Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 38 (December 1993): 66-78.
Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (Basic Books) has received mixed, although generally favorable, reviews (see the review by Phillip E. Johnson in this issue). Our friend Peter Berger praised it highly in the New York Times Book Review. Others have focused more sharply on the ways that they think Carter—although calling for respect rather than tolerance of religion in public—does not respect religious truth claims enough to allow them real purchase in some of the most intense disputes of our time, notably the argument over abortion. We have our own criticisms of Carter’s argument, but, all in all, he has rendered an important public service. He does not propose his book as the last word but as an invitation to reexamine questions that many thinkers have neglected, perhaps because they mistakenly think they were "settled" a long time ago.
Carter is careful, maybe too careful, to protect his liberal credentials. At the same time, there may be tactical advantage in that. As a Yale law professor and a black who makes extensive and constructive use of the black experience, Carter does not fit the stereotype of those who protest the injustices and irrationalities of "the naked public square." Although ever cautious in the conclusions to which he commits himself, Carter understands that what is at stake are conflicting truths or "constructions of reality." In a chapter entitled "The Clothed Public Square," he writes:
"There is more than a mere semantic distinction between acting neutrally toward a religious belief—refusing to consider it as either true or false—and acting as though it is false. Take, for example, the case of a religious worship practice that runs afoul of a law of general application, such as a law against drug use or animal abuse. One might argue that the state is only neutral if it enforces the law against the religion in question. However enforcement of the law constitutes neutrality only from the point of view of the state. From the point of view of the religion, matters are quite different. By punishing adherents of the religion for doing what their faith demands of them, the state is not—in their eyes—acting with neutrality toward the truth or falsity of the belief in the religious demand. On the contrary, by presuming to punish members of the faith who follow its dictates, the state is necessarily treating their beliefs as false—for if the beliefs were true, there would be no reason for the state to outlaw the practices that the beliefs demand."
Examples of the distorted reasoning that marks the naked public square can readily be multiplied. Abortion is an obvious instance. One party says that the fetus is an appendage of the woman’s body and the state should permit its termination as decided by the woman involved. The other party says that the fetus is a developing child and the state is obliged to protect it from unjustified killing. Both purport to be statements of fact about the fetus. Prescinding from the question of the nature of the fetus (as the Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade), the state acknowledges that the two parties are making conflicting moral claims. Therefore, claiming that it must be neutral with respect to moral claims, the state agrees with the moral claim of the first party. But of course there is nothing neutral about that at all. Faced with conflicting claims about biological and moral truth, the state decides for one claim and against the other—in the name of neutrality.
To be sure, the analogy with the instances cited above by Carter is not exact. There is nothing necessarily religious about either of the claims in the abortion argument. The analogy comes in at the point of recognizing the pseudo-neutrality of the state with respect to conflicting truth claims—of recognizing the inescapability of moral judgment in public policy. Given the incorrigible religiousness of the American people, in this society moral judgments are shaped in large part by convictions that are commonly described as religious. As Carter rightly argues, the exclusion of religion from law and politics (under the dubious mandate of "the wall of separation between church and state") regularly ends up with a ruling against the moral claim that is more closely associated with religion. It is a sure formula for the undermining of democratic governance. And the unhappy consequences are compounded when the courts arrogate to themselves the right to make these decisions, removing them from the deliberation and determination of representative legislatures.
Carter’s argument will no doubt meet with stiff resistance, as have earlier arguments about the dangers and injustices of the naked public square. Syndicated columnist Michael Kinsley is a case in point. In reaction to Carter’s book, he asserts that religious believers are cultivating a "martyr complex." He notes that many of those who complain about the exclusion of religion from public life are the same people who complain about the cult of victimhood. The believers, complains Kinsley, are simply making their own bid for victim status. "What could be more absurd," he writes, "than religious believers—90-plus percent of the population, embracing precepts no politician would dare to challenge—succumbing to the romance of victimhood?" Then, as though to clinch his point, he asks, "Does anybody really think it’s harder to stand up in public in 1993 America and say ‘I believe in God,’ than it is to stand up and say, ‘I don’t’?"
Most people do not, under ordinary circumstances, stand up and say either in public (unless we recognize churches and synagogues as public space). And Kinsley is right in suggesting that a politician who makes a public point of his being an atheist, or even an agnostic, is going to have a harder time than a politician who professes to be devoutly religious. But presenting oneself as religious is a public statement about personal character and private belief. The same politician typically takes care to assure his audience that his religion will not influence his public decisions. Moreover, there are certainly important sectors of cultural leadership in, for instance, the worlds of academe, the media, the arts, and philanthropy where it is much easier to say, "I don’t believe in God." More germane to the argument made by Carter and others is the fact that, in the realm of law and public policy, religion is inadmissible. In the courtroom—where, regrettably, many of the great moral questions end up being decidedis admissible to testify, "I am an atheist, and I think . . . " It is not admissible to say, "I am a Christian, and I think . . ." The latter is ruled out of order. To admit it to evidence would be, allegedly, a "violation of the separation of church and state." Thus the atheistic postulate, or at least the nonreligious postulate, is controlling in the deliberation of law and public policy.
If Michael Kinsley does not know that this is a situation that is at present provoking some of the hottest controversies in American public life, he has been on a long sabbatical from the action. "What could be more absurd" than that the deepest convictions of the overwhelming majority of Americans should be ruled out of order in our law and politics? Kinsley is right; it is absurd. It is the absurdity, and the injustice, and the profound danger to democratic theory and practice, that is protested by Stephen Carter and others.
The absurdities multiply. In recent decades courts have with great frequency ruled that the law must not only be neutral about religion, it must (because of the nexus between religion and morality) be neutral about morality. To take but one example of many, this summer a Louisiana state court ruled against the use of a sex education program in public schools because it supported sexual abstinence. One sex education course promotes "safe sex," the other promotes abstinence. The second course advances a particular morality, said the court, and, since the law must be morally neutral, only the first course is admissible in public schools. But of course the first course also advances a particular morality, albeit a very wrongheaded morality. Both courses are premised upon moral truth claims, but the second is burdened by the fact that it is generally supported by religion, and therefore "neutrality" requires that it be excluded from the government space that is the public classroom.
Mr. Kinsley and others who have not critically examined the situation analyzed by Stephen Carter might well give their attention to another worry. The prevailing jurisprudence, however unwittingly, gives religion exclusive right to the moral high ground. The notion that morality is inescapably religious and must therefore be excluded is dead wrong as a matter of law and as a matter of fact. There are many moral people—moral in their concern, reflection, and behavior—who are not religious in the usual sense of the term. The morality of the nonreligious frequently coincides quite comfortably with the morality taught by, say, Judaism or Christianity. The difference is that such people simply do not accept the theological or metaphysical truth claims that gave that morality birth and that give it sustaining power in history. Theirs may not be a very rational moral position, but it is a moral position.
Others among the nonreligious embrace moralities at sharp variance with religious tradition. Their morality may be no more than the moral imperative of self-expression or self-actualization, but it is a morality. However dumb and unreflective we may think it to be, it is a morality not without influence in American life. It is the morality endorsed by the Supreme Court in the Casey decision of last year. "At the heart of liberty," said the Court, "is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." There is no appeal beyond the definition of reality by the autonomous self, unencumbered by law, family, or moral tradition. It is a convenient idea for justifying the abortion license, which was the purpose of Casey, but, pressed even a little, it is clearly absurd. The notion of the autonomous self is itself not autonomous. It is the product of a history of concepts "of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." The set of ideas that undergirds the idea of the autonomous self is incompatible with biblical religion. To the extent that their thinking is in fact shaped by biblical religion, it is a set of ideas rejected by the American people. It is nonetheless endorsed by the Court as the official moral philosophy of the land—and this is done, once again, under the guise of moral neutrality.
As we have had occasion to say before, one problem with the naked public square is that it never remains, it cannot remain, naked. Exclude explicit moral judgment from the public square, and moral judgments that dare not speak their name will come in to take their place. "Politics," said Aristotle, "is the deliberation of the question, ‘How ought we to order our life together?’" As indicated by the "ought," law and politics are inescapably about morality. What is just? What is fair? What is right? What will serve the common good? All are undeniably moral questions. For most Americans, morality is, however confusedly, inseparably related to religion. To exclude from public discourse and decision morality formed by religious truth claims is to de-moralize and delegitimate politics, and, most especially, democratic politics.
Stephen Carter understands the legal, political, and cultural mess that we have gotten ourselves into. At critical points we would have made the argument differently, and too often Carter steps back from the conclusions entailed in his own reasoning. But The Culture of Disbelief is a book of potentially great importance. Carter’s is a voice for sanity and justice in a political culture that is at deadly war with itself.
Here is something a bit unusual—a question by the Editor-in-Chief to an article by the Editor. Jim Nuechterlein’s reflections in this issue on academic freedom and the religious university are, in this writer’s judgment, urgently pertinent and almost entirely persuasive. But we have a difference that we have not been able to work out in extensive (and entirely friendly) discussion. Nuechterlein is certainly right in saying that religious schools are too often "in thrall to the reigning norms of the secular academy," and in affirming that "the secular Enlightenment model does not exhaust authentic ways of knowing." But then he seems to subscribe to the usual notion that there are "tensions" (if not antinomies) between faith and knowing, reason and revelation, freedom and truth—in sum, between Athens and Jerusalem.
While agreeing with his description of what is happening in the academy, and applauding his call for a restoration of nerve on the part of church-related institutions, one might ask whether his analytical framework does not run the risk of giving the moral and intellectual high ground to the secularist opposition. In the Christian perspective (and at least many Jews would agree), truth is one because God is one, and therefore all ways to truth that are truly ways to truth are in agreement. There is, then, finally no "tension," never mind conflict, between Athens and Jerusalem. To neglect this is to end up conceiving of religious commitment as a "restriction" on the search for truth. And that, in this writer’s view, is to end up playing into the hands of those who, historically and at present, intimidate Christian schools into secular conformity.
As the secular Enlightenment model does not exhaust ways of knowing, so freedom-as-license does not exhaust the meaning of freedom. Athens and Jerusalem both understood that. To expand this argument would require another article, so please take this as no more than a footnote to Nuechterlein’s splendid article, testifying to the fact that the editors still have some things to sort out among themselves. They will continue to work at these questions, as will, of course, the contributors and readers of this journal.
It is not true that anti-Catholicism is the last respectable bigotry among our cultural elite (who, of course, admit only among themselves that they are in fact the elite). There are lots of respectable bigotries, as witness all the people whom it is respectable to call bigots. People who think homosexuals should not have special legal entitlements as a minority group, parents who do not want their eight-year-olds instructed in the use of condoms, those who insist that abortion is very bad for unborn children and their mothers—bigots one and all. But the bigotry that condemns alternative views as bigotry is especially pronounced when it comes to the Catholic Church. It is rivaled only by the wrath directed at conservative Protestants who are routinely consigned to the catchall category of derision called "fundamentalist."
For undiluted venom and full-throated viciousness, consider the case of Judy Mann. She writes a column for the Washington Post, and her blood was boiled by the Pope’s visit to Denver. One column is titled "The Vatican’s Children," and in it Ms. Mann assaults what she alleges to be the Church’s hypocrisy in claiming to respect human life while opposing programs of population control. The Third World is teeming with unwanted children. She notes a news report on the killing of street children in Rio de Janeiro. Some of them died on the steps of a church. "The cobblestone sidewalk of Pope Pius X Plaza, the site of the killings, was covered with blood, rags, cardboard, blankets, and stray shoes," Ms. Mann spurts. "There is a painful symmetry to this, for these are indeed the Vatican’s children." The anti-abortion forces, she says, used the Denver visit "to whip up the zealots." "It is only appropriate that the rest of us take the occasion of [the Pope’s] visit to reflect on the disastrous consequences of the Church’s stand against artificial birth control methods and abortion. The dead children of Rio should not be forgotten." Whoever belongs to "the rest of us" is invited to reflect on the denial of the right of these children to have been aborted. The children were from fifteen to seventeen years old. In Ms. Mann’s view, it seems, the only option for them is to be killed early or late. Were it not for the Church, they would have been killed early.
And it is not only in Rio. Ms. Mann cheers on an official of the Philippine government who is promoting population control. She quotes an expert who asserts that street children are "the residue of unthinking pro-family policies on the part of the dominant Catholic Church." It takes a while to begin thinking of children as residue, but presumably Ms. Mann has been at this for some time. The Church is, no doubt unthinkingly, opposed to the government population program. Any politician who takes on the Church, we are told, "is a person of considerable courage who deserves admiration." In case the reader has failed to get the point, there is this: "The church that brought us the Inquisition and unleashed the witch burnings of the Middle Ages knows how to play hardball." Ms. Mann would likely plead not guilty to the charge of being anti-Catholic. She is only opposed to the wretchedly oppressive teachings and social influence of the Catholic Church.
The Washington Post is a very respectable newspaper. As such, it is not capable of bigotry but is the arbiter of the bigotries of others. It is in opposition to bigotry that a reporter, explaining the "religious right," recently wrote that evangelical Protestants are "poor, uneducated, and easily led." That reporter, too, is no doubt a member of "the rest of us" that is Ms. Mann’s assumed audience. There is them and then there is "the rest of us." They are easily led. "The rest of us," the whole herd of us, think for ourselves. They whip up the zealots. "The rest of us" admiringly cheer on those who have the "courage" to oppose them. They say our society is embroiled in a culture war when nothing could be farther from the truth. All they have to do is agree with "the rest of us." Until then, they are beyond the pale. There is no culture war because they have no part in the culture of "the rest of us."
There are fine groups such as the Catholic League and the Catholic Campaign for America that regularly protest the anti-Catholic bigotries of Judy Mann and her like. They regularly point out that comparably vicious statements directed at Jews or blacks or homosexuals would spark a firestorm of outrage. Of course they are right, and of course it doesn’t seem to make much difference. True, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General, did apologize, in a manner of speaking, for her public assertion that the Catholic Church is indifferent to human suffering except when it comes to the unborn. She was sorry "if" she offended anyone. She did not retract her remarks; she merely indicated that she was sorry that some folk seemed to be offended by what she said. Meaning, as best we can figure out, that she is sorry that there are people who are so ignorant as to disagree with her. Curiously, some Catholic authorities seemed to think that this was sufficient. The United States Catholic Conference publicly released her "apology" before the confirmation hearings, thus, as one political observer put it, "clearing the air" of the charge of anti-Catholicism.
Some Catholics seem to be impervious to Catholic-bashing. It is, it seems, a mark of maturity not to get excited about that kind of thing. Others claim to take pride in the fact that the Church is so relentlessly under attack, considering the sources of the attack. There is something to be said for both positions, especially the second, but bigotry in places of cultural prestige and influence must be worrying. Whether the attack is on Catholicism or on politically concerned Christians more generally, it cannot be good for society when millions of Americans, perhaps a majority of Americans, are excluded from the company of "the rest of us." It could lead to something like—please excuse the term—a culture war.
Randall Balmer of Barnard College takes a balmy view of American religion and culture. This from his review of James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars: "What I find so remarkable about the history of American Protestantism in the twentieth century is that, despite all of the institutional contortions and the ebb and flow of ideology, the center has held. Although the polemicists garnered most of the attention during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s, cooler heads for the most part prevailed, keeping most of the denominations intact. Even those affected by schism lost relatively small numbers. When mainline (or oldline) Protestants veered too far to the left in the 1960s and 1970s, the evangelical resurgence forced them to move back toward the center. So too the perceived excesses of fundamentalists in recent years (especially in the political arena) have provoked a backlash and a move toward moderation. Hunter’s book presents a strong case for understanding the current state of public discourse as a ‘culture war,’ shaped by ideological extremes. While these voices are doubtless present in American culture, I find the opposite argument more persuasive: The relative absence of ideology in American politics, culture, or religion allows Americans to steer a middle course to navigate clear of the shoals of extremism."
What, me worry? as Alfred E. Newman used to say. Abortion on demand, assisted suicide, homosexual marriages, public schools as recruitment centers for the gay "culture of desire," feminist tyranny of the campus, no-fault divorce, transplant tissue from viable babies—these and dozens of other developments presumably demonstrate the capacity of religion and culture to maintain "a middle course." To be sure, we can keep on moving the cultural markers, and still comfort ourselves that we know where the redefined "center" is. In this sense the oldline churches have moved, but not moved "back," to the center. "Balmy" denotes something soothing. That is not the only definition of the word.
The nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court sailed through, causing nary a ripple in the Senate. Some people of our acquaintance who know her well speak highly of her judicial talents. She has, they say, a respect for what the framers meant by the Constitution, and therefore may turn out to be a surprise to some of her judicially activist supporters.
But not on abortion. In the confirmation process she spoke strongly about how a judge must be impartial, offering no predictions on how she would decide, insisting that she would have to hear the facts of the case and consider it in light of the record, etc. But not on abortion. An advance indication of how one would rule on abortion has now become the great exception to the standard criteria of "judicial fitness." It is remarkable how many judicially conservative and even pro-life Senators go along with this.
Interestingly, in September the Clinton Justice Department made some noises about possibly appointing some federal judges who are not on "the right side" of the abortion question. At the risk of sounding cynical, we suspect that it is just possible that political considerations were involved. After all, there are some Democrats, even liberal Democrats, who are not hard-line in favor of abortion, and it may be that the President, in view of his narrow base of support, does not want to drive them entirely out of the party. One would like to think that there are also those in the Justice Department who have conscience qualms about imposing a litmus test on judicial candidates. (Contra the usual wisdom, Reagan and Bush did not impose such a test on the pro-life side, or at least did not do so very effectively—as witness, for example, O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter.)
In any event, the pro-abortion faction went ballistic at the suggestion that Clinton might appoint judges who did not pass their test of orthodoxy on "women’s reproductive rights." In its lead editorial, "A Threat to Abortion Rights," the New York Times fulminated that Clinton "must act swiftly to reel in those officials who would lure him into a disastrous political betrayal." The Justice Department officials say that they would not categorically rule out of consideration jurists who are personally opposed to abortion but acknowledge the legal right to abortion. That is far from being enough for the Times, however. The test of judicial fitness could hardly be put more starkly: "The issue is too important to American society—and Mr. Clinton’s promise too clear—to fiddle around with judicial candidates who don’t have a forthright record of legal and moral support for the constitutional right to abortion."
In other words, Mr. Clinton corrupted the process by promising to impose a litmus test for judicial candidates, and he is now bound to abide by his promise. It is not enough that a judge compromise himself by saying that he would, despite his personal views, support existing abortion decisions. Nor is it acceptable if he has no strong personal views and has never had occasion, as a judge, to rule on an abortion-related case. In all these instances jurists are, according to the Times, disqualified from being considered for the federal bench. The only ones who are qualified are those who "have a forthright record of legal and moral support for the constitutional right to abortion."
Not just legal but moral—they must actually consider abortion as birth control (which is what the current "right" means) a morally good thing. And they must have a "forthright record" on the matter, which means they must have spoken out on the issue in no uncertain terms, whether or not they ever had judicial occasion for doing so. Those who, like most Americans, are undecided about the legal and moral aspects of abortion, those who have not yet made up their minds in a way that is closed to further consideration, need not apply. Impartiality on abortion is no virtue, zealotry in favor of abortion is no vice. The only good judge is a partial judge whose partisan credentials are beyond question. The Times’ editorial is but another instance of the don’t-give-an-inch fanaticism of the pro-abortion faction. Thus is democratic deliberation replaced by civil war.
A. W. Richard Sipe is a therapist who came in for some national attention a while back in connection with sexual scandals involving Catholic priests. He had written a book based on his experience in working with priests who have sexual problems. At first his public remarks seemed reasonably controlled and professional, but increasingly he became more strident—making, for example, the ludicrous claim that 50 percent of American priests are living in violation of their vow of celibacy. Now Mr. Sipe is reduced to writing for the National Catholic Reporter and has chosen as a target Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver.
Last May, Archbishop Stafford gave a scholarly paper at a Rome conference on celibacy and the priesthood. He strongly defended the discipline of celibacy, arguing that there is an exclusive "eucharistic nuptial love" between the priest and Christ and between the priest and the Church. That may sound strange to moderns, but it is hardly a novelty in the Church’s understanding of priesthood. The viewpoint advanced by Stafford, however, drives Sipe into extreme agitation over the dangers of "sexualizing spirituality." He purports to know priests who said they had various and bizarre sexual excitements in connection with prayer and the Mass, and, building on these instances, declares, "Whether or not Stafford will acknowledge these priests as his intellectual and spiritual sons, they certainly have in him a theological father."
Being translated: These troubled priests use language similar to Stafford’s, ergo Stafford is responsible for their troubles. President Clinton and the Ku Klux Klan both say they love America, ergo Clinton is responsible for the Ku Klux Klan. Sipe writes, "Without doubt, sexuality and celibacy are difficult topics to understand clearly and discuss calmly." Without doubt, as Richard Sipe makes abundantly evident.
Some while back we recommended a newly launched ecumenical journal of theology, Pro Ecclesia. True, it is not for everybody, but those with serious theological interests should not overlook it. Pro Ecclesia is definitely living up to its promise. Here, for example, are just a few items from one recent issue.
Robert Jenson, a Lutheran, ponders a document that came out from Rome a while back, "Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion." The document was much deplored by some Christian churches and communions who saw it as a sign that the Holy See was lowering the ecumenical flag. Jenson thinks there just may be something like "ecumenical retrenchment" on the part of Rome and offers two speculations as to why this might be the case:
"Speculation the first. Roman authorities are shepherds of a worldwide flock, embracing three-quarters of all Christians, the integrity of which is as threatened amid collapsing modernity as is that of any local Protestant congregation. Within their own flock they are confronted by a remarkable efflorescence of false teachings and practical schism. Ecumenical dialogue is with those by definition in schism, amongst whom can be found any imaginable dubious teaching. It has been Rome’s assignment to seek ways to combat internal protestantizing without thereby raising new walls between itself and external Protestants. It would not be surprising if Rome had become weary in this particular well-doing.
"Speculation the second. It is reported that high Roman authorities feel betrayed by their ecumenical partners. They risked much by taking the dialogues seriously, and now find that when it comes down to it, the Lutherans and others are as immovable as Rome was once supposed to be. I cannot myself testify for or against the accuracy of such reports. But I can testify that if such a temper does exist in the Vatican it has considerable justification."
Then there is Carl Braaten, also a Lutheran, who worries about the new general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Konrad Raiser, a German Lutheran professor of theology. According to Raiser, the ecumenical movement in this century has been too wedded to what he calls "christocentric universalism." Raiser offers a "new paradigm," presumably made necessary by the encounter between world religions, in which Christ and the mission of the Church are, to put it perhaps too simply, just one way of salvation among many others. In addition, says Braaten, Raiser betrays a definite penchant for weakening the theologically serious "faith and order" part of the WCC in favor of "life and work"—a mishmash of social, political, and economic programs aimed at the "systemic transformation" of this vale of tears. Braaten detects some vibrant orthodoxy, however, in the Faith and Order department of the WCC and expresses the hope that its work will not be subverted by "Konrad Raiser’s new ecumenical paradigm."
What a terrible mess all the churches have gotten themselves into over the question of "inclusive language" in Bible, worship, and theology. "Reader Competence and the Offense of Biblical Language" is Christopher Seitz’s contribution in this issue of Pro Ecclesia toward a measure of clarity. The author, who is professor of Old Testament at Yale, makes short shrift of the complaint that the Bible depicts God as male (contra Mary Daly, who in a not atypical descent into silliness, declared, "If God is male, male is God"). The real problem, says Seitz, is a loss of reader competence with respect to the Bible, or what the late Hans Frei called the "eclipse of biblical narrative." People do not know the Bible and, even if they do, refuse to take it on its own terms. Here is Seitz: "In a prior day both men and women felt the sharp distance between God and humanity, and gave thanks that God was God and not man (or woman), because God could save and deliver in ways that we cannot. The man who hears of God’s raising his only Son from the dead identifies neither with God nor with Jesus, except as a grateful recipient of the same unearned love and justice, from this God whom humans address as ‘he’ when they speak of him, ‘you, thou’ when they speak to him. The female child of an alcoholic father is right to object that God is not her father; God is her heavenly Father whose justice condemns the abuse she has suffered and whose mercy extends forgiveness only to the penitent."
Instead of placing ourselves within the world of the Bible, there is today a tendency to put the Bible in its place. Seitz again: "The Bible will not become ‘inclusive’ by ‘sanitizing’ all references to God as ‘he.’ Rather, it will become merely humanized in the worst sense of the word: its authority will no longer reside in the sheer force of its presentation, but rather in the authorization strategies of whatever group—on the left or on the right—is in power. Multiplying possible images for God by reflecting on our human experience rather than the biblical text is the worst sort of consumeristic mentality, whereby more brand names, more channels, more options are better than less—especially when we get to do the choosing." The upshot of all this, says Seitz, is that, instead of trying to sanitize and correct the Bible, we must "learn to become competent readers again of a Scripture whose intention is not only to include, but to address and judge and cleanse and save."
In the same issue is Michael Wyschogrod, one of the most penetrating Jewish theologians of our day. He addresses, of all things, the Incarnation. Christians point at a specific human being and say, "Here is God." It is a great scandal to Jews—and to Muslims, and, it must be said, to many Christians. During centuries of hostility and suspicion between Jews and Christians, some Jews reacted to the Christian doctrine by proposing that God is, only and exhaustively, spirit—entirely untouched by any corporeal or spatial impingement upon his being. But surely that cannot be right from a Jewish perspective, says Wyschogrod. He notes that there is something like an incarnational dimension in the Jewish understanding of God’s relationship to the temple and, most particularly, to His elect people, Israel. It is an engaging argument of many parts. Wyschogrod ends with this: "I advance the thesis that were Jews to disappear from the world, Christianity would disappear. This is because Christianity is the gathering of peoples around the people of Israel, the entry of the adopted sons and daughters into the household of God. Through the Jew Jesus, when properly interpreted, the gentile enters into the covenant and becomes a member of the household, as long as he or she does not claim that his or her entrance replaces the original children. This, of course, is the doctrine of supersession. The church long has taught that election of the church is at the expense of Israel. Israel was elected until it rejected Jesus. At that point the election of Israel goes over to the church and the church is now the new Israel with the Old Israel out in the cold. The new Christianity, I think, that is growing before our eyes, no longer sees it that way. It sees, based on Romans 9-11, that the promises of God are irrevocable, that the election of Israel remains in full force, and around it the Gentiles have gathered in solidarity with the Jewish people, worshiping the common God of Israel and the gentiles." Then comes the hard question dividing Christians and Jews: When Jews recognize Jesus the Jew as Messiah and Son of God does that mean the disappearance of Jews or the fulfillment of Jews? Wyschogrod does not address that question in the present article, but we have no doubt that he has an argument pertinent to it.
Finally, and while we’re at it, Mark Noll of Wheaton College comments on the work of Ronald Thiemann, dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Thiemann has collected some essays in a book titled Constructing Public Theology, and Noll thinks it’s pretty good, as far as it goes. The problem is that, as with so many academics, Thiemann deals with his proposal as though it were an ethereal idea unrelated to what is actually going on around us. Noll writes: "Thiemann’s circle of significant others seems to be made up of twentieth-century academic theologians, but, with the exception of Barth, this circle does not provide much help for shaping a distinctly Christian public theology. Beyond that circle, however, a great deal of thought-provoking, if also mutually contradictory, public theology has been appearing. Speeches at Notre Dame by Catholics Mario Cuomo and Henry Hyde, and in 1992 by Southern Baptist presidential candidate Bill Clinton, show that those who cannot escape the pressing demand to act are capable of sophisticated public theology. Richard Neuhaus provides public theology each month in First Things, and with a punch. Glenn Tinder (The Political Meaning of Christianity, 1989) and James Skillen (The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square, 1990) offer public theologies built on different expressions of historic Protestantism. In his book on religion and the 1988 presidential campaign, Under God, Garry Wills actually practiced the sort of ‘thick description’ of religion in public life that Thiemann calls for. And Thiemann fails to speak of Alan Boesak from South Africa, John Paul II and the theoreticians of Solidarity, along with a host of Latin Americans—all of whom are accomplishing the task, however variously, for which Thiemann appeals. It is much to be hoped that, as Thiemann continues his altogether laudable quest for a public theology, he will sift the contributions of these practicing—as opposed to merely theoretical—public theologians to stimulate his own worthy efforts."
All that, and more, in just one issue of Pro Ecclesia. It bills itself as "A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology," and, for a somewhat specialized and scholarly publication, it has an encouraging number of subscribers. But, in our view, the more people who pay attention to serious theology, the better for our religious communities and the better for our society, so we hope others will consider subscribing. Some readers may recognize names mentioned above as authors appearing also in these pages. Is there a conspiracy? You are blessedly right there’s a conspiracy and we’re grateful to be part of it. Pro Ecclesia is published quarterly and a subscription is $25. To subscribe or get more information, write P.O. Box 327, Delhi, NY 13753.
Our friend, Msgr. George Higgins, is one of the last, maybe the last, of a breed called "labor priests." He has now written a memoir, Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a "Labor Priest" (Paulist Press), and in it he reflects on, among many other things, the 1980s dustup with the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Washington organization that this writer helped to get going. In the mid-1980s, says Higgins, the AFL-CIO and a number of liberal religious groups, Christian and Jewish, took on the ambitious task of reviving the religion-labor coalition of earlier decades. The price of cooperation from liberal Protestants, it soon turned out, was that the AFL-CIO should condemn IRD and discipline one of its own staff, a Methodist layman, who was active in IRD.
"While I had no particular affection for the IRD," writes Higgins, "I also had no desire to enter into a coalition on the basis of quid pro quo demands. It seemed to me that this way was doomed to failure, one reason being that two can play at that game. Suppose that the AFL-CIO had entered the dialogue saying, ‘Look, we can’t deal with you. Look at the wage rates in your church office. Do you have a union there?’ I would guess that the clerical staff in agencies represented by these church officials were not organized. In the game of quid pro quos, I could picture a hard-headed unionist telling his religious counterparts, ‘Well then, get out. When your people are organized, we can talk.’ That would be ridiculous, of course, but perhaps no more so than the demands issued by some on the religious side of the table." After seeing the way in which the religious groups tried to manipulate the AFL-CIO and treated with contempt its president, Lane Kirkland, Higgins writes, "I decided that my life was too short to play along with this sort of dialogue between religion and labor."
Organized labor has come upon hard days, as everyone knows. As recently as 1960, nearly a third of American workers were in unions. Now it is 17 percent (11 percent in nongovernmental jobs). Whether unions are needed or ever were needed is a topic hotly disputed. We believe that unions—especially when they were responsive to the understanding of unionism espoused by the likes of George Higgins—often did a great deal of good. Of one thing we are sure. At the height of the Cold War, the AFL-CIO, under George Meany and then Lane Kirkland, knew whose side it was on.
There are innumerable books on whatever happened to liberalism, and there will no doubt be many more. But one of the great divisions in liberalism was that between organized labor and the churches that were the heirs of the social gospel movement. Possibly more than it knew at the time, IRD played a critical role in that division. The division was forced by the intolerance of the churches most proud of their tolerance, who demanded conformity to an ideological agenda much more rigorously than did the leaders of organized labor. It is a not unimportant footnote in the history of the last three decades of the self-inflicted damage in oldline Protestantism.
"Natural Adversaries or Possible Allies?: American Jews and the New Christian Right" is a 58-page study by Naomi W. Cohen, issued by the American Jewish Committee. It comes down solidly on the side of their being natural adversaries. Which strikes us as very wrongheaded. Also unfortunate is that, for all the helpful information included, the study deals almost exclusively with the early years of the emergence of what came to be called the Christian Right. One has the impression that it could have been written fifteen or more years ago.
A growing number of Jewish writers deplore the fact that, for most American Jews, it is more important to be liberal than to be Jewish. At this year’s Salute to Israel parade in New York, a gay and lesbian group was excluded. The Reform wing, represented by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, found itself in a dilemma. They decided to march in a separate parade organized by the gays and lesbians. A Reform rabbi remarked, "They had to choose between their allegiance to Israel and their allegiance to the gay lobby. They chose the gay lobby. It is very sad."
It is very sad. For many Jews, it seems, almost nothing takes priority over being perceived to be properly liberal. "Natural Adversaries or Possible Allies?" will, regrettably, reinforce what appears to be a widespread Jewish paranoia about "the Christian Right," encouraging American Jews to be against whatever conservative Christians are for, whether or not it is good for Jews or good for the country. The number of Jews who are dissenting from this mindset is encouraging. "Natural Adversaries or Possible Allies?" makes clear that they have their work cut out for them.
Some while back we remarked that The Journal of Church and State is, despite its considerable merits, marred by a tendency toward anti-Catholicism. A bunch of letters, giving the appearance of a concerted response, protested our characterization. We admit that we might have dwelt in a more fulsome fashion on the merits of the journal, but we will stand by what we said. JCS typically takes a "strict separationist" view of the First Amendment religion clause, sometimes extremely strict. On a number of specific policies, notably parental choice in education, and, more important, on principles regarding the right ordering of religion and public life, JCS is usually and sometimes harshly opposed to the position of the Catholic Church. Over the years, JCS has run items suggesting that the Catholic Church is a laggard in advancing religious freedom, if it is not among the major threats to religious freedom.
At the time that the letters of protest were coming in, the current issue of JCS arrived. It contains a long article by a Ralph Della Cava of Queens College, New York, "Financing the Faith: The Case of Roman Catholicism." Beginning from the dubious premise that "religions are about thinking and spending," the author depicts the Holy See as being involved in a somewhat sinister strategy of advancing its reactionary program of "Restoration" against the interests of "the progressive church" in Third World countries. The Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger are attempting to impose "ideological conformity" on the whole Church—and so the tediously familiar caricature goes on. The author cites numerous liberationist sources as authority, including the late Penny Lernoux, a notorious master of Marxist agitprop.
But is this article anti-Catholic? It is certainly anti-John Paul II and this pontificate, and, at least by implication, anti those who support the direction advanced by this pontificate. Admittedly, it is not hard to find Catholics who claim that opposing "the official church," especially under this Pope, is to affirm the real church—what Mr. Cava calls "the progressive church." The editors of JCS might protest that it is not possible for such Catholics to be anti-Catholic, but we trust they are not so innocent as that. The question of who is really pro-Catholic and who is really anti-Catholic can and does degenerate into a rather tired intramural game.
In the most obvious and generally agreed sense, the Catholic Church is the constellation of communities and institutions led by the bishop of Rome and those bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome. JCS frequently evidences suspicion and sometimes hostility toward that Catholic Church. This is said in awareness of the fact that some good friends are editorially associated with JCS. In our view, they should not disassociate themselves from the journal, but should use their influence to alert its editors to subtle and not so subtle varieties of anti-Catholicism. They might begin, for instance, by asking what purpose pertinent to church-state relations is served by publishing "Financing the Faith: The Case of Roman Catholicism."
Moral theologian Richard McCormick, distinguished for his dissents from magisterial teaching, offers an overview of the twenty-five years since the encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae. Responding in America, two other Jesuits, Kevin Flannery and Joseph Koterski, dissent from McCormick’s dissent. In the course of making a number of effective criticisms, Flannery and Koterski suggest, in passing, that a couple who use Natural Family Planning (NFP) to avoid conception throughout their fertile years would be in a moral position comparable to that of a couple who used artificial contraception. Ignoring some of their more substantive points, McCormick pounces on this, accusing his critics of being "guilty of a serious theological blunder."
He cites two statements by Pius XII in the 1950s supporting the position that in exceptional circumstances, if there is a grave or serious "proportionate motive," a couple may use NFP throughout their marriage in order to avoid conception. The ploy here would seem to be: "Pius XII, Si; Paul VI, No." In fact, and as he surely knows, McCormick’s approval of contraception flies in the face of the consistent and emphatically repeated teaching of five popes (from Pius XI through John Paul II). His attempt to play the popes off against one another makes dissent appear to be intellectually frivolous, which regrettably, much of it is.
As is evident in John Paul’s recent encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, the Catholic Church is well aware that it must more persuasively present its moral teaching, both to its own people and to the world. Serious agreement and serious dissent should both be marked by gravitas. Catholic theologians who have questions about the teaching owe the Church, themselves, and their colleagues something more than liberal posturing and point scoring in intramural debates. There is a measure of dignity to dissent, as is suggested in the instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian."
Careful questioning and scholarly inquiry are essential to better formulating and communicating the Church’s teaching. Unfortunately, many who are called dissenters are intellectual poseurs, publicists, and entrepreneurs of discontent. This was notoriously evident in the immediate reaction to Humanae Vitae twenty-five years ago when, as is now well known, numerous theologians publicly declared their dissent without having even read the document from which they were presumably dissenting. It made for spectacular press, but dissent is serious business. One is almost inclined to suggest that for the Catholic theological establishment—and perhaps for other theological establishments as well—a motto worth considering might be: Up to Dissent.
Westminster/John Knox Press continues to render distinctive service by bringing classics back into print in its "Library of Theological Ethics." More than forty years after it first appeared, Paul Ramsey’s Basic Christian Ethics (402 pp., $14.99 paper) is about as good a place as any to begin one’s study of the subject. And it is by no means only for beginners, for most of the questions addressed by Ramsey are still in hot dispute. This edition is graced with an excellent foreword by Stanley Hauerwas and Stephen Long that puts the present book into the setting of Ramsey’s larger project and relates it to the projects of others in the recent history of Christian ethics.
Ramsey, a United Methodist, was in energetic conversation with a wide array of colleagues and critics, including the late Joseph Fletcher, father of the downmarket relativism that came to be called "situation ethics." Love was the big word, sometimes the only operative word, for Fletcher and his like who trivialized Augustine’s maxim—"Love God and do as you will"—in the service of moral license. The distinction between three forms of love (eros, philia, and agape) was deemed more important thirty years ago than it is now, and agape—pure, disinterested regard for the other—was treated as the highest form of love. The foreword of the present book includes a 1965 letter from Ramsey to Fletcher:
"[T]he candid issue between us is whether agape is expressed in acts only or in rules also, which question is generally begged; or else the structures in which human beings live are attributed to other than uniquely Christian sources of understanding (natural law, etc.) while Christians go about pretending to live in a world without principles. The latter was about my position in Basic Christian Ethics. I have come to see that agape can also be steadfast."
What a magnificent phrase—"agape can also be steadfast." More than thirty years after that letter, Ramsey’s achievements included pioneering work in medical ethics and an almost singlehanded (at least among Protestants) renewal of just war theory. The ongoing exploration of theological ethics sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life is named, in his honor, the Ramsey Colloquium. The technical term most commonly associated with Ramsey’s work is "deontological ethics." It might be said more simply and accurately that Paul Ramsey devoted his remarkable life and work to making agape steadfast.
All should be braced for this year’s round of campaigning against the commercialization of Christmas. Last year the National Council of Churches (NCC) got a broad array of religious leadership types to sign on with a "Campaign to Take Commercialism Out of Christmas." (There was nothing in the statement about replacing commercialism with Christ.) Pastor Leonard Klein of Christ Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania, wrote to the NCC, and his complaint seems entirely pertinent a year later. "I detect [in the statement] spiritual arrogance in a kind of snobbish hostility to the simple pleasures people get in buying, giving, and receiving. I see no sympathy toward the instinct of generosity nor any real appreciation of the genuine blessing of material prosperity. Advertisers and merchants are demonized, and their legitimate economic vocations are demeaned. Your message reads as if you were afraid somebody will have some fun or make some money, and this when the nation is coming out of a recession and anybody with any sense is cheered by the signs of consumer confidence! Will anybody, rich or poor, really be better off if the stores come out of the Christmas season awash in red ink?
"Moreover, in appealing for altruism you simply overlook the fact that an enormous amount of charitable giving, major or minor, takes place in this last month of the year. Concern for the poor and unfortunate is never at a higher peak than now." In addition to casting a pall over some very human and humanizing behavior, says Klein, the religious leaders seem to be at a loss about the significance of Christmas once commercialism has been removed. "But this is not the worst of it. After an excess of outrage against the hazards of commercialism, this statement by church leaders offers no other Gospel to those it has condemned than phrases like these: ‘the spirit of Christmas,’ ‘making Christmas real,’ ‘invest in renewing our own spirits, our relationships, and our natural environment,’ and ‘the spiritual and life-affirming potential of the season.’ Great balls of fire! The most you can affirm is the same meaningless jargon that is readily used by the very merchants, advertisers, and media you condemn. What about the baby Jesus?
"Christmas is about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnation of the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Of this there is not one word, literally not one word, in the statement of the Campaign to Take Commercialism Out of Christmas." Believing that when people are truly serious they can afford to lighten up, Pastor Klein told the NCC that he was going to preach on advent during Advent. "And then a little later in the season I’ll pour some brandy in the egg nog and give my daughter that REM tape she’s been wanting and have a merry Christmas — in honor not of my moral sensitivity but of the birth of Mary’s boy."