Notes From Across The Atlantic
Notes From Across The Atlantic

Notes From Across The Atlantic

 

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine January-February 2003

Bush and Civil Religion

“I believe there is a reason that history has matched this nation with this time,” said President Bush in his address a year after September 11, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. History does not have purposes, but the Lord of history does, so Bush is then more explicit: “We cannot know all that lies ahead. Yet we do know that God has placed us together in this moment, to grieve together, to stand together, to serve each other and our country. And the duty we have been given - defending America and our freedom -is also a privilege we share.” Then he becomes yet more Christianly explicit: “Ours is the cause of human dignity: freedom guided by conscience, and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbour. That hopestill lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.” The last two sentences are, of course, from the prologue to the Gospel of John, where the reference is to Christ. America is not Christ. Bush’s language revives a current in American thought critically analysed by Ernest Lee Tuveson in The Redeemer Nation. The connection between American history and providential purpose received its most eloquent and nuanced expression in the language of Lincoln, but has been a staple in our public rhetoric. It is there in the Declaration of Independence, in the speeches and private correspondence of almost all the founders, and, after Lincoln, presidents Wilson, Reagan and now Bush have taken to it quite naturally. Among our cultural elites, ACLU typesfret about the “separation of church and state”, but most dismiss such language as rhetorical candy tossed to the patriotic masses. Their attitude is that of Gibbon toward sundry religions in the Roman Empire - for the philosophers they are equally false; for the masses they are equally true; and for the rulers they are equally useful. Theologians and thoughtful Christian leaders are rightly worried about the abuses that sometimes attend what is called civic religion. The master worrier on this score was Reinhold Niebuhr who warned against dividing the world into “the children of light and the children of darkness”. Some theologians condemn the use of John 1 in the September 11 speech as manifest blasphemy. I don’t think so. It goes right up to the line and threatens to go over it.America is not Christ; we are not the redeemer nation in a way analogous to His being the redeemer of the world. But Judeo-Christian and specifically Christian tropes are a common feature of this president’s public rhetoric. He has gifted speech writers who share his undoubtedly deep Christian convictions. He understands, as many public figures have not and do not, that American virtues such as tolerance and resolve are grounded in religious, and mainly Christian, commitments. He understands that, in moments of great public solemnity, addressing questions of life and death, war and peace, no other language will do if he is to effectively communicate with the American people. More than that, I believe it is the language required to convey his own understanding of history’s drama. In short,such civic religion - if that is the right term for it - is both risky and inevitable. It is not, however, just my theological scrupulosity that makes me wish he had said, “This hope, too, is a light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.” It is a small but important difference. That being said, it is a refreshing thing to have a president who gives firm and graceful expression to the truth that we are a nation under God - meaning, first of all, under judgment - and that, as Lincoln insisted, the Almighty has His purposes that we must humbly strive to discern and obey, resting our final confidence not in our certainty but in His judgment.

The Art of Co-operation

In New Jersey the judicial usurpation of politics is not an aberration to be feared but, it would seem, the established order. When Toricelli was way behind in the senate race, the Democrats pulled him out of the race and replaced him with Lautenberg, even though New Jersey law explicitly said that a candidate could not be replaced so late in an election contest. The state’s Supreme Court, in what it called a “liberal” interpretation of the law, declared the law null and void. Very liberal indeed. On another issue, fourteen gays and lesbians have brought suit to force New Jersey to grant them wedding licenses. The New Jersey Law Journal runs two editorials on the subject. The first argues at length that the state’s license application form does not specify anything that would preventsame-sex marriages, except for assuming that one partner is male and the other female. That assumption, the editors opine, is now obsolete, for “We are, undoubtedly, becoming more enlightened.” Unfortunately, the people are not so enlightened. The second editorial, “Who Shall Decide?”, acknowledges, “Same-sex marriage does not seem to be popular with the voters.” Where it has been put to a vote, it has been voted down. Legislators are also opposed. Therefore, “In choosing the courts, the plaintiffs wisely chose the potentially more hospitable forum.” “That the sweeping changes the plaintiffs seek may also be a province of the Legislature does not preclude action by a court. Our history is replete with examples of court-initiated profound social change where the Legislature has beensilent.” The editors suggest that the court might follow the example of Vermont where a court ordered the legislature to approve same-sex unions, saying that, if it did not do so “in an orderly and expeditious fashion”, the court would. The editors conclude, “The plaintiffs’ goals are sound and readily achievable by cooperation between the judicial and legislative branches of our government.” Ah yes, cooperation. We tell you what to do and you do it or we’ll do it for you. Anyone for “The End of Democracy?” At this point, at least in New Jersey, we may be permitted to omit the question mark.

Moral Judgement

Popular columnist Bob Greene is out at the Chicago Tribune. It was discovered that he had a sexual contact with an 18-year-old woman eleven years ago. Some years ago, radio host Dennis Prager and Greene worked hard in defence of a four-year-old boy, Danny Warburton, whom the Illinois Supreme Court took away from his family and gave to his birth father, who later abandoned the boy again. Prager writes: “I believe that every man and woman has a moral bank account. Our good deeds are deposits into that account, our bad deeds are withdrawals. It is our task as human beings to try to judge others’ accounts fairly, since every one of us has withdrawals - and if our deposits are ignored, we are all doomed to be judged worthless by others. When assessing people, what is therefore called for isperspective. We need it when judging anyone: strangers, friends, spouses, employees. In the overall context of a person’s life, there is a large amount in the person’s moral account. Then, while not denying the person’s sins - the withdrawals from his or her moral bank account - we must acknowledge the large balance that remains. Despite this particular withdrawal, Bob Greene’s moral bank account remains quite large. I have never personally met Bob Greene. During the Danny Warburton crisis, we spoke by phone almost every day, and only occasionally since. So this is not a brief on behalf of a friend. This is a brief on behalf of a good man who sinned. There are many children in Illinois and elsewhere who lead better lives, who are more loved, because of Bob Greene’s work on their behalf.Bob’s own children need to know that and never to forget it. Their dad strayed morally, and he has acknowledged it. But their dad is a good man. They should know that a lot of us know that. And always will. Not least, the Warburton and Prager families. Whatever sins he has committed pale alongside the good he has done, just as whatever good the five Illinois justices did pales alongside the bad they did. When I realize that the five justices who ruined lives are still honoured citizens in Illinois and that Bob Greene, who helped so many, is in disgrace, I recall the ancient Jewish proverb that the good get their punishments in this world and the bad in the next.” Others will no doubt point out that, given the storm over miscreant priests, and the example of the bishops at Dallas, theTribune had to do what it did.

Globalization not Westernization

Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, is almost always worth listening to. (I don’t know why I slipped that “almost” in there. I suppose it’s from the habit of writing about lesser thinkers.) The Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Centre had Huntington in for an extended conversation with journalists in the course of which he expounded, as he does in his book, on the new centrality of culture rather than ideology in international conflicts, and the attendant reemergence of religion as a critical factor in human affairs. One of his themes was that globalization does not necessarily mean westernization, never mind Americanization. American executives of world companies, he notes, insist that “Globalization means localization”. and Huntington describes some of theways in which companies such as McDonald’s make themselves indigenous to the countries where they operate. Yet many are offended by America’s “cultural imperialism”. and Huntington is asked how we might restrain the offensive aspects of our world hegemony. Huntington’s answer, I think, lifts up a dimension of globalization seldom discussed: “I’m an unrestrained enthusiast for restraint. I would hope we could act in a more cautious, moderate way. But I think in our culture there is the assumption of universalism, the assumption that everyone else in the world is basically like us in terms of culture and values. If they are not like us, they want to become like us. And if they don’t want to become like us, then there is something wrong with them. They don’t understand their true interests,and we have to persuade them to want to become like us. That’s a most unfortunate set of assumptions on our part, and it underlies a lot of what we do. We’re going to have to get used to living in a world where there are different cultures, different civilizations, different values and priorities. There may be some sort of convergence, but only over a very long period of time. I argue in my book that when countries begin to modernize, modernization and Westernization seem very closely linked, and the modernizing countries think they have to import all these things from the West in order to develop. In Japan, back in the 1870s, there was a big discussion of whether they should adopt English as a national language in order to modernize and develop. They decided not to, and they developedvery nicely without having the benefits of the English language. But there’s this sort of assumption that the two have to go together. As the process goes on, however, modernization and Westernization become separate. As countries modernize, they tend to find new virtues in their traditional values and culture, and they attribute to those traditional values their success at modernization.”

Socially Sensitive Bombing

There’s that old gibe about a nuclear bomb dropped on New York and eliciting the Washington Post headline, “Nuclear Attack on New York: Women and Minorities Hardest Hit.” In an instance of life aspiring to parody, the Post headline about a mad sniper who drove around in a white truck killing people at apparent random reads, “Arbitrary Victims, Identical Fate: County’s Growing Diversity Reflected in Those Gunned Down.” There’s a bright side to everything.

Moral Awakenings

There has been a striking increase in the number of high school seniors, male and female, who say they are virgins. Researchers attribute that to the rampant spread of venereal diseases, plus the effect of abstinence programmes. We may hope that a moral awakening may be a contributing factor. Also, a national study by the University of California, Berkeley, finds that there are significantly different views on abortion between Americans aged 15 to 22 and those aged 27 to 59. Forty-four percent of the young people - compared to 34 percent of the adults - support various restrictions on abortion. Planned Parenthood and its allies say this is because young people do not remember when abortions were illegal, and there is no doubt something to that. People who think there are too manyabortions and favour more protective laws for the unborn, but also want to keep abortion as a fall-back option in emergencies, have not yet experienced a moral awakening. On the other hand, more protective laws would save lives. Perhaps with the consequence that people would no longer think there are “too many” abortions. So the good news from the Berkeley study is mixed. Much like life itself.


Faith Magazine

January - February 2003