The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 107 (November 2000): 69-88.

To Say Jesus Is Lord

Yes, much of the misunderstanding was willful. But the fact is that the media coverage of the declaration Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus), issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in September, was almost uniformly negative, as was the reaction of the several communities engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church. It was alleged that Rome is now saying, among other things, that only Catholics can be saved and that non–Catholics are, at best, second–rate Christians. That is emphatically not true. Dominus Iesus is nothing more than a clear restatement of long–established Catholic teaching, and I agree with every word of it. But one may be forgiven for thinking it is missing other words that might have avoided misunderstandings and would have made it more difficult for those bent on misrepresenting Catholic teaching.

In response to the pervasive relativism in contemporary culture, and the form of relativism that is called religious syncretism in the dialogue between religions—a problem that came in for special attention at a recent Synod for Asia—CDF, with the Pope’s express support, is reiterating the Church’s faith that Jesus is, as he said of himself, the way, the truth, and the life. He is not one way among other ways or one truth among other truths. He is Lord of all or he is lord not at all. God denies no one grace sufficient to be saved, but whoever is saved is saved because of the redemption effected through Jesus Christ, whether or not they have ever heard of Jesus Christ. Because there is only one God and one revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who is true man and true God, there can be, as the declaration puts it, “only one economy of salvation.”

This argument, and the missionary imperative inherent in the argument, is set forth at greater length and, one may be permitted to suggest, with greater felicity in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer). The ecclesiological dimension of the argument, which necessarily engages ecumenism, is marvelously expressed in the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). The claim that the Church of Jesus Christ “subsists in”—is most fully and rightly ordered in—the Catholic Church is a presupposition of Catholic engagement with other Christians who are “truly but imperfectly” in communion with the Catholic Church. As I say, the new declaration says nothing that is not said in other magisterial documents, particularly in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and it is always necessary to restate these important truths.

It should not be thought that the response to Dominus Iesus by non–Catholics has been uniformly negative. Dr. Timothy George is Dean of Beeson Divinity School and a very influential evangelical Protestant theologian. He is also executive editor of Christianity Today and a key participant in the project “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” He had this to say about the declaration:

“As an evangelical theologian committed to Christian unity, I welcome this new statement as an encouragement to the kind of ecumenism we ought to be engaged in. In some ecumenical circles, the barometer of conviction has fallen so low that it no longer registers the temperature of truth. In the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement, both sides are equally committed to an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. We do no service to the cause of Christ by smudging the serious theological differences that still divide our two traditions. From an evangelical perspective, we must say to the Church of Rome the same thing that this documents says to non–Catholic Christians: serious defects remain in Catholic teaching and piety and we call the Church of Rome, as we call our own churches, to further reformation on the basis of the Word of God.

“Seventy–five years ago evangelical leader J. Gresham Machen observed that Bible–believing Protestants and faithful Roman Catholics shared more in common with one another than they did with others who denied the deity of Christ, the miracles of Jesus, the Holy Trinity, or the second coming of Christ. That is still true today and we must continue to work for greater mutual understanding on the basis of a shared commitment to the core of orthodox Christian belief. Evangelicals who care about the gospel should welcome the Vatican’s spurning of religious relativism and its reassertion that Jesus Christ is the one and only Redeemer for all peoples everywhere.

“We certainly do not agree on the role of the papacy and this remains a barrier to full Christian unity as Pope John Paul II himself has acknowledged. But evangelicals believe that God is able to work in, with, and under faulty church structures to bring lost men and women into a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ. While only God can read anyone’s hearts, I dare to say that there are countless Roman Catholics who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, just as there are no doubt (in my denomination) many Southern Baptists who have been duly dunked but are still spiritually dead. There is no place for either Catholic–baiting or Baptist–bashing among true believers in Jesus.”

The message of Dominus Iesus is that to say that Jesus is Lord is necessarily to say that no one else and nothing else is lord. This has been and always will be “controversial,” and is thought outrageously offensive in a culture whose highest truth is tolerance, with tolerance understood to mean that all truths are equal, which is another way of saying there is no truth. In ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, as also in encounters with those of no religion, all participants are of equal human dignity but their beliefs are not equally true. If our different understandings of the truth made no difference, there would be no point in dialogue. In the sometimes difficult hours of interviews and conversations I have had about Dominus Iesus, there have been glimmers of hope that more people are coming to recognize the crucial distinction between tolerance and truth, and even that tolerance is most securely grounded in the truth that we are all made in the image of the one God who, Christians claim, has revealed Himself in Jesus the Lord, who alone is true God and true man. If the declaration contributes to more people arriving at that understanding, then I suppose it will achieve what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had in mind.

From the Northern Front

Allumette Island, Quebec. August 2000—I admit it, I have cheated this year. The National Post made me do it. And, to a lesser extent, the Ottawa Citizen, where my friend Raymond de Souza, a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, is reporting on the magnificent World Youth Day being held there. As regular readers know, the time at the family cottage here in Quebec is also a vacation from newspapers. Instead of breakfast with the insufferable New York Times, each day over coffee I read and reread the venerable eleventh edition of the Britannica. I am doing that this year, too, but I confess that I have also been driving four miles to the crossroads store at Demers Centre, just south of Chapeau (which, with a population of about two hundred, is the metropolitan center of L’ile aux Allumettes) to pick up the papers.

Except for the occasional PBS documentary on “Our Neighbors to the North,” and maybe for that as well, most Americans evidence a nearly imperturbable indifference to what is happening in Canada. On behalf of our Canadian subscribers, I resent that. And on my own behalf, too, for I continue to be very fond of the Ottawa Valley where I was born and reared. It is not just my personal predilection, however, that makes me think attention should be paid. Things of interest sometimes happen in Canada. There is, for instance, the Alliance Party, which is uniting conservatives under the leadership of Stockwell Day. Alliance is now the official opposition and bids fair to turn out the Liberals in elections within the coming year. Day is an impressive leader, which is what I am inclined to say about any politician who is given to quoting me favorably on the role of religion and moral judgment in public life. With the stunning victory of Vicente Fox as president of Mexico, the possibility of Bush’s election in the U.S., and the prospect of Day as Prime Minister of Canada, the politics of North America could very soon look very different. Yes, I know, and I cite it all the time: “Put not your trust in princes” (Psalm 146). Yet some princes provide more reason for tempered hope than others.

Admittedly, some things of interest that happen in Canada are not so promising. Frequently they are downright crazy. The Canadian version of political correctness under the long–running Liberal regime makes the thought police in the U.S. appear libertarian by comparison. For example, the Canadian government seems bent on bankrupting the churches of the country. The churches of Canada are mainly Catholic, Anglican, and United, the last being a 1920s merger of Methodists, Congregationalists, and most Presbyterians. In the early twentieth century, the government set up Indian schools on reservations and asked the churches to run them, which they did. Policy changes with the winds of fashion, and now the First Nations, as native Canadians are called, are driving home the truth that no good deed goes unpunished.

Of course, there were bad deeds, too, and some of the more than seven thousand lawsuits make the usual allegations about sexual and other abuses. But the great crime of which the churches are accused is “cultural genocide.” Not only did they interfere with native religions, but they taught the kids English and generally did their best to prepare them for assimilation into the majority culture. Assimilation was then; First Nations Identity is now. The government has already acknowledged its culpability and has put a first installment of $350 million into a “healing fund” for the settlement of the law suits. The minister of Indian affairs has said that the churches must “feel some pain” in doing their share, which is likely to be a much larger sum in a final settlement or—even if the churches win at trial—in the cost of litigating the thousands of suits. The Anglicans have already announced drastic cuts in their national staff and are discussing selling off sundry properties or declaring bankruptcy. At its August convention, the United Church passed a resolution promising the Anglicans its prayers and solidarity in these difficult times, but then immediately rescinded the resolution at the insistence of delegates from bands (formerly called tribes) of First Nations. This may be the first time that a church officially withdrew a promise to pray for fellow Christians.

With a few exceptions, leaders of all three churches appear to be eagerly and predictably supine in confessing their genocidal sins. The United Church, whose politics lean sharply leftward, is demonstrating its good faith by demonstrating it has little faith in its clergy. They, along with other church staff, will be subjected to a criminal check by the police every three years in order to catch potential child abusers. This is the same church that is on record warning against the police state that Canada is supposedly becoming. As for a going–out–of–business sale, the Post has editorially reminded the leaders that the churches are not theirs to squander in a spasm of guilt concocted to improve their public image. Columnist David Frum adds, “If the church leaders have lost faith in the value of their churches’ missions, it is their obligation to resign from their positions of leadership, not to cooperate in their churches’ dissolution.” He notes that the government can always tax in order to raise money, but, with demands for hundreds of millions of dollars, “the churches will be forced to liquidate.” “There are precedents,” he writes, “for such a massive forced sale of religious property in Russia, in Mexico, and in Spain. But nothing like it has occurred in an English–speaking country since Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries 500 years ago.” (An English–speaking country? In Canada, that clearly shows Frum to be a hopeless right–winger.)

I rather doubt that the churches in Canada will go out of business. Especially with the Catholic Church, and to a lesser extent with the others, ownership of property is dispersed in a way that reduces legal liability. On the other hand, “terminal niceness” is a phrase that I am told was invented for Canadians. Maybe Prime Minister Stockwell Day will come to the rescue before the thousands of claims go to trial. If he cannot exorcise the nonsense of “cultural genocide,” it can at least be recognized that the churches ran the native schools at the request of, and under contract with, the government. The policy may now be thought wrongheaded—and setting up residential schools that forcibly separated children from their families was certainly wrong—but it was from start to finish a government policy, and the government should ante up for what it declares to be its mistaken course.

So interesting things do happen in Canada. But now I see that writing this item has taken up a good part of the morning. That’s what I get for reading the papers. I cannot promise not to do it again. But for now it’s back to the eleventh Britannica and that thoughtful entry on why there is not a hint of the autobiographical in the perversely grand speeches that Milton gives Satan in Paradise Lost. And then a dip down at the point, or maybe we’ll take the boat out, if the Ottawa River calms down a bit. (My godson Stephen Paul—son of George and Joan Weigel—is sure it’s calm enough already. But I have learned that he’s inclined to think circumstances ideal for whatever he wants to do at the moment.) And after that? Whatever. Whatever is what a cottage is for. As I’ll tell myself tomorrow morning when resisting the lure of Demers Centre and news from the big world elsewhere.

The Extreme of Excellence

Nobody wants to be called an extremist, but there is undeniably something extreme about human excellence. That is the argument of a bracing new book by R. R. Reno and Brian S. Hook, Heroism and the Christian Life: Reclaiming Excellence (Westminster/ John Knox, 249 pp., $23.95 paper). They trace the understanding of the heroic life from Homer to Virgil to the New Testament to Augustine to Milton to Bonhoeffer, and up to the present day in America—except, when we get to the present, we seem to have run out of heroes and heroines. Our unhappy circumstance is the result of, inter alia, our having learned too well Max Weber’s lessons about “the disenchantment of the world.” We have learned to be prudent, skeptical, and disinterested. “The only possible heroism is to resist the temptations of heroism,” according to the authors. There are no intensities, and certainly nothing touched by the suspicion of being extreme. The culture described by Reno and Hook is very like the culture depicted in David Brooks’ recent Bobos in Paradise.

The prevailing prudence and disinterest, say Reno and Hook, is better understood as “supine indolence.” “Prudence triumphs over the risks of excellence, and this, we believe, more than anything else, undermines our capacity to see and admire the heroic, in ourselves or others. Parents urge their children to work hard in school, to fill their resumés with just the right sorts of activities, to get good job experience. But this advice has not a tinge of real ambition. We need to lay up a treasure of skills and credentials in order to protect ourselves against a dangerous world. The labor et virtus of our time—and surely we live in an age of intense self–discipline, long hours at work, and seemingly boundless activity—does not strive toward the founding of a new city. We compact our souls; we pour ourselves into jobs and projects—but with a defensive purpose. Our achievements are little more than an electric fence we erect around our egos, our families, and our retirements. We do not extend ourselves in the risks of ambition governed only by the lure of excellence and blind to the dangers of failure. The so–called risk takers—the entrepreneurs, the wealthy middle–aged professionals who try to climb Mount Everest, the artists who pose against the background of transgression—are nothing more than gamblers looking for a big payoff. They want to add to their personal account—their bank accounts and their ego accounts. They simply calculate in larger sums than most of us.”

In such a world, intensities of talent or aspiration must be safely contained. “Prudence mounts constant assaults on our imprudent and often uncontrollable desire for excellence. For example, we worry about the fate of gifted children. Such a child should not ‘feel’ different from his or her peers. The concern is not to inculcate Christian humility, for that entails driving the gifted beyond the horizons of their surpassing abilities toward the vision of an achievement higher still. Rather, we worry about talented children because of our collective preoccupation with plain vanilla happiness. Precocious children must be properly socialized; they need to enjoy the playground. As they grow older, they need to feel comfortable in the pinched world of adolescent isolation. They need to fall under the sway of anxieties about fitting into their peer group, about whether or not they have the right clothes, the right car, and the right date for the prom. God forbid that a talented child miss out on normalcy; otherwise, she or he will never ‘fit in.’ If talented children are recognized, then they will feel the endless lash of expectation and ambition. Faced with Achilles’ choice of returning to his family and enjoying the home and hearth, or the cold and isolating steel of battle, they might, like him, be unable to embrace mediocrity and its soft pleasures. Buffeted with anxieties about our own happiness and numbed by the comforts of postindustrial plenty, we think such a fate terrible. Better to encourage a ‘normal childhood.’”

Dangerous Territory

The heroism of true discipleship is threatening. “The Virgin Mary seems a strange and disturbing figure because she signals dangerous territory where we fear our psyches cannot survive. The very idea of virginity is terrifying. It is so . . . abnormal. Could I really endure such renunciation? Could I survive being so different from ordinary folks? And toward what end? What are, thinks our calculating prudence, the compensations? But within the patterns of heroic discipleship, chastity is no more than the urgent physical center of any number of rings of risky renunciation: property, family, and communal loyalty. At every turn, the intense ambition of Christian discipleship challenges our sense of what is reasonable, humane, even possible. Abraham is not a threat to our reason or our freedom of self–expression. Most of us have little loyalty to argument and evidence; inconvenient facts and inferences are repressed. We have little confidence in our personal genius, and we are more concerned about ‘finding our voice’ than speaking our minds. Nor is Abraham a threat because he is obedient. We are largely followers rather than leaders, and prudence dictates conformity and submission most of the time. Rather, Abraham is terrible because his obedience is so singular, so extreme, so heroic.”

There are, of course, dangers in the heroic life, especially the dangers of spiritual pride, but Reno and Hook insist that the antidote to pride cannot be the egalitarian piety or the cynicism that makes heroism appear as scandalously elitist or hopelessly naive. The alternative to both pride and mediocrity is provided in, for instance, Milton’s treatment of Abraham’s testing and Athanasius’ telling of the trials of Anthony in the desert. “Athanasius wants us to marvel at Anthony and his achievements, and in order to fall victim to Athanasius’ intentions, we must train and stretch our imaginations beyond the pinched confines of egalitarian piety and cynical suspicion, and we must certainly free our souls from the many chains of supine indolence. Spenser wishes to incite us toward an active faith that quests toward high goals, and in order to follow his poetic arguments, not just analytically but personally, we need to develop a living vocabulary of the heroic. At each point, these Christian writers have not renounced heroism. They have not rejected excellence. They have reclaimed heroism and excellence on behalf of the highest good.”

Along the way, the authors offer suggestive analyses of how Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood heroism. Bonhoeffer, they contend, associated the heroic ideal with Nazism and its leadership cult, setting against it the “antiheroism” of unqualified obedience to the Leader, Jesus Christ. He did not resist the Nazis; they resisted Christ. “They were active, Bonhoeffer was passive. He was made martyr; he did not choose or make himself a martyr. But of course, that is precisely the way in which the Christian tradition has understood that strange power that Paul thought to be the inheritance of the baptized. Not I, but Christ in me.” I am not sure that Reno and Hook are right in their reading of The Cost of Discipleship and other Bonhoeffer texts. He understood human excellence, including the excellence of radical discipleship, but was relentless in attributing every excellence in the life of obedience to the One obeyed. This is not, I think, “antiheroism.” It is heroism radically ordered to the One who calls us to, and equips us for, martyrdom. But that is an argument for another day. Enough for now to warmly recommend Heroism and the Christian Life. Not because I am in complete agreement with the argument, but because it is a bracing corrective to the false virtue of mediocrity so pervasive in our society, and not least in our churches.

Contract, Covenant, and the Beginning of “The American Century”

It is a commonplace, but it is a commonplace because it has so often been found true, that we suffer both from thinking too much of ourselves and from thinking too little of ourselves. This is undoubtedly the case also in our thinking about the American experiment. James Madison observed that beasts are not capable of government and angels do not need government. In conversation with a historian of the American experiment some years ago, I was struck by his passing remark that the American founding took place in a “relatively brief window of secular opportunity.” By that he meant that, had the founding happened before about 1770 or after 1805, the controlling texts of our constitutional order would have been much more explicitly Christian in character. As it happened, the texts reflect a relatively brief period of the dominance of a variation of Enlightenment thought—although, to be sure, those texts must be understood, as the framers certainly did understand them, against the background assumptions of what in fact was a Christian society and culture.

“Christian America,” as both fact and idea, has at times been prone to a vaulting idealism, as though we were angels quite untouched by the needs and impulses that afflict lesser beings. When rudely awakened by the experience of ideals betrayed, we, in our disillusionment, may mistake ourselves for fallen angels or even beasts. Beasts and angels—the two delusions feed each other. Both obscure the fact that we are simply, and ever so complicatedly, human—with all the possibilities and limitations that that entails. Americans have at times “theologized” their history, seeing this experiment as an instrument—maybe even the instrument—of God’s unfolding purposes. That way of thinking has been out of fashion for some time now. When it was in vogue, it was sometimes attended by a doctrine of American “exceptionalism” so exaggerated that American purposes were depicted in angelic hues, untouched by the ambiguities, corruptions, and lust for power associated with mere mortals. Ernest Lee Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation is a caution against that way of telling the American story. The caution is always in order. Those who think of themselves as angels may end up by giving themselves license to do things that are, in fact, quite beastly.

One reason American history is no longer told in terms of redemptive purpose is that we no longer think of history itself as having a purpose. History is a matter of this happening and then that happening and then the other thing happening, and who is to say what it all means? As the man said, “History is just one damn thing after another.” The very idea that history should have a meaning strikes many of our contemporaries as highly improbable, maybe even nonsensical. If there is no purpose, there is no meaning. There is, although perhaps only on the surface, something attractively modest about this way of thinking. Especially when it is contrasted with the pride, presumption, and delusions of divinely ordained power that sometimes attended talk about “Christian America.”

Admittedly, it is not so attractive when the apparent modesty disguises a self–denigration that is almost tantamount to self–hatred, as is sometimes evident in current forms of “multiculturalism.” Among Christians committed to ecumenism there is a type that is aptly described as an ecumaniac. An ecumaniac is defined as someone who loves every church but his own. So it is that multiculturalists are forever discovering superiorities in other cultures, oblivious to the fact that, in the larger human story, Western culture is singular in its eagerness to praise and learn from other cultures. One is never more distinctively Western than when criticizing what is distinctively Western. The same holds for being American. In our multiculturalism we display our superiority by demonstrating our ability to see through what others—mistakenly, we say—admire in our culture. So maybe this new and self–denigrating way of telling the American story is not so modest after all.

The Tie That Binds

Whatever were the problems with “theologizing” the American experiment, the near disappearance of that tradition may reflect a failure of nerve and imagination, a loss of confidence in providential purpose, a refusal to accept the responsibility that attends the reality of Christian America. It is surely easier to treat Christianity as a purely private matter of individual salvation or, as it is more commonly said these days, of personal spirituality. A great advantage of privatized religion is that it does not risk giving offense in a “religiously pluralistic society.” Nor, since it is tailored to our “felt needs,” does it place inconvenient demands upon us.

Yet even the boldest among us might not be quite prepared to embrace the vision of Governor John Winthrop as he spoke to those who were, more than 350 years ago, preparing to establish the Holy Commonwealth in the New World. “Thus stands the cause between God and us,” he declared while still aboard the Arbella. “We are entered into covenant with Him for this work; we have taken out a commission, the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. . . . We shall find that the God of Israel is among us. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” President Ronald Reagan was the last major public figure to speak of America as a city upon a hill, and his allusions to that venerable tradition were derided as a gross instance of either naiveté or hubris, or maybe both. But most of the American people seemed to like it well enough. Maybe because it spoke to their sense of pride and, just possibly, their sense of responsibility. Upon his election in 1992, President Bill Clinton also spoke of a “New Covenant,” but the image did not catch on—perhaps because it ran into the conspicuously uncovenantal practices of the Clinton presidency—and it was soon dropped.

The constituting idea of the American experiment was that we are bound together not simply by a social contract but by a covenant. The biblical idea of covenant embraced by earlier Americans is something deeper and more profound and more binding than a contract; it also engages another party, a party who transcends the agreements that we strike among ourselves. The other party, of course, is God. The idea of covenant is almost entirely absent from our public discourse today. Many educated Americans have never heard of it. Those who are familiar with it were taught that it was discredited because of the abuses to which it led, or simply because it was part of the religious baggage that a thoroughly secular society, such as ours presumably is, must leave behind.

The myth of a covenant, we are told, is simply no longer believable. From Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century through John Rawls in the twentieth, it was replaced by the myth of the social contract. I expect people counted the myth of the social contract more believable because it was a myth of their own creation. It was a fiction pure and simple, but it had the attraction of being our fiction. According to this story, human beings emerged from a “state of nature” in order to constitute society. Or, in the case of John Rawls, they are behind a pre–social “veil of ignorance” making deals with one another according to their calculated self–interest and thus bringing “society,” with its key idea of justice, into being. No matter how sophisticated, or at least complicated, theories of social contract may be, they are as thoroughly made up as nursery tales. In fact, there are not and never have been human beings apart from societies. The individual person does not emerge from isolation into society but from society. Some societies are called primitive and some are called advanced, but society is the constant in the human story. The “state of nature” and “veil of ignorance” are fables; nobody has ever encountered, nor can we even plausibly hypothesize, persons apart from society.

All societies that we know of have myths of origin, usually involving God or the gods. The cultures to which they give rise, whether we call them primitive or advanced, are grounded in cult. The same must be true of any society we can imagine. A society must, in order to be sustained, have a story about itself, and stories must have a beginning. After the terrible experience of the European wars of religion occasioned by the sixteenth–century Reformation, many of the brightest and best, including many thoughtful Christians, decided that God and the gods could have no place in the public telling of the myth of origins. Hence the attractiveness of the new myth of the social contract.

Of course the contract is in the mode of “let’s pretend,” but it is our pretending. And some fictions can be eminently useful, if we can persuade ourselves to pretend. According to some versions of the American founding, John Locke was the original teller of the contractual tale. But that version has never enjoyed a monopoly. Hovering in the background—and sometimes pressing to front stage center—is the other story, the story of John Winthrop’s covenant. In the beginning, and all along the way, America is the product of a Puritan–Lockean synthesis, and sometimes the synthesis has looked more like an inherently contradictory muddle.

By What Authority?

The classic text of this American synthesis is, of course, the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration begins with contract–sounding language. The American people had decided to change the terms of a prior agreement. “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .” But the Declaration then quickly moves, in the very same sentence, to the question of by what right or by what authority such a change is to be made. The authority invoked is “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Far from pretending to be constituting a world ex nihilo, the framers appeal to “self–evident truths” such as the assumed fact that all are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Throughout our history, there is an oscillation—some call it a tension or even a conflict—between contract and covenant. It is conventionally, but much too simply, thought that the Enlightenment is on the contract side and “Christian America” on the covenant side. The truth is that, as, for instance, in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, contract thinking engages ideas of promise and obligation that take on at least the appearance of being covenantal. At the same time, Christianity provides an anthropology of persons created in the image of God that is the notion of human dignity undergirding presumably “contractual” ideas such as the Declaration’s claim that just government derives from the consent of the governed. Such is the confused and confusing oscillation—and perhaps mutual dependence—of Enlightenment contract and “Christian America.”

There is no denying that the idea of “Christian America” has been abused at times. Among the abuses was the notion that America had a “manifest destiny” to redeem the world. Speaking at the turn of the last century in the United States Senate, the politician–historian Albert J. Beveridge set forth what was then a widely held view. “God has not been preparing the English–speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self–contemplation and self–admiration,” Beveridge declared.

No. He made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigned. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.

Such sentiments would today be condemned, and not without justice, as racist, chauvinist, imperialist, and a half dozen other anathemas that come readily to mind. President Woodrow Wilson spoke in terms more moderate and it is still possible to quote him, as it is not possible to quote Beveridge, in polite company. Wilson had no doubt that America was God’s instrument in making the world “safe for democracy.” Decisively formed as he was by a Calvinist understanding of covenant and history, Wilson thought he knew that “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.” What we might call free–standing Wilsonianism—Wilsonianism removed from its religious and theological foundation—is still a respectable view among those who write about the need for a compelling “national purpose.” When President Reagan spoke about American purpose in opposing “the evil empire” of Soviet Communism, he spoke in terms that his predecessor eleven times removed would likely have found unexceptionable. The criticism of Reagan at the time was that, by referring to “evil,” he was reintroducing to public discourse a moral category that is dangerously close to the language of religion and divine destiny that America had long since outgrown. It was, in fact, the language of Wilson, and the dominant language of American leadership from the founding until fairly recently.

A decade ago, Francis Fukuyama launched a very lively public discussion about “the end of history.” It is not entirely fair to Fukuyama’s argument, but it was widely assumed that, after the end of Communist totalitarianism, “the end of history” meant that the alternatives to liberal democracy had been exhausted. In this construal, the end of history—meaning, more or less, the globalization of our kind of political and economic order—depended neither upon social contracts nor upon the promise of covenantal purpose. It was, so to speak, just how history is turning out. This does not satisfy some in our time who call for a new and grand and compelling assertion of “national purpose.” Henry Luce of Time was premature. It is the twenty–first century that must be “the American century.” This is what I call free–standing Wilsonianism—Wilsonianism without Wilson’s understanding of the Puritan–Lockean synthesis. It is a highly dubious and potentially dangerous position.

It seems to be the case that America is, and probably will be as far as we can see, the “lead society” of world–historical change. God knows, the world deserves a better lead society than the United States, but it’s the only one around at present. The role of lead society requires moral definition, and there is, I believe, no adequate moral definition without reference to historical purpose. Which means that at the beginning of the twenty–first century we are, if we would reconstitute the experiment, returned to the founding dialectic between contract and covenant.

While We’re At It

Sources: David Frum on the churches in Canada, National Post, August 19, 2000.

While We’re At It: On Norwegian Association of Pagans, ZENIT, April 7, 2000. On Joseph Lieberman “defining Orthodoxy down,” Jews for Morality press release, August 30, 2000. Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, reviewed by Jerry A. Coyne, New Republic, April 3, 2000. Mary Ann Glendon on Dorothy Day, Origins, April 13, 2000. On Christians under communism, ZENIT, April 9, 2000. George Sumner on Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology Today, April 2000. On liberal churches’ charitable work, Religion in the News, Spring 2000. On French PACS, catholic eye, April 30, 2000. On the supposed fallacy of the Fall, Bulletin of St. Peter’s Church, May 28, 2000. Population figures cited by Romano Prodi, taken from report of Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, May 4, 2000. Nathan D. Mitchell on Peter Singer, Worship, May 2000. Roper Center survey on religious belief, Public Perspective, May/June 2000. On Jack Kevorkian and Derek Humphry, Life at Risk, March/April 2000. Sherwin B. Nuland on physician–assisted suicide, New England Journal of Medicine, February 24, 2000. On protestors with signs “Holocaust then, Babycaust now,” ZENIT, June 1, 2000. On conference “The Spiritual State of Black America,” Religion Watch, June 2000. On the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, New York Jewish Week, June 23, 2000. Christianity Today list of great books of the last century, April 24, 2000. Frank Bruni on George W. Bush’s odd “Texas” sayings, New York Times, April 24, 2000.