Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 91 (March 1999): 62-75.
We are regularly cautioned against stereotypes, and rightly so. A stereotype is a type or image that is unchangeable, as though carved in stone (from the Greek stereos, meaning solid). On the other hand, stereotypes exist because certain images or impressions are so often reinforced by experience. This is true of stereotypes of all sorts—national, racial, ethnic, religious, occupational. In fact, stereotypes are essential to daily living. They make up a large part of the stock of wisdom that we call common sense. As Jesse Jackson observed in an unguarded moment, if you see five young white males coming from a Bible class on one side of the street and five young black males hanging out on the other side, you have no trouble in knowing which side of the street you want to be on. Stereotypes are also essential to most forms of humor. Lawyer jokes would not be funny were there not so many lawyers who are that way. Drag queens must fit the stereotype of drag queens or they simply are not drag queens, and television sitcoms are entirely dependent upon playing off, and against, stereotypes—whether of the inner city, white suburbia, the rural South, or interfering mothers–in–law.
Stereotypes also and inevitably make up a large part of our thinking about big questions such as religion and politics, and about the ways in which those two big questions get strangely entangled. For instance, we often encounter, not least of all in these pages, the stereotype of mainline/oldline/sideline Protestantism as a pitifully dispirited world of uncertain belief joined to desperate trendiness and institutional decline. Within oldline Protestantism there are many exceptions, but that is the stereotype because it is so persistently reinforced by what old–line Protestants, especially the more visible and vocal of them, say and do. The precipitous decline of liberal Protestantism is frequently viewed as a phenomenon of the last few decades, but the stereotype of religious liberalism as desiccated and dying goes back much further in time. Of the New England Protestantism that he knew, Herman Melville wrote in 1876,
Rome and the Atheist have gained:
These two shall fight it out—these two;
Protestantism being retained
For base of operations sly
It is the case that many leaders of what might be called the politics of atheism have been but one step or one generation removed from the liberal Protestant pulpit. An outstanding instance was the enormously influential John Dewey, who proposed to Americans that they replace their traditional religion with a "common faith" of socialist struggle. Dewey is claimed as intellectual godfather, so to speak, by Richard Rorty, a person of considerable influence in today’s academy. On the political side of the strange entanglement of religion and politics, there are also stereotypes that have been reinforced over the years. Ever since the French Revolution formally divided the house, we have had a left and a right, with the attendant stereotypes of each. From time to time, voices are raised urging us to get beyond such labels, beyond left and right, beyond liberal and conservative. Such voices belong to those who are aptly called "beyondists" and they are usually located on the left.
Inevitable though they are, stereotypes should be regularly challenged. At least they should be reexamined, to see whether our assumptions fit the facts. While they have an impressive solidity, stereotypes, too, need to be readjusted on occasion. A good occasion for reexamining the religion and politics of left and right is offered by Richard Rorty’s recent little book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth–Century America (Harvard University Press). Engaging Rorty’s stereotypes can also result in a honing of our own. Of stereotypes Rorty has no shortage. The stereotypes begin with the defining differences between left and right. The difference is marvelously simple: The left is for change, the right is against change. "For the right," says Rorty, "never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the left’s struggle for social justice as mere trouble making, as utopian foolishness. The left, by definition, is the party of hope."
You say it is risible to claim that figures such as Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, William Bennett, and Robert Bork think the country is basically in good shape, and you are right. But stay with me. I assure you Professor Rorty is a man of influence, and the lectures collected in Achieving Our Country have become a much–discussed point of reference on the left. What defines the left, says Rorty, is commitment to social justice, and social justice is defined, in turn, by the socialized redistribution of wealth. The defining cause of the left is, says Rorty, "substituting social justice for individual freedom as our country’s principal goal." In this light it becomes apparent that the term "conservative intellectual" is an oxymoron. "For intellectuals are supposed to be aware of, and speak to, issues of social justice. But even the most learned and thoughtful of current conservatives ridicule those who raise such issues."
In response to that, I am tempted to describe in detail what is happening in conservative circles these days. For instance, a recent meeting at the conservative Manhattan Institute that brought together hundreds of leaders to learn from and help support black and Hispanic organizers working through faith–based agencies to transform the lives of the poor, especially young people, coping with drugs, criminal gangs, fatherless families, and other burdens. But I will resist the temptation, except to note that in cities across the country, and generally under conservative auspices, such street–level programs of personal and community renewal are rapidly multiplying. Nothing comparable is happening on the left. And, of course, it is conservatives who are pressing for the basic justice of parental choice in education, a choice taken for granted by the affluent. But our interest here is in the stereotypes of Mr. Rorty, and none of these concerns counts as "social justice" in his view since they are not aimed at advancing the redistribution of wealth under the auspices of the state. On the contrary, such efforts are reactionary because they have personal freedom, responsibility, and opportunity, rather than Mr. Rorty’s "social justice," as their principal goal.
An appendix to Achieving Our Country is a eulogy of the late Irving Howe, a political saint of Mr. Rorty’s vision of the left. Toward the end of his life, Howe averred that, despite all the crushing disappointments of "real existent socialism," it remained the case that "socialism is the name of our dream." For Rorty, that dream is nothing less than a religion, of whom the chief apostles are Walt Whitman and John Dewey, and of which America is the New Jerusalem. "They wanted Americans," writes Rorty, "to take pride in what America might, all by itself and by its own lights, make of itself, rather than in America’s obedience to any authority—even the authority of God." Especially the authority of God. He quotes Whitman:
And I call to mankind. Be not curious about God.
For I who am curious about each am not curious
Whitman and Dewey, writes Rorty, "wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire." "They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul." In what some might take as an idolatrously perverse patriotism, Rorty admiringly quotes Whitman’s exclamation, "How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance!" The older forms of religion have long been superfluous, even obstacles, to the dream. "Whitman and Dewey, I have argued, gave us all the romance, and all the spiritual uplift, we Americans need to go about our public business." This religion of patriotic fervor sets Rorty against other leftisms with their "semi–conscious anti–Americanism, which they carried over from the rage of the late sixties."
The "spiritual uplift" supplied by the religion of social justice is not simply for "public business" but also for personal redemption. Unlike Marx and others who tried to turn socialism into a science and thought they knew what would happen, Rorty’s religion is radically open to, adamantly insistent upon, the new—making possible a life of "pure, joyous hope." The past, including Christianity, contributes to his childlike piety of limitless possibility. "The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular from Christianity, is not instruction about the authority under which we should live, but suggestions about how to make ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been." Americans must embrace an endless revolution of new beginnings; every achievement is but prelude to another radically new beginning. "This new culture will be better because it will contain more variety in unity—it will be a tapestry in which more strands have been woven together. But this tapestry, too, will eventually have to be torn to shreds in order that a larger one may be woven, in order that the past may not obstruct the future."
Yet Rorty insists that such soaring flights of socialist devotion must be tethered to the "real politics" of incremental change in using the state to combat capitalist exploitation—capitalist exploitation being the religion of the right. He is withering in his critique of an academic left that has become "spectatorial" in its obsession with "theory" that is disengaged from the real world. The university is, for Rorty, the ecclesial magisterium of the religion of social justice, and it is today threatened by heretics. The academic left should understand that "It’s the economy, stupid," but is instead captive to theory and culture. "Leftists in the academy," he complains, "have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the right in making cultural issues central to public debate." In calling the left to return to an older economics–based reformism, however, Rorty is careful not to appear threatening to the cultural, and especially the sexual and gender concerns, that have so preoccupied the left in recent years.
Nonetheless, the academic theorists on the left are undermining the Whitmanesque hope of limitless possibility. The disciples of Foucault dismiss that hope as naive "humanism." "Hopelessness," says Rorty, "has become fashionable on the left—principled, theorized, philosophical hopelessness." "I see this preference for knowledge over hope as repeating the move made by leftist intellectuals who, earlier in the century, got their Hegelianism from Marx rather than Dewey." Put differently, they prefer scientific theory to utopian religion. Theorists on the left, says Rorty, are guilty of reintroducing the concept of original sin. The Foucauldian suspicion of "power" is "reminiscent of the ubiquity of Satan, and thus of the ubiquity of original sin." By way of sharpest contrast, "the repudiation of the concept of sin was at the heart of Dewey and Whitman’s civic religion."
The betrayal of the intellectuals takes many forms, in Rorty’s judgment. He criticizes the undercutting of our common identity as Americans, the elect people, by an obsession with group identity and the politics of victimization. "If the cultural left insists on its present strategy—on asking us to respect one another in our differences rather than asking us to cease noticing those differences—it will have to find a new way of creating a sense of commonality at the level of national politics." This comes as an aside that Rorty does not develop, but it sounds suspiciously like support for racial integration and opposition to affirmative action and quotas, which are of course causes of a conservative hue. It is perhaps not surprising that in this connection Rorty dares only to hint at the vastness of the gap between his left and the left now regnant in the university. He dare not alienate that left entirely if he is to have any takers for his proposal that the left should "emerge from the academy into the public square," returning to what he calls the real world of politics.
Rorty’s proposal is deeply colored by nostalgia for a world that was. His grandfather was Walter Rauschenbusch, the foremost champion of the Protestant "social gospel" movement, and it is to that creed, revised by Dewey to free it from an inconvenient God, that he would be faithful. "Because a lot of my relatives helped write and administer New Deal legislation," he recalls, "I associated leftism with a constant need for new laws and new bureaucratic initiatives which would redistribute the wealth produced by the capitalist system." In that progressive circle of his childhood—the circle of the La Follette family and the reformist bureaucrats and academics of Madison, Wisconsin—"American patriotism, redistributionist economics, anticommunism, and Deweyan pragmatism went together easily and naturally. I think of that circle as typical of the reformist American left of the first half of the century."
Rorty is an old liberal, and he deplores the way in which, in the 1960s, the left pitted radicals against liberals. At the same time, as was the pattern then among liberal parents of radical children, he is a good liberal in being very "understanding" of why people such as he had to be excommunicated for a time. Of the radicals he says, "Their loss of patience was the result of perfectly justified, wholly sincere moral indignation—moral indignation which, the New Left rightly sensed, we reformists were too tired and too battered to feel." At the same time, he pleads that he and those like him should now be welcomed back into the fold. The academic theorists of the cultural left—those who have been distracted by "mostly apocalyptic French and German philosophy" at the expense of political economy—must recognize that they now need as allies "what remains of the pre–sixties reformist left." What remains is, in his view, substantial. "That saving remnant consists largely of labor lawyers and labor organizers, congressional staffers, low–level bureaucrats hoping to rescue the welfare state from the Republicans, journalists, social workers, and people who work for foundations." Rorty’s description of the saving remnant is pretty much like the conspiracy that gives some conservatives nightmares.
His hope for the future is in the universities that will once again recognize that they are the training ground for the formation of intellectuals, meaning people committed to social justice. "Each new generation of students ought to think of American leftism as having a long and glorious history," he writes. And his hope is in labor unions that are devoted to the real politics of putting an end to capitalist exploitation. "If the intellectuals and the unions could ever get back together again, and could reconstitute the kind of left which existed in the forties and fifties, the first decade of the twenty–first century might conceivably be a Second Progressive Era." Rorty’s is a wan hope, for he seems to know that between the Foucauldian academics and the besieged unionism of John Sweeney’s AFL–CIO a great gulf is fixed. Achieving Our Country is a poignant plea to heal that breach, and since Rorty knows that his book will be read more by professors than by plumbers, he stretches his liberalism to appease both the academic apocalypticists of despair and the leftists of sexual and cultural liberation. They have made mistakes, but he understands and is ready to forgive. They are not the enemy. The enemy is the right.
Achieving Our Country is a curious book, but a useful study in stereotypes. After all that has happened in recent decades, Rorty’s left is defined, quite simply, by socialism. To his credit, he has always wanted to be an anti–Communist socialist, but a socialist nonetheless. It follows that Rorty’s right is defined by what he views as uncritical support for laissez faire capitalism. Over the years few thinkers have done as much as Rorty to advance theories of "anti–foundationalism." All "truths," he has taught, are socially constructed "all the way down." Now he is distressed that his academic epigones have extended deconstructionist theory to his socialist dream, and are not amenable to being converted to his messianic religion of America as the Redeemer Nation of limitless possibilities.
Rorty and his "saving remnant" of old liberals are at a loss. The left that has turned to cultural politics has long since abandoned Rorty’s all too simple stereotype of the right. In its promotion of "reproductive rights," "alternative families," "same–sex marriage," "multiculturalism," and much else, the left is on the front line of what counts as real politics today. Rorty is an echo of an earlier time. He quotes Grandfather Rauschenbusch railing against capitalist "servants of Mammon . . . who have cloaked their extortion with the gospel of Christ." Such are the fusty clichés of history book stereotypes. The clichés are untouched by the reality of the moral, social, and cultural conflicts at the heart of contemporary politics. In his fixation on the economic, Rorty is, ironically, the perfect counterpart to much of the "country club" leadership of the Republican Party. For instance, not once in Achieving Our Country is there a mention of abortion, the single most determinative question in the alignment of the forces in cultural and moral conflict today, which is to say in the real politics of our time. Nor is it an accident that the single most important variable in attitudes toward abortion—and most other issues in conflict—is religious commitment. Not, of course, commitment to the religion of Whitman and Dewey. As John Dewey found out in 1934 when he published his creed, A Common Faith, most Americans already had a religion and were not inclined to exchange it for his.
Now Richard Rorty, heir to the mantle of Dewey’s pragmatism, is discovering the price of the anti–foundationalism that he so successfully championed. Without foundations, there are no truths that can mandate radical change, and the stereotypes of left and right by which he defines "social justice," along with his religio–patriotic flights of "pure, joyous hope" in limitless change, seem no more than quaint and fanciful. Without foundations, choices are finally arbitrary, and Rorty’s reasons for choosing the failed political atheism that is one step removed from the liberal Protestant pulpit is less than convincing. With Whitman, he affirms the "refusal to believe in the existence of Truth, in the sense of something not made by human hands, something which has authority over human beings." Rorty’s truth is not immune from that great refusal. People, including most intellectuals on the left, might be forgiven for questioning why the truth of Rorty’s social justice should have authority over them, or over Rorty, for that matter. Pragmatism as a philosophy, its proponents insist, is more than a matter of what works, but it ought to work better than that.
There are some things, says George McKenna of City College of New York, that simply are not to be discussed. Inherent racial differences is one of them. Distinctive gender roles is another. Defending the Holocaust is yet another. But suppose—just suppose—that in the name of free academic discourse the uncrossable boundaries were crossed. On the Holocaust, for instance, asks McKenna, what if a free–thinking academic were to argue thus: "The Nazis did terrible things, but their mistake was in the minor premise. They were right to speak of life unworthy of life (lebensunwertes Leben), but wrong to apply it wholesale to the Jews. Some Jews, yes, the defective ones. But also defective Gentiles."
Enter the ethics of Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher recently appointed to a professorship of Bioethics at Princeton’s Center for Human Values. His claim is, in a nutshell, "Some members of our species are persons: some members of our species are not."
That’s the easy part. It only gets tricky when we try to figure out which ones of us are not persons. Singer has a little list: the unborn, the newborn, old people with Alzheimer’s, young people in some condition of unconsciousness, the mentally retarded, and the "defective." In fact, there seem to be only two good reasons for letting anyone live at all: one’s potential usefulness to society and the capacity of one’s death to make another grieve. (What would happen, McKenna asks, if one were mourned only by socially useless persons?)
Singer has done us a great service, according to McKenna, in working out the full implications of abortion on demand. Singer bites the bullet, McKenna writes: "If we can kill the ones inside, we can kill the ones outside. . . . With murderous logic, Singer has ripped away all the respectable drapery from the culture of death; he has given us a frontal look at it in all its nakedness, without a fig leaf, the full monty." Infanticide is the next step after abortion, and Singer very reasonably suggests a twenty–eight–day trial period in which parents can decide whether or not their baby deserves to live. (Woe to the colicky newborn!) Any sort of defect would be reason enough to dispatch the child, for instance, with Down syndrome, spina bifida, or even hemophilia.
But there’s no reason to stop there. If we can kill the defective at one end of the life span, why not eliminate those at the other end too? "Show me the difference," McKenna imagines Singer saying, "between an eight–and–a–half month fetus and a baby—show me the difference between abortion and infanticide—show me the difference between the reasoning powers of a smart dog and a senile old lady—show me why it’s more humane to starve her to death than to give her a lethal injection!"
If the worth of defective children and mindless old people can be denied, why not the worth of others who are inconvenient? If we can abort a hemophiliac fetus, lethally inject a screaming three–week–old, and put drooling grandmothers to sleep, why not poison grouchy husbands or mail a bomb to troublesome IRS agents? But McKenna’s point is that, in Singer’s view, there is nothing inherently valuable about any human being. That would be "speciesism," the fallacy of thinking that there is any material reason why a human being of any age or kind, simply because he is a human being, has more worth than, say, a pig or, for that matter, a cockroach. Of course, Singer is opposed to random actions. He insists that killings should be carefully regulated by the state.
McKenna’s conclusion is that Singer’s way of thinking is to be expected from one who has abandoned the biblical ethic. "The ethic of the specialness of human life is integrally, inseparably tied to Judeo–Christianity," McKenna writes. The inevitable alternative to the old commandments are Singer’s new commandments: "Recognize that the worth of human life varies," "Use active means to take innocent human life," and so on. McKenna admits his own discomfort with the conclusion he comes to, but he believes that "there is no purely secular ethic of human life." "Without Judeo–Christianity, all we have is empirical observation, i.e., what we see with our eyes."
McKenna is right in thinking that Singer’s appointment at Princeton doesn’t have to be a cataclysm. It can, rather, be a catalyst. "We act into history," McKenna reminds us, "and what we say and do right now can nudge events in quite different directions. . . . Princeton has declared as legitimate, as academically respectable, a line of reasoning that could culminate in a moral catastrophe. But it could also set the stage for the rediscovery and regeneration of America’s moral roots."
McKenna may be right in suggesting that Singer’s appointment can helpfully bring matters to a head. Singer has said that he sometimes thinks he and the Pope are the only ones who understand what is involved in the controversy over abortion and related issues. It really is an either/or question. Either, like the Pope, you believe that all human beings—no matter how small, weak, or handicapped—have a right to be protected, or, with Singer, you adopt the doctrine of lebensunwertes Leben and recognize the need to eliminate the unfit. I have two cautions, however, about McKenna’s incisive critique. First, it is not only the Judeo–Christian ethic that provides a foundation for the protection of human life. Other religious traditions do that too. I expect McKenna would agree, but it needs to be said. With respect to our society, and Western Civilization more generally, he is entirely right in accenting the biblical ethic. Second, we should be hesitant to dismiss the efforts of secularists who try to construct an ethic of moral sanity without reference to metaphysics or the rules of religion and tradition. I share McKenna’s skepticism about whether it can be done in a convincing way, but when moral sanity is in short supply we need everybody we can get. In the final judgment, it may be the greater treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Short of that final judgment, however, we should be grateful that such secularists are trying to do the right thing.
An editor at the New York Times recently remarked that the use of the term "culture war" is dangerously inflammatory. I think it’s a useable and useful term. I do not use it as much as the Times does, and I think it should not be used in a way that precludes the conversation and persuasion that should be, but is not, the ordinary mode of public discourse. The prestige media is generally blind to its own belligerency in the culture war; it champions as courageous the exercise of free speech that is vituperative and slanderous while simultaneously calling for civility, and condemning as uncivil even the measured responses of those who are slandered. Perhaps because the remark of the editor was on my mind, I was struck by several items in just this morning’s Times. Two cases illustrate the point.
In the arts section there is a long and laudatory profile by Alan Riding of the recent Nobel laureate in literature, José Saramago. The novels and other writings of this Portuguese writer have for years been noted for their strident atheism and attacks on the Catholic Church. When the Nobel was announced, the semi–official Vatican paper, L’Osservatore Romano, noted that, for the second year in a row, the Nobel in literature had been given to someone conspicuous for the virulence of his anti–Catholicism. Last year it went to Dario Fo of Italy, who is less a writer than a comedian in the music hall tradition of Benny Hill. He has, for instance, a routine in which an aged pope, hobbling on his cane, gropes young girls. Really hilarious stuff. The Times notes that the Vatican is not happy that the Nobel has again gone to "someone it perceives to be antireligious." That "perceives" is a nice touch. You know how thin–skinned those Catholics are.
Saramago was a staunch Stalinist and is still an unreconstructed member of the Communist Party. That doesn’t faze Mr. Riding. He writes, "Perhaps most intriguing is this atheist writer’s fascination with religion. In [his book] The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, it is apparent that he knows his Bible, and he treats the figure of Jesus with compassion, as a victim of a power struggle between God and the Devil. But his underlying message is that religion has turned man against man in wars, massacres, exterminations, autos–da–fe and the like, ‘all in the name of God.’" It is presumably very creative to point out that terrible things have been done in the name of religion, and to depict the Church as being on the side of the Devil against a God in whom the writer does not believe. According to Saramago, Jesus is of course the representative of the revolutionary proletariat, and of course there is no mention of the horrors perpetrated in the name of atheism by the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and others. Alan Riding finds this cliché of agitprop hack–writing "most intriguing."
In response to the Vatican displeasure with the award of the Nobel to Fo and Comrade Saramago, the Times quotes the latter: "Why does the Vatican get involved in these things? Why doesn’t it keep itself busy with prayers? Why doesn’t it instead open its cupboards and reveal the skeletons it has inside?" In sum, how dare the Vatican interfere in the elevated world of literature just because the Catholic Church is viciously traduced? What business is that of the Vatican? The Nobel laureate mugger is offended by the impertinent protest of the muggee. Perhaps it would have been wiser if L’Osservatore Romano had not commented and thus inadvertently bestowed a certain status upon the Nobel Prize for Literature. But, despite its history, the Nobel, like the New York Times, should not be excluded from the circle of conversation by the friends of civility. Attention should be paid, in the hope that their incivility is not incorrigible.
The second item this morning is the Times’ editorial on the narrow (seven to six) vote by which the Miami–Dade County Commission in Florida approved a "gay rights" law. Of course the Times, which is undoubtedly the most influential voice of the gay movement in the country, is pleased by the vote, but the editors note that their victory is fragile. The popular defeat of a similar law twenty years ago under the leadership of actress Anita Bryant "spurred the rise of the religious right," the editors observe, and the same thing could happen again. By passing the ordinance, the civic, business, and political leaders show how much they have "grown" in the interim, but there is a problem with the people. The editors note that, since the ordinance exempted religious organizations, it was not opposed by the Catholic archdiocese. But there is still the Christian Coalition and other obstacles to progress.
"The population of the county has shifted in ways that could lessen support for gay rights," the editorial observes. "Its residents are poorer, fewer of them are Jewish or middle class, and many more of them are socially conservative Roman Catholic Hispanic immigrants than a generation ago." If there is a referendum on the ordinance, "it will be a pitched battle that could charge the national political atmosphere once again." "With the next presidential election in sight, neither the Christian Coalition nor gay activists who felt they played an important role in Bill Clinton’s victory will want to lose the second battle of Miami." Talk about inflammatory. The editors push the hot buttons: liberal Jews; the famously poor, uneducated, and easily led "religious right"; culturally benighted Hispanics; Catholicism and immigration. It is a potent mixture for the anticipated conflagration that is "the second battle of Miami." The editors may well be right in their political analysis of what is happening in Miami, and the paper is legally entitled to applaud the antireligious ravings of unrepentant Stalinists, but it would become the editors to refrain from lecturing others about the incivility of speaking about the culture war which their paper is so aggressively waging.
Those who have not read the book itself know from Gilbert Meilaender’s insightful review essay of it (November 1997) that Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations is an argument to be reckoned with. O’Donovan was our Erasmus Lecturer last year, and that was the occasion of a very lively and productive exchange on biblical truth and the right ordering of society. A special issue of Studies in Christian Ethics is given to responses to Desire, along with O’Donovan’s response to the responses. Rabbi David Novak and I both wrote responses, and both touched on O’Donovan’s treatment of Jewish–Christian relations and Israel. In his response to O’Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas proposed that Jewish–Christian questions should be approached from the Shoah. O’Donovan does not agree.
He writes: "I can understand why the Shoah is a deeply preoccupying theme in Jewish reflection, and long will be. I can understand why it is a preoccupying theme in German reflection, and therefore also in Christian German reflection. I can understand why the Vatican, given its entanglement with the powers in the Second World War, could not just let the matter lie. But I cannot take the Shoah seriously as a Christian event. I can feel implicated and ashamed by the thirteenth–century anti–Jewish rhetoric of that great English bishop–theologian, Robert Grosseteste, to whose diocese and university I belong. I can recognize his logic, an anti–capitalist logic, as a Christian logic; and so I can acknowledge it as my own logic, too, and acknowledge responsibility for such careless exposition as allowed that logic to feed unthinking prejudices. I can see that there was a history of anti–Jewish attitudes in Christendom, fed by Christian mistakes, which, as a Christian theologian, I have a duty to identify, acknowledge, and set right. But I cannot see that the Shoah is derived from any spiritual history other than that of modern neo–paganism. As a citizen of the United Kingdom I can acknowledge collective responsibility for how Palestine was administered before 1948, and can understand how difficulties faced by Jews and Palestinians today were fed by characteristic failures in the British colonial imagination. . . . But any attempt on the part of a British Christian to claim a share of responsibility for the Shoah would be, at best, a tasteless piece of play–acting; and at worst, what perverted desire to command good and evil, I wonder, might possibly motivate such a claim? When it comes to repentance, the first condition of sincerity is sobriety."
Sobriety is certainly in order. Too often in Jewish–Christian exchanges, Jews play the Holocaust as trump, and Christians, on cue, engage in unseemly and implausible rites of self–denigration. But neither is it satisfactory to say that the "Shoah is derived from [no] spiritual history other than that of modern neo–paganism." To be sure, Hitler was as anti–Christian as he was anti–Jewish (and, in significant part, anti–Christian because he was anti–Jewish), and the policies of the Holocaust were based on neo–pagan ideology. Nonetheless, many Christians, in Germany and elsewhere, were complicit in "the teaching of contempt" toward Jews over the centuries. Without that teaching, it seems unlikely that Hitler could have targeted the Jews as he did, or would have had the measure of acquiescence in his policies that he did. Christians far removed in time and space from the Shoah should nonetheless have a vibrant sense of solidarity in the Body of Christ that enables us, indeed requires us, to recognize our involvement in both the terrible sins and heroic virtues of those who were there.
In this connection, I recommend a little booklet just out from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholics Remember the Holocaust. It includes fifteen statements from various episcopal conferences and individual bishops in Europe and North America, as well as the Holy See’s "We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah," with accompanying commentaries. Also included is a useful bibliography on these questions. Oliver O’Donovan is surely right that our reflection on the Jewish–Christian connection should not begin, and certainly cannot end, with the Holocaust. The Holocaust stands against, and for the most part outside, the history that is ours as Jews and Christians. But, it is important to remember, not entirely outside. Treating the Holocaust as the central event in Jewish–Christian relations, however, grievously distorts both Judaism and Christianity. As David Novak has written elsewhere, "As a Jew, I do not get up in the morning to curse Hitler but to glorify the God of Israel."
Sources: George McKenna essay "Acting Into History," Human Life Review, Fall 1998. New York Times editorial on the term "culture war," December 3, 1998. Oliver O’Donovan on Christianity and the Holocaust in Studies in Christian Ethics, Volume 11, Number 2.
While We’re At It: Paula Kissinger obituary, New York Times, November 16, 1998. Philip S. Anderson on "public perceptions of our judiciary," ABA Journal, November 1998. David Blankenhorn on fatherlessness, Propositions, Fall 1998. Ron Unz on affirmative action, Wall Street Journal, November 16, 1998. On Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Catholic higher education in the U.S., America, November 14, 1998. On earning and giving in Massachusetts, Boston Globe, October 25, 1998. Leo Ribuffo on cultural imperialism and human rights, National Interest, Summer 1998. William Galston on a choice–based conception of social life, Public Interest, Fall 1998. On Israeli ambassador to Vatican urging against canonizing Pius XII, New York Times, November 4, 1998. Abraham Foxman on exploiting the Holocaust, Wall Street Journal, December 4, 1998. On "Formula of Agreement" in the ELCA, Forum Letter, December 1998. R. C. Sproul on ECT, Modern Reformation, September/October 1998. On cartoon of Jesus with a smoking rifle, Progressive, December 1998. On man suing woman for getting pregnant, Washington Post, November 23, 1998. Dean Hoge on young Catholics’ views on premarital sex, America, November 21, 1998.