The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 100 (February 2000): 77-92.

Forget the Bilderbergers

Who will guard the guardians? That question, variously expressed, is among the oldest in political theory and practice. Jeremy Rabkin, professor of government at Cornell, has written an important book, Why Sovereignty Matters (1998), that addresses that old question in a way both thoughtful and provocative. It’s not that national sovereignty is sacred. It’s not. The sacralized nation–state is one of the great idols of modern history. At the same time, our ideas of political and legal legitimacy in "politics among nations" (Hans Morgenthau) assumes the sovereignty of the nation–state. And some nation–states, the United States among them, are founded on the premise of the political sovereignty of the people, as in government by "the consent of the governed." The guardians are guarded by their accountability to the sovereign people of the nation. These ideas of democratic legitimacy are gaining ascendancy in the world, but they do not go unchallenged.

Such challenges come from conventional despotisms and dictatorships and, increasingly, from Islamist versions of a divine right to rule. But the challenge also comes from the United Nations, or, more precisely, from the forces surrounding the UN known as Non–Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Forget the Bilderbergers, Masonic conspiracies, the Trilateral Commission, and black helicopters. Fevered fantasies about sinister plots to enslave the world only get in the way of trying to understand what is happening and what might be done about it. There are numerous organizations, including certain NGOs at the UN, that explicitly contend that the nation–state is the enemy, or at least is obsolete and an obstacle to global progress. Proposals for transcending the nation–state with a world government have been around for centuries, and gained many adherents following the catastrophic breakup of the world system in World War I.

World government proponents were deeply ambivalent about the formation of the UN after World War II, recognizing that in important respects it entrenched the nation–state by creating a General Assembly based on national representation and a Security Council reflecting the conventional notion of Great Powers. Advocates of world government were at the time divided about the UN, some saying it was a step in the right direction, others pointing out that you don’t leap a great chasm by taking one step at a time. As things are turning out, the former view may have been more prescient.

I confess that I, too, have been ambivalent about the UN. The more gossamer stuff about a worldwide transcendence of differences and the establishment of universal and perpetual peace always struck me as what it is fairly called—globaloney. Perpetual peace and justice await the coming of the Kingdom, which I fully expect in God’s good time, which is not yet. That being said, truth and human nature are, ultimately, universal, and there do need to be institutions for the accommodation of differences and containment of conflicts. One cannot help but be impressed also by the strong support the Holy See has given the UN from the start. Although very different, the UN and the Catholic Church share the distinction of being global institutions of moral–political influence. For reasons strategic as well as moral–theological, Rome has an interest in checking the absolutist claims of national sovereignty. As a participant in the UN, however, the Holy See today frequently finds itself allied—notably on population, development, and family issues—with that organization’s sharpest critics.

The UN’s Moral Right

In the early nineties I was a presidential appointee to a commission charged with reexamining U.S. policy toward the UN. I embarked upon that with an open mind, eager to learn and ready to have my prejudices corrected. The experience, I must admit, left me depressed about that institution. For one thing, I had not appreciated the pervasiveness and scale of the waste and corruption. Bureaucratic duplication, endless international conferencing, and quota systems in employment that are tantamount to graft and nepotism are pervasive and powerfully resistant to remedy. Much is made in some circles about the fact that the U.S. was for a long time in arrears in paying its dues. The bookkeeping behind that complaint is highly dubious and, in my judgment, the U.S. is right to insist upon fiscal and other reforms rather than pouring billions more dollars into a bottomless hole.

More important, I was struck by the prevailing assumption in UN leadership that it had, by moral right, replaced nation–states as the legitimate governor of the world. I recall a long meeting with then Secretary General Boutros Boutros–Ghali in which he complained that member states, and especially the U.S., were morally culpable in not providing the UN with the means to fulfill its role as global policeman, global doctor, global tutor, and global everything else. He seemed to be sincerely puzzled when I and others suggested, ever so respectfully, that his expansive view of the UN mandate was warranted neither by the charter nor by the consent of its members.

As one has too frequent occasion to remark, history has many ironies in the fire, and they surely are not lacking here. One irony is that some member nations actually sense that their status is enhanced by supporting the inflation of the UN’s claims to govern. Of the 188 member nations, some are so very small that membership in the UN plays a key part in their claim to nationhood. Middling countries that tend to feel marginalized by the dominant players in international affairs can also feel that they are playing in the major leagues by inflating the importance of the UN and their role in it. Canada and the Scandinavian countries are notable in this respect; they are in the forefront of encouraging NGOs to assume the lead in pressing the UN organization to override national sovereignty. Thus we have the curious circumstance in which sovereign nations seek to enhance their importance by curtailing national sovereignty.

"Civil Society" from the Top Down

A further curiosity is that the NGOs now present themselves as the champions of "civil society." Current enthusiasm for civil society is usually traced to the arguments of Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, and others who posited the claims of civil society against the totalitarian claims of communism, and, earlier than that, to the To Empower People manifesto authored by Peter Berger and myself in order to lift up the crucial role of non–governmental "mediating institutions" in public policy. The whole idea of civil society was to distinguish sharply what is public and what is governmental, and thus to make government more accountable to the "people–sized" institutions of society. The irony is that, in the name of civil society, the NGOs at the UN are determined to expand the scope of government—under the auspices of the UN, its auxiliary organizations, and international law—in a manner that would make government accountable to the NGOs, which, in turn, are accountable to nobody but the philanthropies that fund them and their own, typically very small, memberships. The combination of small and middling nations curtailing national sovereignty to enhance their own sense of importance and of NGOs using the idea of civil society to undermine political accountability makes for a fine muddle in trying to understand what is going on.

The listings in the World Government Address Book give some idea of the hundreds and hundreds of NGOs that make no bones about their dedication to, well, world government. Some are very handsomely funded indeed; for instance, the Open Society Institute, which is bankrolled by billionaire George Soros. The Commission on Global Governance (CGG) is a major player, and its cochairman Shridath Ramphal, former Secretary General of the British Commonwealth, puts its goal this way: "When we talk about ‘governance’ and ‘democracy,’ we have to look beyond governance within countries and democracy within states. We have to look to Global Governance and Democracy within the Global State." The CGG, it has been observed, has a board of directors that looks like it could be the first cabinet of the United States of Earth, including Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, and Canada’s Maurice Strong, long a ubiquitous power in the networks of one–worldism.

In the setting of organizational priorities, the drafting of documents, and public advocacy for "internationally approved" policies, the NGOs have dramatically increased their role in recent years. "Global Governance and Democracy within the Global State" means that small groups are able to make rules affecting the domestic affairs of countries that it would have been difficult or impossible to achieve democratically in those countries. Global Democracy is, in fact, an end run around democracy. In this respect, the UN–NGO nexus is becoming an instrument as useful to some activists in advancing their causes as are the courts in their own countries. Whether through the UN or through judicial lawmaking, the result is the usurpation of democratic politics.

A "People’s Assembly"

Nobody should doubt the sincerity and determination of those who back these developments that others find troubling. Hillary Clinton has called this version of civil society "the vanguard" of a new international order in which NGOs will be more nearly equal with nation–states. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan says that NGOs are "not only disseminators of public information or providers of services, but shapers of policy, too." They are, he says, "the new superpower" which "information technology has empowered to be the true guardians of democracy and good governance everywhere." Of course there is a measure of ideological hype in such statements, but one cannot help but be impressed with, for instance, the proposal that there should be a second chamber of the UN’s General Assembly—a People’s Assembly. This proposal is backed by, inter alia, the World Federation of United Nations Associations and former UN Secretary General Jávier Pérez de Cuellar.

UN observer Lorne Gunter comments: "Rather than the People’s Assembly being comprised of members or deputies from around the world, elected by and accountable to the people they represent [as is at least theoretically the case with the General Assembly], it would likely be made up of the heads of civil society NGOs, and, under most scenarios, only those NGOs accredited by the UN. In other words, the government would elect the voters." Along with the People’s Assembly, there is also a drive to place taxes on international financial transactions, airline flights, and properties deemed global in ownership in order to give the UN a source of funding independent from its member nations—especially from the U.S.

These are not simply ideas being tossed around by a few enthusiasts. At the fiftieth annual meeting of NGOs, Kofi Annan called for a People’s Assembly by the year 2000. A Millennium People’s Assembly Network (MPAN) is at work drafting a "People’s Agenda and Vision for the 21st Century" and planning regional People’s Assemblies around the world. A first–ever World Civil Society Conference (WOCSOC) was held in Montreal in December 1999. When the NGOs are challenged as to who are "the people" whom they represent, a conventional response is that their goals are the goals the people would choose for themselves if conservative governments and transnational corporations did not hide from them what is good for them, and good for the world. The intention is thoroughly democratic: the UN–NGO combine has such a high estimate of the wisdom of "the people" that it anticipates the consent of the governed to being governed by those who know best. This is government by anticipatory consent. Admittedly, the people as presently constituted are slow to understand their own interests.

A Formula for Despotism

The aforementioned Jeremy Rabkin notes that the ambitions of the NGOs and the proliferation of dubious international agreements, agencies, and regulations aimed at overriding national sovereignty are "mostly just straws in the wind right now. But people in the movement have big plans and have gained a fair amount of momentum. Mostly this has gone on unchallenged, but the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to put an end to it later." And again, one must underscore that national sovereignty should not be defended uncritically. International agreements and modest institutions to enforce them are necessary, but they should be established and controlled in a manner that is, as much as possible, accountable to the people through their representative political institutions. Of course great inequities and injustices will persist, but they are a lesser evil than "Global Governance and Democracy within the Global State," which is a formula for the despotism of a self–appointed elite. Nobody should deny that most in that elite believe in their own good intentions. Historically and at present, despots typically believe in their own good intentions.

A curious twist in this story is the World Trade Organization (WTO). At its riotous meeting in Seattle last December, President Clinton nearly torpedoed the proceedings by saying the U.S. intended to impose upon other nations American–style labor, environmental, and other regulations. The poor countries understandably revolted against a proposal that would effectively exclude them from the global market. There were reportedly more than five hundred organizations protesting the WTO at Seattle, many of them the same NGOs that gravitate around the UN. Suddenly the WTO rather than the UN was where the action was. This, it was said, is where real power, meaning economic power, is located. Some of the protesting world government groups said they were against the WTO undemocratically making the rules for the world. The reality in most cases is that they want the WTO to impose their rules. Quite predictably, out of Seattle came proposals for various instrumentalities that would give NGOs a permanent decision–making role in the WTO. Advocates of world government are not particular about whatever institutions will advance their dream.

In the New York Times Magazine, David Rieff takes up related concerns in "The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights." He says that the human rights movement is in trouble because, by its manipulation of the UN and other international organizations, it has lost touch with any constituency that gives it democratic legitimacy. Rieff writes: "Human rights workers sometimes talk of their movement as an emblem of grassroots democracy. Yet it is possible to view it as an undemocratic pressure group, accountable to no one but its own members and donors, that wields enormous power and influence. For example, would there have been a war in Kosovo without the human rights movement? As a supporter of the war in Kosovo, I applaud the result. As a democrat, I worry. It was a moral decision, but it was arrived at undemocratically." He asks a good question. As an opponent of that "humanitarian intervention," I worry not only about the undemocratic factor but, even more, about the way in which human rights are now being exploited as a justification for war. In many parts of the world, and in this country as well, such a development reinforces the cynical view that human rights is little more than a slogan invoked by the U.S. to justify whatever we and whomever we can get to go along with us want to do. And, of course, such cynicism flourishes when the U.S. declines to impose even the most modest penalties on egregious violators of human rights such as China and Sudan.

Rieff draws an interesting parallel. If the human rights movement does not attend to political accountability, he says, "there is a great chance that the human rights paradigm will backfire the way affirmative action did. Affirmative action was also well meant. It drew popular opposition not, for the most part, because it was wrong, but because it was sneaked in, with no serious effort made to win people over. Convinced that their cause was right, its advocates saw no reason to campaign for it among the public at large. Instead, they relied on the courts, the law, and legislation. And eventually, the whole project came undone." Leaving aside whether affirmative action (a.k.a. quotas) is right or wrong, Rieff seems to assume that the people could have been won over, as they can be won over to the globalist push for international courts of justice and other instruments designed to override national sovereignty. That is, it seems to me, a very doubtful assumption in both instances.

In any event, big ambitions are afoot. Forget about the Bilderbergers, the Masons, the Trilateral Commission, and the black helicopters. While keeping our eyes on the NGOs and the human rights movement of international "civil society," we can be grateful that there are also countervailing forces. For instance, the Holy See, some more sensible NGOs, and some third world countries that resist being ruled by George Soros, the Ford Foundation, and allied New York–based globalists. They, soon reinforced, we may hope, by a more clear–eyed U.S. policy, may succeed in recalling the United Nations to its former and more modest self—a necessary, if frequently irritating, instrument of sovereign states in search of cooperation without abdication.

Incorrigibly Christian America

One hears today frequent reference to "post–Christian America." Actually, the idea is not so very new. To cite but one obvious instance, when in 1934 John Dewey wrote A Common Faith, he assumed that the hegemony (to use a term in academic fashion today) of Christianity was over. Dewey, who died in 1952 after reigning for more than fifty years as America’s most influential public philosopher and educator, appreciated that the churches had not gone out of business, and that they could even be useful in promoting peace, fighting economic injustice, and, more generally, in "stimulating action" for what he called "a divine kingdom on earth." "But," he wrote,

as long as social values are related to a supernatural for which the churches stand in some peculiar way, there is an inherent inconsistency between the demand and efforts to execute it. On the one hand, it is urged that the churches are going outside their special province when they involve themselves in economic and political issues. On the other hand, the very fact that they claim if not a monopoly of supreme values and motivating forces, yet a unique relation to them, makes it impossible for the churches to participate in promotion of social ends on a natural and equal human basis.

Dewey’s thoroughly secular "common faith"—which he did not hesitate to call a secular religion—could accommodate Christianity, on the condition that the latter drop the claims to truth and authority that identify it with the historical phenomenon known as Christianity. Neither was this attitude new with Dewey. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Social Gospel Movement led by Walter Rauschenbusch was warmly welcomed by secularists as a junior partner in the great cause of Progress. It was, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, a matter of religion within the limits of liberalism. At mid–century, Reinhold Niebuhr provided a religious rationale that was supportive of political causes in a way that made it possible for many people to join the club that historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. dubbed "Atheists for Niebuhr." In fairness to Niebuhr, he was a good deal more of an orthodox Christian than one might gather from the way some thinkers and activists selectively employed his elegantly framed "spiritual insights" for their own purposes.

In these and other instances the operative premise, if not always phrased in exactly that way, was "post–Christian America." A while back I was asked to speak at a major Protestant seminary on the theme of post–Christian America. I explained that I had some doubts about the premise underlying the theme, so the seminary rephrased the theme as "Post–Christian America?" My doubts, however, require somewhat more than simply adding a question mark. As awkward as it undoubtedly is for Christians and everyone else, America is, in ways both important and undeniable, a Christian nation. Of course it is frequently pointed out that "nation" has a peculiar meaning in America. It is a nation that includes what might be called sub–nations; it is a culture of subcultures; or, as editorialists like to put it, a community of communities. A Jewish friend who grew up in New York City and lives here still tells me that until she was a teenager she just assumed that Jews constituted a majority of Americans. Even now, she says, when she knows the demographic facts perfectly well, somewhere in the back of her head is the working assumption that at least one–third of the country is Jewish. The rest are Catholics, with a few Episcopalians and black Baptists at the margins, and somewhere far away—in places with names like Mobile, Murfreesboro, and Louisville—lurk threatening tribes of fundamentalists, also known as evangelicals, who resent the Real America that is New York City. She laughs at the fantasy she has of America, but innumerable others have grown up in cultural enclaves that define for them an America that is similarly at odds with the reality.

There is, for all that, a country and nation called America. One way to find out who the Americans are is to ask them. When asked, almost 90 percent of them answer, with no apparent uncertainty, that they are Christians. Survey research of the sort that we call scientific has been asking Americans about their religion since the 1920s. Social scientific interest in the "religion factor" has increased greatly in the last quarter century, and we have assiduous monitoring by such as George Gallup and his Princeton Religion Research Center. A striking aspect of all this research over the decades is how very little things seem to change. Continuity rather than discontinuity is the dominant finding about what Americans say they believe and do religiously.

Of the nearly 90 percent who say they are Christian, the great majority specify that they are some particular kind of Christian. They specify a local church or denomination, or in some cases simply that they are "Protestant," meaning, it would seem, that they are sure they are not Catholic. Findings on questions such as the number of people who go to church regularly vary over the years, but the remarkable thing is that the variation is very slight, usually within a matter of a few percentage points. The general picture is that somewhat more than 40 percent go to church weekly and somewhat over 60 percent do so monthly. The late George Cornell, religion reporter for Associated Press, used to do his annual calculation and then his annual newspaper column announcing that, once again, on any given Sunday of the past year more Americans had attended church than had attended all games of all professional sports in the entire year. He thought this was an important thing to know about America, something that one might not learn from the evening news, and he was undoubtedly right about that.

A Moderate Skepticism

It is appropriate to be just a bit skeptical about such survey research data. How people answer questions cannot tell us, for instance, what they really believe. But then, the most experienced spiritual director often cannot tell what the people he counsels really believe, and many of us are sometimes uncertain about what we ourselves really believe. The state of our faith is something that only God knows for sure. But we know what people say they believe and what they say they do, and research methodology can build in some checks against conscious or unconscious deception. In any event, it is no little thing to know what people say about themselves, even if they are, at least in part, describing who they want to be rather than who they actually are. We should not be inordinately skeptical of research data on religion in America. Even if people do not go to church as regularly as they say they do, it is of considerable significance that they say they do, and apparently want to believe that they do, or at least want others to believe that they do.

Determinedly secular commentators, those who want to believe that we are living in post–Christian America, apply a skepticism, even a cynicism, to findings about religion that they do not apply to research data on other subjects. Similarly, theologians and theologically trained believers are often dismissive of what survey research tells us about religion in America. All those statistics do not reflect authentic religion, they say. There is no doubt something to that. Many of us have an idea of what constitutes authentic religion or authentic Christianity, and by that standard most people fall far short, perhaps including ourselves.

I confess that I used to be more dismissive of survey research on religion than I am now. Years ago, when I was pastor of a black parish in Brooklyn, I frequently compared such research to the number of people who claimed to be members of our parish, St. John the Evangelist. If you went around that part of Brooklyn and asked people what church they belonged to, you might conclude that St. John’s had five thousand or more members. All that meant, I said, is that when they didn’t go to church on Sunday they were not just not going to any old church; they were very specifically not going to St. John the Evangelist. So also we might say that "Christian America" means no more than that Christianity is the religion that most Americans would have, if they had a religion. But that, I have come to believe, is altogether too dismissive.

Maybe it is a compliment to religion that we subject it to purity tests from which we exempt other research findings. In a political poll, those who say they are going to vote for candidate x are not cross–examined to determine the authenticity of their stated intent. It is taken to be a fact of considerable political interest that so many say they are going to vote for candidate x and so many say they are going to vote for candidate y. When it comes to Christian America, however, we tend to be much more skeptical. Ask, for instance, what is the source of personal and public morality, and somewhere around 90 percent of Americans give an answer that is religious in character. They say the source of morality is the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the teachings of Jesus, or, more generically, "religion." It is really not very much to the point that two–thirds of those who answer that the Ten Commandments are the source of morality cannot name four of the ten. It would be nice if they could, of course, but the pertinent social and cultural fact—the fact pointed to by the phrase "Christian America"—is that this is what they think is the case regarding morality. Most people have not thought about it very hard, but then neither have most people thought very hard about the answers they give to political pollsters or surveys on almost anything else under the sun. The Christianity of America is as confused as it is incorrigible. (To be continued next month.)

While We’re At It

Sources: Quotes on UN from "Whose World Is It, Anyway?" by Lorne Gunter, National Post, August 28, 1999 and "The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights" by David Rieff, New York Times Magazine, August 8, 1999.

While We’re At It: Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life reviewed by Elliott Abrams, National Review, June 28, 1999. "Bishop Stirs Up a Storm Over Sex," Scotsman, July 10, 1999. Misty Bernall quoted, Plough, October 11, 1999. John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope reviewed by Owen Chadwick, Tablet, September 25, 1999. Tim Unsworth on the liberal fall–back position regarding Ex Corde Ecclesiae in National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999. Gertrude Himmelfarb on contemporary confessionals, Commentary, July/August 1999. Paige Patterson on the RSV, World, June 5, 1999. "New Technologies Raise New Questions" by Dr. Mark Evans, ACM News, May 17, 1999. On armpit "research," National Post, July 1, 1999. "Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples: Information Report," National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family, Origins, September 16, 1999. On St. Isidore of Seville, ZENIT news agency, June 24, 1999. Stephen H. Balch on "hubristics," NAS Update (vol. 10, no. 1, 1999). Susan Martinuk on cloning soldiers, National Post, August 26, 1999. John Paul II on "globalization," ZENIT, September 13, 1999. On mouse embryos, New York Times, September 28, 1999. Father Enzo Bianchi on the Eastern Church, ZENIT, November 12, 1999. On pedophilia and the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, personal correspondence; Kevin Jennings of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, quoted in New York Times, November 23, 1999. Juxtaposing of stories on Catholic colleges’ curriculum and labor relations, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 1999. List of forty most important books of the twentieth century, World, July 3/10, 1999. On the "Humanist Manifesto 2000," Newark Star Ledger, October 10, 1999. Steven Weinberg on science and religion, New York Review of Books, October 21, 1999.