A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 58 (December 1995): 65-76.

This Month:

The Uses of Envy

There is no end to efforts to define what makes a book a classic. Inevitably, there is a strongly subjective element here. A book that one engages at a formative stage of his thinking may not be the greatest book on the subject, but it is the book that forever shapes one's thinking about that subject. Numerous other books and articles appear on the same subject, some of them very good, but they immediately call to mind, and are overshadowed by, that earlier work that one begins to call a classic. At least that has been my experience.

A case in point is Helmut Schoeck's Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior (1969). In this instance, the experience is shared by many others who deem this study a classic. Schoeck, then a professor of sociology at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, provides a fascinating account of the myriad ways in which thinkers have through the years devised elaborate theories of equality that frequently disguise the passion that motors such theories, namely, the vice of envy. From Roman and medieval "sumptuary laws" to this century's socialist schemes for the redistribution of wealth and the abolition of private property, envy has been a powerful but little acknowledged force in political and economic thought.

Schoeck once more comes to mind because of what appears to be a growing number of articles these days lamenting what we are told is an alarming concentration of wealth of America. Particularly in religious circles, this development is routinely condemned as unjust, obscene, and so forth. Such concentration, it is asserted (also by some of our readers), demonstrates once again the morally intolerable circumstance in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and so forth. Such rhetoric is employed to barely concealed partisan purposes, aiming to demonstrate that periods of economic growth and perceived prosperity only exacerbate the injustice of the rich getting richer, and so forth.

Except for ideologues on the marginal left, writers today are hesitant to advocate the more nakedly socialist proposals for creating a more egalitarian, i.e., more "just," distribution of wealth. The more common proposal is that dramatic inequalities of wealth pose the danger of generating socially destabilizing resentments of inherited class privilege. Now in fact, and much to the distress of economic egalitarians, the American people have proven themselves to be stubbornly unresentful of the rich. In the view of many, this is a chief reason why more candidly socialist proposals have never gained much of a popular constituency in this country, in sharp contrast to, for example, developed societies in Europe. Americans, rightly or wrongly, have this idea that the future is open and the rich of today represent the success that they or their children may achieve tomorrow. In addition, and equally frustrating to the practitioners of the politics of resentment, study after study suggests that most Americans do not think wealth is anywhere near being the main measure of a successful life. Although he does not make a point of it, Schoeck's analysis of the politics of envy highlights yet another dimension of what is commonly called American exceptionalism.

This is written upon my return from our fourth annual seminar in Poland on Christian teaching regarding the free and virtuous society. (We call it the Centesimus Annus Seminar, referring to the 1991 encyclical on these questions.) The students from Central and Eastern Europe, while recognizing that the virtues (as well as the vices) of the free economy are beginning to take hold in their countries, are almost unanimous in saying that people who are getting rich are thought to be crooks. One reason for that is that many of them are crooks, especially former Communist officials who use their connections to turn state-owned enterprises and regulatory powers into private wealth, with the help of economic mafias that are not restrained by the legal and cultural systems essential to a genuinely free economy. Too often in these countries, property is, as a matter of simple fact, theft. Perhaps it takes several generations of experience in which people are seen to be producing and accumulating wealth in a morally legitimate manner in order to build up a social immunity to the politics of envy and resentment. We can only hope that the formerly Communist societies are given time for that.

Fifteen Minute Aristocrats

American exceptionalism does not necessarily betoken our moral superiority as a people. Numerous circumstances conspired to create our relative freedom from the politics of economic envy, not least among them being the absence of an established aristocracy of inherited wealth. Our aristocracies of "the rich and famous" have more to do with the celebritydom of Andy Warhol's famous fifteen minutes than with great families of inherited privilege. There are, of course, the Rockefellers, DuPonts, and Kennedys, but in terms of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, they are put in the shade by the Wall Street artists of junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, and other devices that reward individuals with annual incomes of many millions.

For such people money is typically not for extravagant spending nor for establishing dynasties but mainly a way of keeping score in the games of economic combat. And, no doubt with some exceptions, the millions of Americans who follow their goings-on in the celebrity magazines resent them no more than they resent athletes with multimillion-dollar contracts. Which is not to say that there are not a substantial number of Americans who are ideologically tutored in the vice of envy, embracing it as a virtue when it is dressed up as commitment to equality. Once again we are hearing calls for higher taxes on inheritances to prevent a widening of class divisions. Such calls are up against the current political enthusiasm for tax cutting, and so are not likely to be enacted, but they fuel the morally satisfying feelings of those given to a high state of indignation at the supposed injustice of the system.

As it happens, inheritance plays a very small role in the distribution of wealth. For instance, a new study released by Rand, a research group based in Santa Monica, California, indicates that the main determinants of wealth are health, marital status, and income. "More than 90 percent of current wealth inequalities have nothing to do with financial inheritances," says the study, based on research done in cooperation with economists at the University of Michigan. Actually it is much more than 90 percent, since, according to Robert D. Reischauer of the Brookings Institution, inherited wealth is a major factor for perhaps less than 1 percent of the population, a sector so small that it is hard to generalize about the people in it. For the top 5 percent of households with someone fifty-one to sixty years old, assets total $843,598. Take away inheritances, and the figure is $780,641, not much of a difference.

Health is a big factor, for the obvious reason that healthy people can work longer and have lower medical bills. More interesting is the marriage factor. Married respondents had four times the median assets of divorced respondents. Is it because married people tend to accumulate wealth, or because savers tend to be married? Nobody knows, but it appears that the old song about love and marriage applies also to wealth and marriage-they go together like horse and carriage.

And so to the indignant reader who is outraged by economic inequalities, no, I can't work up much interest in hiking taxes on inheritances. I am simply not offended by the report that Ross Perot, for example, has assets of $2.5 billion. Presumably he's not stuffing it in a mattress but has it invested where it is, in the language of Centesimus Annus, expanding the circle of productivity and exchange. Studies tell us that if we had a one-time redistribution of all the wealth in America in an absolutely equal manner, the result would be about $20,000 for every man, woman, and child. It's the kind of thing that could only be done once, and would deprive economic egalitarians of a "social justice" agenda for next year.

If I sound insouciant about economic inequality, it's not because of ideological enthusiasm for capitalism but because I believe with Dr. Johnson that a man is seldom so innocently employed as in the making of money. It should be strongly encouraged among the poor, a suggestion that only offends those who assume that the poor are humanly incompetent, or who despise the lowly beginnings of making money by, for instance, holding a steady job. To be sure, it's not all innocence. We are told that it's near impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, and we must be concerned for the souls of the very rich-and for the souls of the slothful, the indignantly judgmental, and the envious. And for our own souls, of course. Prompted by the current discussion of economic inequality, and by letters from readers who are worried about our neglect of the subject, I revisited Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. It's status as a classic again seems secure. It is highly recommended Schoeck therapy, so to speak, for those who confuse envy and resentment with a passion for justice.

The Triumph of Imagology

Milan Kundera has served up some delightful, and sometimes d isturbing, entertainments, such as The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Born in what was Czechoslovakia, and now living in France, Kundera relentlessly and often hilariously exposed "the lie" of Communism and proposed the alternative of what Vaclav Havel called "living in truth." Kundera's more recent Immortality is less a novel than a collage of cultural and philosophical commentary strung out on the bare bones of a story. But it has marvelous moments more than worth the reading. He notes, for instance, the triumph of "imagology" over ideology. Toward the end, he says, it was obvious that Marxism was no longer a logical system of ideas, "but only a series of suggestive images and slogans (a smiling worker with a hammer; black, white, and yellow men fraternally holding hands; the dove of peace rising to the sky; and so on and so on)." Not only with Marxism but much more generally, we were witnessing a "planetary transformation of ideology into imagology," and he suspects that there is no turning back.

"Of course, imagologues existed long before they created the powerful institutions we know today. Even Hitler had his personal imagologue, who used to stand in front of him and patiently demonstrate the gestures to be made during speeches so as to fascinate the crowds. But if that imagologue, in an interview with the press, had amused the Germans by describing Hitler as incapable of moving his hands, he would not have survived his indiscretion by more than a few hours. Nowadays, however, the imagologue not only does not try to hide his activity, but often even speaks for his politician clients, explains to the public what he taught them to do or not to do, how he told them to behave, what formula they are likely to use, and what tie they are likely to wear. We needn't be surprised by this self-confidence: in the last few decades, imagology has gained a historic victory over ideology."

The triumph of imagology is a kind of "virtual reality" that has displaced reality. "All ideologies have been defeated: in the end their dogmas were unmasked as illusions and people stopped taking them seriously. For example, Communists used to believe that in the course of capitalist development the proletariat would gradually grow poorer and poorer, but when it finally became clear that all over Europe workers were driving to work in their own cars, they felt like shouting that reality was deceiving them. Reality was stronger than ideology. And it is in this sense that imagology surpassed it: imagology is stronger than reality, which has anyway long ceased to be what it was for my grandmother, who lived in a Moravian village and still knew everything through her own experience: how bread is baked, how a house is built, how a pig is slaughtered and the meat smoked, what quilts are made of, what the priest and the schoolteacher think about the world; she met the whole village every day and knew how many murders were committed in the country over the last ten years; she had, so to speak, personal control over reality, and nobody could fool her by maintaining that Moravian agriculture was thriving when people at home had nothing to eat. My Paris neighbor spends his time in an office, where he sits for eight hours facing an office colleague, then he sits in his car and drives home, turns on the TV, and when the announcer informs him that in the latest public opinion poll the majority of Frenchmen voted their country the safest in Europe (I recently read such a report), he is overjoyed and opens a bottle of champagne without ever learning that three thefts and two murders were committed on his street that very day."

Although he does not mention the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Kundera offers a nice explanation of what John Paul II deplores as "the democratization of truth." Kundera writes: "Public opinion polls are the critical instrument of imagology's power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people. The imagologue bombards people with questions: how is the French economy prospering? is there racism in France? is racism good or bad? who is the greatest writer of all time? is Hungary in Europe or in Polynesia? which world politician is the sexiest? And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become a kind of higher reality, or to put it differently: they have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth, and although I know that everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that could break this power."

One must hope that that is an excessively bleak assessment. So long as there are people like Kundera around to point out what is happening, the spell of imagology is not complete.

A Lutheran Valedictory

Remembering all and learning nothing, or at least very little. The thought comes to mind upon reading a valedictory interview with Herbert W. Chilstrom, recently retired head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Few who know him will dispute that Bishop Chilstrom is a gentleman of earnest purpose and modest demeanor. Few who know the ELCA will dispute that his leadership was lackluster at best and disastrous at worst. During his eight years at the helm, the ELCA, formed in 1987, sailed into waters that were alternately tumultuously stormy or becalmed in institutional stasis, but without evident destination. There is that old question about what do you get when you cross a Unitarian and a Jehovah's Witness. Answer: Someone who goes around knocking on doors with nothing in particular in mind.

To return to the nautical metaphor, during eight years of drift and storm, financial support fell off drastically. Chilstrom says it was "excruciating" to deal with a $17 million budget deficit. "But, when it was done and I realized, 'OK, we can live with this,' it was satisfying." The captain was unflappable. He regrets that mission work came to a standstill and other programs could not be funded. "I don't know what the answer is," he says. "We just can't seem to move our people to give more than 2 to 3 percent of their spendable income." There is no mention of the fact that, as in most mainline Protestant churches, the people continue to give generously, but funds are increasingly withheld from national bureaucracies in which the lay people-along with pastors and regional bishops-have lost confidence.

Asked about other disappointments, Chilstrom responds: "Then, the church's discussion of human sexuality and especially the inability to deal with the gay/lesbian question weighs heavily on me. I recognize, of course, the centuries of attitudes about this subject. And I know that not everyone has been forced to move through this question as I have because of my position of leadership as a synod and churchwide bishop, but I feel keenly disappointed that this church has not been able to convey to our gay/lesbian members-brothers and sisters in Christ-that they stand on level ground with us. It's almost a leprosy attitude that many have toward gay and lesbian people. I've become reconciled to the fact that the church can't deal with this in a formal way. We may have to work through it in individual, personal, family, and workplace settings before much progress is made."

The reference is to an ELCA proposal for radically changed teaching on human sexuality that provoked a massive negative reaction from the parishes. Chilstrom says he was shocked by the "vitriolic anger" in some of those reactions, but nowhere does he recognize that there were substantive arguments advanced against the proposed departure from biblical and Lutheran tradition. The problem, in his view, is only that "not everyone has been forced to move through this question as I have." He adds, "While I think I have done a great deal to frame the questions and move people along in this discussion, have I done enough? I don't know." In his impenetrable insouciance, the question apparently does not occur to him whether there are people every bit as thoughtful, informed, experienced, and compassionate as he who have arrived at different conclusions about what is normative in Christian sexual ethics.

And he has another disappointment: "We have not made as much progress in multicultural changes as we hoped. Our commitment to the representational principles is right . . . but I don't sense that at the grass roots there's a vigorous commitment to becoming a multicultural church. Quite the opposite." Quite the opposite indeed. From its beginning as a self-declared "new church," the ELCA structured itself along rigid lines of "representational principles" in the form of quotas, which means that every question of faith, life, and mission is decided not by reference to truth (e.g., the Bible, sixteenth-century confessions, or theological reflection) but by the sensibilities and ambitions of gender- and race-based interest groups. It is now widely recognized in the ELCA that the original error, maybe the original institutional sin, in forming the new church was the decision to order its faith and life by representational principles. But it manifestly is not manifest to Bishop Chilstrom.

The inescapable inference is that if there were what he calls "disappointments" during his watch, they are attributable to the ignorance and bad faith of those who did not see things his way. As for retirement plans, the bishop says he enjoys golf, hunting, gardening, and photography. One wishes him well in his new pursuits, in the hope that they will provide greater warrant for his satisfactions.

. . . And New Beginning

I don't now where one finds the protocols for commenting on developments in one's former ecclesial home. But, apart from being prompted by a continuing personal interest, a "survey of religion and public life" can hardly ignore the significant factor that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). And it's nice to be able to comment on something hopeful, such as the election of

H. George Anderson as the new bishop of the ELCA. The first and perhaps most important thing to say is that Anderson, formerly president of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, is a theologian. It is generally thought that Anderson could have been elected head of the Lutheran Church in America, a predecessor body to the ELCA, and also the first bishop of the ELCA. He declined both possibilities then, in large part because of the sickness and subsequent death of his wife. Although he has not said so publicly, one expects that his willingness to accept the office now is related to his recognizing, along with almost everyone else, that the ELCA is in crisis.

On a long list of Bishop Anderson's virtues is his solid track record of ecumenical commitment. It no doubt comes much farther down on the list, but we also like very much what he had to say about adoption in an interview given on the day of his election. Long-time readers know our concern about the current campaign against adoption, a campaign also pushed among former leaders of the ELCA. Social work bureaucrats, race politicians, advocates of a twisted version of children's rights, and others have in recent years made it more and more difficult to adopt the millions of children who need homes. A major force in this campaign is also the pro-choice advocates (including almost everyone in the groups mentioned) who are adamant that adoption not be encouraged as an alternative to a woman's exercise of her "reproductive rights." One of the most potent weapons of the campaign is the promotion of "open adoption," which gives biological parents the opportunity to disrupt the adoptive family by later asserting parental rights without accepting parental responsibility.

In his statement, Anderson compared adoption with the unconditional love of God. Adopted sixty-three years ago when he was six weeks old, Anderson says, "Adoption has been a gift with me all my life; a feeling of being appreciated and valued by someone." It is, he says, "a sense of guiding and providence in my life." Key to his being adopted, he pointedly noted, was a sense of security and confidence. Without such security and confidence-without knowing that these really are your parents and you are their child-adoption becomes a jerrybuilt expedient ever vulnerable to psychological anxieties, outside intrusion, and legal dissolution. "Open adoption" precludes security and confidence. Adoption, if it is to work, is a decision made and a case closed. It is indeed unconditional, as in the love of God.

Adoption is not the only nor the most important question that H. George Anderson addressed upon becoming bishop of the ELCA, but it is important. Addressing an August meeting in Pennsylvania, he declared that the church has no message but "the gospel handed down to us. . . . The Church must understand we can no longer be the voice of our culture, but an alternative to our culture-to proclaim an alternative to what the culture has found is so attractive, but so shallow and damaging." Given my abiding affection for a former ecclesial home, an affection which, I am glad to report, is for the most part generously reciprocated, and given the duties attending a continuing survey of religion and public life, I have no doubt whatever that there will be further occasions for comment on the promising leadership of Bishop H. George Anderson.

Picture Perfect Babies

Since we ran Elizabeth Kristol's powerful article "Picture Perfect: The Politics of Prenatal Testing" (April 1993), I've noticed more public questioning of routine prenatal testing, done with an eye toward aborting the defective. For instance, Dominic Lawson, a columnist for the London Spectator. He and his wife recently had a Down's syndrome child, and he wrote very affectingly about how this has compelled him, a self-described atheist, to think more clearly about "the sanctity of life."

The article elicited a number of striking letters to the editor, including this from an Alison Davis: "I have severe spina bifida and am a full-time wheelchair user. I also run the Handicap Division of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children-a group of disabled people, their families, and carers who campaign for the equal right to life of all disabled people. It is difficult for me to express my appreciation of your positive, loving attitude towards your daughter, since it means so much to me. I feel that your acceptance embraces all disabled people, and it represents such a radically different view to the one more commonly expressed. Every day I read in the press about 'exciting breakthroughs' which mean yet another way to kill people like me before birth, and occasionally there are reports of doctors who starve to death born babies with my degree of disability because they think we are 'better off dead.' They never stop to think of the terrible unhappiness they cause disabled people-ironically enough in the name of 'relieving suffering.'"

James Wood writes that his wife, who is over age thirty-five, has twice undergone the amniocentesis test. While both children turned out to be healthy, Lawson's column prompted him to reflect on how readily he and his wife acquiesced in the doctor's insistence that they have the test. He writes: "As a Roman Catholic (somewhat lapsed) I have always felt that I had a sort of protective shield from moral dilemmas that might involve the issue of abortion, as though being a Roman Catholic were protection itself. I now realize that the sanctity in which I held the Church has somehow mysteriously been transferred to doctors. Shamefully, I believe that had I been told that either of my children would be born with Down's syndrome and that respected medical opinion suggested an abortion, I would have replied with, 'Well, if you say so, doctor.' Why is the phrase 'I was only following orders' ringing in my head?"

Then there is this from E. Eyre: "Sir: I write to express the delight all parents of a Down's syndrome child must feel over Dominic Lawson's courageous account of his reactions to the birth of his new little daughter, Domenica. He has only been the parent of a special child for two weeks, yet he has got it all right. Down's syndrome children bring extraordinary blessings to the families which they are permitted to join. They are stars in an increasingly materialistic world. Those of us with a Down's syndrome child (our son, Robert, is almost twenty-four) often wish that all our children had this extraordinary syndrome which deletes anger and malice, replacing them with humor, thoughtfulness, and devotion to friends and family. We may start with aching hearts and the sense of bereavement he describes so well, but, within a year, we begin to realize that these children have so much to teach us about what really matters. Thank heaven they are still somehow getting born in all countries, in all levels of society, and to all ages of parents."

One reader takes strong issue with Lawson, contending that the national health service should continue to offer free abortions when defects are detected in the unborn. "The Chinese method, leaving babies in a 'dying room,' because of defects or because the babies are simply not wanted, is wholly repugnant to me, but is it therefore not preferable to abort the fetus, if this is the mother's wish, because she could not cope? . . . Mr. Lawson is talking from an enlightened point of view. He has accepted his child for what she is and will ensure she will get the best of everything, above all love. Would that all parents were like that. Alas, they are not." Some parents may not love their children. Therefore they should be killed. The children, that is. Earlier rather than later. Anything else is wholly repugnant to the writer.

The Party of the Presumptive We

A regular source of amusement cum annoyance is the encounter with contemporary thinkers who presume to tell us what "we" think. An example of the type is Bernard Williams' Shame and Necessity (University of California Press), in which the so-distinguished moral philosopher of Oxford and Berkeley explains to us that our moral circumstance is very much like that of the ancient Greeks before Plato, Aristotle, and, most particularly, Christianity imposed their meanings upon our meaningless universe.

The following paragraph sums up "our" problem: "We are in an ethical condition that lies not only beyond Christianity, but beyond its Kantian and its Hegelian legacies. We have an ambivalent sense of what human beings have achieved, and have hopes for how they might live (in particular, in the form of a still powerful ideal that they should live without lies). We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities. We have to acknowledge the hideous costs of many human achievements that we value, including this reflective sense itself, and recognise that there is no redemptive Hegelian history or universal Leibnizian cost-benefit analysis to show that it will come out well enough in the end. In important ways, we are, in our ethical situation, more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime. More particularly, we are like those who, from the fifth century and earlier, have left us traces of a consciousness that had not yet been touched by Plato's and Aristotle's attempts to make our ethical relations to the world fully intelligible."

Fifteen times in one paragraph there is "we," "us," or "our." One recalls Tonto's famous retort to the Lone Ranger as the Indians were attacking. Obviously, the "we" does not include people who think Aristotle makes pretty good sense of our ethical relations to the world, or are persuaded that the Christian account of reality is, well, true. For Mr. Williams, such people simply are not part of "our" universe of discourse. As with John Rawls in Political Liberalism, people who come with a comprehensive account of reality cannot be admitted to the discussion. Mr. Rawls offers a very comprehensive account of the reasons why comprehensive accounts must be excluded. In Shame and Necessity, Bernard Williams evidences remarkably strong animus toward what he calls the Judaic and Christian.

Christianity, he believes, is guilty of having led people to think that morality is only a matter of guilt and not of shame. In the Christian view, there is no transformation of the self in relationship to others; "the truly moral self is characterless." It is simply a matter of keeping the rules dictated by "religious illumination." Williams' construal of Christianity owes more to St. Immanuel Kant than to St. Paul. But his argument is really with anyone and everyone who challenges what we all presumptively know, namely, "We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities."

Some of my best friends are ethicists, and some of them tell me there is a great deal to be learned from Bernard Williams. Since this is, after all, an intellectual journal, we must always remain open to that possibility, recognizing the need to engage alternative arguments, to enter into dialogue with the other, and so forth and so on. But I confess a touch of impatience with the presumption of the masters of The Presumptive We. Why should I respectfully engage thinkers who contemptuously dismiss what they manifestly have not bothered to understand, lest such understanding ruffle the smugness with which they and those of like mind (i.e., members in good standing of The Presumptive We) display their fashionable despairs? That's no more than a question, of course. But I've noticed that the question does intrude itself with some regularity when reading Bernard Williams, John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and ideologically related dons of debonair nihilism.

While We're At It