A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 61 (March 1996): 61-76.

This Month:

Who You Are II

We did it in 1992, and now we've gone and done it again. After five full years of publication, we thought it time to survey our subscribers once more. We thank all of you who received the detailed questionnaire and took the time to answer our questions. Of course such a survey cannot tell us who you are in all your irreducible singularity. But it does offer a statistical profile of subscribers to FT, and I thought you might be as interested in the results as we are. To tell the truth, the results are not all that different from 1992, which is another indication that the readership is pretty stable. (That, we are told, is good. In marketing terms, it means FT has found its "niche.") Of course there are many more readers now than there were in 1992.

I will take the items as they come in the report, not necessarily in order of importance. (The plus and minus signs in parenthesis indicate changes from 1992.) And please note that we're talking about subscribers. As we shall see, there are many more readers than subscribers, despite our best efforts to get the freeloaders to subscribe. First, you are (collectively speaking) 85 percent male and 15 percent female. We don't take that too seriously, however. Many subscribers are "Mr. and Mrs," and it seems that in most households it is the husband's job to fill out questionnaires, women having more important things to do.

Forty-two percent of you are Roman Catholic (+ 2), 49 percent are Protestant (-5), and 8 percent are "Other" (+2). The Jewish readership is still much lower than we would like, and we don't know how to explain that. Given all the evidence that Jews are unusually big on reading, and given the level of Jewish participation in institute programs and in FT, one would expect that we would have more Jewish readers than simply the proportion of Jews in the general population. We'll keep working at it, and will in no way reduce the attention given to the Jewish-Christian connection, which is crucial to the religious and cultural renewal that FT seeks to advance.

We're pleased that the Protestant-Catholic ratio has remained quite steady. In view of the high-profile ecclesial transition of the Editor- in-Chief, there was a worry about a possible Protestant drop-off, but that hasn't happened. FT will continue to be determinedly ecumenical. Among Protestants, the denominational distribution is like this: 20 percent Presbyterian (-5), 20 percent Lutheran (+2), 14 percent Episcopalian, 14 percent Baptist (+7), 10 percent Methodist (+3), and 19 percent "Other" (-6). One percent are Eastern Orthodox. Relative to their percentage of the general population, Presbyterians are high and Episcopalians are very high. (I'm speaking here about the number of subscribers.) One can speculate that the increase in Baptists and Methodists may be related to FT's increased attention to evangelicals in the last three years.

Eighty-eight percent of all subscribers attend church once a week or more, and another 5 percent attend at least once a month. Eighty-two percent say they pray once a day or more, and another 9 percent pray two or three times per week. Fifty-eight percent hold a leadership position in their church. Comments sent back indicate that some respondents were not happy with the categories we proposed, but, when asked about their theological orientation, 7 percent checked charismatic, 62 percent conservative/traditionalist, 21 percent evangelical Protestant, 7 percent liberal, 2 percent fundamentalist, and 1 percent New Age. We'll have to work at refining that question, but if we assume that conservative/traditionalist and evangelical Protestant fall on the conservative end of the spectrum (which may not be a safe assumption about all evangelicals), it would seem that 83 percent of you consider yourselves theologically conservative.

Liberals & Conservatives

In trying to determine the "fit" between how subscribers view themselves and how they view FT, we used a number of questions in which respondents rated themselves and FT on a scale of one to ten. Fifty-one percent think FT is strongly conservative theologically, while 59 percent rate themselves that way. Similarly, 49 percent say FT is strongly conservative politically, while 56 percent identify themselves that way. So it would seem that a majority of readers think FT is somewhat less conservative both theologically and politically than they are. Five percent of readers say they are, both theologically and politically, strongly liberal.

As I say, there's a great deal of uneasiness these days about what is meant by conservative and liberal, and you can do numerous variations in crunching the numbers from a survey such as this. On a scale of 1 to 10, for instance, 1, 2, and 3 would be "strongly" liberal and 8, 9, and 10 represent "strongly" conservative. Thus 4, 5, 6, and 7 represent something like the "moderate" range. By that measure, 48 percent of respondents say that FT is, theologically and politically, in the moderate range, but it is moderation tilted clearly toward the conservative side of things.

Another complicating factor is that the L-word is so unpopular now that, as has been demonstrated in several other surveys, even in liberal circles liberals hesitate to call themselves liberals. In such circles, however, there is an equal or stronger reluctance to identify oneself as a conservative. Some analysts say that anyone today who does not assertively call himself a conservative is in fact a liberal. Crunching the numbers by that rule (about which I have my doubts), 45 percent of FT subscribers are liberals of one sort or another, which is counterintuitive. And I haven't mentioned the additional factor that theological self-ratings depend, to a significant extent, on one's ecclesial placement. To cite an obvious instance, to be a liberal in the Southern Baptist Convention is very different from being a liberal in the Episcopal Church. So the usual dash of salt is in order for these findings on liberal/conservative propensities.

Confusions & Curiosities

Asked to write in who is "the most influential religious figure in America today," 38 percent of Catholics and 17 percent of Protestants said John Paul II. Obviously, we should have said "American religious figure." Billy Graham got the vote of 13 percent of Catholics and 42 percent of Protestants, with John Cardinal O'Connor coming next (19 and 1 percent), followed by Pat Robertson (3 and 6 percent), James Dobson (2 and 9 percent), and then, trailing off, Richard John Neuhaus, Charles Colson, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, and Mother Angelica. An office wag notes that I tied with Jesus, both of us being named more often by Protestants than by Catholics. Some things are better left unanalyzed.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents are age fifty-five or above (+8), which of course means that 41 percent (-8) are under fifty-five. Part of the graying of the readership is that steady subscribers are now three years older than they were in 1992, but we don't know how to account for the other 5 percent increase in age. We're not really worried about it. Some of us think that fifty-five or sixty is the peak of life and professional influence, and FT is designed for "influentials." But we probably should be doing something-although we know not just what-to reach younger readers.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents are married, 6 percent (+5) are divorced or separated, 21 percent (-5) have never been married, and 4 percent are widowed. The "never married" category is larger than might be expected because of the number of priest subscribers. Subscribers are a very highly educated lot, with 24 percent (-9) having a Ph. D. or equivalent, and another 41 percent (+10) having a masters degree. So that's 65 percent with a postgraduate degree. Three percent did not go to college. Fourteen percent (-20) of respondents say they are currently in graduate courses, seminary, or other post-college study.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents are currently employed, 28 percent (+ 7) are retired, and 3 percent are unemployed. More Protestants are employed than Catholics (74-61) and more Catholics are retired than Protestants (38-22). At 25 percent (-4), the largest occupational group is clergy, with "professor," "teacher," "business," "editor/writer," and "lawyer" following in that order. Forty-seven percent are professionally in the business of producing and communicating ideas. (Fifty-two percent if you count lawyers.) Sixteen percent of Catholic subscribers are clergy, compared with 35 percent of Protestants. This is not surprising if one keeps in mind that the clergy-laity ratio among Protestants is more than three times higher than among Catholics.

Thirty percent of subscribers live in the Northeast, 11 percent on the West Coast, 18 percent in the South, and 28 percent in the Midwest. Most journals of intellectual seriousness have a much stronger concentration on the two coasts. The difference with FT, it is reasonable to suppose, is the "religion factor." Moving on to other things, 67 percent of respondents own their principal residence, and 39 percent have children at home, with 38 percent of those children being preschool or in elementary school. Twenty-one percent of all children of respondents are considering attending a Christian college or seminary.

Despite the 25 percent of clergy, who are generally lower-paid, subscribers are an affluent lot. Six percent have a total household income of $250,000 or more, and 31 percent are over $75,000. Eleven percent report a household income of less than $25,000. Although we didn't ask the 1992 question in quite the same way, it is evident that, taking inflation into account, subscribers are more affluent now than then. That likely correlates with the fact that they are, on average, somewhat older. Eighteen percent of subscribers have been with us since the very first issue, and 56 percent have subscribed for more than two years, which is about what one would expect in view of subscription growth and FT's very high renewal rates.

What You Read

Seventy-six percent say they read everything or most everything in each issue. Respondents were asked to rate their favorite sections in FT. (Since sections were rated separately, the total is considerably more than 100 percent.) Fifty-seven percent gave top ratings to the articles, 15 percent to correspondence, 8 percent to the "This Time" column, 3 percent to poetry, 22 percent to book reviews, 32 percent to editorials, 29 percent to opinion pieces, and 71 percent to "The Public Square." Obviously, the poetry is not a big favorite among our readers, and we're not entirely surprised. This reflects the status of poetry in today's culture, but also the fact that, despite the heroic efforts of poetry editor Jill Baumgaertner, great poetry is hard to find. It is said that there are more people today writing poetry than reading poetry. Were there more great poems, one expects there would be more people reading poetry. We're thinking about what might be done about this.

Eighty-eight percent report that they spend two hours or more reading each issue, with 36 percent spending four hours or more. (A doctor writes to complain that her practice is suffering because she takes out two days for each issue.) Sixty-six percent save their issues after reading them, while 24 percent pass them on to others or donate them to a library. The editors are shocked, shocked, that 10 percent discard their issues after reading them. Sixty-one percent report that their issues are read by two or more people. And of course there is much copying for use in classrooms and study groups, plus passing around of individual items. This is the multiplier effect which is very important to the influence of a journal. The publishing rule of thumb for a journal such as FT is that there are four readers for every subscriber, which means that, for instance, 30,000 subscribers translates into 120,000 readers. That is a rough estimate; it could be more or less, and is obviously more when items are reprinted in other publications. (We are very generous in giving reprint permission, but please note that we do like to be asked.)

FT readers are also voracious readers of books. Ninety-five percent report that, on average, they read one or more books per month, with 49 percent reading three or more. Sixty-three percent buy ten books or more per year, with 22 percent buying thirty or more. Seventy percent have joined a book club at some time, and 35 percent are members of a club now. As to what people read, the top areas of interest are religion, politics, and theology, with strong showings for history, social issues, and philosophy.

On average, respondents subscribe to 3.4 magazines other than FT. The list goes on and on, many of them being professional publications. Publications to which 5 percent or more of respondents subscribe are: American Spectator (5), Christianity Today (6), National Review (8), U.S. News & World Report (6), and Newsweek (5). Of publications that address the mix of questions similar to those addressed by FT, 3 percent subscribe to America, 3 to Catholic World Report, 2 to Commonweal, 2 to New Republic, 2 to American Scholar, 4 to Atlantic Monthly, 2 to Christian Century, 2 to Commentary, 3 to New Oxford Review, 2 to Chronicles, and 2 to Crisis.

Almost without exception, only Catholics subscribe to the Catholic publications and only Protestants to the Protestant ones. While only 2 percent subscribe to Christian Century and Crisis, it appears they are enthusiastic subscribers, since two percent also rate those as their favorite magazines. Of the more than 380 magazines mentioned by readers, 36 percent of our subscribers report that FT is their favorite publication. And when we eliminate the hobby, entertainment, travel, sports, and unrelated professional magazines, it seems that FT is almost everybody's favorite, which is very gratifying indeed.

A few more snippets from the survey. Fifty-one percent of you addressed a public forum in the past year, 54 percent wrote a letter to the editor, 88 percent are involved in civic or charitable activities, 11 percent in work for a political party, 64 percent are Republican, 20 percent Democrat, and 16 percent belong to another or no party. Ninety- three percent voted in the 1994 Congressional election. As for leisure activities, travel, music concerts, sports, and gardening rate high, but everything else is swamped by reading, which 85 percent rate as their top leisure activity. Only 15 percent put television near the top, slightly under movies at 17 percent. As for music, you are big classical buffs (73 percent). Interest descends through jazz, opera, and country until it gets to rock music at 11 percent. Twenty-four percent of you bought ten or more records, tapes, or CDs in the past year. Forty-five percent made ten or more purchases by mail at an average price per purchase of $40 or more. Sixty-nine percent have a personal computer, and 44 percent spent more than $100 on software last year. Seventy-two percent took at least one domestic flight and 29 percent flew overseas in the past year.

Sorting Things Out

I'm not sure what to make of all this, but I confess that my interest in who out there is reading the journal is near insatiable. I get to meet some of you personally when speaking around the country. You always have such nice things to say about FT, and that's a great encouragement. I have an uneasiness, though. This is a very big country, and the number of people who read anything serious is relatively small. But should it be worrying that there is so little overlap among readerships of different publications?

I started to count the other day, and stopped at sixty-four periodicals that I read more or less regularly. Of course that's crazy, but it's a craziness that attends a perhaps obsessive need to be "on top of" different conversations-and a need to churn out all the words for this section and other forums each month. Numerous comments from readers indicate that many count on The Public Square to keep them abreast of what is being said elsewhere, which is fine. But I still wonder about these many discrete and apparently quite separate conversations that are going on.

That's what a journal is, a conversation. It seems there are these many conversations-FT, Commentary, Christian Century, American Scholar, Commonweal-passing like ships in the night. Even with much larger circulation magazines such as New Republic and National Review, there is very little overlap. Mass circulation magazines such as Time and Newsweek can declare something to be the very epicenter of the national consciousness that week, and the overwhelming majority of people are quite unaware of it. Perhaps it has always been that way, and we kid ourselves when we think that there is a national conversation about anything.

And yet I suspect there is something like a national conversation about the mix of questions involved in religion, culture, society, and politics. The conversation is certainly not through television or newspapers, which are mostly just bulletin boards on which people paste notices about a relatively few things that are happening. What is something like a conversation is FT and similar publications in which writers who are engaged in other conversations set forth their views, enabling readers to get an indirect account of what is being said elsewhere. It is a little like television surfing where you hit on a channel that is itself surfing but has access to more channels than you do, or like an Internet site that serves as a clearinghouse for numerous other sites.

A homelier analogy is a small town where, if one hangs out at Frank's General Store, one will sooner or later learn about almost everything of interest that is said or done in the town. It is probably the congeniality of the company-meaning, very importantly, a respect for the intelligence of those involved in the conversation-that most determines where one hangs out. In any event, the editors and writers of FT are grateful that so many of you have decided to hang out here.

There is room for a lot more regulars, however. Here we have a problem. We enlist new subscribers primarily through direct mail solicitation. For that you need lists, mainly obtained from other periodicals, of people who would likely be interested in FT. The many lists we have used during the past five years are like the "burned over" territories of nineteenth-century evangelism; most of those who are winnable have been won. Subscription growth in the future will depend more and more upon you who are already subscribers. Gift subscriptions, talking up FT with friends and associates, sending us names of potential subscribers to whom we can send a complimentary copy-these things are important. If you can put them to good use, perhaps at your local church or study group, we'll gladly send you brochures describing FT. In sum, we have to depend upon your interest to interest others who should be part of the conversation. How many are out there? We have no idea. But then, five years ago we didn't know that so many of you were out there either.

The "Lessons" of Vietnam

With the debate over the U.S. role in Bosnia, there is once again much fretting over "the Vietnam syndrome." President Bush said after the Gulf War that the syndrome had finally been put behind us. President Reagan said much the same at different times. Of course they were wrong. The explanation of why they were wrong is one of the many contributions of a new book by Adam Garfinkle, Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (St. Martins, $24.95).

The Vietnam syndrome, albeit in changing permutations, will be with us for a long time. Garfinkle writes: "Consider the fact that between 1959 and 1975-the first and last years that there were U.S. casualties in Vietnam-about sixty million Americans turned eighteen years of age. In 2020 these generational cohorts will be at the height of their social power. At least four presidential elections may be influenced decisively by them, the first one having been in 1992. What they learned from their seminal political experience-the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement-is therefore of more than marginal importance." (The figures don't quite work, since someone who turned eighteen in 1959 will be seventy-nine in 2020, but the point is clear enough.)

The author's tone of understatement gives added credibility to what is certainly one of the more important books written about the Vietnam experience. Garfinkle, who is a resident scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, has to make an effort to maintain that tone in describing the conceits and self-serving lies of the radical antiwar movement of the era. Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Jane Fonda, Stokely Carmichael-although Garfinkle does not put it quite this way, he has come to despise them all. One gathers he came to that view reluctantly. He despises them not because they prevented the U.S. from "winning" in Vietnam. It is the burden of his book that the radical antiwar movement had very little bearing on the outcome of the war; if anything, it may have protracted U.S. involvement in Vietnam. No, he despises that radical claque because of what it did to a generation of young Americans, with consequences that will reverberate through decades to come, and because of what it did to liberalism in America, and especially to the Democratic Party.

The central boast of Hayden and company is that it was their historic achievement to have stopped the war in Vietnam. In these pages, witness after witness comes forward, many of them from tenured perches in elite universities, to declare that, whatever may have been wrong with what they did in the sixties, they ended the war in Vietnam. "You can't take that away from us," they defiantly assert. And that is precisely what Garfinkle intends to take away from them, and for the most part he succeeds.

The Turning of Opinion

In the years prior to the emergence of the radical antiwar movement in 1965, according to Garfinkle, the military policies pursued under Kennedy and Johnson were both confused and ineffectual. Nonetheless, U.S. actions in Vietnam had overwhelming public support at home, and Lyndon Johnson used public antipathy to the radicals in order to increase that support. Only with the media's misrepresentation of the 1968 Tet offensive as a U.S. defeat, and, more definitively, with Johnson's March 31, 1968 speech suggesting that commitment to the war was under reappraisal, and announcing that he would not run for reelection, did public opinion begin to turn against the war. The stepping back from the war that Johnson began was completed by Nixon and Kissinger. Not, says Garfinkle, because of pressure from the antiwar movement but because Nixon and Kissinger viewed Vietnam as an inconvenient obstacle that stood in the way of their more ambitious strategy for a global realignment of power.

Garfinkle makes his case persuasively, but on at least one important point he is less than convincing. Throughout, he tries to make a clear distinction between the "radical" and "liberal" (sometimes he says "right liberal") antiwar movements. He describes with intelligent relish the arcane conflicts and internecine wars within the radical factions- the socialists, communists, anarchists, pacifists, counterculturalists, and how they were variously entangled with the rock and drug worlds bequeathed to us by the Woodstock Nation. His contention that that conglomeration of radicalisms did little or nothing to end the war, and maybe even prolonged it, is persuasive.

But he seems not to know quite what to do with that other antiwar movement of the liberals and right liberals. At this point I must declare interest, for I was intensely engaged in some of the organizations discussed by Garfinkle. I was for years on the national board of SANE, the organization most publicly associated with Norman Cousins, Norman Thomas, and Dr. Benjamin Spock. (To my later regret, I sided with Spock against Cousins in opening SANE to the left, which led to its eventual assimilation into the anti-Amerika posture of the radicals.) And, in the fall of 1964, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I started Clergy Concerned About Vietnam (later called Clergy and Laity Concerned [CALC], which also veered sharply to the left by 1971, after I had withdrawn from a leadership role).

Garfinkle seems ambivalent about the more liberal and "establishment" antiwar movement represented by SANE and CALC. In his account, such organizations segue into the discussion of "Congressional antiwar influence" as exercised by, for instance, Senators William Fulbright and Mark Hatfield. It is true that "our" part of the antiwar movement, although it had its moments of high drama, was not nearly so colorful as the countercultural antics of the Yippies, Maoists, Motherf______, and assorted anarchists. But it takes a contorted redefinition of influence to deny that the liberal pressure against the war had a significant bearing, for better or for worse, on decision-making.

Prior to the abandonment of fixed war aims in his March 1968 speech, Johnson was consulting regularly with the "Wise Men"-including Dean Acheson, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, General Omar Bradley, John J. McCloy, and Arthur Goldberg. Garfinkle attributes to the Wise Men great influence in turning Johnson against the war, and rightly so. But he suggests that the antiwar movement had little or no impact on their thinking. "If anything, the movement served as a once- or twice-removed psychological factor in the irresoluteness of a small group of important people already tormented by their own doubts."

Well, yes, but psychological factors are what inner torment is about. We know from their public and private statements that some of these men were deeply anxious about what was happening in the streets, and especially on the campuses. Moreover, most of them were very much part of the world of liberal discourse (as "liberal" was then understood) and were in regular conversation with people in what Garfinkle calls the "liberal right" antiwar movement. Then too, the slogan of the radicals, "We Are Your Children," had a good measure of truth. They were disproportionately the children of the affluent and powerful; and their elders in the elite were not only eager to appease them but also to "identify" with their protest as an expression of moral idealism.


I confess I found myself cheering Garfinkle on in his attack against the radical anti-Amerikanists. They were an awful pain in the neck-self- important, self-righteous, self-indulgent, dime-store nihilists. Yet the overlap between liberals, "radicalized" liberals, and all-out leftists and revolutionaries (both political and cultural revolutionaries) was greater than Garfinkle usually allows, as was the overlap between that confused combination of antiwar pressure and decisions about war policy. Moreover, in that confused combination Garfinkle generally neglects the role of religious organizations. Not simply groups such as CALC, but the powerful organizational and cultural force of almost all the oldline churches of the time. At points Garfinkle acknowledges this neglect of religion, explaining that his chief interest is in the radicals, and for them the movement was their religion.

About that he is entirely right. I recall a bizarre meeting of CALC, when it was fast turning to the left, in which the proposal was seriously debated whether CALC should declare itself to be a church, since that is where thousands of people found their real "spiritual meaning." Garfinkle is especially good in detailing the ways in which the radical antiwar movement peaked at the Chicago convention of 1968 and then fell into faction-ridden disarray. More attention might have been paid, however, to the fact that the largest, best-financed, and most stable organizational base for radical politics continued to be the liberal churches and ancillary institutions. He quotes Michael Ferber, a radical activist who wrote in the Nation in 1987, "The religious left is the only left we've got." Not all the countercultural enthusiasms but certainly the politics of 1968 had a long afterlife in the churches. In some ghettoized religious circles, it is still 1968, although what goes on in such circles has in recent years been overshadowed by political activism on the conservative end of the religious spectrum.

Why It Happened

So who lost Vietnam? Or does that question make any sense? Here is Garfinkel's answer: "The antiwar movement neither lost the war nor caused the subsequent bloodbath in Southeast Asia. In the broadest sense, the war was lost because the American ship of state itself had lost its bearings. The expansion of containment to Asia and its post- Korean War militarization merged with a rapidly expanding economic base to produce a level of American hubris that was bound to send its ship of state onto the rocks sooner or later. However morally motivated, the U.S. commitment to Vietnam was strategically unsound; thus, even had the war been won the costs might well have exceeded any strategic benefits. But the war was not won because U.S. administrative, diplomatic, and especially military strategies failed. In other words, even beyond a flawed decision to commit itself, which flowed from the lack of a realistic strategy for containing polycentric communism in the geostrategic peripheries of the Cold War, the Vietnam War was lost by some combination of the U.S. military's inability to adapt to politico- military counterinsurgency warfare, ill-advised micromanagement of the war by Pentagon civilians, and maladroit meddling in South Vietnam's stygian political system. None of these sources of American defeat was set in motion or significantly worsened either by antiwar activism or by fear of it in Washington."

The book makes a good case for that conclusion, except, as I said, that in Garfinkle's determination to discredit the antiwar crazies he underestimates the impact of the "liberal right" opposition to the war. I am sometimes asked whether, thirty years later, I regret having opposed U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Of course there are some things I said and did that I regret, but no, I do not regret opposing the war. Successive Administration statements about the aims of the war-a factor critical to judging the justice of any conflict-were obscure and frequently contradictory; the human cost of the war was indeterminable; the prosecution of the war was mired in military incompetence and political mendacity. Blame for the disaster that was Vietnam is broadly shared, but the person chiefly responsible, I thought then and think now, was Lyndon Johnson.

But I also thought then and think now that I could have been wrong to oppose U.S. policy. During those years, I had two brothers fighting in Vietnam, I had parishioners killed in Vietnam, and I had my dear friend, the late Paul Ramsey, a moral theologian of great distinction, hammering away relentlessly at my every argument. Opposing the war seemed to me a morally solemn and risky thing to do, which is no doubt why I share Adam Garfinkle's revulsion from radicalisms that exploited the war to indulge revolutionary fantasies or to excuse the trashing of civilizational constraints.

Telltale Hearts is by no means the last book on Vietnam, but it is one of the best so far. Among its merits is that it helps us understand why for many years to come Americans will be trying to sort out "the lessons of Vietnam." And we may be sure that at the end of the road there will be an ultimate sorting out in which all of us who were around then will learn what we should and should not have done during the sixties. In the view of many of us, those years started out with such stirring promise-the civil rights movement of Dr. King, the election of JFK, John XXIII, the Vatican Council-and then they turned out to be, in Auden's apt phrase for the thirties, a slum of a decade. Telltale Hearts recounts some of the seedier aspects of life in the ideological, cultural, and spiritual slums, and helps us understand why the rehabilitation that is perhaps now underway is going to take a very long time.

And a Footnote

Adam Garfinkle writes, "Robert S. McNamara has an unusual-perhaps unique-talent for error in that he has not only been ineluctably wrong in all the major policy judgments he has made in his life, but he has subsequently been wrong about how and why he was wrong." That is a hard judgment, but Garfinkle supports it by reference to the public record and to McNamara's recent memoir, In Retrospect. Last November I was struck by McNamara's "reconciliation" visit to Hanoi to meet with the former North Vietnamese commander, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. According to the New York Times, McNamara said he found remarkable "the lack of hostility and the willingness to meet and discuss what was in a very real sense a tragedy for both nations." He added, "There's really no difference between him and me."

If he meant that merely as a personal comment about himself and Giap, the Kennedy "whiz kid" and former Secretary of Defense may have said more than he knew. But if the implication is that there is no difference between the U.S. and Hanoi, that is moral equivalence on a grand scale, assuming one can associate Secretary McNamara with anything grand. Thirty years late he has caught up with the Tom Haydens and David Dellingers. The Times report continues: "The Vietnamese general sat comfortably, smiling and talkative. He posed for pictures with the journalists gathered nearby. He looked like a grandfather holding court in the family room. Mr. McNamara appeared more the eager and slightly nervous technocrat, furiously scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad as General Giap spoke."

It took me back to a 1967 meeting in McNamara's office at the Pentagon. William Sloane Coffin, Rabbi Heschel, and, I believe, Dick Fernandez of CALC were also there. McNamara was assisted by Cyrus Vance, later Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter, as they earnestly displayed charts illustrating an electronic corridor that would run across the width of Vietnam and would, McNamara assured us, bring the war to a sure and successful conclusion. We, on the other hand, spoke about the criteria of justified war, about prudential judgments, about the failed military-technical fixes of the past, and why it was so difficult to credit the Administration's optimistic claims about the progress being made in Vietnam. While we talked, McNamara, like an eager and slightly nervous technocrat, furiously scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad.

As we parted, he effusively thanked us for all he had learned from the discussion. I wanted to believe him then, but it was not easy. Thirty years later, after In Retrospect, after the Hanoi visit, after his tearful public appearances confessing the "terribly wrong" things the U.S. did in Vietnam, his credibility is not increased. If he is asking forgiveness, of course we should not refuse, although there are others whose forgiveness he needs more than ours. One's impression, however, is not so much of someone asking forgiveness as of a septuagenarian whiz kid eagerly explaining to us how at last he has figured out how he got it wrong, and in the course of his explanation getting it wrong, albeit very differently wrong, all over again. The kindest thing is simply to look away.

A Disruption But Not a Rupture

The issue of the Weekly Standard was dated Christmas Day. Against a black background, the cover blazons "ABORTION and the Republican Party," with the subhead, "A New Approach, by Noemie Emery." Apart from the infelicity of the date, one wondered why TWS thought a new approach was needed. A few months earlier, in the very second issue of William Kristol's new-born magazine, a strikingly lucid and forceful editorial set forth what was presumably the TWS approach to the abortion question. And who is Noemie Emery? Described as a freelance writer, she is (or was) an unknown with absolutely no public record or credibility on issues related to the abortion debate. She was an improbable choice to write an article that seemed to position TWS against its own declared convictions.

Her "new" approach, it turns out, is but another turn on the old "personally opposed" lament. Abortion is simply awful but there's not much to be done about it politically or legally; pro-lifers are only hurting their cause by being perceived as extremists and should content themselves with working for cultural change and helping women with crisis pregnancies. Thanks a lot. Hundreds of thousands of pro-lifers who have over the last twenty-five years given their all to working for the protection of the unborn and have, at great sacrifice, established thousands of crisis pregnancy and postnatal care centers across the country really don't need advice like that from TWS.

The puzzlement deepened when William Bennett's office faxed the Emery article to all and sundry, suggesting that it helped explain what many viewed as his own recently confused thoughts on what should be done about abortion. National Review directed its editorial fire at the Emery-Bennett approach, declaring it morally incoherent and politically dumb. The Republican platform's proposed constitutional amendment to bring the unborn within the protections of legal due process, NR said, was key to Republican success in 1980, 1984, and 1988; to withdraw that proposal now would alienate a large constituency that is crucial to the party and would surrender what most Americans recognize as the moral high ground in the abortion controversy.

It is hard to know what to make of all this. Bennett-who is fond of saying that if you aren't playing offense you're playing defense- complains that he has been misunderstood and issues clarifications. It seems unlikely that TWS intended with its Christmas issue to spurn the pro-life movement and undercut its own editorial position, although the flap reflects a certain want of editorial purpose, which is perhaps not surprising in a magazine's initial phase. It would be very surprising were TWS and Bennett to align themselves with Governors Weld, Whitman, and Wilson-and with country club and Wall Street funders-in trying to remove the constitutional amendment from the Republican platform.

The fracas has aroused suspicions among many conservatives that the "neocons" associated with TWS and Bennett are not as committed as they had claimed to the cultural and moral concerns that drive the conservative insurgency. The immovable keystone in the political architecture of that insurgency is the abortion question, and there is no doubt that some neoconservatives have revealed their ignorance of-or, worse, indifference to-the compex worlds of the pro-life movement. The "paleoconservatives" who rally around Pat Buchanan have long contended that the neocons are really secular liberals who use religion and the cultural issues for their own dubious purposes. The criticism is grossly unfair, but there is no doubt that it is now getting a more sympathetic hearing. Suspicions once aroused will not easily be dispelled. There is good reason to hope, however, that this disruption will not mean a rupture of the remarkable coalition that in recent years has begun to restore a measure of moral sanity to our public life.

Dialogue and Diversions

Rabbi Alan Silverstein is president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, the main association of Conservative rabbis. He is alarmed about religion in politics, and about the Christian Coalition most particularly. He writes, "The official Catholic Church, most mainline Protestant groups, and the vast majority of the Jewish religious community urge the Christian Coalition to turn away from partisan imperatives." Rabbi Silverstein proposes that Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews "launch a dialogue across America" without "public policy diversions." The purpose is to isolate and discredit the Christian Coalition.

In support of his proposal, he cites selected passages from my writings and also invokes the authority of the Catholic bishops conference. While all of us should join the rabbi in warning against the dangers of turning political disagreements into religious warfare, purposeful dialogue about the role of religion in our common life can hardly dismiss concerns for real change as "public policy diversions." Specifically, Rabbi Silverstein suggests that measures aimed at protecting the unborn "would deny Jews the free exercise of our religious rights" because Judaism teaches that abortion is permissible "if the mother's emotional health is in jeopardy." Leave aside the fact that many Jewish authorities challenge such a liberal reading of the tradition, the rabbi's logic would seem to be an instance of doing precisely what he criticizes others for doing, namely, "imposing their beliefs upon the rest of society." Judaism says that abortion should be available when wanted for reasons of a woman's "emotional health," and therefore "the rest of society" is prevented from legally protecting the unborn.

Rabbi Silverstein is also opposed to vouchers and other means of supporting parental choice in education because they would "tamper with our church/state separation." "Moreover," he writes, "only in destitute, inner-city neighborhoods will public vouchers for the proposed $500 per child enable poor children to opt for low-cost private education. Certainly in the suburbs, several hundred dollars is not the breaking point between attending or avoiding prestigious prep schools." Well, yes, but the campaign for parental choice is most particularly aimed at helping the poor to escape the devastated and devastating government school systems in our cities, not to help wealthy Jews or gentiles get their kids into prestigious prep schools.

Rabbi Silverstein's call for dialogue and civil discourse is no doubt sincere, and I am honored by his appeal to what I have said on these questions. But I must decline, as the Catholic bishops must surely decline, his invitation to be recruited to his defense of the status quo on abortion, school choice, and much else. Most oldline Protestants and almost all of organized Jewry are terrified by the insurgency represented by the Christian Coalition. However wrongheaded, some of that fear is understandable. Much of it, if not most of it, is simply resentment of a political and moral challenge to the policies and the people that have dominated our public life over the last half century and more. It is perhaps good that the Rabbinical Assembly has been awakened to the challenge, but it is much too late in the day for Rabbi Silverstein's proposed "nonpartisan" dialogue to oppose it. Some of those whom he invites to join him in opposing the challenge are very much part of the challenge. At this late date, the Christian Coalition cannot be isolated, nor should it be. The dialogue that is long overdue is one that would address the increasing isolation of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and other organizations of American Jewry.

While We're At It