The Public Square

Richard  John  Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 63-80.

A Candid Word About An Untold Story

A hundred and seventy one thousand is a lot of people. That is how many adults came into the Catholic Church in the United States in the past year. That is in addition, of course, to more than a million infant baptisms, adding to the rapid growth of the number of Catholics in this country, now standing at 62,391,484. Of the adults entering the Church in the past year, 83,157 were received by baptism, and 87,799 had previously been baptized in other communions. The former are technically called catechumens and the latter are called candidates, but people more commonly speak of 171,000 “adult converts.” The number of adult converts per year has been growing steadily and is testimony, in part, to the success of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a program of evangelization and catechesis begun after the Second Vatican Council. The number of adults moving into full communion with the Catholic Church is one of the important untold stories in contemporary America.

In my experience, most Catholics are not aware of this story. Both “progressive” and “traditionalist” Catholics, for their own reasons, generally depict a Church that is embattled, besieged, and struggling for survival, when in fact, at least by numerical and institutional measures, Catholicism is flourishing and even burgeoning in America. Certainly the rapid growth of Catholicism is a non–story in most of the Catholic press. Among bishops, priests, and editors who know the facts, there is frequently an evident uneasiness about the phenomenon. Individual Catholics, I have discovered, are very “convert–minded.” There is hardly a devout Catholic who does not have several people for whom he is regularly praying that they will “come into the Church.” There is, however, uneasiness about talking in public about the adult convert phenomenon.

Part of this has to do with the memory of a time—a time not entirely past—when Protestant America questioned whether Catholics really belong here. Anti–Catholics regularly raised the specter of a Catholic “takeover” of America. That memory inhibits any “triumphalistic” drawing of attention to Catholic growth. Another important factor today is that, since Vatican II, Catholicism is deeply and irreversibly committed to the quest for Christian unity, and many Catholics sense a tension, if not a contradiction, between ecumenism and conversions. Those who come from other ecclesial communities and enter into full communion with the Catholic Church encounter great joy among some Catholics that they have, not to put too fine a point on it, “come over to our side.” They also encounter frequent Catholic puzzlement that anyone would convert “in these ecumenical times.” That ambivalence is not a factor, of course, with the nearly one–half of adult converts who were never baptized and had no previous ecclesial affiliation.

Why It Makes a Difference

Several years ago, the bishops’ conference asked for a study of what is happening with RCIA, and it has now been issued. “Journey to the Fullness of Life” is valuable, although limited, because it goes up only through 1996 and is based on a relatively small sampling of people who have participated in RCIA. It is also a bureaucratic product and, as is the way with committee reports (actually, five committees in this case), the humps on the horse do not enhance the clarity of the picture presented. But some of the findings are helpful. At the time of the study, three–quarters of the twenty thousand parishes in the country had an RCIA program of nine months or more to prepare adults for membership in the Church. The largest age group is from twenty to thirty–five, with most participants being married to Catholics. A very commonly heard complaint about RCIA (and one reason some people seek individual instruction from a priest) is that its presentation of doctrine is “dumbed down,” priority being given to good feelings about “community” and “belonging.” This complaint is reinforced by the findings of “Journey to the Fullness of Life.” While many of the catechists and leaders of RCIA were concerned about questions such as multiculturalism and inclusive language, the participants whom RCIA is to serve want a greater emphasis upon doctrine and what makes the Catholic Church distinctive. After all, they are devoting months of preparation to taking a very big step, and they need to know why being Catholic makes such a big difference.

Here again, ecumenical sensibilities come to the fore. As one of the five groups involved in the study, the response of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs evinces a certain embarrassment. The committee rightly emphasizes what Christians have in common. “It is our common Baptism that places us in real, if imperfect, communion with other Christians so that the initiation of the baptized, though not an ecumenical activity, requires a particular ecumenical sensitivity.” The committee quotes the official ecumenical directory which says, “The work of preparing the reception of an individual who wishes to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church is of its nature distinct from ecumenical activity.” That statement can be, and often is, misunderstood.

The implied tension between ecumenism and evangelization can be a hindrance, in RCIA and elsewhere, to the full and confident presentation of Catholic teaching. It is not encouraging that leaders in RCIA mention a list of secondary resources they use, and then the study adds this, “They mention using the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a background resource.” That official and very accessible compilation of Catholic teaching, one might suggest, is deserving of more than a mention, and should be in the foreground rather than the background. Surely nobody going through RCIA should be without a personal copy of the Catechism. The responses of RCIA participants underscore the commonsensical observation that what the Catholic Church teaches—including what she teaches about the importance of being in communion with the Catholic Church—is at the heart of why these people are becoming Catholic. At least it should be.

Obscuring the Truth

Wholehearted evangelization and uncompromising catechesis are not the enemies of ecumenism. Proselytizing is something else. Proselytizing is of its nature distinct from, and incompatible with, ecumenical activity. There have been countless efforts in recent decades to draw a bright definitional line between proselytizing and evangelizing, and perhaps none of them is entirely successful. One such worthy effort is the 1994 statement of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, the signers go on to say:

It is understandable that Christians who bear witness to the gospel try to persuade others that their communities and traditions are more fully in accord with the gospel. There is a necessary distinction between evangelizing and what is today commonly called proselytizing or “sheep stealing.” . . . Christian witness must always be made in a spirit of love and humility. It must not deny but must readily accord to everyone the full freedom to discern and decide what is God’s will for his life. Witness that is in service to the truth is in service to such freedom. Any form of coercion—physical, psychological, legal, economic—corrupts Christian witness and is to be unqualifiedly rejected. Similarly, bearing false witness against other persons and communities, or casting unjust and uncharitable suspicions upon them, is incompatible with the gospel. Also to be rejected is the practice of comparing the strengths and ideals of one community with the weaknesses and failures of another. In describing the teaching and practices of other Christians, we must strive to do so in a way that they would recognize as fair and accurate.

In evangelization, apologetics, and catechesis, the rule is always, in the words of St. Paul, to speak the truth in love. Love that obscures the truth is not love, and truth pitted against love is not truth. In RCIA and elsewhere, Catholics must not obscure or belittle the great gift of our existing unity in Christ with all who are baptized. Because there is only one Christ, there can be, in the full sense of the term, only one Church, which is the body of Christ. This is the meaning of the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation that all who are baptized are in “certain but imperfect” communion with the Catholic Church. The goal of ecumenism is not to create unity where there is none, but to bring to fulfillment the unity that already exists by virtue of baptism and faith in Christ. Catholics believe that the one Church of Christ uniquely “subsists” in the Catholic Church, which is to say that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. That is the Catholic proposal, and those who come to believe that it is true are, says the Council, conscience bound to enter into and remain in full communion with the Catholic Church. Obviously, those who are not persuaded of the truth of that proposal have no such obligation in conscience.

RCIA is one of the great gifts of the Council. Each year the number of adults entering into full communion with the Church through this program has grown, and will, please God, continue to grow in the future. It is a story that should be better known. In the telling of the story, it must be underscored that the vibrant growth of Catholicism is not in tension, never mind conflict, with the Church’s irreversible devotion to Christian unity. Ecumenism is not enhanced by compromise or timidity but by confident, candid, and mutually respectful engagement among those who seek the fullness of truth. The “Journey to the Fullness of Life,” to cite the title of the RCIA study, is inseparable from the journey to the fullness of truth. To judge by this study, and also by much anecdotal evidence, that is sometimes better understood by the adult catechumens and candidates than by the leaders of RCIA. “Journey to the Fullness of Life” is a hopeful sign that this defect is being remedied in a program that is crucially important to the continuing vitality of Catholicism and of Christian witness in America.

The Clinton Plunge

Tracking the moral state of the American people is anything but an exact science. It is more of a game where everyone can play, and pundits are expected to. (Pundit, as you undoubtedly know, from the Hindi pandit, meaning a learned person.) As faithful readers know, I have contended all along that the slimy psychodrama of the Clinton presidency was not an accurate indicator of what is called the American character. It was more a matter of a nation watching with fascinated horror as the toilet backed up and overflowed into its living room. I expect that the word “unprecedented” and the phrase “this has never happened before” were used more times in the Clinton Administration than in the last five presidencies combined. It was part soap opera, part Al Capp’s Dogpatch, and, with Mrs. Clinton, a generous slice of Macbeth. People were variously amused, appalled, and outraged, but nobody knew how to fix the toilet. Except for the managers of the impeachment, but it was finally decided that their price was too high.

An extraordinary thing has happened, however, since President Clinton so gracelessly left the Oval Office. Those who defended him through perjury, contempt of court, multiple abuses of power, the sexual exploitation of employees, and at least one plausible charge of rape have, suddenly it seems, discovered that there is something deeply wrong about Mr. Clinton and his consort. People who stuck with them through thick and thin are now heaping opprobrium on their heads, as though to make up for their previous oversights. One liberal columnist in a newsweekly calls for ending the eight–year moratorium on the use of the not very nice Southern phrase, “white trash.” It is almost enough to make one feel sorry for the former President and his senatorial wife. An editorial in the New York Times says that it seems Mr. Clinton is making “a redoubled effort to plunge further and further beneath the already low expectations of his most cynical critics and most world–weary friends.” All of this makes President George W. Bush and the return of the adults an even more welcome relief than it would otherwise be.

Morgan Stanley, the investment firm, publicly apologizes for inviting Clinton to address a conference, at a reported fee of more than $100,000. From being political genius and lovable rogue, the former President has become tainted goods. The immediate occasion of the editorial wrath of the Times is Clinton’s apparent selling of a presidential pardon to the fugitive mogul aptly named Marc Rich. This does not seem to be the greatest of the offenses committed by the Clintons, so why the outrage now? Why now are loyal partisans, rediscovering their fastidiousness, so eager to make clear that the Clintons are not “our kind of people”? Part of it is perhaps a belated expression of guilt and embarrassment over having for so long defended the indefensible. Part of it is surely that offenses such as the Rich pardon and the purloined White House furnishings are not about sex. Clinton was not attacked for his libidinal escapades, and even the most virulent feminists excused his gross exploitation of women, lest the sexual liberation dear to FOBs (remember Friends of Bill?) be thrown into question. The current outrage is over the Clintons’ vulgar venality, a vice about which most of his rich former allies try to be discreet.

Then too, there is the obvious factor that liberal Democrats no longer need Bill, and are increasingly embarrassed about their ties to the Senator. In fact, they have every reason to put distance between themselves and the Clinton Administration. And so it is that they are throwing their former hero to the wolves. To be sure, there are hard–core loyalists who remind us of the alleged achievements of his presidency, despite his “personal mistakes,” and revisionists will inevitably get their turn at redefining his “legacy” in a more favorable light. But for the moment fashion and self–interest dictate the loud expression of a long–lost capacity for moral outrage. Today’s fashion, like yesterday’s, tells us very little about the character of the American people. One can be grateful, however, that the continuing soap opera has been moved off center stage while the adults, who from the start understood the Clintons all too well, get on with business.

That Loud–Mouthed Irish Priest

From time to time I have had occasion to refer to Father Andrew Greeley, more often than not in raising a question about something he has said about matters internal to the Catholic Church. I have perhaps failed to convey my critical appreciation of aspects of Fr. Greeley’s project as a sociologist of religion. The editor of Society, a social science journal, asked me to review one of Fr. Greeley’s recent books, The Catholic Imagination (University of California Press), and the review was published in that journal’s January/February issue. Herewith excerpts from that review, offering a somewhat different take on Fr. Greeley and his project.

Over the many years of his very productive life, Father Andrew Greeley has been the butt of all the jokes about the super–prolific author. He has, it is said, no unpublished thoughts, and, after he started publishing steamy novels that became bestsellers, it was said that he has no unpublished fantasies. I do not know, and perhaps he is not quite sure, how many books he has published. Some are severe (others would say strident) indictments of the leadership of the Catholic Church, maintaining his reputation as, in his own words, “a loud–mouthed Irish priest.” Others are astringently academic analyses of survey research data accumulated by the National Opinion Research Center, with which he has been connected for decades. Yet others are devotional–theological reflections on dimensions of Catholic faith, such as the role of the Virgin Mary and the place of the feminine in human existence. Now Professor of Sociology at both the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, Greeley repeatedly asserts his dual identity as both priest and sociologist, and in the latter capacity he adamantly insists that he is a “scientist,” usually defining that term in an old–fashioned positivist manner. In fact, Andrew Greeley is a man of many parts. The parts and the resulting books do not easily fit familiar categories, as is once again evident in The Catholic Imagination.

The book starts out with the thesis to be demonstrated. Or maybe it is the reality to be celebrated. I expect it is both.

Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.

Once again, Greeley throws down the gauntlet in challenging the secularization theories that have dominated the last hundred years and more, especially in the social sciences. “I find no persuasive evidence that either modern or postmodern humankind exists outside of faculty office buildings. Everyone tends to be premodern.” This is the argument that Greeley made at greater length in his 1972 book Unsecular Man, and it is an argument that now appears to have been ahead of its time. Some thinkers who once confidently connected modernity and secularization—one thinks, for instance of Peter Berger and David Martin—have now done an about face, asserting that the dominant characteristic of our time is desecularization. Greeley agrees, with the caveat that it is not desecularization because, outside the academic imagination, there was no secularization to begin with. Max Weber et al. to the contrary, human beings, by virtue of being human, live in an enchanted world. Although he does not put it this way, and would likely object to my putting it so bluntly, Greeley’s contention is that “the Catholic imagination” enables Catholics to be more human, or at least to give freer and fuller expression to their humanity.

Being a Catholic, says Greeley, is a matter of what one believes, in the sense of doctrines affirmed. But it is more importantly a matter of the sacred stories told in community. “None of the doctrines is less true than the stories. Indeed, they have the merit of being more precise, more carefully thought out, more ready for defense and explanation. But they are not where religion or religious faith starts, nor in truth where it ends.” The experienced Catholic reality is communal stories, rituals, and cultivated sensibilities that engage ultimate truths. This is the gist of The Analogical Imagination, a 1982 book by University of Chicago theologian David Tracy. Greeley dedicates the present book to Tracy, offering it as sociological support for Tracy’s argument.

By way of contrast, Greeley contends, Protestantism and a culture formed by Protestantism tend toward a “dialectical imagination.” The dialectical imagination is analytical and distrustful of analogy, metaphor, and poetry. Between the natural and supernatural, the ultimate and the penultimate, the heavenly and earthly, Protestantism accents dissimilarities and “otherness,” while Catholicism generously, even promiscuously, embraces the similarities. “Catholicism is a verdant rainforest of metaphors. The Protestant imagination distrusts metaphors; it tends to be a desert of metaphors. Catholicism stresses the ‘like’ of any comparison (human passion is like divine passion), while Protestantism, when it is willing to use metaphors (and it must if it is to talk about God at all), stresses the unlike.”

Greeley knows that these are very broad strokes, and at several points he courteously says that he is not claiming that Catholicism is better than Protestantism; it is just different. But he obviously does not mean that. Toward the end, he writes, “Well, yes. I’m a Catholic. I like being a Catholic.” That is a notable understatement. Andrew Greeley is exuberantly a Catholic. Lest his Catholic exuberance be off–putting to some readers, he underscores that he has also written books critical of Catholicism “in its present institutional manifestations.” That, too, is a notable understatement.

The Catholic Imagination is more than a declaration of the author’s love of Catholicism. It is a small book, and the supporting sociological evidence is mainly referenced in the footnotes, but Greeley does propose evidence that, among other things, Catholics have, compared to non–Catholics, a significantly higher appreciation of the arts and high culture; they have more satisfaction and fun in sex; they better understand the uses of leisure; they have a deeper and more stable relationship to family and community; they have a greater respect for the life of the mind, with educational achievements reflecting that respect; and they understand the nuanced connections between freedom and authority. Greeley acknowledges that the evidence for these and other claims is not always conclusive, but he finds the evidence convincing and believes that others should at least think the evidence is somewhere on the spectrum from suggestive to persuasive.

The book is eccentric, but that is not necessarily a criticism. Eccentric in this case simply means that it provides an angle of vision that is somewhat off center. Against the endless discussions of the “crisis” of Catholicism—a crisis of authority, a crisis of priestly vocations, a crisis of identity, etc.—Greeley offers a rather sanguine view of the state of the Church. He suggests that, apart from a lot of dumb bishops (in my experience they are not so many and they are not so dumb as he thinks), the “Catholic thing” is vibrantly alive in America. He recognizes that he is addressing mainly the Catholic situation in the United States, and even that from his Irish–American perspective, but he believes that his core argument about the Catholic imagination and its cultural potency has wider application, and I expect he is right about that, although in this book it is asserted rather than demonstrated.

The genius of the Catholic thing, says Greeley, is evident in the mandate that Pope Gregory the Great gave to St. Augustine of Canterbury when he sent him off to Christianize the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the seventh century. The heart of his instruction was that Augustine should not destroy the pagan temples, rituals, and sacred stories but should try to incorporate indigenous beliefs and practices into orthodox Christianity. In short, evangelization proceeds by a strategy of co–optation. Catholicism is on friendly terms with the human condition in all its cultural and religious diversity. Rather than fearing contamination by the “other,” Catholicism habitually attempts to consecrate whatever can be consecrated within its own sacred story, even when it leads to substantial adjustments in that story. “It is hard to imagine,” Greeley writes, “Jewish or Islamic or Platonist or Hindu or Buddhist or Parsi missionaries (should there have been any in these world religions) taking such liberties with their heritage.”

Admittedly, this argument is not original with Greeley, but it is too often forgotten by those who cry “Crisis!” when, in fact, a particular cultural configuration of Catholicism is undergoing change as it accommodates, in accord with venerable tradition, a new cultural circumstance. At the same time, one wishes that Greeley had related his argument to, for instance, the explosive growth of evangelical and pentecostal Protestantism in the presumably Catholic culture of Latin America. Some might invoke that phenomenon as evidence countering Greeley’s argument about the cultural weakness of “dialectical” Protestantism. My own suspicion is that the forms of Protestantism flourishing in Latin America are not dialectical but have co–opted the Catholic strategy of co–optation. But that is the subject of another book, quite possibly forthcoming from Andrew Greeley.

The Catholic Imagination is, as we have come to expect from its author, a provocative mix of Catholic teaching and experience, personal enthusiasm and antipathies, served in a setting of social scientific theory laced with suggestive data, and presented with an attitude. The result will not be to the taste of everyone, but Fr. Greeley has never been inhibited by what he views as the lamentable taste of his detractors. My own recommendation to the hesitant is that they give The Catholic Imagination a try.

Culture Politics, and Other kinds

(The eleventh in a series of reflections on the theme of “Christian America.”)

We have seen the way in which a thorough secularist such as Richard Rorty also subscribes to a Christian America, but one that is Christian once or twice removed. What he, following his mentor John Dewey, does not hesitate to term a religion stands in sharpest contrast to the “culture politics” now being waged by both the left and the right. Achieving Our Country is a poignant cry for the left to return to what Rorty thinks is the real business of politics, which he frankly describes as “social justice” understood in terms of redistributing wealth. It seems that Rorty’s appeal to reconstitute what now might be called the “old left” will have few takers in the foreseeable future. Although those of the hard–core left today declare themselves to be anticapitalist, a declining number affirm that they are socialist, and, unlike the “old left” of earlier decades, a real Communist is almost impossible to find.

Questions of economic, military, and foreign policy are perennials in American politics, as in the politics of any nation. They will never go away entirely, and in unpredictable manner will sometimes erupt as the dominant and formative questions. For the present and in the likely future, however, American politics is mainly “culture politics.” One notes again that “culture” is derived from the Latin cultus, meaning what we revere or worship or hold ourselves accountable to. Culture politics is therefore a contention over what religious or quasi–religious moral tradition, if any, will guide our deliberating and deciding how we ought to order our life together. In this country, composed of these people with their history and associational allegiances, that contention inevitably engages the reality of Christian America.

I do not find it entirely persuasive, but the argument should be acknowledged that “culture politics” is nothing new in the American experience; that it is, in fact, the normal thing, with most of the twentieth century being an aberration. The dominant public issues of the twentieth century were the crises of war and economic depression, with the program of the Progressive Era, which is essentially a program of state regulation and redistribution of wealth, making its way as best it could through and around the crises. The two world wars, the Great Depression, and the more than forty years of Cold War are all in the past. As is the era of big government, or so at least former President Bill Clinton once proclaimed and some believe. So now, in this view, we are returned to the normality of politics as culture politics. After all, what else should politics be about if, as Aristotle suggests, it is the deliberation of how we ought to order our life together, and “ought” is defined by available and commanding ideas, which is to say, by culture?

It is an argument of more than passing interest, but I believe a better case can be made that the form of culture politics dominating our historical moment is the aberration. I am not prepared to press the case very hard, however, since I also harbor the suspicion that it is futile to try to specify what is aberration and what is normality in the American experience. It is difficult enough to try to get a fix simply on what is happening, quite apart from judging whether it is aberrant or normal. Recall the adage that America is so vast and so various that almost any generalization about it is amply supported by evidence.

In any event, there is no doubt that many people are disturbed by the present dominance of culture politics. Culture politics necessarily results in the “moralizing” of politics. Across the political spectrum, there is considerable ambivalence about this turn in our political culture. The left complains about an ascendant “neo–Puritanism,” especially in relation to sexual ethics, and especially in the aftermath of the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton. The right responds that it is simply challenging the “new morality” so vocally and successfully promoted by the left since the 1960s. Both sides have more than a point. It is not that one side is moralistic and the other is not. One of the more successful conservative ploys of recent years, for instance, was to highlight the rigorous moralism of “political correctness.” In the dispute over “speech codes” on campuses, to take but one example, there was the irony of conservatives, in their opposition to such codes, sounding like moral libertarians, while liberals were determined to impose moral standards.

Moralities in Conflict

More often than not, culture politics is not a matter of morality vs. immorality (or even amorality) but of moralities in conflict. As much for secularists like John Dewey and Richard Rorty as for religionists like Walter Rauschenbusch and James Dobson of today’s massive “Focus on the Family” network, it is a conflict that takes place within the ambiance of Christian America. And that for the inescapable reason that Christian America—however confusedly Christian—is the only America there is. Culture politics has to do with the right ordering of our life together, and the right ordering of our life together has to do with almost everything. It has to do with everything, that is, when everything becomes politics, and it is worth remembering that it is has typically been a tenet of the left that everything is politics.

Culture politics has to do with sex, of course. But again, it was the “new politics” of the left, not of the right, that declared a “cultural revolution” (meaning, above all, a sexual revolution) some thirty years ago. The cultural–sexual revolution entailed major social and political changes in gender roles, family structures, attitudes toward homosexuality, and much else. I indicate some reservations about attributing all this to “the sixties” because, in fact, the revolt against what are called bourgeois values goes back much farther than that. In some respects, the “culture wars” have been underway almost a century now. This is brilliantly described by Modris Eksteins of the University of Toronto in his Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, which takes as its title and starting point Stravinsky’s ballet first performed in Paris in 1913:

That the issue of sexual morality should become a vehicle of rebellion against bourgeois values for the modern movement was inevitable. In the art of Gustav Klimt, in the early operas of Richard Strauss, in the plays of Frank Wedekind, in the personal antics of Verlaine, Tchaikovsky, and Wilde, and even in the relaxed morality of the German youth movement, a motif of eroticism dominated the search for newness and change. “Better a whore than a bore,” mused Wedekind, while in the United States Max Eastman shouted, “Lust is sacred!” The sexual rebel, particularly the homosexual, became a central figure in the imagery of revolt, especially after the ignominious treatment Oscar Wilde received at the hands of the establishment. Of her Bloomsbury circle of gentle rebels Virginia Woolf said, “The word bugger was never far from our lips.” André Gide, after a long struggle with himself, denounced publicly le mensonge des moeurs, the moral lie, and admitted his own predilections. Passion and love, he had concluded, were mutually exclusive. And passion was much purer than love.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Norman O. Brown’s “polymorphous perversity,” both major features of the 1960s, are not a far distance from 1913. One might suggest that the cultural revolution declared at the beginning of the twentieth century was delayed by the distraction of crises—from World War I (“the Great War”) through the end of the Cold War in 1989. The conservative turn in politics over the last decade is a long–delayed response, now led in significant part by evangelicals, the heirs of the fundamentalists who went into cultural exile almost a century ago. Of course the response is condemned as a philistine reaction against today’s so–called high culture, which has, for the most part, descended into a self–indulgent and transgressive vulgarity far removed from the panache and imagination of an earlier modernism. But, then and now, the core of the revolution is sexual.

When in the culture politics of today the right comprehensively packages its agenda under the label “pro–family,” it is mirroring the definition of the conflict proposed by the left. Disputed policies ranging from parental choice in education, to a tax break for married couples, to opposing the legalization of gay rights are all included in the “pro–family” package. The right, and especially “the religious right,” is frequently viewed as the aggressor in our culture politics. Its champions, however, believe that they are engaged in a defensive aggression. The clarity of public discourse would be well served were that point conceded. To deny it is to deny that there was a cultural–sexual revolution launched in the 1910s and resumed in the 1960s, or else to claim that it was not about anything of importance.

There is today one question above all others, however, that drives culture politics. It underlies and overarches a host of other issues. Start probing apparently unrelated disputes, and soon the argument gets around to it. Most of us wish this were not the case. But it is the finally unevadable question in American public life, and it will not go away. The question, of course, is abortion. Not surprisingly, those who are put off by culture politics are put off by the conflict over abortion. The arguments for or against the existing abortion license are not necessarily religious in nature. Yet in the everyday reality of public debate and battle, nothing cuts so close to the frazzled nerve center of Christian America. More than any other factor, abortion has also shifted the public constellations of religious allegiance in the country, notably in the convergence of evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in the anti–abortion cause.

Of course, abortion and its centrality in the culture wars did not come out of nowhere. Some resist the suggestion, but I believe the abortion license is inexplicable apart from the moral acceptance of contraception, beginning with the Anglicans at the Lambeth conference of 1930, and, later, the development of the pill. As Eksteins notes also with respect to homosexuality, the revolution aimed at liberating the erotic from fertility and morality. Following on the abortion license and its declared dominion over life and death, the revolution is entangled today with biomedical activities that constitute nothing less than a return to eugenics (see my article, “The Return of Eugenics,” Commentary, April 1988). Considering how long the culture wars have been underway and what is at stake, it is hardly surprising that, barring a distraction such as global war or depression, our politics at the beginning of a new century are mainly culture politics. The great question in dispute is whether passion and love are mutually exclusive, whether passion offers a freedom greater than the freedom proposed by the hard tasks of love. (To be continued.)

While We’re At It

Sources: “Journey to the Fullness of Life,” www.nccb­ On Bill Clinton, New York Times, February 11, 2001.

While We’re At It: On alleged Protestant origins of fast food, ZENIT, November 21, 2000. David Frum on feminists, Times Literary Supplement, July 14, 2000. Robert Craft on Igor Stravinsky, Times Literary Supplement, July 14, 2000. On legalized euthanasia in the Netherlands, Washington Post, November 28, 2000. On euthanasia elsewhere, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children Information, December 1, 2000. On Madonna website, ZENIT, November 9, 2000. On screening the unborn for low intelligence, Pro–Life Infonet, December 1, 2000. On titles for women clergy, Forum Letter, December 2000. “Keeping Sex in Sex Education” by Gary Simpson and Erika Sussman, cited in Cornell University News Service, November 29, 2000. Charlotte Hays interview with Jacques Barzun, Women’s Quarterly, Autumn 2000. Manchester Guardian and Act of Settlement, December 8, 2000. Jackie Wullschlager on Christianity in British schools, Spectator, December 2, 2000. Siamese twins, America, December 2, 2000. Letters on Brian C. Anderson on Catholic Charities, Chronicle of Philanthropy, December 14, 2000. Benedict Groeschel on Donald Cozzens, Inside the Vatican, October 8, 2000. Richard Cohen on Jews in Bush Cabinet, Washington Post, January 16, 2001. CAIR on new movie, press release, January 26, 2001. Andrew Sullivan on Constantine’s Sword, New York Times Book Review, January 14, 2001. Alan Mittleman on Joe Lieberman, Observations, December 2000. On Raul Hilberg, personal correspondence. University of Illinois mascot, Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2001. On prayers at Bush inauguration, New Republic, February 5, 2001. Rod Dreher on Left Behind, New York Post, February 6, 2001.