The Public Square

Richard  John  Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 108 (December 2000): 63-84.

What Jacques Barzun Believes, Maybe

I share fully the pleasure that our reviewer, John J. Reilly, takes in Jacques Barzun’s big new book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (FT, November). It is a very big book indeed, coming to almost nine hundred pages with notes. But it is a wonderful read, summing up the learned and sometimes eccentric reflections of a scholar now ninety–three years old. Anne Fadiman has written, “Thank heaven he has lived long enough to complete a book no one else could even have begun.” The second part of that is a bit of an exaggeration. John Russell writes with no exaggeration at all, “This book is what used to be called a ‘liberal education,’ and it should bring that phrase back into favor.”

That Professor Barzun is learned, cosmopolitan, amusing, and wise there is no doubt, but I kept wondering what he really believes. In all his masterful displaying of the ideas, philosophies, and artistic representations of reality that have captured minds and souls over these five hundred years, where does Jacques Barzun stand? What are the core convictions that anchor and direct his way of trying to make sense of the world of which we are part? Answers are elusive, for he is sometimes coy, and he tries always to describe sympathetically intellectual and cultural movements of the most maddening diversity. From Dawn to Decadence is, as the title indicates, written in an argumentative mode but not in a confessional mode.

But there are here and there glimpses of a creed that sustains Barzun’s labors. I do not mean just his aesthetic, moral, and intellectual judgments. The book is riddled with those, which is a large part of its charm. By a creed I mean the comprehensive belief or affirmation that undergirds the lifetime enterprise represented by this remarkable book. The closest thing I could find to such a creed occurs on page 756 in the context of his discussing the sundry existentialisms that produced the literature and theater of the Absurd associated with figures such as Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Eugene Ionesco, and that a few decades ago exploded with such unhappy cultural and political effect through the writings of R. D. Laing, Norman O. Brown, and Herbert Marcuse. In an uncharacteristic tone of impatience, Barzun writes:

However fitting for the times, the existentialist complaint seems puny. It laments because man must make his own goals within a universe that stays aloof. Both are questionable assumptions. It can be argued that man and nature are one: nature is conscious of itself in and through man. And what man has made of the world, intellectually and materially, is his mission—chosen by him, it is true, but so universal that it is tantamount to fated, obligatory. Besides, how strange and unfriendly is nature? It has of course no intentions, friendly or unfriendly; it does not even exist as an entity; it is a man–made construct from his experience and for his purposes. But once taken as such “it” feeds him, it yields in a thousand ways to his handling, and it is beautiful. The sight of it often gives pure mindless joy. To dismiss as mistaken all these links with the cosmos that men have celebrated in worship and song is to forget that if the mind mistakes, it is because it “takes,” and that the current submission to the absurd is a taking within life, not outside it; hence not competent to damn it permanently.

What does he mean that the Absurdists were “taking within life, not outside it”? What can be outside life? Only, it would seem, upper case Life. He contrasts the Absurdists with earlier modernists, such as the Dadaists of Zurich in 1916. They, too, recognized and represented the absurd dimensions of existence, but they did not leave it at that; the absurd did not have the last word. Unlike them, the later practitioners of the Absurd “set off no spark of positive electricity, no rebellion against the absurdity of the Absurd.” Then this: “In contrast, earlier philosophies used life as the very source of sanity; it was the measure of rightness, not vulnerable to corruption. The distinction was implicit between Life and our life at the moment; and the new thought, the new art showed what Life demanded. Even the Stoics, who did not dance with joy at the idea of being alive, left life and the cosmos their validity. The Absurd marks a failure of nerve.”

The story line of From Dawn to Decadence is, in Barzun’s telling, a failure of nerve. A failure of nerve to do what or to be what? A failure to live in the truth that “Nature is conscious of itself in and through man. And what man has made of the world, intellectually and materially, is his mission—chosen by him, it is true, but so universal that it is tantamount to fated, obligatory.” A life lived in that truth is a life lived in response to what Life demands. At the risk of attributing to Barzun a theology that is not his, one is reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s declaration, “Man is the cantor and caretaker of the universe.” There is no doubt about Barzun’s profound humanism, his devotion to the human project. And, although he is confoundedly reticent about it, there would seem to be no doubt that his devotion is sustained by the confidence that the project is in response to an obligation not entirely of its own creation. As to what that obligation and the promise attending it might be, perhaps Prof. Barzun will overcome his reticence and tell us in his next book.

Tired Taxonomies

He wrote a fine biography of Whittaker Chambers and is currently writing a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr., so I suppose it is understandable that Sam Tanenhaus is attentive to the squabbles over the definitions and incessant redefinitions of “conservatism.” Who is and who is not one, and of what kind? It is a subject for which I have severely limited patience. I don’t mean to sound coy or suggest that I am above the squabbles that preoccupy mere mortals. Goodness knows, I spend a good deal of my time making arguments, countering opposing arguments, taking positions, and advocating that we should do this rather than that. It is simply that I can’t work up much interest in the taxonomical disputes over which arguments and which positions belong in this ideological box rather than that.

But some attention must be paid when the taxonomists grossly misrepresent the work in which one has a part. Writing in the New York Times, Tanenhaus revisits, yet again, the “neoconservative” phenomenon, fretting over what is right, what is left, what is center, etc., etc. Nothing new in that, but then we come to this: “And a turning point came in 1996, when a group of Christian conservatives affiliated with the political–religious publication First Things declared a virtual war on the American government and proposed solutions ranging from ‘civil disobedience’ to ‘morally justified revolution.’ This extremism contradicted everything neoconservatives stood for.”

Where to begin? Maybe with the fact that our critique of the judicial usurpation of politics in 1996 and since is advanced by both Jews and Christians; or with the fact that the argument is entirely supportive of the American constitutional order; or with the fact that nobody in these pages has proposed civil disobedience, never mind revolution, as a solution, although we have with great care discussed the theoretical and historical responses to legal injustices—hardly an extremist subject in light of the American experiment, from its eighteenth–century beginnings to the civil rights struggle under Martin Luther King, Jr.

The locution “Christian conservatives” is telling. The neoconservative story is essentially a Jewish story; it is the last part of the last chapter of the endlessly retold legend of “the New York intellectuals.” Non–Jews make occasional appearances, but Mr. Tanenhaus writes as a Jew about Jews for Jews. “Christian conservatives” are something else. In urging that neoconservatives drop the prefix and acknowledge that they are, quite simply, conservatives, Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of the neocons, is saying that the story of the New York intellectuals is over. Mr. Tanenhaus, however, is stuck on the last chapter.

As for his alleged turning point, Mr. Tanenhaus tells me that he has read the original 1996 symposium, although not the continuing discussion in these pages, nor the several books that have appeared in this connection. What he did read he did not, I would suggest, read carefully. Except for my friend Norman Podhoretz’s book, My Love Affair With America, in which Norman used the 1996 symposium as a ploy to prove that he hasn’t lost his propensity for fighting with his friends. The fight was entirely one–sided, and Norman and I are anything but—to use the title of his earlier book—ex–friends. So much for Tanenhaus’ great turning point.

As Norman knows, I do wish he would stop claiming that, in criticizing this journal, he was combating “anti–Americanism on the right.” But one understands that he has been writing and living the story of “making it” since long before he published the controversial book by that title. The saga of his journey from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side is indeed a tribute to America, and to his talented tenaciousness. Unlike Groucho Marx who memorably said that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would accept him, Norman is inclined to the view that his being accepted puts the club beyond criticism. His unilateral revision of the club rules, however, is not likely to gain many adherents. While I find it mildly annoying to be accused of anti–Americanism, it has the dubious merit of balancing the many critics, on both the right and the left, who have over the years charged this journal and its Editor–in–Chief with excessive devotion to the American experiment. In any event, we will go on making the arguments that we have been making, and do so, I trust, with friendships intact. It’s the American way.

As for the important questions involved, there is, so far as I know, not one neoconservative cited in Tanenhaus’ article who disagrees with the substance of this journal’s analysis of the problem of judicial usurpation. It may be that there are some who deny that there is a transcendent referent by which this government can be brought under moral judgment, which strikes me as a denial that should be impossible for any serious Christian or Jew. And some are obviously made nervous by any discussion of legitimate and illegitimate government—at least with respect to this country—despite America’s founding truths, such as the Declaration’s claim that “just government is derived from the consent of the governed.” Discussion of those questions will continue as occasion requires. Meanwhile, the taxonomists will also go on churning out articles and books on Whither Conservatism? Whither Liberalism? Whither the Left? Whither the Right? Whither Whitherism? It is for the most part a harmless obsession, although one wishes it were pursued with greater attentiveness to the facts.

To Say that Jesus Is Lord: Part Two

In the last issue we commented on the declaration Dominus Iesus (Jesus the Lord) issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in September, and on various reactions to it. In an unusual public expression of differences within the Curia, Edward Cardinal Cassidy, who heads the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, has carefully distanced himself from the tone, although not the substance, of the declaration. He and others have suggested that parts of the text, notably those dealing with ecumenism, could and should have been phrased with greater care for the sensibilities of non–Catholics. It is a view with which I have some sympathy, although it may well be that the straightforward—one might almost say stark—propositions of the document will serve as a bracing reminder that the only unity that we should seek is unity in the truth. Clarity in facing disagreements gives credibility to agreements.

A harsh but not unrepresentative reaction to Dominus Iesus is offered by Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff. In a long attack, he says the document represents “the Roman system—immutable, implacable, cruel, and pitiless.” Cardinal Ratzinger of CDF “has appointed himself the executioner of the future of ecumenism.” “Only an old, bitter, and fading church could produce such a melancholic and spiritually corrupt text” setting forth doctrines that represent the Vatican’s “thirst for power.” Along the way, however, Boff does render a service by highlighting what is theologically at stake. “In the end this document, a supreme expression of totalitarianism, would say to everyone, in a cruel and merciless way: without Christ and the Church you have nothing; and if just by chance you were to possess something positive, it would not be because it is from you, but because it comes from Christ and the Church.” Ratzinger, complains Boff, would put public revelation in the past, whereas we should be open to present and future public revelations, including from different religions such as the Aztec, Buddhist, Hindu, and other traditions.

Whether all salvation is through Christ and the gospel of Christ proclaimed and lived by the Church has, of course, been the question for centuries. Without Christ and his Church we would indeed be eternally lost. Or so orthodox Christians of whatever denomination believe. The question is whether Jesus the Christ is one expression, one emanation, one revelation of God among others, or is, as we say in the creed commonly called the Nicene, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” Of course the orthodox Christian claim is scandalously audacious—some say arrogant—in the twenty–first century, as it was in the first and in all the centuries in between. The question is whether it is true. If it is true, it is good news for everyone, for the one God intends his one plan of salvation to be for everyone.

Given the storm of reaction and misrepresentation, not all of it so extreme as Boff’s, Pope John Paul II took the occasion of his Angelus address on October 1 to clarify what the CDF declaration does and does not say. It is a very careful statement that rewards close reading.

“With the Declaration Dominus Iesus—Jesus is Lord—approved by me in a special way at the height of the Jubilee Year, I wanted to invite all Christians to renew their fidelity to him in the joy of faith and to bear unanimous witness that the Son, both today and tomorrow, is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). Our confession of Christ as the only Son, through whom we ourselves see the Father’s face (cf. John 14:8), is not arrogance that disdains other religions, but joyful gratitude that Christ has revealed himself to us without any merit on our part. At the same time, he has obliged us to continue giving what we have received and to communicate to others what we have been given, since the Truth that is has been given and the Love which is God belongs to all people.

“With the Apostle Peter, we confess that ‘there is salvation in no one else’ (Acts 4:12). The Declaration Dominus Iesus, following the lead of the Second Vatican Council, shows us that this confession does not deny salvation to non–Christians, but points to its ultimate source in Christ, in whom man and God are united. God gives light to all in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation, granting them salvific grace in ways known to himself (Dominus Iesus, VI, nn. 20–21). The document clarifies essential Christian elements, which do not hinder dialogue but show its bases, because a dialogue without foundations would be destined to degenerate into empty wordiness.

“The same also applies to the ecumenical question. If the document, together with the Second Vatican Council, declares that ‘the single Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church,’ it does not intend thereby to express scant regard for the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. This conviction is accompanied by the awareness that it is not due to human merit, but is a sign of God’s fidelity, which is stronger than the human weaknesses and sins solemnly confessed by us before God and men at the beginning of Lent. The Catholic Church—as the document says—suffers from the fact that true particular Churches and Ecclesial Communities with precious elements of salvation are separated from her.

“The document thus expresses once again the same ecumenical passion that is the basis of my encyclical Ut Unum Sint. I hope that this Declaration, which is close to my heart, can, after so many erroneous interpretations, finally fulfill its function both of clarification and of openness. May Mary, whom the Lord on the Cross entrusted to us as the Mother of us all, help us to grow together in our faith in Christ, the Redeemer of all mankind, in the hope of salvation offered by Christ to everyone, and in love, which is the sign of God’s children.”

Invited to a Revolution

As best I can calculate, it was 1956 or 1957 when I was a seminarian at Concordia, St. Louis, and during the summer I was peddling Fuller Brush products in the north country of Ontario. Since I was only a temporary, I was assigned a rural territory with a handful of villages and farm houses few and far between. But one could make some decent money, at least by the reckoning of that time. The deal was that one got a straight 50 percent on sales of brushes, waxes, mops, and sundry other items with which—or so the sales pitch put it—no household should be without. I discovered that getting orders was a lot easier than getting payment when I delivered the goods a week later. Nothing new in that, I suppose. It was much the same the summer I sold Wearever pots and pans. The next summer it was life insurance. I was particularly good at persuading young ladies that lots of insurance would increase their marriage prospects. I am embarrassed to recall that spiel. It was effective, though, and they signed up eagerly—only to promptly default on paying the premiums, which wiped out my commission. Typically, there was a father in the picture who took a very different view of a young man selling his eighteen–year–old daughter a large life insurance policy.

It was in the Fuller Brush summer, however, that I stumbled across the Madonna House Lay Apostolate, nestled by the Madawaska River in the Laurentian wilderness of Combermere, close by Barry’s Bay and Wilno, the last being the first Polish settlement in Canada. My purpose was just to sell brushes, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. I am not entirely sure that I actually met “the Baroness,” Catherine de Hueck Doherty. I think I did, but it must have been very briefly, for, from what I know now, any extended encounter with her would certainly be remembered. I also don’t remember whether I made a sale there. Probably not, since the people of Madonna House take a vow of poverty and try to live on what they can produce themselves or beg from others. But the people with whom I talked for an hour or so impressed upon me that this was a very different place. In the years following, I would reflect from time to time on that odd community and what they told me about their way of life, and about their foundress, a Russian aristocrat who talked with God and, more interestingly, taught what she had learned when God talked with her, which, or so it was said, He regularly did. It all seemed a little strange, as in fanatical.

Much later, I came to a better appreciation of Madonna House and the Baroness. In addition to Combermere, where there are about a hundred lay “staff workers” and ten priests, some twenty other houses around the world have sprung up in response to Catherine’s invitation: “We need to be poor! Let us live an ordinary life, but beloved, let us live it with a passionate love for God. Become a mystery. Stretch one hand out to God, the other to your neighbor. Be cruciform. Christ’s cross will be our revolution and it will be A REVOLUTION OF LOVE!” Each year hundreds of lay people, religious, and priests visit Combermere and the other houses to be formed for a week or more in Catherine’s way of radical discipleship. This past summer I returned again to Combermere.

She was not, technically speaking, a baroness, since Russia did not have such a title, but she was from wealth and nobility. The media gave her the title when she arrived in Canadian exile following the Bolshevik revolution and it stuck. To say hers was an eventful life is to understate egregiously. Between her birth in 1896 and her death in 1985, she served as a nurse with the Russian army in World War I and with the poignantly hopeless White Russian army after the revolution; she married a Russian ne’er–do–well, gave birth to a son to whom she was an indifferent mother; supported herself and her family as a successful anti–Communist lecturer; established houses to serve the poor and advance interracial friendship in Toronto, Chicago, and Harlem, in which connection she was often compared with her friend Dorothy Day. After an annulment, she married the then noted journalist Eddie Doherty, and when their world fell apart following her rejection by the movement she had launched, they fled to Combermere. What seemed like the end was the beginning of Madonna House. These few words cannot begin to suggest the tumultuousness of this extraordinary life. The story is well told, not without a critical edge, in They Called Her the Baroness by Lorene Hanley Duquin (Alba House).

Dozens of her books and booklets have been kept in print by Madonna House Publications. I frequently have an ambivalent response to the writings of the founders of spiritual movements. What their followers hail as flashing spiritual insights often seem a bit obvious and even banal, and one just knows these founders must have been much more impressive in person. Some of Catherine’s publications are mainly transcripts of talks given at Madonna House, full of exclamation points and assertions in the upper case. One gathers that she herself was an exclamation point. From her writings and from conversation with those who knew her well, I expect she must have been quite impossible a good deal of the time. Her tone is relentlessly intense, imperious, and flaming with the passion of discovered love. The little book, Dear Father: A Message of Love to Priests, can be summed up: “Yes, but do you believe, do you really believe, the wonder of who Christ is and you are for him? Show it! Live it!” One is reminded of Chesterton’s remark that the only sin is to call a green leaf gray. Catherine railed against a world and a Church that seemed so indifferent to the luminosity of love. (Dear Father also contains an excerpt I had quite forgotten from Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, in which he tells of Catherine’s influence on his vocation.)

For Poustinia, perhaps her most influential book, she must have had a good editor. The exclamation points and upper case excitements are muted in this strongly moving account of a practice of silence, solitude, and prayer drawn from the Russian experience of pilgrimage and time apart in which poustiniki live in a small hut—for days or months or years, or for a lifetime—in an isolation that is also total availability to the community. The heart of the poustinia is kenosis, joining Christ in the emptying of the self, as described by Paul in Philippians 2. “I think that God calls the poustinik to a total purgation, a total self–emptying,” writes Catherine. She cautioned against the impulse to be relevant by doing something useful as the world measures usefulness. “If you want to see what a ‘contribution’ really is, look at the Man on the cross. That’s a contribution. When you are hanging on a cross you can’t do anything because you’re crucified. That is the essence of a poustinik. That is his or her contribution.” Poustinia is one of the more insightful and disturbing books on prayer I have read in a long time.

As with Dorothy Day, Catherine’s “cause” has been accepted by Rome and it is possible that somewhere down that path she may formally be declared a saint. Also like Dorothy Day, Catherine’s faith and piety came to be viewed as “conservative” because so radically orthodox. (Catherine was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church and part of the continuing apostolate of Madonna House is reconciliation between East and West, a purpose close to the heart of John Paul II.) Many who admire Dorothy Day are prepared to overlook her orthodoxy for the sake of the radical politics of her Catholic Worker movement. It is harder to do that with the Baroness since she more clearly distanced the Madonna House Apostolate from the political exploitation of its members’ dedication to live for and with the poor. But both Dorothy and Catherine understood that orthodox Christianity is ever so much more radical than the radicalisms that the world regularly throws up to challenge or recruit Christian faith; and they understood that the way of high adventure is not to trim the Church’s teaching but to penetrate ever more deeply into living the mystery of Christ.

The last half century, and especially the years of this pontificate, has witnessed an astonishing resurgence of renewal movements. Among the better known in North America are Cursillio, Opus Dei, Focolare, Legionaries of Christ, Regnum Christi, and the Neocatechumenal Way. The explosion of similar movements in Latin America and Africa is perhaps without historical precedent. These are mainly movements of lay people, married and celibate, locked in communal determination to live the gospel of Jesus Christ without compromise. The Madonna House Apostolate is part of this remarkable phenomenon. Father Robert Pelton at Combermere—a personable, gentle, and wisely innocent priest—says he does not know where the apostolate will go in the future, but he knows that he does not need to know. It is enough that the life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty—in both its pyrotechnical brilliance and silent deeps—begat a movement that has changed lives beyond numbering by its invitation to a disciplined adventure into a revolution of love. (For more information: Madonna House, Combermere, Ontario, Canada, K0J 1L0 or

Truth for Tolerance

So many pundits weighed in on the question of Joe Lieberman and religion, but few so provocatively as Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University or Toronto. Orwin writes in the National Post under the title “Religion in the Public Square” that when he was growing up in Chicago, ethnic and religious bonds made a big difference, for better and for worse. “But everything has changed (and not in all respects for the better),” Orwin writes. “William Julius Wilson, the brilliant American sociologist, has written from a quasi–Marxist perspective of ‘the declining significance of race.’ His phrase applies equally to religion. This decline is vast and obvious. The real threat facing North American Jews today is neither intolerance nor evangelism nor the ‘Aryan’ lunatic fringe. Rather it’s an aspect of excessive tolerance (of nominal Christians toward Jews and of nominal Jews toward Christians). The seventeenth–century Jewish renegade philosopher Spinoza dreamed of a liberal world where Jews would cease to be Jews even as Christians ceased to be Christians. That world now looks uncomfortably close to realization. Intermarriage rates have soared exponentially, because to so many young people (and, increasingly, their parents) the old distinctions just don’t matter. If your child is marrying a nice person, you don’t ask for more. What remains of religion in mainstream North America is one thing only: a diffuse moralism accompanied by a vague conviction that religion supports morality. Polls purporting to show that Americans are highly religious reflect only this. (Try asking an American to explain what distinguishes his denomination from others. He’ll soon assure you that all religions are the same at bottom.) Most Americans simply equate religion with morality. Whether the moral person is Christian or Jewish or Sikh or a native American shamanist just doesn’t matter anymore. (When I lectured in Massachusetts recently a Wiccan cabdriver explained to me what his alleged paganism stood for: feminism, environmentalism, and the Golden Rule). Americans may go to church more often than other modern peoples, but what they learn in church is this gospel of universal toleration. All good people go to heaven.”

Orwin overstates the case, but only somewhat. Of course, Orthodox Jews and orthodox (also upper case) Christians are distressed by such a depiction of our circumstance, and may want to insist that the greater measure of mutual respect in our society is in fact grounded in biblical faith. As indicated by the general reaction to the recent Vatican statement Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus), which reiterated the traditional claim that Jesus Christ is the one way of salvation—also for those who are not Christians—in our culture the assertion that some religious claims are true and others false, or even less true, is taken as a sin against tolerance. In reaction to such muddled thinking, there are those who suggest that the test of vibrant religion is the readiness to declare that those who do not share one’s understanding of the truth will go to hell. Thus the debate is unhappily skewed in a way that pits dogmatic thugs against relativistic wimps.

The never–ending task for Christians is to make clear that their respect for others is not despite but because of their Christian faith. The alternative to tolerance premised upon indifference to truth is a lively pluralism premised upon the conviction that the truth both requires and makes possible our mutually respectful engagement of the differences that make the deepest difference. It is probable that only a minority of Christians understand and embrace that alternative, but then it has probably always been the case that most Christians are, at least most of the time, not terribly serious or reflective about what they say they believe as Christians.

There is nothing wrong with the claim that “all good people go to heaven,” if we understand that the good is inseparable from the true. The tolerance that, implicitly or explicitly, denies the reality of truth recruits religion to the service of the American Way of Life, which then becomes, not to put too fine a point on it, an idol. The circumstance and the temptations described by Prof. Orwin have been with us since the beginning of the American experiment, and in fact go back much earlier. The adherents of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus have always been tempted to settle for His being tolerated as one of the gods of the tribe or nation. But He remains a jealous God because truth is jealous. Truth refuses to split the difference with falsehood.

Tolerance, rightly understood, is obedience to St. Paul’s injunction to “speak the truth in love,” which, in turn, is premised upon love for the truth. In this light, the “gospel of universal toleration” is not to be despised. Most Christians are not theologians, which is just as well, nor given to making fine distinctions, which is perhaps unfortunate but inevitable. When they tell pollsters that religious differences make no difference in their respect for others, many, if not most, Christians probably believe that that is what is required by the commandment to love one’s neighbors. What social scientists register as religious indifference may in fact be, to cite Paul again, “faith active in love.” It may be. Who knows? God knows. And one day He will let us know.

Civil Religion or Public Philosophy

Traditional language about “Christian America”—which once served both liberal and conservative purposes, as those terms are used today—was vigorously attacked by the school of “Christian realism” associated with Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr. From the late 1930s through the 1960s, Reinhold in particular assumed a “prophetic” mode in debunking any idea of the “chosenness” of America. This was part and parcel of his attack on the idea of moral progress (see “The Idea of Moral Progress,” FT, August/September 1999). In the regnant liberalism of the time, three ideas came together: the idea of moral progress, the idea of American chosenness, and the idea of a socialist utopia. This made for a heady mix that Niebuhr condemned as a snare and delusion. He employed his impressive polemical powers against the notion that history can be understood in terms of a conflict between “the children of light and the children of darkness.” With almost mantra–like repetition, he underscored the “ironies” and “ambiguities” of history.

The Niebuhrs did their job well, perhaps too well in some quarters. While a Niebuhrian sensibility of skepticism toward historical delusions is to be cultivated, it was essentially a corrective against the excesses of the “Redeemer Nation” theme. In mainline Protestantism and in the liberal culture more generally, that skepticism was employed in a polemic against what was perceived as an anti–Communist crusade during the Cold War years. From the 1950s through the end of Soviet Communism in 1991, that crusade was portrayed as a contest between “the free world” and “godless communism.” In other words, the children of light against the children of darkness. The attempt to check that exaggeration, an exaggeration frequently freighted with hubris and self–righteousness, reinforced an attitude aptly described as anti–anticommunism. In this view, the great evil was not communism but anticommunism, a cause presumably discredited by the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The anti–anticommunism that McCarthy did so much to abet lived on long after his censure by the Senate and his pitiful death in 1957.

The story of American religion during the Cold War years, so closely connected with the idea of Christian America, still awaits historians who can untangle its knotted complexities. In retrospect, it is generally recognized, also by those who scoffed at the notion at the time, that there really was something very much like a free world that stood in sharp contrast to the tyranny of a communism that was “godless” in its aggressive atheism. Except in the most diehard circles of the left, it is not controversial today to refer to Soviet Communism as an “evil empire.” That was not the case in oldline Protestantism—meaning, roughly, those churches belonging to the once influential National Council of Churches—only a few years ago. From the mid–1960s until very recently, the Vietnam War was in these quarters taken as definitive proof that talk about a free world was a lie, and a good many religious leaders frankly believed that, for all its faults, communism was “the wave of the future.” In this view, as it was conventionally asserted, the United States was “on the wrong side of history.”

Even more common—indeed so common as to constitute a secure liberal consensus—was the belief that communism was a permanent feature of world history, or at least it would endure as far as we could see into the future. Many expected and encouraged a “convergence” between communism and the free world (the latter being defined as capitalism). All who participated in this consensus were committed to “peaceful coexistence” with communism. Figures such as Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who made no secret of their belief that Soviet Communism was a temporary and unsustainable aberration, were routinely criticized for threatening that peaceful coexistence.

As I say, American religion during the Cold War is a fascinating story that is yet to be told adequately. For present purposes, I simply note that the period resulted in an emphatic repudiation—and not only among oldline Protestants—of the last remnants of the idea of Christian America. Other factors contributed to that repudiation, notably the convergence of the civil rights movement with anti–anticommunism, and the passions surrounding the Vietnam War. Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement was typically an affirmation of the American experiment, as most memorably articulated in his great “I Have a Dream” speech of August 28, 1963. His argument was that slavery and racial segregation contradicted the essential creed and character of that experiment. That was the liberal position. The later and more “radicalized” argument of the “new politics” would be that slavery and segregation, far from contradicting America, convicted America of being essentially racist, in addition to its inherent sins of militarism, imperialism, and propensity for the capitalist exploitation of the world’s poor. It followed that only the enemies of Christianity would want to call such a country Christian.

A Replacement Religion

Prior to what many perceive as the anti–American turn of what is comprehensively (perhaps too comprehensively) called The Sixties, the idea of Christian America had been sharply modified, and in some ways replaced by, the idea of an American “civil religion.” This was influentially set forth in Will Herberg’s book of 1955, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Herberg, a Jew and a great admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, spoke of the American way of life as “the characteristic American religion, undergirding life and overarching American society despite indubitable differences of religion, section, culture, and class.” During those years and up to this day, a statement presumably made by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954 is frequently quoted: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.” While it has never been documented that the statement, first cited in the Christian Century, was ever made by Eisenhower, the sentiment fit perfectly Herberg’s thesis. As Sydney Ahlstrom wrote in his monumental A Religious History of the American People, “The postwar form of civil religion debased the older tradition which had reverenced [America] as a bearer of transcendent values and summoned citizens to stewardship of a sacred trust.”

Now even that debased form of the American Way of Life as a civil religion has little currency in our public discourse. Beginning in the late 1960s, sociologist Robert N. Bellah and others tried to revive the civil religion argument, adapting it to the stringent critique of America favored by the left, but their efforts never caught on beyond students of religion in the academy. By the 1970s the doctrine, assuming dogmatic status, had been firmly established that America is a secular society. At least it appeared to be firmly established. When in 1984 I published The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, it was generally viewed as a provocative—some thought eccentric and even dangerous—challenge to what “everybody knew” about the secularity of America. Still today there are those who contend that the dangerous argument of that book is that the naked public square should be replaced by the sacred public square. My argument then and now, however, is that the naked public square—meaning public life stripped of religion and religiously grounded morality—should give way not to a sacred public square but to a civil public square.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, the late J. M. Cameron was sympathetic to the argument of the book but suggested that the kind of religiously legitimated public philosophy that I called for required a credal form of Christianity with rich intellectual resources, such as Catholicism, rather than the revivalistic Protestantism now insurgent in American public life. The latter form of “fundamentalism,” he believed, had long since been bagged and stuffed by H. L. Mencken and was of no possible use in public moral discourse. It is a point that should not be dismissed lightly. At the same time, Cameron’s view does not take into account the degree of credal seriousness, albeit confusingly articulated, among Baptists and others, or the richer intellectual resources of the minority Calvinist tradition within evangelical Protestantism. Equally important, it fails to reckon with initiatives such as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” launched in the early 1990s, which give expression to a growing convergence in both cooperative action and theology. In this convergence, Catholic social doctrine, and particularly the power of natural law philosophy, are challenging conventionally secular habits of public debate.

Civil Religion Untethered

The reconstructed public philosophy that is required could provide a secure foundation for the civil public square. The civil public square is one in which different convictions about the common good are engaged within the bond of civility. The “common good” is—and we can never tire of making this point—unavoidably a moral concept, and that means the religiously grounded moral convictions of the American people cannot be excluded from the public square. Given the role of religion in American culture, both historically and at present, a religion–free public square is a formula for the end of democracy. To exclude the deepest convictions of the people from the deliberation of how we ought to order our life together is tantamount to excluding the people from that deliberation, and that is the end of democracy. We need not be delayed here by the old debate, still pressed by many conservatives, over whether our constitutional order is that of a democracy or a republic. Suffice it that the Constitution itself, as unanimously asserted by the Founders, is that of a republic, but it rests on the democratic premise that political sovereignty rests with the people. The Declaration of Independence declares that “just government is derived from the consent of the governed.” As the political sovereign, the people are authorized to name a sovereignty that they acknowledge to be higher than their own; for instance, “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” This is not, as some claim, a formula for theocracy. It is an exercise of democratic authority through republican or representative means by which the people place a check upon their own power by designating the higher authority to which they hold themselves accountable.

The civil public square requires something not entirely unlike Herberg’s civil religion. The problem with calling it a civil religion is that most Americans think they already have a religion and are not interested in exchanging it for another. For this reason among others, it is better to say that the civil public square requires a public philosophy attuned to the Judeo–Christian moral tradition. A Judeo–Christian moral tradition is not a Judeo–Christian religion. A moral tradition is part of religion but by no means the whole of it; nor, especially in Christianity, is it the most important part. But it is a necessary part. Sustaining the Judeo–Christian moral tradition in public requires that Americans who are Christians recognize that tradition as theirs, and recognize that it is necessarily dependent upon Judaism, both historically and at present. Here, too, it becomes apparent that cultivating the Jewish–Christian relationship is much more than a matter of interfaith politesse; it is essential to reconstituting the moral basis of our common life.

Civil religion, when it is untethered from biblical religion, can become a rival religion. Some Christian thinkers would go further and say that civil religion is by definition a rival religion. Such was surely the case with, for example, the religion of America’s “manifest destiny” mentioned earlier in this series on Christian America. In that instance, Christians succumb to a notion of the “Redeemer Nation” that is disengaged from, and becomes a competitor to, their Redeemer. The perennial attempts, commonly called “Wilsonian,” to assert some grand national purpose within the world–historical scheme of things are usually Christian in inspiration but end by aspiring to take the place of Christianity. If I am right in thinking that Henry Luce of Time was premature, that it is the twenty–first century that is “the American century,” it is certain that America will be safe neither for itself nor for the world without a guiding public philosophy. And it is, I believe, equally certain that any public philosophy that might be constructed will not be democratically sustainable unless it engages in a fresh way the idea of Christian America.

While We’re At It

Sources: Sam Tanenhaus on neoconservatives, New York Times, September 16, 2000. Leonardo Boff reaction to Dominus Iesus is on Internet, October 5, 2000. Clifford Orwin on “Religion in the Public Square,” National Post, September 11, 2000.

While We’re At It: John Grondelski on false tolerance, New Oxford Review, December 1999. Peter Berkowitz on game theory, New Republic, June 5, 2000. On statement from Pontifical Council for Social Communications, catholic trends, June 10, 2000. “The Genetic Report Card That Will Tell You If Your Embryo Will Get Prostate Cancer,” New York Times Magazine, June 11, 2000. Thomas Powers on McCarthyism, New York Review of Books, May 11, 2000. Christian Smith on evangelicals, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 30, 2000. Steven Pinker on religion, Science & Spirit, May/June 2000. Harvey Cox on “secular Judaism,” Sh’ma, June 2000. Paul Wilkes’ review of The Changing Face of the Priesthood by Donald Cozzens, Context, July 1, 2000. Tom Wolfe on the “Land of the Rococo Marxists,” Harper’s, June 2000. David Novak on secular vs. religious defense of freedom, Virginia Law  Review, April 2000. Operatic version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, reviewed by George Loomis, Opera News, July 2000. On religious sects in France, Insight, August 2000. On Dutch charge of homophobia against Pope John Paul II, Reuters, July 18, 2000. Chloe Breyer’s The Close reviewed by Sarah E. Hinlicky, Books and Culture, October 2000. On Ex Corde Ecclesiae’s opponents, catholic trends, August 19, 2000. On Boy Scouts objecting to gay scoutmasters, New York Times, September 3, 2000. On Fidel Castro at Riverside Church, New York Times, September 9, 2000. Dave Andrusko on Bill Moyers’ On Our Own Terms, National Right to Life News, September 2000. “Priests of the 60s Fear Loss of Their Legacy,” New York Times, September 10, 2000. Robert Funk on the Jesus Seminar, Fort Worth Star–Telegram, September 19, 2000. Article on Eric Craig Harrah,World, September 2, 2000. On Flannery O’Connor, Baton Rouge State–Times/Morning Advocate, August 26,2000. “A Disabled Pope?” on the cover of America, September 30, 2000.