A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 70 (February 1997): 58-74.


Forgetting the Source and Summit

Come December 31, 1999, there'll be a big millennium party in Times Square. According to Gretchen Dykstra of the business group that runs such things, it will be a twenty-four-hour affair with giant television screens conveying multicultural messages from the planet's twenty-four time zones. There was a contest in which 641 people in twenty-one countries submitted ideas. One idea that was rejected would have an angel descending at midnight to recite the Lord's Prayer, and a giant hand lowering the traditional New Year's ball to the accompaniment of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Another rejected idea had a flying saucer landing in Times Square with two aliens emerging to abduct some earthlings and take them to a safer place.

Ms. Dykstra's committee says a stumbling block is that much of the world-Jews, Muslims, and most Asian countries-use a different calendar, but that will not get in the way of holding a great global bash. Nowhere in this report is it mentioned what or who it is that makes the Year 2000 significant. To that observation some would reply that the party is a matter of looking forward, not backward. In this view, it is an interesting accident of antiquity that we number the years from the birth of Whatshisname, but the world has moved quite beyond that. To mention such antique particulars would be sectarian and divisive, whereas the events planned for Times Square and other places around the world aim, as they say, at uniting the global village.

Christians may be tempted to react to such thinking by claiming a religious copyright on the observance of the millennium or, even worse, settling for some acknowledgment of the "contributions" of Christ and his followers. That is a temptation to be resisted. The apparently secular yearning for human unity is a good thing and, whether secularists know it or not, the result of the cultural diffusion of the Christian message. It might be described as a triumph of Christianity without Christ. Christianity without Christ, however, cannot be sustained.

The Christian response to secular observances should not be one of churlishly grumbling about the neglect of Christ and Christianity. We should, rather, gratefully affirm what is true and worthy in such observances, while ourselves marking the millennium with a powerful and winsome testimony to the One who is the source and summit of all human hope. That is the proposal so compellingly offered in John Paul II's apostolic letter of 1994, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Nears). Regrettably, most Christians, including most Catholics, seem to be doing little in response to that proposal. The time really is drawing near. The great fault will be ours if-in Times Square, Berlin, Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere-the Year 2000 is observed with glitzy entertainments and vague utopian yearnings without a luminous witness to the One who is the Alpha and Omega of the human story.

Tongue-Tied in Public

I forget who said it, but I'm fond of quoting it: "America is so large and various that any generalization one might make about it is amply supported by evidence." It was a British visitor in the last century, and it is a generalization amply supported by the evidence. Witness the publications coming out of a big project run by James Davison Hunter and Carl Bowman under the title of The State of Disunion. With the help of the Gallup organization, they have attempted a massive survey of the current political culture, and it makes for fascinating reading.

With Peter Steinfels of the New York Times, however, I wonder how much we really learn from such research. Nearly nine out of ten Americans agree that "America's contribution is one of expanding freedom"; that "with hard work and perseverance, anyone can succeed in America"; and that the nation "was founded upon biblical principles" and "always had a destiny to set an example for other nations." Fewer than 10 percent think America is improving as a nation, and more than half say it is in decline. Steinfels is fascinated by "the complexity, orneriness, and sheer self-contradiction of the American people." He cites as an example that the same majority thinks the federal government is too big and also agrees that "Government often does a better job than people give it credit for." That is not necessarily a self- contradiction. I could easily affirm both.

More to the point is the 85 percent who agree that "values are something that each of us must decide without being influenced by others," and an even higher percentage agreeing that "what is true for me is not necessarily true for other persons." At the same time, three-quarters agree that "we would all be better off if we could live by the same basic moral guidelines," and that "those who violate God's rules will be punished." There would seem to be contradictions here, but maybe not. Most people are not philosophers or social critics, which is just as well.

The impression I take from browsing in The State of Disunion is a confirmed sense of how overwhelmingly conservative are the sensibilities of most Americans. Those sensibilities only sporadically come across as convictions that lend themselves to action, however, because the same people do not have a public language for the confident assertion of what they believe. From the media, the educational system, and elsewhere, they learn that the respectable answer in public must be framed in what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the vocabulary of individualistic emotivism. Thus the same people say that what's right for me is not necessarily right for you, and that moral rules are objective and given by God.

Depending on how the question is put, people get chased from one vocabulary to the other. But they have internalized the cultural expectation that public language is relativistic and permissive, while the language of obedience to what Hunter elsewhere calls "the commanding truths" of normative moral tradition is essentially private. In fact, the language of, say, the biblical tradition is as public as can be. But the first language is one of permission, while the second threatens to impose; and most Americans have accepted the imposition of the view that it is a sin, or at least un-American, to impose one's views upon others.

Hunter and Bowman come up with typologies to cluster these various beliefs and attitudes: "Traditionalist," "Pragmatic," "Permissivist," etc. For the most part, however, the typologies track the conventional distinctions of conservative/liberal, right/left. I plan to do more mulling of the data, but at present they seem to reinforce the view that the great majority of Americans are privately conservative but feel forced to use a liberal vocabulary in public. The great success of liberalism has not been to change the minds of the American people but to make them publicly inarticulate about what they know they know.

Who's Who in World Religions

I first met David Barrett in 1971 in Nairobi, Kenya, where he was doing pioneering work on indigenous religious movements in Africa, a subject on which I was going to write a book, until my attention was diverted by developments in South Africa. In recent years, Barrett has been running the research office of the AD2000 Global Evangelization Movement in Rockville, Virginia. Among numbers crunchers on world religion, Barrett is at the top of his field. He publishes an annual summary in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and edits the relevant sections of the Britannica Book of the Year and Britannica World Data. While Barrett's data are state of the art, he cautions that the art is precisely that, an art. Estimates involve some delicate distinctions and carefully controlled guesswork. But it is fascinating stuff.

For instance, there are 1.9 billion Christians in the world and slightly over one billion Muslims. Barrett estimates that in the year 2025 there will be over three billion Christians and 1.8 billion Muslims. Among Christians, there are 56 million Anglicans, 4 million Catholics (non- Roman), 20 million "marginal Protestants" (non-Catholic but also not identified with any Protestant tradition), 167 million nonwhite indigenous Christians (mainly new African groups combining Christianity and tribal religions), 187 million Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, et al.), 347 million Protestants, and somewhat over a billion Roman Catholics.

Not everyone is happy with the way that Barrett counts Jews. He says that in 1900 there were 12.2 million Jews, 15.5 million in 1970, 18.2 million at present, and he projects that there will be 25.5 million in the year 2025. These figures are in tension with the common claim that "half of world Jewry" was wiped out in the Holocaust, and that the number of Jews is declining. For twenty-five years, Barrett has been in discussion with Jewish specialists who generally give a much lower figure for the number of Jews living today. One Jewish publication claims, "Statistical data are difficult to obtain among Jews owing to the lack of public sources." Barrett challenges that: "Half of all nations in the world enumerate religious Jews and ethnic Jews in their decennial population censuses, and I have records of them all going back 140 years. Polls, partial censuses, sociological studies are all legion. Making sense of them is more difficult, but again the literature is enormous."

He says that Jewish statistical experts use the concept of "core Jew," meaning "real Jews" who are known, professing, affiliated, and usually practicing. Barrett, however, uses the larger category of "adherents" based on the definition in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also includes adherents of "Jewish sects or cults, crypto-Jews, Third World adherents of Judaism who are ignored or disowned by core Jews, Black Jews, Black Hebrews, African groups like the Bayahuda in Uganda, and Asian groups like the Cochin Jews in Kerala and the Bney Israel in Bombay." There are also groups that are somewhere between Christianity and Judaism or Islam and Judaism, but are more Jewish than Christian or Muslim. Then, of course, there are Messianic Jews, and ethnic Jews who are Christians or atheists. "If one examines every source figure in this rigorous fashion," says Barrett, "no conflicting figures emerge, although proponents of core Judaism may not like the larger totals that result."

Then there is the question of Christian martyrs. During the Cold War, Barrett's figure of 300,000 martyrs per year was widely used. His definition is important: "A martyr is a Christian believer who loses his or her life prematurely, in a situation of witness, and as a result of human hostility" (emphasis in original). So, for example, while forty million Christians were killed in World War II, only three million can be called martyrs. In that number he includes the one million of the six million Jewish martyrs killed in the Holocaust who were Christian Jews. Since 1991, when organized Soviet assassinations of Christian leaders and other oppressions ceased, Barrett estimates that there are 150,000 Christian martyrs each year. He adds, "Naturally, these have to be estimates because, although I am on the lookout for new information regularly, often I do not hear of even dreadful massacres for months or even years after the event." He notes that media coverage is always spasmodic, so we only hear about a fraction of even the most egregious cases.

Just to round out the picture, there are a little over a billion people classified as "non-religious" or "atheist," 766 million Hindus, 337 million Buddhists, and 20 million Sikhs. And of course within every group there are disputes over who really belongs-who is a "real" Jew, a "real" Muslim, a "real" Christian or, for that matter, a "real" atheist. God alone searches hearts, but among those who crunch numbers and keep spread sheets up to date, there is probably none more conscientious than David Barrett.

Sorting Out Historical Horribles

Invoking the most frightful of alternatives to having to deal with women, Professor Higgins sings, "I'd prefer a new edition / Of the Spanish Inquisition." Edgar Allen Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" and Dostoyevsky's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" are among the many literary masterpieces that have indelibly imprinted upon our minds the Spanish Inquisition as what historians call the "Black Legend." Now here comes along Professor Marvin O'Connell of Notre Dame, writing in Catholic Dossier. He wants it understood that he is no apologist for the Spanish Inquisition, but he is one of those rare historians who suffer from scrupulosity when it comes to facts and he thinks some things should be set straight.

For instance, Isabella and Ferdinand wanted the Inquisition established in 1478 for what seemed at the time unexceptionable political reasons. It is ridiculously anachronistic, says O'Connell, to speak of the Inquisition in terms of "church and state," since there was only the state that, in centuries of conflict with the Moors, defined its aspiration to control the Iberian peninsula in terms of Christianity-as its opponents defined their imperial ambitions in terms of Islam. To be a heretic was a religious offense but a political crime. In short, heresy was treason. That was also the case, it should be noted, in Elizabethan England where Catholics were persecuted and killed.

But in the modern lexicon of historical horribles, the Inquisition is right up there with the Gulag Archipelago and Auschwitz, and in its first decade and a half (technically, it lasted three hundred years) it was very cruel. A high figure for the number of people executed as heretics in that early period is two thousand. With tragic irony, almost all of these were conversos, Muslims and Jews who sought to escape expulsion by becoming Christians. The irony is that, had they remained Jews or Muslims, they could not have been deemed heretics. Of course not all conversos ended up at the stake. Historian William Monter, cited by O'Connell, writes that the New Christians "represent the first known large-scale and long-term assimilation of Jews into any Christian society. Although the process included many painful adaptations, some severe backlash, and even a decade of brutal persecution under the Inquisition, it ended with their general integration into Spanish society. Their descendents quietly flouted racist codes and contributed to the vibrant Catholicism of Golden Age Spain; St. Teresa of Avila was the granddaughter of a New Christian penanced by the Inquisition."

The Inquisition soon began to wind down. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Spanish sovereignty extended from Italy to most of Latin America, on average less than three persons a year were executed by the Inquisition, which was set up wherever Spain ruled. O'Connell writes that, in a century in which mass atrocities have reached a quantitative and qualitative pitch that would have been inconceivable to Torquemada, "I think a measure of discretion would be appropriate when bemoaning the wickedness of the Spanish Inquisition." No letters of protest, please. Let the record show that I, with Professor O'Connell, think the Spanish Inquisition was a very bad thing, and I will do all in my power to oppose any attempt by the Supreme Court to bring it back.

To Live Well

"If I had been asked to choose the course of my life I would not have done as well as the leading of Providence and the direction of superiors have done for me. I can honestly say that there is no one in the world whom I have cause to envy. All of this is not of my own deserving. It is God's gift, and he alone deserves the praise." That is Father Avery Dulles in a long appendix to a new edition of A Testimonial to Grace (Sheed & Ward), an account of his conversion to Catholicism first published fifty years ago.

In the appendix, called "Reflections on a Theological Journey," Fr. Dulles, undoubtedly the most widely respected Catholic theologian in the U.S. and a frequent contributor to these pages, is not entirely uncritical of the influence of the Second Vatican Council: "While many of the conciliar and postconciliar reforms were no doubt prudent and necessary accommodations to the times, they did not all strike me as improvements. It was difficult for me to accept the virtual banishment of Latin from the liturgy and the substitution of new popular tunes for the imposing Gregorian chant or the mellifluous Renaissance polyphony. The depreciation of devotion to the saints and the removal of shrines and statues from the churches struck me as impoverishments that had to be regretfully endured. It might be necessary, I concluded, to live through a barren season of slovenly improvisation until the Church could experience some kind of cultural revival."

Although bureaucracy and social action were not his fields, Fr. Dulles did get involved in the bishops' ambitious plans for a National Pastoral Council. That plan became the victim of a massive "Call to Action" conference which met in Detroit in October 1976. "The assembly at Detroit was nothing if not dramatic. More than 100 bishops were in attendance. A total of 1,340 delegates came from 150 dioceses and 94 national Catholic organizations as varied as the Catholic Committee for Urban Ministry, Network, the Center of Concern, the Quixote Center, and a variety of questionably Catholic organizations representing gay and lesbian activists, resigned priests, and the like. In three short days the carefully nuanced working papers were gutted by a series of radical amendments, resulting in some 182 resolutions, including some that called for ordination of women, acceptance of married priests, the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, freedom of conscience regarding contraception, amnesty to those who had evaded military service, condemnation of the production and threat to use nuclear weapons, support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the end of all discrimination against homosexuals. Many of these resolutions could not be accepted by the bishops, either because they were contrary to Catholic doctrine or because they were beyond the competence of the national conference."

That was twenty years ago, but it was, as they say, a defining moment and we are still living with the consequences. Dulles observes: "The Call to Action assembly provided an object lesson in how a small group of militant activists could manipulate a large majority of open-minded liberal delegates, thus aligning the assembly with an agenda that had little in common with the Catholic tradition, the social teaching of the Church, and the concerns of the great majority of worshipers. The process exhibited the naivete of the organizers and led to a defeat of the intentions of the bishops, who had hoped to usher in a new era of coresponsibility and participation in the life and government of the Church in this nation. What eventuated was a polarized situation that pitted reformers against conservatives. To this day the 'Call to Action' movement continues to press for the adoption of the rejected proposals of the Detroit meeting and thus gives a voice to groups that would like to see a Catholic Church organized along liberal democratic lines."

The experience with Call to Action reinforced Fr. Dulles' determination to stick to his theological last. Very much a Jesuit, he concludes his reflection with this: "I am immeasurably grateful for the years in which the Lord has permitted me to serve him in a society that bears as its motto: Ad majorem Dei gloriam. I trust that his grace will not fail me, and that I will not fail his grace, in the years to come."

When the Church "Interferes"

Herewith the opening paragraphs of a statement adopted by the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (FCS) and sent to all the bishops in the U.S.: "A great deal has been said about the difficulties of the application of Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae on Catholic universities in this country, particularly the application of Canon 812 of the Code of Canon Law, which requires that teachers in theological disciplines have a mandate from competent ecclesiastical authority. This is held by some to constitute an unwarranted 'outside' interference in the institutional autonomy of a university, and this in turn is said to be unacceptable by current United States academic and university standards and practice. The real difficulties supposedly posed for American Catholic institutions by Canon 812, however, have surely been greatly exaggerated. For one thing, American universities regularly and routinely accept many requirements imposed from 'outside'- requirements established by local, state, and federal governments, by accrediting associations, by foundations and other funding entities or donors, by professional associations in fields such as engineering, medicine, law, nursing, the sciences, and so on. American universities think nothing at all of accepting these requirements constantly imposed on them from 'outside'; it is standard practice, in fact. Only when the subject is theology and the outside entity is the Church, apparently, does the question of outside 'interference' in the governance of Catholic higher education institutions normally even get raised. Yet the very data of Catholic theology as a science necessarily contain within themselves the teaching of the Church's Magisterium; Catholic theology fails both academically and professionally if it does not accept this; Catholic institutions undermine their own necessary foundation when they try to pretend that they can do Catholic theology independently of the Church."

Exactly how Catholic institutions should be accountable to the Church is eminently debatable, but that they should be accountable would seem to be beyond dispute if they are to represent themselves as being Catholic. The concern that FCS has expressed to the bishops is that the bishops' committee responsible for the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae has apparently decided that it should not be implemented in the U.S. The statement's argument about institutions accepting "outside" requirements of government, foundations, and other agencies is much to the point. The history of Catholic higher education in recent decades is not so much one of seeking independence as it is one of exchanging the requirements of the Church for the requirements of institutions that have no interest in, and are frequently hostile to, education that is distinctively Catholic. And, of course, the problems of religious identity and academic freedom are not limited to Catholic schools. Evangelical Protestants who do not want their schools to go the secularizing way of their liberal Protestant counterparts might well wish they had an authoritative framework such as that proposed by Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Catholics have it, but, according to FCS, seem unprepared to use it. One must hope that the bishops are not so timorous as their critics suggest, and as the academic opponents of ecclesial accountability count on. Regrettably, last November's meeting of the bishops did little to enhance that hope.

Coming Clean About Brown

The above is the title of an important article by Richard E. Morgan, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Constitutional Law and Government at Bowdoin College, in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute. Arguing that we should get over the almost universal deference paid the 1954 Brown decision of the Supreme Court ending racial segregation in schools, Morgan brings together impressive evidence of a consensus among constitutional scholars that Brown was wrong legally but right morally. Yet allowing a moral override of the Constitution in that case, says Morgan, gave the courts a license for the judicial usurpation of politics that has taken place in the past four decades.

In their 1995 book The New Color Line, Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence Stratton argued that the roots of Brown are to be found in Gunnar Myrdal's very influential 1944 study, An American Dilemma, in which he contended, as they put it, that "America's racist impulses were so strong that segregation could not be overturned through the democratic process." Now, however, a growing number of scholars are saying that Brown, far from hastening the civil rights movement and the end of segregation, actually delayed a process of desegregation that was taking place under the pressure of cultural, economic, and demographic forces. Truly effective action against racial segregation was legislative, in the civil rights and voting acts of 1964 and 1965, which Brown did more to hinder than help.

Whether or not one agrees with that reading of the history-and I am inclined to the view that there was a positive correlation between Brown and, for instance, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956- Morgan's observation is convincing: "After decades of conservative electoral outcomes and hundreds of state and federal judicial appointments intended to end 'judicial legislation,' and with public opinion sullenly resistant to much of the social engineering ordered from the bench, how is it that legally unjustified judicial interventions into policy making and administration still occur routinely? Why does our sprawling 'rights industry' continue to grow and succeed so often in persuading judges to establish policies that cannot be put in place through the normal democratic processes of election and legislation? No single factor satisfactorily accounts for the powerful persistence of judicial activism in a period in which it is intellectually discredited and widely unpopular. The atavistic radicalism common in law faculties is certainly part of the answer. But a neglected key to understanding why judicial activism has proved so hard to stop is the aura of legitimacy bestowed on it by Brown."

Morgan continues: "In the wake of Brown constitutional law came to exercise the same sort of appeal to progressive reformers as economics did in the 1930s. Courts were now seen as a source of governmental power that could force unpopular changes that could not be secured through representative institutions-a shockingly illiberal proposition when made explicit, but wonderfully exciting as long as it is cloaked in euphemisms about helping democracy overcome 'deadlocks.' If judges could sidestep the electoral and legislative processes, bypassing the very forms of the Constitution, in order to serve the higher good of ending Jim Crow, then judges could do many things about which the country was deeply divided."

Even principled opponents of judicial usurpation are customarily intimidated when "the Brown card" is played. "Well then," it is said, "you must be opposed to Brown v. Board of Education." At which one mumbles something about "exceptions to the rule," lest one be accused of racism. Morgan thinks that response is a big mistake. "Once one admits a role in one case for the Court as extra-constitutional promoter and architect for social change, it is impossible to explain why that justification should not apply to other situations."

I am not sure that that necessarily follows. History is not a script written according to exceptionless principles. In retrospect, one may allow that there were instances in which only the judiciary could do something that needed doing. The catch is that, in principle, the judiciary is not authorized to decide when such an extraordinary circumstance exists. And, if there is a popular consensus that something needs to be changed, it can then be changed democratically, by legislation. To put it differently, one may allow that in a particular case the wrong means achieved a good end without affirming that wrong means should be employed to achieve good ends.

The claim that Brown was rightly decided on constitutional grounds is defended also by notable conservatives such as Robert Bork. We do not need to take a position on that, however, in order to oppose the subsequent exploitation of Brown to provide legal and moral cover for the judicial usurpation of politics. Morgan favors a constitutional amendment. "Above all, we must seek to secure passage and ratification of a constitutional amendment specifically barring government at any level from making decisions that either advantage or disadvantage persons based on race. This would finally complete the work of Reconstruction, align the text of the Constitution with our national ideals, and bury Jim Crow the way he should have been buried in the first place-by votes in legislative assemblies." Morgan was writing before the citizens of California democratically approved just such a measure, Proposition 209. Predictably, the opponents of the measure moved, immediately and successfully, to tie it up in the courts. This only increases the urgency of Morgan's proposal.

The merits of such an amendment would extend far beyond ending the nastiness and injustices generated by affirmative action, quotas, and other race-based social engineering. It would be a powerful declaration of independence from judicial tyranny, and heartening evidence that the American people still have an appetite and capacity for self-government, preferring to be citizens rather than subjects.

While We're At It