If once having shaken hands is meeting, I have met Philip Rieff. But he has been much more than that in the shaping of my mind. The Triumph of the Therapeutic , published in 1966, is still a brilliant analysis of our cultural habits, it seems to me. Although, if I went back to read it now, I might have some sympathy for critics who say that its assumptions about the pervasiveness of Freudianism are now dated. Professor Rieff has been an appreciative reader of FIRST THINGS, and over the years he has sent me notes on this or that item in the magazine, usually from some gentleman’s club in London, Hong Kong, or wherever he was staying at the moment.
Rieff has now, at age 82, settled down in his townhouse in Philadelphia and, after decades of publishing very little, has several new books in the works. David Glenn recently visited the sage and writes in the Chronicles of Higher Education :
“Mr. Rieff does not believe that cultural decay (as he sees it) can be reversed through ‘values education,’ like Bart Simpson repeating sentences on a blackboard. In his first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), he denounced ‘Kant’s mistake in regarding religion as the apprehension of our moral duties as divine commands.’ Mr. Rieff believes that an authentic religious culture is not about citizens’ intellectual understanding of rules of right and wrong, but about structures of authority, myth, and meaning that are so deep that people are only half-aware of them.
“Mr. Rieff has repeatedly suggested that the decline of the European Christian worldview has had catastrophic results¯but at the same time, he emphasizes that he does not want to resurrect any particular past culture. In a famous passage in 1973, he wrote: ‘The defense of [credal organizations] implicit in my theory of culture does not make me an advocate of some earlier credal organization. In particular, I have not the slightest affection for the dead church civilization of the West. I am a Jew. No Jew in his right mind can long for some variant of that civilization.’
“Indeed, Mr. Rieff does not believe that an authentic religious culture could be resurrected, no matter how hard one might try. Following Marx, Weber, and Freud, he argues that modern prosperity, cities, bureaucracy, and science have completely transformed the terrain of human experience. People who try to practice orthodox Christianity and Judaism today, he says, inevitably remain trapped in the vocabulary of therapy and self-fulfillment. ‘I think the orthodox are role-playing,’ he says. ‘You believe because you think it’s good for you, not because of anything inherent in the belief. I think that the orthodox are in the miserable situation of being orthodox for therapeutic reasons.’”
It is hard to argue for “the dead church civilization of the West.” But one might want to engage Professor Rieff about the promising possibilities of a Christianly informed public culture that he would much prefer to the current culture he so witheringly¯and, for the most part, justly¯criticizes. He’s right, of course, about the pitiable plight of those who are orthodox, whether they be Jew or Christian, for therapeutic reasons. Human beings are hard-wired for truth, and in adherence to what is true we find happiness. Believing things to be true because believing them makes us happy is quite another matter.
Mr. Glenn gives the impression that Rieff has become somewhat eccentric and cantankerous, but then, that has always been part of his charm. I am rather looking forward to the books in the works.
In the forthcoming issue of FIRST THINGS, I examine some new data on the circumstance of the American underclass, meaning mainly poor blacks concentrated in our inner cities. Ann Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post , is provoked by the riots in France to a closely related reflection:
“The deeper difference is that however ignored or mistreated America’s black underclass may be, most Americans do think of its members as Americans. By contrast, I doubt whether most Frenchmen even contemplate the possibility that the African and Arab immigrants and their offspring who make up their underclass, and who are both perpetrators and victims of these riots, could ever be truly French, even if they hold French passports (and millions do). Thus when the French trumpet the many successes of their social-market economy or their enlightened political culture, the many failures in the immigrant neighborhoods somehow don’t count. Famously, the late French president Francois Mitterrand once said that the Los Angeles riots could never happen in Paris, because ‘France is the country where the level of social protection is the highest in the world.’”
One notes in passing that President Bush was much criticized for taking two days before making a national address about Katrina and the devastation of the Gulf Coast. He should have responded more quickly. By way of contrast, however, President Jacques Chirac of France waited until the violence had raged for eleven days in hundreds of cities before addressing the nation, and has been invisible since. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it may have something to do with Applebaum’s point. It is not easy to know what to say when more than ten percent of the French nation is not really French.
That ten percent figure is hardly the whole of it. Of the population of France that is under 20 years of age, 30 percent is Muslim. In major urban areas, the figure is close to 50 percent. It does not require higher mathematics to understand why it is said of Europe generally and of France in particular that they are dying. More precisely, they are becoming very different societies, for which “Eurabia” may be the apt word.
The Los Angeles Times has given big play to a story that is also bouncing about the blogs. All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena is being threatened by the IRS. In 2004 the former rector delivered from the pulpit a blast against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, and the report is that the IRS is claiming that this constituted an implicit endorsement of a candidate and may cost the church its tax-exempt status. Prominent figures, including Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals and Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches, have weighed in with solemn pronouncements about this ominous threat to the free exercise of religion and free speech. I am doubtful.
First, it seems all the information is coming from an attorney from the church. (The IRS does not comment on its investigations.) Were the IRS really serious about censoring political statements from the pulpit, no “witch hunt” is necessary. Every election season the papers carry accounts of black churches where political endorsements are routinely made in Sunday services, and those endorsed make their pitches. It would make for interesting political theater if the IRS were to move against, say, Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem.
There is a bill in Congress that would exempt churches from the IRS no-endorsement rule that is applied to other non-profit organizations. That might be a good idea. The government has no business censoring what preachers say, no matter how wrongheaded their message may be. At the same time, churches gravely compromise their theological and spiritual integrity by turning themselves into political factions by conflating electoral preferences with the gospel.
Yes, I know, eternal vigilance and all that. We should keep an eye on the story, but at the moment the brouhaha over All Saints, Pasadena, has all the marks of a politically contrived commotion.