With the enormous attention paid The Bell Curve, the book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray that is inevitably described as "controversial" (or worse), another book appearing about the same time, and addressing some of the same questions, went almost unnoticed. It is a shame, because Thomas Sowell's Race and Culture: A World View (Basic Books) is an invaluable resource in a time such as ours when very basic questions are being asked about the limits of human behavior and the ethics of social policy. Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, is a prolific author and columnist. Race and Culture is not merely another of his always suggestive publications, but a summing up of what he has learned from many years of examining human behavior in cultural contexts as various as Los Angeles, Sri Lanka, and remote islands of the South Pacific. It warrants the subtitle "a worldview" by virtue of both global scope and the range of questions addressed.
Why is it that some groups "succeed" and others don't? Sowell is impatient with intellectual complexifiers of what is meant by success. To succeed, in his view, is to make your way economically, to build a solid material base on which life is stable and pleasant enough to afford the luxury of indulging other interesting concerns, including, if one is so inclined, the question of what it means to succeed. Sowell's argument is that some cultures do and some cultures do not support the values, dispositions, and character traits that, everywhere and always, have produced material success. Backing up the argument with a stunning array of historical illustrations, he shows that hard work, an ability to organize others, a gift for rational thinking, and an eagerness to learn from "superior" cultures are among the characteristics essential to material success.
Sowell is, to say the least, not intimidated by "multiculturalists" who insist that all cultures are equal-or, more frequently, imply that all cultures are equal except their own, which is inferior. He writes: "Plain and obvious as cultural differences in effectiveness in different fields should be, there has developed in recent times a reluctance or a squeamishness about discussing it, and some use the concept of 'cultural relativism' to deny it. After archaeology and anthropology have revealed the cultural achievements of some groups once dismissed as 'primitive,' and especially after the ravages of racism shocked the world when the Nazi death camps were exposed at the end of World War II, there has been an understandable revulsion at the idea of labeling any peoples or cultures 'superior' or 'inferior.' Yet Arabic numerals are not merely different from Roman numerals; they are superior to Roman numerals. Their superiority is evidenced by their worldwide acceptance, even in civilizations that derive from Rome.
"It is hard to imagine the distances encountered in astronomy, or the complexities of advanced mathematics, being expressed in Roman numerals, when even expressing the year of American independence-MDCCLXXVI-takes up more than twice the space required by Arabic numerals, and offers far more opportunities for errors, because a compound Roman numeral either adds or subtracts individual numbers according to their place in the sequence. The Roman numbering system also lacked a zero, a defect of some importance to mathematicians. Numbers systems do not exist in a vacuum or as mere badges of cultural identity. They exist to facilitate mathematical analysis-and some systems facilitate it better than others."
Some things work, and some things don't. And if one culture facilitates the doing of things worth doing better than another culture, hurray for the culture that works, and (sotto voce) too bad for the culture that doesn't. In the real world of Thomas Sowell, inequality is the name of history's game, and we should not let sentimentality about "cultural identity," "roots," and "self-esteem" obscure that fact. Sowell does not view it as a brutal fact, since, all in all, the historical contest between unequal persons and peoples is the stuff of progress. Along the way, there are indeed brutalities, and we have to live with that. About some of the great wrongs of the past, there is very little that we can do, and only great mischief results from trying to redo the consequences of contests past. The following gives the flavor of Sowell's determinedly unsentimental thinking:
"It is difficult to survey the history of racial or ethnic relations without being appalled by the inhumanity, brutality, and viciousness of it all. There is no more humane or moral wish than the wish that this could all be set right somehow. But there are no more futile or dangerous efforts than attempts to redress the wrongs of history. These wrongs are not to be denied. Wrongs in fact constitute a major part of history, in countries around the world. But while the victims of these wrongs may live on forever as symbols, most have long ago died as flesh- and-blood human beings. So have their persecutors, who are as much beyond the reach of our vengeance as the victims are beyond our help. This may be frustrating and galling, but that is no justification for taking out those frustrations on living human beings-or for generating new strife by creating privileges for those who are contemporary reminders of historical guilt.
"After territorial irredentism has led nations to slaughter each other's people over land with virtually no value in itself, merely because it once belonged in a different political jurisdiction at a time before any living person's memory, what is to be expected from instilling the idea of social irredentism, growing out of historical wrongs? What can any society hope to gain by having some babies in that society born into the world with a priori grievances against other babies born into that same society on the same day?
"The biological or cultural continuity of a people does not make guilt inheritable. Nor can the particular economic and social consequences of particular past actions necessarily be isolated or quantified in the lives of contemporaries-not when innumerable other influences have intervened in the meantime. Moreover, no group was a tabula rasa to begin with. Yet a vast literature in many countries confidently attributes intergroup economic 'gaps' or statistical disparities in occupational 'representation' to particular historical evils, often with little or no examination of the specifics of history, or of contemporary demographic, cultural, or other differences. In keeping with this approach, statistical theories of random events are often applied to group differences, not only in intellectual speculation but also in courts of law-as if people were random events, rather than members of groups with pronounced, enduring, and highly disparate cultural patterns."
"What can any society hope to gain by having some babies in that society born into the world with a priori grievances against other babies born into that same society on the same day?" The question is a forceful challenge to schemes of affirmative action, quotas, and other policy devices premised upon "social irredentism." Yet policy might-and most of us would argue that it should-take into account that one baby has severely limited life prospects, while others are greatly favored. One baby's deprivation is not caused by the better fortune of the other babies, and there is therefore no question of its having a grievance against the others, but there is surely an obligation to do what can be done to improve its life chances. This is the other side of Sowell's bracingly realistic critique of efforts to "redress the wrongs of history." It is the side that tends to be neglected in Race and Culture.
This is not to fault Mr. Sowell for lacking that great liberal virtue called compassion, a virtue that no longer covers many sins. But one is mindful of Eliot's observation that "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." The realism of Race and Culture, while offering a convincing description of the world as it really is, shortchanges something that a more comprehensive realism (dare one say a more realistic realism?) takes into account: humanity's unstoppable penchant for challenging what is with what ought to be. Of course that penchant has at times miscarried, producing utopian projects both sentimental and totalitarian, but it is also a part of culture, of moral culture, that is slighted in what is meant by culture in Race and Culture.
Nonetheless, this is a book to be read and read carefully. It is packed with information and analysis in support of positions incorrect and unfashionable. Thomas Sowell is a great believer in Dr. Johnson's maxim, "Clear your mind of cant." He is also a bit of a contrarian, which is perhaps understandable in one who has for years been berated by establishmentarian writers, both black and white, as a traitor to his race. "Sowell lacks soul," as one critic so very cleverly puts it. The truth is that Thomas Sowell looks unblinkingly at some unbending, and often unpleasant, facts about the world, and he would not serve us better if his eyes teared up more often; that would only blur his vision, and ours. Race and Culture puts one in mind of Edward Banfield's The Unheavenly City (1968), and that is intended as high praise. Both authors argue forcefully that our political culture has overdosed on the cant of compassion and equality. Both rub the reader's nose in powerful evidence that some social problems may be intractable. In some instances, it may be that the best we can do is not make them worse. There is much to be said that thinkers such as Sowell and Banfield do not say. But people who want to be taken seriously on the subject of changing the world for the better are well advised to attend closely to what they do say.
The still new (and maybe the last) president of the Public Broadcasting Service, Ervin Duggan, spoke at the fall convocation of his alma mater, the distinguished Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. He underscored the irreplaceable importance of competence, courage, and commitment. The following is under the rubric of commitment: "When I was at Davidson in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this institution was already beginning its flight from what we believed to be the pinching, limiting strictures of its Calvinist past. Most of us as students, and many bright, promising faculty members, believed that the old churchy ways of Davidson-its remaining ties to its Presbyterian heritage, its quaint belief that religious faith could be a path to Truth-were not only anachronistic, but also incompatible with free inquiry.
"We wanted Davidson to shed its parochialism, its starchy, teetotaling Calvinism. We couldn't wait for Davidson to free itself from the embarrassing, suffocating embrace of its church relationship; to liberate itself from the antiquated notion that Truth could be validly interpreted through a lens called Faith. We wanted Davidson to be a national institution; to hold its head up in the secular and pluralistic world of true higher education, not kneel with bowed head, mumbling by rote the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
"It was only years later that I came to understand that I had been wrong, dead wrong, about pluralism. Pluralism does not mean becoming like everybody else. Pluralism is about differences; pluralism is about robust assertions of one's distinctive background and beliefs. Genuine pluralism does not ask people, or institutions, to suppress their individuality or their convictions so that they blend invisibly into the whole; rather, it encourages a rich mix of individualities. The old Calvinist Davidson, however much I might have deplored it, was making a genuine contribution to pluralism by insisting on being different; by refusing to be all things to all people.
"It was years later before I understood that Davidson, by asserting the authenticity of religious Truth-of Christian Truth-was asserting something profoundly important: the validity of a religious way of knowing. Davidson College did not reject the scientific way of knowing and interpreting the material world; that is how Davidson turned out future physicians and scientists. Davidson accepted, as well, the validity of an aesthetic way of knowing; that is why it built fine arts buildings and encouraged oboists to practice, out under the trees. But Davidson also asserted the validity, alongside these other valid ways of knowing, of a religious way of knowing: a way to Truth that leads along a lighted path called Faith.
"Only years after leaving this place did I realize that the religious tradition honored by those starchy old Calvinists was what brought into being many of the things I cherished most. The teaching that all persons are created in the image of God, for example: that religious idea gives the only transcendent depth and meaning to our notions of human rights, of human beings as sacred. The ancient doctrine of Original Sin, for example: it led James Madison and John Adams to insist upon limitations on power, upon a system of checks and balances. The Judeo-Christian idea of covenantal laws and relationships, for example: this led, in time, to modern democratic constitutions and Bills of Rights. Indeed, our modern ideas of tolerance and pluralism owe much to great assertions of human universality like that of St. Paul: 'I am persuaded that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek. . . .'
"It was years before I realized that this valid religious way of knowing-a way of knowing which gave us the Sistine Madonna of Raphael, the Divine Comedy of Dante, and the St. Matthew Passion of Bach-was not an embarrassing artifact of small-minded Calvinists. No, it was instead a kind of glory: a glory worth defending and cherishing; a glory, yes, worthy of handing down from generation to generation."
The New Revised Standard Version, the New New Revised Standard Version, The New Revised American Version, and on and on. It started five decades ago, and it seems, as the Preacher might have said, "Of the multiplication of Bible translations there is no end." Of course the publishing houses make a lot of money from this, and there are Bible translation committees and individual Bible translators who might otherwise have nothing to do with their time. But what purpose is served? Among others, the unholy purpose of destroying a common biblical vocabulary. It's a Catholic problem as much as a Protestant one. The missalettes used in most parishes (missalettes for Christianettes?) even have different translations for the same passages used in the same Mass. (For instance, psalm antiphons frequently differ from the same passage in the psalm itself.) Most Christians under thirty no longer have in common a reservoir of biblical texts recognized by all, and are likely unable to recognize the biblical allusions woven throughout our English literary history. In addition, with few exceptions, the new translations represent a dismal declension from any understanding of elevated, even attractive, language. Way on back in the 1950s when J. B. Phillips was publishing parts of the New Testament in everyday language, it was exciting stuff, precisely because we had a standard translation with which to compare it. Now all most folk have is a cacophony of everyday languages descending into ever deeper everydayness.
You know we wouldn't bring the problem up unless we had a solution. The solution is simple: For all public purposes, liturgical and catechetical, only the Revised Standard Version may be used. Now if only we could find some authority that could effectively implement such a rule. Alas, the Bible translators you have always with you, and, to make matters worse, they are now in cahoots with sundry ideologues who are eager to put feminist, liberationist, or other spins on the text. Where will it all end up? Christopher Seitz, professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, has sent us a sampling of what he thinks the future might have in store for us. This is an excerpt from the Perfectly Revised Version (PRV):
1.Bereshith adam. In the beginning, Humankind. Humankind reflected on itself and saw that humankind was very good, neither male nor female. Humankind rested after reflecting.
2.Humankind spoke and marvelled on the word, which showed perfectly what humankind felt. The word did not last forever, and humankind reflected on time. Bereshith now meant something, though beginning and ending were abstractions. All time was one, as adam was one. "Day" two.
3.Seeing the power of the word to be other but to include all, humankind divided itself into two creatures, "she" and "he," "male" and "female." These two joined themselves on occasion back into the original one, and new life came forth, of one type or the other. And all three saw that they were good, diverse yet the same. "Day" three.
4.And humankind said, let us make God in our image, in the likeness of our threeness we will make God. Sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes Godself, always our creation. And God was formed by the word. And humankind saw Godself. While not "very good," Godself was "good." "Day" four.
5.And humankind saw the world that had always been, with stars, and sun, and day and night, and animals, and plants, and now also with God, and humankind said, We shall launch forth and explore. And laws were formed so that all would be equitably shared. The God they had made was put in charge of these laws, so that if they were broken, Godself would be judge. And humankind saw that this arrangement was good. "Day" five.
6.Humankind was very fruitful and multiplied and covered the earth. When laws were broken through inequitable sharing, God's justice was called into question. God sent Godself to rectify the sharing, even to the extent of becoming adam through perfect obedience. But it was one against many, and the many knew God was not adam, but the work of humankind's own hands. "Day" six.
7.And humankind said, We are sorry we made God. A void is felt among us. So God was taken back into humankind from whence God came. And humankind set about to perfect the system of laws, so that humankind could remain very good and enjoy life forever and ever. And this just striving was the word and the word was with humankind and the word was humankind. And the word became the Perfectly Revised Version, which you are hearing this day. And humankind rested from all humankind's labors.
Christian thinkers who propose correspondences between Christian morality and democratic capitalism are frequently challenged by others who contend that biblical ethics requires a "radical alternative" to the market economy. More often than not the challenge is from the left, but things are not always so simple. For instance, among Catholic challengers are many who are much taken with the ideal of "distributism" espoused by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Distributism is favored by, among others, the New Oxford Review, which prompted James K. Fitzpatrick to a response in that magazine's letters column: "Whenever I read Chesterton and Belloc, the imagery captures my imagination: small villages, self-employed craftsmen, religious schools, social life revolving around the local parsonage, evenings with a pint of ale in a cheery pub. And then I come back to earth. The goal of distributists is to use the state to limit unjust concentrations of wealth; their objective is to use the law to set the framework for a less materialist society, one where home and hearth and family count for more than the lounge-lizard life of the [Donald] Trumps and certain stock market gurus. Well, it sounds great, but, who is going to be in charge of all this social engineering? Who is going to define what it means to be 'excessively' materialist?"
Fitzpatrick recounts a conversation with a monsignor who advocated a system that would assure a "living wage" that enables a man to support his family "in dignity." When this monsignor of a suburban parish got to listing the things required for dignity (good house, reliable car, college education for the kids, retirement savings, and so forth), it added up to an income of well over $100,000 per year, pretty much what his parishioners were working for in this despised "capitalistic system." Fitzpatrick concludes: "Chesterton and Belloc remain favorites of mine. They are writers of great importance, as are the Southern Agrarians in our country who viewed society from a similar perspective. But what they offer on these issues is closer to verse than prose. Their essays provide an antidote to the preoccupation with money that can overtake us in capitalist societies. They provide perspective on what monied interests can do to the political process. All of that is to be commended, without reservation. But after that? From where I sit, there simply are no position papers for the candidates for public office to be found in their pages."
Of course our society is riddled with dreadful problems, but it is a sloppy and widespread habit of mind that blames the failings of this or any other social order on "capitalism." Some problems can be ameliorated by political or economic changes, although every proposal for change is afflicted by the law of unintended consequences. Today it would seem that there are no alternatives to the market economy. Nor, if we have a thoughtful appreciation of the productive benefits and the virtues attending the market economy, need we be urgently seeking alternatives. What we should be seeking is not an alternative to capitalism but better ways to include everybody in the benefits and virtues of what the encyclical Centesimus Annus calls "the circle of productivity and exchange." Even when that is done better than it is now, however, there will still be dreadful problems that are endemic to the human condition.
The beginning of wisdom about politics includes agreement with Dr. Johnson: "How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure./Still to ourselves in every place consign'd,/Our own felicity we make or find." The wisdom applies equally to fiddling with economic systems or fantasies. Actually, while politics and economics can do little to cure human misery, they can do a great deal to cause it. As witness the doleful history of those societies that have been mobilized to establish "radical alternatives" to freedom.
Once again the irresistible penchant to be fair gets the better of us. The proponents of distributism would understandably cry foul if we left the description of that ideal to someone who thinks it is but fetching poesy. So here is Dermot Quinn, Professor of History at Seton Hall University, on "Distributism, Democratic Capitalism, and the New World Order." It appears in a special issue of the Chesterton Review that contains a number of papers given at a conference in Croatia in which American and English Catholics cautioned formerly Communist societies against adopting the model of democratic capitalism allegedly espoused by certain American neoconservatives.
No one, writes Professor Quinn, has described the distributist ideal "with greater wit or lucidity" than Chesterton himself. Here is himself's description of what he wanted: "The truth is this; and it is extremely, even excruciatingly simple. Either Private Property is good for Man or it is bad for Man. If it is bad, let us all immediately become honest and courageous Communists. . . . But if it is good for Man it is good for Everyman. There is a case for Capitalism; a case for Landlordism; a case for complete Despotism; . . . there are arguments for Trusts, for Squires, for big employers. But they are all arguments against Private Property. They are all more or less philosophical reasons why a man, as such, should not be an owner, as such; why the tenant should not own his house; why the workman should not own his workshop; why the farmer should not own his farm. The moment Private Property becomes a privilege, it ceases to be private property. . . . But [distributists] are not ashamed of private property; for we would give it to everyone."
Quinn defends distributism against the charge that it is a form of cultural fetishism and nostalgia. "According to critics, distributism was compounded of nostalgia and a sort of sancta simplicitas. It attached undue moral significance to objects or styles. It was inverted snobbery. It was a creed of cranks. There is an element of truth here: some distributists were faddists, pure and simple. What of it? The criticism misses the point. Distributism was radical, but not egregious. The standard complaint-it was rural, backward, poujadiste-is caricature. In fact, it was not anti-industrial or opposed to machines. Rather, it had more to say about ownership itself than about any particular form of economic activity. 'Even while we remain industrial,' Chesterton remarked, 'we can work towards industrial distribution and away from industrial monopoly. . . . Even while we are the workshop of the world, we can try to own our tools.' Here was no machine-wrecking, no horrified flight to the land. Monopoly more than industrialism was the target. Indeed, because distributists celebrated variety and heterogeneity, they did not envision a world entirely of small farmers or shopkeepers. The absurdity of 'mathematically equal sub-division of property or the imposition from above of universal one-man independence' held no charm. Self-sufficiency-call it economic freedom-was the goal. The form of that freedom was a matter of choice."
Against the ravages of consumerist capitalism, Quinn posits his vision of a better world. "Distributism offers more coherent discernment: a regime of small ownerships and local attachments, a creed of property but not possessiveness. Central to it is a nation of life in community, whether in the town or the family farm or the parish or the religious order: human organizations with a soul. The rootlessness of city or suburb, however affluent, holds no appeal. And it is precisely modest proprietorship which permits individual independence while preserving social responsibility. Owning one's own land, one's shop; practicing a trade or a skill; sharing profit or loss with one's fellow workers: these were the distributist ideals." Professor Quinn concludes with this: "'Our business is business,' claimed [Calvin] Coolidge. 'What,' he seems to demand of the distributist, 'is yours?' Quietly, and with no great claim to originality, the distributist answers: 'Our business is the business of life itself.'" Quietly, and with no claim at all to originality (for Mr. Fitzpatrick and many others have asked it before), one asks, And what policies or platform do you propose to advance that worthy end?
The conclusion, no matter how fair one strives to be, is that distributism is poetry and preachment. It is in some respects necessary poetry and preachment, for in a sinful world people need always to be recalled to community, to self-reliance, to neighborliness, and all that constitutes what Russell Kirk called "the permanent things." But until the distributist "ideal" engages the structures and practices of the world of economics daily chronicled by, say, the Wall Street Journal, it cannot help but seem vacuous and naive. It seems particularly imprudent for Catholic intellectuals to tie the Church's social teaching to the shadow of an economic idea that, in the view of some thoughtful people, once held out hope for a "third way" beyond capitalism and socialism. With the end of socialism, dreams of a third way are irrelevant. As John Paul II makes explicitly clear in section 42 of Centesimus Annus, the choice today is between acceptable and unacceptable forms of capitalism.
Another contributor to the special issue of the Chesterton Review, David Schindler, says he resents the charge that his alternative to capitalism is "unrealistic." Christians who honor the martyrs, he writes, do not have "success" as their goal, and he is certainly right about that. Christian martyrs, however, are prepared to die for Christ, not for a dispute over an economic theory that is now chiefly of antiquarian interest. Anyway, nobody to date seems to have suffered much as a consequence of attacking the neoconservative proponents of democratic capitalism-unless one counts lost credibility and poetry diminished by self-dramatization. Chesterton, to his great credit, took himself ever so much less seriously. Which is one reason why he will be celebrated long after everybody has forgotten the wan attempt by some of his devoted disciples to rescue his unfortunate foray into economic theorizing from the past to which it belongs. Were he around today, one expects he might-with his accustomed wit and lucidity, and, above all, charity-try to dissuade his disciples from persisting in that attempt.
When Nations Die is a book by Jim Nelson Black that is just out from Tyndale. The subtitle is America on the Brink: Ten Warning Signs of a Culture in Crisis, so you can sense right off that the author is not the bearer of unqualifiedly good news. He concludes with a testimony by Chief Justice Earl Warren at a Washington prayer breakfast in 1954. Warren said: "I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. . . . Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia . . . or to the Charter of New England . . . or to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay . . . or to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut . . . the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles. . . . I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the people. . . . I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country."
That got us to thinking about an acquaintance, not an unsophisticated fellow, who sums up his conservatism in one simple command, "Back to the Fifties!" For a number of reasons we find that formulation unpersuasive, not least because of the shoddy mix of religion and Americanism so common to that era. Admittedly, it may be too much to expect politicians and jurists to be theologically literate, but the sentimental and smug conflation of Christianity and the American Way got way out of hand back then. For everything there is a season. Forty-plus years later, some may think that talk about "a Christian land governed by Christian principles" sounds pretty good compared with the anti-American and anti- Christian rhetoric that has gained ascendancy since the countercultural assault of the sixties. But, at the risk of repeating ourselves, the choice is not between a sacred public square and a naked public square. The goal is a civil public square in which the convictions, including the religiously grounded convictions, of a democratic people are engaged in deliberating how we ought to order our life together. In a nation "under God"-which means, first of all, under judgment-that deliberation is conducted in the awareness that we must never presume that "we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion" or that because of our righteousness "no great harm can come to our country." Then of course there is the fact that Chief Justice Earl Warren, together with other justices, declared it an unconstitutional establishment of religion for the public schools to teach children what he in 1954 declared to be the foundational truths of the republic. Warren and his brethren said, in effect, that no one can read what he says is the history of our country, at least in the public school, without violating the Constitution. From such incoherence, great harm has in fact come to our country.
Focus on the Family is but the largest of dozens of national Christian organizations that have relocated in Colorado Springs. Marc Cooper, who styles himself a radical reporter, has some cautionary words for the readers of the very leftward Nation magazine: "But over the last handful of years, Colorado Springs has become the new capital and staging ground for America's Christian Right. More than seventy evangelical and para-church groups-ranging from small oddities like the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys to midsize operations like Every Home For Christ to the mammoth multinational of conservative Christian activism, Focus on the Family-have been lured to set up their headquarters here. The concentration of all these groups with their 2,500 employees plus family members has given the Christian right enormous influence in Colorado Springs, and has consequently endowed the city with disproportionate clout with the national Christian conservative movement. No wonder Focus on the Family leader Dr. James Dobson declared Colorado Springs to be the 'Gettysburg' of America's culture war. What's happening in Colorado Springs is more complicated and more portentous then just a freakish case of a small minority coalescing in a political critical mass. For too long now the secular left has mistakenly written off Christian conservatives as a radical fringe skilled in stealth politics who, when exposed to the light of scrutiny, shrivel and dissipate. I would argue, especially in the wake of the November 8 vote, that as nary a populist can now be found on the left (save Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson), as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s yearning for the 'beloved community' has been supplanted by liberals calling for boot camps and public executions, and as the Democrats in general deteriorate into the Republicans' caricature of a party of lobbyists and lawyers in tasseled loafers, it is the Christian right that has best taken up the challenge to fill the growing emptiness in American life, to soothe the fears and uncertainties provoked by the global market, the darling of both parties. I am not suggesting that the radical right is any less radical or right than progressives have always claimed. I'm merely arguing that in the desert landscape of American politics, the radical right position is increasingly becoming less extremist and more mainstream. Its success in Colorado Springs is particularly worrisome because this is a city of the future, not the past. With plentiful high-tech, nonunion jobs, 'good schools,' and a relatively low crime rate, Colorado Springs is exactly the sort of midsize, semi-rural city that tops the relocation list of millions of disaffected blue- and white-collar workers eager to flee their decaying big cities or suburbs and start a new life."
A local fundamentalist pastor, Pastor Jim, with whom Cooper talks, is overwhelmed by the growth of his own church and almost everything else in Colorado Springs that does business under the banner of Bible- believing Christianity. "God himself," says the pastor, "has raised Colorado Springs to be a strategic center for our nation. . . . Colorado Springs is America's spiritual NORAD. By the year 2000 this chapel could be one of the ten most influential churches in the country." Cooper concludes his not unsympathetic account with, "It would be silly to bet against Pastor Jim."
The words and mannerisms of the religiously fervent tend to seem fevered in the cold print of a magazine article, and it is all too easy to parody the hype that attends much evangelical entrepreneurship. Mr. Cooper does not take unfair advantage. Everything about Colorado Springs, not only its religiousness, is a reproach to the readers of the Nation in their "decaying big cities or suburbs." Those who live in this decaying big city-on the Upper West Side, Chelsea, and the Village-tell themselves that Colorado Springs represents everything that they came to New York to escape from. As a nearly incorrigible New York chauvinist, this writer is not untouched by that bias. In reality, however, Colorado Springs and other places to which "disaffected" Americans are fleeing to "start a new life" are not what we escaped from. They are something new. For some of us, they are nice places to visit, briefly. We have friends and colleagues there. But we wouldn't want to live there.
As historians have pointed out, great spiritual revivals of the past have mainly been urban phenomena. Can national spiritual renewal come from gated cities of refuge, connected to the rest of the world chiefly by fiber optics and satellite dishes? Once in the American story, the big city was the future; now it seems increasingly consigned to the past. Once it was the road to success; now it is the holding pen for society's losers. That's a bleak picture, and we should not accept it too readily. For millions of Americans, especially immigrants, the city is still the arena of seemingly unlimited possibility and promise. They, too, are very much part of the American future. There is nothing wrong with Colorado Springs as a high-tech center of communications and mass mailing, but the entrepreneurs of spiritual renewal must, if there is to be something like a national renewal, engage the decaying worlds that they fled. If they do not, the result is not a great awakening but a nation of people, from the Upper West Side to Colorado Springs, congratulating themselves on having escaped from one another.
An acquaintance with the conceits of times past can provide a measure of immunization against the conceits of our own time. The following is from the preface to the 1838 reprinting of the Coverdale Bible, first published in 1535. The author reflects with unqualified satisfaction on the happy history "to which we gratefully ascribe the establishment of our present national religion." (Meaning the Church of England.) "Accustomed in the present day to the highest degree of civil and religious liberty that man perhaps can ever expect to enjoy, free to express our opinions without the terrors of the stake or the tortures of the rack to awe us into silence, or force us into dissimulation, it is with a mixture of curiosity and indignant surprise that we cast back our glance over a space of centuries, and see our ancestors struggling in all the mazes of ignorance and the labyrinths of superstition, alike passive under the mental tyranny of their monkish rulers and the bodily servitude of their despotic Lords. But every thing in this world changes, and excessive tyranny only more effectually prepares the way for perfect freedom. The minds of men in some degree induced to reason by the measures of Henry the Eighth were no longer to be blinded by false pretenses or intimidated by impotent threats, and the commencement of the Reformation dawned steadily and beautifully through the mists of papistic craft that the mental sloth of ages had permitted to accumulate. It is difficult for us to imagine the despotic control at that time exercised over the whole faculties, whether physical or mental, of our ancestors, and it requires some effort to picture to ourselves the revivifying effect that must have attended the spreading of the reformed doctrines. Men, who had seldom exerted their reasoning powers, were at once invited to discuss theological difficulties, and to solve the deepest mysteries of religion: and as by the reformed tenets every matter was open for discussion, there were few bounds set to inquiry; but various tenets and various opinions were as quickly spread, as eagerly adopted. The light that thus broke through the mental darkness of the reign of Henry the Eighth, fed as it was by the Holy Word of God, burnt purely and steadily; and although adverse winds and hostile gusts shook its flame for a time during the reign of Mary, they could not extinguish it, but left it to throw its calm and heavenly rays on our own and future ages." It would perhaps be unkind to mention that all the elements are there for the making of what the national religion would become a century and a half later, so we won't mention it.
While We're At It: "Judeo-Christian Sexual Ethics Through the Ages" in San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 1994. Daniel Callahan letter on physician-assisted suicide, New England Journal of Medicine, December 15, 1994. John P. Burgess on scholarship, Key Reporter, Autumn 1994. Gregory C. Sisk on Supreme Court rule, Rutgers Law Review, Summer 1994. On "the rights of women to choose childbearing," Reflections, Summer-Fall 1994. Pastor's ad in New York Times classified, January 15, 1995. On British Labor Party, Tablet, January 14, 1995. Andrew Linzey on animal rights, Tablet, January 14, 1995. Richard McBrien review of What Is Catholicism? in Tablet, January 7, 1995. Anne Roiphe on the current liberal mood, New York Observer, January 23, 1995. Jeremy Rabkin on the proposed school prayer amendment, American Spectator, February 1995.