The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 34 (June/July 1993): 59- 67

This Month:

A Word on "The Competition"

So it has come to this. Fifty-two years ago, the great Reinhold Niebuhr and a few associates launched Christianity & Crisis in order to counter what they viewed as the liberal sentimentalism of American Protestantism, a sentimentalism that was unwilling or unable to face up to the crises of the time, notably the threat of Hitler and his minions. Against such sentimentalism, C&C became the voice of "Christian realism." Since successor generations must do something to keep themselves busy, many revisionist critiques of Christian realism have been produced. But the fact is-or at least our firm judgment is-that on most of the great issues of that time, C&C was right and its critics were usually wrong.

Then came the sixties. In Niebuhr's last failing years, when he had withdrawn from editing, and after his death in 1971, C&C veered, along with the herd of progressive minds, sharply to the left. In latter years it became, and boasted of becoming, the religious counterpart to The Nation. Apparently many people decided they could take The Nation straight, without the chaser of C&C's occasional biblical footnotes. Circulation plummeted and influence became imperceptible. Now comes notice that C&C is shutting down. We say, without a scintilla of Schadenfreude, that we are very sorry. The magazine inherited, even if it finally betrayed, a noble tradition.

The question is asked how First Things views its "competition." The question is not easy to answer. Ours is a journal of "religion and public life," and we take both with great seriousness, indeed contending that the first is the heart of the second. Among publications identified as "religious," the pickings today are, quite frankly, pretty slim. The Protestant front is spanned by The Christian Century and Christianity Today. The first, more than a century old, is still the reliable flagship of oldline Protestantism, reflecting that sector's strengths and weaknesses, and offering from time to time articles that dissent from the liberalism against which Niebuhr initially posed C&C. The Century's liberalism is certainly less sentimental and less strident than it was fifty years ago. While its readership is almost entirely liberal Protestant and its subscription base is in libraries that have long taken it to fill the "Protestant" category among periodicals, the Century is still a standard, albeit declining, referent in journalistic stories about religion in America. (Largely, no doubt, because of the association of the infinitely quotable senior editor, Martin E. Marty.)

Christianity Today is of much larger circulation, pitched to a more popular audience, and serves as a kind of marketing catalogue for evangelical Protestants, who constitute almost all of its readership. It is some way from what Carl Henry had in mind when he began it as a journal to provide a serious intellectual and theological forum for Evangelicals, but it serves an important purpose and offers a superior news service on happenings evangelical.

Among Catholic publications, America, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, National Catholic Register, and Crisis must be mentioned. Jesuit-edited America has a secure circulation base in Catholic institutional networks and is edited in a laid-back, eclectic manner around the general theme question, "Wouldn't it have been nice if Vatican Council II had been implemented?" While cranky about this pontificate and Rome in general, America is by no means to be confused with the National Catholic Reporter's rantings. The latter might well be described as The Nation of American Catholicism. The other NCR, the Register, is sober, reliable, prone to the pietistic, and too often dull. But it does supply a very useful overview of what is going on within the worlds of Catholicism.

"Commonweal Catholic" was a term of great panache twenty-five and more years ago. Very consciously lay-edited, it represented the avant garde of responsible reform. Perhaps Commonweal is handicapped by its success. The Council did happen. More than its liberal Protestant counterpart, The Christian Century, Commonweal has tried to stay in conversation with the ironic twists and turns in American culture and religion. More than America, it has an evident editorial directing hand that frequently results in interesting reading. Knowing that it cannot bask in the afterglow of its glory years, Commonweal is marked by an intellectual curiosity that reflects an expectation that, despite its aging readership, it will have an important role to play in the future. We hope that expectation is vindicated.

The newcomer on the Catholic scene, now twenty-one years old, is Crisis. Originally it was called Catholicism in Crisis, in direct imitation of C&C, founding editor Michael Novak being a great fan of Niebuhr. Crisis is still finding its editorial legs, but has already found a secure niche among conservative and neoconservative Catholics. It is feisty, aimed at stirring controversy, and is in no doubt about its important role in the future. There is something in every issue that you feel you must read. And we would say these positive things even if it were not edited by our friends. New Oxford Review, originally Anglican and now Roman Catholic, is known to run articles sometimes as interesting as the advertisements it places, seemingly everywhere, in other magazines of more general interest. On Catholic publishing, it is good to keep in mind that most of the Catholic press, unlike the Protestant, is not national. What is most read by most Catholics are the diocesan newspapers, which are as various in quality as is the Church and the culture that they reflect. (Catholic New York, we are glad to say, represents a very high quality.)

Of course there are numerous official denominational publications, The Lutheran (ELCA) being the largest. As with the Catholics, the Southern Baptist publishing enterprise is regionally dispersed in state conventions. And there are numerous "renewal" publications within the denominations, such as Good News among the United Methodists, and Lutheran Forum, with which this editor was connected for many years. There seems to be a growing number of Episcopalian newsletters and small magazines, mostly aimed at trying to sort out from an orthodox perspective the apparent theological dissolution of that communion. Then, apart from the specialized journals of the various academic guilds, there are the more general theological journals: Theology Today from Princeton Seminary, Interpretation out of Union Seminary, Virginia (strong on biblical studies), Theological Studies edited by the Jesuits, and the very promising new journal, Pro Ecclesia, which is Lutheran- based but thoroughly ecumenical.

In the Jewish community, surprisingly enough, there is very little that commands attention beyond small circles of Jewish interest. The American Jewish Congress puts out its Congress Monthly, which seems mostly a kind of bonus for membership. The Forward is still published, and, one gathers, mainly read, in New York. The big exception, of course, is Commentary, which has an enormous and deserved influence far beyond the Jewish community. It is published by, but only loosely connected with, the American Jewish Committee, and, while running many items of particular Jewish interest, is probably not viewed by many of its readers as being a Jewish journal.

In this brief sketch of "the competition," we have probably overlooked an obvious publication or two. But that's the general picture. In truth, we do not view any of these as competition. We like to think of them as partners in conversation, and wish there were more of them. Among the publications mentioned that have any claims to intellectual seriousness, First Things probably has the largest actual readership. The Christian Century and America have larger institutional subscription bases, but First Things subscribers are almost all individuals who actually pay to get the journal. More distinctively, First Things is alone in cutting across the religious sectors (54 percent Protestant, 40 percent Catholic, with the rest Jewish and unaffiliated). So, in the hope of sounding grateful but at the risk of sounding smug, we are very pleased with our placement in the world of publishing that addresses "religion and public life."

And yet, this entire world of discourse is distressingly small. Louis Lapham of Harper's recently estimated that publications making any kind of intellectual demand-e.g., Harper's, Atlantic, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, Commentary, First Things-are all fishing in a potential subscription pool of perhaps no more than a million people. And that in a nation of 255 million. His estimate may be too high. The potential readership for a serious and sustained discussion of religion is no doubt much less. Put together the subscription base of America, The Christian Century, Commonweal, Crisis, Commentary, and First Things and you arrive at a total of a little over one hundred thousand, and many of those readers of course subscribe to more than one.

So we are going to miss Christianity & Crisis. Not a lot, but we will miss it. It was one more voice attempting to inject religiously informed wisdom into a public discourse that is increasingly debased by major media that are as morally ignorant as they are religiously indifferent. We did not have much occasion to refer to C&C in recent years, but it was always there as a partner and adversary in conversation, and one always entertained the hope that it might one day recapture something of the purpose for which Reinhold Niebuhr, rightly, thought it so important. Whatever it became in the last two decades, it is necessary to remember that, back then, C&C was there when it was needed.

Poor Times, Poor Country

Well, now we know, thanks to New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. "The murder of a doctor in Pensacola, Fla., tells us the essential truth about most anti-abortion activists. They are religious fanatics, who want to impose their version of God's word on the rest of us. For them the end justifies any means, including violence." Lewis notes that Michael Griffin, the man charged with the killing, "had been in church last Sunday." So there you have it.

Coming through, as usual, with bigotry beyond the call of liberalism, Lewis writes anti-abortionists out of the constitutional compact. "In this country we have a constitutional bargain about religion. Individuals are guaranteed the right to choose their faith, but they may not compel others to accept their views. . . . The bargain is essential to our form of democracy, which requires compromise and does not work when there are ideological certainties. The anti-abortion activists are outside the bargain. They have all the certainty-the cold-blooded certainty-of an Ayatollah Khomeini." Lewis, seconded by a Times editorial on the same day, holds Ronald Reagan and George Bush responsible for "nourishing extremism" because of their support for the pro-life cause.

It is a remarkable reaction on the part of what many still consider the nation's most prestigious newspaper. As we have written elsewhere, the killing of Dr. David Gunn is to be condemned as murder, unqualifiedly. As is the killing of unborn children to be condemned. A civilization cannot tolerate private executions, as a civilization cannot long survive the license to kill unwanted human beings. Apart from condemning the killing of Dr. Gunn, Mr. Lewis and his paper have everything else exactly backwards, factually and logically.

Democracy requires compromise, we are told, and that is right. The two "no compromise" factions in the abortion debate are, on the one hand, the 20 percent who favor the present unlimited abortion license and, on the other, those who would effect a national prohibition of all abortions, which is also about 20 percent of the population. The 60 percent of Americans in between, to the extent that they can bring themselves to think about the painful subject of abortion, say they want some kind of accommodation. The first faction, those favoring the unlimited abortion license, is, at least for the moment, politically and legally triumphant. Like Mr. Lewis and his paper, they would, in their imperious success, simply exclude from the constitutional "bargain" the 80 percent of Americans who want to prohibit or contain abortion. At least they would exclude the "activists"-those who are so impertinent as to act upon their convictions.

This is elitist arrogance of breathtaking proportions. It is comparable to the arrogance of the Supreme Court in the 1992 Casey decision, when it declared that not the Court but the character of the nation is being "tested" by whether or not it follows the Court's five-to-four edict in support of the abortion license. The Times is a primary instrument in forcing premature closure on the democratic deliberation of what millions of Americans-both pro-choice and pro-life-consider the greatest moral question of our time: Who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility?

In their ideological certainty, the Times and its allies assume a don't-give-an-inch intransigence about "women's reproductive rights" that brooks absolutely no dissent. Anything outside the Times' circle of extremist opinion is dismissed as extremism. Reagan and Bush both received a much larger electoral vote than the Times' man in the White House, yet we are told that they are guilty of extremism for agreeing with the great majority of Americans that abortion should be contained, with or without a view toward eventual elimination. Who is out of touch with whom? What is the meaning of extremism in this context?

It may be a small thing, but we think not. On the day of the column and editorial in question, two-thirds of the op-ed page was devoted to the advocacy of hermaphrodite rights. Yes, hermaphrodite rights. Some children are born with sexually ambiguous genitalia, a condition usually corrected early on by surgery. The author contends that this reflects the prejudice that there are only two sexes. Such children, she contends, should be permitted to live out their ambiguity until they reach maturity and then be permitted to decide whether they want to be male or female, or continue as hermaphrodites. We are not making this up.

A paper that thinks hermaphrodite rights one of the important questions of our time, a paper that editorially endorses the worship of the great nature goddess Gaia, a paper that advocates the demonstration of condoms to fourth graders in public school, a paper that condemns as religious fanatics those who favor the protection of the unborn, a paper that derides as extremist the views of a majority of Americans and of two Presidents they elected, this is simply not a serious paper. The New York Times, editorially and in its reporting-especially on feminism, the gay-lesbian campaign, and pop culture-has in recent years become crassly partisan in an essentially frivolous way. By frivolous we mean that there is an absence of gravitas, of weighing of words, of love of words, of respect for words. It has become a generally vulgar and strident paper that is hostile to nuance and, it seems, editorially incapable of self-doubt or a modicum of intellectual curiosity.

Reading the Times today is like reading the Village Voice of, say, ten years ago. We are told that the business people at the Times like to hear that, since they are trying to reach the buppies, or whatever kids are being called these days. We are also told by insiders that the vulgarization strategy is not working, which is a modest consolation. Yet read the Times one must in this business. One comes away from it with intelligence insulted and more than hands dirtied, but it is the most extensive national bulletin board on what people are up to and on what the crazies in the neighborhood are thinking. What one does not expect in the Times, and has not been able to expect for a long time, is fair and informed editorial judgment or accurate and balanced reporting (though there are honorable exceptions among the reporters). The format is that of a traditional newspaper, the substance is increasingly that of a cheap tabloid. The consequences of this change are considerable, for, in the absence of a serious alternative, the New York Times is still taken to be the lodestar for the news business in this country. Poor country.

A Chapter Closing, Maybe

It seems that a small but not unimportant chapter may be closing in the culture wars. For years, gay activists have contended that AIDS puts everybody, homosexual and heterosexual alike, at risk. Medical authorities, on the other hand, have emphasized the behavior-specific nature of HIV infection and AIDS. The media strongly favored the first position. It had two chief advantages. First, it obscured, indeed attempted to deny, the fact that anybody might be responsible for getting AIDS. The disease was something that could happen to anybody, just sheer bad luck for the victims. Second, turning it into a pan- sexual epidemic justified "safe sex" programs in schools and elsewhere, providing an argument for the distribution of condoms and other measures implicitly normalizing sexual promiscuity.

Now, however, the scientific evidence has become so overwhelming that public authorities are emboldened to emphasize the need to "target" the fight against AIDS. This is happening even in New York, where a map of the city was recently published indicating the incidence of AIDS. Sections of the city where there are few or no cases are left white, sections with 400 to 1,000 cases per 100,000 adults are shaded gray, and those where there are 1,500 or more are rendered in black. It is a most revealing map. Better than half the city is white. Heavily black and Hispanic sections of the city are shaded gray, reflecting heavier drug use. Printed in black are Chelsea, SoHo, and Greenwich Village, the gay centers of the city. Most revealing, and most politically incorrect. One watches with interest to see whether the weight of facticity will change the media's coverage of AIDS as a plague that puts everybody at risk.

Lest readers be excessively cheered by evidence of a return to sanity, we note that New York City has again changed its policy with respect to sex clubs. There are dozens of these in the city, mainly male homosexual, and people go there to engage in, or to watch, group fellatio, sodomy, and sundry other perversities. There are S clubs and M clubs, and just about anything the imagination might conjure. These clubs are great places for spreading AIDS and other venereal diseases, as one might expect, and some years ago the city tried to close them. That, authorities decided, was futile. So now the city has adopted the policy of assigning "monitors" to the various clubs in order to encourage safe sex. Monitors-who presumably have an astonishing degree of erotic disinterest-are to watch the action very carefully. They have no enforcement powers, but they can, for example, point out to participants in the throes of erotic ecstasy that their condoms are slipping. (We are not making this up, either.)

One club advertises "HIV Positive Night." That's for men who are infected or, as hard as this may be to believe, want to become infected so that they will no longer have to worry about safe sex and all that. The assumption is, We're all dying anyway, so we might as well have a grand time while it lasts. It seems that that assumption is not so rare as one might think. An article in a gay publication, reprinted in the Times, quotes a man who explains that the least stressful condition for a gay man is to be newly infected with HIV. "I'm not going to have to live through fifty years of burying dead people. I've got another ten or fifteen years to go. Nothing's going to hit me for the next six years, and I don't have to worry about getting infected anymore."

Years ago, when AIDS was first being discussed, we were taken aback by the remark of an ordinarily gentle friend. "It will not become a societal crisis," she calmly observed, "because they're going to kill each other off." It seemed then an unfeeling thing to say, and still does. And yet, by the time the disease runs its course or a cure is found, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of homosexuals will have died from it. Obviously, that constitutes unspeakable human suffering, as well as a devastating blow to a "gay community" that aspires to be the motor force of social-sexual revolution.

Many have remarked on the curious way in which a sector of the population bearing a deadly disease has been able to capitalize on tragedy in order to achieve acceptance and even approval. But now the dynamics may be turning. Less than a year ago, a Times reporter informed us that the little red ribbon indicating sympathy for gays had become more ubiquitous than the cross as a symbol of commitment. When- aside from the Academy Award presentations-was the last time you saw someone wearing the little red ribbon? There are other ribbons in the wind, so to speak.

We know that New York City is not America (and most readers may think it is too much of America), but the failure of gays and lesbians to be included in the St. Patrick's Day parade was a crushing defeat for them. As was the firing of Joseph Fernandez and the effective abandonment of "The Rainbow Curriculum" in the public schools. As was the informal national referendum, inadvertently actuated by President Clinton, on gays in the military. As is the above-mentioned decision to "target" AIDS prevention. As is the accumulating evidence that gays constitute a far smaller percentage of the population than Kinsey had suggested. We are prepared to entertain the possibility that those gay spokesmen are right who have said, sotto voce, that their movement is losing its momentum.

A key mistake was their confusion of tolerance and indifference. Americans want to be almost infinitely tolerant, but they are not indifferent to factors that bear upon their children, and homosexuality is inescapably about children, and grandchildren. That was the big jolt to gay activists in New York. They seemed utterly surprised that parents couldn't care less about what gays did on their own time, but they were not going to let them mess with their children. An additional, and grossly mistaken, assumption of the activists was that the more people learned about gays and homosexuality the more approving they would become. That has turned out to be, at best, a highly dubious assumption.

We are not about to suggest that the gay assault on the culture has come to an end. Far from it. The institutional, personal, and financial investment in this campaign is enormous, and the media support it has recruited seems almost unanimous. But there are ribbons in the wind. The self-confidence of the movement's leaders, the arrogant supposition that they represent the inevitable course of progress, has been deeply shaken. It is not impossible that in the not too distant future gay activism as we have known it will have taken its place in the history of popular culture along with wife-swapping and "open marriages." People will still commit adultery, and Greenwich Village and San Francisco will still have their sex clubs, but few people will mistake such things for the wave of the future. In the shadows of society, subcultures will flourish in their way, but nobody will mistake them for the culture. Except, of course, in academe, where the rages of yesteryear are deeply institutionalized in ever-proliferating special studies departments.

We are not saying that the general cultural shift is going to happen. We certainly are not saying that it has happened. We are saying that it is not impossible. And that we thought you might want to know, especially if this is the day of the week on which you are tempted to think that the jig is up in the culture wars. (Our days of temptation are Tuesday and Thursday. The above item was written on Saturday.)

The Schaeffer Legacy

The magazine of the Rutherford Institute devotes an issue to Francis Schaeffer of L'Abri fame and complains that his legacy is being neglected. The importance of Schaeffer on the world Christian scene is exaggerated by some. In the issue of The Rutherford Journal, this writer is accused, if that is the right word, of "only now discovering the truths that Francis Schaeffer championed twenty, even thirty, years ago." The author of the article continues, "Yet, strangely, Francis Schaeffer seems to be given little credit for his ground-breaking work." We have on other occasions been asked about the influence of Schaeffer on our thinking, and perhaps a word is owed especially our evangelical Protestant friends, for whom the impact of Schaeffer is indeed great.

If we are accused of cribbing from people-and we make no claims to being terribly original-we would like to plead guilty to going back somewhat farther than twenty or thirty years. To Paul, Origen, Irenaeus, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and von Balthazar, for examples. But we can say, truly, that some of our best friends were formed in crucial ways by Francis Schaeffer and his L'Abri community in Switzerland. For many Evangelicals, Schaeffer, an astonishing autodidact, made accessible a large part of the history of Western thought construed according to his distinctive Christian vision. In the evangelical community, his influence was possibly only second, albeit a very distant second, to that of C. S. Lewis.

And so, although we are not aware of being significantly influenced by Schaeffer, it is easy to agree with the Rutherford folk that his contribution was, and is, enormous. At the risk of offending, however, Evangelicals would do well to expand their canon of intellectual saints. The Christian intellectual tradition does not begin with the publication of Lewis' Mere Christianity or with the founding of L'Abri in 1954. This is not to detract in any way from the stature of Francis Schaeffer. It is to put him in the larger Christian context where Schaeffer at his best wanted to be.

In the same issue of The Rutherford Journal, Mark Noll of Wheaton acknowledges the great good done by Schaeffer, but does not blink the fact that the man had very considerable weaknesses. As is common with autodidacts, he frequently popped off on questions about which he had no conspicuous knowledge. So, notes Noll, he condemned Aquinas, "judging the medieval theologian by standards that came into play, at best, six or seven hundred years after Aquinas lived." A nice touch, perhaps saying a great deal about Evangelicaldom, is that after Noll's reference to Thomas Aquinas the editors make the explanatory insertion, "[an Italian theologian and philosopher]."

Finally, John Whitehead of Rutherford offers a point that bears remembering. "With the publication of Schaeffer's book Whatever Happened to the Human Race? in 1978, the entire complexion of Protestant Christianity began to change. Until this point, virtually no one within the evangelical community was even discussing the sanctity of human life, let alone defending it. Abortion was still characterized as a 'Catholic issue.'" For that alone, and that is far from all that he did, Francis Schaeffer deserves to be celebrated with gratitude.

While We're At It

Sources: New York Times editorials and articles on abortion, Dr. Gunn, and hermaphrodite rights, March 12, 1993. Targeting AIDS prevention, New York Times, March 7, 1993; on advantages of having HIV, New York Times, November 30, 1992. On Francis Schaeffer's legacy, The Rutherford Journal, March 1993. While We're At It: "Aristides" on taste and fashion, American Scholar, Spring 1993. William Kunstler on church-state separation, New York Times, March 11, 1993. Garry Wills on Pope Nicholas V, New York Review of Books February 11, 1993. Jim Holt on the blessing of animals at St. John the Divine, The New Republic, March 8, 1993. On Perdue and Kosher chickens, New York Times, March 12, 1993. Ellen Schultz analysis of "sin taxes," Wall Street Journal, March 9, 1993. On Church of England bishops and fur, The Spectator (London), January 2, 1993. New Jersey families suing RC Church for loss of faith, National and International Religion Report, March 22, 1993. On abortion industry, New York Times, March 31, 1993.