One doesn't want to make too much of a fifth anniversary, but neither is it nothing. Just surviving for five years is something. Most new journals do not manage that. First Things has not only survived but has flourished, and continues to grow in readership and by every measure of influence. I am grateful to editorial colleagues who do most of the hard work, to benefactors who have supported a risky venture, and, most particularly, to our thousands of extraordinarily devoted readers. If Our Lord continues to delay His return, there is every reason to believe that First Things will be flourishing twenty- five and fifty years from now.
Readers who were present at the creation will remember that this project was originally the Center on Religion and Society and was affiliated with the Rockford Institute in Rockford, Illinois. Under those auspices we published a monthly newsletter, The Religion and Society Report, and a quarterly journal, This World. In May of 1989 we went independent and reconstituted ourselves as the Institute on Religion and Public Life, combining what was done in the earlier publications in a new monthly journal that made its first appearance in March 1990. At the time, I told potential supporters that I expected First Things would have 5,000 paid subscribers in the first five years, and thought it possible that it might have as many as 10,000. I certainly did not expect that in 1995 there would be nearly 30,000 paid subscribers, plus newsstand sales and a controlled circulation to educational and other institutions. As the growth continues at an encouraging pace, I have stopped speculating about what may be the potential readership of a journal such as this. There is undoubtedly a limit, for this is definitely and designedly a publication for a particular kind of reader, and that will not change.
In this issue we republish the editorial statement of purpose that appeared in the first issue, "Putting First Things First." Five years later, we still affirm that statement wholeheartedly. Looking back on the first fifty issues, the editors believe that we have really tried to do what we promised to do. At the risk of immodesty, on some promises we think we have done very well indeed, better than could have been reasonably expected. Where that has happened, the credit goes chiefly to the large and varied company of contributors that First Things has attracted. Editors can encourage (and sometimes prod, provoke, and pester), but finally the journal depends on writers who have something important to say, know how to say it well, and want to say it to this audience.
For all that has been gratifying in the first five years, you should know that almost every editorial meeting includes intense questioning about how we can do better. The inaugural editorial says that "the key word is conversation," and notes that "a real conversation, as distinct from intellectual chatter, is marked by discipline and continuity." These five years have witnessed some remarkable changes that cannot help but have a marked impact upon the continuity of the conversation. In the really big picture, of course, there is always a certain wisdom in the adage, Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. But in the world measured by months and years, things happen. And some things have happened that have a bearing on what we mean by "Putting First Things First."
A few examples may suffice. The end of communism and the consequent collapse of socialism as the ordering principle of social progress. Yes, there are still socialists around who have not gotten the news, but something definitive has happened, and our intellectual and moral discourse has hardly begun to take it into account. This is a weird historical moment. Now almost everybody says that of course communism was an evil empire and socialism is a dumb idea. But only a few years ago, most did not say that, and many insistently said the contrary. We need better to understand what happened and why in the great, and finally successful, contest with totalitarianism. For the sake of historical honesty, for the sake of the victims and the heroes and the heroines whom we must honor to maintain a hold on our own humanity, and for the sake of cultivating an idea of freedom more clearly ordered to moral truth. The end of this contest with totalitarianism complicates the meaning of freedom beyond yesterday's undeniable (although often denied) imperative of defending the free world.
For another example, in these five years there has been a marked change in thinking about church-state relations and, more generally, about the role of religion in public life. Our protest against "the naked public square" was then a distinctly minority position, whereas today there is a much more widespread recognition that church-state jurisprudence is a shambles, and that the democratic process requires the vigorous engagement of the religiously based moral convictions of the American people. I do not suggest that the ACLU has lost its punch or that there are not in the prestige backwaters of the academy extreme separationists still weaving their theories for a radically secularized public order. But, in the courts and other public forums, the ACLU now has impressive competition, while the political sea change of November 1994 has created a circumstance much more sympathetic to the public expression of arguments informed by religious tradition. So great is the change in the political climate that it seems likely we will have to pay more attention to the danger of uncritical enthusiasm for religion in public, especially when religion is promoted as an instrumental good for the achievement of sundry purposes public and personal. "We will not begin to solve our problems," a very major Republican figure announces, "until we give God a more important place in American life." The intention is laudable, no doubt, but if we are really talking about God, He is not awaiting a promotion by us. Such rhetoric suggests that we should perhaps move Him up from Number Seven to Number Two. Or maybe appoint Him the nation's Premier Role Model.
Five years later, the great change regarding abortion is that the Supreme Court is now isolated. It is obvious to all but the willfully blind that the Roe v. Wade regime imposed by the Court has not been ratified by the American people. The Court and the Court alone stands in the way of the political process seeking a way in which the unborn will be protected in law and welcomed in life. In its 1992 Casey decision the Court said that the country faces a "crisis of legitimacy" if the people fail to follow the Court in upholding the present abortion license. It is now evident that it is the Court that is caught in a crisis of legitimacy that is of its own creation. The unspeakable injustice of thousands of innocent lives taken each day with the blessing of the law continues to be the single greatest threat to the moral legitimacy of this political order. The second editorial in that inaugural issue was titled "Redefining Abortion Politics." We saw hope for change then; we see hope for change now. Even if we are wrong, this question will not let us go.
The more things change, the more things change. The now almost universal acknowledgment of the crisis of welfare and the poor as evident in the urban underclass. The near disappearance of mainline Protestant influence in the public arena, and the remarkable emergence of a conservative evangelicalism prepared to move from protest to governance. The striking steps toward rapprochement between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in both faith and public responsibility. The astonishing vibrancy of this pontificate's assertion of Catholic social teaching. The slow, steady, and ever more secure building of a moral and even theological foundation of trust between Christians and Jews. The widespread recognition of the limits of statist solutions for social problems, and of the indispensable role of mediating institutions such as families, churches, and voluntary associations. These are among the notable differences between 1990 and 1995. Most of them, taken all in all, are differences for the better. There are other and less happy differences between then and now: the growth of the euthanasia movement, the slide toward eugenics and the manipulation of the human genotype, the looming war against immigration and, maybe, against immigrants.
In that very first issue we spoke about our society being embroiled in a Kulturkampf, a war over the definition of our common life. That struggle continues as, in various guises, the vaunted revolutions of the counterculture of the sixties are prosecuted on every front. We have published many articles on the polymorphous perversities of multiculturalism, deconstructionism, sexual liberationism, and other causes championed by the apostles of decadence and debonair nihilism. And we will undoubtedly publish more such articles as the occasion requires. But these revolutions are familiar now; they have long since lost their capacity to shock, and are fast losing their capacity to influence, at least outside the confines of the elite academy and what passes for the arts. In the larger culture, the counterrevolution seems to have begun in earnest. If so, the counterrevolution, generally described as conservative, will surely bring its own problems. It is a trustworthy maxim that everything human, given time enough, will go wrong. Familiar debates will be reconfigured, and on this question or that old allies will be opponents and opponents will become allies. The more things change, the more things change.
But this reflection on the first five years has dwelt too much on changes in public life. That opening editorial declared, "The first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing." I believe that even more strongly now, much more strongly now. It has to do with age, no doubt, and with having been rather rudely put on more intimate terms with mortality. My colleagues, younger and less scathed, share my determination that First Things will continue to put first things first. We will continue to publish arguments about the great transcendentals, the good, the true, and the beautiful, that are brazenly irrelevant to any social or political purpose. And we will publish articles that can claim no virtue other than whimsy, which is no little virtue. And so we hope to temper the sweated earnestness of the battles of the earthly city, knowing that this is not the city that abides. Putting first things first, we will for the next five years, and for however many years there are to be, take as our own the words that Eliot gave Thomas Becket:
I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of
heaven, a whisper,
And I would no longer be denied; all things
Proceed to a joyful consummation.
At Oxford University and at Regent College, Vancouver, Alister E. McGrath is a waxing light in evangelical Protestant theology. In a recent issue of Christianity Today he reviews the new Catholic Catechism under the title, "Do We Still Need the Reformation?" (His answer is clearly yes, and some Catholics would agree, while questioning whether the Reformation still needs churches separated from communion with Rome.) Being a Reformed (Calvinist) theologian of considerable earnestness, McGrath's essay understandably dwells at length on the formula "justification by faith alone," and related questions about, for instance, the connection between justification and sanctification. McGrath cheers, inter alia, the Catechism's uncompromising insistence upon the grace of God as the sole source of salvation and upon the centrality of Christ in the Christian life, but he is troubled that the Catechism does not explicitly or in detail address the controversies between Rome and the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
"The Roman Catholic reader of this Catechism will learn little, if anything, of the Reformation debates over this matter or of Protestant sensitivities over Roman Catholic teaching. While emphasizing that salvation takes place by grace, on the basis of the work of Christ rather than human effort or achievement, the Catechism seems reluctant to engage with the questions raised above and does little to reassure the anxieties of any readers familiar with the sixteenth-century debates." McGrath is right. The Catechism is not only "reluctant to engage" the debates of the sixteenth century; it resolutely declines to do so, at least directly. And that for the very simple reason that it intends to be what its title suggests, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Its intention is to affirm and explain the faith, life, and worship of the Catholic Church, and the fact is that-historically and theologically-the disputes with Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, and others in the sixteenth century is far from being the most formative experience in the Church's understanding of her faith, life, and worship.
That the disputes of the sixteenth century are not addressed directly does not mean that they are ignored in the Catechism. While the purpose was to keep the focus on the pedagogical and avoid the polemical, those intimately involved in the production of the Catechism, most notably Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, have throughout their lives been intensely engaged in the questions raised by the Reformation. And, of course, the Catechism gives major attention to the Council of Trent, which was the Church's reforming response to the Protestant reformers. In addition, for the last three decades Rome has invested immense energy in theological dialogues with the various Protestant communities. As is underscored in the 1994 declaration, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," to which McGrath is in part responding in his article, much more needs to be done in specific dialogue with evangelical Protestants. As Cardinal Ratzinger has emphasized on a number of occasions, the acute reader of the new Catechism will recognize that the Catholic faith is there presented in a manner that has taken into account, albeit not addressing directly, the critique advanced by the Reformation. Whether or not that critique has been sufficiently taken into account is, of course, something on which both Protestant and Catholic theologians may have their own views.
For many, if not most, Protestant Christians, the sixteenth century is the defining moment in their religious identity as Protestants. To be a Protestant is not to be a Roman Catholic. The Reformation was a protest and intended to be a corrective; the Catholic Church was the thing protested and putatively to be corrected. To be a Catholic, on the other hand, is not not to be a Protestant. It is true that, for Catholics in those countries strongly influenced by the Reformation traditions, the consciousness of not being Protestant is one facet of being Catholic, but being Catholic is not defined by Protestantism in the way that being Protestant is defined by Catholicism. Catholics (at least orthodox Catholics) understand themselves to be members of the most fully and rightly ordered expression of Christ's one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church through time. Given that understanding, it would be entirely inappropriate for a Catechism of that Catholic Church to address directly and in detail one moment-admittedly a very important moment-in the history of theological and ecclesiastical controversy. Those questions are addressed appropriately and earnestly in other forums, such as the aforementioned theological dialogues. They are also addressed in catechetical materials prepared specfically for countries with an intense Protestant-Catholic interaction, such as Germany and the United States.
The complaint of Alister McGrath and other thoughtful Protestants leads to another question that has become clearer in the many responses to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." The claim that "justification by faith alone" is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls) is a distinctly minority position among Protestants who call themselves evangelicals. (The theological variety of evangelicalism is helpfully illuminated by Mark Noll of Wheaton College in a forthcoming book of essays, also called Evangelicals and Catholics Together.) Evangelicals in the various Holiness, Wesleyan, and Arminian traditions are, one may suggest, much closer to the Catholic understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification than they are to the more rigorous Lutheran and Calvinist champions of "justification by faith alone." In recent years some of these Calvinist thinkers have achieved the status of being something like the theological brain trust of American evangelicalism, but that development is now in the process of being critically reexamined in the light of responses to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." One hastens to add that to say these thinkers are in a distinct minority is not to say that they are wrong. Truth is not determined by majority vote. But, in response to the criticism of McGrath and others, it does suggest why it would be inappropriate for the Catechism of the Catholic Church to address directly the specifics of a controversy that is as much an intra-Protestant dispute as a dispute between Protestants and Catholics.
While produced by the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Catholic Church for the Catholic faithful, the Catechism also keeps other Christians in mind. More than in relation to Protestantism, this is frequently made explicit in relation to Orthodoxy. One should not forget that Orthodoxy has pride of place on Rome's ecumenical agenda, and necessarily so. Only Rome is in a position to mend the schism between East and West. While the two goals should not be pitted against each other, the healing of the breach between East and West has priority over the healing of the breach between Rome and the Reformation. Orthodoxy was spared (some Protestants might say deprived of) the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Formulations such as "justification by faith alone" are no part of the Orthodox experience. Apart from the one billion Roman Catholics, Orthodoxy is the largest ecclesial configuration of Christians in the contemporary world. The theological disputes that raged in northern Europe in the sixteenth century, and still rage in some Protestant circles, are largely irrelevant to, and would be a distraction from, the goal of reestablishing full communion between East and West.
Moreover, the great majority of the intended audience for the Catechism of the Catholic Church have been only marginally touched, or not touched at all, by the controversies of the sixteenth century. Most Catholics today are in the developing world, where the Catholic Church is growing most rapidly. In Africa, for example, it might be argued that Christians are, in important respects, more pre- Reformation than post-Reformation. Both Catholics and Protestants say, "We know that we are divided, but we don't know why we are divided." Does anyone really think they should know in the way that we who are heirs of the sixteenth-century schism know? Should they be dragged through the sixteenth-century disputes so that they will understand why it is so important to be a Protestant or a Catholic? The Catholic Church thinks not. On the contrary, Pope John Paul II has suggested that the churches of Africa, for example, provide an important link with an older and undivided Church before the schisms of both 1054 and the sixteenth century. It would be a great sin against Christian unity to impose our divisions upon them. Rather, they may represent "the new ecumenism" from which we are to learn.
There are approximately 1.8 billion Christians in the world today. They are with very few exceptions either Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, classical Reformation (Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican), or what is broadly called evangelical Protestant. A relatively small number of Protestant theologians are exercised by a sixteenth-century dispute over "justification by faith alone," and claim that it is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. That claim is challenged by the reality that the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world, who are in the broadest sense the ecclesia, have never heard of "justification by faith alone," and most who have heard of it have not the foggiest notion of what it means. Some might respond that the claim is challenged by that reality but not refuted by that reality. Perhaps so, but upholding the claim in any meaningful sense would seem to require repristinating and universalizing the disputes of sixteenth- century Europe that gave definition to the theological shibboleths by which Christians identified their bloody divisions as Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and whatever. That would be a terrible thing to visit upon world Christianity at the threshold of the Third Millennium. Fortunately, there is no conceivable way it could happen.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not reject the distinctive Reformation formula that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. Neither does it affirm it. To address it at all would require going on to make clear that grace is not alone but confirms human freedom, that living faith is not alone but issues in a life of obedience, that Christ is not alone but always to be found in the company of His Church. Entering into the disputes over all the necessary distinctions and qualifications lands us right back in the sixteenth century, which, one is inclined to believe, is not where the Holy Spirit intends to lead the Church at the end of the twentieth century.
The theological disputes of the sixteenth century, while very important, are not the most important disputes in the history of the Church. Certainly, for instance, the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the early centuries have been more universally formative for Christian faith. Especially in those cultures, such as ours, that have been significantly influenced by the Protestant Reformation, it is important for Christian thinkers to engage the disputes of the sixteenth century. Even here, however, our culture today poses numerous challenges to Christian faith and life that need to be addressed at least as urgently as the questions issuing from the sixteenth century. In any event, the Catechism of the Catholic Church intends to be a universal (i.e., catholic) Catechism and is not the place to replay the controversies with Wittenberg, Geneva, and Dort. Alister McGrath is right in saying that the Catechism "must be in the hands of every person concerned with the future of evangelical relations with Roman Catholicism." But such persons will be greatly, and rightly, disappointed if they expect the Catechism to run the entirety of Christian faith and life through the grid of the Reformation protest. "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" is an invitation not to refight the wars of the past but to cross the threshold of hope into a Third Millennium of common witness and discipleship, including, please God, greater visible unity among all who follow Christ.
The second volume is out. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Mentor, Message, and Miracle by John P. Meier (Doubleday, 1,055 pp., $40). Long-term readers may recall our rather extended commentary on the first volume ("Reason Public and Private: The Pannenberg Project," March 1992). We saw all kinds of problems with Father Meier's near divorce of the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith," and with his extremely truncated definition of history and of the historian's task. Remember his method for really getting at the truth about the historical Jesus. You get "a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic-all honest historians cognizant of first-century religious movements . . . locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on Jesus of Nazareth."
It is an experiment not without hypothetical interest, but at most it would tell us what four late-twentieth-century hungry historians at Harvard said they could say together about Jesus. And since they must say it together, the result would inevitably be reductionistic, for the agnostic would have veto power over affirming anything of theological significance. In any event, Fr. Meier has not actually conducted the experiment, except in his head, where he exercises veto power over what he assures the reader is his perfectly orthodox Christian faith.
Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar at Emory, reviews the second volume in Commonweal and admires the erudition and minute detail with which Meier goes about his task. But finally, Johnson says, Meier's project is not so much the quest of the historical Jesus as the quest of the "historically verifiable Jesus." Meier's "strict criteria" for what counts as historical are, Johnson suggests, violated by Meier himself when he presumes to say what Jesus was "aware of" or why he did this or that. According to Johnson, "the synthetic picture of Jesus that Meier begins to advance in this volume . . . owes more than a little to a process of false inference, and to the contribution made by the Gospel narratives and interpretations that [Meier's] method began by explicitly eschewing." Even when Meier bends his own rules, Johnson wonders about "the yield of all this impressive effort that he has pursued with such diligence, intelligence, and integrity." The quest for "the historically verifiable Jesus" ends up with nothing more than an estimate about greater and lesser probabilities, and what is historically verifiable "is not at all necessarily what is most central or pivotal to Jesus' ministry, any more than we can deduce from what is unique to a person what is essential to that person."
"I suspect that when the dust settles," writes Johnson, "we shall find that the 'historical Jesus' is just where he was all the time: in the fourfold testimony and interpretation of the Gospel narratives. For, if what is essential to a person is not the facts of when and where or the facts of what was said and done, but rather the meaning of those facts for those whose experience and memory of the person was also part of their historical reality, then there is no place else for us to look." Johnson offers a thoughtful critique of Meier's project but one has to wonder whether he does not end up coming perilously close to following Meier in divorcing fact from meaning, history from faith. The disciples' "experience and memory of the person" is not something apart from the facts about Jesus-when and where and what. One hopes Mr. Johnson would not disagree.
In recent years there has been a major move among biblical scholars to "reclaim the Bible for the Church." Brevard Childs of Yale and, on the Jewish side, Jon Levenson of Harvard have been key figures in the effort to reappropriate the text as sacred text, a text produced and interpreted by and for the believing community. This was the question addressed also by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in his Erasmus Lecture of 1988, which was the basis of the ecumenical conference from which came Biblical Interpretation in Crisis (Eerdmans). (See also the symposium on the Pontifical Biblical Commission's treatment of these questions in FT, "Interpreting the Bible," August/September 1994).
More recently the Institute sponsored a meeting of distinguished theologians and biblical scholars at which one participant took his colleagues aback by asking, "Compared with all the mischief it has done, what of real significance has 150 years of historical-critical methodology contributed to our understanding of the Bible?" The question was intentionally provocative, and in response several participants suggested that critical scholarship had helped us to understand somewhat better this or that about the Bible. If you had locked up all twenty scholars in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put them on a spartan diet, and not allowed them to emerge until they had come up with a longer list of the contributions of historical-critical methodology, they probably could have done so. But the consensus out of this meeting was that the contributions were, at best, very marginal. As in A Marginal Jew.
A Lutheran professor of theology in the Midwest sends along a clipping from USA Today about which he is vaguely irritated and wonders what we make of it. The story is about the family of the Rev. Scott Willis, a Baptist minister in Chicago. In a freak accident with a truck on I-94, the Scott car exploded, killing their six youngest children. The headline is "Still Thankful in Sea of Sorrow: Family's Faith Unshaken by Loss of 6 Children." In the account, Willis and his wife testify to their abiding faith in Christ and the eternal hope that tempers their grief. Apparently this was a puzzlement to the USA Today reporter, and so she consulted a psychiatrist. "Different people have different ways of dealing with grief, says Dorothy Starr, a psychiatrist who has not met the Willises. But she expects they'll have an angrier reaction at some point. 'They may well be numbed, and it may take some time for it to sink in,' Starr says. 'I would still expect these people to have trouble, even with their incredible faith.'"
Our theologian friend thought this whole business terribly condescending toward Christianity, and it is that. On the other hand, maybe the reporter and her editors were genuinely puzzled by the phenomenon of vibrant Christian faith in the face of tragedy. It is a form of deviant behavior. Perhaps admirable in some ways, but nonetheless deviant. It requires explanation by an expert, and the relevant expert in a therapeutic society is the psychiatrist. Enter Dr. Starr, who sympathetically explains that the Willises have not yet had time to understand what really happened. The inference is that their affirmations of Christian faith are a form of denial. Such denial disguised as faith is a common stage in the grieving process. And so forth.
The Willises, mind you, speak forthrightly about their grief and their loss. There is no evidence of denial. The sticking point with the USA Today people is that the Willises confidently posit the great "nonetheless"-nonetheless they are confident of God's continuing love that triumphs over tragedy. It is that apparent confidence, combined with a readiness to forgive the truck driver who caused the accident, that USA Today thinks needs to be explained by a psychiatrist. The "healthy" reaction to what happened to them is anger and rage against the meaninglessness of the universe. And so forth.
But it is not simply that the Willises refuse to conform to the prescribed therapeutic rituals of anger. The difficulty is with their giving a religious reason, a so very explicitly Christian reason, for their peace and hope in circumstances that are supposed to induce turmoil and despair. Imagine others, frequently featured in the news, who reflect tranquility when confronted by disaster. A gay man's lover has died of AIDS and he tells a reporter that he is comforted by the hope that his friend contributed to overcoming the prejudices of a homophobic society. A white man's wife is killed in a mugging by a black man, and he calmly and eloquently bears witness to his hope for interracial understanding. In neither case, we are sure, would USA Today call in a psychiatrist to explain such deviant reactions to tragedy. In the cognitive world of contemporary journalism, these approved reactions are, while rare enough to deserve a word of commendation, not in need of psychiatric explanation. Indeed, to suggest that there is something not quite plausible about these reactions would be considered deeply insensitive.
It is this Christian thing that poses a puzzlement and a problem. One can imagine the exchange in the newsroom. "Yes, maybe it's true that the great majority of Americans go to church and sing songs like 'I know that my Redeemer liveth,' but these Willis people seem actually to believe that stuff." "It isn't real." "Anyway, we can't go with a story that looks like it's pushing religion." "We need to get a more impartial take on this." "Better call Dr. Starr to give you something to put this in perspective." "Ah yes," says Dr. Starr, effusing professional confidence. "We frequently run across this kind of thing in the grieving process. They may well be numbed, and it may take some time for it to sink in."
Meanwhile the Rev. Willis is puzzled by the reporter's puzzlement. "We're ordinary people," he says. "This faith people keep talking about is freely available to anyone." In the cognitive world occupied by USA Today, it will likely take a long, long time for that to sink in.
Again the other day, one runs across an article that observes in passing, as though it is taken-for-granted knowledge, that the conservative trend in our political culture reflects Americans' rejection of the civil rights movement of three decades ago. This is, in our view, mischievous nonsense. What most Americans reject is the transmogrification of the civil rights movement, which was specifically directed at righting a great wrong in black-white relations, into an all-purpose movement of group victimization and special entitlements. This grotesque twisting of what is meant by civil rights has not been lost on some blacks. Writing in the influential black paper, Chicago Defender, Ray Scannell puts it this way.
"The attack on the character of Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas by militant white feminists, in books and newspaper articles, should not be ignored by anyone concerned with the misuse of the Black American Civil Rights Movement. Media feminist activists are using allegations of personal misbehavior that are over ten years old and selective personal anecdotes to discredit the ability and judgment of a high profile professional jurist. The efforts can only be rationalized as ongoing attempts at intimidating Justice Thomas in personal behavior cases that will come before him. Character assassination aside, it is time for anyone seriously concerned with social justice to examine the damage the feminist movement has done to the Black American Civil Rights Movement. The use of administrative agency case law to license group entitlements and legal preferences has been the undoing of the movement in the post-1964 years. Equating laissez faire personal behavior as a concern for principled civil rights is a gross misinterpretation of the law. Recent sex discrimination cases resulting in large settlements, in some cases awards of multi-million dollars, to be split with aggressive trial attorneys, are the latest examples of misusing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The increasing number of sexual misbehavior cases and the huge settlements and awards demonstrate the success of post-1964 militant feminists in co-opting the concerns of the Black American civil rights movement to advance their group self-interest for private gain."
In the mid-sixties, most of the proponents of the civil rights movement segued into the anti-Vietnam war movement, then into the more generalized counterculture, with all of its continuing sideshows of radical feminism, gay advocacy, and so forth. For many who still call themselves liberal, all these diverse and frequently contradictory movements constitute The Movement, a continuous course of progressive change. For some, it has been possible for thirty years to live in The Movement, a cognitive world impervious to both internal contradictions and challenges from the outside. Apart from the fetid backwaters of the academy, nowhere has this possibility been pressed so far as in the bureaucracies of mainline Protestantism. A friend recently returned from a meeting of United Methodist social justice executives who were evaluating the significance of the November election and reports that the conclusion seemed to be unanimous: The November election represented the last desperate hurrah of the white, male, racist establishment to perpetuate its control of American society.
Such a reading strikes most of us as amusingly implausible, but it is important to understand that there are cognitive enclaves in which it is thought to be entirely persuasive. As Mr. Scannell and some other blacks (albeit still a minority) recognize, one real victim of this way of thinking is the legacy of the civil rights movement and the legitimate concerns of black, especially poor black, Americans. Through all the contortions of causes and ideologies that hijacked the civil rights movement, we have, after more than thirty years, moved from talking about "colored people" to talking about "people of color." It is by no means clear that this is much of an achievement, especially when "people of color" is now but one category in an endless catalogue of victimizations and entitlements. Black leaders also have much to answer for in allowing the interests of black Americans to be taken hostage by elite and well-funded organizations pushing causes unrelated to, frequently alien to, American blacks. Witness the precipitous and possibly fatal collapse of the NAACP. Latching on to the mantle of the civil rights movement gave these causes a measure of moral credibility for a time, but now they have brought discredit upon themselves and upon the movement to which they parasitically attached their ambitions.
This is a great shame, for the civil rights movement of, say, 1956 to 1964 was a luminous moment in American history. Martin Luther King, Jr., whatever problems people may have with his personal life or philosophy, is deservedly lifted up as a figure who helped remedy a great wrong in our national experience. It is not only blacks who are deprived when the movement that he led is exploited and trivialized by interest groups and ideologues intent upon embroiling America in a class warfare in which blacks are but one, and by no means the most important, of alleged victim classes.
Please understand that I have profound respect for you, but regrettably I must do you in. That's an attitude that bothers Daniel Callahan in "The Puzzle of Profound Respect." Callahan is president of the Hastings Center, which is a very major player in the debates over biomedical ethics. His article is occasioned by the National Institutes of Health proposal to fund producing human embryos in the laboratory solely for the purpose of research (see "The Inhuman Use of Human Beings," FT, January 1995). The report recommending such funding speaks of "the profound respect" with which we must view the embryo that we will then destroy. Such talk about profound respect, says Callahan, is "wafting incense" designed to make us feel a little better about what we're doing.
In the vulgar utilitarianism of the NIH panel's reasoning, the impermissible becomes permissible, even mandatory, if it might advance the goals of scientific research. Callahan writes: "What a free ride this is for the researchers, whose claims of potential benefits are treated with the kind of deference and credulity not seen since the days when the golden calf was worshipped. But of course for modern medicine research is the golden calf, questioned only at one's own risk. Duly reverential, the panel satisfied itself with simply listing all the research possibilities, including the improvement and increased safety of IVF, the creation of cell lines that might someday be useful for bone marrow transplantation, repair of spinal cord injuries, skin replacement and, naturally, the hint of a greater understanding of cancer."
It is time, says Callahan, to challenge the "research" mantra with a strong dose of skepticism. "The report notes that four countries already allow embryo research and that it has been going on for some years in private laboratories in this country. Yet not a single actual benefit derived so far from that research is cited to back the claims of great potential benefits from having even more of it. There is, oddly, no mention of any results whatever from that research, other than the oblique suggestion that it would be much improved if government funds could be brought to bear. Would it be unfair to conclude that either there have been no notable research benefits so far and thus the subject was finessed, or that the panel just forgot to ask? In any case, we are asked to bet on the future benefits. I wonder what odds the bookies in Las Vegas would give on this one." To give in to the supposition that research is always and in every instance a necessary thing to do is to surrender to a technological imperative that denies human freedom and may well destroy the possibility of a humane future. Callahan concludes: "Research that stays within moral limits is worthy of respect. Research that restlessly seeks to find a way around them, holding out some supposedly higher goods, is not. If there can be such a thing as modern idolatry, that is it. Can not the research community find a Moses to go after that golden calf?"
If they understood what was happening, one might credit them with a measure of courage, or at least with a piquant contrariness. But the New York Times does not understand; the people in charge there do not, as it is said, get it. They are like the New Yorker movie critic who wrote in November 1972 that she did not believe Richard Nixon had been elected because she knew absolutely no one who had voted for Nixon. And so it is that the editorial page of the Sunday Times of December 11 led off with a long piece "In Praise of the Counterculture." The 1960s and its effluence were, we are told, a universal blessing. We would not have had the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, and a host of other improvements had it not been for the wonderful "Thoreauvian" dissenters of that era. That Thoreau was a humbug who is only kept in print by his capacity to capture the passing fancies of impressionable adolescents is neither here nor there to the editors of the Times, who apparently feel entitled to indulge their own impulse to throw an adolescent snit in protest against a nation that appreciates them insufficiently.
Outraged that Newt Gingrich-joined, it seems, by a majority of Americans-takes a rather dim view of "the counterculture," the Times lobs an in-your-face editorial at a nation that dared perpetrate an in-your-face election against the orthodoxies of the Times and its satellite worlds of correctitude. "In Praise of the Counterculture" could be read as the paper's letter of resignation from the world of power and influence outside midtown Manhattan. If the country is going to get uppity with the Times, the editors sniff, the country can just go and find itself another newspaper to tell it what to think. On the other hand, it seems improbable that the Times will really withdraw from "the power and the glory" of directing the affairs of the nation and the world, or at least pretending to. But one never knows.
Anna Quindlen, for one, is not going to put up with it anymore. Writing her farewell column shortly before Christmas, she says, "I leave you with good tidings of great joy: Those who shun the prevailing winds of cynicism and anomie can truly fly." So there goes Ms. Quindlen flying far away from the ugly thing that America has become. But not before she thanks "a newspaper that stands for the very best that newspapers can provide," and offers us some final ponderings on what she called "the great issues of the day." The great issue of her final column is how she could remain such a wonderful person over all these years. "For more than twenty years I've been a reporter, a job that people say is sure to make you cynical and has somehow only left me more idealistic." It is with her, she explains, as it was with Anne Frank who, less than a year away from death in Bergen-Belson, wrote in her diary, "In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." Unlike Anne Frank, Ms. Quindlen is only going off to New Jersey, but the Republicans are in control there, too. She is generous in sharing with us what she has learned: "That is the most important thing I have learned in the newspaper business, that our business is one another." Brushing away a tear, one is comforted by the thought that others are left to carry on in the tradition of Anna Quindlen.
Columnist Frank Rich, for example.
President Clinton dismissed the Surgeon General Joycelin Elders for advocating, or seeming to advocate, the teaching of masturbation skills to the country's sexually challenged youngsters. In response, the Sunday Times of December 18 carried no less than two pieces in praise of masturbation. Frank Rich boldly and imaginatively entitled his article, wouldn't you know it, "The Last Taboo." (Incest was last year.) After the obligatory observations on Dr. Elders being a black and a woman (and we all know what America does to blacks and women), he lauds her for daring to speak "the dreaded M-word." Mr. Rich notes that sophisticated folk such as D. H. Lawrence, Woody Allen, and Philip Roth have given masturbation an honorable place in our high culture. Portnoy's Complaint, there are no doubt those who still remember, was largely about the bathroom fantasies of a boy who had big problems with his father.
Mr. Rich does not claim onanism is the most elevated form of sexual expression. He cites the observation of Mark Twain that "Of all the various kinds of sexual intercourse this has the least to recommend it." Among the problems with masturbation noted by Twain, "It is unsuited to the drawing room." With an entirely straight face, indeed with moral earnestness, Frank Rich continues in that idealistic vein for which Anna Quindlen was so admired by herself: "Perhaps these drawbacks are still troublesome today, but they are nothing next to such alternatives as unwanted babies or disease. That was the only point Joycelyn Elders was trying to make, and precisely because it cost her her job, this time it may finally get through." If we got him right, Mr. Rich finds it troublesome that masturbation is still thought to be unsuited to the drawing room, but if we encouraged a lot more of it there would be fewer unwanted babies and less disease. Dr. Elders said she wanted to educate the American people, and it appears she succeeded with a few, an inordinate number of whom are children of the counterculture working at what used to be called the nation's newspaper of record.
Sources: Alister E. McGrath on the new Catholic Catechism, Christianity Today, December 12, 1994. Luke Timothy Johnson on John Meier's A Marginal Jew in Commonweal, November 18, 1994. On the Rev. Scott Willis, USA Today, November 23, 1994. Ray Scannell on attacks against Clarence Thomas, Chicago Defender, November 30, 1994. Daniel Callahan on research, Hastings Center Report, January-February 1995. Anna Quindlen farewell column, New York Times, December 14, 1994. While We're At It: A. N. Wilson column in the Spectator, November 12, 1994. Martin Marty on commercialization of Christian symbols, Christian Century, November 9, 1994. A. James Reichley address to Christians in Political Science, CPS Newsletter, Fall 1994. George Marsden review of David O'Brien book, Commonweal, November 18, 1994. Statistics on public opinion regarding abortion, National Right to Life News, November 18, 1994. Sunday Visitor name change announced in November 20, 1994 issue. On RE-Imagining conference in Minneapolis, National Christian Reporter, November 11, 1994. Reference to Theology and Sexuality in Touchstone, Fall 1994. Tom Kuntz on capital punishment, New York Times, December 4, 1994. Jesse Jackson quoted on Christian Coalition, Washington Times, December 9, 1994. On telling teenagers about sex, Elle, December 1994. Msgr. Joseph Champlin on money, Catholic Trends, December 17, 1994. On Mariam Bell, Life Insight, December 1994. President's Kwanzaa Message reported in the Washington Post, December 26, 1994. Ralph McInerny on Harold Bloom, Crisis, November 1994. Richard Marius on rationality, Harvard Magazine, November-December 1993.