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Readers have asked why I do not regularly respond to the public criticism aimed at F IRST T HINGS and me personally. Those who follow The Public Square section of the magazine know that I frequently do respond. Usually I try not to make heavy weather of criticism, and my tone is sometimes joshing, as in a forthcoming treatment of Kevin Phillips new book, American Theocracy . Apparently, this is the season for rants on the subject of a threatening theocracy, and in some of them I am depicted as the chief villain in the vast theocratic conspiracy.

A few months ago, there was Garry Wills’ long essay in the New York Review of Books on how my friends and I have manipulated the Vatican, the White House, and I forget who else in establishing a “government of the fringes.” I suppose it was Andrew Sullivan who first came up with the term “theocons,” designating me as “theocon-in-chief.” The herd of independent minds is falling into line, and I expect there will be more articles and books raising the same confused and hysterical alarums.

It is brought to my attention that, in his 1979 book The Neoconservatives , Peter Steinfels wrote that “while 90 percent of the American population retains at least some explicit commitment to religious belief or institutions, most of our cultural analysis and public philosophizing is done by the other 10 percent. That . . . might change if neoconservatism challenged them with an attention to religion that went beyond debating points.” That was close to thirty years ago, and it is obvious that the 10 percent feel very challenged indeed. (To be fair, I note that Garry Wills is committed to Catholicism, albeit in his rather eccentric fashion.)

I have little stake in the label “neoconservative,” or in “conservative,” for that matter, but I understand that you can’t have a vast conspiracy without labels. And I really do welcome criticism that raises interesting arguments. Those who have read F IRST T HINGS over the years know that it is, for the most part, a sustained exercise in argument and counter-argument. I think of it as the continuing conversation, and relish the engagement of ideas within the bond of civility.

But much of the chatter about theocons and theocracy is in a vulgar attack mode. Some might find it entertaining if I indulged in a point-by-point rebuttal to such attacks, but it would really be quite tedious, and we all have, or should have, better things to do with our time. Messrs. Sullivan, Wills, Phillips, et al. will likely continue to do what they do, and I will continue to keep an eye on what they do, always being ready to respond to any coherent argument that might advance the continuing conversation about the complex relationships between religion, culture, and public life in our society and in the world.

Joy Jones wrote in the Washington Post this past Sunday: “I grew up in a time when two-parent families were still the norm, in both black and white America. Then, as an adult, I saw divorce become more commonplace, then almost a rite of passage. Today it would appear that many—particularly in the black community—have dispensed with marriage altogether.” For years she had been wondering why this happened, and then some 12-year-olds in her class enlightened her. “Marriage is for white people,” they explained. The writer continues:

The marriage rate for African Americans has been dropping since the 1960s, and today, we have the lowest marriage rate of any racial group in the United States. In 2001, according to the U.S. Census, 43.3 percent of black men and 41.9 percent of black women in America had never been married, in contrast to 27.4 percent and 20.7 percent respectively for whites. African American women are the least likely in our society to marry. In the period between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate in the United States declined by 17 percent; but for blacks, it fell by 34 percent. Such statistics have caused Howard University relationship therapist Audrey Chapman to point out that African Americans are the most uncoupled people in the country.

In a recent issue of F IRST T HINGS , I reflected on the sorry plight of the one-fifth of black Americans who are stranded in the urban underclass outside the gated worlds in which most Americans live. When I was pastor of a black parish in Brooklyn, my heart was broken to encounter so many boys and young men who not only did not have a father but did not know any fathers. That is, they did not know adult men living, whether in marriage or not, with the mother of their children and accepting open-ended responsibility for them.

A few, a very few, black leaders have spoken candidly to the problem of young blacks who believe that living responsibly, on this score and many others, is “acting white.” I mentioned in the F IRST T HINGS reflection a fine column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times in which he called upon black leaders to launch a new civil rights movement aimed at countering the self-destructive ideas and behavior of the underclass. It is time, he insisted, to stop excusing those who are destroying themselves and others by portraying them as victims of white racism and related ills. It’s not enough, said Herbert, to speak the truth from time to time. What is needed is a sustained and concerted campaign. That was some months ago. Bob Herbert has not returned to the subject in his many columns since.

The spirited, if sometimes acidulous, Mark Steyn reflects on the Afghan clerics who are calling for the death of Abdul Rahman because he committed the capital crime of converting to Christianity. In the course of his remarks, Mr. Steyn cites one of my favorite stories about the limits of multiculturalism.

In a more culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of “suttee”—the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Gen. Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

In addition to which :

Rodney Stark’s latest book— The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success —has been getting a lot of attention. Our editor-in-chief even has a blurb on the dustjacket commending Stark for reframing old questions in fresh and provocative ways. That may well be, but Algis Valiunas writes in the April issue of F IRST T HINGS that Stark also succumbs to a profoundly wrongheaded and “philistine” reading of Christianity. Those who prefer their criticism with no holds barred will relish this provocative critique of a provocative book. Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?

Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal says this about Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :

"This is the story of how one priest discovered the way of grace and glory that is being Catholic. Writing with eloquence, deep intelligence and wit, Father Neuhaus guides us past all the confusion and controversy and lets the splendor of truth shine through. If you’re a serious Catholic, if you want to be a serious Catholic, if you want to know what it means to be a serious Catholic, read this book."

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