The Public Square:
A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 78 (December 1997):68-83.

A More Real World

The day Mother Teresa died, an editor at USA Today asked for an op-ed piece, which I did. In it I quoted her words upon receiving the Nobel Prize for peace (see below). The next day a more senior editor called to say they couldn’t use it. "We had in mind," he said, "more on the role of the media and less on abortion." In other words, they didn’t want a piece on Mother Teresa.

She was a most improbable celebrity. Less than five feet short and craggy-faced, she was born in, of all places, Albania, and followed God’s call to live with and for "the poorest of the poor," the street people of Calcutta. And there she died at age eighty-seven. Not a very promising career path toward becoming one of the best known and most loved people of the century. But, of course, that was not her goal.

In the same week Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed, and inevitably comparisons were made. The media frenzy and orgy of bathos was tasteless in the extreme, but it is fitting that she was mourned. Striking, however, were the commentators, many of them secularist to the bone, who went on about her having been "canonized" as a "saint." It is strange how even the Church’s enemies reach for the Church’s vocabulary when their words fail them. It was "the week of two saints," according to one news program. Comparisons need not be invidious, but the contrast could hardly be sharper. Diana was killed at age thirty-six in the company of a wealthy playboy who, it was intimated to the press, she intended to marry. Born into British aristocracy, she had married into the royal family, and loaned her publicity to approved causes. And yes, she was beautiful.

The other woman was vowed to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience; her only beauty was her laughter and her eyes (what laughter! what eyes!); they reflected the joy of doing, as she put it, "something beautiful for God." It is no criticism to note that we probably never would have heard of Diana had she not married Prince Charles. Like some dissident Catholic theologians, she owed her celebrity entirely to the institution that she trashed. At the same time, we should never have heard of Mother Teresa. The whole point, after all, was to hide her life away in the lives of those whom the world is glad enough to forget. The unwanted, the unneeded, the unloved. Mother Teresa’s goal, she often said, was not to be successful but to be faithful. But astonishingly successful she was, in a curious way. As wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove, she employed that success in the service of the truth that she served.

A Fool for Christ

The rumor got out about this little nun in India doing something beautiful for God, and it was spread far and wide, notably by the late Malcolm Muggeridge of BBC. Over the years she would become a spiritual magnet, and today the Missionaries of Charity count more than four thousand sisters and novices, four hundred priests and brothers, and hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers, all serving the poorest of the poor in a hundred countries. The mighty of the world, who pride themselves on their realism, heaped honors upon her, often in lieu of heeding her words. Against the world’s realism Mother Teresa did not propose anything so flimsy as idealism. She called us to a different realism, a more real world, a world where life is found when lost in service to others. It is easy to live in a dream world where we fantasize that we are royalty. Much harder, and infinitely more rewarding, is the real world where the royal family is composed of those whom Jesus called "the least of these," and of those who find life in surrendering life to their care.

Mother Teresa became what the apostle Paul called "a fool for Christ," and it is not surprising that some thought her simply a fool. To the powerful and worldly wise who believe an over-populated world is filled with millions of expendable people who never would be missed, she was a bothersome naïf who insisted on the dignity of every life, destined from eternity to eternity. She was a rebuke to politicians and ideologues who claim to speak for the poor but are not on speaking terms with poor people. "If you don’t know them, you don’t love them and don’t serve them," she said. She had no grand schemes for ridding the world of poverty, which all too often are schemes for ridding the world of poor people. In defiance of elites who dismiss charity as a "band-aid solution" and demand that charity be replaced by justice, she called her order the Missionaries of Charity, knowing that charity is but another word for love. She knew that justice without love is deadly.

Mother Teresa was not a social worker who happened to be a nun. For her, people were not clients or cases. In those she served she saw the face of Christ—and it did not matter whether they were Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or bereft of any sustaining faith. She believed with them and for them. Her business was not to deliver services but to transform lives. For her, even the most wretched life was transformed by transcendent hope. There is, she insisted, no such thing as a life not worth living. She stood at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, bearing witness that all is gift, all is grace. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."

Some, including some Catholics, derided her as dreadfully old-fashioned. The Missionaries of Charity were pathetically out of step with the progressive directions pioneered by so many religious orders in recent decades. And her "authoritarian" leadership was an embarrassment. Those who confuse the authoritative with the authoritarian were scandalized. Mother Teresa did not deny that she had bowed to authority. It was the authority of the one who said, "Come, follow me"—with all you have, with all you are, all the way. And, like Mary, who is the Mother of us all, she said, "Let it be." And it was. It was for her, and it is for thousands who have followed in her following him. In our time, and in all times, submission is a scandal. Mother Teresa scandalized the world, and she scandalized many in the Church. As was the case with the Lord she followed, she forced the question of whether she was right or whether she was crazy. One way of avoiding the question was to turn her into a celebrity.

It has been said that a celebrity is someone who is well known for being well known, but there is more to it than that. One might say she was an accidental celebrity, but more than accident is involved. In a world captive to wealth and glitter and power, her witness kept alive the rumor that there is a radically different measure of human greatness. And even those whom the world counts great half suspected that she was right. She was greatly honored by those whose measure of greatness she challenged. They were even willing to overlook her violation of their conventional wisdoms. Upon accepting the Nobel Prize for peace in 1979, she declared: "To me the nations with legalized abortion are the poorest nations. The greatest destroyer of peace today is the crime against unborn children."

She said much the same at a big prayer breakfast in Washington with Mr. Clinton and his courtiers in attendance. They listened, or feigned to listen, with faces fixed and, perhaps, teeth gritted. Afterwards, of course, all rose in a standing ovation. "She is a saint, after all, and allowances must be made," some no doubt said to themselves, before turning their attention again to what they call the real world. Mother Teresa agreed with John Paul II that the great contest of history is between the "culture of death" and the "culture of life," and that the culture of life is simply, and demandingly, the way of unconditional love for those whom Jesus called "the least of these." Those who bestowed the honors partly hoped and partly feared that this strange little nun was right.

The unborn, the dying, the radically handicapped, the lepers, those afflicted with AIDS—all those who are shunned by the sleek and strong because they smell of neediness and death—live along the fault lines of society. Mother Teresa understood that a people is judged not by the successful whom we celebrate but by those along the fault lines for whom we care. The message she embodied, and the message of the thousands of sisters all over the world who joined her in the Missionaries of Charity, is disturbingly countercultural. It is disturbing because it demands a response not simply of admiration but of emulation. That’s the way it is with saints. Also with the saint whom a cynical world, not quite knowing what to do with the radical innocence of faith, turned into a celebrity.

Christians know better. Or at least we should. And sometime soon—perhaps in the lifetime of some who are reading this—she will be formally beatified, canonized, and raised to the honors of the altar. Little children will ask whether you ever saw her. And you will answer, "Oh yes. That laughter! Those eyes! What joy!" And another generation will listen for the voice that says, "Come, follow me," and will throw away their lives, and thereby find their lives, in doing something beautiful for God.

Gridlock in the Public Square

The above is from the title of a column in the New York Post that has stirred up quite a furor. E. V. Kontorovich of the Post editorial board wrote that all kinds of groups are "piggy-backing" on Jewish success in crashing the Christmas party. He calls this "the Menorah Principle." Some years ago, Jews demanded equal space in the public square and got the menorah put up beside the Christmas tree. The very minor feast of Hanukkah was inflated to the size of Christmas, and now fabrication has been added to inflation as some blacks demand equal space for the newly invented festival of Kwanza.

This is getting crazy, says Mr. Kontorovich. In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a district not notable for its cultural diversity, inclusivity requires a Christmas holiday display crowded with Christmas trees, menorahs, Kwanza kinara candle holders, and gold-laminated pictures of Buddha. Enough already! cries Mr. Kontorovich. In a country where more than 90 percent of the people are Christians, why can’t minorities be tolerant enough to let the Christians celebrate their big festival? "Unless society draws a linethe only obvious place to draw it is at Christianity—an unmanageable tumult will ensue: gridlock in the public square," concluded Mr. Kontorovich. For his troubles, he was attacked with a bombardment of protest in the letters column of the Post.

Of course Mr. Kontorovich has a point. In most of the country, a Christmas tree—which is a theologically ambiguous symbol at best—poses no big problem. But where there is an influential Jewish presence, the accompanying menorah has become a tradition by now (traditions being more or less instant in a culture afflicted by presentism). It would cause an awful fuss to remove the menorahs, and where it is tried the courts declare it illegal. One might argue that we should "draw the line" at the tree and the menorah, there being a special connection between Judaism and Christianity (as in the Judeo-Christian tradition) that doesn’t obtain with Islam, Buddhism, or, heaven help us, Kwanzaism. But that line would be impossible to sustain, socially or legally. And we really do not want the courts getting into the theology of the singular relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

An alternative to gridlock is that, in the public square and the public school, we might declare it the Religion Season rather than the Christmas Season. But the courts would likely prohibit that as an impermissible "advancement of religion," even if the town atheist got to put up a sign indicating his dissent. The editors at the Post note that most of the protest letters came from Jews, and wondered where the Christians are on this. The answer is that many Christians feel very uneasy about being a majority. Call it the virtue of humility, guilt over their real and alleged oppression of minorities in the past, or just loss of nerve. Our more liberal churches are not at all sure that Christianity should be "privileged." Not even in church, and certainly not in the public square. More orthodox Christians, too, are easily intimidated by the charge of "triumphalism."

A Minority Is a Minority

So what is to be done? Where it does not raise community hackles, a Christmas tree or, much better, a crèche is a very nice thing. And if the Jews in the community really want a menorah there, why not? For Jews it is a sign that they really belong, while for Christians it speaks of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament promise. Plus, it shows that Christians are very nice to Jews. But it becomes a different matter when what Kontorovich calls "the 2 percent religions" (and 1 percent and near zero percent) all want to get in on the act. The Cherry Hill solution is simply silly. Moreover, there is no more sure way to trivialize religion than to suggest that the crèche, the menorah, a Kwanza candle, and a laminated Buddha are all "equally meaningful" symbols of whatever.

E. V. Kontorovich is right. The "Menorah Principle" was wrongheaded from the start. Here in New York it was pressed by the very Orthodox, such as the Lubavitcher hasidim. There is painful irony in a reach for symbolic "equality" that involves distorting Jewish tradition in order to produce a simulacrum of Christmas. Jews were and still are divided on the wisdom of the Menorah Principle. Jews can withdraw from their public entanglement with Christmas, but there is no agreement on doing that. Christians cannot ask them to withdraw without sparking an enormous public row.

Were it not for the judiciary’s mindless pronouncements on the "establishment" of religion, it would have been possible for the overwhelming majority of citizens to publicly celebrate one of their really important festivals. In fact, it happened quite naturally until the Supreme Court, beginning in 1947, took its "strict separationist" turn of hostility to religion. Before that, Jews more or less gladly left Christmas to the Christians, recognizing that a minority of 2 percent is, well, in the minority. The Court’s hostility to religion (especially the religion of the majority) made common cause with the Lubavitchers’ zeal for religion, producing the Menorah Principle, about which not much is to be done. Except perhaps to let it run its course and destroy itself in the Cherry Hill Implosion. Or, at the risk of sounding utopian, the courts might come to their senses.

Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that, while the public school is a government school, the public square is not coterminous with government square. Government schools are on the defensive and may over time give way to schools of parental choice, as more people realize that, when it comes to what is most important in education, government makes a complete hash of things. The public square, however, includes many spaces that are not governmental. It involves malls, which in many places are the closest thing to a town square. And it involves church properties and the front lawns of homes, where citizens can be as exuberant as zoning laws allow in celebrating Christmas as a Christian thing.

Where that can still be done in government space as well, let it be done. But it cannot be done where the Menorah Principle is entrenched, and it seems it will soon be entrenched everywhere. Certainly, Christians should not be complicit in the public trivialization of Christmas. And I expect there will be a return to sanity some day when enough Jews decide that a muddled exhibition of menorah, Kwanza candle, Islamic star and crescent, Buddha, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is not really the statement they wanted to make about the place of Judaism in American public life. When that happens, Christians, Jews, and everybody else will be permitted to go back to celebrating their holidays as holy days.

Here I Stand.
And Here, and Here:
The ELCA in Assembly

A delegate to the recent assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) said he was reminded of the Yiddish description of a trimmer who wants to be loved by all, "Er tantsan af tszey khasenes"—he dances at every wedding. This was not simply a matter of dancing, however, but of accepting marriage proposals. The assembly had before it action on several proposals: a joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic statement declaring that differences on justification by faith are not church-dividing; a Formula of Agreement with Reformed churches, including a doubtfully Reformed body, the United Church of Christ; and a Concordat of Agreement with the Episcopal Church. The justification statement was hardly a marriage proposal. It simply said that what Lutherans had historically claimed was the chief obstacle to reunion with Rome is no longer an obstacle. There was no indication, however, that that brings wedding plans any nearer, although Catholics may wonder why not. The Episcopal Concordat was a proposal, and it was declined by a very narrow margin, with promises that it would be accepted the next time around. So the ELCA ended up with only one wedding for now.

"If the Lutheran and Reformed churches can bridge historic differences between Luther and Calvin, other denominations would do well to take a close look at what we’re doing," said H. George Anderson, bishop of the ELCA. One may wonder whether differences were bridged or simply obscured and ignored. Among oldline churches, Lutherans had an enviable reputation for being theologically serious, but that may be a thing of the past. Putting it with perhaps excusable indelicacy following his church’s recent general convention, an Episcopal priest observed, "This church suffers from a theological disease that might be called Anglican Integrity Deficiency Syndrome, and until it is cured we should not be practicing unprotected ecumenism." Much the same might be said of all the oldline liberal churches, which means that nobody is in danger of being more infected than they already are. But we should not too readily accept such a jaundiced view.

Lutheran theological integrity centered on justification by faith. This, it was declared, is the article of doctrine "by which the Church stands or falls." Justification, it was said, is the reason why Lutheranism, which started out to be a reforming movement within the Catholic Church, had to become a separated communion. If this is the case, it would seem that the adoption of the Lutheran-RC statement on justification would have momentous consequences. But it seems that was not and is not the case.

Outside the theological fraternity, it is doubtful that the radical teaching of justification by faith alone, as understood by Martin Luther, has been distinctively formative of popular Lutheran piety. Surveys done over the years suggest that Lutherans, pretty much like most other Christians, expect that God will be nice to them at the judgment because, all in all, they are pretty nice people.

W. H. Auden caught this in his 1940 poem, "Luther." He spoke of Luther’s "conscience cocked to listen for the thunder. . . . The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head. . . . All Works, Great Men, Societies are bad. The Just shall live by Faith . . . he cried in dread." Then Auden’s conclusion: "And men and women of the world were glad, / Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives."

I write with great ambivalence about the ELCA. It is the body to which I once belonged, and it is no mere commonplace when I say that there remain some of my dearest friends. Most of them call themselves "evangelical catholics," and they subscribe to an understanding of Lutheranism that was in this century most influentially advanced by Prof. Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-1973) of Concordia Seminary, St Louis, my alma mater. We affectionately called him the Pieps. He believed that Lutheranism is a "corrective," temporarily separated from Rome until Rome no longer rejected the message of justification by grace through faith.

A friend, a former Lutheran who also became a Roman Catholic, wrote after the ELCA assembly: "As much as I hate to admit it, the hopes and expectations that we received from the Pieps have turned out to be illusory. Lutheranism is not, and does not wish to be, part of the Catholic Church, and as skillful as we may have been in meeting the arguments of our critics, in the end they had a firmer grasp on Lutheran identity. . . . The one thing that is certain that we got from the Pieps is that neither you nor I ever wanted to be Protestant. As you once said, I do not want to be part of a ‘corrective’ but part, quite simply, of the Church. It is hardly surprising that I have not looked back since becoming Catholic. What I have learned is that there is no way to be Catholic without being part of the Catholic Church. Protestantism is something different altogether."

Such sentiments understandably raise hackles. After all, there are the lower-case catholics of the Anglo-Catholicism launched in the nineteenth century, and distinguished figures such as Philip Schaff (1819-1893) and John Nevin (1803-1886) of the "Mercersburg Theology," and of course the self-identified evangelical catholics in several Protestant denominations today. Evangelical catholicity has a noble pedigree. Many of its adherents, like John Henry Newman, finally decided that they had been holding on to "a paper church" and entered into full communion with Rome. Yet others soldier on where they believe God has put them.

Then too, there are numerous others for whom being unabashedly Protestant is no problem. Here we encounter a deep difference between ecclesial and nonecclesial ways of being Christian. In the nonecclesial—or perhaps we should say less ecclesial—mode, the chief thing, finally the only thing, is one’s personal relationship to Christ. To the extent the Church is important, it is important to sustain that relationship and provide ways of cooperating with other Christians, and for that the local church will do. For the ecclesial Christian, Christ the head and his body the Church are inseparable; faith in Christ and faith in the Church is one act of faith; the imperative of fidelity is to be in closest communion with the Church most fully and rightly ordered through time.

Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy represent ecclesial Christianity. The Protestant denominations include ecclesial Christians who are engaged in a running argument that their churches are or should be catholic, even upper-case Catholic. Among the most thoughtful of evangelical catholics in the ELCA is Pastor Leonard Klein of Christ Church, York, Pennsylvania, and I will here steal shamelessly from his account of the assembly in Forum Letter.

Although early on there were those who agitated for Lutheranism to accommodate itself to the general Protestantism that German and Scandinavian immigrants found in America, the Lutheranism that prevailed here was mainly "confessional," meaning that it adhered to the sixteenth-century confessions contained in the Book of Concord. That Lutheranism presented a forthright theological position, more or less confidently asserting, "We believe, teach, and confess that . . ." That confessional tradition is not dead, says Pr. Klein, but is succumbing to "the current form of classical liberalism." By that he means the "experiential-expressivist" position described by Yale’s George Lindbeck (another evangelical catholic among Lutherans) in his influential book The Nature of Doctrine. In this liberalism, individual sensitivity, choice, and experience occupy the throne. As Klein puts it, "The sharpest lines are drawn against the drawing of lines, and thus in times of decision liberalism trumps the remaining confessionalism."

The refusal to draw lines was reflected in the assembly’s adoption of a sacramental practices statement that permits the use of both wine and grape juice in the Eucharist, communing infants and not communing infants, and in the continuation of the policy whereby the ELCA pays for abortions obtained by its employees. It is, of course, a matter of choice and nothing is imposed on anybody, except of course that all must pay into the central account that funds abortions. Everything must be done to avoid controversy. As Pastor Richard Koenig wrote of the assembly in the Christian Century, "This is a church that wants above all else to stay together." (Emphasis added.) That controlling imperative explains the response to the three ecumenical proposals, Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Episcopalian.

In the larger world of ecumenical affairs, there has been much talk in recent years about "reconciled diversity." The idea is that differences once thought to be church-dividing may not be so, that unity does not mean uniformity, and so forth. "What we have achieved with the Reformed," writes Pr. Klein, "true to the mood of the inclusive church, is unreconciled diversity."

The narrowly rejected Concordat of Agreement with the Episcopalians was rejected because it contained a hint that something may be imposed. However gingerly, and however slowly, Lutheran ministries would have been brought into "apostolic succession." The fear of "hierarchy," and the suggestion that there might be something not entirely in order about Lutheran ministries as they presently are, turned out to be intolerable. On the other hand, the Joint Declaration on justification with the Catholics sailed through almost unanimously. It demanded nothing. In fact, as Klein notes, it perfectly suited the animus against drawing lines since it was thought that "the old lines on the doctrine of justification were too sharp and polemical."

In his insightful book No Offense, sociologist John Murray Cuddihy wrote of the terminal "niceness" of American Protestantism. Being nice enables us to stay together, and staying together is what is wanted above all else. The old position that Catholics and Lutherans fundamentally disagree on justification was not nice. Agreeing that justification is no longer church-dividing was the nice thing to do. I hasten to add that the Joint Declaration is a superb piece of theological work and it should have been approved. This analysis deals with why it was approved.

A little under 20 percent of the delegates opposed the Formula of Agreement with the Reformed, and it is likely that they were disproportionately clergy and others who were more familiar with the historic differences between Lutherans and Calvinists. "It was a dire decision," writes Klein. "The ELCA opted for pluralistic denominationalism over confessionalism. For thirty years the dialogue [with the Reformed] submerged fundamental disagreements in eucharistic faith and practice. People who had to know better trivialized differences in hearings and on the floor, and the assembly cheerfully went along."

The proponents of fellowship with the Reformed repeatedly cited Calvin over the more radical Zwingli. Yet Calvin consistently stopped short of saying what Lutherans insisted upon, namely, that the bread and wine in the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. Writes Klein, "Our confessional assertion [of the Real Presence] puts us on the Catholic side of the great divide, and we just stepped over it as if it were not there. . . . Liberalism won, not ecumenism. The latter seeks genuine agreement in the truth of the Gospel; the former just wants everyone to get along."

As for the Episcopalians, two years from now the next assembly may accept an amended Concordat. This time around there was almost the two-thirds needed for approval. "Lutherans will find a way to move slowly into the historic episcopate," says Klein, "but long before they arrive at the fullness of that goal unreconciled diversity and flat-out liberalism will have done their work, and any genuine Lutheran confessionalism, to say nothing of a truly catholic vision of Lutheranism, will have faded." For some Lutherans, the Episcopal link was supposed to provide a reinforcement for the catholic and orthodox side of Lutheran identity, and perhaps even nudge Lutheranism toward ecclesial reconciliation with Rome, but that supposition seems less than credible in view of the doctrinal and moral disarray of the Episcopal Church.

Klein writes: "The autonomous religious self needs a big tent because it has gnosis. The moral issues slip first, then ‘core doctrine’ and confessions become reference points, not authorities. The autonomous self does not need them. Experience liberates, so there is no authority beyond the self and the collective of selves gathered to vote on ‘the mind of the church.’ But such an assembly cannot teach with clarity, let alone authority. Scripture and confessions are not repudiated (though tradition is) and their authority is nickeled and dimed away. Actually, it’s not nickels and dimes but whole fortunes that Lutheranism has lost in a very short period of time."

Are Pr. Klein and other evangelical catholics bitter? There is no doubt an element of that. But bitterly disappointed, too, are conservative confessionalists of a strongly Protestant bent who see their church captive to "experiential-expressive" liberalism. A theological argument, an argument about the truth of things, is no longer possible. Now they are in full altar and pulpit fellowship, as the Lutherans put it, with the United Church of Christ, which is insouciant about the denial of baptismal regeneration, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and is apparently undisturbed by clergy who publicly question the divinity of Christ. That the UCC is proud of its distinction as the only denomination—aside from the small gay-based Metropolitan Community Church—that officially ordains openly gay men and women is but a predictable part of a laissez-faire Christianity where no lines can be drawn. That the ELCA has now definitively foreclosed the possibility of unity with more conservative Lutherans, such as the large Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, is apparently a matter unworthy of consideration.

It seems like many years ago when over lunch I told Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, that I was becoming a Catholic. His immediate response was, "But what about Bach?" I do miss Bach and much else in the musical heritage of Lutheranism. But Lutheranism was more than that. At its best, it was, in a world set upon the trivialization of truth, a community that dared to say, "We believe, teach, and confess." There are and will continue to be enclaves of confessional seriousness and catholic sensibility within the ELCA. And the ELCA as a body is able and will continue to be able to proclaim truths that are central to the Gospel. But not, apparently, when truths are contested, when lines must be drawn, when it becomes necessary to say we believe, teach, and confess this—and not that. The inclusiveness of unreconciled diversity is a relentless mistress. When holding an institution together is valued above all else, it becomes doubtful what else remains.

The somber assessment offered by Pr. Klein and others forces hard decisions for many in the ELCA. But the disappearance of the Lutheranism that was affects other Christians as well, not least Roman Catholics. As the ELCA vanishes into the potpourri of liberal Protestantism and the Missouri Synod is increasingly hardened in its separation from everyone else, the theological Lutheranism that was both the exasperation and envy of others will be missed. At least it should be missed by those who understand that Christianity is, above all else, a matter of truth.

The State of Conservatism

Frankly, it is not the kind of meeting where I am entirely comfortable. In fact, I was uncomfortable. The First International Conservative Congress was held at the Mayflower in Washington, D.C., at the end of September, pulled together chiefly by National Review and the American Enterprise Institute, and starring Lady Thatcher, the former British prime minister, and what seemed like a cast of thousands. So what is a priest doing at an undeniably partisan conference? A good question.

Of course many clergy are uninhibited in cheering on the liberal cause. I did it myself in the 1960s, and was much applauded for supplying what was called "a chaplaincy to the secular city" (remember Harvey Cox’s The Secular City?). I was a delegate to the 1968 and 1972 Democratic National Conventions, and in 1970, in one of the dumbest moves of my life, even ran for Congress from Brooklyn. That should have cured me of partisan politics, and almost did. Half way through the campaign, which was a very near run thing, I knew I had made a big mistake in thinking I could be a pastor (Lutheran at the time) and a politician at the same time. I have said it before and some dismiss it as sour grapes, but the truth is I have thanked God many times over that I lost that race. I accepted the nomination for the 1972 convention because friends insisted it was the only way to avoid a divisive fight among community groups with which we were working on a host of issues important to Brooklyn. But I was distinctly uncomfortable in Miami, and resolved to steer clear of such things in the future.

Nonetheless, the organizers of the September 27-28 meeting in Washington invited me to speak on the judicial usurpation of politics and I accepted, hanging around to see what others were saying. It was an interesting couple of days, and I thought you might not be bored by a few notes on what happened. The theme was set at the opening session, "Why Conservatism Is Failing." This reflected the worry of Brits and Europeans that leftist parties are in the ascendancy in Britain, France, and, apparently, Germany. The overwhelming majority of participants, however, were Americans, and few of them were buying into the theme. Most of them seemed to think conservatism is on something of a roll.

Rhetoric and Reality

A point made repeatedly was that leftists, whether in Europe or here with Clinton and the "New Democrats," had largely adopted the rhetoric—and in some cases the policies—favored by conservatism. This, it was said, should be chalked up as a victory, albeit an ambiguous victory, for conservatives. One British MP strongly dissented, noting that if he played for the Chicago Bulls and all the other teams beat the Bulls by adopting their tactics, it would be silly to call this a victory for "Chicago Bullism." A nice point nicely made, but he had few takers.

The columnist Charles Krauthammer, a dear friend, made the case for a conservative roll in his typically elegant manner. While he was by no means Pollyanish, he noted the California vote on affirmative action, the congressional elimination of welfare entitlement, and other major changes. Along the way he took a friendly crack at this journal and its editor in chief, contending that we are alarmist about judicial usurpation. His argument was that, on assisted suicide and other issues, the Supreme Court is clearly retreating from judicial activism.

At the session dealing with that subject, I took it upon myself to explain why Charles is wrong. In the suicide decision a majority of Justices could not have been more explicit in saying that the Court and the Court alone will make the final decision on the question, although it was not ready to do so now. In the Boerne decision overturning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Court told Congress in no uncertain terms that the Court will tolerate no infringement of its claimed monopoly on constitutional interpretation. And so forth. Of course I think our side won the judicial usurpation argument (Lino Graglia of the University of Texas law school was particularly effective), but I am glad to note that a lot of other people thought that too. (The indomitable Harry Jaffa of Claremont was also part of that discussion, once again making his argument that the Declaration of Independence is an organic part of the Constitution, and apparently less worried about judicial usurpation than about judges who don’t judge by the principles of natural law.)

In other sessions, Kate O’Beirne of National Review blistered the Republican congressional majority for being spineless wimps without a purpose. Intimidated by liberals in general and feminists in particular, "in their hearts they know they’re wrong." Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, was thinking positively. "It is not that conservatism is cracking up; it’s growing up." He takes heart from congressional action on partial-birth abortion, notes that there is in the House a majority large enough to pass a pro-life amendment, and is hopeful about "rolling back the excesses of the abortion regime." ("Excesses" is a curious word in that connection.) Congressman Jim Talent was similarly upbeat. That the left steals the right’s rhetoric is no little thing, he declared. Rhetoric is important. "Get a politician to say something in public three times, and he is personally convinced it is true." In a rhetorical theft from the Marxists, he effectively argued that "the correlation of forces" is moving in a conservative direction.

A surprise for me, and for many others, was a very impressive presentation by Steve Forbes, who is clearly running for the presidential nomination. In both delivery and substance, this was light years away from the Forbes perceived as a millionaire accountant mumbling along on the single theme of the flat tax. Not that he has given up on that issue, but he offered a most effective tour d’horizon on everything from foreign policy to the global influence of American popular culture to the ways in which wars are the catalyst for big government.

Most impressively, however, he addressed the moral state of the culture, with specific reference to abortion and the other life questions. Pro-life politicians typically declare that they are pro-life and assume that is enough, becoming stumbling and tongue-tied in explaining why they are pro-life. By way of contrast, Forbes made a convincing case for why law must be on the side of the weak, and spoke thoughtfully on the necessary interaction of law and culture in achieving the protection of unborn children and others who are vulnerable. Were this not a rigorously nonpartisan journal, I would suggest that Republicans who are looking for a presidential candidate who is ready and able to articulate the most important arguments in the public square should take a very close look at Steve Forbes.

Quotas By Any Other Name

Among the most fascinating sessions was the one that paired Glenn Loury and Ward Connerly on the question of affirmative action. Loury of Boston University is no stranger to these pages, and Connerly is, of course, the hero of California’s Proposition 209 that outlawed quotas. What came through compellingly is that here are two superlatively articulate black men, both deeply devoted to racial reconciliation and sharply disagreeing on how that is to be achieved. Of course, this crowd was overwhelmingly on Connerly’s side. Everybody acknowledged that Loury showed a great deal of courage in even attempting to make to this audience his argument for modified affirmative action. He noted that many black activists call him a tool of reactionaries, while conservatives view him as unreliable. "I have been marginalized in the middle," he wryly observed.

Connerly’s case is nothing if not clear-cut. Both morally and constitutionally, discrimination on the basis of race is wrong. Period. The best thing for the black underclass and everybody else is to go cold turkey, terminating every program that discriminates in any way on the basis of race, gender, or anything other than merit. Loury, on the other hand, is strongly critical of existing affirmative action programs, but believes there is a legitimate and necessary place for very limited policies that take race into account. Affirmative action, he insists, should be limited to blacks, which was the sole intention of the original Civil Rights Act. A university can and should take race into consideration, just as it legitimately considers geography in admitting students, or whether parents are alumni, or the student’s athletic skills. How can I teach my students that all blacks and all whites do not think the same way, Loury asks, if I don’t have blacks in my class? Must not an urban police department make sure that there are enough blacks on the force to effectively police black areas? And so forth.

Connerly would not give an inch. Discrimination is immoral in principle and therefore must be prohibited. In support of his very modest version of affirmative action, Loury was urging the principle of prudence, a great virtue in public policy. The discussion that followed was, to say the least, lively, with Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, making the telling point that Loury’s modest proposal is precisely what affirmative action started out to be in the sixties. At the time of the bill’s passage, Hubert Humphrey famously said that, if it was ever used to impose quotas, he would eat the paper on which the bill was written. The argument made by Podhoretz and others is that, once we allow even the most modest version of affirmative action, it will, by its own logic and backed by the coercive force of government bureaucracy, turn into the monstrosity that it is today.

On points, I think it must be admitted that the Connerly side won the debate. And yet. There are surely times when we can and should discriminate. Political parties have from time immemorial come up with "balanced tickets" to appeal to ethnic and racial groups. A police department trying to infiltrate a black criminal gang will certainly choose a black officer for the job. But these limited instances are a far way from affirmative action programs in which government discriminates in favor of some—and therefore, necessarily, discriminates against others—in the distribution of opportunities that rightly belong to all.

Loury’s deeper concern, and it seems to me entirely right, is that much of the attack on affirmative action is driven by people who simply want to forget about the plight of the black underclass. A week before the Washington meeting, we had Judge Clarence Thomas give our annual Erasmus Lecture. His opposition to quotas is well established, but in his lecture he gently but pointedly noted that many who today are so enthusiastic about color blindness are the same people who some years ago—and not all that long ago—could see nothing but color. In the attack on affirmative action, he suggested, there is a disagreeable odor of "hypocrisy in the air."

Both Loury and Thomas, I believe, are on to something very important. The problems of black-white relations, what Gunnar Myrdal a half century ago appropriately called "the American dilemma," are by no means resolved. Working toward racial reconciliation and justice for all is primarily the task of civil society, and not least of all the churches. Perhaps, in ways not yet tried or even imagined, the government also has a role. But I believe the returns are in: affirmative action, with its inevitable quotas, is not the way to go. It was a policy well-intended but misconceived; it has resulted in massive and grave injustices to those who are not preferred; it demoralizes, degrades, and casts a shadow of suspicion on those who are preferred; it exacerbates the very tensions it was supposed to assuage; it should be entirely dismantled, the sooner the better.

Much else of interest happened at the Mayflower, and I really wasn’t all that uncomfortable. In fact, I rather enjoyed the gathering of the clan. I don’t know how, but it has somehow happened over the years that most of my friends turn out to be conservatives. Not that I wouldn’t accept an invitation to speak at a meeting called by Common Cause or the ACLU. We are, after all, tenaciously nonpartisan.

While We’re At It