission of
. As a priest he would be answerable to his bishop, but as editor of
he would zealously maintain the journals interdenominational and interreligious character.
had not been Lutheran when he was a pastor; it would not become Catholic when he became a priest.
It wasnt nearly that simple, of course. Over the years, Richards interests and attention, though still remarkably encompassing, inevitably shifted in the Catholic direction, and, because his writings were so much the center of each issue,
became increasingly identified and referred to as a Catholic journal. It is difficult to imagine how things could have been otherwise. Its easy to overlook the editor of a religious journal being Lutheran; its hard to ignore his being a Catholic.
Richard understood all that, but he still resisted it as best he could. He remained indefatigably ecumenical. I can think of no one in his generation whose range of religious discourse took in so much intellectual territory. He was in close theological conversation not just with Catholics and Lutherans but also with Jews, evangelicals, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants of all persuasions. As president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life he sponsored and led the regular interreligious Dulles and Ramsey colloquiums on theology and theological ethics; he joined with Charles Colson to found Evangelicals and Catholics Together; he even kept alive the irregular beer, pizza, and cigar sessions with Lutheran pastors he had begun in his Brooklyn days.
And while, once a priest, he was wholeheartedly and obediently Catholic”he never in my hearing indicated a single reservation about any teaching of the Church whatsoever”Richards Catholicism remained catholic. The ecclesial transition from Lutheran to Catholic was, in his own eyes, more fulfillment than conversion. It had theological implications, of course, but it did not require a reordering of his theological universe. Im told, on good authority, that his more astute Catholic parishioners detected Lutheran accents in his homilies.
Richards project of ecumenical orthodoxy is what
was and is all about, and, if we work at it very hard, the present editorial staff might collectively manage to sustain the breadth of fluent theological conversation he conducted by himself. If we dont keep that effort at the center of our intentions, we will fail in what he meant the FT community to be.
There is also, in considering Richards legacy, the continuing challenge of keeping our priorities and preoccupations in proper order. Richard was always theologically orthodox and he never reduced creedal affirmations to the categories of social ethics. But as a young man of the left caught up in the civil rights and antiwar enthusiasms of the 1960s, he was sometimes tempted to conflate the
of our pilgrim sojourning. He acknowledged that his attitude toward politics in those years assumed a more unified notion of history and the salvation promised to history than that found in St. Augustines classic view of the two kingdoms.
The youthful assurance of the comfortable fit between religion and political morality is at some remove from the RJN who in his last public proclamation as a Lutheran in 1990 urged the ELCA and the LCMS to shut down their church-and-society offices in Washington. Critics on the left argued that he simply transferred his theologically charged moral advocacy from one side of the political spectrum to the other. But that is not actually the case. He became comfortable with his sociocultural conservatism and he clearly thought it compatible with his religious beliefs, but he was as a conservative more careful about drawing direct lines between theology and politics than he had been on the left. On a handful of contested issues”abortion above all”there could be no doubt of the moral imperatives, but Richard for the most part agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr about the moral ambiguity of the political enterprise.
Over the course of his career, Richard worked to disinvest himself”never, to be sure, with complete success”from commitment to politics. It pleased him to be recognized as a public intellectual, but he loved, beyond all else, being a priest. It was his deepest conviction that the true
was to be found not in the public square but at the Eucharistic table. There, he knew”and we know with him”is where all things are fully and finally made right.
Tue, 01 Feb 2011 00:00:00 -0500 Americans like to think of their history as a success story. And so, by most measures, and for most people most of the time, it has been. Except, of course, for the matter of race. That issue has cursed the nation from the beginning, and we have never gotten it right, or even close to right. It is our abiding political and moral failure, and we seem, at this late date, no nearer to a solution than we have ever been. We dont know how properly to approach our racial problem or even how properly to talk about it. It divides us black and white, liberal and conservative.
Given our confusions”and given the tendency of those confusions to wind up in bitter disagreements”we have a natural inclination to avoid the subject altogether. When there seems nothing useful to say, silence is an appealing option. But of course avoidance gets us nowhere, and the occasion of Black History Month seems an appropriate time to revisit our great national conundrum, looking not for grand revelation but for, perhaps, a measure of understanding.
We might begin with that brief, shining moment in the early 1960s when it looked like things might be different, when it seemed that America might finally have found the beginnings of a plausible path to racial reconciliation. That moment began with the March on Washington for civil rights on August 28, 1963, one of the proudest moral occasions of American history. Those of us who were there will never forget it.
The march was only the first of its kind in that incendiary decade, but unlike so many of the marches on so many issues that were to follow, there was no mood of bitterness, defiance, or alienation; all was affirmation and celebration. We marched for what was self-evidently good and necessary, and we believed that a society basically decent and just would respond accordingly. Time has obscured most of the memories of the occasion, but I vividly recall”and not just because history has enshrined it”Martin Luther Kings fabled I Have a Dream speech. There were lots of speeches that day and lots of entertainment (my only other vivid memory is Peter, Paul, and Mary belting out If I Had a Hammer), and attention began to flag. But when Kings turn finally came, he commanded notice from the start, and he held us in the rhythms of his extraordinary imagery and intensity. I remember that halfway through the speech an elderly black man a few rows ahead of me turned and remarked to no one in particular, Man, dont he talk fine.
He did, and there is evidence that in the aftermath of the march the majority of northern whites had developed at least a degree of sympathy toward the idea of civil rights for blacks. Few of them could quarrel with the moral logic of Kings speech, and for many the guilt he rightly inspired about the nations racial history led them to agree with the conservative Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen that civil rights was an idea whose time [had] come. It is difficult otherwise to explain the wide margins by which the historic civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965 passed in the face of adamant southern opposition. Public opinion polls of the time further bear out that interpretation: Congress was acting in accordance with, not contrary to, majority views.
And yet within a few years that hopeful moment of reconciliation had gone up, often literally, in smoke and ashes. What went wrong? The standard answer is that when King and other civil rights leaders brought their crusade north after 1965 they ran into stubborn opposition from whites who had found it easy to support reform in distant Dixie and cheer demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, but who dug in their heels when the marches hit Chicago and New York and their own unjust racial arrangements came into question.
Theres no little amount of truth in that, of course, but an account of what happened to civil rights in the sixties and beyond that focuses only on habits among whites of prejudice, insufficient moral concern, and social lethargy is misleading and incomplete. The alienation of many initially sympathetic whites from the latter-day civil rights movement had varied and complex causes.
There was, most dramatically, the sense of a broken social bargain. When moderate whites supported civil rights legislation they thought they were doing the right thing. They also thought they were securing social peace. Activists had proclaimed no justice, no peace, and most Americans took the enactment of major civil rights legislation as at least sufficient down payment on the justice that would bring peace. But within two weeks of passage of the bill outlawing segregation in public accommodations in 1964, a major riot broke out in Harlem, followed by outbreaks in other northeastern cities. Less than five days after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came the conflagration in Watts, one of the deadliest race riots in the nations history. And there followed for several years a series of long, hot summers of violent racial protest.
Liberals and civil rights activists took the outbreaks as expressions of understandable black desperation whose ultimate source, as the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 declared, was white racism and whose only solution was massive government programs of social and economic reconstruction. Most Americans thought radically otherwise. In the wake of the endemic violence, white guilt dissipated and white outrage flourished. An implicit social bargain had, most people thought, been betrayed, and they firmly resisted the notion that the nation was so morally scarred by racial prejudice that it deserved to be torn apart. Furthermore, the increasingly manifest failures of the Great Society in the interrelated areas of poverty and race made them skeptical of the notion that the road to racial equality”now increasingly defined not simply as equality of opportunity but equality of outcome”lay in comprehensive government exercises in social engineering.
It also gradually became evident that the achievement of black progress was not so uncomplicated an affair as it had first seemed. The nation could more or less decree the end of segregation and the acquisition of legal rights: Laws and court orders, stimulated by an organized program of protest, did the trick. Movement from poverty to prosperity was altogether more difficult. Long-established patterns of discriminatory custom and habit were hard to get around. In addition, it turned out to be the case that some black Americans, especially those on the lower social rungs, were unable to take full advantage of the opportunities that now
open to them. Analysts gingerly pointed out that there existed within the black community elements of social pathology”family decay, welfare dependency, soaring crime rates, educational failure”that, whatever their historical origins, had taken on a life of their own independent of white prejudice and that would have to be fought and overcome by efforts within the community itself.
For those persuaded that the essential, even the sole, black problem was white prejudice, any focus at all on the internal problems of black culture could only be seen as a diversion and an evasion, evidence itself of racist attitudes. (Blaming the victim was the common phrase.) Racism was
problem, its elimination from the white psyche the only solution.
Others were not so sure. They became skeptical of the conventional wisdom of a civil rights establishment whose black members could think of the underclass”indeed, of much of the entire black population”only in terms of victimization, and whose white allies wallowed pointlessly and self-indulgently in liberal guilt. Both positions had the effect of treating black Americans as less than full moral agents, as people to feel sorry for, those to whom life simply happens. It seemed to the skeptics neither useful or true to view black progress as a gift wholly in the hands of whites to either withhold or bestow.
The arguments of the skeptics indicated a shift in public perception of the civil rights struggle. At the outset that struggle had clear and inarguable moral clarity. It was a fight for simple justice and simple decency. To oppose equal opportunity, equal access to public goods, and equal standing before the law was to be in the moral wrong. Christians knew that and acted upon it, as did all persons of good will not blinded by habits of prejudice and historically malign folkways.
But once fundamental rights had been inscribed in law and the struggle took on overtones of social and economic complexity it entered the ordinary world of politics, where moral ambiguity is the normal condition and moral earnestness becomes not merely insufficient but a hindrance to constructive public discourse. One could not with moral integrity oppose equal opportunity for all. One could, however, with full moral integrity oppose schemes of quotas or racial preferences that in the name of achieving equal opportunity for individuals imposed dubious systems of group entitlement. In the first instance the moral outrage of civil rights advocates was appropriate. In the second, it became a form of emotive self-display. James Baldwins
The Fire Next Time
resonated in 1963; today we read it”if at all”as a historical document.
For decades the arguments about civil rights have languished in political and moral deadlock. The terms change”we speak now of diversity, not quotas”but the frustrations, misunderstandings, and animosities behind them do not. Passions have cooled somewhat out of weariness, but theres not much sign of the common ground we invoke in our hopeful moments.
One big thing, obviously, has changed. We now have a black president, and Barack Obamas electoral success indicates, if nothing else, that skin color is not an insurmountable obstacle to making it in America. It is also happily notable that so little of the public debate about the president, both before and after his election, has focused on race. Many of his supporters suggest that the old prejudices lurk not far beneath the opposition he encounters, but there is in fact little credible evidence for that suspicion.
President Obama has (almost certainly wisely) made as little of his racial identity as he reasonably can. He seems to understand that perhaps the best present approach to race is one”oh, the irony”of benign neglect. Someday, maybe, he and we can get beyond that. To do so we will, at the very least, have to give up our illusion of mastery, our unthinking and dangerous faith that for every significant social problem there is a readily available solution”one, moreover, that all people of good faith must agree about. In such modest giving up, perhaps, lies the beginning of wisdom.
Sat, 01 Jan 2011 00:00:00 -0500 Americans have always been an intensely patriotic people. Most of them love their country without reserve and without need for reflection. Devotion to the nation and its symbols is a cultural given, one that politicians ignore at risk of prompt return to private life. Our national parties stage a quadrennial competition as to which of them can crowd the most flags onto the platforms from which their spokesmen outbid one another in expressions of patriotic enthusiasm.
This apparent consensus, however, hides subtle differences. Americans are almost all patriots, but, as common observation suggests and empirical evidence confirms, Republicans are more comfortable than Democrats in saying so. This puts the latter at a disadvantage in the public mind, a problem reflected in the recurring complaint among Democrats that Republicans are impugning their loyalty. (That complaint seldom arises the other way around.)
The political situation, in turn, reflects ideological predispositions. Conservatives are more easily inclined to unqualified affirmation of country than are liberals, who fear that patriotism unchecked by moral considerations can indeed be the refuge of scoundrels that Dr. Johnson warned against. Liberals are more cosmopolitan in their instinctive loyalties. Not many Americans are likely to declare themselves citizens of the world, but the few who do are almost exclusively on the left.
American liberals have not always been as suspicious of patriotism as they seem to be today. The rise of spread-eagle American nationalism is generally associated with the expansionist impulse of the 1840s that insisted it was the nations manifest destiny to extend its democratic and civilizing reach across the entire continent. Manifest Destiny was, by and large, a Democratic cause, and it was mostly conservative Whigs who worried about its jingoistic tendencies.
Indeed, American liberalism has through most of its history clung to an unshakable faith in the rectitude of the American people and thus to a confidence that the nation could always be trusted to do the right thing in the end. The Populist, Progressive, and New Deal expressions of liberalism differed in many ways, but they all agreed that the nations problems arose from the wrong people having got control of things. Those wrong people were never the
people. They were instead special interests or the agents of special interests, and it was assumed that once reformers revealed the usurpers identity the authentic people would rise up to remove them from power and reclaim possession of the nations destiny. America was safe for patriotism because its common people”the yeoman farmers, urban workers, and ordinary members of its amorphous middle class”would always recover from momentary political error or economic folly and return to the path of national virtue.
All that changed in the 1960s, when the American left came undone with the rise of New Left radicals and New Politics liberals. For the first time in history, a significant part of the left turned its guns away from its traditional enemies on the right”the economic plutocrats and political reactionaries”and trained them instead on the liberal establishment. Liberal intellectuals dismissed Lyndon Johnsons Great Society achievements as insufficient in themselves”they somehow didnt get to the undefined but radically urgent heart of things”and as mere extensions of a tired New Deal tradition that had presumably played itself out.
And those achievements didnt, of course, pay appropriate heed to the overriding contemporary disasters in which establishment liberalism was deeply complicit: an indefensible war in Vietnam and an inadequately addressed civil rights revolution at home. (The intellectual left dismissed the landmark civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965 as well-meaning but unmeaning: sadly feeble responses to the desperate necessities of the moment.)
For critics on the left, the crises over Vietnam and civil rights represented more than failures in policy and more, finally, than malfeasance on the part of the liberal establishment. They were failures of moral imagination and will, and they signified a previously undetected corruption in the soul of middle America. Liberals who had always before assumed the political and moral resiliency of the American people lost faith in the redemptive possibilities of political reform. Was it not those on whom reform had always most fundamentally depended”the members of the expansive working class”who were now most likely to disrupt antiwar protests and least likely to welcome minorities into their neighborhoods and workplaces? John Steinbecks heroic Tom Joad had turned out”or so it seemed”to be Norman Lears buffoonish Archie Bunker.
So it was that, amid loose talk of revolution and ominous references to Amerika, a not inconsiderable element of the American left fell away, at least for a season, from its presumption of patriotism. The people, as traditionally imagined, could not be trusted, and the nation that they so predominantly constituted had fallen from political grace.
The fevers of the sixties have mostly subsided, and they are now the stuff of textbooks and memories that hover uncertainly between pained embarrassment and nostalgic longing. But if liberals today wonder at how often and confidently they once marched and dont like to be reminded of their rhetorical excesses, they retain a suspicion of the uncritical patriotism they learned to mistrust. (The reference here is to liberal intellectuals; liberal politicians, for reasons of self-preservation, swallow their irritation and their aesthetic reservations and insert flag pins in their lapels. Witness Barack Obama.)
Liberal academics distinguish, according to one recent comparative study of the subject, between blind and constructive forms of patriotism. The former implies rigid and inflexible attachment to the nation, while the latter suggests a critical loyalty in which approval of ones country depends on its adherence to such humanistic values as rejection of automatic acquiescence to state authority, acceptance of negative emotions toward the nation, and the presence both of comprehensive democratic practices and an advanced system of social welfare. The terminology varies”some scholars pit nationalism (bad) against patriotism (good)”but the scheme of evaluation remains the same: The nation can be thought well of so long as it expects only qualified attachment and maintains a social-democratic form of governance.
Conservatives may well quarrel with the notion that only social-democratic regimes are worthy of patriotic support”which in practice would seem to suggest that America must become more like Europe in order to qualify”but they should not reject the more general idea that a legitimate patriotism must indeed be a qualified patriotism. The conditions under which a conscientious citizen should rethink his default-mode assumption of patriotic affirmation may be rare and not easily specified, but they do exist.
It is often assumed that conservative Christians are particularly susceptible to uncritical patriotism. The poet E.E. Cummings classically reflected that assumption in his satirical (and, as was his habit, entirely lowercase) invocation of a politician in full bloviational mood: next to of course god america i love you. For not a few on the left, Cummings captured an enduring conservative habit of mind.
Theres empirical basis for that view, but, on reflection, it is not at all necessarily the case that it should be so. For Christians of an Augustinian persuasion, it is finally only the city of God to which they owe unqualified allegiance, and they understand, or ought to understand, that on earth we have no abiding city. In the orthodox Christian view of things, all our cities”even the best of them”are greater or lesser Babylons in which we sojourn as strangers and pilgrims. We are alien residents, on the journey to our ultimate citizenship in the New Jerusalem.
This is not to suggest that Christians must be estranged from their own countries. But they do understand that neither politics nor patriotism is of ultimate concern. These things may engage us deeply, but our understanding of human sin and finitude”especially as manifested in collective behavior”serves to inoculate us against the utopian and salvific temptations that lie behind nationalist enormities. The very best of political arrangements, those calling for our deepest attachment, can bring only a very rough justice. That is not nothing, but neither is it worthy of total or unqualified commitment.
All this may sound, in tone if not in substance, vaguely un-American, and so, by extension, somewhat unpatriotic. But in fact it is just that off-center angle of vision that makes orthodox Christians safe for patriotism. They can love America”feel for it that gratitude, pride, and affection that it is natural for people to extend to their homeland”without being tempted to the idolatrous nationalism that has deformed so much of modern history. How can Augustinian Christians make an idol of a nation whose philosophical assumptions of enlightenment liberalism, recurring religious impulses to gnostic antinomianism, and prevailing spirit of romantic optimism stand athwart their most basic understandings? Because Christians are in a deep sense strangers in America, they can be safely at home there.
And, so long as they keep their ultimate reservations always in mind, they can be quite
at home and quite at ease in saying so. When Americans speak of the United States as a redeemer nation, or refer to it as a city on a hill, or argue that the Constitution is the nations bible, they are not”at least not most of them most of the time”speaking literally. They use providential and biblical language because it is for them a common idiom, not because they really think that America is the new Israel. Not every reference to Gods providence extending to Americas role in the world is an exercise in idolatry, and the declaration in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are a nation under God is properly understood as a plea of humility rather than an assertion of pride.
Patriotism implies pride, of course, and theres nothing wrong with that as long as its kept in its proper place. Claims to American exceptionalism fall in that permissible category. America
unlike Europe, as Europeans and Americans alike have been noticing and remarking on for a very long time. And if Americans believe that the unlikeness works, all in all, in their favor and that America really is a special place, that is hardly call for moral panic. Understood in context and with a leavening sense of irony, theres something to be said for affirming, even in capital letters, that Next to of course God America I love you.
Wed, 01 Dec 2010 00:00:00 -0500 A habit of pessimism, it seems, comes with the conservative territory. Its been more than half a century since Clinton Rossiter described American conservatism as the thankless persuasion, but the label seems as appropriate now, at least in indicating a prevailing mood, as it did when Rossiter coined it in 1955. Conservatives in the fifties”when they were scarce on the ground and no one paid them attention”were sure that things were bad and getting worse, and that gloomy assessment persists today even when there are lots of conservatives wielding lots of influence. Theres something in the conservative psyche that wants to insist, in season and out, that the end is near”and maybe not a moment too soon.
That melancholy mood made sense in Rossiters day. Americas few self-confessed conservatives huddled in cult-like isolation, and conservative thought barely registered on the national consciousness, dominated as it was by a liberalism so pervasive that it seemed not so much an arguable body of thought as a statement of how things are. (There were, to be sure, a number of politicians engaged in conservative political practice”rear-guard sabotage of the New Deal”but there was precious little in those pre“
days resembling a coherent conservative philosophy.) As Louis Hartz famously argued (also in 1955) in
The Liberal Tradition in America
, American political thought consisted in large part of variations and themes on the philosophy of John Locke. It is instructive to recall that Dwight Eisenhower created a public stir when he declared to a Republican assembly in mid-decade that they should not be ashamed of the word
Today, of course, we live in an entirely transformed political universe. How that transformation occurred is a story too complicated to recapitulate here, but the capsule version is that liberalism in the 1960s tore itself apart in a spasm of New Left and New Politics excess and in the process lost the confidence of a frightened and bewildered American public. America turned right not so much by deliberate choice as by default. Richard Nixon was the immediate beneficiary, an advantage he then squandered in the Watergate debacle, but the feckless Jimmy Carter interlude confirmed the suspicion that liberalism had exhausted its political and moral resources. Liberals had botched things up”the accusation of failure found many adherents among liberals themselves”and only conservatives were left to pick up the pieces. (No one outside the precincts of academia or the
New York Review of Books
took seriously the suggestion that the nation should move further to the left.)
It was Ronald Reagan who convinced the American people not simply that liberalism had gone wrong but that conservatism had a plausible set of ideas and programs to set things right. Historians debate the degree to which Reagan managed to transform the deep structures of Americas political economy; conservative critics in particular note his failure to cut back the welfare state or significantly reduce the reach and power of the federal government. But that debate misses the point of Reagans accomplishment. He changed the trajectory of American politics, and he changed the terms of debate within which that politics operates. Reagan not only frustrated the lefts long-nurtured ambition to expand the nations modest welfare state into a social-democratic redistributive state, he revitalized faith in such traditional (and presumably outmoded) American traits as individual responsibility, private enterprise, voluntarism, the work ethic, and personal freedom. (He also, it should be noted, adopted for the conservative agenda traditional attitudes toward pressing social issues: abortion, homosexuality, the family, and moral and religious values.)
The Reagan presidency changed the story line of American politics and put liberals on the permanent political defensive. Consider the two post-Reagan Democratic presidencies. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are, by any reasonable definition, men of liberal conviction. Yet both have worked hard at obscuring what they so obviously are. Clintons most noted public declaration (aside, perhaps, from his disquisition on the meaning of is) was his announcement of the demise of the era of big government. And, after his health-care initiative went down in flames, he governed accordingly. He made notable gestures to the right”welfare reform and balanced budgets”and for the rest played political small ball. He was successful politically insofar as he managed to disguise his political preferences.
President Obama is almost certainly to Clintons left politically, but he too pretends he is other than he is. He regularly insists that he is not just another tax-and-spend liberal, and instead presents himself as a pragmatic problem-solver preoccupied with getting things done without regard for the distracting irrelevancies of ideology. He depicts his political agenda”the most ambitious expansion of the power of government since the Great Society”as simply a response to the exigencies of the economic crisis he inherited. Like Clinton, he assiduously avoids the word
except when denying that he is one.
Yet the American people are not so easily deceived. They know liberalism when they see it, and, judging by their response to Obamas legislative program, they dont much like it”even in the aftermath of an economic collapse that most analysts assumed would allow the administration considerable room for maneuver. The current conventional political wisdom has it that Obama overreached, and that his hopes for political revival depend on duplicating Clintons post-1994 ideological backtracking. (This is written prior to the November midterm elections.)
If the foregoing analysis is anywhere near correct, one is left puzzled as to why conservatives, despite the considerable evidence of the long-term success of their cause, seem so despondent. Conservatives are of course naturally attuned to the human propensity for folly and thus predisposed to mordant estimates of how things stand, but, even so, their insistently dark view of the current American situation seems somehow excessive.
It is important to emphasize at this point that the conservatism to which
adheres and with which it is primarily concerned is not political in the ordinary sense. Our conservatism is theological and cultural”in the tradition of our founding editor Richard John Neuhaus we regard ourselves as theologically orthodox and culturally conservative”and we impose no political litmus tests on our contributors (not to mention our readers).
Still, ideas and inclinations cluster, and it is an obvious empirical reality that theological and cultural conservatives are, far more often than not, political conservatives as well. (As evidence, note the high positive correlation between regular worship and conservative voting habits.) Which means, willy-nilly, that politics is not beyond our purview.
But theres more than that. Orthodox religion keeps politics in its place. We know”or should know”that it is not primarily as political beings we were created and that it is not finally politics that commands our highest loyalties and concerns. Christians who are part of the Great Tradition understand that it is unwise to invest too much of themselves in the public square. As Fr. Neuhaus never tired of reminding us, the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.
Which suggests that we should be as wary of dystopian despair as we are of utopian enthusiasm. Politics provides neither final victories nor final defeats. Conservatives need no instruction in the dangers of inordinate optimism, but they might need some help with its opposite. The notion, widespread on the right, of an America irredeemably alienated from its founding principles and but a half step removed from abject capitulation to collectivist schemes has lost touch with where we are and with conservatisms own best tradition of seeing things whole.
Political conservatives who have not cut themselves off from Burkean sobriety will know better than to give in to the fantasy that all is lost or that the apocalypse looms just beyond the horizon. They might even, if they attend to the historical record, come to understand that it is liberals who have more to despair of than they do. But perhaps it is unrealistic to imagine that conservatives could so uncharacteristically succumb to hope.
]]>Lutheran in Limbohttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/10/lutheran-in-limbo
Fri, 01 Oct 2010 00:00:00 -0400 Because of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian
By Carl E. Braaten
Eerdmans, 210 Pages, $18