The Public Square

Richard  John  Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 110 (February 2001): 57-76.

The Two Politics of Election 2000

Late on the night of November 7, I announced to friends with whom I was watching the returns that I was going to retire as a political prognisticator. Not that I was ever a certified expert on political outcomes. Experts are certified chiefly by having been wrong more often than ordinary people. In fact, I had a pretty fair track record in predicting elections. But this time I paid the price of relying on inside information from the Bush camp. Right up to election day, Bush was supposed to win by at least a ten point margin in the popular vote and 330 or more in the electoral college. I have reason to believe that George W. Bush expected that as well. He and his people do not have the option of retiring as political prognisticators. I do.

More precisely, I am a recovering prognisticator. Which means I am subject to relapses, and I may fall off the wagon once or twice in the course of the following reflection. My purpose is to try to understand what happened, in the hope of getting a fix on our political culture and what might be done about it. As of this writing, things have quieted down. Only a few days after Bush had definitively prevailed, the bizarre Florida circus of counts and recounts, with its dimpled ballots and pregnant chads and legions of lawyers, seemed to be something that had happened months ago. Rumblings and rantings about a “constitutional crisis” fell silent. Suddenly, television was again serials, game shows, and the usual narcotics for mind and soul. America had returned, with stunning speed, to its strange normality. Or so it seemed.

While the election campaign that Mr. Gore appeared determined to keep going until the numbers came out right may have exhausted all but the most hard–core political junkies and made the rest of us grateful that there is not another presidential election for four years, we should not too quickly acquiesce in the urgings that we “put it behind us” and “move on.” There are things worth learning from what happened on November 7 and from the prolonged campaign after the campaign. Three questions are of particular interest: What, if anything, does the election tell us about the state of the culture wars? How has the role of the courts in the post–election settlement changed the debate over the judicial usurpation of politics? And—risking my recovery with just one last snort of Old Prognosticator—what does all this portend for the future of the political culture?

To judge by the exit polls, and we have no better indicator at present, we are indeed two nations. At least two. Remember that much–discussed map in blue and red, with most of the country red (Bush) but with blue (Gore) dominating the populous coasts. In an amusing instance of what Marxists used to call reification, editorials and pundits talked about what The Map is “telling” us. For a time, The Map assumed oracular status. But of course The Map isn’t talking. More than a hundred million voters each had something in mind, but discerning their intent is no easy matter (and not only  when, as in Florida, they failed to indicate their intent on the ballot). But statistical numbers–crunching does indicate that people fitting this description or that voted this way or that. The indication is that we are, roughly speaking, two nations, and the divide is not economic but, for lack of a better term, cultural.

Both parties are—among many other things that they are—parties of the rich. It is said that Democrats this year outdid Republicans in big donations of $50,000, $100,000 and more. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Silicon Alley are solidly Gore country, and Bill Clinton had successfully triangulated much of Wall Street into his camp. Of the ten richest U.S. senators, seven are Democrats. Gore carried eight of the ten richest states, but only one of the ten poorest. So the divide is not economic class, but something else. That something else is suggested by the one–quarter of voters who said that the most important thing is whether a candidate is honest. Eighty percent of them voted for Bush. Twelve percent said the most important thing is whether a candidate “cares.” Eighty–three percent of them voted for Gore. There is a similar gap between people who basically want to be in charge of their lives and people who think they need somebody to fight their battles. Gore promised again and again, “I will fight for you!”

Economics has not disappeared as a factor. Bush beat Gore 54–43 with people who have incomes of $100,000 or more. But he had a larger advantage, 56–41, among married people with children. Among people who go to church once a week, Bush won 57–40, and among the 14 percent who attend church more than once a week, Bush obliterated Gore 63–36. The over–educated and the under–educated vote Democratic. Voters with postgraduate education went for Gore 52–44, as he was also favored by women working full–time (58–39) and by people who do not have children in the home (50–46). People who say they never go to church backed Gore 61–32, as did 70 percent of those who support the unlimited abortion license and the same percentage of those who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. To modify a motto from the 1992 election, It’s sex, stupid.

The personal is the political, the cultural revolutionaries of the 1960s declared. Before that, politics was mainly about great economic and military questions, issues of national security in the face of the Communist threat, and, for some years, racial desegregation and ending poverty. Now it is about the proper roles of men and women, same–sex unions and divorce and having children and a host of other questions once thought not to be political, and all of them somehow entangled with and ever returning to the conflict created by the Roe v. Wade discovery in the Constitution of an unlimited abortion license. About peace and prosperity there is slight dispute. Ask if the country is on the “right track,” and a solid majority says yes. Ask whether it is on the right track morally, and 57 percent say no.

In politics, as in physics, an action creates a reaction, writes David Frum in the National Post. “As one part of American society has become more secular, more permissive, more relativistic in its morality, another part has recoiled to become more religious and traditionalist. The Religious Right is just as new a phenomenon as the Secular Left that called it into existence. The religious conservatism of the 1980s and 1990s was the work of people—mostly parents of young children—who felt themselves to be under attack from a suddenly and inexplicably hostile society. They feared sex educators, Hollywood producers, gay–rights activists, and church–state separation fundamentalists fully as much as the latter would later fear them.” In November 23 percent of voters said they would be “scared” if Gore won, 26 percent if Bush won.

Not Suddenly Last November

Frum’s analysis rings true, but his conclusion is less than persuasive. “It’s an outcome as troubling as it is unprecedented—and it suggests that the most important task facing the next President of the United States will be less political than cultural: the reconstitution of a functioning moral consensus in a suddenly polarized country.” The circumstance is not so unprecedented. Jimmy Carter, to cite but one instance, ran on a moral–cultural platform in 1976 (“I will never lie to you.” “A government as good as the American people.”), and what would come to be called the religious right was largely triggered by the perception of conservative Christians that he had betrayed them, notably on abortion. Reagan championed traditional values in 1980 and 1984 and won solid majorities. So also—although it may be hard to remember the pre–Lewinsky era—Bill Clinton positioned himself as a cultural moderate (abortion would be “safe, legal, and rare”) and was elected twice with a minority of the popular vote. The reality of two nations has not happened “suddenly.” The divide between the politics of rights and wrongs, on the one hand, and the politics of rights and laws, on the other, has been with us for at least thirty years. Politics is mainly about culture, which is to say it is mainly about what people believe. A “functioning moral consensus” might be a very nice thing to have, but it is probably not an option in a “polarized country” where 49 percent of the voters say they are scared of the culturally defined other side.

But let’s return to exit polls for a moment, this one by the Los Angeles Times. The most frequently mentioned concern was “moral/ethical values,” with 35 percent of all voters putting that at the top of their list (55 percent of Bush voters, 17 percent of Gore voters). For 14 percent of all voters abortion was a priority; that was true for 17 percent of Bush voters and only 12 percent of Gore voters, indicating once again that a pro–life position is an election plus. The Barna Research Group has a particular interest in the “born–again” vote, and its national survey indicates that born–againers went 57–42 for Bush, although, for some odd reason, Gore was rapidly gaining among those who decided late in the campaign. Asked why they chose one candidate over another, the dominant reasons behind born–again support for Bush were “character, political philosophy, and his position on abortion.” Another oddity is that Bush did better (58–40) among voters attending mainline/oldline Protestant churches (e.g., American Baptist, Presbyterian Church USA, ELCA Lutheran, United Methodist) than among the born–again. The vote was almost evenly split among Protestants in non–mainline churches, which Barna says is a result skewed by the fact that more than 90 percent of blacks voted for Gore.

Nationally, a little over half the Catholic vote went for Gore. Catholics who go to Mass every week—30 to 45 percent, depending on whose figures you credit—voted overwhelmingly for Bush. That may suggest that the message, especially on abortion and parental choice in education, is getting through to Catholics within hearing range, but most are not within hearing range. Moreover, in some states with large Catholic populations (e.g., Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois) union leadership was more than usually effective in getting out the vote for Gore. Teachers unions opposing school choice were a major factor in sharpening the conflict between organized labor and Catholic leadership. This time the unions were also helped by ill–designed school voucher proposals in Michigan and California, both of which went down to crushing defeat.

As always in the reconfiguration of political cultures, there are many pieces in play. Historian Stanley Young of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst argues that the cultural and sectional factors are converging in a way that is reversing the historic roles of the two parties. In this election, he notes, the Democrats took every state north of the Mason–Dixon line except for Indiana and Ohio, while Republicans won every state south of that line, along with the Plains states. “The Republican Party of our day,” he writes, “stresses ‘traditional values,’ ‘free trade,’ and ‘state’s rights’—all themes that one might have heard at any Democratic national convention from 1860 to 1924.” Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and Reagan’s triumph in 1980, he suggests, were not so much a matter of the Republicans capturing the South as of the South capturing the Republicans. It is an interesting thesis, although he pushes it too far when he writes that “In the past twenty years, conservative thought as represented in conservative journals and think tanks has increasingly come to reflect southern traditions, experience, and cultural ideas. Conservatives have all but forgotten their Yankee roots.” That is true of, for instance, the very small Rockford Institute in Illinois, but hardly the case with the Manhattan Institute or, in Washington, the American Enterprise Institute or Heritage Foundation.

Symbolic Hand Waving

More typical of conservative thought about the politics of culture is Francis Fukuyama of George Mason University. Conservatives have won the economic arguments, he says, and on the cultural front they have done a fine job of showing how the decline of the traditional, two–parent family is linked to a host of social ills. But in a society of divorce, broken families, and single parents, conservative proposals such as repealing the marriage tax are little more than “symbolic hand waving” and will have slight effect in the real world. “This leaves many conservatives hoping for a religious revival, or a cultural shift like the one that took place during the Victorian era,” Fukuyama writes. Neither prospect, he says, can undo the fact of an information society in which work is more mental than physical and women often make more money than men, and neither can undo the reality of contraception and abortion which has broken the links between sex, babies, and the necessary male. This leaves conservatives moralistically complaining about “moral decline” in a society in which “the greatest moral passion turns out to be hostility to ‘moralism’ in areas related to sex and family life.”

“This bodes poorly for conservatives,” Fukuyama concludes, “who feel much more comfortable thumping the tub over taxes or defense than laying out a thoughtful position on single motherhood or gay marriage. They’d better start thinking fast, since the cultural issues are the only ones still capable of stimulating voter passion.” Taxes and defense are the old “male” issues that no longer cut it in a time that political scientist James Kurth describes as “the feminization of politics.” In response to Fukuyama’s argument, one notes that religious awakenings are unpredictable in their source and their consequences. People are not determined by technological or economic changes. Morality is and always has been, at least in large part, a matter of resisting the easy way. People do it every day, and an awakening might mean that many more people do it much more often, until it becomes a way of life reinforced by sanctions, formal and informal, against those who don’t do it.

In addition, some changes, such as the abortion license, are not so set in concrete as Fukuyama suggests. Bush repeatedly asserted the goal of moving toward a society in which “every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life.” That can be done step by step—by signing a ban against partial–birth abortion, and by, in the first days of his Administration, issuing executive orders that reverse Clinton’s reversal of the minimal pro–life measures ordered by Reagan and sustained by the first President Bush. Yet Fukuyama is undoubtedly correct in recognizing that most conservatives, thinking themselves to be hard–nosed realists, have not faced the reality that politics today is preeminently the politics of culture. Deploring moral decline is necessary, lest we get used to the way things are, but it is not enough. The winning side will be the side that more convincingly articulates a more promising future that both accommodates legitimate interests and appeals to a sense of moral possibility. That, as I understand it, is the intuition behind Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” a formulation unjustly derided by many conservatives.

Mr. Gore’s campaign in the courts after the election provided some pleasant moments in this office. It was especially nice to have sundry pundits recalling what we have been saying about the judicial usurpation of politics and suggesting that this journal is owed apologies. Apologies, I should note, are accepted graciously and without even a hint of smug self–congratulation. Our 1996 symposium on judicial usurpation and subsequent articles were criticized for being alarmist; but the Florida Supreme Court changed many minds, and I now note that even worthies such as George Will are using the feared R–word, referring to the “regime” of lawless law–making by judges. And of course it was delicious to see liberals reverse course and condemn government by judges when, as they claimed, the U.S. Supreme Court gave Bush the presidency. The banner headline in the New York Times declared that Bush prevailed by a “single vote” on the Court. That is not true, of course. It takes five votes to make a majority, and it was in fact seven votes that rejected the scheme of the Florida court, thus ending Gore’s ambition to selectively count until he got the count he wanted.

I confess to being disappointed, however, by the number of commentators who said they had at last been awakened to the tyranny of judicial usurpation but then expressed such deep gratitude that the U.S. Supremes had “saved us” from a constitutional crisis. Both left and right seemed to think that there would be something very wrong about resolving the confusion legislatively—by the Florida legislature certifying its electors and, if necessary, by the House of Representatives choosing the President. The Constitution specifies the way of legislative resolution, but most pundits seemed terrified by the prospect. Thus we had, at the same time and often by the same people, a decrying of judicial usurpation and paeans of thanksgiving that the Supreme Court had spared us the awful prospect of self–government through the constitutional means of representative democracy. Having said that, I do think the decision of the Supreme Court was the right one. It was a sharp and dramatic rebuke of the Florida court’s usurpation of legislative authority in attempting to change election laws after the election. A more effective challenge to the regime of judicial usurpation, however, awaits an occasion when a wayward court is set right not by another court but by those who are elected to represent the sovereign people.

There is much more to be said, and certainly much more will be said for years to come, about this strange election. As Mr. Dooley observed, it seems that God loves little children, drunks, and the United States of America. We muddled through, again. For the moment. Neither party is all one way or the other but, more now than before this election, each approximately represents the deepest differences that divide our society.  The liberals who lost say that the closeness of the vote means that President Bush must govern from what they define as the center, meaning that he should govern as though they had won. I very much hope, and expect, that he will not accept that self–serving counsel. The alternative is not unbridled conservative partisanship. The alternative is the steady courage and imagination that might, over time, restore the difficult but necessary dialectic between the politics of rights and laws and the politics of rights and wrongs.

When Bishops Speak

“The USCC is the religious lobby of the Democratic Party,” announced the monsignor over his postprandial cigar—the cigar being near certain evidence that this is a person to be taken seriously. The USCC, of course, is the United States Catholic Conference, which is the public action arm, so to speak, of the NCCB, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (The relationship between the two entities is currently being reconfigured in a way that, it is said, will make Catholic advocacy more accountable to the bishops.) I have from time to time felt compelled to offer a word of caution about the bishops’ overextending their competence—meaning both authority and knowledge—in pronouncing on public policy. But the pronouncement of the monsignor, who admittedly was in an expansive mood after an excellent dinner with an unusually good merlot, struck me as another instance of overextension.

The maxim that you have seen before in these pages is this: “When it is not necessary for the Church to speak, it is necessary for the Church not to speak.” That’s true for all churches and religious communities, but especially true for the Catholic Church. The bishops, after all, are not executives of majority–determined positions, but claim a certain charism of apostolic teaching authority. In this context, the Church speaking does not mean simply discussing or opining or raising concerns. It means the Church, through the collective voice of the bishops, speaking authoritatively, taking a position for this policy option and against the other. The bishops are saying that x policy is in accord with Catholic teaching and y policy is not, or at least that one is more in accord than the other. Faithful Catholics understand that when bishops speak, individually or collectively, Catholics should be disposed to obey, or, at the very least, to pay most respectful attention.

That’s the theory. Episcopal authority, like all authority, can be recklessly used and easily squandered. That is part of what happened years ago when the NCCB issued a long pastoral letter on economic justice, and another on the morality of nuclear deterrence. Those were teaching moments and learning moments, also for the bishops. In more recent years, the NCCB has generally contained the penchant for issuing comprehensive pronouncements on great public policy questions where the Church’s authoritative teaching is not univocally clear. After the economics pastoral, which pronounced on everything from marginal tax rates to just income distribution, a mischievous journalist called a large number of bishops and reported that most of them did not know what a marginal tax rate is. To put it gently, they did not know what they were talking about. Thus is authority squandered.

Addressing Public Scandal

A question frequently raised today about episcopal authority is of a somewhat different nature. It is usually framed somewhat like this: What are the bishops doing about the public scandal created by the fact that some, probably most, of the more prominent Catholic politicians in the country are explicitly and actively opposed to the legal protection of unborn children? To take an obvious example, why isn’t Senator Ted Kennedy publicly censured by the Church or declared excommunicate? That is a hardball question and should not be evaded. A while back the NCCB issued a splendid statement, Living the Gospel of Life, which was very specific about the responsibility of Catholic politicians and others in the public arena. But many politicians seem not to be listening. Over the years I have discussed this privately with bishops, always to find that the answers are, as it is inevitably said, complex.

Bishops speak of personal encounters with such public figures, in which they have argued, admonished, exhorted, reproached, threatened, encouraged, and begged. All to little or no avail. Perhaps a politician has a spiritual director who tells him that what he is doing is permissible, and that spiritual director is a member of a religious order over which the bishop has no direct jurisdiction. Is he to challenge the entire religious order, with all its national and international structures, and how could he effectively do that? For instance, during his years in Congress and since, Father Robert Drinan, S.J., has a consistent pro–choice record and has provided Catholic cover for other pro–choice politicians. Just as consistently, Fr. Drinan has been defended by the Jesuit authorities. Is a bishop to take on the entire Society of Jesus? Apart from the fact that most bishops, like most of us, are not the stuff of which martyrs are made, how might he go about such a challenge? These are among the questions that are asked.

As for excommunication, it is not so simple. A person excommunicates himself; the Church simply declares what he has done to himself. Committing a mortal sin and remaining in it is not so easy to do. First, it must involve what is called a grave matter. Complicity in the killing of unborn children is certainly that. About that the Church’s teaching leaves no doubt at all. But then such sin must be committed with full knowledge and full consent. The human mind and will are not easily discerned. Full knowledge? Full consent? Here speaks a politician of my acquaintance: “I am a Catholic and I strive to be a faithful Catholic. I know what the Church teaches, and I honestly want to assent. But I do not understand where the Church gets the scientific knowledge to claim that the embryo or fetus is a human being, and, as a practical matter, about which I know a great deal, I believe that laws prohibiting abortion would not only be ineffective in saving unborn children but would produce other and greater evils.” And so forth. The reader can readily imagine the other arguments advanced by this politician.

This politician is very deeply confused, to be sure, but is he with full knowledge and full consent complicit in the grave evil of abortion? He says that he wants to be persuaded of the Church’s teaching and prays that, if and when persuaded, he would have the courage to act on his conviction. But, he rightly says, the Church teaches that he must act according to his conscience. He knows she also teaches that the conscience must be rightly formed by the truth, and he says he is trying to form his conscience, also in light of the Church’s teaching. Meanwhile, he adds, he can do a great deal of good on many other fronts in his vocation as a politician, and his party would quickly end his career if he were not clearly perceived as pro–choice. Is he to be excommunicated? Has he excommunicated himself? Of course, this is what is called a hard case.

More common, it seems, are the Catholic politicians who explicitly, publicly, and repeatedly leave no doubt that they reject the Church’s teaching on the gospel of life. They regularly go to Mass and receive communion, and the bishop does nothing. Or so it appears. I am often asked by pro–life activists—brave and often heroic souls who have for years and at great personal cost borne faithful witness to the Church’s teaching—and frequently they ask with tears: “Why doesn’t the bishop do something?” I have responses, but I do not have an answer that satisfies.

There is another aspect of this. Quite apart from the state of a politician’s soul and the related question of excommunication, there is the matter of public scandal when prominent Catholics act contrary to the Church’s teaching. Public scandal is objective fact that cannot be fudged. It is not fudged, it is very directly addressed, in the aforementioned NCCB statement Living the Gospel of Life. As it has been addressed repeatedly by the bishops. Individual bishops in their dioceses have publicly and unmistakably made clear, sometimes naming names, that Catholics who support the unlimited abortion license, whatever their claims of conscience, are in objective violation of Church teaching. Admittedly, many bishops do not publicly address this public scandal. My impression is that most have. But frequently it is done in a muted and nervous tone, in part because bishops do not want to be viewed as “controversial,” and in part because they are intimidated by the USCC legal counsel, which is embarrassingly timid about IRS regulations regarding anything that touches on electoral politics.

It is often asked why the bishops are so muted when in some other churches clergy openly endorse candidates and even invite them to campaign from their pulpits. There are, I believe, compelling pastoral reasons why bishops do not do that, and forbid priests to do it. Politics and religion inevitably do mix, but the overt religionizing of politics and politicizing of religion is good for neither politics nor religion. Yet the urgent problem of public scandal posed by pro–abortion politicians and other public figures remains. Bishops must find a way to address that problem candidly and effectively. It is inescapably part of their first responsibility, which is to be teachers. In the view of many thoughtful Catholics, the failure to address effectively the scandal of Catholic politicians who publicly reject the Church’s teaching on the gospel of life is gravely undermining the credibility of episcopal authority.

Lobbying Laundry List

Restoring such credibility requires speaking more clearly where episcopal competence is beyond dispute, and much more cautiously where it is in doubt. The reaction to the nuclear and economic pastoral letters, and the fiasco that resulted in the abandonment of a letter on women after years of squabbling, were learning and humbling moments for the bishops, and that is all to the good. Also encouraging is the current, however tentative, effort to make the staff of the USCC, which has at times been notoriously partisan in a leftward direction, more accountable to the bishops. For years people have complained, with considerable justice, about the laundry list of issues on which the USCC lobbies Congress, a list that has too often lent credibility to the complaint that it is, as the monsignor says, the religious lobby of the Democratic Party. It is not only Congress and the federal government. The list is represented as “the position of the bishops” to provide guidance for 148 dioceses and for Catholic policy advocates at every level of government across the country.

The USCC’s latest “Legislative Program for Congress” contains, as I count them, eighty–four bills or proposals on which a position is taken. That does sound like a laundry list, but keep in mind that twenty–two of those items are indisputably part of the pro–life agenda, dealing with abortion, physician–assisted suicide, the research use of embryos, and so forth. Six items under the general counsel’s office are connected with church–state relations, religious freedom, and tax exemption. And the education department has eighteen positions, mainly in support of parental choice in education. So these three offices account for forty–six of the eighty–four positions, and none of them strains the credibility of episcopal competence. Not so for some items under communications (e.g., funding for public television), domestic and social development (social security and health care proposals), and international justice and peace (Kyoto climate control, funding the UN). One would search in vain for Catholic teaching that requires these policy positions; of the positions that are disputed along partisan lines, the USCC typically comes down on the Democratic side; and the competence of bishops to speak on these questions is, to say the least, not self–evident.

Ten of the eighty–four positions taken are in the category of migration and refugee issues before Congress. Here, too, questions could be raised, but the fact is that on immigration the U.S. bishops take pretty much the position of the Wall Street Journal, which, only half tongue in cheek, calls for a constitutional amendment abolishing national borders. The Catholic Church is the largest, and possibly the most effective, pro–immigration organization in the country. This has everything to do with strategic and pastoral planning, reflecting the fact that Latinos constitute at least a quarter of the more than sixty million Catholics in the U.S., and some expect they will be half the Catholic population by the middle of the century. Can moral arguments backed by Catholic social doctrine be mustered in support of limiting or even cutting back on immigration? Certainly. But my impression is that making them is like spitting in the wind. On this question, the bishops have a long–standing and settled conviction—not unrelated to the immigrant history of Catholicism in this country—that a generous immigration policy is good for poor people seeking opportunity, good for America, and good for the Catholic Church.

A Stark Polarization

So is the monsignor right in saying that the USCC is the religious lobby of the Democratic Party? In part, yes, and that is a problem. But it is less the case than it was ten years ago, and very much less the case than it was, say, seventy years ago. Fr. John A. Ryan in 1919 wrote the policy statement of the predecessor body of the USCC, the National Catholic Welfare Conference, called the Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction, and his subsequent zeal for FDR earned him the title “Monsignor New Deal.” Much has changed since then. Most Catholics are now economically successful and socially secure. Among Catholics, as in the general population, organized labor is in decline, and its remaining political clout is almost exclusively in service to a Democratic Party relentlessly hostile to the Church’s public priorities. (A wrinkle here is that unions could become newly important for the Church if they succeed in organizing large numbers of immigrant workers, but that hasn’t happened yet and, for several reasons, may not happen.) Meanwhile, the Republican Party has in recent decades become the champion of the Church’s public priorities—the protection of innocent human life, parental choice in education, the defense of marriage, church–state cooperation, and an array of issues under the rubric of religious freedom.

On the social and cultural issues that define the politics of our time, the party lines are disturbingly clear. Such stark polarization, dramatically evident in the recent election, understandably troubles many who cherish the American genius for political accommodation. The polarization has been created, of course, by those who for thirty years have been bent upon overthrowing the laws and tacit understandings that made for relative civil peace. That, too, is a complex story, but one result is that the Republican Party finds itself in the position of defending moral values espoused by the Catholic Church and other more tradition–oriented Christians and Jews, and the party has an obvious political interest in making the most of that position.

In contrast to our monsignor, some liberal Catholics complain that the NCCB/USCC is now becoming the religious lobby of the Republican Party. That is not the case, and should not be the case. At the same time, the bishops, like everyone else who has a part to play in the contest over law and public policy, cannot determine the partisan alignments of that contest. It is not for the bishops to decide whether to be more Democratic or more Republican. It is for the bishops to stoutly set forth the course of justice, and let politicians and parties decide whether they will support or oppose that course. Nor is it forgotten that in the public arena partisan alliances are usually a sometime thing, and those whose first task it is to speak the truth are not afraid to stand alone.

The bishops preserve and enhance their authority by exercising it judiciously, by more credibly grounding public advocacy in Catholic doctrine, and by more boldly acting like bishops should when Catholics of influence defy or distort that doctrine. With respect to lobbying, it is the case that less is more. Fewer positions more sharply focused and undeniably within the competence of bishops is the way forward in the promising reconfiguration of the NCCB/USCC. By keeping in mind the maxim that when it is not necessary to speak it is necessary not to speak, the bishops will be the more credible when it is necessary to speak.

Unconditional Surrender

Brent Staples writes editorials for the New York Times and books about race, making a big point of his being black. Stephen L. Carter teaches law at Yale, and does not make much of a point of his being black. The Times assigned to Staples Carter’s new book, God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (Basic). It is hard to know what qualifies Staples to review the book. He has no track record of writing on religion and society (unless he is the author of frequent editorials asserting that religion in public is a bad thing). To judge by the review, he knows little about religion in America, except that he knows he does not like evangelical Protestants and other “culture warriors” who try to “inflict minority religious values” on others.

Carter thinks religion is important in American life. Staples doesn’t. He reflects a most parochial view of religion in New York City where, he says, “dead churches are gutted to make nightclubs, supermarkets, and, especially, condominiums, in which the vaulted ceilings above the sanctuary became a valued selling point.” Presumably he is talking about Episcopal churches in New York, a few of which, with the dwindling number of Episcopalians who go to church, have been sold for such purposes. The packed Catholic (44 percent of the population of the city claims to be Catholic), black Baptist, Hispanic Pentecostal, and Korean churches are not mentioned. That would get in the way of his thesis that the “new ecumenicalism” of sundry spiritualities he sees in the Barnes & Noble bookstores has displaced serious religion. The “new ecumenicalism” is tolerance understood as the indifference that Mr. Staples favors, which explains his animosity toward those intolerable evangelicals.

Staples is also upset with Carter for writing that on some elite campuses “it is perfectly acceptable for professors to use their classrooms to attack religion, to mock it, [and] to refer to those to whom faith really matters as dupes.” To which Staples responds: “The claim that an elite university would tolerate open religious bigotry is implausible on its face. In an age of speech codes and rigidly enforced tolerance, a professor who trashed a student’s religion would be brought up on charges and subjected to institutional ridicule.” Mr. Staples obviously does not know much about universities either. True, a professor who trashed a particular student’s religious belief might in some circumstances be censured, but Carter is surely right that it is commonplace for professors to dismiss religion as something outdated, obscurantist, irrational, and a general hindrance to clear thinking.

Not Our Kind

Perhaps the reason that Staples does not recognize the anti–religious bigotry in the elite culture is that he is so much part of it. Who knows, maybe he even wrote the recent Times editorial claiming that institutions teaching that homosexuality is morally questionable cannot be trusted with the guidance of children, or the related editorial asserting that the Boy Scouts are not part of the American mainstream because they do not allow gay scoutmasters. Mr. Staples is most particularly at war with those whom he calls “fundamentalists.” He knows that most of them now sneakily call themselves evangelicals, but they are hardly distinguishable from the fundamentalists who have “always viewed [the larger world] as depraved and bound for hell.” True, some of them are even educated, yet “evangelical colleges are just beginning to shake off this tradition, but cannot yet be deemed cosmopolitan.” Of course, were they cosmopolitan in his meaning of the term, they would no longer be evangelical colleges.

Staples finds “distasteful and imprecise” Carter’s suggestion that there are parallels between the early civil rights movement and today’s evangelical efforts to bring religiously based values to bear in “the public square.” The civil rights movement, he says, was trying to win “basic, secular justice,” whereas conservative Christians try to push other people around. “The public backlash against the religious zealotry of that period was wholly justified.” Note the use of the past tense. Staples concludes, “By undertaking a culture war, religious conservatives strengthened the public distaste for religious combat and enhanced the public appreciation for religious tolerance.” In this view, the culture war is over, and the cosmopolitan position represented by, inter alia, the Times has triumphed. Those who do not accept the regime of the unlimited abortion license, sexual liberation, divorce, and the wholesale assault on what are called traditional values should simply get lost.

Warfare in the Streets

Mr. Staples and his allies are, of course, the culture warriors, and have been on the offensive for decades. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of one securely ensconced in a world of presumed moral superiority, a world comprised of people convinced of their right to rule and of their duty to ward off the barbarians who challenge that right. Stephen Carter’s offense is magnified because he too, as a Yale law professor, is part of that world and is condemned as a traitor to his class. Carter believes that the naked public square is a dangerous place, that the convictions of the people, including those whose convictions are grounded in religious commitment, should be given freer play in our public life.

Staples sees it very differently: “Carter’s contention that the state should cede more power to religion will strike many people as a recipe for warfare in the streets.” The state belongs to the ruling class that has, in its own words, been conducting “a long march through the institutions” for thirty years. Brent Staples and his colleagues at the Times are the field marshals of the march and they have declared it to be unstoppable. More than that, they have declared victory. People such as Stephen Carter who suggest that there is something to be said for dissenters who are trying to get up a counter–march must be discredited as extremists who are inciting the peasantry to warfare in the streets. Stephen Carter thinks of himself as a moderate trying to negotiate a reasonable cultural accommodation. Staples and his band are having none of it. They will accept nothing short of unconditional surrender.

When Tolerance is Trump

Duke University, a United Methodist school, has joined the long list of institutions accommodating—or, as some think, caving in to—the demands of the homosexual movement. In a joint statement, President Nannerl O. Keohane and Chapel Dean William H. Willimon announced that the blessing of same–sex unions will be permitted in Duke Chapel. Dean L. Gregory Jones of the Duke Divinity School concurs in the decision. The reasoning offered in support of the decision is, at the same time, both wondrously muddled and brutally clear. In his statement, Dean Jones says the decision “takes thoughtful account of several key overlapping yet competing judgments.” For instance, “Duke Chapel is a place of Christian worship.” In which case Duke is deciding—as is pointed out by Professor Geoffrey Wainwright, the university’s senior theologian in his protest against the decision—that Christianity countenances same–sex unions. This despite a unanimous Christian tradition to the contrary. (The small and dubiously orthodox United Church of Christ permits the blessing of such unions.)

Another “overlapping yet competing judgment,” Jones notes, is that “formally, Duke Chapel is a university building, not a church.” Why there should be a conflict between being both university and church in a church–related school is not explained. Wainwright notes that the founding aims of the university invoke “Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and the Chapel “unmistakably bespeaks the purpose of Christian worship. . . . For many, myself included, such ceremonies [same–sex blessings] would desecrate a space they believe hallowed by decades of prayer and which they expected to be able to continue to use for Christian worship.” The motto of the university, one notes, is Eruditio et Religio. Dean Jones says that “many gay and lesbian people and their friends are active and valued members of the Duke community and important participants in the life of Duke Chapel. Though the university’s decision will no doubt be controversial, it is the result of an appropriate process that seeks to craft a policy faithful to these (and other) judgments. Hence, it is also a decision that can be respected even by those who themselves, or whose traditions, do not think same–sex unions ought to be blessed.”

Prof. Stanley Hauerwas, also of Duke, has written much about the brutal tolerance of liberalism, of which this is a classic instance. (Oddly enough, Hauerwas has not challenged the decision.) An institution claiming to be Christian and affiliated with a Christian denomination is confronted by liberalism’s charge that to act upon such a claim is discriminatory, and the institution folds. Tolerance is trumps. Of course, one might respond that Duke University has long since given up any serious claim to being Christian. I have mentioned before the conference our institute ran at which the former president of Emory University remarked, “I could maybe get away with saying that Emory is a United Methodist university, but, if I said it was a Christian university, all hell would break loose.” The charter of Duke requires that two–thirds of the trustees be elected by the North Carolina conferences of the United Methodist Church. There is no doubt that the founders intended a Christian institution.

One might also respond that Duke Chapel, too, has long since given up any claim to being seriously Christian, in which case one might fairly ask whether the Rev. Willimon does not have a lot to answer for. The university says it has a “historic” and “symbolic” link with the Methodist Church. Historic in this context would seem to mean that it is a thing of the past, and symbols are, well, just symbols. Who decided that the church connection is a thing of the past, and when, and by what authority? And where were the Christians to challenge that decision? This would seem to be yet another instance of the willy–nilly de–Christianization of church–related higher education so incisively analyzed by James Burtchaell in The Dying of the Light.

It is urged that for years the Chapel has offered hospitality to doubtfully Christian groups and activities. That is understandable. A Christian church or chapel might offer hospitality to many groups under the rubric of ecumenism or interreligious relations. Blessing same–sex unions is something else. It is a deliberate, self–conscious, and explicit contradiction of the teaching and practice of the United Methodist Church and of the entire Christian tradition. The Christianity that was understandably hospitable to diversity is now displaced by the religion of diversity. The case that should have been made is that Duke and its chapel are hospitable not despite the fact that they are Christian but precisely because they are Christian. They have no obligation to be hospitable, it makes no sense to be hospitable, to groups or activities aimed at defying or obliterating the very reason for their being hospitable in the first place. Now the rationale of Christian hospitality is displaced by coercive liberalism’s rules of nondiscrimination.

Both Hauerwas and Willimon, whom I cherish as friends, are noted proponents of a “radical” and “countercultural” Christianity. It is a strange radicalism that so supinely accommodates the culture of secular liberalism. The decision is, we are told, “the result of an appropriate process.” No doubt. It is the case, as Prof. Hauerwas has so often argued, that in contemporary liberalism the procedural overrides the substantive, and compromise in the name of tolerance displaces the deliberation of truth.

Keohane and Willimon write, “No one has suggested that we ask any clergy to perform these unions if that person, by reason of conscience, conviction, or church tradition, does not wish to do so.” If it is a matter of conscience, conviction, or tradition grounded in truth, however, it is not a matter of what one wishes to do or not to do. It is a matter of obedience. The Duke decision is the product of what Hauerwas has so often described as the consumerist individualism of liberal capitalism. Among university divinity schools today, Duke is notable for its efforts to reappropriate the fullness of the Christian tradition, refusing to be dominated by the fashions du jour. It is therefore the more disappointing that in this case the divinity school went with the flow, failing to ask the hard questions about the founding commitment of the university. The argument for allowing the celebration of same–sex unions is pro–choice all the way. Nobody is compelling you to do anything against your conscience, only that you not get in the way of others doing what they want. Thus are communities of character—to cite a fine Hauerwasian phrase—turned into the “historic” and “symbolic” ties of a discarded past. It is very sad. Perhaps, at this late date, it could not have been helped. But the controversy might have been the occasion for a bold and articulate witness to the idea of a Christian university. Witness does not have to be successful. It is its own success, and its absence is evidence of a grievous failure.

While We’re At It

Sources: David Frum on the election, National Post, November 9, 2000. Stanley Young on same, Washington Post, December 13, 2000. Francis Fukuyama on conservatives in election, Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2000. Stephen L. Carter’s God’s Name in Vain reviewed by Brent Staples, New York Times Book Review, November 25, 2000. On same–sex unions at Duke University, press release November 7, Wainwright correspondence.

While We’re At It: “Protestants Look to Their Roots” in Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2000. George W. Bush on Cardinal O’Connor published in ZENIT, October 25, 2000. Mark Tooley on peace process, UMAction Briefing, October 24, 2000 (on the web at <>). On controversy over Graham Greene, America magazine press release November 3, 2000. “Biotechnology and Monstrosity” by Mary Midgely in Hastings Center Report, September–October 2000. On proposal for pain medicine for babies aborted after eleven weeks, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, October 11, 2000. Jeffrey Rosen on the courts, New York Times Magazine, October 22, 2000. Mark Gauvreau Judge on Len Downie and journalistic objectivity, National Review Online website, October 26, 2000. On the Moscow Patriarchate, Keston Institute press release, November 1, 2000. Diane Knippers quoted on the religious left, Religion Watch, November 2000. Gay/lesbian response to NCC statement on marriage, IRD News, November 17, 2000. Willliam A. Dembski press release, October19, 2000. Letter of of Jewish organizations about Catholic Bishops’ statement on the Middle East, November 27, 2000. Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill on utopias, Commonweal, December 1, 2000. Marc D. Stern on school vouchers, Congress Monthly, November/December 2000. P. D. James quoted, Spectator, August 19, 2000. Quotation from St. Chad courtesy of Elisha Coffman, associate editor of Christian History. On Bishop Richard Chartres, Spectator, August 26, 2000.