Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 110 (February 2001): 2-10.
Richard John Neuhaus says that my assertion in the (London) Sunday Times regarding Pope John Paul’s disability and early retirement to bed, etc., was a lie (While We’re At It, June/July 2000). I was given the information about the Pope on what seemed to be good authority at the time, and so it was a mistake rather than a lie. I have now double–checked the facts about the Pope’s day, and I have also checked Father Neuhaus’ extraordinary claim to have spent many hours and meal times with the Pope, and I find that he is telling the truth. In consequence I acknowledge that mistake publicly through your periodical and I shall seek to correct the error also at an appropriate point in the Sunday Times.
While I am on the subject of mistakes, your periodical has perpetuated a serious mistake about me. In your correspondence section in April 2000, William A. Donahue cited Ronald Rychlak’s accusation in Hitler, the War, and the Pope that I wrote in 1991 that nothing short of a miracle would have prompted me to believe in God. That statement was taken from a book I wrote (published in the U.S. as Hiding Places of God) which was precisely about the miracle that did take place in my life in the late 1980s, and that resulted in my return to the Catholic Church. My book tells at great length the story of a remarkable religious experience and a long journey back to faith. Whoever originally dug up the quotation cynically omitted the context of my confession of apostasy and the full story of my reconversion. Hence it is not true, as has been reported by First Things and others, including Rychlak (who, incidentally, was well aware of it since we crossed swords over it in Brill’s Content in 1999), that I am an apostate only pretending to be a Catholic in order to create a dramatic and untrue effect in my book Hitler’s Pope. My book on Pius XII may have errors and omissions, but I wrote it in good conscience. I am happy to debate what people consider to be errors of fact and interpretation and to publicly correct them as they come to light. But those errors do not include telling lies about the status of my faith. The false comments about my faith have been used to discount the thesis of Hitler’s Pope.
I will not whine to you about defamation; how could I when so many people are convinced that I have defamed a saintly pope: “He who lives by the sword . . .” But I am sure that First Things would stop short of repeating such a serious allegation—lying about being a Catholic—knowing it not to be the case. In fact, you might wish to put that right.
I feel bound to add that my jaundiced perception of Pius XII has not budged my faith in the Catholic Church one iota.
Jesus College, Cambridge
It is, of course, good to be reassured of the state of Professor Cornwell’s faith. In Hitler’s Pope, however, he made his credibility part of the argument by asserting that, when he began his writing, he was an active Catholic disposed to a favorable view of Pius XII and was subsequently shocked by what he allegedly discovered. Among the reviewers of the book, Prof. Rychlak is by no means alone in challenging that assertion. Reviews of Hiding Places of God described Prof. Cornwell, with good reason, as an agnostic and former Catholic. Other publications by Prof. Cornwell in the 1990s reinforce that assessment. The complete Brill’s Content exchange between Rychlak and Cornwell is at <www.brillscontent.com/2000apr/columns/hitler.shtml> and readers may wish to consult that website. On the basis of the evidence, the account offered in Hitler’s Pope of Prof. Cornwell’s status as a Catholic and attitude toward Pius XII when he began writing the book appears to be disingenuous.
In “Conservatives, Darwin & Design: An Exchange” (November 2000), Larry Arnhart restricts the universality of William A. Dembski’s specified design criterion and then criticizes it.
As I understand Professor Demb ski’s concept of specified complexity, the right combination of specificity and complexity simply ensures that chance alone cannot account for certain phenomena. The detection of intelligent design that cannot be explained by human intelligence requires that other intelligence be responsible. Barring fantasies such as the intervention of space aliens, a supernatural agent must by default be responsible for the creation of humanity. As a Christian, Prof. Dembski can hardly be blamed for discussing the implications.
However, Prof. Arnhart states that “we cannot infer a divinely intelligent designer from our human experience” and would essentially reduce Prof. Dembski’s intelligent design criterion to a method of detecting intelligence that gives false signals (false “positives”) when human (or animal) agents are not responsible. However, there is nothing in the underlying logic of Prof. Dembski’s intelligent design criterion that limits the detection of intelligent design to human or animal intelligence. One assumes that logic is logic, human or divine.
Prof. Arnhart does make an excellent point, however, regarding the timidity of intelligent design proponents. They are quite adept at pointing out the inadequacy of Darwinian evolution to account for the creation of mankind, but offer no positive explanation of how God accomplished this miracle. This is a very difficult area to tread in since it requires reconciling the Bible with biology and is undoubtedly even more hazardous to one’s professional well–being than intelligent design. But sound work in this area is long overdue.
John F. Lang
Florence, South Carolina
Although he does not state it explicitly, Larry Arnhart gives away the presupposition on which the rest of his argument is based in the last paragraph of his reply to Michael J. Behe and William A. Dembski. “By what observable causal mechanism,” he asks, “does the ‘intelligent designer’ execute these miraculous acts?” He shows his true colors as a believer in materialism, for a miracle, by definition, is supernatural and outside the laws of nature. So he keeps looking for physical explanations that at the end of the day are not there.
Science is a great tool, but it is not the only or even the best source for knowledge. Nor is it only a tool for the defense of materialism. It is in fact dependent upon philosophy, for without certain philosophical assumptions being true (e.g., the orderly nature of the physical world, our ability to trust our senses to acquire data, etc.), science cannot even get started.
Prof. Arnhart’s differentiation between “humanly intelligent design” and “divinely intelligent design” is merely a distraction. For what we do know is that the types of “specified complexity” we see in nature are not created by randomness. Further, appealing to “intelligent design” is not an explanation to fill in the gaps of our knowledge, but is based upon what we do know. There is no reason to expect that the apparent design will necessarily be explained in physical terms.
As a Coast Guard officer, I hope that Professor Larry Arnhart would think differently in real maritime distress than he does aboard the good ship Darwin. A clear demonstration that the ship of natural selection is sinking will not coax him overboard; he will remain at his post until another vessel proven to be seaworthy pulls alongside.
This line of reasoning is problematic, for both the mariner and the scientist. At sea, many heavy weather rescues are now performed by helicopter. When no direct hoist can be made, the pilot’s instruction, heard through howling wind, may be to don lifejacket and leap into the water. Only then can recovery be effected, safely away from the wreck’s debris. People who insist on a small boat recovery in such circumstances are the frustration of every lifesaving crew.
Prof. Arnhart seems to be in similar straits with Darwinian theory. He apparently refuses to take seriously any evidence against Darwin unless it comes with a valid alternative “positive theory” of origins. For a social scientist to take this position puzzles me. Doesn’t the scientific method function by proposing a hypothesis and trying to prove it wrong, with negative evidence? Where the hypothesis is not strictly testable, doesn’t the same basic approach still apply? In any case, why must negative evidence against one theory depend on positive evidence for another?
Perhaps being a scientist without a theory is as alarming as being a mariner without a ship. Waiting for a “positive theory” may be the respectable and rhetorically advantageous thing to do, but is it scientific, and does it grasp the truth? Jumping into the cold sea of not being “taken seriously by the scientific community” would surely be a shock, but the courageous heart will never look back.
Dean C. Bruckner
In reading the exchange between them, I kept waiting for Larry Arnhart to score some real points against Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and the other intelligent design theorists, but all I saw was the standard Darwinian same–old same–old. This is a pity, because it seems to me that intelligent design is looking for a meaty argument to cut its teeth on. What we have seen so far, though, has been thin gruel indeed.
Professor Arnhart’s argument against Behe just plain missed the point. If Prof. Behe were arguing from ignorance (i.e., that no Darwinian mechanism is yet known for the development of, for instance, the biochemistry of vision), then it would be reasonable to answer, as Prof. Arnhart does, that it’s just a matter of time until we do know such a mechanism. Behe’s actual point, though (at least as I read him), is simply a matter of logic—the Darwinian mechanism, taken on its own terms, cannot account for vision (or the immune system, etc.). There is no way to “get there from here” with random mutations as the only vehicle. One or two steps of the process confer no selective advantage, so there would be no reason for them to be retained. Natural selection can only operate on the raw material present to it at a given moment; “promising innovations” will not pass the filter unless they confer an advantage as they are, not as they might someday become. Prof. Behe’s argument requires an answer to the effect of, “Here are examples of mutations that have been retained, even though they confer no selective advantage, and this is why they are consistent with Darwin’s theory.”
Prof. Arnhart’s take on William Dembski with regard to “recourse to the supernatural” simply seems disingenuous. Prof. Dembski’s theory of specified complexity, in and of itself, requires no theistic conclusions, but as a Christian Dembski explores the implications of the theory from a Christian perspective. A Jewish writer (such as Gerald Schroeder) might have drawn Jewish conclusions (and wouldn’t likely have invoked “the Logos theology of John’s Gospel”). (There is an ironic symmetry here with the oft–repeated claim that Darwinism doesn’t compel atheism; and yet plenty of Darwinists think that it does.) At root, Prof. Dembski simply formulates criteria by which an inference of design can reasonably be made—if a thing looks designed, how do we decide if it makes sense to think that it was designed? The question of the designer’s identity need only be addressed, if at all, much later. (It should be noted, however, that having identified a thing as “designed,” the list of possible designers has been shortened by one—“Nobody” would no longer be one of the options; therein, perhaps, lies the rub.)
When Prof. Arnhart gets around to the point he really wants to make—that we should embrace Darwinism because it supports the idea of a fixed human nature—it strikes me as something of a non sequitur. If a fixed human nature is the requisite concept, I don’t think we need the Darwinian hypothesis to get there. There must be dozens of other (and better) candidates, including intelligent design. The only way that Darwinism distinguishes itself from the crowd is if we stipulate in advance that all candidates will be required to pass a filter for scientific materialism, and, in fact, that is Prof. Arnhart’s criterion. Why scientific materialism? He doesn’t really say; it’s something like a bedrock principle for him. It’s just how things are, not subject to question.
Craig K. Galer
Several obstacles stand in the way of Larry Arnhart’s assertion (borrowed from Francis Fukuyama) “that Darwinian biology rightly understood confirms our commonsense view of human beings as naturally social animals whose social life depends on a natural moral sense, which thus supports the conservative view of human nature.”
First and foremost, Darwin’s materialist underpinnings are part of a far more comprehensive account of nature, Epicurean materialism, stretching all the way back to ancient Greece. He did not invent the theory of evolution. It was already spelled out very clearly by the great Roman Epicurean Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura. Anyone reading this account can only be struck by how little Darwin added.
Why point this out? Because both for Lucretius and for Darwin, nature is essentially amoral. Morality arises only as an accident of natural selection, and it does not arise in just one form; like finch beaks, it has many variations, none of them better than any other.
A sign of this is the strange plea with which Darwin ends his Descent of Man. Man spends much time worrying about the breeding of his animals, Darwin says, taking “scrupulous care” of the “character and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; but when he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes any such care.” The “social instincts” that form “the basis for the development of the moral sense” are a result of natural selection; therefore, we do not find them in all human beings. In fact, the problem is that “the inferior members” of society, who lack not only intelligence but moral sense, are breeding at such an alarming rate as “to supplant the better members of society.”
The cure? “There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.”
The obstacle that Darwin so delicately wishes to lay aside is that most cherished of conservative institutions, monogamous permanent marriage. After all, you don’t breed your best racehorse with only one mare.
A second point. The materialism that undergirds Darwin’s account is today coupled with the Baconian view of nature as malleable to technological force. Any moral limits based on natural limits are only as permanent as the limits of our current technology. If the natural limits that supposedly form the basis of our “moral instincts” are ultimately the result of the chance variations of matter and energy under the pressures of the struggle for preservation, why shouldn’t we take evolution into our own hands? There is no reason for prohibiting the manipulation of nature. Thus, the seemingly natural limit which evolutionary nature has handed us (say, that a baby comes from sexual intercourse between a male and female) can be overridden by in vitro fertilization so as to make the time–honored conservative institution of marriage unnecessary. Darwin’s goal of the propagation of the right sort of human being would be greatly aided by sperm banks, genetic screening, and artificial insemination.
I’m sorry, but Mr. Arnhart seems not to have read Darwin, nor our present situation, very carefully.
Department of Classics and Honors
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Because Larry Arnhart criticizes opponents of Darwinian theory for neglecting the truth and falsity of intellectual arguments in favor of defending the foundations of traditional morality, I was surprised to find him defending Darwinism in much the same manner that he criticizes.
Professor Arnhart emphasizes biological evidence for social traits in humans and animals (possessiveness, territoriality, and cooperation) as support for a notion that these traits are evidence of Darwinian biology. From here, he argues that socialist theories which violate these “instincts” are doomed to fail, and concludes that “a Darwinian understanding of human nature confirms conservative social thought.”
I ask, by what rationale am I compelled to believe that such “biological instincts” are the expression of traits that have been reproductively rewarded? The mere existence of biological evidence for these traits no more proves evolution than the existence of my eye proves it. If we agree that man is biologically equipped for possessiveness or vision, then we can expect to agree that he will demonstrate those whether or not we understand why. How, then, does Darwinism confirm conservatism?
Prof. Arnhart argues that Darwinism denies the Marxist notion of the radical malleabililty of human nature. But if, as he seems to assert, human nature is the product of Darwinian evolution, it is inherently malleable, though perhaps gradually so. His argument that we must embrace Darwinism for its ability to sustain conservative reasoning is unpersuasive.
Mary Ann Field
Phillip E. Johnson, Michael J. Behe, and William A. Dembski have been trying to persuade conservatives to reject Darwinian biology and to adopt “intelligent design theory” as an alternative. They assert that the case for Darwinism is both intellectually weak and morally subversive. In my article I disputed these claims by arguing that Darwinism is intellectually and morally defensible and that a Darwinian naturalism provides scientific support for the conservative view of human nature.
Professor Dembski insists that intelligent design theory is “entirely separable from creationism,” because intelligent design can be detected through scientific methods of natural observation with “no recourse to the supernatural.” Thus, proponents of intelligent design theory are not just criticizing Darwinian theory; they also claim to offer an alternative scientific theory of their own. Like Mr. Lang, I am disappointed by the failure of the intelligent design theorists to fulfill this promise by developing a positive theory of the observable causal mechanisms by which the intelligent designer creates every species of life and every “irreducibly complex” mechanism that is beyond human or animal design. I cannot understand how such a theory could be set forth with “no recourse to the supernatural.” Mr. Wilson insists that the intelligent designer of the universe would have to work by miracles that are outside the observable laws of nature. But wouldn’t explaining such miracles require the “recourse to the supernatural” that Prof. Dembski denies? Believing in miracles is an exercise in religious faith, not in scientific explanation. Natural science can lead us up to ultimate questions about the First Cause of the laws of nature. But answering those ultimate questions is a matter of faith.
I agree with Mr. Bruckner that there are difficulties with Darwinian theory—difficulties that Darwin himself confronted. But I cannot see how emphasizing those difficulties confirms intelligent design theory as an alternative scientific theory.
Mr. Galer claims that Prof. Behe has shown through a purely logical argument that complex mechanisms such as the visual system cannot be explained by Darwinism. Actually, Prof. Behe seems to concede that Darwin offered a plausible account of how complex visual systems could have evolved from simpler systems. As Prof. Behe indicates, however, explaining how a nerve becomes sensitive to light was beyond Darwin, because this would have required a knowledge of biochemistry that was beyond nineteenth–century science.
Mr. Lang says that “there is nothing in the underlying logic of Prof. Dembski’s intelligent design criterion that limits the detection of intelligent design to human or animal intelligence.” But if Prof. Dembski is going to appeal only to natural human experience with “no recourse to the supernatural,” then his “underlying logic” does indeed prevent him from moving to supernatural causes that would be beyond natural experience. As I argued in my article, Messrs. Dembski and Behe fallaciously employ equivocation in the use of the term “intelligent design” so that they can move from “humanly intelligent design” to “divinely intelligent design” without acknowledging that this transcends the world of natural experience and enters the realm of faith.
Ms. Field suggests that conservatives can accept the “biological instincts” of human nature without any need to accept Darwinian explanations for the origin of those instincts. Moreover, she worries that viewing human nature as a product of Darwinian evolution would make human nature “inherently malleable, though perhaps gradually so,” which might sustain the Marxist notion of the radical malleability of human nature.
Although Darwinian biology denies the eternity of species, it affirms the reality of species over long periods of evolutionary time. Even if species are not eternally fixed but have evolved from ancestral species, this does not make them any less real for as long as they endure.
Part of that reality is that the human species is endowed with instinctive propensities to natural desires such as parental care, sexual mating, familial bonding, social ranking, and justice as reciprocity. (These are five of the twenty natural desires that I explain in my book Darwinian Natural Right as rooted in human biology.) If the good is the desirable, then human ethics is natural insofar as it satisfies those natural human desires.
Unlike Mr. Wiker, I see no evidence that Darwin denied the natural basis of the desire for conjugal bonding in marriage. On the contrary, Darwin’s biological theory of marriage as an expression of human nature was elaborated in Edward Westermarck’s The History of Human Marriage, which is still the best defense of the conservative view of marriage as a natural institution.
Against Marxists and other utopian reformers who strive to transform human nature through social experimentation, conservatives look to the natural norms set by human nature. Darwinism sustains that conservative view of social life as rooted in natural law by explaining the biological basis of the natural human inclinations. A Darwinian conservatism could revive the natural law tradition by reaffirming Thomas Aquinas’ insight that “natural right is that which nature has taught all animals.”
When James Nuechterlein (“Goo–Goo Time,” November 2000) suggests that the thoughtful and informed independent voter is a treasured myth, he is certainly being cynical. That’s okay; cynicism is often justified by facts. But when he says that the beliefs of most American voters “can be defined . . . as either liberal or conservative, which means they fit more comfortably within” one or the other of our two major parties, he is both cynical and mistaken.
In fact, most Americans of my acquaintance (and generation) hold an eclectic pattern of beliefs, and are not easily labeled. It is perhaps facile to observe, by way of example, that one of the major parties is consistent in its support of abortion rights, and another is consistent in its support of capital punishment, while a significant portion of the electorate is appalled by both.
Because of our two–party arrangement, citizens are called, in election after election, to choose people and parties for whom they feel little passion (and that little is often manufactured by advertising and ratings–hungry television programs). At best, they may choose to vote on a single issue, be it the environment or the military or some other specificity on which they can agree with their chosen candidate. Never mind the deep and, yes, philosophical disagreements on a host of lesser subjects, all of which the voter has resignedly squelched in order to fulfill his or her civic duty.
To dismiss as “radicals of right or left” those whose political convictions are fully and effectively represented by neither the Democrats nor the Republicans is unfairly reductive. It presumes that liberalism and conservatism in their present forms are the only viable philosophies of government; worse, it presumes that two mammoth organizations, answerable both to corporate donors and to their own radical fringes, are the natural and inevitable vehicles of American democracy.
The problem with those “good–government” types whom Mr. Nuechterlein disdains is not that they want politics without partisanship. It is merely that they need more parties to choose from.
(The Rev.) Michael Church
St. Luke’s Lutheran Church
Farmingdale, New York
Three quick points: 1) I do not see why it is “cynical” to point out the fact, known to all careful students of American politics, that, as Pastor Church puts it, “the thoughtful and informed independent voter is a treasured myth.” There’s a difference between skepticism and cynicism. 2) I did not say that “the beliefs of most American voters ‘can be defined . . . as either liberal or conservative.’” I said that only of “strong partisans.” 3) I also did not “dismiss as ‘radicals of right or left’” all those who think their political views are adequately represented by neither Republicans nor Democrats. I made the quite different point that “it is only radicals of right or left who consider Republicans and Democrats as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”
Pastor Church’s argument, in short, is not with what I wrote, but with what his misreading made of what I wrote.
How meaningfully can Steven D. Smith (“Legal Theories Nobody Believes,” November 2000) analyze studies of the Supreme Court when he apparently does not fully comprehend the nature of the judicial process, the separation of powers, and the rule of law?
He says that “judicial invalidation of laws enacted by elected legislators (or, in the case of ballot initiatives, by the citizens themselves) appears to transgress the premises of democracy. Why, in a nation committed to ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ should five robed appointees—or, often, just one—be permitted to overrule the decisions of the people or their chosen representatives?”
According to Professor Smith, the courts should never reverse an act of Congress or of a state legislature, or invalidate a referendum, no matter what they provide. But in that situation the political majority always has uncontrolled power, and minorities, including holders of property, have no rights.
In that case, why have a Supreme Court at all?
West New York, New Jersey
Though I would plead guilty to “not fully comprehend[ing] the nature of the judicial process, the separation of powers, and the rule of law,” I protest that I should not be convicted of this deficiency on the evidence of the essay that Mr. Tomasin criticizes (but seems not to have read with any care). The problem of the legitimacy of judicial review in a regime that counts itself democratic (or the “countermajoritarian difficulty,” as it’s often called) is a familiar one—and the subject of virtual libraries of analysis by political theorists and legal scholars. In my essay (which was after all a review of several books), I simply note that problem, as countless others have done, and I describe and comment on the responses of the authors whose books I reviewed. The review offers no affirmative prescriptions or prohibitions—and certainly does not advocate the positions Mr. Tomasin ascribes to me—concerning the proper judicial role.
In “Populism and Parental Choice” (November 2000), Professor John E. Coons considers in passing the dangers of a loss of religious identity for religious schools; although he does not say so explicitly, he appears to think that they can be avoided by carefully crafted legislation. He should, in my opinion, be far less optimistic. The relatively minimal regulations of today can easily be expanded later, and schools will then be deeply dependent upon public funds.
But I wish to concentrate on an issue that is often overlooked in these debates—the issue of distinctive educational identity. It has happened before that when something desirable (say, a college education) is declared a right for all, quality is lost in the attempt to provide it. This danger is more imminent for voucher schools than is the loss of religious identity, for even the “minimal” requirements already proposed raise it to a serious likelihood. It is hard to believe, for example, that college–prep private high schools with stiff academic admissions tests would be able to use these unmodified amidst regulations for “racial neutrality,” which always end up requiring particular numerical outcomes. As a plausible precedent, charter schools in Michigan are required to admit students without regard to academic ability. There is also the matter of standards for graduation. In the Michigan proposal, eligibility for vouchers is tied to whether particular public schools have an excessive proportion of student failures. This would provide voucher schools with a powerful incentive not to fail “too many” students themselves.
Finally, would voucher schools retain undiminished their power to expel students? It is an unpopular fact that private schools are safer and academically better than their public counterparts in part because permanent expulsion is a real possibility for incorrigibly disruptive, profane, or dangerous students. I am highly dubious about whether this freedom would continue once vouchers were accepted.
Many private schools have viewed themselves as providing a highly specific type of education to those who value it. Public schools, on the other hand, must regard themselves as providing general educational (and other) services to any who need them. Between these two visions there is a great gulf fixed. When private schools become quasi–public by accepting vouchers, they will sooner or later exchange one self–image for the other. Thus, in all probability, the very educational superiority for which private schools are valued will be eroded as a direct consequence of universalizing “private” education.
I take Lydia McGrew’s point seriously and have done so since the 1960s. Stephen Sugarman and I have consistently promoted strong private school identity both in theory and in the details of model legislation.
The answer to the legislative threat to school identity differs from state to state depending upon the availability of the popular initiative to reform the relevant constitution. Ms. McGrew’s Michigan (along with roughly twenty other states) allows such amendment by the people without legislative involvement. In such states proponents of school choice can and should draft their proposals so as to disable future legislators from increasing regulation affecting school identity. One such model reform would simply cap all controls on private school curriculum and hiring practices at their present (or some historic) level. This form of amendment would also continue the school’s control over its own discipline (academic and behavioral) so long as it disclosed its rules to parents at the time of application.
Thus, the school could require its students to take and pass those ethics and religion courses that it prefers. It would also control the bulk of its admissions, exactly as it does today, but now without fear of legislative manipulation. However, one–fifth or so of its new admissions each year would go to low–income children of the school’s selection—in accord with the settled practice (or expressed aspiration) of most private schools.
New regulation of facilities and of health and safety would in theory remain possible—but only by a substantial super–majority of both houses of the state legislature, with corresponding protections against local government bodies. Schools would not be regulated fiscally beyond requiring general disclosures indicating solvency. The initiative would guarantee a voucher large enough to encourage new schools, and extra tuition would be allowed, so long as it was means–tested (a practice familiar in the private sector).
Obviously legislatures historically have had the capacity (and often the inclination) to overregulate schools. In states like Michigan, voucher initiatives, when properly drafted, thus represent the instrument not to diminish but to enhance both the security of the school’s identity and the diversity of choices for the family. In non–initiative states, by contrast, the legislature will remain a threat to private schools until the general culture of schooling is altered. Such a fundamental shift is predictable as choice demonstrates its benign effects in those states that successfully reform by initiative. In fact, the change may already be occurring at some deep level of civic consciousness. This is suggested by the popularity of the Milwaukee program, a reform legislated in a state that lacks the popular initiative. State regulators in Wisconsin have tried and (so far) failed to strangle this promising use of private enterprise.
The Wisconsin experience holds a political lesson for other states—both those with and those without the initiative. As of last November, citizens in six states have sent eight voucher initiatives to the polls. Unlike the progressive Wisconsin program, none of these propositions was written to include the necessary minimum protections for those non–rich families who most need choice; and all eight were crushed by huge majorities of the voters. Meanwhile, national opinion surveys and electoral results show parental choice to be a very popular idea—but only when vulnerable families are given a modest preference. Paradoxically, it appears that the best opportunity to protect the identity of private schools will come as society helps them to reach out to the poor through subsidized choice provided by well–drafted initiatives. Ms. McGrew’s saving remnant may find its own identity rescued by the democratic instincts of ordinary people.
In his review of Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (November 2000), John J. Reilly overlooks Barzun’s refusal to face the dark side of the Enlightenment. Barzun praises the admittedly subversive agenda of L’Encyclopedie, thus embracing the atheism, materialism, and cynicism of the philosophes. Edmund Burke was right on point when, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he stated, “We cannot be ignorant of the spirit of atheistical fanaticism that is inspired by a multitude of writings dispersed with incredible assiduity and expense and by sermons delivered in all the streets and places of public resort in Paris. These writings and sermons have filled the populace with a black and savage atrocity of mind, which supersedes in them the common feelings of Nature, as well as all sentiments of morality and religion.” In my view, From Dawn to Decadence carries on in that same “spirit of atheistical fanaticism.”
As for Barzun’s defense of Rousseau, if people can’t yet make the connection between Rousseau’s puerile utopian socialism and the bestiality and madness of the Terror, the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulags, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it only tends to prove that many of us are as self–deceiving and blind to human nature as Messrs. Rousseau and Barzun.
For Barzun to rail, as he does at the end of his book, at the incivility of the current “postmodern” generation is both disingenous and ludicrous. Our current crop of deconstructionist fanatics are the Frankenstein’s monsters, i.e., the unnatural children, of modernism. Mr. Reilly has, like most reviewers, chosen to genuflect to Barzun, presumably due to Barzun’s great age and eminence in academia. May I be permitted to raise a voice in dissent? Napolean Bonaparte is said to have referred to Talleyrand as “excrement in a silk stocking.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that about Jacques Barzun, it seems an apposite description of his book.
Woodland Hills, California
The Enlightenment is one of those things that it does little good to condemn. Since everyone, left and right, pious and atheist, has been about equally influenced by it, any critique is part of the phenomenon. Regarding Rousseau, I believe that Barzun’s point is that, while there have indeed been many puerile utopians, a fair reading of Rousseau’s works shows that he did not happen to have been one of them.
There is a commendable lack of fanaticism, atheistical or otherwise, in From Dawn to Decadence. We would do well to imitate it.
Putting words into a writer’s mouth and then pillorying him for them is hardly a characteristic either of responsible journalism or serious debate.
There is nothing in my New England Journal of Medicine editorial—so unfairly criticized by Richard John Neuhaus (While We’re At It, November 2000)—that would lead any objective reader to the erroneous conclusion that I would recommend basing a decision about physician–assisted suicide on such a shallow notion as “whatever the patient wants” or “whatever the doctor deems to be ‘the unique needs’ of the patient.” Neither in the article nor elsewhere have I ever written or said such a thing, nor do I subscribe to it.
Not only that, but I have been an outspoken critic of the Oregon legislation that allows physician–assisted suicide without weighing the entire range of complexity of an individual’s request. I am anything but the “strong proponent of physician–assisted suicide” that Father Neuhaus calls me. The fact is that situations do arise—no more commonly, perhaps, than one or two times in any physician’s career—in which even the finest efforts at palliation cannot relieve suffering. It is then, I believe, that a physician, a patient, a family, and the wise counsel of consultants may come together in agreement that such a course is permissible.
Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D.
New Haven, Connecticut
Dr. Nuland was quoted verbatim and in context. His editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes: “Physicians who believe that it is a person’s right to choose death when suffering cannot otherwise be relieved must turn to their consciences in deciding whether to provide help in such a situation. Once the decision to intervene has been made, the goal should be to ensure that death is as merciful and serene as possible.” It is true that in the New Republic (November 2, 1998) he criticized what he sees as several deficiencies in the Oregon law, but in the same article he writes, “This is not to say that it will ever be possible to relieve every patient’s suffering so thoroughly that there will no longer be any occasion to consider assisted suicide or active forms of euthanasia, such as lethal injections.” He further states, “If the fully informed person whose suffering I cannot relieve repeatedly asks that I aid him in his determination to end his life, whether by pill or injection, I am obliged to do so. A tolerant society should allow it.” Assuming that Dr. Nuland believes strongly what he says he believes, it is accurate to describe him as a “strong proponent of physician–assisted suicide.”
“Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity” (November 2000) is both heartening and a call to something more than passive gratitude. At a recent reconciliation service cosponsored by the Christian congregation I attend and our local synagogue, I was very deeply moved and, at the same time, fearful that the fraternal and spiritual intensity of that moment would dissipate in the light of our usual preoccupations. It is true that our congregations already share ventures in public service. But the uniquely sacred nature of reconciliation, if it is to be effectively sustained, calls for a correspondingly sacred expression.
With this end in mind, I suggest that we need, more than anything else, to pray together—to establish some calendar and ritual, grounded in our common scriptures, that will place us, as one, in the presence of God. Nothing will so sustain our good intentions, prevent our slipping back into indifference and suspicion, or render us ready for new revelations as will our common prostration before the mystery of divine purpose.
Until we pray together with some regularity, I fear that good will and good deeds alone will not achieve that familial harmony we are meant to enjoy as children of a common Father.
John J. Savant
Dominican University of California
San Rafael, California
Thank you for printing “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity.” I found the document heartening and moving. But its billing on your front cover, “What Jews Believe About Christianity,” is at least preposterous and probably irresponsible. As the document itself puts it, the authors and signatories are “speaking only for ourselves—an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars.” The statement is the product of a group of more or less liberal–leaning, or at least ecumenically inclined, academics and rabbis. A statement by a similarly composed group of liberal–leaning, ecumenically inclined Christian academics and clerics on some major topic of Christian faith would hardly be billed in First Things as “What Christians believe about . . .” I have not yet seen Jewish response to the statement, but it’s fair to predict it will cause some controversy in some influential corners of the Jewish world. It will no doubt be provocative, lauded by many, suspected by some, and rejected by others. In any case it will provide occasion for substantial conversation and debate among Jews, academic, rabbinic, lay, and secular. Wonderful though the document is to my eyes, touting it as “What Jews Believe About Christianity” is just plain silly.
P. J. Nugent
To Mr. Nugent: We thought of making it “What Somewhat More Than One Hundred
and Seventy Distinguished Jewish Professors and Rabbis Think About Christianity,”
but it just wouldn’t fit on the cover.