A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 53 (May 1995): .

This Month:

A Martyr

Fifty years ago, on April 9, a few weeks before the collapse of the Third Reich, and on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shortly before his thirty-ninth birthday, was hanged at the Flossenburg prison camp. As a witness (i.e., martyr) and a theologian, Bonhoeffer has had a powerful and fully warranted influence on contemporary Christian thought. Early on he recognized the demonic in Hitler and his movement of National Socialism. He joined with others in launching a "confessing church" that bore uncompromising testimony to the lordship of Jesus Christ and against the false gods of Blood, Soil, and Volk. Forbidden to teach by the Nazis in 1936, he was lecturing in the U.S. when war broke out in 1939. He refused a teaching post here, believing it his duty to return and suffer with his people so that, when the war was over, he would have earned a right to take part in the rebuilding of his country. He taught in an underground seminary, worked with associates in the intelligence services for the overthrow of Hitler, helped Jews get out of the country, and kept up a steady correspondence with friends on questions spiritual, theological, and ethical. Arrested in 1943, he was imprisoned in Buchenwald before being transferred to the camp where he was killed.

His most accessible and popular book is The Cost of Discipleship. Not to have read it is to be spiritually deprived. Letters and Papers from Prison is the work that has been most discussed in theological circles, and in the 1960s was much invoked (wrongly, I believe) by the "death of God" theologians and those promoting sundry versions of "religionless Christianity." Of the major works, Ethics is the weightiest and richest, and is sadly neglected today. In that book and in The Communion of Saints, Bonhoeffer was remarkably prescient in analyzing the limits of the Reformation and the imperative of reconciliation with the Catholic Church. Had he survived the war, it seems likely that that cause of reconciliation would have been central to his efforts for a renewal of Christianity.

Many years ago I shared a platform with a theologian who suggested that Bonhoeffer's opposition to Nazism was essentially aesthetic; it was the ugliness of the movement that first alerted him to the movement's evil. At the time I thought this a rather improbable hypothesis that ran the risk of diminishing the moral and intellectual dimensions of Bonhoeffer's conviction. But in the intervening years I have come to appreciate-with no little help from studying Hans Urs von Balthasar-the inextricable entanglement of the three transcendentals-the good, the true, and the beautiful. Reflecting on Bonhoeffer in the theological journal dialog, Jean Bethke Elshtain addresses the aesthetic under the rubric of shame:

"One of the reasons Dietrich Bonhoeffer was so repulsed by Nazism was precisely because of its aberrant shamelessness. Nazi ideology dictated erasing any barrier between public and private, between that which should be open to public scrutiny and definition and that which should not. The horrific denouement of an ideology that required breaching the boundary of shame was the shamelessness of death camps where human beings were robbed of dignity, stripped of privacy, deprived, therefore, of an elemental freedom of the body in life and of the respect we accord the bodies of the dead after life is no more. Scenes of starved, naked bodies, piles and piles being shoved by bulldozers into lime pits, is a nigh inexpressible instance of shamelessness, with the dead reduced to anonymous carcasses."

Bonhoeffer understood that the great temptation is to forget that we are not God, that we are creatures living in a world whose fragmentation cannot be overcome by our efforts. Elshtain writes:

"Bonhoeffer insists that we ongoingly give witness to that which torments us-our knowledge of division. He deepens this insistency in the Ethics and ties his argument explicitly to the sin of political or public overcoming that requires a norm of shamelessness in order for it to do its dirty work, dirty no more, or so is the claim, because the ruthless deed-doers know no evil. They have overturned all received values. Humility is servility in their eyes. Recognition of limits, cowardice. Decency, gullibility. Skepticism, treason. Jesus Christ crucified a religion for infants by contrast to the muscular religion of the virile and the shameless. In a world in which all barriers to action and expression have been crushed, we are no longer open to Bonhoeffer's quiet but firm recognition when he writes: 'The peculiar fact that we lower our eyes when a stranger's eye meets our gaze is not a sign of remorse for a fault, but a sign of that shame which, when it knows that it is seen, is reminded of something it lacks, namely, the lost wholeness of life, its own nakedness.'"

In Bonhoeffer's view, the radical-whether Nazi, Marxist, or of some other apocalyptic obsession-always hates the created world. "The radical cannot forgive God His creation. He has fallen out with the created world. . . . It is Christ's gift to the Christian that he should be reconciled with the world as it is, but now this reconciliation is accounted a betrayal and denial of Christ. It is replaced by bitterness, suspicion, and contempt for men and the world." He repeatedly asserts that "our responsibility is not infinite but limited." Each of us is "appointed to the concrete and therefore limited responsibility which knows the world as being created, loved, condemned, and reconciled by God."

Very few thinkers and very few lives have been so formative for this writer as the thought and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In a predecessor publication to this journal called The Religion and Society Report, we ran an extended series under the title "Bonhoeffer Today." We've thought about doing that again, and maybe we will. Meanwhile, amid the many public observances fifty years after the war's end, the remembrance of Bonhoeffer braces us for the war unending against delusions that blind us to both God's judgment and God's grace.

Those Victorians

"When one gives up the Christian faith," said Nietzsche about those "English flatheads," the Victorians, "one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet." G. K. Chesterton put the same complaint more gently but just as seriously: the Victorians, he wrote, were the first people ever to ask their children "to worship the hearth without the altar." In both England and America, Victorian preachers, novelists, poets, and statesmen alike struggled hard to maintain a national ethic of private domesticity and public respectability without the church and chapel in which that ethic was born. The result was all too predictable. The national ethic became identified with the interest of the middle class promoting it; Edwardian artists and intellectuals delighted endlessly in exposing the powerlessness of conventional Victorian virtues; and even the phrase "Victorian virtues" became a synonym for hypocrisy.

Before signing up with the anti-Victorians, however, you must read Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest collection of essays, The De- moralization of Society (Knopf), for an account of just how strong and long-lasting those Victorian virtues were-even in an era of declining faith. From the ascension of Queen Victoria in 1837 to her death in 1901, as Prof. Himmelfarb shows, the crime rate, the poverty rate, and the rate of illegitimate births were not just stable, but actually declining. There really was some reason for the much-mocked Victorian confidence and self-congratulation. "Having written two lengthy books on poverty in Victorian England," Prof. Himmelfarb notes, "I am painfully aware of the difficulties and inequalities in Victorian life . . . class distinctions, social prejudices, abuses of authority, constraints on personal liberty, restrictions and hindrances of all sorts. But I have also learned to be appreciative of those values that helped mitigate the harsh realities of life. . . . It was no small feat for England, in a period of massive social and economic changes, to attain a degree of civility and humaneness that was the envy of the rest of the world."

The key to the strength of Victorian virtues was that those virtues were not, in fact, just middle class but were shared by nearly everyone: from the Queen down to the poorest Cockney, nearly everyone believed in the public good that came from observance of the national ethic. "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue," La Rochefoucauld famously said, and Prof. Himmelfarb points out with obvious pleasure that the fabled Victorian hypocrisy is actually proof of how widely the Victorian virtues were held to be virtues. (She even gives the consummate example of Victorian hypocrisy in a certain Dr. Pritchard, who in 1865, a few months after poisoning his mother-in-law, poisoned his wife one morning and piously set down in his diary that afternoon: "Like a calm peaceful lamb of God, passed Minnie away. May God and Jesus, Holy Gh.-one in three-welcome Minnie. Prayer on prayer till mine be o'er, everlasting love.")

The way the Victorians managed to preserve their national ethic, Prof. Himmelfarb claims, was by constant moralizing. Even the "freethinkers" felt compelled to assert morality all the more strenuously for their denial of God. From the richest to the poorest, "the Victorians were avowedly, unashamedly, incorrigibly, moralists." By comparison, "'It's only my opinion, of course'"-the rider invariably attached to any post- Victorian moralizing-"is hardly a stirring faith by which to order one's private life. Still less is it a creed for public life." Nietzsche was right, of course; without belief in God the public morality must, in the long run, finally collapse into either anarchy or tyranny-and most likely into tyranny following anarchy. But Prof. Himmelfarb does well to remind us just how long that Victorian run was, even if the collapse was not into tyranny or anarchy.

Following shortly after her much acclaimed On Looking Into the Abyss, Prof. Himmelfarb gives us with this book a most useful historical referent by which to evaluate the indicators of cultural decline in our society. But the book offers more than additional confirmation for those of the hell-in-handbasket school of cultural analysis. It invites us to consider the maddening ways in which morality (good) is, in the real world, inextricably entangled with moralism (bad). We must, of course, continue to insist upon the distinction between the two, while quite soberly recognizing that many will think it a distinction without a difference. In pulling up the tares of moralism, they also pull up the wheat of morality. As we have been told on the highest authority, we must tolerate the tares for the sake of the wheat. It is not a very satisfactory conclusion but, as Prof. Himmelfarb has forcefully reminded us in the course of her distinguished career, we live in a not very satisfactory world. With equal persuasiveness, she makes the case that public moral expectations need not be as low as they are in contemporary America. Sophisticates may smirk at the great expectations of the Victorians-and there was no shortage of smirking sophisticates at the time-but the Victorians understood, as most in our culture do not, that there is a necessary connection between being good and pretending to be good. One can, without endorsing hypocrisy, observe that we could do with a lot more tribute to virtue. And, of course, the happy fact is that virtue, too, can pay tribute to virtue, and, in the course of doing so, invite others to act upon their capacity to be virtuous. Living this way may prompt some people to call you Victorian. If that happens, just smile nicely and say thank you.

Nobody Said It Would Be Easy

The ever turbulent waters of evangelicalism continue to be roiled by the declaration "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." (Turbulence, be it understood, is frequently a sign of vitality.) A number of evangelical leaders with very large constituencies sharply criticized the declaration as a betrayal of the central Reformation belief in "justification by faith alone." On January 19, at the initiative of Charles Colson, several evangelicals who have signed ECT met with some of their chief critics at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, which maintains a national television ministry under the leadership of Dr. D. James Kennedy. Out of the meeting came a statement signed by Colson, James Packer of Regent College, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade, and Kent Hill of Eastern Nazarene College, all of whom had signed ECT. Other evangelicals who endorsed ECT are also being asked to sign. The statement reads:

We Protestants who signed ECT took this action to advance Christian fellowship, cooperation, and mutual trust among true Christians in the North American cultural crisis and in the worldwide task of evangelism. The same concern leads us now to elucidate our ECT commitment by stating:
1. Our para-church cooperation with evangelically committed Roman Catholics for the pursuit of agreed objectives does not imply acceptance of Roman Catholic doctrinal distinctives or endorsement of the Roman Catholic church system.
2. We understand the statement that "we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ" in terms of the substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness of Christ, leading to full assurance of eternal salvation; we seek to testify in all circumstances and contexts to this, the historic Protestant understanding of salvation by faith alone (sola fide).
3. While we view all who profess to be Christian-Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox-with charity and hope, our confidence that anyone is truly a brother or sister in Christ depends not only on the content of his or her confession but on our perceiving signs of regeneration in his or her life.
4. Though we reject proselytizing as ECT defines it (that is "sheep stealing" for denominational aggrandizement), we hold that evangelism and church planting are always legitimate, whatever forms of church life are present already.
5. We think that the further theological discussions that ECT promised should begin as soon as possible.
We make these applicatory clarifications of our commitment as supporters of ECT in order to prevent divisive misunderstandings of our beliefs and purposes.
The Ft. Lauderdale statement is to be warmly welcomed. It is a useful clarification that is entirely consistent with what all of us understood the evangelical signers of ECT to believe. Moreover, it helpfully advances the continuing discussion for which ECT explicitly calls. Especially welcome in view of Catholic and evangelical differences on the relationship between justification and sanctification is the affirmation that "our confidence that anyone is truly a brother or sister in Christ depends not only on the content of his or her confession but on our perceiving signs of regeneration in his or her life."

Far from being problematic, it is downright refreshing when theology is taken seriously enough to generate intelligent controversy. Too many statements aimed at furthering Christian unity have about them a "make nice" quality that is positively deadly. ECT was intended to be taken seriously, to be a beginning in overcoming hostilities that have been around for centuries, and to nurture patterns of convergence and cooperation between evangelicals and Catholics. We did not think this would be done easily or without controversy, and we were right. Most of us, if not all of us, who were involved in ECT will not be around to see what difference it finally makes. Put differently, we will, please God, be viewing developments from a happier circumstance where it will not be necessary to issue theological clarifications on who is and who is not a brother or sister in Christ.

Transgressions Against a Harsh Faith

We started with some sympathy for Francis Lawrence, the tangle-tongued president of Rutgers University. Last November, an hour and a half into a rambling luncheon talk to the faculty, Pres. Lawrence damaged Rutgers and nearly destroyed his own career by uttering the pernicious statement that blacks lack the "genetic, hereditary background to have a higher average" on college entrance exams. He didn't mean it, of course; he didn't even think it. His tired tongue just got tangled up in four different (politically correct) propositions, and-Freud's claim that all such slips have unconscious causes aside-he expressed in an unacceptable way his perfectly acceptable thought that standardized tests should not be used to exclude black students. This is a man, after all, who publicly boasts that he refuses to read The Bell Curve because the book is "morally wrong."

Our sympathy declined, however, as we learned from news accounts the extent to which Pres. Lawrence built for others the pyre on which he now burns, the extent to which he has been hoist with his own petard, the extent to which he nursed the pinion that impelled the steel, the extent to which . . . (you get the idea; as they say on the streets: what goes around, comes around). Why, asks John Leo in U.S. News & World Report, is his own constituency so willing to bring him down with protests, disrupted basketball games, and boycotts, when Pres. Lawrence worked so hard to make Rutgers a campus that "bristles with the enforcement tools of diversity: a speech code, real courses replaced by 'multicultural curricular change,' diversity awareness 'training' in lectures and freshman orientation sessions, a tolerance for ethnic and racial segregation in dorms ('a self-affirming environment,' as Lawrence puts it), and professors who learn not to raise unapproved ideas about race, gender, and the campus power system built around multiculturalism"?

One answer appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The luncheon talk was being taped by the faculty not because anyone suspected Pres. Lawrence of racist tendencies, but because he had been fighting with the American Association of University Professors over post-tenure review, and the union members were looking for something to use against him. The only extraordinary thing about the tape, released over two months after the talk, is how long the union took to realize what a weapon it had in its hands.

John Leo, however, seeks a fuller explanation of the startling viciousness with which Pres. Lawrence's own turned on him. "Multiculturalism," he writes, "has evolved into a harsh faith, strong on punishment and eager to monitor isolated phrases for signs of heresy. . . . In the current environment, a single ambiguous phrase or sentence can bring devastating charges of harassment or speech code violation. Much of multiculturalism's energy is devoted to this hunt for stray words and phrases that supposedly reflect horrible hidden biases. But if you train followers to overreact by pouncing on passing phrases, eventually this dubious skill will be turned against leaders. The Lawrence case merely shows that bishops of this church can be excommunicated too, even the good ones who praise every dogma and never read forbidden books."

The New York Times, of course, is having none of it. "Not only was the remark racist," writes columnist Bob Herbert, "it was an expression of the bedrock concept on which the entire edifice of white racism is built." That is probably true, though neither Mr. Herbert nor Pres. Lawrence seems to realize that it is the ugly, racist "bedrock" on which the edifices of their beloved affirmative action and multiculturalism are built as well.

Disingenuity So Obvious

With touching concern for the welfare of the Republican Party, an editorial in the very Democratic New York Times warns that abortion is the issue that "could split the party open" and takes Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition to task for having "overplayed his hand" and endangered the Republicans' electoral chances with his demand for pro-life candidates. The editorial is accompanied by a chart that purports to show that the GOP has a 61 percent pro-abortion majority. It achieves this by adding together every Republican with the least hesitation in asserting that all abortions should be banned outright.

Equating a desire for restrictions on abortions with being pro-abortion marks an interesting editorial shift from the Times we used to know-the Times that used to equate any restriction at all on abortion with sexist backlash and the oppression of women. But times change and wise editorial writers must change with them if they are going to promote the handful of prominent pro-abortion Republicans-Sen. Specter of Pennsylvania (remember the Clarence Thomas hearings when this same Times made "Specter" a synonym for sexual harassment?), Gov. Weld of Massachusetts, Gov. Wilson of California, Gov. Whitman of New Jersey (already the subject of a fawning piece in the New Republic proposing her as a vice-presidential candidate).

The most interesting feature of the disingenuous editorial, however, is not its promotion of unlikely Republicans, but its unstated admission that if the Times is to have any national influence, it must influence the Republican party. If the editorial writers actually believed that the nomination of a pro-life slate of Republicans would split the party and give the Democrats a chance to keep the White House, they would be doing all they could to equate the Republicans with the pro-life position. You know the Democrats are in trouble when even the New York Times abandons hope for them. Politically astute Republicans will read the editorial as confirmation of the fact that the pro-life card is an electoral winner, and that Democrats are worried that Republicans will play it.

Philistines Left and Right

As originally envisioned, the National Endowment for the Arts was supposed to pay for professional, big-city companies to put on an occasional production of Our Town in Fargo, or La Boheme in Tallahassee, or Beethoven's Fifth in Oklahoma City. It was supposed to pay for borrowing some paintings from the Smithsonian and sending them around the country every once in a while, and for Robert Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay to go out for a semester and teach poetry to the heartland. In a rich country with a weak knowledge of art, this was possibly a laudable goal-though perhaps a little too confident of government's power to legislate things like aesthetics and a little too sure of the nineteenth-century dogmas of man as perfectible and art as universal religion.

The NEA failed to reach its goal, however, not just because it was dumb enough to finance the infamous Piss Christ, the anti-Catholic propaganda of homosexual activism, along with Robert Mapplethorpe's sadomasochistic sex photographs, but because it became somehow seized by the wrong-headed notion that art is good only when it sets itself against the political and social status quo. Once this notion had taken hold, the NEA found itself in the ridiculous position of either promoting what it thought was bad art or asking the taxpayers to pay for art that deliberately insulted them. Usually the NEA held its nose and promoted that bad old, bland old, socially acceptable art, but occasionally it broke out and promoted the art of self-congratulatory complaint-and now (as the NEA sees it) the philistine Congress is howling for its blood. Why, asks Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, should Americans "subsidize an assault on their values, religion, or politics"? The NEA answers that we should subsidize it because it is good art that would not exist without government support. But that is obviously false to anyone with a sense of what art is supposed to aim at (Mapplethorpe's photographs are not beautiful, only shocking). The answer reflects the apparent conviction of the NEA that what makes art is that it does assault and shock prevailing American values, religion, and politics. We should subsidize art because it annoys us to subsidize it, and the extent to which we resent a subsidy is exactly the extent to which we know it a work of art to be worthy of subsidy. Good medicine, we learned as children, tastes awful.

This, in our view, is a particularly dim-witted view of art, a view that denies art is about anything other than its political and social effect. But, as the recent debate about "zeroing out" the NEA has revealed, the real crisis of art in the United States is that too many people-on the left and the right-share that view. There is, as Martha Bayles puts it, a "Philistine Consensus" between the detractors and the defenders of the NEA. "It is no longer possible to find a broad-minded, historically informed view of Art. Instead, each side has capitulated-each in its own way-to the philistine notion that art is necessarily about power: that all works of art, including the world's great masterpieces, are best understood as either attacks on the established social order or defenses of it. . . . When right-wing philistines dismiss all art as elitist, they only fortify the left-wing caricature of art as a function of power: class power, race power, gender power."

"Instead of restructuring the way we pay for the arts," Bayles continues, "we need to restructure the way we think about them." She is wrong that we don't need a different way to promote the arts. The NEA is probably too infected with the "art as power" view to be capable or even worthy of reform, and in the present situation of the arts no successor organization would be any better. But she is certainly right that our fundamental problem with the arts-the problem that makes it impossible for the original purpose of the NEA to be fulfilled-comes from forgetting what art is supposed to be about: beauty, truth, and that sort of thing. Great art has an elusive quality that cannot be captured by any social "purpose"-whether that purpose be to soothe or assault. Government is singularly incapable of discerning the elusive.

The Creative Team Plays It Again

The glow of self-satisfaction in "The Arts" section of one of our local papers is particularly pronounced after a generous application of Creme de Sleaze. This morning it's a glowing story by Bill Carter, a Times culture writer, on Barbra Streisand's production of "Serving in Silence." This is another "docudrama"-meaning truth trimmed to the message-and it's about Col. Magarethe Cammermeyer, who was dismissed from the National Guard because she admitted to being a lesbian. When Streisand read about the dismissal in 1992 her indignation was sparked, and she immediately called her producing partner and said, "We have to do something about this. We have to tell this story." She invited Col. Cammermeyer to her mansion in Los Angeles and reports, "When I met her I was totally impressed. She had great dignity and integrity. She is such a handsome woman." Ms. Streisand signed up Glenn Close to play the colonel in the NBC production. The story continues. After meeting the colonel, Ms. Close says, "I was very, very impressed by her." A little short of "totally impressed," but impressive nonetheless.

As a producer, Ms. Streisand reflects a firm sense of duty. "'I care about social issues,' Ms. Streisand said. 'And the way I can speak out is in my work.'" Only the callous could remain untouched. The producers know that some may think the film controversial, but Ms. Streisand explains that it is really about "love and work and family." Mr. Carter agrees: "Indeed, the main focus of the film is on Colonel Cammermeyer's relationship with an artist named Diane, played in the film by Judy Davis." They love one another, they both work, and they make a lovely family, so the film is obviously about love and work and family. The effusion continues: "Both Ms. Streisand and Ms. Close praised Ms. Davis' performance. 'She was sublime to work with,' Ms. Close said. Playing a love story opposite another woman was not hard, she said, because 'I basically think if you fall in love with somebody, the feeling of love is the same.'" Faced with sentiments and writing of that quality, it is hard to deny the educational effectiveness of Oprah and her like as mentors of our popular culture.

Ms. Close's worry was whether she "could get the military bearing because [Cammermeyer] is so tall and I'm so short." Indeed, Col. Cammermeyer has been described as Amazonian, but Ms. Close managed to look military enough in a manner that it used to be safe to describe as more ladylike-and less likely to get in the way of the message. Ms. Streisand says that she is also very, very impressed by "the overwhelming power of television." At a preview of the film in midtown, it was said that the film would be viewed by thirty million Americans and would be a great "education" for the American people on lesbian, gay, and transgender issues. Mr. Carter reports, "Much of the attention that has surrounded 'Serving in Silence' has focused on a scene late in the movie in which Ms. Close tenderly kisses Ms. Davis. Ms. Close said NBC did not raise a single objection to the scene. Still, she said, 'We walked a very fine line. For network television you can only push the envelope so far.'" The frisson of artistic daring takes the breath away.

Maybe in the next production the network will let "the creative team" (that is really what they are called in the little world of television) put in the touching of a breast, and then the touching of a naked breast, and after that who knows what the creative possibilities are? Mr. Carter tells us that Ms. Streisand would like to do other films that "explore some related themes." An example given by Ms. Streisand is "the issue of basic human values." It's about time somebody explored that issue. Ms. Streisand will be doing it in a movie version of Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart. Mr. Kramer is the founder of ACT-UP, a homosexual organization that promotes protest as perpetual obnoxiousness, and the subject of the play is the much neglected question of AIDS. Does this woman's courage have no limits? But that's the kind of thing you can expect from a person who is not afraid to come right out and declare, "I care about social issues." We are, as she might say, totally impressed.

Of course some conservatives, especially those religious right types, will object to the decadence of Ms. Streisand's efforts, and that will only confirm her in the delusion that she is daringly avant garde. And if someone explained to her that he objected not so much to the decadence as to the artistic dreck and moralistic drivel, it is doubtful that she would get it. Dreck and drivel, to judge by the Times, is where it's at in the glowing world of "The Arts."

. . . And Again

The woman is indefatigable. Fresh from her brave and daring production of "Serving in Silence" (see above), Barbra Streisand has now appeared at the JFK School of Government at Harvard to speak on "The Artist as Citizen." Preaching to the zealous choir, Ms. Streisand presented herself as the last liberal: a woman on the side of the angels and George McGovern against the dark forces of Hitler, Stalin, and Newt Gingrich. "I'm proud to be a liberal," she declared, and praised the brave political stance of her own movie, Yentl. Equating censorship with attacks on the funding of artists by the NEA, she warned that Congress is about "to weaken the very foundation of democracy." Finally, she gave us this take on recent American history: "During the riots of the sixties, when people tried to explain the inexplicable, Aretha Franklin sang simply what was being asked for, 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T.'" We remember that song as being a hardworking woman's warning to a philandering husband, but no matter; the political theories of deep- thinking actresses find their natural poetic expression in the lyrics of the golden oldies of sixties' soul music.

The Ugly Face of "Justice"

He received from the French government the Croix de Guerre, is a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, served as a cabinet minister under Pierre Mendes-France and Charles de Gaulle, and was awarded for his bravery in the Resistance against the Nazis. None of that matters. When he was a young man in his early twenties, from 1940 to 1942, Andre Bettencourt wrote anti-Semitic articles for a German-supported paper. Mr. Bettencourt, now seventy-five, does not deny he wrote the articles and says that, when he recognized the error of his ways, he tried to make up for the wrong by joining the French Resistance. "I have repeatedly expressed my regrets concerning them in public and will always beg the Jewish community to forgive me for them," he says. But none of that matters, either.

Because no legal action can be taken against him in France, French Nazi hunters have come to the U.S. to get our Justice Department to punish Bettencourt by prohibiting him from entering the country, much as was done with Kurt Waldheim, erstwhile UN General Secretary and President of Austria. (A prominent industrialist, Bettencourt frequently has business in the U.S.) Pressed on whether it is accurate to describe Bettencourt as a war criminal, Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld stated at a New York news conference, "He's guilty of writing." His colleague Jean Frydman said, "After these terrible findings [of the anti-Semitic articles], we knew we were talking about a Nazi collaborator who is a very powerful man in France. We are going to show him that there is no amnesty for the past."

Leaving aside the question of whether there can be amnesty for anything but the past, this is yet another in a sordid series of instances in which unbridled vindictiveness disguised as a passion for justice has done great wrong. More than fifty years ago a young man in his twenties spouted an evil doctrine. He soon repented of it and lived an exemplary life thereafter. Never mind. "We are going to show him," says Mr. Frydman. "He's guilty of writing," says Mr. Klarsfeld. Perhaps these two, rather than Mr. Bettencourt, should be put on the Justice Department's "watch list" of people to be kept out of the country. Jean Frydman, according to the Times, "said they were pressing their case in the United States because there was no legal mechanism in France for prosecuting Mr. Bettencourt for writing propaganda." The First Amendment notwithstanding, the French enforcers and the Justice Department seem to think there is such a mechanism in the U.S.

The Department's Office of Special Investigations says it is "reviewing the allegations" against Mr. Bettencourt after being pressured by Governor Pataki and Senator D'Amato of New York. This is madness of a high order. At the behest of a couple of fanatical Frenchmen, leading politicians suggest that the government of the U.S. should punish a French citizen for something he did in France fifty-three years ago. In the memorable phrase of Mr. Klarsfeld, "He's guilty of writing." In New York, of all places, one might think such a charge would not be given the time of day. New Yorkers who wrote propaganda for Hitler-of whom there are still some around-or for the genocidal policies of the Soviet Union-of whom there are a great many around-might think of moving to France where, according to Mr. Frydman, there is no legal mechanism for feeding the insatiable appetite for vengeance. In this country, it is to be feared, the Office of Special Investigations has become such a mechanism.

While We're At It