Notes From Across The Atlantic
Notes From Across The Atlantic

Notes From Across The Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine March-April 2004


Anti-Americanism Cont'd

“The often extravagant ravings of anti-American hatred, the media imputations—sometimes the product of incompetence, sometimes of mythomania—the opinionated ill will that puts the United States in an unfavourable light at every turn, can only confirm for Americans the uselessness of consultation. The result is the exact opposite of what is sought. The fallacies of the anti-American bias encourage American unilateralism. The tendentious blindness and systematic hostility of most of the governments that deal with America can only lead to their own weakening, a progressive distancing from reality. And so America’s confused enemies and allies alike, valuing animosity over influence, condemn themselves to impotence—and thus, in effect, strengthen the country they claim to fear.” That is thevigorous summation of Jean-François Revel’s Anti-Americanism (Encounter, 176 pp., £12.95). Revel is, among Parisian intellectuals, a genuinely independent mind in a herd of independent minds whose independence is collectively certified by their unanimous opposition to almost everything American. As the above-cited conclusion indicates, Anti-Americanism is a tract, but the kind of tract that restores the good reputation of political tractarianism.

Hall Of Fame Credentials

John Leo calls it “the rapid refurbishing of appalling people”, and he has more than a point. In 1987, Joel Steinberg of New York City beat to death his illegally adopted six-year-old daughter. Though still in jail, he has parlayed his notoriety into a job with a cable TV show. Jayson Blair fabricated stories for the New York Times, and has a six-figure advance for a book telling how a “racist” press made him do it. Stephen Glass fabricated stories for the New Republic and other publications, which earned him a movie sale and big book contract, as well as a job writing for Rolling Stone, for which he wrote fiction as fact. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl, and then skipped the country, which did not prevent him from getting last year’s Oscar for best director.Marv Albert’s career was presumably shattered by a messy sex scandal, but a little more than a year later he was hired as host of MSG Sports Desk. And then there is Al Sharpton, co-perpetrator of the Tawana Brawley rape hoax, leader of an agitation against a Jewish store owner in which he joined with others in screaming “bloodsucking Jews” and “Jew bastards”, which agitation ended with three people shot and seven dead in a fire set by a protestor. Now he is a “civil rights leader” who is addressed as “the Rev. Sharpton” in national debates with other aspirants for the presidency of the United States. Such things are to be expected, writes Leo, “in a culture with no higher standard than non-judgmentalism”. Religious leaders must take a large part of the responsibility for the debasement ofthe Christian understanding of forgiveness into non-judgmentalism. In the entertainment and political worlds—the two being not easily distinguishable—we are witnessing the cultural consequences of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”. There is another interesting note, however, in Leo’s worthy jeremiad. The Hall of Fame refuses to honour two great but tainted players, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Leo asks, “Is raping a child less serious than betting on baseball or throwing a World Series?” An interesting question, but the Hall of Fame is about more than fame. It is about honest achievement and, as pitched to young people, about something like virtue, the latter requiring at least the absence of a blatant defiance of virtue. When watching a ball game, one has theheartening thought that there is still an activity in which it is hard to fake it. Along with the depressing thought that there are so many others in which fakery and even viciousness is the road to celebrity. Leo is undoubtedly right in urging serious people to fight “the rapid refurbishing of appalling people”.

Me, Me, Wonderful Me

Father Richard S. Vosko has played a prominent role in the renovation of numerous Catholic churches. Critics say he is a perpetrator of the stripping of the altars, and refer to his renovations as wreckovations. He explains his approach in the 3rd November, 2003 issue of America, “Building and Renovating Places of Worship”. He speaks of “the emerging church”, and repeatedly of the “evolving church” that is “a church in the process of redefining itself”. He fears a return to “the styles of preconciliar churches”, and urges readers to “embrace the stimulating, challenging and evolving self-image of the church today”. He says the Church as a sacrament of unity means that pro-lifers and pro-choicers, gays and straights, married and divorced are “breathing in the word of God together” and “allare sharing in the holy Eucharist together”. And then there is this: “The sacrament of unity is defined less by details and more by the mystery of the religious phenomenon—the assembly of a diverse people sustaining one another because of their undying belief in a loyal, ever-present God.” That nicely encapsulates a thoroughly anthropocentric understanding of the Church and her worship. We are the mystery. Church and liturgy are defined by the very human event, by “the religious phenomenon” of our assembled diversity. It is not Christ sustaining us, but we sustaining one another. And we do that because we believe in a loyal God. The original meaning of “loyal” is faithful allegiance to a higher sovereignty. In this connection, it would seem to suggest that God is loyal to the highersovereignty of us, the individual and collective Self that is the mystery of the religious phenomenon by which the sacrament is effected. Wading through the muddled effusions of Fr. Vosko’s article, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the evolving church and the defining sacramental reality is the worship of our wondrously diverse selves. His prescriptions for building and renovating places of worship, it logically follows, are perfectly attuned to the Church of Us. That the Catholic Church still thinks of herself as the Church of Jesus Christ, one is given to understand, is a lamentable consequence of our failing to embrace “the stimulating, challenging and evolving self-image of the church today”. What Fr. Vosko proposes sounds very much like a worship space for the cultof communal narcissism. I have told the story before of Avery Cardinal Dulles being in a church when he saw a banner declaring, “God Is Other People”. He sorely wished that he had a magic marker with him so that he could insert a very prominent comma after “Other”.

Catholics In Politics

“I promise you I will vote my conscience. Unless, that is, it gets in the way of my political career.” That, variously stated, is the principled position of some Wisconsin legislators who were not happy with a letter sent them by Bishop Raymond Burke of LaCrosse (recently appointed Archbishop of St. Louis). In his letter, Bishop Burke reminded them that, as Catholics, they had a moral duty to protect the innocent, especially the unborn and those threatened by euthanasia. Among the outraged politicians was Democratic Senator Julie Lassa who said, “I’m concerned that the bishop would pressure legislators to vote according to the dictates of the Church instead of the wishes of their constituents because that is not consistent with our Democratic ideals. When I was elected, I swore an oath touphold the Constitution and that means I have to represent all the people of all faiths in my district.” No, the bishop urged that she vote her conscience as formed by the teachings of the Church, which as a member she presumably shares, rather than the dictates of her constituents. A more principled understanding of what it means to represent one’s constituents was classically set forth by Edmund Burke to the electors of Bristol in 1774: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” The Church has no power to dictate or compel how politicians vote. She does have a pastoral responsibility for their souls, and the authority to say how they stand with the Church. Of the persistentlyanti-life politicians, Bishop Burke says, “If they were to continue to do that, I would simply have to ask them not to present themselves to receive the sacraments because they would not be Catholics in good standing.” What is it that politicians don’t understand about that? What is it that too many bishops do not understand about that? One hopes that the leadership of Archbishop Burke in St. Louis will be an encouragement, in the precise sense of inducing courage, among his peers.

One Lord Of All

“Islam is a religion of peace,” President Bush has said on several occasions. One fervently wishes there were more evidence to support that assertion, but I understand that there are compelling reasons for Bush to avoid any suggestion that the war on terrorism is, at bottom, a religious war between Christianity and Islam. Then, at a news conference during the state visit to Britain, a reporter asked whether “Muslims worship the same Almighty”. Bush replied, “I do say that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every person. I also condition it by saying freedom is not America’s gift to the world. It’s much greater than that, of course.” Then there was a definite pause, as though he knew he might get in trouble for saying, “And I believe we worship the same God.” That did ruffle some Christianfeathers in this country. An official of the Southern Baptist Convention said Bush “is simply mistaken”. He added, “We should always remember that he is commander in chief, not theologian in chief. The Bible is clear on this: the one and true God is Jehovah, and his only begotten Son is Jesus Christ.” The president of the National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement: “The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the people that serve them. Muhammad’s central message was submission; Jesus’ central message was love. They seem to be very different personalities.” If I understand our separated brethren, we gota competition between gods going here, with our God (upper case) being much nicer than their god, as revealed, so to speak, in the superior niceness of those of us who serve Him. Of course this is theological nonsense. It would seem to suggest a kind of polytheism. Christians confess that there is one God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jews worship the one God whom Jesus called Father and taught us to worship, although Jews do not recognize that the God whom we both worship has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Muslims worship the same God (although calling him Allah, as do Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians), believing that His definitive revelation was given through Muhammad. So also St. Paul preaching in the Areopagus: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you arevery religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth.” The dispute between Jews, Muslims and Christians is not over whether they worship the same God, but over how the one God is rightly understood and worshipped. It is true that Bush is commander in chief, not theologian in chief, but on this question he is a better theologian than some of his evangelical critics.

The Making Of Civilization

This is a different take that raises all kinds of interesting questions about cause and effect, the meaning of democracy, Islam and Christianity, and more. “The True Clash of Civilizations”, published in Foreign Policy by Ronald Inglehart (University of Michigan) and Pippa Norris (Harvard) aims to set Samuel Huntington straight. Huntington, it will be recalled, wrote about a clash of civilizations based on conflicts of religiously grounded morality and culture. Not so, say Inglehart and Norris; the real clash is over divorce, abortion, gender equality, gay rights and related “self-expression values”. “The real fault line,” they write, “between the West and Islam which Huntington’s theory completely overlooks, concerns gender equality and sexual liberation. In other words, the valuesseparating the two cultures have much more to do with eros than demos. As younger generations in the West have gradually become more liberal on these issues, Muslims nations have remained the most traditional societies in the world.” This is a masterful muddle. What Huntington understands and Inglehart and Norris overlook is that ideas and practices with respect to marriage, family, abortion and sexuality are derived from religion, morality and culture. Theirs is a quite remarkable confusion of what is cause and what is effect. “The self-expression values,” they say, “are crucial to democracy.” Was America less democratic when homosexuality was in the closet and mothers did not have the legal right to have their children killed? No doubt some would answer that in the affirmative. But thefoundation of the American idea of democracy is the Declaration’s belief that “just government is derived from the consent of the governed”. The “self-expression values” championed by the authors—notably abortion and gay rights—have been, for the most part, imposed by the judiciary without the consent of the people. It is a strange argument that a society is certified as democratic when it has policies that can only be established by antidemocratic means. Huntington got it right: the clash is between different cultures grounded in different religions, and resulting in different ways of thinking and acting about marriage, family, law, politics and much else. One thing is for sure: if democracy is defined in terms of self-expression values and unbridled eros, most Muslims will want nothingto do with it. And, for that matter, neither will most Americans. Fortunately, outside the libidinous hot house of prestige universities, few people subscribe to the theory and practice of democracy espoused by professors Inglehart and Norris.


Faith Magazine

March - April 2004