Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 77 (November 1997): 66-84.
Astute as ever, my friend Robert Louis Wilken, the distinguished church historian, is impressed by "We Hold These Truths," but he also admits to having some problems with the declaration released on the Fourth of July and included in our last issue. He agrees with other historians that a statement on a question of great public moment and endorsed by a wide array of forty-six Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox leaders may be without precedent in the American experience. But he wonders whether an important opportunity may not have been missed. Why, he asks, did it not include a more explicit and fulsome statement of Christian belief?
The statement repeatedly invokes the Declaration of Independence and its allusion to "the laws of nature and of nature’s God," but that, says Wilken, is a pretty weak reed on which to lean a presentation of Christian principles for public life.
His is a question both fair and important, and he is not alone in raising it. Other questions might be asked about the statement (hereafter WHTT). Where among the signers are the leaders of the oldline Protestant churches? Should it not have been a joint statement by Christians and Jews? And why did the statement receive relatively little attention in the general media?
Please note that my response has only the authority of this author’s opinion. While I helped convene the meeting that initiated the statement, assisted in the drafting (a process in which many were involved), and had a part in coordinating the entire effort, I do not presume to speak for the other signers, and, as it is said, the statement speaks for itself.
Taking the last question first, it is somewhat but not very surprising that the statement received relatively little attention in the general media. Media inattentiveness to religion is a commonplace. No doubt the familiar bias against things perceived as "conservative" also played a part. With notable exceptions, the signers are people perceived as conservative, although the argument of WHTT can hardly be fitted into the usual partisan boxes. In my conversations with reporters, a big problem seemed to be the timing of the statement. Scheduled for release on the Fourth of July, the final draft could not address directly the Supreme Court decisions that came down the week before and understandably dominated the news.
Reporters routinely operate by an established story line and, with respect to religion and the Court, that week’s story line was in perplexing disarray. On the one hand, the Court overruled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (for reasons having little to do with religion) while, on the other, it relaxed a little its rigidly secularist reading of the no-establishment provision of the Religion Clause in Agostino. Moreover, on assisted suicide it appeared to step back from its much-criticized practice of the judicial usurpation of politics (an appearance that is, I believe, misleading, for reasons set forth by Robert P. George and others in our October symposium on the Court).
Without a clear story line, journalists were confused. An editor at a major daily asked, "Don’t these decisions mean that the Court has already heard and heeded the message of the religious leaders?" In his view, WHTT was news arriving a week too late. As welcome as the decision on assisted suicide is—although it is a great deal more ambiguous than many seem to think—the answer to the editor’s question is emphatically in the negative. There is slight consolation in being reminded that a power usurped can, now and then, be wielded more cautiously.
So the general media generally missed the story of WHTT. That is too bad, but it hardly detracts from the significance of the statement. We are all—church leaders definitely included—inordinately anxious about the media’s construal of reality. It is true, as we are regularly told, that many Christians get their news about religion—sparse as the reporting is—mainly through the newspaper and evening news. That is an indictment of Christian leaders who have not developed the means to address their people directly. Although one may hope for improvement in the general media’s coverage of religion, the remedy does not lie there. Effective communication will not be achieved by having more and better ecclesiastical spin doctors. For many reasons, the likes of the New York Times and ABC will never be a reliable means of communicating what needs to be communicated to the Christian people. Misplaced reverence for the news industry only compounds the delusion, also among many Christians, that nothing is really important unless it is declared so by the prestige media. We must robustly reject the notion that to be on TV is to be.
WHTT is addressed to the Christian community, comprehensively defined. There it has received widespread attention in the Catholic press and, most notably, through evangelical networks such as Focus on the Family. Charles Colson, for instance, reports an unprecedented demand for the statement in response to his discussion of it on his radio program. So millions of Christians are aware of the argument of WHTT, and one can hope that it will generate thoughtful responses in the forums where Christians engage arguments.
The question about why these signatories and not others is not difficult to answer. For instance, many more Catholic bishops might have been asked to sign, but there are more than three hundred of them and that would have overloaded the list with Catholics. A few who were asked to sign declined to do so, not, they said, because they disagreed but because such a statement should come through the national bishops conference, a very improbable prospect given the ideological and ecumenical penchants of the conference staff. The general rule was to ask bishops who have a record of acting as apostolic teachers rather than as branch managers, so to speak, of a national denomination. It should be said also that the positive response of the bishops was no doubt due in great part to the strong support for the statement by John Cardinal O’Connor of New York.
It is true that the leaders of the oldline, sometimes called mainline, Protestant churches did not sign, although some were asked. One need not go far to find the reason why. It can be summed up in one word: abortion. At the heart of WHTT is the assertion that at the heart of our constitutional crisis is Roe v. Wade and related decisions in which the Court has usurped the democratic deliberation of the right ordering of our public life. The doleful fact is that the liberal oldline churches are incapable of challenging—and in some instances are actively supporting—the unlimited abortion license imposed on the country by the Court.
Thus has abortion become a determinative ecumenical factor. On his first visit to the U.S. eighteen years ago, John Paul II raised eyebrows among some of Catholicism’s ecumenical partners when he observed that Christian unity entails agreement on morality as well as on doctrine and ministry. In the more recent encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, he defined the common Christian cause as contending for "the culture of life" against "the culture of death." This contention is the deepest level of the "culture wars" and finds expression in what has been called "the ecumenism of the trenches" in which Orthodox, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic are allied—and are too often opposed by the leadership of liberal Protestantism. This circumstance might be deplored as an intrusion of social and political issues upon the quest for Christian unity were it not that abortion and the related life issues go to the heart of the Christian understanding of human nature and moral responsibility. It is not simply that Christians disagree about abortion. It is that this disagreement has forced the question of the theological rules by which liberal Protestantism determines the truth about abortion, or almost anything else.
There might have been merit in making WHTT a common statement by Christians and Jews, and that was discussed along the way. As some journalists point out, that would have had more media appeal. At the same time, one may ask why Christian leaders should be hesitant to speak as Christians to the Christian people of America. One reason for such hesitancy is that Christians have internalized a perverse notion of what it means that ours is a "pluralistic" society. It is thought that any public statement must include everybody, and must therefore fudge the differences that make the deepest difference. But pluralism means, inter alia, that the public is composed of discrete publics. A superficial homogenization is the very antithesis of pluralism. It is precisely in the service of pluralism that we attend to distinctive communities—always in a manner respectful of other communities that comprise what we call, in a much more attenuated sense, the national community.
There is an understandable nervousness, however, about speaking of "the Christian community," since self-described Christians make up about 90 percent of the citizenry. For those who are not Christians, democratic adherence to majority rule is mixed with fear of majoritarianism. Political majorities, some insist, should be formed without reference to nonpolitical characteristics of the majority of the people—without reference, for instance, to their being Christians. This anxiety about majority status afflicts, not without reason, also many Christians who feel a vestigial guilt about the real and alleged oppressions perpetrated by an earlier Christendom. That uneasiness is further sharpened by a salutary concern for minorities. It is a salutary concern easily twisted into the obsessive anxiety that has produced the distinctly unsalutary "politics of victimization" that so fractures and degrades our common life.
A hundred or even fifty years ago, a declaration on the state of the nation by "Christian leadership" was deemed unexceptionable. But that reflected a time of oldline Protestantism’s cultural dominance that is definitely past. What happened in the past half century is a muting of the Christian voice in public not because of secularization but because of the reconfiguration of Christianity in America, meaning chiefly the ascendancy of Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. More precisely, the Christian voice in its Catholic and evangelical expressions is not so much muted as it is viewed by the remaining liberal establishments as suspect, as an alien intrusion upon our public life.
It is now a matter of doctrine among the advocates of perverse pluralism that there is no moral consensus in this society, and certainly no consensus based on religion. One may at least entertain the possibility that debates about matters moral and cultural were in the past more pluralistic than at present. There were more arenas of discourse—politics, the university, professional associations, religious organizations—effectively engaged in such public debates. Today the news and entertainment industry aspires to monopolize such debates, indeed to monopolize what counts as "public." Other voices, notably religious voices, are dismissed as being of only "sectarian" interest, even though the positions voiced are supported by the majority of Americans—and, perhaps, precisely because it is suspected that they are supported by most Americans.
In short, we are for many reasons in a terrible muddle about what it means to be a pluralistic society, and one result is that Christian leaders are inhibited from publicly addressing themselves to the Christian majority. (Shades of the Moral Majority!) Even as it overcomes that inhibition, WHTT attends to the sensitivities involved. The statement declares,
Let no one mistake this statement as an instance of special pleading for Christians or even for religious people more generally. Our purpose is to revitalize a polity in which all the people of "we the people" are full participants. Let no one fear this call for our fellow Christians to more vibrantly exercise their citizenship responsibilities. We reject the idea that ours should be declared a "Christian" nation. We do not seek a sacred public square but a civil public square. We strongly affirm the separation of church and state, which must never be interpreted as the separation of religion from public life. Knowing that the protection of minorities is secure only when such protections are supported by the majority, we urge Christians to renewed opposition to every form of invidious prejudice or discrimination. In the civil public square we must all respectfully engage one another in civil friendship as we deliberate and decide how we ought to order our life together.
All that being said, a Christian-Jewish statement would likely have been better received by those, Christians included, who are nervous about the majority status of Christians. But there is little point in issuing statements that do not say what needs to be said, and the unhappy fact is that leaders of major Jewish organizations would be institutionally, if not personally, constrained from saying what WHTT says. They could not affirm, for instance, that "every unborn child should be protected in law and welcomed in life." As in ecumenical relations among Christians, so also in Christian-Jewish relations, the abortion question asserts itself and cannot be suppressed. Orthodox and more conservative Jews would agree on abortion, but perhaps not on other affirmations made. Thus trying to make it a Jewish-Christian statement would have resulted either in a glaring asymmetry between the prominence of the Christian and Jewish leaders or in a statement that did not say what we thought needed saying.
Because the Jewish-Christian connection is of extraordinary importance in our common life, a further word is in order. To the suggestion that it should be a Christian-Jewish statement, the question was raised: What about Muslims and others? That question is, in my judgment, of limited force. In terms of religious groupings and their social effect, we are not as far removed from Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955) as some would have us believe. Nor should Christians hesitate to give priority to the singular relationship with Judaism, grounded as it is in revelation and a shared story of salvation. Moreover, Islam, Buddhism, and other traditions have yet to achieve a communal self-definition in relation to the American experience, and, while many of their adherents might subscribe to specific positions advanced by WHTT, these communities have no developed moral and theological perspective on the American constitutional order, which is the main matter of the statement.
The reader may think I have rather gone on about this, but a striking oddity of the response to WHTT is that it is considered odd that Christian leaders should issue a public statement that, while taking respectful note of others, is addressed to the public that is Christian. It is doubtful that it would be considered odd anywhere else in the world. It is certain that in this country it is thought quite natural that any other identifiable community should be addressed by those who are, in one way or another, recognized as leaders. The perceived oddity in this case has to do, as we have seen, with confusion about the meaning of pluralism, and that confusion is compounded by prejudices about the separation of religion from public life. There are two additional anxieties, or perhaps they should be called suspicions. First, that to speak of the "Christian community" is exclusive, meaning that it does not include everybody. Second, that speaking as WHTT speaks is to suggest that Christians have an identity other than and an allegiance higher than the identity and allegiance involved in being American. Both suspicions are, of course, entirely justified.
Now to the beginning question of why WHTT does not offer a more explicit and fulsome account of Christian faith. In my view—and, again, this is no more than my view—there are several answers. The most obvious is that any statement can only do so much, and this one was intended to address, on the 221st anniversary of the nation’s independence, the moral status of our constitutional order and current threats to its integrity. In addition, theological agreement among all the signers is far from complete. Some signers draw what they believe is a sharp line between speaking together on matters of faith and speaking together on matters of public life, the latter having to do only with "general grace" (as distinct from saving grace) that is shared by all. Needless to say, I do not think the line is so sharp at all, but theirs is a viewpoint to be taken into account when enlisting the support of those who are nonetheless willing to be identified with others as "Christian leaders." However much WHTT reflects a dramatic realignment of Christians around certain questions of great moral and political moment, the sad reality of Christian disunity remains.
At the same time, no apology is required for a statement that deals with the just order of temporal affairs rather than the order of eternal salvation. Forced to choose between the two, the latter is infinitely more important, but we are not forced to choose. And the two are intimately related, the former concern being required by the love for neighbor that is enjoined upon those who are embraced by the saving truth of the latter.
The Declaration of Independence may indeed appear to be a "weak reed" on which to lean a Christian statement about the right ordering of our public life. There is truth in the observation of some political theorists that this constitutional order was built on a low but solid foundation. Not so low, however, as some would have it. Talk about "the laws of nature and of nature’s God" is, in the academic jargon, a thin discourse compared with all that Christians want to say about God and his ways with the world, but it is not a discourse incompatible with all that Christians want to say.
In textbooks from grade school through graduate school, the minimalist reading of the Declaration is presented as the normative reading. The founding is sanitized—one might say Jeffersonized—of "thicker" descriptions of reality, and especially of religious descriptions. (To be fair, Jefferson, although undoubtedly heterodox, was not the antireligious zealot so often portrayed.) The great majority of those who signed the Declaration and of those who wrote and ratified the Constitution thought themselves to be orthodox Christians, typically of Calvinist leanings. It never entered their heads that in supporting this new order they were signing on to a minimalist creed incompatible with their Christian profession. Rather, they self-consciously built on a Lockean-Christian synthesis that is itself the product of long Christian reflection on the right ordering of the res publica.
Against the secular and bowdlerized telling of the story of the founding, WHTT is an effort to re-situate the story in its moral, philosophical, and religious context. Already a half century ago, Father John Courtney Murray, whose work on religious freedom was vindicated by Vatican Council II, anticipated the day when Catholics might have to take the lead in restoring the founding presuppositions of this constitutional order. What he could not have anticipated is the partnership of evangelical Protestants, who, after many years in exile (largely self-imposed) following the modernist-fundamentalist division of the 1920s, have returned to the public square with such energy and determination.
WHTT reflects the understanding that the genius of the founding vision is, above all, in the free exercise of religion. Religious freedom is, both in order and in the logic of the thing, the first liberty guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The no-establishment provision of the Religion Clause is entirely in the service of the free-exercise provision. Religious free exercise was and is the most innovative and audacious aspect of the American experiment. The tangled confusion of court decisions since Everson in 1947 notwithstanding, the Religion Clause is solely a restriction on government, not on religion. Government cannot coerce or prohibit religious exercise. In the past fifty years, the courts have turned the Religion Clause upside down, subordinating the end (free exercise) to the means (no establishment). Again and again, government respect for religious exercise has been judicially condemned as government coercion of religious exercise, resulting in the prohibition of religious exercise wherever the government’s reach extends.
WHTT should be seen as a solemn protest against this deep distortion and a warning about its fateful implications for the principles of self-government. More than one critic has noted that religious leaders are not constitutional scholars, and complained that they exceed their competence when they speak of a "constitutional crisis." I will take second place to none among those who have cautioned religious leaders not to dissipate their credibility by promiscuous and ill-informed pronouncements on social and political questions. I have long urged the maxim: When it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary not to speak. I believe it is necessary to speak on the questions addressed by WHTT.
It is necessary to speak for the continued flourishing of this republic, which we, with the founders, recognize as a gift and trust from God. WHTT cautions:
If the Supreme Court and the judiciary it leads do not change course, the awesome consequences are clearly foreseeable. The founding principle of self-government has been thrown into question. Already it seems that people who are motivated by religion or religiously inspired morality are relegated to a category of second-class citizenship. Increasingly, law and public policy will be pitted against the social and moral convictions of the people, with the result that millions of Americans will be alienated from a government that they no longer recognize as their own. We cannot, we must not, let this happen.
The most urgent necessity for speaking, however, is not limited to the American circumstance, as important as that circumstance is for us and for the world. Christians of all times and places have had to think through the problems posed by their dual allegiance to the lordship of Christ and to the political orders in which they find themselves. Short of the right ordering of the universal polis in the Kingdom of God, Christians are always, in the phrase of the second-century letter to Diognetus, "alien citizens," and are obliged to do justice to both aspects of that admittedly awkward status. The questions addressed by WHTT are nothing new. They are the questions addressed by Christian leaders as various as Paul, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Hildebrand, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Murray. If Christian leaders are not competent to speak to the question of Christian allegiance, who is?
The constitutional crisis is most importantly a spiritual crisis—precisely the kind of spiritual crisis that this novus ordo seclorum was designed to avoid. With few exceptions, it was designed and adopted by serious Christians, and they believed it would minimize, if not eliminate, any conflict of loyalties between Christ and Caesar. The bowdlerized version of our founding ignores the ways in which religious freedom and freedom of conscience are themselves achievements of religion. Admittedly, the story is complex and goes back long before the American founding, but the general proposition holds that religious freedom is an achievement of and for religion, not against religion. At the time of the founding, this society was of course much less socially pluralistic than it is today, but religious freedom would turn out to be the surest friend also of authentic pluralism.
If people don’t like pluralism, there is an alternative. Monism keeps erupting in human history, on the left and on the right, in forms both religious and aggressively secular. Human beings are driven by deep monistic hungers that are impatient of complexity and hostile to difference. In our Western history, there was the monism of the Roman empire that conflated allegiance to the emperor and allegiance to the gods. With the rise of Christianity and the assertion that Christ is lord, it was proposed that he is lord of all or he is lord not at all. Working out what that means for the public order took many forms, including Augustine’s magnificent conception of the earthly and heavenly cities. The monism of one form of Christendom reached a peak with Hildebrand, who as Gregory VII received in 1077 the humble submission of Henry IV in the snows of Canossa.
In the societas Christiana, according to Gregory’s twenty-seven "sentences," the rule of Christ over all things was united in the office of the pope. The pope made and deposed kings and emperors, and he could both create and abolish kingdoms. It is easy to depict this as no more than a papal power grab, but Hildebrand was a holy and thoughtful man wrestling with the question of what today’s political philosophy calls "regime legitimacy." The alternative to Gregory’s solution at that time was the conflation of sacred and temporal authority in the despotism of the absolute monarch, as in the Orthodox East and commonly, if somewhat inaccurately, called caesaropapism. In the messy process known as the development of doctrine, Christian thought and practice hit upon one solution after another, all of them unsatisfactory, as everything is unsatisfactory short of the Kingdom.
But a most promising answer was emerging from within the Christian tradition. With the Christian appropriation of Aristotle in the thirteenth century, the concept of the Church as the sole, organic, and corporate union of the societas Christiana began to give way to an understanding of the integrity and even autonomy of politics. The entity of the state, following natural and human laws, was seen to have a legitimate place alongside the Church. It was proposed that political authority or sovereignty resided in the body of citizens, and that the exercise of power is accountable to the people, or at least to those who counted as citizens. It was not until the closing of the thirteenth century that the concept and term "political" gained currency in the West, which led, in turn, to other differentiations such as the moral, religious, social, and economic. Long before the schisms of the sixteenth century, and even longer before the philosophes of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, here was the beginning of the "modern" problem of pluralism in public life and its governing institutions.
After the Reformation there were renewed and sometimes magnificently
flawed efforts to reconstruct monisms in obedience to the lordship of Christ.
One thinks, for instance, of Calvin’s Geneva, Cromwell’s commonwealth,
or, in this country, the Bay Colony of Massachusetts. The turbulent emergence
of democratic theory and practice under Protestant auspices is brilliantly
told in A. D. Lindsay’s The Modern Democratic State. Still today
there are vestiges of the monistic dream kept alive in American evangelicalism
by movements such as
R. J. Rushdoony’s "Christian Reconstructionism." And I would not be surprised if there are some conservative Catholics who, in their heart of hearts, believe that Gregory VII and Innocent III had it right after all.
It is not accurate to say that Christianity has made its peace with pluralism and democracy, as though they were forced upon it and only grudgingly accepted. Nor is it accurate to say that pluralism and democracy are achievements of Christianity alone. But without Christianity they would not have been. The Church acknowledges these children as her own, even if some of the midwives involved in the delivery were less than friendly to the Church. Today, declares John Paul II in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), "The Church imposes nothing. She only proposes." She would not impose if she could, and that precisely for the sake of the mission of the Redeemer. Democratic theory and practice is not of first concern for the Church. Priority is and must always be given the mission of Christ. Among the things learned from the Church’s experience of religious monism is that it compromised and obscured the lordship of Christ by confusing his rule with ecclesiastical power in the temporal realm.
The 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year) is a magisterial (in every sense of the word) summing up of the theological, philosophical, and practical case for the modern democratic society. It is an argument that can be and has been embraced also by Protestant and Orthodox Christians. At the heart of the argument is a caution that explains WHTT’s sense of urgency about our constitutional crisis:
Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that the truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.
The development of the thirteenth century was to posit the integrity of the secular alongside the sacred. The American experiment was to respect and protect the sacred alongside the secular. The current course threatens to eliminate the sacred from all that is recognized as public. In reality, no society can survive without reference to the sacred; talk about legitimation is thinly disguised talk about the sacred. The real question is where the sacred will be located, and the sleight of hand worked by today’s courts is to locate it in the state, under the pretense of locating it in the autonomous individual. The sacralization of the state under ostensibly antireligious auspices is all too familiar from our experience with the undisguised totalitarianisms of history.
What John Paul calls the threat of "thinly disguised totalitarianism" is in the American circumstance posed not only by the judicial usurpation of politics. As WHTT notes, legislative dereliction is the other side of judicial usurpation. When the representatives of the people fail in their duty to engage the great questions, including the great moral questions, about the right ordering of our life together, it is not surprising that the courts take over. There is a symbiotic connection between legislative timidity and judicial arrogance. The crisis is deepened by other factors, including the entertainment industry’s assault on values and the efforts of educators to establish "agnosticism and skepticism" as the official belief system of society. But WHTT is right to direct its main attention to the judiciary, for it is there that these impulses receive systematic expression and attain the force of law.
WHTT takes note of the infamous "mystery passage" of Casey in which the Supreme Court declared that liberty acknowledges no higher law than the thought and will of the individual. Some constitutional scholars have urged that this and similar passages are but instances of reckless rhetorical inflation and entail no practical consequences. That is not persuasive. In Weisman the Court suggested that any ethic that is not of human invention is religious, and therefore its recognition in law violates the no-establishment provision of the Religion Clause. In Romer the Court cavalierly dismissed millennia of reflection on the right ordering of human sexuality as no more than an irrational "animus" comparable to racial discrimination. These are consequences of great consequence.
In their anticipation of the heavenly city, alien citizens know that every earthly order is, at best, second best. But in the past, most Christians in America have viewed this order as the first of the second best. Christians embraced the promise of religious freedom by which a sovereign people could publicly name a higher sovereignty. They believed there were truths not of their own invention to which, individually and collectively, they were to adhere—as in "the laws of nature and of nature’s God." Both individual license and majoritarian abuse were restrained by such truths to which the majority held itself accountable. It was a wondrously intricate system, designed neither for angels nor for beasts but for human beings capable of both barbarity and decency. Such was the Christian devotion to a temporal order not untouched by transcendent glory. WHTT does not say that order has been abandoned. It does say that it is gravely threatened.
What would it mean if religiously serious citizens were to become disillusioned with the American order and withdraw, if only inwardly, their allegiance? I earlier cited the pertinent passage from WHTT on popular alienation. Last November the editors of this journal started an enormous controversy when they wrote: "What are the cultural and political consequences when many more Americans, perhaps even a majority, come to the conclusion that the question is ‘God or country’? What happens not in ‘normal’ times, when maybe America can muddle along, but in a time of great economic crisis, or in a time of war when the youth of another generation are asked to risk their lives for their country? We do not know what would happen then, and we hope never to find out."
The symposium The End of Democracy? is now a book by the same title, and there I discuss in great detail the controversy generated by the symposium. I continue to ask: Why the great controversy? What do the critics suppose are the likely consequences of a crisis of political legitimacy? Is John Paul II a reckless alarmist when he speaks of the dangers of "thinly disguised totalitarianism"? Perhaps the critics have not had opportunity to explain sufficiently the reasons for their serene confidence that it can’t happen here.
Consider what has happened already. The nonestablishment of religion, the Court decrees, means the exclusion of the deepest convictions of most Americans from our politics and law. In a raw exercise of judicial power, legal protection is withdrawn from a large sector of the human community as the unborn are made subject to the lethal whim of private choice. While holding back for the moment from discovering a constitutional right to suicide, the Court can find no principled reason why the elderly, sick, and others living lives deemed not worth living should not be relieved of the burden. Further, the Court invites the states to a new flirtation with the culture of death by experimenting with such programs of putatively merciful relief. All the time making clear that the Court, and the Court alone, will have the final say on the matter.
Yes, it is objected, but such measures, as wrong and even abhorrent as they may be, are only permissive in character. They may allow bad things to be done but do not require Christians to do them. Christians are not required to violate their conscience. They can go on living their lives and speaking their minds as freely as ever. Not exactly. They can speak their minds but it is forbidden that their speech be given legal effect. That would be to establish an ethic that is not of human invention; that would mean taking forbidden legal cognizance of an irrational animus. The engines of secular monism are relentless.
Powerful pressures are brought to bear to induce active complicity in the permission of great evil. Protest against the evil is to be punished, as witness the federal government’s marshaling of draconian laws—some originally designed to combat organized crime and international terrorism—in order to break organizations and punish individuals involved in antiabortion protest. Never—certainly not in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—have so many American citizens been harassed, abused, arrested, and jailed for peaceful protest in a completely selfless cause. With honorable exceptions such as Nat Hentoff, civil libertarians either remain silent or cheer on the forces of government repression, while the prestige media successfully portray those who actively oppose the killing of children as "extremists."
"Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that the truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends." Those words of John Paul are disturbingly close to the position enunciated in decisions such as Casey and Romer. The position is not that of the majority of Americans but of an elite political trend in support of the essentially nihilistic proposition that there is no truth apart from the "truths" constructed by the autonomous self. The distinguished philosopher Richard Rorty carries "ironic liberalism" a step farther when he charmingly opines that, when confronted by people who say they know the truth, we must try to josh them out of it, or, if that fails, lock them up.
Crisis-mongering from all directions has over time closed many ears to any talk about crisis. Critics respond that this is a wonderful country in which to live, and of course they are right, but that is hardly to the point. In a time of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity, the message of WHTT is not likely to grab the attention of those who are at ease in the American Zion. How, they ask, can there be a threat to religious freedom when religious leaders are free to speak as they do in WHTT? The curious logic would seem to be that the sounding of an alarm is proof that there is nothing to be alarmed about. WHTT is a calm and deliberate argument that something has gone deeply wrong; a trend is already far advanced.
All the signers may not agree with everything said here, but the argument of WHTT is that, more than two hundred years after its birth, the nation is on a course that has brought about a constitutional crisis that, if it is not remedied, has the makings of a crisis of allegiance for many millions of its citizens. It is a remarkable, indeed unprecedented, thing when cardinals, archbishops, and bishops join with the leaders of some of the most vibrant faith communities of the country in making such an argument. Whether in agreement or disagreement, it is an argument that should be engaged by those who care about Christian witness in the public square of the first of second best cities.
"Shatter the Silence" is the theme of the campaign to raise popular awareness of religious persecution around the world. The campaign is meeting with encouraging successes. Earlier this year the State Department issued a report on the massive persecution of Christians, shattering its near silence on the question. Establishment human rights groups are being embarrassed into paying more attention to religious persecution. The Wolf-Specter bill in Congress would give the concern economic and diplomatic teeth in U.S. foreign policy. On Sunday, November 16, tens of thousands of local churches will concentrate attention on persecuted Christians.
For bringing about this potentially historic change in our understanding of global responsibility, special credit goes to a few indefatigable individuals such as Nina Shea of Freedom House, a Catholic (see her report, "Atrocities Not Fit to Print," on page 32 of this issue), and Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, a Jew. It is chiefly evangelical Protestants, however, who have generated the momentum and provided the hard organizational work for the campaign. Catholic leadership has been, for the most part, embarrassingly hesitant, and some seem content to kibitz from the sidelines.
Taking note of the campaign, the editors of Commonweal tell us that the question of religious persecution is "complex." Presumably our evangelical friends did not know that. Eager to be helpful, the editors offer what they call "some caveats." The editors allow that there is a "legitimate concern for Christian persecution," but question whether it is legitimate for the policy of a "pluralist society" to single out the persecution of Christians. They do not say what they think of the earlier and successful campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry. In any event, the editors acknowledge that the National Association of Evangelicals and others have made clear that their concern includes Tibetan Buddhists, Baha’is, and all other victims of religious persecution. So what’s the point of the first "caveat," apart from cultivating the perception of editorial superiority when it comes to nuance and complexity?
The editors offer the further "caveat" that there is a difference between religious persecution and discrimination. For instance, they note, England officially supports one established church. Our evangelical friends will no doubt be grateful for that intelligence. For another instance, "Some Islamic countries tolerate indigenous Christian groups but prohibit their growth." True enough. But some, probably most, do not. And some that do put up with Christians "prohibit growth" by killing Muslims who become Christian or share the Gospel with others.
More interesting is a third "caveat." The editors write, "Some of the conservatives leading the current effort seem unable to resist the impulse to make the issue a political football in America’s culture wars. They seem as interested in settling scores with the National Council of Churches and the United States Catholic Conference as in exerting effective pressure on persecuting governments." That is a very serious charge, made only slightly less odious by the qualifying "they seem." Nonetheless, there is an appropriate worry in this caveat. The campaign to ensconce concern for religious persecution in U.S. foreign policy is too important to be sidetracked by the usual conservative vs. liberal battles. At the same time, unlike the editors of Commonweal, the NCC and some of its member churches have not been content with superciliously raising complexities and caveats. They have repeatedly and openly attacked the campaign against religious persecution. The NCC, following its shameful pattern during the years of the Cold War, has belittled and often denied the persecution of fellow Christians, while the record of the Catholic Conference has been, shall we say, uneven.
After losing its lease in downtown Manhattan several months ago, Commonweal moved its offices to the Interchurch Centre at 475 Riverside Drive, a building once called the "God box," where the NCC and, until recently, the operations of major oldline churches were headquartered. Up there on Morningside Heights are concentrated, in addition to 475, Union Theological Seminary, Riverside Church, and the Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine. Morningside Heights is a veritable mount of memorials to the now departed cultural hegemony of liberal Protestantism. In a recent issue, Commonweal editors worried, tongue in cheek, that they might be morally contaminated by the efficient elevators, fine cafeteria, spotless rest rooms, and other comforts of 475. Their editorial on the campaign against religious persecution suggests that they might better worry about other forms of potential contamination. Now that Commonweal and the ancien régime of liberal Protestantism are cohabitating, one watches with interest to see who will influence whom, and how. The campaign against religious persecution is a splendid opportunity for the editors to persuade their new neighbors that this is a cause deserving of the deepest commitment by all Christians, and everyone else. (For parishes and study groups there is a fine "Shatter the Silence" video and information packet available from Shatter the Silence, P.O. Box WEF, Wheaton, IL 60189; or call 1-888-538-7772.)
"Spontaneous combustion" is the term used to describe the growth of "autochthonous" Protestant churches in Latin America. These are groups that are radically indigenous, having no connection with evangelical missionary efforts from North America or elsewhere. Writing in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, two veteran observers report: "Latin American Protestants traditionally have been accused of subverting Latin America’s unity by introducing religious forms that run counter to Latin culture. Traditional Protestants may well stand accused of such foreignness. But the autochthonous churches—with their rhythms, charismatic leaders, passion, personal sacrifice, and openness to the miraculous—are not only highly contextualized but, according to some, may be more attuned to the region’s culture than traditional Roman Catholicism." While "enculturation" is much discussed by Roman Catholics, the authors suggest that these new movements may be taking the lead.
"In recent years Catholic folk religion—religiosidad popular ("popular religiosity," as it is known in Latin America)—has received much attention and analysis. Far from the lofty philosophical and theological heights of official Catholicism, and equally far from the politically radical views of liberation theology, the down-to-earth practice of Latin America’s masses revolves around tangible practices and objects such as pilgrimages to shrines, religious fiestas, water from sacred springs, and objects with curative powers. Some look with disdain upon this popular religion. Others countenance religiosidad popular and hold in prospect the possibility of building upon it to lift the masses to a higher and more spiritual faith.
"It has not escaped the attention of many that Latin America’s autochthonous Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on cures and material blessings, may be a Protestant equivalent of Catholic popular religiosity. Observers share the same contrasting perspectives—disdain or appreciation. Some see only the crude manifestations of Protestant ‘popular religiosity’; others, thanking God that the masses are being reached, anticipate a growing maturity in these movements.
"The charges that Protestant autochthonous movements are susceptible to syncretistic influence is countered by some autochthonous leaders who draw attention to syncretistic ‘Romish’ influences in the historic Protestant churches. Such leaders also point out that historic churches in Latin America pay little attention to the demonic and may easily overlook the persistent superstitious or even occult practices of their members. Autochthonous groups, in contrast, recognize the existence of the spirit world and demand that new converts renounce all non-Christian practices."
It may be the case, we are told, that not all Christians must go through what Marx called "the fiery brook" of Feuerbach’s Enlightenment deconstruction of religion. "The real issue is whether mission-related churches can understand and adopt the best of a pre-Enlightenment worldview that is common to the masses in Latin America. This is a view that is open to the miraculous, to God’s intervention in daily experience, to biblical confrontation with the demonic, and to a focus in worship that emphasizes reveling in God’s presence rather than passive participation in a cerebrally oriented service." The relationship between Catholics and non-Catholic movements in Latin America is very much on the agenda of the initiative known as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." And, one may hope, it will be very much on the agenda of the forthcoming Roman synod for America (meaning both North and South) that begins in November.
When it comes to "journalistic ethics," reporters are always searching their souls. The search usually doesn’t come up with much. Terry Golway, a reporter who writes a regular column in the Jesuit America, takes on the subject of when it is right to expose public hypocrisy. The occasion is the appearance of a magazine story that a New York politician—whom Golway names but I shall not—is guilty of marital infidelity. Golway censures the slick magazine writer and implies that the story is only gossip, but he gives it further currency anyway.
At the same time, he believes there are cases where public exposure is appropriate, even imperative. "What if a pro-life politician has an abortion, or arranges for one? What if a politician who votes against gay rights legislation is, in fact, homosexual? What if the politician who parades a spouse and children before adoring audiences is, in fact, a lousy parent? What if a politician who preaches about family values is a regular client at a pornography shop?"
Note that all his examples have to do with conservative figures or, as he puts it, "politicians who sell themselves as moral leaders." The moral would seem to be that, if you don’t want to be charged with violating the standards you espouse, espouse no standards. But of course, moralism is at least equally pronounced among liberals. How about an antismoking crusader who smokes in private, a proponent of black rights who makes racist jokes on the side, or a gay rights supporter who disowns his daughter because she is lesbian? Whether the standards be about matters great or trivial, whether espoused by the right or the left, hypocrisy is an equal opportunity offense.
Where Golway goes entirely off the tracks is with another example he offers. "A friend of mine tortured himself before reporting several years ago that the wife of a Right to Life candidate had had an abortion years before. Was that fair? Absolutely." If the friend really tortured himself, perhaps—although for some reason I am inclined to doubt it—he had deep pro-life convictions. In fact, stories of the kind mentioned appear with some regularity, and they have nothing to do with Golway’s subject of hypocrisy. For instance, Jean Garton, founder of Lutherans for Life, has frequently called attention to the number of women in the pro-life leadership who were once strongly pro-choice and had themselves resorted to abortion. In the case as described by Mr. Golway, the invasion of privacy was entirely unjustified, since his wife having had an abortion has no bearing on the credibility of the candidate’s position. Of course a smart candidate might, if his wife agreed, cite the horror of her experience as further reason for opposing the abortion license, just as Jean Garton and others do.
Mr. Golway’s confusion of hypocrisy with moral fragility and the possibility of repentance is not untouched by partisanship. The politician to whose alleged infidelity he draws attention (while indicating that we should ignore it) is not, we are assured, among those who present themselves "as moral leaders or vibrant personalities." The politician in question, I expect, might be somewhat ambivalent about Mr. Golway’s odd endorsement. But Golway’s point is that Americans do not look to political leaders for moral leadership, and he thinks that may be a good thing. "In today’s money-poisoned politics, after all, there is no shortage of scandal in high places."
Thus Mr. Golway ends his soul-searching about public hypocrisy and journalistic ethics with the suggestion that scandal in high places—could he possibly be thinking of the White House?—really doesn’t matter that much, but, to the extent it does matter, the blame should be placed on money poisoning, and the remedy is, of course, campaign finance reform. So much searching to come up with such a limited and partisan conclusion. At the end, Mr. Golway returns to the rumor about the politician’s infidelity and writes, "It’s too bad slick magazine writers are so limited in their fields of interest." Quite. Not that anyone would call America slick.
Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal has done a great service in recent years by exposing the hysteria that seizes whole communities when someone accuses a teacher or nursery school of sexual abuse. Here and there all over the country, like witch hunts of old, the madness suddenly breaks out and hundreds of people are harassed, arrested, and sometimes jailed for years on the flimsiest of evidence. It is frightening, and, of course, many lives have been ruined. Naturally, there are lawyers and experts, usually psychologists of one sort of another, who make a living out of all this.
From the peanut gallery: Well yes, but what about the abused kids whose lives are ruined? A good question. We dare not belittle the seriousness of the sexual abuse of children. At the same time, sexual abuse is subject to wildly different definitions, and there is something terribly wrong when parents and other adults are afraid of the legal repercussions in the most innocent gestures of affection.
So why do I mention this? (Warning: Now it gets controversial.) In recent months I have received or been shown letters from a number of clergy, Protestant and Catholic, who are in jail for sexually abusing minors, male and female. Not surprisingly, some claim they were railroaded, and the studies of Rabinowitz and others make that all too believable. Guilt or innocence aside, however, there is another and profoundly disturbing factor here. A common lament of these clergy is that their bishops and fellow clergy have completely cut them off. One priest says he has not heard from or been visited by a priest for three years. "Risk aversion," another says, is the order of the day, as bishops follow the advice of lawyers who tell them to keep their distance. Are these letters self-serving? Probably so. But one bishop tells me they ring true to him, although he maintains close contact with the one priest in his diocese who has been charged with abuse. A Methodist supervisor says, "I don’t care what he’s done, he’s one of ours."
Catholics in particular should understand that a priest is still a priest, as in "You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizidek." Nowhere does the Bible say we should visit those in prison, unless they’re in for child abuse. I was discussing this with an acquaintance and mentioned the words of Jesus, "When I was in prison you visited me." To which he immediately responded, "But Jesus would never be in prison for something like that!" So he would be in prison for insider trading?
The Diocese of Dallas has been hit with a huge $120 million judgment for its negligence over a period of years in letting a Father Kos get away with interfering with young boys. It appears the responsibility rests chiefly with the predecessor to the current bishop, but that in no way lets the diocese off the hook. In order to distance the diocese from the sleazy business, it has announced that it is appealing to Rome to nullify the priest’s ordination on the grounds that he, in order to be ordained, lied to the diocese about his sexual proclivities. Some may think that good public relations, but critics point out that the diocese is responsible for priestly formation and screening candidates for ordination. In addition, it is noted that the last time Rome nullified an ordination was forty-seven years ago.
An official of the diocese says the purpose of the appeal is to make emphatically clear that Fr. Kos is "isolated from the Catholic Church." There is something disturbingly un-Catholic about such an expression. I have no idea whether this Fr. Kos is repentant or not, but even if he isn’t, isolating someone from the Church is not my understanding of the Catholic way. Many years ago, G. K. Chesterton responded to an anti-Catholic critic who charged the Church with tolerating a vast horde of criminals, prostitutes, and other unsavory types who hang on to its fringes. That is a fact, said Chesterton. "They cannot get the Church’s sacraments or solid assurances, except by changing their whole way of life; but they do actually love the Faith that they cannot live by. If you explain it by supposing that the Church, though bound to refuse them absolution where there is not amendment, keeps in touch with them and treats their human dignity rather more sympathetically than does the world, Puritan or pagan, that also probably refers to a real fact. It is one of the facts that convince me most strongly that Catholicism is what it claims to be. After two thousand years of compromises and concordats, with every sort of social system, the Catholic Church has never yet become quite respectable. He still eats and drinks with publicans and sinners."
Whether sinners are on the fringes or presiding at the altar, the Church is still the Church. A priest’s betrayal of his office is a terrible thing, and crimes must be punished. More terrible to contemplate, however, is a Church that, for reasons of institutional risk aversion, isolates sinners from the redeeming love of God in Christ, which is the only reason for the Church’s existence.