The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 50 (February 1995): 60-71.

Getting the Sides Straight

The Guardian, a British paper, has a man in Washington named Martin Walker and he reviews two books on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy. One by Senator John Danforth, Resurrection, takes Thomas' side, and the other by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, Strange Justice, takes Hill's side. Walker suggests that "Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill are to our day what Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers were to the opening years of the Cold War. As in the Dreyfus case in France, an entire political allegiance can be deduced from which of the two sides one decides to believe."

At a deeper level, Resurrection reflects a religious orientation, while Strange Justice is thoroughly secular. To read these two accounts, says Walker, "is to realize the extent to which the United States is now divided between the two mutually uncomprehending universes of the secular and the godly. The books are written in what are virtually different languages, the one rooted in Faith and the other in Reason." The real lesson of this episode, he suggests, "is that the parallel universe of faith is now able to command equal time and political deference in a constitutional system that we once assumed was the historical product and the enduring province of the rational mind."

There is something to be said for Mr. Walker's analysis, but the real divide is not between faith and reason but between those who do and those who don't pit faith against reason and reason against faith. Almost all secularists do, and so do many, if not most, of the religiously committed. That reality is perhaps the greatest obstacle to restoring moral deliberation to our civil discourse. If the choice is between faith and reason, there will be no end to cultural warfare, and no limit upon the ways that warfare is prosecuted. The choice is not between faith and reason.

On the one side are ideologues who have made of secularism a functional religion, who demand that traditional religion be relentlessly expunged from the public square. On the same side are Christians who insist that government and public policy be based on their understanding of the biblically revealed law of God. Those two are on the same side because both pit faith against reason. On the other side are those who respect the capacity of God-given reason to engage the question of truth, including moral truth, and who are devoted to a vibrant democracy informed by the convictions of the American people, including their religious convictions. That is the choice that, it seems, becomes more apparent almost day by day.

Turning the Enemy into an Enemy of the Enemy

Ever since the November election, the New York Times editorial page has been frothing about the end of the world, or at least the end of the political and cultural world favored by the editors. Some of the hysteria is, although pathetic, not without its entertainment value. For instance, a lead editorial titled "Starving the Poor" and aimed at the Republican congressional majority's plans for welfare reform. Rather than speak in their own voice, the editors quote extensively from a statement made a month earlier by John Cardinal O'Connor in which he sharply and rightly criticizes the stereotyping of the poor for political advantage. Among other things, the Cardinal said, "It is increasingly rare for many of us . . . to believe that people can be poor, but honest; poor, but deserving of respect. Poverty is no longer blamed on anyone but the poor themselves. Contempt for the poor has become a virtue." A touch hyperbolic perhaps, but it is surely a salutary caution, and a necessary reminder that a society is judged also by the way we respond to the needs of the most marginal and disadvantaged.

There is, however, something very odd about the Times' discovery of Cardinal O'Connor as a "compelling voice" for justice. The old axiom that the enemy of my enemy is my friend would seem to be at work here, even if the new-found friend was previously declared an enemy. During the ten years that he has been in New York, the Times has seldom-we were going to write "never," but maybe there was once-had a kind word for the Cardinal. It has on many occasions editorially lashed out at him and the Catholic Church for their putative bigotry and general obstructionism that got in the way of how the Times thinks the city and the world should be ordered. Indeed in the past decade a regularly repeated editorial theme has been the opposition of the Catholic Church in general, and Cardinal O'Connor in particular, to the course of putative progress.

But now, after November 8, 1994, the times they are a-changing. The editors write, "Given the savagery of the climate, it is useful to note what the Roman Catholic Church is saying in response. The church, through its efforts to feed and house America's poor, is intimately familiar with the problem of poverty. Of late, the church's most compelling voice has been that of the Archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O'Connor. . . ." My, my, and all this from the editors of the Times. They must be getting desperate. They are.

Desperate enough to trim a pastoral exhortation by the Cardinal to their own political purposes. Desperate enough to praise the Church for being "squarely on the side of the vulnerable," while excising the call for the protection of the vulnerable unborn-a call that the Times has routinely and stridently condemned as patriarchal indifference to the rights of women. Desperate enough to try to enlist a religious sanction for its politics, despite its thundering anathemas against the mixing of religion and politics by groups such as the Christian Coalition and its notorious editorial claim of some years ago that the Cardinal was, by criticizing policies approved by the Times, threatening "the fragile truce" that permits religious leaders to address questions of public moment. "Of late" the Cardinal has become a compelling voice. Of so very late. And, we can be sure, not for long.

The frothing and floundering of the Times in reaction to new ideas and new forces in our political culture is, as aforesaid, not without its entertainment value. In time, the editors may come to understand that the problem is not "the savagery of the climate" but the savagery of their reaction to a growing awareness that old social policies, apparently so compassionate, are cruel in their consequences for the very people they are supposed to help. The editors say that "the country has a moral obligation to feed and protect those who cannot feed and protect themselves." In time, they may come to understand that "the country" doesn't feed or protect anyone. People and institutions do these necessary things. The editors may even come to understand that the most important institutions for doing these things are not governmental but the mediating institutions, such as family, church, neighborhood, and voluntary association. They may even get to the point where they add the term "subsidiarity" to their vocabulary. But all this will likely take the editors some time.

Meanwhile, we are sure that Cardinal O'Connor knows that his involuntary recruitment as the enemy of the enemies of the Times is very temporary. When next he violates the orthodoxies of the Times, as he inevitably must, it is certain that the editors will revert to type and his "most compelling voice" will once again be the intolerably meddlesome voice of one who does not understand who is in charge of the city and the world. (Urbi et orbi, as Mr. Sulzberger might put it.)

What Are Lawyers Good For? (This Is Not a Lawyer Joke)

So who's behind the violence surrounding abortion? The November 14, 1994 issue of U.S. News & World Report devotes nine quite fair and informative pages to the question. Of course the violence examined is not the killing of unborn children but the killing of two abortionists and other actions such as the torching of abortuaries. The conclusion is that, despite the efforts of Attorney General Janet Reno and the abortion lobby to discover otherwise, there is no grand conspiracy. There are a lot of opponents of abortion who feel they have reached the end of their tether and have no choice but to act outside the law and against the law. There is evidence that at least some pro-abortionists are beginning to worry that there may be something to the claim of pro- life activists that they are the nineteenth century abolitionists redevivus. With nothing but an insecure majority of the Supreme Court on their side, the pro-choice faction has reason to be nervous.

The U.S. News report is accompanied by a short article on another factor of increasing importance, the bringing of malpractice and other suits against abortionists and clinics. It cites Mark Crutcher of Texas who has set up a consulting firm, Life Dynamics. He takes out ads declaring, "If you've been physically or emotionally injured by an abortion, talk to an aggressive attorney today." When he's talking to lawyers, Crutcher says, "we want them to visualize millions of dollars, not aborted babies." Multiplying law suits doesn't do much to elevate the level of public moral discourse, but it has a certain vulgar charm, and may be effective. From various conversations it is evident that a number of pro-life leaders are intrigued by the possibilities. "Fighting fire with fire" and similarly unedifying but not uninteresting maxims crop up in such conversations.

It is noted that the infamous Roe decision of 1973 provides a wide open invitation to medical litigation. Roe said that abortion is "inherently, and primarily, a medical decision," and it follows that the abortionist must have a sound basis for "his medical judgment [that] the patient's pregnancy should be terminated" (emphasis added). Simply to provide abortion on request would therefore appear to be a form of negligence. Yet the clinics where the overwhelming majority of abortions are performed are almost totally unregulated, and the way they operate makes a considered medical judgment, such as that envisioned in Roe, virtually impossible. Physical and emotional injury are broad categories, and people are becoming more aware of the accumulating evidence that abortion contributes to, among many other things, a greatly increased chance of breast cancer. Then there is the question of whether the woman's choice was truly free and informed, or whether it was coerced by boyfriend, family, or circumstance that could be changed without great difficulty. (Even in surveys conducted by pro-choice organizations, the overwhelming majority of women who have abortions say that they "had no choice.") Such considerations should have a bearing on a doctor's decision that a woman should have an abortion.

Returning to the U.S. News article, it concludes: "These kinds of malpractice suits have put abortion-rights advocates in an uncomfortable spot. They can hardly object to a legal strategy that secures damages for injured women and makes bad doctors pay. Antiabortion groups see the obvious benefits in that strategy. Even some of their opponents concede it is one area where antiabortion forces may be gaining the upper hand." The fight for the protection of unborn children and vulnerable women is continuing, and must continue, on many fronts. The moral delegitimation of abortion within the medical community has largely been achieved. Very few doctors want to be known as abortionists, and the great majority of medical schools do not teach how to kill babies. A much magnified threat of malpractice suits could make it much more expensive for the clinics to stay in business. In addition, a greatly changed political climate after the November elections makes more than thinkable once again political and legal steps that many had despaired of.

The reader may recall President Clinton's formula that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." (He who then pushed policies aimed at expanding the incidence of abortion, even to the point of enshrining it as an internationally recognized human right.) Abortion has always been lethally unsafe for the baby, of course, but as it becomes more evident that it is unsafe for the mother, and as it is more widely perceived that it was illegitimately declared legal, and as litigation makes it onerously difficult to practice, it may also become much more rare. And that's one possible answer to the oft-asked question, What are lawyers good for?

Yearning for the Good Old Days

How poignant is the longing of those who came alive in the 60s, who keep searching for the return of "The Movement." One recalls Wordsworth on the enthusiasts of the French Revolution, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!" Robert F. Drinan, Jesuit priest and former Congressman, was not in the 60s so young in years, but it was his moment. He writes about it in a recent column. "I recently spoke to 287 people gathered in Boston to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the moratorium established in 1969 to stop the war in Vietnam." The millions then have shrunk to 287, a remnant so small as to make a precise count possible. Not 285 or 290 but 287. Drinan reflects: "The leaders and followers of the nation's leading peace groups who celebrated the silver anniversary of the moratorium are the stalwarts of organizations such as the Clergy and Laity Concerned, the Nuclear Freeze Movement, Ban the Bomb, Pax Christi, the World Federalists, SANE/Freeze, and the United Nations Association. The words of leaders like Benjamin Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were prominent in the rhetoric of the evening."

Drinan notes that "These organizations are groping for a mandate and scrambling for funds. Their messages and their missions seem to echo another generation, a time that is gone. . . . How can they find a new (or old) movement that will articulate an appealing solution for the truly horrendous threats to peace that are emerging before our very eyes?" Those longing for The Movement Redux are frustrated by a political situation that does not cooperate with their hopes. Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, even Bush could boil the blood, but what can you do when your man (more or less) is in the White House? Drinan writes, "The Clinton Administration has not proposed any new foreign policy that would pose a real challenge to the American people. Unlike the time that produced the antiwar movement there are no 'good guys' and 'bad guys.' There is no one to demonize. There are few causes related to peace that make a march on Washington a mandate of conscience."

A great resource is being wasted, Fr. Drinan believes. "Religious groups possess a comprehensive and compelling series of moral principles from which a new foreign policy could be fashioned. Unfortunately there does not seem to be at this moment any movement within the mainline Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups in America to fashion a new set of guidelines for America's conduct in the world in the next several years." Many thoughtful Americans might thank God that we are delivered, at least for the moment, from the pressure of the "comprehensive and compelling" principles by which mainline religion tried to direct the nation's policies, foreign and domestic. In any event, Fr. Drinan is surely right in his suspicion that his nostalgia and that of the 287 veterans gathered in Boston seems "to echo another generation, a time that is gone."

A Time Bomb,Ticking, Ticking

Soon the second anniversary of the Waco killings will be upon us. There is reason to believe that this is a very big time bomb waiting to explode under the Clinton Administration. Attorney General Janet Reno, not yet sworn in, said at the time that the incident would be thoroughly investigated but "there will be no recriminations." She was hailed as a tough and up-front lady for saying that. But what a truly odd thing to say. About eighty people-men, women, children-were shot or burned to death after seven weeks of much-publicized ineptitude by government agencies, and we were told that there will be no recriminations. The story is far from over. The official reports on the investigations by the Justice Department and its agencies have been generally dismissed by scholars who have studied them as self-serving whitewashes. A number of independent investigations are reaching completion, books are in the works, and lawsuits brought by relatives of those killed will be coming to trial. One expects there will be recriminations aplenty.

From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco (Rowman & Littlefield, $21.95), edited by James R. Lewis, brings together forty-six essays, comments, and documents related to events in Waco. Authors range from retired Colonel Charlie Beckwith, founder of the Army's elite Delta Force, to experts on nontraditional religions such as J. Gordon Melton, to some of the country's most distinguished defenders of religious freedom such as Dean Kelley, long-time religious liberty director of the National Council of Churches. All the contributors are highly critical of the government, especially of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and the FBI. Many note the ways in which "cult experts" and "religious deprogrammers" reinforced what appears to have been the desire of government agents to force a violent confrontation. The cumulative effect of the book is to support the conclusion that it was not David Koresh and his followers but the U.S. Government that bears moral and legal responsibility for the holocaust at Waco.

If this is true, Waco is the single most violent government assault on religious freedom in American history. One draws back from that conclusion, but then the evidence keeps forcing the mind back toward it. The questions about Waco seemed to be laid to rest, but they will now be returning in a way that the media, Congress, and the White House may find difficult to ignore. As with any event with apocalyptic connotations, the conspiracy theorists and associated vultures gather round. One cannot help but be impressed, however, by the reputations and seriousness of those who are now bringing forth evidence and arguments that make a reconsideration of Waco imperative. In thinking about this, one is haunted by a sickening possibility. What if most Americans really don't care whether or not the government killed eighty-plus men, women, and children for no other reason than that they adhered to what most people view as kooky religious beliefs?

Meeting "Meaning Needs"

Readers with a grip on long-term memory will remember the name Michael Lerner. He is the editor of a liberal (okay, leftist) Jewish magazine called Tikkun. ("Tikkun" means healing, as in healing the world, for which a great deal is to be said.) Actually, it was not so very long ago at all that Mr. Lerner was getting, and grabbing, a lot of attention as Mrs. Hillary Clinton's spiritual director, so to speak. Those were the days before-well, before so many things-when Mrs. Clinton was on magazine covers as the champion of the nation's moral renewal. Within a few months of his fifteen minutes, Mr. Lerner is out with a book called Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (Grosset-Putnam). It is no secret that most American Jews are profoundly secular, and it therefore is no surprise that many of them feel very empty and are yearning for that great American cure- all, "spirituality." Mr. Lerner has made the happy discovery that you really don't need to choose between the secular and the spiritual; you can have it all.

He writes like this: "It does not follow that Jewish secularism must be abandoned. But secularism . . . needs to be reconstituted in ways that acknowledge the ethical, spiritual, and psychological concerns that have often been ignored or denied in the various materialist forms of secular thought. . . . Secularists need to address the ways that society systematically frustrates these meaning needs, and then to develop a 'politics of meaning' that aims to achieve societal transformations aiming to eliminate those aspects of our economic and political life that frustrate our meaning needs."

Elliott Abrams of the Hudson Institute, reviewing the book in the American Spectator, is not entirely taken with Mr. Lerner's proposal: "Putting aside, again, babble like 'meaning needs' and looking at the substance, Lerner is simply contradicting himself. While he seems, on page after page, to recognize man's search for the spiritual, his answer to that longing is more politics-to be precise, a 'politics of meaning' in the phrase he and Hillary made famous. Man's search for meaning cannot, he understands, be satisfied in Freudian psychology, Marxism, or science, but it is to be found in an equally secular political quest nonetheless. Judaism is, to him, a religion whose whole point is politics, and 'healing' the world turns out to be awfully close to adopting the usual environmental, economic, and sociological nostrums of the left. And Jewish renewal turns out to be little more than, well, as [Richard] Brookhiser put it, the Democratic Party with holidays. In its way, Jewish Renewal is, as publishers like to hear, an important book. Its suggestions to the Jewish community are precisely wrong; its remedies for the decline in that community are exactly incorrect. Lerner's own search for meaning has led him from politics, through religion, and then back again. His proposals, if adopted, would decimate the Jewish community like a plague. The effort to turn Jews into some sort of revolutionary vanguard for ecology and welfare benefits is ridiculous, and it is hard to think of anyone taking it very seriously-even Hillary Clinton."

Language Games

Notice how many of the disputes in contemporary Christianity are over language. Both the revisionists and their opponents are right in recognizing that words not only reflect reality but also constitute what is taken for reality. Consider a Catholic example. There is a group of priests and scholars who have launched an organization called Credo, and they have had considerable influence with the bishops and others in applying the brakes to the establishment in charge of liturgical revisions. Needless to say, those who have been accustomed to having their way do not take kindly to this interference. Credo has, for instance, issued some sharp critiques of Latin translations proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). The establishment shot back that these upstarts obviously possessed little more than "high school Latin."

Father James Maroney is chairman of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, works closely with ICEL, and is advisor to the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy. Recently he issued a bulletin announcing the appointment of a new bishop to the Diocese of Worcester, Mass. The traditional phrase is, "Nuntio gaudium magnum: Habemus episcopum." (I announce with great joy: We have a bishop.) Father Maroney's bulletin had it, "Annuncio vobis gaudiam magnam: Habemus episcopam!" Now truth to tell, my Latin isn't that great but something is obviously amiss here. "Annuncio" is not a Latin word. More interestingly, "episcopam" is feminine, as is "gaudiam magnam." The new bishop, Daniel Patrick Reilly, is definitely masculine. And in Latin "gaudium magnum" is in no way gender-specific so there is no reason to change it. (Revisionists who are big on being "inclusive" regularly impose the peculiarities of English on other languages.) Some of the priests in Credo may only have high school Latin, but one expects that most of them at least passed the course. Or perhaps Father Maroney is an accomplished Latinist and is trying to make a point. Or perhaps the changes were entirely inadvertent. As Cicero might have said, "Fors fortis" (fat chance).

While We're At It

Sources: Martin Walker review of Resurrection and Strange Justice in New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1994. New York Times editorial "Starving the Poor," November 24, 1994. Father Drinan on the 1960s, National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 1994. Elliott Abrams review of Michael Lerner in American Spectator, December 1994.

While We're At It: On National History Standards Project, New York Times, November 19, 1994. On the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials, New York Times, November 23, 1994. British analysis of American politics, Spectator, November 12, 1994. Quotes on elections and abortion, Fred Barnes, New Republic, December 5, 1994. Fr. O'Donovan on Jordanian-Israeli peace ceremonies, America, November 19, 1994. Hans Kung quoted in the Tablet, November 12, 1994. On 60 Minutes filming of "Call to Action," National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 1994. On Catholic universities discriminating against Catholic faculty, University News of St. Louis University, October 28, 1994. Texe Marrs on Richard John Neuhaus in Flashpoint, November 1994. On Peter Hebblethwaite, New York Times, December 20, 1994. On morality and values among Christian liberals, Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 14, 1994. On Christmas stamp of the Virgin and Child, National and International Religion Report, November 28, 1994.