The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 104 (June/July 2000): 81-100.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses . . .

Early returns tend to vindicate, at least in part, the worries of cardinals and others when John Paul II announced in the 1994 document Tertio Millennio Adveniente (On the Coming of the Third Millennium) that the Catholic Church should publicly confess the sins of her children over the centuries. The fears were several: that confession of errors past would undermine confidence in the authority of the Church; that the distinction would be blurred between the sinfulness of the Church’s members and the holiness of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ; that such a confession would reinforce the cultural presumption of the moral superiority of the present; and that the enemies of the Church would construe such a confession as an "apology" confirming their critique of Catholicism. These concerns and responses to them are masterfully treated in Father Avery Dulles’ article, "Should the Church Repent?"(December 1998).

One may reasonably assume that the Pope was well aware of the risks involved, and judged them well worth taking. Such a public confession, he believes, is a sign not of the Church’s weakness but of her self–confidence in an historical moment in which she is the world’s singular institution of moral credibility. Above all, it is a sign of confidence in the forgiving and renewing grace of God in Christ. Four hundred years after the divisions of the sixteenth century, and having survived centuries of hostile challenge by Enlightenment secularism, the Catholic Church is no longer in a defensive mode. All this is part of John Paul II’s strategic thinking in laying the groundwork for what he calls a springtime of world evangelization. As the thirty–page explanation produced by the International Theological Commission and presented by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger insists, the Church has nothing to fear from historical truth, including unpleasant truths about things done in the name of the Church.

When the Mass of Reconciliation with its ceremony of "the purification of memory" was celebrated on the First Sunday of Lent, there was intense public interest. I confess that my heart sank just a little when, in several media appearances and interviews I did, it became evident that the worst misconstruals dominated the discussion. In response to the Pope’s confession, one heard multiple variations on the themes: "It’s about time!" and "I told you so!" and "It’s too little too late!" The heart of the matter seemed to get lost amidst the chortlings and recriminations. The purification of memory focused, in order of priority, on Catholic responsibility for divisions among Christians, on the injustice of employing coercion in the service of truth, on the historically "tormented" relationship between Christians and Jews, and on "responsibility for the evils of today," including secularism, moral relativism, atheism, and the demeaning of human life. Perhaps predictably, most media reports homed in on the Jewish connection and the Holocaust, frequently alluding to the old canards about Pius XII’s alleged silence regarding the latter. Jewish voices typically allowed that the confession was a welcome "first step" but did not go far enough. When it comes to admitting the sins of the Catholic Church, a rabbi friend has observed, "We Jews now have two slogans: ‘Never Again’ and ‘Never Enough.’"

Jewish voices continue to express irritated incredulity at the distinction made between the sinlessness of the Church and the sins of her children. The analogy does not hold all the way, but in this connection I have found it helpful to point out the distinction between the Old Testament prophets who adamantly denounce the sins of the people of Israel while, at the same time, insisting that they are the elect people of God. With respect to both Israel and the Church, the accent is on the grace and faithfulness of God who continues to affirm the dignity of the people despite their so often acting in violation of that dignity. Moreover, in connection with the Holocaust it is useful to remember the enormous storm that broke over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963. Arendt raised the exceedingly delicate question of the large number of Jews who not only did nothing to resist the Holocaust or to protect other Jews but who actually cooperated, out of whatever tortured motivations, in the rounding up, transport, and killing of Jews. Arendt was vociferously attacked by some Jews for "blaming the victims" and besmirching the integrity of Judaism itself.

Efforts to sort things out historically engage the much–disputed distinction between individual and collective responsibility. Regarding that distinction, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of saying, "Some are guilty; all are responsible." Applied to the image of the Church as the Mother of the faithful, it must surely be possible to find a way to say that she accepts responsibility for the actions of her children. She, although sinless, does not disown her sinful children. To change the image, Christ in his body on the cross bears the guilt of those who are members of his body, the Church. Of course analogies limp, but these are the kinds of tangled questions that must be explored more carefully as the concept of "the purification of memory" takes root, over time, in the consciousness of Christians and others.

Central to the misconstrual of what the Pope did is the assumption that he was issuing an apology. Apology is definitely not the right word, although it was persistently used in almost all the media reports and commentary. A late–night television show that would have been blasphemous were it not so juvenile ran footage of the Pope speaking with the voice–over, "I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, and I promise not to do it again." That was followed by the Jewish host saying that maybe Jews should apologize too. "We brought you some yentas [irritating women], but we also produced the bagel, which is pretty good, right?" There were only a few hesitant laughs from the audience, which otherwise seemed to have a bottomless appetite for vulgarities. The host, a very funny man, looked puzzled and wondered out loud if there were no Jews in the audience.

In fact, John Paul was not issuing an apology but was confessing to God, and on behalf of the sons and daughters of the Church, our failure to live lives worthy of the truth authoritatively taught by the Church. Far from throwing that teaching into doubt, he underscored that we are all held accountable to it. In all this he was setting an example and inviting others to engage in a comparable act of self–examination, confession, and repentance, acknowledging that all of us have in myriad ways betrayed the moral truths that we profess. Representative of the media’s reaction, however, was the lead editorial of the New York Times, "The Pope’s Apology." It was substantively the reaction of the television comedian, albeit with a long face. The editors smugly commend the Pope for an apology that will make it easier for the Church to "heal its relations with other faiths." They then quickly move on to complain about what he did not say.

The apology, they say, "was offered on behalf of the Church’s ‘sons and daughters,’ but not the Church itself, which is considered holy." One might think the editors are raising a theological challenge to Catholic ecclesiology, but of course they are only scoring partisan points. "Nor," the complaint continues, "did John Paul directly address the sensitive issue of whether past popes, cardinals, and clergy—not just parishioners—also erred." That is, of course, patent nonsense. Bishops, cardinals, and popes are also "children of the Church" who have sinned. Why, do the editors suppose, does the Pope go to confession every week? Then there is this: "The Pope’s apology for discrimination against women is welcome but difficult to square with his continued opposition to abortion and birth control, and to women in the priesthood. Regrettably, he made no mention of discrimination against homosexuals."

But of course John Paul did directly address abortion, birth control, and morally disordered sexuality when he spoke of "our responsibility for the evils of today." What the editors mean to say is that the Church’s understanding of good and evil is "difficult to square" with their understanding of good and evil. As for the ordination of women, one eagerly awaits from Howell Raines and his editorial colleagues their theological study explaining why the biblical, patristic, and magisterial sources authorize the Catholic Church to approve of such an innovation in its sacramental order. The nub of the misconstrual by the editors—and one says this in fear of offending against a self–importance of narcissistic proportions—is their apparent inability to understand that the Pope was not apologizing to the New York Times. The editors assume the posture of being the infallible tribunal before which the Pope must make his case. They are prosecutor, jury, and judge, and they will decide when the Catholic Church’s act of contrition is sufficient to warrant pardon, or at least a measure of clemency. Such towering arrogance would be amusing were it not so pathetic.

The Pope is keenly aware of the risks involved in the "purification of memory." Despite all, I believe he was right to take those risks. In sharpest contrast to the dominant evasions and mendacities of our time, evident not least of all in the media, the Pope has dramatically demonstrated how we are honestly to confess our sins, in the confidence of God’s forgiveness and of grace for the amendment of life. In time, those who initially and self–righteously thought they were being offered an apology which they were in a moral position to either accept or reject might begin to understand and follow the example of courage and honesty that John Paul has set. Or they may continue to use it as yet another stick with which to flail their perceived opponents. The Church has survived much worse. The "purification of memory" is, first of all, about the integrity of the Church, and, despite initial misunderstandings and misconstruals, she is strengthened by acknowledging the truth about both the light and the shadows along the way of her earthly pilgrimage.

"Forgive us our trespasses . . ." Against the misconstruals of the Mass of Reconciliation on the First Sunday of Lent, one notes with deep gratification the very different response to the Pope’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as reported in this issue by George Weigel. In fact it is against the background of such misconstruals, especially with reference to Jewish–Christian relations, that the achievement of the pilgrimage becomes so luminously clear. It is by such moments that the much overused word "historic" is properly defined.

Blaming Bob Jones

Among the nastier and more patently manipulative aspects of the presidential primary season was the accusation by the McCain campaign that George W. Bush is anti–Catholic because he spoke at Bob Jones University and did not take the occasion to challenge the view among some hard–core fundamentalists that the papacy is the Antichrist. Immediately, a horde of reporters and television crews (a horde meaning more than a dozen) were at the door or on the phone wanting to know what I made of Bush’s alleged anti–Catholicism. They were generally disappointed to learn that I made nothing of it at all, and that because the charge against Bush was entirely bogus. A writer from the New Republic asked if I agreed with an article he was doing which claimed that the Bob Jones incident would break up the convergence between Catholics and evangelical Protestants represented by "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." He was obviously surprised and disappointed by my saying it would likely have quite the opposite effect. The animus against Catholics in this culture has very little to do with Bob Jones University and everything to do with the liberal–left elites who also make no secret of their disdain for evangelicals. It is hardly the strongest bond between them, but evangelicals and Catholics are also drawn together by recognizing who holds them both in contempt.

The partisan manipulation of the anti–Catholic issue is incisively addressed by Peter Steinfels of the New York Times. He notes along the way that the Democratic leaders who try to pin the anti–Catholic label on Republicans are the same people who have slammed their party’s door against Catholics who dissent from, to cite the most obvious instance, its pro–abortion orthodoxy. Then there is the larger question about the source of anti–Catholicism in America. Steinfels writes: "Yes, anti–Catholic animus rooted in the theological polemics of the sixteenth–century Reformation still exists in the United States. But the anti–Catholic animus rooted in the political polemics of the eighteenth–century Enlightenment and the cultural polemics of nineteenth–century American nativism has long since taken over all the traditional themes. The Church is an authoritarian monolith; its doctrines are hopelessly premodern; its rites are colorful but mindless; its sexual standards are unnatural, repressive, and hypocritical; its congregations are anti–Semitic and racist; its priests are harsh and predatory; its grip on the minds of believers is numbing. These themes still ring in some fundamentalist pulpits. But they are far more apt to be interjected into the more adult sitcoms and late–night comedy, and to be reflected in films, editorials, art, fiction, and memoirs considered enlightened and liberating."

At a social event in Washington, Steinfels reports, a woman with an impressive reputation for supporting liberal and humanitarian causes was singing the praises of her daughter–in–law. "She’s a Catholic, you know," and then quickly added, "but she’s a thinking Catholic." Steinfels asks us to imagine that woman saying of someone, "She’s an African American, you know, but she’s an educated African American." A thinking Catholic, of course, is a Catholic who disagrees with the Church’s teaching on regnant cultural and moral orthodoxies. In this view, as one has too many occasions to note, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.

Steinfels concludes: "Anti–Catholic animus is not keeping Catholics out of board rooms or country clubs, however, although it may complicate the careers of those in academic life, journalism, or some professional fields who don’t make sure they are seen as ‘thinking’ Catholics. Anti–Catholicism would be a worthy subject for study and debate, freed, one hopes, from the manipulative politics of victimhood. But the place to begin is not Bob Jones University." One place to begin is with the anti–Catholic, and anti–evangelical, prejudices entrenched among those who, in a moment of partisan contortion, expressed such touching concern about the alleged anti–Catholicism in the current presidential race.

So What’s the Big Deal About Partial–Birth Abortion?

Outside the circles of pro–abortion extremism, almost all Americans are revulsed by partial–birth abortion. State after state has enacted bans against a gruesome procedure that kills babies within seconds and inches of their being unquestionably born. Just as regularly, federal courts have overruled the bans, claiming that they transgress against the abortion license guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. Now the question of partial–birth abortion is before the Supreme Court, and a great deal will turn on its ruling.

Meanwhile, however, Richard Stith, Professor of Law at Valparaiso University, notes that something very curious is happening. Partial–birth abortion is forcing a new judicial candor about other abortions as well, at least from the midterm of pregnancy. Sensible people may disagree about whether this new candor is promising or ominous.

Remember that Roe v. Wade decided that states cannot prohibit abortion based on a "theory" that life begins before birth. Today the pretense is being dropped that that is just a theory. Here, for instance, is Judge Richard Arnold of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals explaining why states cannot ban the killing of a "living unborn child" while it is in the process of being delivered. His language is graphic:

"In a D&E procedure, the physician inserts forceps into the uterus, grasps a part of the fetus, commonly an arm or a leg, and draws that part out of the uterus into the vagina. Using the traction created between the mouth of the cervix and the pull of the forceps, the physician dismembers the fetal part which has been brought into the vagina, and removes it from the woman’s body. The rest of the fetus remains in the uterus while dismemberment occurs, and is often still living. . . . [Even in] a suction–curettage procedure where the fetus does not remain intact, part of the fetus which is still living may be drawn into the vagina before demise occurs."

In other words, Judge Arnold says, such ordinary abortions must also be considered "partial–birth" abortions, since the fact is that death is the result after the abortionist "delivers" part or parts of the baby. Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit makes essentially the same point as Judge Arnold, although he focuses not on the sameness of technique but on the sameness of outcome in partial–birth abortions and other abortions:

"From the standpoint of the fetus, and, I should think, of any rational person, it makes no difference whether, when the skull is crushed, the fetus is entirely within the uterus or its feet are outside the uterus. Yet the position of the feet is the only difference between committing a felony and performing an act that the states concede is constitutionally privileged. . . . [T]here is no meaningful difference between the forbidden and the privileged practice. No reason of policy or morality that would allow the one would forbid the other."

Judge Posner does not deny that partial–birth abortion is "gruesome." His point is that other abortions, certainly from the second trimester on, are also gruesome. Posner even indicates some sympathy for those who want to prohibit those other abortions:

"I do not mean to criticize anyone who believes, whether because of religious conviction, nonsectarian moral conviction, or simply a prudential belief that upholding the sacredness of human life whatever the circumstances is necessary to prevent us from sliding into barbarism, that abortion is always wrong and perhaps particularly so in late pregnancy, since all methods of late–term abortion are gruesome. . . . But what is at stake in these cases is whether the people who feel that way are entitled to coerce a woman who feels differently to behave as they would in her situation."

So where are we then? Prof. Stith writes, "The United States Supreme Court for many years inhibited serious discussion of abortion by using its immense prestige to encourage doubt about what abortion actually does. Perhaps surprisingly, opponents of partial–birth abortion were able to use this doubt to their legislative advantage." But Judge Posner incisively points out that "public

support for the [partial–birth abortion bans] was [in part] based . . . on sheer ignorance of the medical realities of late–term abortion. The uninformed thought the [partial–birth] procedure gratuitously cruel, akin to infanticide; they didn’t realize that the only difference between it and the methods of late–term abortion that are conceded all round to be constitutionally privileged is which way the fetus’ feet are pointing."

The publicity about, and consequent opposition to, partial–birth abortion rendered a great service in educating the public on how extreme is the abortion license created by Roe v. Wade. On the other hand, the new judicial candor about what happens in "ordinary" abortions may lead some to the conclusion that partial–birth abortion is not qualitatively different and therefore, however regrettable, must be accepted. The more hopeful possibility, of course, is that a better–informed public will conclude that the killing of babies is a monstrous evil and must be outlawed. Put positively, the conclusion should be that we must work toward the goal of the pro–life movement: every child, born and unborn, protected in law and welcomed in life.

The Pope at the National Prayer Breakfast

The National Prayer Breakfast, now in its fiftieth year, has been mainly a Protestant affair, with more recent overlappings into the interreligious and generalized civil religion. Always addressed by the President, the breakfast gathers most members of Congress and hundreds of others variously linked to national leadership. This year, Pope John Paul II was invited to address the breakfast and, while he could not be present in person, he sent an extended message that was read by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo. The Pope began with, "Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega; all time belongs to him and all the ages; to him be glory and power through every age for ever. Amen." Then followed reflections on the way of salvation, Christian unity, the responsibility of the U.S. in world history, and the strengths and temptations of democracy. Herewith some excerpts:

Two weeks ago, leaders from Christian denominations worldwide joined me in opening the Holy Door at the basilica of Saint Paul, and together we crossed its threshold. That was an eloquent sign of our commitment to ensure that, in the millennium just beginning, Christians will give ever fuller expression to that unity which is Christ’s gift to his Church, so that together we may cross the threshold of hope in openness to the future which God in his providence holds out to us.
This great project—the building of a world more worthy of the human person, a society which can foster a renaissance of the human spirit—calls also for that sense of moral responsibility which flows from commitment to truth: "walking the path of truth," as the Apostle John puts it (3 John 3). And such a moral responsibility, by its very nature, cannot be reduced to a purely private matter. The light of Christ should illumine every thought, word, and action of believers; there is no area of personal or social life which it is not meant to penetrate, enliven, and make fruitful. The spread of a purely utilitarian approach to the great moral issues of public life points to the urgent need for a rigorous and reasoned public discourse about the moral norms that are the foundation of any just society. A living relationship with the truth, Scripture teaches, is the very source and condition of authentic and lasting freedom (cf. John 8:32).
Your nation was built as an experiment in ordered freedom, an experiment in which the exercise of individual freedom would contribute to the common good. The American separation of Church and State as institutions was accompanied from the beginning of your Republic by the conviction that strong religious faith, and the public expression of religiously informed judgments, contribute significantly to the moral health of the body politic. Within the fabric of your national life a particular moral authority has been entrusted to you who are invested with political responsibility as representatives of the American people. In the great Western democratic tradition, men and women in political life are servants of the polis in its fullest sense—as a moral and civil commonwealth. They are not mere brokers of power in a political process taking place in a vacuum, cut off from private and public morality. Leadership in a true democracy involves much more than simply the mastering of techniques of political "management": your vocation as "representatives" calls for vision, wisdom, a spirit of contemplation, and a passion for justice and truth.
Looking back on my own lifetime, I am convinced that the epoch–making changes taking place and the challenges appearing at the dawn of this new millennium call for just such a "prophetic" function on the part of religious believers in public life. And, may I say, this is particularly true of you who represent the American people, with their rich heritage of commitment to freedom and equality under the law, their spirit of independence and commitment to the common good, their self–reliance and generosity in sharing their God–given gifts. In the century just ended, this heritage became synonymous with freedom itself for people throughout the world, as they sought to cast off the shackles of totalitarianism and to live in freedom. As one who is personally grateful for what America did for the world in the darkest days of the twentieth century, allow me to ask: will America continue to inspire people to build a truly better world, a world in which freedom is ordered to truth and goodness? Or will America offer the example of a pseudo–freedom, which, detached from the moral norms that give life direction and fruitfulness, turns in practice into a narrow and ultimately inhuman self–enslavement, one which smothers people’s spirits and dissolves the foundations of social life?
These questions pose themselves in a particularly sharp way when we confront the urgent issue of protecting every human being’s inalienable right to life from conception until natural death. This is the great civil rights issue of our time, and the world looks to the United States for leadership in cherishing every human life and in providing legal protection for all the members of the human community, but especially those who are weakest and most vulnerable.
For religious believers who bear political responsibility, our times offer a daunting yet exhilarating challenge. I would go so far as to say that their task is to save democracy from self–destruction. Democracy is our best opportunity to promote the values that will make the world a better place for everyone, but a society which exalts individual choice as the ultimate source of truth undermines the very foundation of democracy.
If there is no objective moral order which everyone must respect, and if each individual is expected to supply his or her own truth and ethic of life, there remains only the path of contractual mechanisms as the way of organizing our living together in society. In such a society the strong will prevail and the weak will be swept aside. As I have written elsewhere, "If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political action, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism" (Centesimus Annus).

Secularization in Theory and Fact

Many of the most influential secularization theorists have been Europeans, especially German and French. Since the eighteenth century and up to the present—albeit with fits and starts and many convolutions—it does seem that Western Europe has been on a course of inexorable secularization. In both public and personal life, the institutions, observances, and teachings associated with religion—in this case meaning Christianity—appear to be ever more marginal, giving credibility to the idea that there is a necessary connection between modernity and secularity. The more modern a society, the more secular it will become. In this context, scholars regularly spoke about "American exceptionalism." Why is it, they asked, that the United States, presumably the most modern of societies, is so vibrantly religious? America was thought to be the exception that had to be explained. In recent years, however, more and more scholars have come to the conclusion that Europe is the anomaly, leading to talk about "European exceptionalism." (Meaning mainly Western Europe, since Central and Eastern European societies show very different patterns.)

In 1997 Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard published The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, advancing an argument that continues to generate lively interest. Contrary to long–entrenched expectations, we witness a world in which different civilizations—defined by different cultures that are typically defined, in turn, by cult or religion—are the deciding factor in collective allegiances and conflicts. Huntington’s proposal flies in the face of the widespread assumption that the world is being homogenized into a "global village" where everybody becomes more and more alike. The economic and technological dynamics of "globalization" are indeed powerful, but they are far from being omnipotent. And some aspects of globalization, such as the explosion of communications technology, can expand and strengthen religio–cultural diversity in a world that is, at the same time, both linked and divided by a near–infinite number of electronic bands, channels, websites, and whatever comes next.

Such is the larger context in which we are invited to think about religion, culture, and secularization. Were the legendary man or woman from Mars to show up and ask what is the single most important thing now happening on Planet Earth, many possible answers might come to mind. Were I put on the spot in that unlikely circumstance, I think I would say that the most important thing now happening on Planet Earth is the desecularization of world history.

Our immediate business, however, is not quite so global in its reach, although it is not always easy to distinguish between what is American and what is global. It is now the case that several generations of Americans have been taught, from grade school through graduate school, that ours is a secular society, or is rapidly becoming such. Whether the subject is sexual mores, family life, the work ethic, or attitudes toward wealth, death, and dying, the textbooks are replete with generic statements such as: "In earlier times, people sought answers to these questions in religion, but in our secular society ___________." The student is invited to fill in the blank or, more commonly, to accept the answer provided by the writer of the textbook who simply knows, as everybody supposedly knows, that "traditional" belief and morality are no longer relevant. What we in fact know is something very different, even if there is no agreement on how to explain it: American society is as religious and, in some ways, probably more religious than it ever has been.

More than thirty years ago, in 1967, my longtime colleague and friend Peter Berger published The Sacred Canopy. Berger has subsequently and substantively changed his thinking about religion and secularization, but the theory set forth in that book continues to have enormous influence on the discussion of these questions. Once upon a time, according to this theory, people lived in societies that were covered by a sacred canopy of religious meaning; there were traditional and taken–for–granted truths that explained the world and their part in it. Then came along modernity with its scientific, specializing, and fragmenting explanations of reality that challenged and shattered what had been a "sacred cosmos." With modernity, said Max Weber, an earlier social theorist, the world became "disenchanted." In the middle of the last century, the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann opined that people who had learned to use an electric light switch could no longer believe that God makes things happen. For "modern man" the world had been "demythologized," and Bultmann set out to demythologize the Christian gospel as well, stripping it of its miraculous and supernatural elements and making it once again believable to a world of educated grownups.

A Choice of Theories

Berger was never a Bultmannian in theology, but the early Berger offered a similar account of the corrosive effect of modernity on religious faith. The crisis for religion, he said in The Sacred Canopy and other writings, is how to maintain the "plausibility structure" of traditional religion in a world that does not think religious truth claims are plausible. One answer is for religious groups to create a "sheltered enclave" in which believers huddle together and reinforce one another in their conviction that the old stories with their old truths still define the really real "real world." The problem, of course, is that most people cannot live full time in the sheltered enclave; they also participate in the real world of modernity with its conflicting explanations of how the world works. The result is that people experience "cognitive dissonance," which can be painfully disorienting. What I "know" about reality when, for instance, participating in the enclave’s ritual enactment of the sacred story is very different from what I "know" when going about my everyday business in the modern world.

Some people can apparently live quite contentedly with the most severe cognitive dissonance simply by not thinking about it. They don’t pay much attention to the clashing dissonance between what they think inside and what they think outside the enclave. More thoughtful people, however, have to negotiate some kind of truce between these conflicting worlds, and this results in "cognitive bargaining," which typically means trimming religious truth claims to fit the "real world" of relentlessly secular modernity. The theory of early Berger and those who followed him is similar in important ways to current ideas associated with "postmodernism." In fact, with Thomas Luckmann, Berger wrote in 1966 The Social Construction of Reality, a book that anticipated postmodernists who contend that all meaning systems, including modern rationality, are "socially constructed." What we call reality is no more than the stories—whether we choose to call them religious or secular—that we make up as we go along. While Berger has greatly revised his earlier thinking and regrets the uses to which others have put it, the "sheltered enclave" theory continues to be an influential explanation of why religion flourishes in an otherwise modern and secular society such as the United States.

Other scholars have preferred the "status discontent" theory. According to this explanation, religious groups, especially those of a conservative or fundamentalist hue, mobilize themselves in reaction to perceived threats to their social standing or security. In the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and others employed this theory to explain the emergence of a political right wing in American public life. Echoes of the status discontent theory are still routine in the mainline media’s treatment of what is called "the religious right." As a story in the Washington Post put it a few years ago (the editors later apologized), these people are "poor, uneducated, and easily led." And they are easily led because they are easily frightened by changes favored by the rich and educated which they do not understand and which they see as threatening to their way of life.

Another explanation of why religion can flourish in an otherwise secular society might be called the "strictness" theory. This gained currency with the late Dean Kelley’s 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Kelley produced massive evidence on the decline of liberal or "mainline" churches, in contrast to conservative churches that were enjoying a bull market. In some ways Kelley’s thesis was similar to early Berger, but he did not place so much emphasis upon the "cognitive." Doctrines, ideas, and what Kelley called "notions" are less important than the actual demands that a religious group imposes. The more demanding a religion, the more likely it is to succeed. "We want something more," Kelley wrote,

than a smooth, articulate verbal interpretation of what life is all about. Words are cheap; we want explanations that are validated by the commitment of other persons. . . . What costs nothing accomplishes nothing. If it costs nothing to belong to a community, it can’t be worth much. So the quality that enables religious meanings to take hold is not their rationality, their logic, their surface credibility, but rather the demand they make upon their adherents and the degree to which that demand is met by commitment.

Some students of American religion have taken part of Kelley’s strictness theory and given it a turn along the lines of the "rational choice" theory that so fascinates many contemporary economists. In this view, which is notably associated with Laurence Iannaccone, strict religions are successful not so much because they provide more intact communities of meaning but because they tend to exclude "free riders." Free riders are, quite simply, people who are just along for the ride; they take what they want from a group but give little or nothing in return. Liberal groups are full of free riders; indeed, such groups typically make it one of their selling points that they place no demands on those to whom they appeal. This has the attraction of being "accepting" and "open." Since, however, free riders make little contribution to what people are looking for in religion—in terms of inspiration, fellowship, strong conviction, and communal security—liberal groups tend to spawn apathy and a lack of direction, which is a sure formula for institutional decline.

Also stealing a card from the economists are the proponents of "religious marketing" theory. In this theory, social pluralism, which is commonly thought to be hostile to religion, is in fact the best friend of religious flourishing. The claim is that, in societies where religion appears to be strong and even to enjoy a monopoly in providing the "sacred canopy," it is in fact weak and fragile. It is no accident, according to market theorists, that secularization is so far advanced in countries such as England, France, and Germany that have culturally (and, in different ways, legally) established churches, or that religious indifference is so widespread in Latin American countries that have a taken for granted "Catholic culture."

In the United States it has been very different. In their much discussed 1992 book, The Churching of America 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argued that competition has been the very lifeblood of American religion. They produce impressive evidence to show that, contrary to commonly held assumptions, religion does better in pluralistic cities than in small towns and rural areas. Moreover, they contend, church attendance has steadily increased during the course of American history as we have become, all in all, a more religious, not a less religious, nation.

The economic factors of competition and marketing are not, it must be admitted, the most edifying way of thinking about religion, but they are useful in understanding what I mean by the incorrigibility of Christian America. These are approaches to religion employed by "social scientists" who presumably refrain from making what are called value judgments. "Just the facts, ma’am," as Sergeant Joe Friday put it. Remember, too, that economic dynamics are part of being human, and nothing that is human is alien to Christianity, the most humanistic of religions. What else could Christianity be, since its central teaching is that God became a human being in Jesus Christ in order that everything human might be redeemed through him? This theological reminder is a caution against dismissing the analyses under discussion as "merely economic" or "merely sociological." In the biblical understanding of things, there is nothing mere about any dimension of the human condition.

That having been said, however, social scientists who understand both the usefulness and limitations of their craft know that the religious phenomenon, at its heart and in its totality, escapes the nets of social theory and analysis. Not only in its elevated forms of literary expression but also in the popular piety of revival meetings, Bible study groups, and the millions of people at daily Mass, religion engages the supernatural, metaphysical, and mystical. In ways unarticulated and perhaps beyond articulation, people are encountered by God, by the ineffable. Or so in various ways they say they believe, and believe with varying degrees of certitude. The theories and statistics of sociology are to religion as sexology is to the act of love. They are not to be confused with the thing itself. Yet it is unavoidable that we employ instruments such as statistics even as we are skeptical about them. As one wag put it, "It has been statistically demonstrated that most statistics are wrong." In any event, those who during most of the twentieth century were weaving statistics and theories into a grand and confidently told story of the secularization of the world are now having to cope with a quite different story that seems to be writing itself.

While We’re At It

Sources: "The Pope’s Apology," New York Times editorial, March 14, 2000; conversation about papal apology, Daily Show, March 13, 2000. Peter Steinfels on anti–Catholicism, New York Times, March 4, 2000. Richard Stith on partial–birth abortion, America, April 1, 2000. Pope John Paul II at National Prayer Breakfast, ZENIT, February 4, 2000.

While We’re At It: On child abuse accusations at reform school in Nova Scotia, New York Times, January 13, 2000. On divisions in Anglicanism/Episcopalianism, press release of American Anglican Council, February 2, 2000. "Necessary Impeachments, Necessary Acquittals" by Tod Lindberg, Policy Review, February/March, 2000. Mark Tooley on the Elián González case, Weekly Standard, February 14, 2000. On religious voters, Crisis, January 2000. Interview with Peter Singer, Princeton Alumni Weekly, January 26, 2000. On world government, America, January 1–8, 2000. Norman Finkelstein on who is a "Holocaust survivor," London Review of Books, January 6, 2000. Anthony Lewis on judicial activism and majority rule, International Herald Tribune, January 7, 2000. On Israel’s Christians, America, February 12, 2000. William McGurn on Bob Jones University, Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2000. On married and celibate priests in the Orthodox Church, ZENIT, February 28, 2000. On Bishop De Roo, National Post, March 3, 2000. On billboards quoting anti–homosexual biblical passage, New York Times, March 9, 2000. Paul Wilkes on comparative sexual misconduct, Catholic and Protestant, Tablet, February 26, 2000. On Patriarch Alexis of Moscow, Orthodox America, January 2000. Richard Brookhiser on the Whitney exhibit comparing Mayor Giuliani to Hitler, New York Observer, March 27, 2000. On "good government," and also Charles Moskos letter on gays in the military, New York Times, March 28, 2000. Nat Hentoff on Ken Burns documentary, Washington Times, March 27, 2000. John Cornwell on the Pope’s health, Sunday Times (London), March 12, 2000. On the eruv in Palo Alto, Palo Alto Weekly, August 11 and 19, 1999. Regis Scanlon on Hans Urs von Balthasar, New Oxford Review, March 2000.