The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 65-84.

As the New Millennium Begins

At the conclusion of the Year of the Great Jubilee, John Paul II issued a 23,000 word apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Inuente (As the New Millennium Begins), in which he reflects on the many special events of the year, including the World Youth Day that brought more than two million young people to Rome, and the historic visit to the Holy Land. Of particular interest is what he has to say about Christian unity and the dialogue with culture and other religions.

In view of the controversy over the declaration Dominus Iesus (see “To Say Jesus is Lord,” Public Square, November 2000), one notes in the following the implications of the assertion that in Christ the Church is undivided. (Where not otherwise specified, the quotes in the Pope’s statement are from the documents of the Second Vatican Council.) The Pope writes: “And what should we say of the urgent task of fostering communion in the delicate area of ecumenism? Unhappily, as we cross the threshold of the new millennium, we take with us the sad heritage of the past. The Jubilee has offered some truly moving and prophetic signs, but there is still a long way to go.

“By fixing our gaze on Christ, the Great Jubilee has given us a more vivid sense of the Church as a mystery of unity. ‘I believe in the one Church’: what we profess in the Creed has its ultimate foundation in Christ, in whom the Church is undivided (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:11–13). As his Body, in the unity which is the gift of the Spirit, she is indivisible. The reality of division among the Church’s children appears at the level of history, as the result of human weakness in the way we accept the gift which flows endlessly from Christ the Head to his Mystical Body. The prayer of Jesus in the Upper Room—‘as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be one in us’ (John 17:21)—is both revelation and invocation. It reveals to us the unity of Christ with the Father as the wellspring of the Church’s unity and as the gift which in him she will constantly receive until its mysterious fulfillment at the end of time. This unity is concretely embodied in the Catholic Church, despite the human limitations of her members, and it is at work in varying degrees in all the elements of holiness and truth to be found in the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. As gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, these elements lead them continuously towards full unity.

“Christ’s prayer reminds us that this gift needs to be received and developed ever more profoundly. The invocation ‘ut unum sint’ is, at one and the same time, a binding imperative, the strength that sustains us, and a salutary rebuke for our slowness and closed–heartedness. It is on Jesus’ prayer and not on our own strength that we base the hope that even within history we shall be able to reach full and visible communion with all Christians.

“In the perspective of our renewed post–Jubilee pilgrimage, I look with great hope to the Eastern Churches, and I pray for a full return to that exchange of gifts which enriched the Church of the first millennium. May the memory of the time when the Church breathed with ‘both lungs’ spur Christians of East and West to walk together in unity of faith and with respect for legitimate diversity, accepting and sustaining each other as members of the one Body of Christ.

“A similar commitment should lead to the fostering of ecumenical dialogue with our brothers and sisters belonging to the Anglican Communion and the Ecclesial Communities born of the Reformation. Theological discussion on essential points of faith and Christian morality, cooperation in works of charity, and above all the great ecumenism of holiness will not fail, with God’s help, to bring results. In the meantime we confidently continue our pilgrimage, longing for the time when, together with each and every one of Christ’s followers, we shall be able to join wholeheartedly in singing: ‘How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers live in unity!’ (Psalm 133:1)”

The reflection on dialogue with other religions invokes the “dread specter” of wars of religion that have afflicted humanity in the past and must never be allowed to recur. John Paul II writes: “Dialogue, however, cannot be based on religious indifferentism, and we Christians are in duty bound, while engaging in dialogue, to bear clear witness to the hope that is within us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). We should not fear that it will be considered an offense to the identity of others what is rather the joyful proclamation of a gift meant for all, and to be offered to all with the greatest respect for the freedom of each one: the gift of the revelation of the God who is Love, the God who ‘so loved the world that He gave His only Son’ (John 3:16). As the recent Declaration Dominus Iesus stressed, this cannot be the subject of a dialogue understood as negotiation, as if we considered it a matter of mere opinion: rather, it is a grace which fills us with joy, a message which we have a duty to proclaim.

“The Church therefore cannot forgo her missionary activity among the peoples of the world. It is the primary task of the missio ad gentes to announce that it is in Christ, ‘the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6), that people find salvation. Interreligious dialogue ‘cannot simply replace proclamation, but remains oriented towards proclamation.’ This missionary duty, moreover, does not prevent us from approaching dialogue with an attitude of profound willingness to listen. We know in fact that, in the presence of the mystery of grace, infinitely full of possibilities and implications for human life and history, the Church herself will never cease putting questions, trusting in the help of the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth (cf. John 14:17), whose task it is to guide her ‘into all the truth’ (John 16:13).

“This is a fundamental principle not only for the endless theological investigation of Christian truth, but also for Christian dialogue with other philosophies, cultures, and religions. In the common experience of humanity, for all its contradictions, the Spirit of God, who ‘blows where he wills’ (John 3:8), not infrequently reveals signs of his presence which help Christ’s followers to understand more deeply the message which they bear. Was it not with this humble and trust–filled openness that the Second Vatican Council sought to read ‘the signs of the times’? Even as she engages in an active and watchful discernment aimed at understanding the ‘genuine signs of the presence or the purpose of God,’ the Church acknowledges that she has not only given, but has also ‘received from the history and from the development of the human race.’ This attitude of openness, combined with careful discernment, was adopted by the Council also in relation to other religions. It is our task to follow with great fidelity the Council’s teaching and the path which it has traced.”

In this document, as in almost all his official statements, one is struck by the force and care with which John Paul delineates the ways in which his pontificate is enacted in obedience to, and fulfillment of, the Second Vatican Council. Professor Russell Hittinger, an astute student of the modern papacy, has recently written that the single greatest achievement of this pontificate is that “it has secured the interpretation of the Council.” That has the ring of truth. Although there are still some who do not understand this, John Paul II has brought to an end more than thirty years of partisan conflict between the proponents of the “spirit” of the Council, on the one hand, and the proponents of the “letter” of the Council, on the other. And he has done so in a way that reveals that both the spirit and the letter of the Council are ever so much more radical and more promising than either party usually imagined.

Taking Risks for Freedom

It has been said that history is made by people who show up at meetings, stay ’til the end, and then write the minutes, and there is a lot to that. Similarly, movements are launched by people who run the risk of being viewed as fanatics, so relentless are they in advocating, lobbying, badgering, and generally making a nuisance of themselves that, as in the parable of the judge and the importunate woman, attention is paid. Among those who in the 1990s took that risk are Nina Shea of Freedom House and Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, and the result is growing international concern for religious freedom and the establishment of that concern as an integral part of U.S. foreign policy.

“Defending the Faiths,” by Allen D. Hertzke and Daniel Philpott, published in the distinguished foreign policy journal the National Interest, explains what has happened and explores future prospects. Laws enacted by Congress and the setting up of a commission on religious freedom in the State Department have not met with universal applause. “With a few exceptions,” the authors say, “the mainstream media and foreign policy commentariat have reacted coolly to these developments, suspecting that the attention the issue has received is merely a sop to conservative Christian lobbies. But, pursued wisely, the elevation of religious freedom can properly serve the national interest. It is congruent not only with international human rights covenants, but with our founding tradition and basic values. It complements the promotion of civil society and democracy, and it may easily be pursued in tandem with our other interests.” Perhaps not “easily,” but it can be done.

One reason the denial of religious freedom is becoming a bigger issue is that religion is becoming a bigger issue. Hertzke and Philpott write: “Behind the persecution lies one of the great surprises of the late twentieth century: a global resurgence of faith. Indeed, secularizing trends in Western Europe and among a thin, if influential, stratum of global intellectual elites now stand out as exceptions to more general trends. As Samuel Huntington has observed, persecution endures precisely because religion matters, and matters increasingly. When religion becomes important to people, dictatorial governments ‘will insist on controlling it, suppressing it, regulating it, prohibiting it, and manipulating it to their own advantage.’”

As important as religious freedom is in itself, it also serves other ends. “As Huntington has demonstrated convincingly, Western Christianity in particular has encouraged democratization. Its emphasis on the dignity of the individual, the equality of all souls before God, and the autonomy of churches from state control (now embraced by both Catholic and major Protestant traditions) fosters a respect for civil rights and institutional pluralism. Christianity may also foster democracy by molding opinion and encouraging opposition to authoritarian rule.”

There is a particularly striking correlation between Christianity and democratization. “Today, nearly nine out of every ten of the nations Freedom House designates as ‘free’ are Christian countries, while others, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have substantial Christian populations and Christian leaders. Contrary to secular intellectuals’ image of Christianity as backward or colonial, its indigenous growth outside the West is one of the signal democratizing forces around the globe today. A policy promoting religious freedom, then, will alert vulnerable Christian minorities—and also independent Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and others—that the United States stands with their struggle for free expression.”

“Special Pleading”

Nonetheless, some liberal Catholics and Protestants (the latter typically connected with the National Council of Churches) have ranged from being ambivalent to downright hostile to this movement against religious persecution—in part, one may fairly say, because they deeply resent the fact that their conservative opponents have so neatly stolen the human rights card from the liberal social justice deck. But they also present arguments, the chief one being that promoting the cause of persecuted Christians is an instance of “special pleading” that ignores other religions. The fact is that the leaders of the movement have been most particularly careful to include all believers, although another fact is that many of the most egregious instances of persecution in the world are against Christians.

As Hertzke and Philpott note, “The charge of special pleading is particularly puzzling. Would the same critics have considered human rights campaigns on behalf of South African blacks, Soviet Jews, East European dissidents, the Argentine ‘disappeared,’ the eradication of female circumcision, or the banning of land mines to be special pleading? As Jacob Heilbrunn commented in the New Republic, ‘This seems a remarkable attitude for a human rights activist, since by definition, all arguments on behalf of all persecuted groups—racial minorities, political minorities, ethnic minorities, etc.—are “special pleadings” intended to help “certain classes” of victims.’ Human rights campaigns on behalf of particular parties are the only kind of human rights campaigns there are.”

In thousands of local churches, on campuses, and elsewhere, the movement against religious persecution continues to gain steam. Hertzke and Philpott suggest that the test case may be Sudan, and whether an international protest can be launched comparable to that against apartheid in South Africa in years past. The Islamist regime of Sudan, supported by Chinese and Canadian investment in its oil resources, has used man–made famine, slavery, forced conversions, and other atrocities against its black Christian and animist population. Freedom House estimates that up to two million people have been killed in the past decade.

As Hertzke and Philpott do not say, however, it is very difficult to muster the same forces against the Sudanese regime as rallied against apartheid. After all, the apartheid regime was white and made a very big point of being part of the West, while the tyrants in Khartoum are “people of color” and champion militant Islam against the presumably decadent West. Apartheid South Africa was also, as it was said, “constructively engaged” with the U.S. So protesting apartheid had the panache of being, at the same time, a protest against the West and against America, a big advantage in the view from the left. As Albert Camus observed, to a certain ideological mindset some murders are more politically interesting than others. Then too, there is the soft bigotry, as it is aptly called, that cuts a certain moral slack for genocide among people of color, as we have seen elsewhere in Africa. So one should not expect to see the protest against religious persecution, in Sudan or elsewhere, become as fashionable as the anti–apartheid movement was. The hard work will continue to be done by people who are prepared to run the risk of being viewed as obsessed by their belief that it is wrong to harass, penalize, jail, torture, kill, or otherwise maltreat people because of what they believe.

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, and Irony

It has been said in these pages and elsewhere that, looking back now, it is apparent that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written at the beginning of the thirties, has turned out to be more prophetic than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty–Four, written at the end of the forties. I did not know, however, until I read Jeffrey Meyers’ new biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (Norton), that Huxley expected things to turn out this way, and delicately explained why to Orwell in a letter of October 1949. Huxley praised Nineteen Eighty–Four very highly: “Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is.” He then went on to say:

The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty–Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot–on–the–face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and that these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. . . . Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco–hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. . . . The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.

Nineteen Eighty–Four, like Animal Farm before it (Meyers reports that Orwell rushed around London bookshops taking Animal Farm out of the children’s section and putting it in the adult section), was of inestimable importance during the Cold War in alerting people to the reality of Soviet totalitarianism. Our debt to Orwell on that score can never be fully repaid. But Huxley recognized a half century ago what is now evident to all, that the brutal boot–on–the–face tyranny of communism was terribly inefficient. There are still in the world plenty of tyrants who rule by the boot, machete, club, and machine gun, and there likely will be for a long time. But the more sophisticated who want the total control that is totalitarian tyranny will resort to means more like those depicted in Brave New World—baby hatcheries, cloning, the elimination of the unfit, and the exclusion of moral and historical reasoning by a uniform sense of therapeutic well–being induced by what Huxley called soma and is today chillingly similar to multiple variations on Prozac. It will be a softer, and therefore more efficient, totalitarianism.

In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II speaks of what can happen when moral reasoning is eliminated from public life and politics is reduced to the manipulation of desires and images in order to secure the acquiescence of a compliant majority. The result he calls “thinly disguised totalitarianism.” The danger at present and in the future is more Huxley’s velvet glove than Orwell’s iron fist, although, to be sure, the velvet glove is not entirely absent in Nineteen Eighty–Four, and the compassionate and gentle manipulations of Brave New World only thinly disguise the iron fist.

Meyers’ Orwell is, by the way, a very good read. One does wish, however, that he had not tried to explain Orwell’s relentless truth–telling and life of self–deprivation in pop psychology terms of guilt feelings. It is more convincing that Orwell’s determination to tell the truth was just that, a determination to tell the truth because he hated brutal and self–serving lies, and because he believed that decent people should counter lies with truth. Then too, Meyers’ claim that Orwell was the greatest and most popular writer of his time leads him to exaggerations that undermine his otherwise admirable defense of Orwell’s achievement.

Particularly egregious is his citing, among many others, spy novelist John le Carré in praise of Orwell. Le Carré says, “Orwell’s hatred of greed, cant, and the ‘me’ society is as much needed today as it was in his own time—probably more so. He remains an ideal for me—of clarity, anger, and perfectly aimed irony.” That is a self–serving statement of a very low order. Le Carré’s novels of the Cold War all too often were almost perfect exemplifications of the “moral symmetry” that denied any real moral difference between the free world and the Soviet Union’s evil empire, or at least any real moral difference in their struggle to prevail. Orwell wrote not against the “me” society but against the totalitarian “them” who denied the possibility of “I.” As for perfectly aimed irony, there is not a hint of irony in Orwell’s depiction of the difference between human freedom and dignity, on the one hand, and a regime of oppression and debasement, on the other. Orwell’s perfectly aimed anger is directed, then and now, at those whose playful irony makes light of the murderously inverted rules of the animal farm.

Sinful Christians, Holy Church

During the course of his pontificate, John Paul II has many times over confessed the sins of “the children of the Church”—popes, bishops, and laity alike—who have, he says, “marred the face” of the Church, which nonetheless remains our holy and sinless mother. This distinction has puzzled and sometimes infuriated outsiders, and also some Catholics. A furious Garry Wills derides the Pope’s words as “propaganda by apology.” Even more thoughtful and sympathetic folk might wonder if there is not some sleight of words going on here in order to avoid implicating the Church herself in the sins of her children.

The distinction may be difficult to communicate in a society that is given to the promiscuous confession of sins that are redefined so as not to be sins, and is positively enthusiastic about confessing the sins of others, especially of institutions of putative moral authority. But it is a distinction that is hardly new with John Paul II. It is clearly taught by the earliest fathers, grounded in the Scriptures, and present also in the Reformation traditions. Demonstrating the last point is the burden of a fine article by David S. Yeago, “Ecclesia Sancta, Ecclesia Peccatrix: The Holiness of the Church in Martin Luther’s Theology.” Writing in the ecumenical theological journal Pro Ecclesia, Yeago notes that Luther has seldom been faulted for failing to rail with sufficient vigor against the sins of the Church of his time. At the same time, he understood, in agreement with the great tradition, that the holiness of the Church is an article of faith. Luther wrote:

“But faith alone perceives this, for we say: ‘I believe in the holy Church.’ But if you consult reason and your own eyes, you will come to a different conclusion. For you will see many things in the godly which offend you, you will see that sometimes they waver, sometimes they sin, sometimes they are weak in faith, sometimes they struggle with anger, envy, and other evil passions: ‘Therefore the Church is not holy.’ I deny this inference. If you look at my person or the person of your neighbor, then she will never be holy. But if you look at Christ, the Propitiator and Cleanser of the Church, she is entirely holy: for he has taken away the sins of the whole world.”

When Luther speaks of the holiness of the Church he does not resort to the old dodge of saying that it is the “invisible” Church that is holy, or that only the part of the Church composed of its holy members is holy. Yeago writes, “The relationship between the holy Church and the gathering of sinners is not disjunctive; it is not that the gathering of sinners is simply not the Church, while the real Church is something else. Luther distinguishes between two ways of regarding one phenomenon, not between two different phenomena. The crowd of sinners is the Church, but faith sees that the sin and weakness of that crowd do not define the Church.” Or again: “When we encounter the Church, therefore, we encounter something more than the ‘human, all too human’ ambiguity of her personnel. We encounter the action of the Spirit, ‘in, with, and under’ the sacramental and proclamatory actions of the community, and just so the gathering of sinners is more than the sum of its parts: it is the holy Church, our mother.”

The Church as the Body of Christ is sinless, because Christ is sinless. Sinners who, through repentance and forgiveness, are united with Christ share in his sinlessness. The Church as magna peccatrix, the great sinner, is the Christian people who do not repent. Luther sardonically remarks that “the pope and the cardinals and others of that sort have no sin at all,” explaining that “they are not tormented in their conscience.” They are, as Yeago says, “strangers (or so Luther believed) to the struggle with unbelief and evil passion which characterizes the congregatio fidelium.” One wonders what Luther would make, or does make, of John Paul II. One day, God willing, we may find out.

There is another theological dodge that, Yeago insists, Luther does not indulge, although many Protestants, including Lutherans, do. That is to say that in the order of being (ontologically) Christians really are sinners, and we can say they are holy only by virtue of Christ’s holiness being imputed to them. In Yeago’s reading of Luther that is to get things the wrong way round: “Therefore when Luther distinguishes between what the Church is in her sinful personnel and what she is in Christ, this is not a distinction between hard reality and a ‘legal fiction’ contrived through bare imputation. It must be understood in terms of his account of salvation as shared life, our participation in the being of another by the generosity of that other. Imputation itself is based on this sharing of the faithful in the being of Christ; the Father overlooks the sin which remains in the faithful precisely because they exist by faith as a single concrete whole with Christ. Union with Christ, not imputation, is the ontological rock–bottom in Luther’s theology of salvation.”

Yeago concludes that Luther’s understanding of the Church “seems open to central concerns of the contemporary ecumenical ‘ecclesiology of communion.’” Open to, one might add, but still at least in tension with aspects of the Catholic understanding of the Church as communio. There is, for instance, the Catholic accent on what is commonly called the Church militant and the Church triumphant, the latter including the saints and preeminently the Blessed Virgin who do not participate in “the struggle with unbelief and evil passion” that characterizes the Church militant, although they assist us in our struggle here on earth. Their holiness is not in addition to that of Christ, but is the holiness of Christ perfected in them and actively cooperating with him.

There are other differences between Catholic teaching and Luther’s understanding, even when the latter is construed so ecumenically as it is by Yeago. But all Christians should be able to agree, if they think about it, that there is no sleight of words or evasiveness in the distinction between the sins of the children of the Church and the holiness of the Church herself. Of purely human institutions—such as governments, corporations, or universities—we may at times say that the wrongs of those who belong to them and run them are so pervasive and apparently beyond remedy as to warrant condemnation of the institutions themselves. But the Church is not such a purely human institution. This communion is the continuing embodiment of Christ through time. There is deep mystery here, and it is all too subject to misunderstanding and abuse. Leaders of the Church have at times simply equated themselves and their office with Christ, suggesting that any criticism of them is tantamount to criticizing Christ. The public confessions of John Paul II are designed to make necessary distinctions in understanding the mystery of the Body of Christ that is simultaneously the community of both sinners and saints. To distinguish without dividing is never easy. Whether one views the Pope’s efforts as a necessary purification or as “propaganda by apology” finally depends on what one believes about the relationship between Christ and his Church, which, in turn, depends on what one believes about Christ. That is the point of controversy. Always has been. Always will be.

Life, and One Life

The following could not, for complicated reasons, be fitted into the usual space for poetry, but I believe it will be of interest to readers. It invites a slow reading, and the one line—“Life is not incompatible with you”—will, I believe, more than reward your attention.

Jonathan David Jones

Pronounced anencephalic and incompatible with life

by Rebecca Jones

A firstborn son belongs to God.
Most can be redeemed, for a price.
But you, Jonathan David—
God snatches you and leaves us
empty–handed, empty–wombed, empty–hearted.

We’ve stormed the throne to buy you back,
offering our very life for yours.

We’ve pled before the Judge:
“His life belongs with us.
His parents could know joy,
the doctors awe.
Our faith would blossom
and our love grow bold.

Dear Father, if you had a mind to heal,
You could heal his brain with a word.”

But the nurses tell us
as they gaze through walls of flesh, opaque:
“I’m so sorry, but there’s no mistake.”
They never say it quite, and so we do,
“Jonathan David, you’re our Pooh—
Our bear of very little brain.”

A laugh can ease the pain
and cut encroaching terror into shreds
that only cling like webs.

How gladly we would offer you our cells.
Thousands die each day
and those we keep we throw away.
But our mind cannot be yours.
A fog has settled on our souls.

The voice comes muffled through the darkened shroud.
“Fear not. It is I
who have redeemed him.
I’ve hidden his life with me.
Nursing infants sing my praise.
Before you,
Jonathan will have my mind
to think my thoughts
after me.
In my wisdom
His mind is perfect,
and your grief is power.”

And so, dear Jonathan, we will believe.
We will receive and love you as you are—
Most precious to us in your desperate need.
If birth is more than you can bear,
then through our tears we’ll sing a lullaby of joy.
For you will go unhindered
from the comfort of your mother’s womb
to the safety of our Father’s home.

If you linger with us for a fleeting breath or two,
we will count each one and remember you.
Our breaths are numbered, too.

Dear Jonathan,
If God, in mercy, grants you one full hour,
We’ll peer a little longer past your mind
into your soul.
We’ll take your tiny hands in ours,
look upon you long
and sing our song.
If life rests with you for a day,
then we will give it back to God
who turns it to a thousand years.

Dear Jonathan, if you are born
sheer miracle,
and life should last;
if on this earth you burp and grin and crawl;
then you will groan with us beneath the load of sin
and struggle with the dark within.
But you will smell the lily,
touch the head
of a baby sister in her bed.
You will seize the power and the grace
of a Savior’s love,
who with you forever
bears the weight
of a past.

Jonathan David,
Life is not
incompatible with you.
However long you stay within our reach,
you and life are bound in Jesus’ sheaf.
In your new home,
you will love as you are loved
and know as you are known.
Life’s author stands to greet you,
Impatient, runs to meet you,
“Well–done, good and faithful friend.
Jonathan, You’ve served me to the end.”

Three Constellations of American Religion

(Number 10 in a series on the idea of Christian America)

Today it is not easy to recall the level of cultural confidence reflected in an intellectual secularism that could produce John Dewey’s A Common Faith, published in 1934. The same impulse is promoted today by the philosopher Richard Rorty in his Massie Lectures published under the title of Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in the Twentieth Century, which has been previously discussed in these pages (“The Gods of Left and Right,” Public Square, March 1999). But, very much unlike 1934, there is a wan and desperate feel to Rorty’s proposal. Rorty frankly describes as utopian the vision of social justice that he calls a religion. In this religion, the chief apostles are Walt Whitman and John Dewey, and America is the New Jerusalem. “They wanted Americans,” writes Rorty, “to take pride in what America might, all by itself and by its own lights, make of itself, rather than in America’s obedience to any authority—even the authority of God.” Especially the authority of God, one might add. Rorty quotes Whitman:

And I call to mankind. Be not curious about God.
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God.

Whitman and Dewey, writes Rorty, “wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul.” Rorty admiringly quotes Whitman’s exclamation, “How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance!” The older forms of religion have long been superfluous, even obstacles, says Rorty. “Whitman and Dewey, I have argued, gave us all the romance, and all the spiritual uplift, we Americans need to go about our public business.” This religion of patriotic fervor sets Rorty against other contemporary leftisms with what he describes as their “semi–conscious anti–Americanism, which they carried over from the rage of the late sixties.”

The “spiritual uplift” supplied by the religion of social justice is not simply for “public business” but also for personal redemption. Unlike Marx and others who tried to turn socialism into a science and thought they had the key to predicting the future, Rorty’s religion is radically open to, adamantly insistent upon, the new—making possible a life of “pure, joyous hope.” The past, including Christianity, contributes to his childlike piety of limitless possibility. “The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular from Christianity, is not instruction about the authority under which we should live, but suggestions about how to make ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.” Americans must embrace an endless revolution of new beginnings; every achievement is but prelude to another radically new beginning. “This new culture will be better because it will contain more variety in unity—it will be a tapestry in which more strands have been woven together. But this tapestry, too, will eventually have to be torn to shreds in order that a larger one may be woven, in order that the past may not obstruct the future.”

Rorty’s civil religion of ultimate devotion to the unlimited possibilities inherent in and mandated by America will, I expect, have fewer takers today than did Dewey’s common faith of the 1930s. But it does indicate one direction that can be taken by a civil religion that is, in Sydney Ahlstrom’s term, “debased.” That direction has conspicuous precedent in American history. Not incidentally, Rorty’s maternal grandfather is Walter Rauschenbusch, the chief apostle of the Protestant “Social Gospel Movement” that asserted such powerful influence around the turn of the century. Rorty’s civil religion is in continuity with his grandfather’s, except it is stripped of God and, if one may put it this way, the attendant theological baggage. We have seen that Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, did not think the theological baggage of the Social Gospel Movement was all that heavy. His brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, famously described the creed of liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Taking America Back

Historians have noted that radical and utopian impulses in American culture and politics are frequently promoted by those who are but a step or a generation from the liberal Protestant pulpit. Even the God without wrath and Christ without a cross are discarded as impedimenta of a tradition that is superseded by a religion of the utterly new thing. Already in 1876, Herman Melville wrote of the New England Protestantism that he knew:

Rome and the Atheist have gained:
These two shall fight it out—these two;
Protestantism being retained
For base of operations sly
     by Atheism.

More than a century later, the most culturally assertive form of Protestantism is very different. Coming out from the losing side of the modernist–fundamentalist battles of the early twentieth century, what is now called evangelical Protestantism is in a position of undoubted strength in American life. But the many worlds that make up “evangelicaldom” are themselves riddled by doubts as to how they ought to be disposed toward the American experiment. Demographically, and especially in the South, those who call themselves evangelicals are typically of old White–Anglo–Saxon–Protestant stock. Like their WASP cousins in New England, they were, to use the fine phrase of Dean Acheson, “present at the creation.” The leaders of, say, the Southern Baptist Convention can typically trace a lineage that is every bit as authentically American as that of the Rortys, Deweys, and Whitmans. For both, America is undoubtedly “our country.” For both, the intuitions and the rhetoric surrounding “Christian America” are very much alive.

Although acknowledging its Christian inspiration, Rorty’s civil religion dare not speak its Christian name. Many evangelicals, on the other hand, are emphatic in asserting that this is Christian America, or at least it used to be. To which it is added, in tones sometimes belligerent, that they are going to take back their country. Other evangelicals, probably a growing number, say that Christian America is a lost cause. Some say it with sorrow, others say it was misbegotten from the beginning and deserves to be lost; both say that the new reality is post–Christian America. Post–Christian America, however, is still post–Christian America, an idea that makes no sense apart from the history and ambiguous present of Christian America.

Christianity in America comes in three main forms of approximately equal size: mainline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism. There are others, such as the Orthodox churches and Missouri Synod Lutherans, who do not fit into those three forms, but they are relatively small and, to the distress or satisfaction of their adherents, will likely remain “other” in the larger story of religion in America for the foreseeable future. And there are the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–Day Saints, who many Christians do not recognize as Christian, but whose cultural and political influence is by no means limited to the state of Utah. Whatever other Christians may think of them, the Mormons, now numbering nearly five million, are an indigenously American religion and have a very lively sense of “Christian America.” There is also the black church, a very important story in its own right. For many reasons that would take us astray from this discussion, the black church has had slight culture–forming influence since the halcyon days of Martin Luther King’s leadership of the civil rights movement. It is conceivable that the black church could again become a major factor in reshaping a wider understanding of the American experiment, but, as I say, that is another story.

Our immediate concern is with the three major Christian constellations. The denominations of the Protestant mainline—now increasingly called the oldline or even the sideline—still reflect much of the old establishment of the North and Northeast, but in recent decades have experienced a severe loss in membership, institutional confidence, and cultural influence. Evangelical Protestantism is the religious and, in many ways, the cultural establishment of the South and Southwest. In every part of the country, evangelicalism supplies most of the troops and organizing centers for the political activism that, since the late 1970s, critics have termed “the religious right.” Many evangelicals belong to independent local churches, while millions of others are affiliated with groups that, in the view from Manhattan, are just a rung up from the alien world of cults—the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Seventh–day Adventists, the Nazarenes, and sundry “Holiness” groups.

Then there are the somewhat more than sixty million Catholics, at least a quarter of whom are Hispanic, and a majority of those recent immigrants. The history of Catholicism in America is filled with tumult and attended by deep ambivalence toward the idea of Christian America. Although there was a small Catholic presence in the founding period, the masses of Catholic immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries felt like, and were made to feel like, aliens in a Protestant land. It did not need to be said, although anti–Catholics said it at every opportunity, that Christian America means Protestant America. Like most immigrant groups, Catholics desperately wanted to belong, to be accepted as authentic Americans. After decades, including two world wars, in which they demonstrated their patriotism (some would say super–patriotism), it was widely thought that Catholics had “come into their own” with the election of John F. Kennedy as President. In some tellings of the Catholic success story, the great achievement is that Catholics had become just like everybody else. They were, at long last, real Americans. Not incidentally, it was at just this time that Will Herberg was writing about the dissolution of Christian America into the civil religion of the American Way of Life.

A Nation with the Soul of a Church

Catholics were not taken with the idea of Christian America because Christian America meant Protestant America. But there was another reason that had to do with Catholic sensibilities shaped by their understanding of the Church. For many Protestants—from John Winthrop’s Holy Commonwealth to the Founders’ novus ordo seclorum—America itself was a kind of church. They had local churches and larger denominations, of course, but the really big thing that God was doing, the thing that mattered in terms of world–historical consequence, was the American experiment itself. Recall G. K. Chesterton’s observation that America is a nation with the soul of a church. Being a Catholic, he did not mean that entirely as a compliment. For most Protestants, the Church is a moveable event; it “happens” when and where certain things happen, such as the pure preaching of the gospel, the experience of conversion, or the living of holy lives. The earliest Puritans had no doubt that the true Church had moved from the old world to the new.

For Catholics, on the other hand, the Church is a determinate people through time, governed by bishops who can be traced by ordination, palm on pate, to the original twelve apostles, and all in communion with Peter, the chief of apostles, through his successor, the bishop of Rome, who is the pope. While many Catholic Americans have no doubt adhered to the religion of the Redeemer Nation and even to the religion of the American Way of Life, such adherence is always in strong tension with membership in the universal Church. In this sense, as has often been remarked, there is an analogy between Catholics and Jews. For both, the civil religions of America have been attenuated by the consciousness of belonging to a people elsewhere. Of course, Protestants of almost all varieties would insist, and rightly so, that they, too, have allegiance to a Church that transcends national belonging. The Church in question, however, tends to be more of a theological construct; certainly it is not marked by the stubbornly institutionalized thus and so–ness of the Catholic Church.

During one of our recent spasms of political psychodrama, the host of a major television talk show devoted an hour to canvassing the views of “the nation’s religious leadership.” His guests were all Baptists noted for their political activism, including one black Baptist. This was hardly representative of the nation’s religious leadership, but it was not unrepresentative of high profile leadership that is today contending in the political arena for what they perceive as the moral character of Christian America. In years past, such a discussion would certainly have included figures like Bishop James Pike, Eugene Carson Blake, and others associated with the National Council of Churches and its leading member churches such as the United Methodists, Presbyterians (USA), and Episcopalians. There are people in that mainline/oldline world who would eagerly volunteer for such a summit television seminar, but, rightly or wrongly, their views are thought to have slight political consequence, being adequately represented by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The evangelical leaders on the program, by way of sharpest contrast, are considered to be major influences in shaping the direction of the other major party. (In view of the growing and perhaps dangerous political polarizations today, it is hard to remember that only a few years ago analysts were more or less agreed on the increasing irrelevance of political parties.)

The striking thing about this discussion with “the nation’s religious leadership” was not only the absence of a Catholic figure but that one could not name any Catholic who would fit into a panel composed of Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, and Ralph Reed. There are conservative Catholics who fit into the panel in terms of sharing the views espoused. But the style of political activism represented by a Robertson or Falwell has not been and is not a Catholic thing. A notable exception in American history was Father Charles Coughlin (1891–1979), the Detroit radio priest who rallied millions in support of the New Deal, then turned against Roosevelt and embraced half–baked schemes of a markedly anti–Semitic hue until finally silenced by Church authorities in 1941. There had been nothing like Coughlin before and there has been nothing since. In the 1950s, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895–1979) commanded the largest television audience in the nation, but his message of Peace of Mind and the American Way of Life was decidedly apolitical.

In the current churnings of religion and politics, which began with the rise of “the religious right” in the late 1970s, Protestant clergy engaged in social activism complain that their fervor is not matched by Catholic bishops and priests. On the other hand, other evangelicals, especially in the Upper Midwest and Northeast, say that, when it comes “family issues” and abortion and related “life issues,” the Catholics are the only ones who can be relied on to stand up and be counted. Complicating the picture is the fact that many Catholic priests and religious honestly disagree with some of the items on the political agenda of conservative evangelical activists. In addition, Catholic immigrant history and its social and economic success was historically associated with the Democratic Party and, very specifically, with labor unions. While in recent years, notably in the Reagan elections, the Catholic vote split between the parties, that Democratic and labor legacy is still powerful. Catholics received their certificate of American legitimacy, the assurance that they had “arrived” in America, under liberal auspices. Moreover, most Catholics have their roots in the urban North, and there is more than a little cultural, as well as religious, uneasiness with the revivalist traditions of a South now making its presence so powerfully felt in national politics.

These and other considerations being taken into account, however, there remains the critical difference in Catholic attitudes toward the very idea of “Christian America.” There is something alien about the language of “taking back” a country that was never securely theirs to begin with. From the Catholic perspective, as mentioned earlier, Christian America has been mainly Protestant America. Catholics viewed the Protestant dominance with a mix of suspicion and eagerness to prove that they really belonged, knowing full well that their acceptance could be bestowed or withheld by the Protestants in charge. Here too, there is a significant convergence between Catholic and Jewish experiences. The full social, economic, and cultural enfranchisement of both Jews and Catholics is a post–World War II development. And at least at some centers of influence, it seems likely that Jews feel more enfranchised than Catholics.

“How We Do Things Here”

A vignette illustrates the point. (You’re right, I’ve told this before, but it is pertinent to the subject at hand.) In 1984, when Archbishop John O’Connor first came to New York, our institute hosted a number of dinners to introduce him to various circles of the city’s leadership. O’Connor had arrived in the midst of a presidential election campaign in which the Democratic candidate for Vice President, Geraldine Ferraro, had publicly declared that the Church’s teaching allowed a faithful Catholic to support the abortion license decreed by the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. O’Connor publicly pointed out that this was not the case, and there ensued an enormous rumpus over his alleged meddling in politics. At a dinner we hosted for the city’s media leadership, a top editor of the New York Times opined: “Archbishop, when John F. Kennedy was elected President, some of us thought that the question of whether you Catholics really belong here, whether you understand how we do things here, had been settled. But I must frankly tell you, Archbishop, that in the few months you have been here some of us are asking that question again.”

Never mind that, from the late nineteenth century on, the political life of New York has been dominated by Catholics, mainly Irish Catholics with names like O’Connor. Never mind that O’Connor’s immigrant Catholic forebears arrived in this country well before the managing editor’s immigrant Jewish forebears. (I should add that O’Connor decorously let the remark pass.) The interesting reality is that a Jewish leader could pose the question of “whether you understand how we do things here” in a way that it is near unimaginable that a Catholic would pose to anyone else, and certainly not to a Jew. One obvious reason for the difference is a heightened consciousness of the evil of anti–Semitism, while the evil of anti–Catholicism generally receives scant attention. Another interesting reality is that the same comment would almost certainly not have been made to, say, Pat Robertson. Robertson traces his lineage, which includes distinguished political and cultural leaders, back to before the founding; and those whom he represents, while their blood may not be as blue, are equally sure that they belong here. They understand “how we do things here,” or at least how they used to do things here, and they are determined to do things that way again. In moments of alarm at the state of politics and culture, they, too, speak of post–Christian America. But the underlying, and often explicit, contention is that this once was and can be again Christian America.

Another Disestablishment

Reinhold Niebuhr was rightly impressed by what he called the ironies of American history, and those ironies are pronounced in the religio–cultural history of the society. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the “Benevolent Empire” of evangelical Protestantism (almost all Protestants were called evangelicals then) exercised what seemed to be an unquestionable cultural hegemony, proclaiming a gospel of inevitable progress toward a genuinely Christian society as defined by the Social Gospel Movement. In the battle between modernists and fundamentalists, the latter were thoroughly routed, as indelibly recounted by H. L. Mencken and others in their accounts of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Driven into the cultural wilderness—and, in part, fleeing into that wilderness—fundamentalism was, as J. M. Cameron put it, bagged and stuffed, presumably never to be heard from again. Meanwhile, the liberal heirs of the modernist triumph resumed their hegemony, or appeared to do so. Today it is hard to remember that fifty years ago the National Council of Churches—which included the oldline–liberal denominations—was almost universally acknowledged as the religious establishment of the United States.

Appearances were deceptive. The NCC and its member churches looked like the re–establishment of the religio–cultural hegemony of the earlier Benevolent Empire, but many things had changed. For one thing, wars, unprecedented atrocities, and the rise of totalitarianisms had not been kind to the gospel of inevitable progress. For another, liberal religion, having abandoned the intellectual defense of doctrine—lest it be tainted with the brush of supposedly vanquished “fundamentalism”—lost its hold on cultural leadership, which gravitated to the university, the media, and other institutions. Unlike the Benevolent Empire, the re–establishment was not a religio–cultural establishment but a purely religious establishment. It was religion in search of a way to make itself useful to the culture, with others defining what is meant by useful. The consuming passion was to be “relevant,” and relevance was discovered in the service of “social change,” most dramatically in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s.

When that movement splintered in the mid–1960s between Dr. King’s American dream and varieties of “black power” and “black nationalist” depictions of the American nightmare, and when this potent mix was added to the growing polemic on campuses and elsewhere against “Amerika,” a polemic generated by or at least focused on the Vietnam War, the leadership of what had been viewed as the religio–cultural establishment became a vaguely religious counterculture. In the subsequent decades, as the children of the secular counterculture of the 1960s assumed positions of leadership throughout the society, they no longer had any need for the institutions of liberal religion that had once made themselves so useful. The National Council of Churches, once a national institution that seemed comparable to the American Medical Association or Harvard University, was by the end of the century a skeleton of its former self, barely able to pay its bills, pitiably seeking to demonstrate its public relevance by acting as a wholly owned subsidiary of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The heirs of the modernists were now in the wilderness into which they had once driven their fundamentalist opponents. Meanwhile, the heirs of the fundamentalists, now calling themselves evangelicals, began in the late 1940s a long march back into the public square, where they now exercise powerful, if not always controlling, influence in the other major party. Only in America, as they say.

While We’re At It

Sources: “Defending the Faiths” by Allen D. Hertzke and Daniel Philpott, National Interest, Fall 2000. “Ecclesia Sancta, Ecclesia Peccatrix: The Holiness of the Church in Martin Luther’s Theology,” by David S. Yeago, Pro Ecclesia, vol. IX, no. 3.

While We’re At It: Mark Steyn on baby names, National Post, December 28, 2000. Mel Martinez quote, Family Research Council press release, December 21, 2000. Caption to ad for FIRSTWORLD, Industry Standard, September 4, 2000. Trappists online, National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 2000. Domestic violence in same–sex relationships, New York Times, November 6, 2000. Dale Vree on RJN on hell, New Oxford Review, January 2001. Edward Rothstein on American Heritage Dictionary, New York Times, November 25, 2000. Harold M. Schulweis on Catholic–Jewish relations, Reform Judaism, Fall 2000. On gay Christian militants, Catholic League press release, November 14, 2000. Lamer–Skillen debate on prayer in Congress, World, October 7, 2000. On Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, New York Times, November 14, 2000. Robert A. Rimbo on “eucharistic hospitality,” National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000. On Peter Singer’s new book, Publishers Weekly, December 11, 2000. Christmas at Harvard, Harvard Crimson, December 11, 2000. On the Salvation Army in Russia, Keston Institute Press release, November 30, 2000. Is the Pope Catholic? by Joanna Manning reviewed in Commonweal, September 2, 2000. John Lukacs interviewed in Books & Culture, July/August 2000. Diagnosing Winnie the Pooh and friends, Canadian Medical Association Journal, December 12, 2000.