The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 117 (November 2001): 65-84.

September 11—Before and After

September 11. This is written the day after, just under the deadline for this issue. For years to come, I expect, we will speak of “before” and “after” September 11. I was on my way to say the nine o’clock Mass at Immaculate Conception, on 14th Street and First Avenue, when the hijacked airline hit the first tower. There was a small crowd at the corner of 14th and I remarked that there seemed to be a fire at the World Trade Center and we should pray for the people there. But I could not stay or I would be late for Mass. Only after Mass did I discover what had happened. How strange beyond understanding, I thought, that as we were at the altar offering up, as Catholics believe, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, only a little to the south of us was rising, in flames and mountains of smoke, a holocaust of suffering and death. That, too, was subsumed and offered on Calvary. It occurred to me that Friday, only three days away, is the feast called The Triumph of the Cross. Exactly.

The first commentary I heard was from a woman coming out of the church: “That’s what we get for unconditionally supporting Israel.” I wondered how many others would draw that lesson. Watching television during the day, the question was several times asked, “Why do they hate us so much?” And the answer given in one word was “Israel.” The further question implied was, Is our support for Israel worth this? What justice requires us to do in order to punish the perpetrators and ward off even greater evil is done for Israel, of course, but it is done, much more comprehensively, for the civilization that Christians, Jews, and everyone else will now come to see more clearly as it is seen by others: the Christian West.

My part of Manhattan is a long string of hospitals, and I went to be of whatever help I could. After a couple of hours it became obvious that very few of the injured were coming into the hospitals. The doleful conclusion is that, except for the many who were able to get out and away, the people at ground zero are dead. Many thousands they are saying today; no doubt we will find out how many in the days ahead. It will be a city of funerals for weeks to come, as bodies and pieces of bodies are identified. The church, the residence, and our offices are all north of 14th Street. At the house and office, everyone is safe. I am sure the same is not true of all our parishioners. It is weird. We can look down the avenues and see the still billowing smoke, as though watching a foreign country under attack, but of course it is our city, and our country.

Before and after September 11, what difference will it make? That’s the subject of endless chatter and nobody knows. For what it’s worth, I anticipate five major changes. It will inaugurate a time of national unity and sobriety in a society that has been obsessed by fake pluralisms while on a long and hedonistic holiday from history. Second, there will be an understandable passion for retaliation and revenge that could easily veer into reckless bellicosity. That is a danger. The other danger is that fear of that danger will compromise the imperative to protect and punish. Third, a legitimate concern for increased security will spark a legitimate concern for personal freedoms. Many will warn that freedom cannot be protected by denying freedom, and such warnings should not be lightly dismissed, even as we know that the liberty we cherish is not unbridled license but ordered liberty. Without order there can be no liberty; it is for liberty that we surrender license. I expect that many Americans who never understood that will now be having long second thoughts.

Fourth, after some initial sortings out, America will identify itself even more closely with Israel. Disagreements over the justice of how Israel was founded and how it has maintained itself in existence will not disappear. But the diabolical face of the evil that threatens Israel, and us, is now unveiled. Among Americans and all who are part of our civilization, it will be understood that we must never surrender, or appear to be surrendering, to that evil. Finally, the question of “the West and the rest” will be powerfully sharpened, including a greatly heightened awareness of the global threats posed by militant Islam. Innocent Muslims in this country and Europe are undoubtedly in for some nastiness, and we must do our best to communicate the distinction between Islam and Islamism, knowing that the latter is the monistic fanaticism embraced by only a minority of Muslims. But almost inevitably, given the passions aroused and the difficulties of enforcing the law among people who are largely alien in their ways, such distinctions will sometimes get lost. We can only try to do our best by those Muslims who have truly chosen our side in “the clash of civilizations.” It seems likely also that, after September 11, discussion about immigration policy will become more intense, and more candid.

That’s a mixed bag of possible consequences, and, of course, I may be wrong about any or all of them. These are but first thoughts one day after. Only a little south of here thousands are buried under the rubble. So it is now to the tasks at hand. It will be the work of weeks, perhaps months, to give them a proper burial. The consolation of the living is a work without end.

Hard Sayings

There are many ways of dealing with the “hard sayings” of Jesus. For instance, Luke 14, the gospel for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” The reading ends with, “Anyone who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” One way to deal with such hard sayings and avoid disturbing the comfortable is to say that Jesus did not really mean it. Thus the little devotional comment in the Mass guide, Celebrating the Eucharist, published by Liturgical Press: “Jesus is using pretty radical language (not necessarily to be taken literally!) in order to give us a chance to consider pretty carefully what we do when we say yes to discipleship.” Really? He wants us to “consider pretty carefully” what is entailed in taking up our cross and following him? Well, not a real cross, of course.

What would we do without homiletical guides to tame the “pretty radical language” of Jesus? Yes, he speaks about a devotion that claims all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, but what he means, of course, is that God will be quite pleased with a piece of your heart, soul, and mind that is not previously claimed. Especially if you know that Jesus shares our devotion to “family values” and certainly would not want us to hate father, mother, children, etc. On the Luke 14 passage, the International Bible Commentary (also published by Liturgical Press) offers additional comfort: “Jesus is not literally demanding the ‘hatred’ of family and self. The Semitic mind, and the African as well, can only entertain two extremes: truth and falsehood, love and hate, light and darkness.” That’s a relief, then. We who are not Semites or Africans understand about nuances. We can “consider pretty carefully,” but it’s not as though a decision is called for, certainly not an unequivocal decision of yes or no.

Thus do the facilitators of a comfortable Christianity explain the words of Jesus by explaining them away. W. H. Auden (see Alan Jacobs, “Auden and the Limits of Poetry,” August/September) wrote of his conviction that Jesus is Lord: “I believe because he fulfills none of my dreams, because he is in every respect the opposite of what he would be if I could have made him in my own image.” But why not another great teacher, such as Buddha or Muhammad? Because, Auden wrote, “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry ‘Crucify him.’” Well, really, that is going too far. Jesus did use some “pretty radical language,” but it is not to be taken literally. And, after all, he was a Semite.

At the same time I was preparing my homily for that Sunday, the New York Times (yes, the New York Times) ran what might aptly be called a pro-life story about Jill Stanek. It was a sympathetic story, without a touch of liberal irony. Ms. Stanek was a nurse at Christ Hospital and Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois, a presumably Christian hospital where they committed abortions and put babies who survived the procedure in a utility room to die. At first, Ms. Stanek insisted that she at least be permitted to hold the babies until they died. Then she went public about what the hospital was doing. Then she was fired.

“Sitting in her living room,” writes reporter John Fountain, “she has no regrets.” She has “a lot of trouble” understanding why people are not more concerned about God “and someday meeting their maker and having to explain themselves. I have a lot more trouble understanding why people are willing to forgo an eternity for concerns about what their peers think.” “Not that it’s easy,” she adds. “It’s painful.” Maybe Jill Stanek has some Semite or African blood in her. Such a literalist: she can only “entertain two extremes”—killing babies or caring for them.

So what then did I say about the “hard sayings” of Jesus in Luke 14? You don’t want the whole homily, but I said as best I could that Jesus meant, and means, what he said. That the love for which Jesus calls is so intense, so singular, so unqualified that all other loves (and he surely commands us to love others) appear, by comparison, to be not love at all, to be even the opposite of love, to be hatred. Or maybe the point is that even the best of loves (such as love for family) can become evil and hateful when not ordered to the love of God. But finally I did not “explain” the words of Jesus; I don’t know why he said these deeply disturbing words. Perhaps to deeply disturb. In any event, I am sure they are meant to be taken very seriously indeed—as in what most people mean by “literally.” Nobody in the congregation cried out for him to be crucified, but afterwards a woman said she is going to have to think pretty carefully about whether she wants to follow him. I am encouraging her to think about that very carefully.

The Tangled Web

The tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive (Sir Walter Scott) becomes more tangled still with continuing practice. Such reflections are occasioned by reading this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book by historian Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers. Ellis, who has taught for many years at Mount Holyoke College, has been among the most acclaimed of American historians, and the present book would justly enhance his reputation, were it not for what we now know. The book is composed of six chapters, each telling in a most winsome manner the story of decisive encounters between the “founding brothers”—Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, et al. Some of his friends in the guild of historians say that what we now know should not be permitted to detract from Ellis’ stature as a historian, and there is a charitable impulse to agree. It is not easy, however.

Ellis does himself an injustice in comparing his book with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, that effetely sneering exercise in debunking one’s betters. Strachey described his project this way: “He will row out over the great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.” “With this model in mind,” writes Ellis, “I rowed out over the great ocean of material generated in the founding era of American nationhood, lowered my little bucket as far down as my rope could reach, then made sense out of the characteristic specimens I hoisted up with as much storytelling skill as my imagination allowed.” The bucket of Ellis’ scholarship, unlike Strachey’s, is not little. Nor, and again unlike Strachey, is his purpose to expose buried dirt to the light of day. Ellis does not treat his characters as “specimens” to be “examined with a careful [and cruel] curiosity.” In this book, as in his earlier works such as American Sphinx (on Jefferson) and Passionate Sage (on Adams), Ellis is, with exceptions, deeply respectful of the Founders and what they achieved.

Ellis distances himself from today’s academic Stracheys who, employing critical theories represented as radical, tell us that the Founders were not who they seemed to be and were not doing what they thought they were doing. “My own efforts,” Ellis writes, “constitute what I hope is a polite argument against the scholarly grain, based on a set of presumptions that are so disarmingly old-fashioned that they might begin to seem novel in the current climate.” He presumes, for instance, that the central players in the drama were not marginal figures driven by previously hidden interests but political leaders at the center of the national story who shaped the arguments and institutions that have, in turn, shaped the American political story to this day. That is the account he offers “with as much storytelling skill as my imagination allowed.” The problem is, and it cannot help but intrude upon one’s reading of his account, that it now appears that Ellis has a very permissive imagination that allows what in a historian, or in anyone else for that matter, should not be allowed.

When some months ago the Boston Globe revealed that Ellis had for years been trading on a completely fabricated history of his years in Vietnam, including his serving on the staff of General William Westmoreland and engagement in dangerous missions, the reports met with cries of disbelief and disillusionment. But in fact, Ellis had never been in Vietnam, and spent the war years teaching at West Point. Ellis not only deployed the elaborately detailed fiction for purposes of dinner party chatter but repeated it in interviews with national media, and even made it a chief attraction in his popular course on the Vietnam War in American history. The charges against Ellis are not disputed, although there is disagreement on what to make of the unhappy facts. Of course there is an element of personal tragedy in an eminent historian so exposing himself to shame, contempt, and, from some, pity. Others claim to see more in the Ellis case. It is, they say, but an instance revealing the degree to which the tangled web of deceit has spread through academic culture.

A Few Examples

To cite but a few examples from recent years, there is the infamous case of Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago, who, in the service of gay rights, gave false testimony in court—and it is hard to believe she did not know it was false—about the moral teaching of Plato and other ancients on homosexuality. (Her point being that “homophobia” is a Christian invention. Although some thought she should have been, Professor Nussbaum was not charged with perjury. For an account of the incident, see “In the Case of Martha Nussbaum” by Gerard V. Bradley, FT, June/July 1994). Then there was the 1989 case of the “historians’ brief” filed with the Supreme Court by hundreds of academic historians in support of the abortion license, falsely claiming that abortion was countenanced by law and custom in the early years of the American experience (see Gerard V. Bradley, “Academic Integrity Betrayed,” FT, August/September 1990). Also, and coming close to the matter of Ellis’ present book, there was the highly acclaimed 1998 study by Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, purporting to prove that the Jefferson had a child by one of his slaves, and entering as evidence a nineteenth-century letter in which words had clearly been changed in order to reverse its original meaning. Many other instances that have come to public knowledge might be cited, and of course there is the frequent fact of plagiarism and trimming the truth to accommodate special pleading in causes beyond number. What is to be expected when the very word truth is fashionably supplied with ironic quotation marks? The question of whether the case of Joseph Ellis has helped to thicken or unravel the tangled web of academic mendacity, however, should not distract our attention from peculiarly interesting aspects of the case itself.

While his friends, and others who are on uneasy terms with historical truth, say that Ellis’ private fictions about Vietnam do not impugn his integrity as a historian, fictions taught as fact in the classroom are not private. Nor is his tangled web of deception confined to the course on Vietnam and American history. In the 1996 book American Sphinx, Ellis agreed with most Jefferson scholars since 1802, when the rumor was first circulated, that the Sally Hemings connection was unsubstantiated and implausible. That is also the conclusion reached this year by a commission of scholars, both pro- and anti-Jefferson, who studied the DNA evidence and related arguments.

But Ellis is now firmly on the other side. In Founding Brothers he writes that “this delectable morsel of scandal [was] confirmed as correct beyond any reasonable doubt by DNA studies done in 1998.” What led him to change his historical judgment? Despite his claims about going “against the scholarly grain” of academic fashion, Ellis wrote last year that Jefferson is “the dead-white-male who matters most,” making him the “most valued trophy in the cultural wars.” Also, and by no means incidentally, the new “evidence” of the DNA study was rushed to press smack in the middle of the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings. Ellis was a leader of the partisan forces defending Clinton. Remember the argument: it’s all about sex; everybody does it; other Presidents did it; even the great Jefferson did it—not with an intern but with a slave, and with the consequence of a baby that left no doubt about what the meaning of “is” is when it comes to having sex.

Secrets Kept from Himself

Of course the bill of impeachment was not about Clinton’s indulgence of his sexual appetites but about his perjuries in the attempted cover-up of what he had done. In explaining Jefferson and exculpating Clinton (and himself?), Ellis is interested in the psychology of mendacity. Thus, it would seem, Ellis offers us Clinton refracted through his construal of Jefferson, and all refracted through his own entanglement in a web of lies. At the time of the impeachment, a Democratic Senator said that Clinton “is a very good liar.” But of course he was not, since a very good liar does not get a reputation for being a very good liar.

Ellis provides expert testimony on the difficulties in lying well. Jefferson, he writes in Founding Brothers, was given to interpreting reality as he wanted it to be. He very much disliked argument and uncomfortable truths because they disturbed “the voices he heard inside himself [which] were all harmonious and agreeable, reliable expressions of the providentially aligned universal laws that governed the world as he knew it.” The “core” of Jefferson’s character, says Ellis, was “elusiveness.” When an opponent published letters incriminating Jefferson in wrongdoing that he had denied, “Jefferson seemed genuinely surprised at the revelation, suggesting that for him the deepest secrets were not the ones he kept from his enemies but the ones he kept from himself.” One cannot help but wonder whether Ellis was surprised by the reports in the Boston Globe.

And surely, barring a capacity for disassociation that would be judged pathological, there must have been at work a measure of personal introspection when Ellis wrote of Jefferson’s “capacity for self-deception that permitted him to deny, and with utter sincerity, the vanities and ambitions lurking in his own soul,” reflecting “the moralistic categories that shaped all his political thinking [and] fit perfectly the romantic formula that history writing seemed to require.” James Nuechterlein memorably wrote of Clinton that he seemed to be “serially sincere,” meaning that he sincerely meant whatever he was saying at the moment. Ellis would appear to agree, and to more than half admire the trait in Clinton even as, in order to excuse it in Clinton, he attributes it to Jefferson. As for himself and his work, Ellis has not to date addressed “the romantic formula that history writing seemed to require.” Perhaps he will offer a public explanation, but then, who will believe him?

Never Ever

The Christian tradition is very definite about the evil of lying, and some have thought that—in the case of St. Augustine, for instance—it is excessively rigorous. Parents teach their children never to tell a lie, and then the “never” is attenuated by the everyday “white lies” that are deemed necessary to getting along, and by exquisitely complicated discussions of “quandary ethics” at the margins of life’s extremities. (For instance: If you were hiding Jews in your house, would you tell the truth to a Nazi Jew-killer who asked if there are any Jews in your house? There is, I believe, a convincing answer, but that is for another day.) I confess to having told my share of fibs, but with each passing year I have become more convinced that to tell a lie, any lie, is to besmirch reality. What is true need not always be told and sometimes, as in the case of confidences, should not be told. But to lie is to soil and make ugly the order of truth, which is beautiful. It is to make the world more unreliable; it is to sin against words, and words bear the structure of trust on which all life depends—penultimately life with one another, and ultimately life with God. One lie, every lie, wounds the world.

The tale of Joseph Ellis is a personal tragedy, but a personal tragedy with large public meaning. What he did and what Clinton did—and maybe what Jefferson did, although I don’t know whether to trust Ellis on that—was egregious, but its egregiousness alerts us to the everyday patterns of mendacity so smoothly, and wrongly, tolerated. And not only in the academy. Scott had it right: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” The thing is not to begin. Once begun, there is no ending, for lies beget the lies by which they are sustained on their inexorable course from the wounding to the killing of trust. Inexorable, that is, apart from repentance and amendment of life. Your parents were right, even if they did not always live the truth they taught: Never, never ever, tell a lie.

While We’re At It

Sources: New York Times on Jill Stanek, September 8, 2001.

While We’re At It: Terence Kealey on eugenics, Spectator, March 17, 2001. Daniel Cere on relationship theories, Public Interest, Spring 2001. Confession and “kind” priests, Catholic Trends, March 17, 2001. On “faith-based” and community initiatives, World, April 21, 2001. The ELCA’s “vision,” Forum Letter, October 2001. On the hiring of Fr. Kevin O’Rourke, CHA press release and Our Sunday Visitor, May 19, 1991. On the Greenlee Communion Dispensing Machine, Cincinnati Enquirer, March 31, 2001. On child-free Seattle, Seattle Times, April 8, 2001. Britons’ belief in the resurrection, Daily Telegraph, April 12, 2001. Closing legal loopholes in the Netherlands, SPUC Information, April 17, 2001. Baking bread in the Jesuit tradition, America, April 16, 2001. Judith Flanders on iconoclasm, Times Literary Supplement, April 13, 2001. William Galston on “exclusionary liberalism,” Commonweal, April 6, 2001. Statistics on abortion and suicide, SPUC Information, April 19, 2001. On Anne Tyler, Atlantic, May 2001. D. D. Guttenplan on the Holocaust, New Yorker, April 16, 2001. Leon Podles on the Boy Scouts, Touchstone, April 2001. Bruce Marshall on the Joint Declaration on Justification, Tablet, April 2001. M. Francis Mannion on liturgical reform, Antiphon, Vol. 5, No. 3. Mainline ordination numbers, Christian Century, April 11, 2001. On the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, New York Times, April 26, 2001. Nicotine Theo­ logical Journal on FBOs, April 2001. Gara LaMarche on running out of ideas, Nation, May 7, 2001. On Land O’Lakes statement, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Winter 2001. On Andrew Greeley, Chicago Sun-Times, April 29, 2001. On Paul VI visiting Vietnam, Catholic Trends, April 28, 2001. The ethics of organ donation, Weekly Standard, May 28, 2001. Islam and the “great Mystery of Existence,” Times Literary Supplement, January 26, 2001. The GOP and “the public,” New York Times, July 22, 2001. On the death of Thomas Winning, Tablet, June 23, 2001. New York City Ballet’s Stabat Mater, New York Times, June 14, 2001. T. M. Luhrmann on Clifford Geertz, Times Literary Supplement, January 21, 2001. On Catholic universality, Publishers Weekly, August 13, 2001. Eamon Duffy on James Carroll, New York Review of Books, July 5, 2001. Bruce Bawer on Sigrid Undset, New York Times Book Review, June 3, 2001. James Fenton on Philip Larkin, New York Review of Books, April 12, 2001.