Notes From Across The Atlantic
Notes From Across The Atlantic

Notes From Across The Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine March-April 2005


Some years ago I came across an article titled “It’s the Culture, Stupid”, but in fact many articles I’ve written might well bear that title. Some pundits have denied the aptness of the “culture war” metaphor in describing the American circumstance, while others have contended that it may once have been appropriate but is no longer. Then came the 2004 elections. The percentages may change a little upon further analysis, but the immediate aftermath powerfully confirms the culture war thesis. Asked what issue mattered most to them, 22 percent of voters named “moral values”. Of those voters, 80 percent went for Bush and 18 for Kerry. Next on the list (20 percent) was “economy/jobs”, with 18 percent of those voters going for Bush and 80 percent going for Kerry. A perfect reverse symmetry.Third on the list (19 percent) was “terrorism”, on which Bush beat Kerry 86 to 14 percent. So much for the vaunted “economic realists” who claim that the one thing certain is that “the people will always vote their pocketbook”. In truth, however, I expect that the great majority of those who named moral values as their top issue also believed that a second Bush term would be good for the economy. People who say the economy is the top issue predictably think the economy is in bad shape, just as those who give priority to moral values think public morality is in trouble. A Democratic ploy is to pit moral values against the economy, but that is just that, a ploy. The likelihood is that most people voting for Bush thought he would be better both for moral values and for the economy. Here’s ananalysis noting that Bush got 56 percent of the white Catholic vote and Kerry only 43 percent “despite Mr. Kerry’s being Catholic”. One might make the case that that “despite” might as well be “because”. Catholics were not amused by a man who seemed so confused about what it means to be Catholic. The perception that he was confused was, I expect, sharpened by the bolder bishops who issued highly publicized reproaches of pro-abortion politicians. The claim that politicians who are thus reproached would get a sympathy vote from people who resent “bishops meddling in politics” seems to be belied by the outcome. Asked what one quality mattered most in choosing a President, people who named religious faith went 91 percent for Bush. Of all voters who attend church more than once a week, 61percent went for Bush and 39 percent for Kerry. Of those who never attend church, the numbers were exactly reversed. Bush did much better (44 percent) with Hispanic voters than in 2000, but there was slight movement among blacks (up two points to 11 percent). The issue of same-sex marriage had gained traction with many black ministers, but that apparently had little effect on black voters, who remain a securely taken-for-granted segment of the Democratic “base.” It is a great pity. A people with the highest rate of the poor locked in a culture of crime and dependency, and with 20 million of their children missing because of abortion, continues to follow leaders who have made a deal with powers that clearly do not have their interests at heart. What Gunnar Myrdal in 1944 called theAmerican dilemma has sixty years later turned into the black American embarrassment. These, then, are some of the pertinent data in the immediate aftermath of the election that underscore the ascendancy of the religious-moral-cultural matrix of American politics. Whether one approves or disapproves of the electoral consequences, it is not a good thing that the two parties are so sharply divided in this way. Republicans are understandably and with great success exploiting a division created by Democrats, most importantly by their don’t-give-an-inch support for the unlimited abortion license decreed by Roe v. Wade. In the reconfiguration of our public life, including electoral politics, January 22, 1973 , is the most important date of the last half-century on the American calendar.


Not everyone on the left is joining the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the electoral triumph of the threatening theocrats. You’ve undoubtedly seen the articles claiming that the “moral values” vote really doesn’t mean very much. The argument is that the category “moral values” is, unlike “economy/jobs” or “war in Iraq ”, so vague that it can mean anything or nothing. This is an argument from desperation. If nobody knew what the phrase meant, it would seem that Bush and Kerry voters would have been more or less evenly split on “moral values”. Unless, of course, one assumes that Kerry voters are in principle opposed to moral values. As it was, however, all sensate voters understood that “moral values” referred to the candidates’ clear differences on abortion, embryonic stem-cellresearch, a marriage amendment and, more generally, the role of morality and religion in public life. There is no other plausible explanation of the 80-18 split other than that those who named it as their number one issue thought they knew very well what was meant by “moral values”. Back to weeping and gnashing of teeth.


The social scientist James Q. Wilson undoubtedly means well, but he goes a claim too far. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he is attempting to counter the hysterics who say November 2 marked the dawning of theocratic totalitarianism. He points out that the left can be, and frequently is, more intolerant than the right, and that what a voter says is the “most important” issue can obscure “the variety of factors that characterize voting preferences”. For instance, “What is the vote likely to be in Ohio among gun-owning union members who attend church but who have just lost their jobs and think the U.S. should spend less time fighting wars?” Fair enough. But then this astonishing assertion: “In fact, abortion was not an issue in the election and Messrs. Bush and Kerry both opposed gaymarriage.” In fact, that is not true. On gay marriage, Bush regularly stated his position in stump speeches and advocated a federal marriage amendment. Kerry mentioned it only when asked and opposed an amendment. On abortion, Bush has repeatedly declared himself pro-life, has steadfastly asserted the goal of “every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life”, and has supported and signed pro-life measures in his first term. Kerry took and never deviated from the NARAL pledge of allegiance to the unlimited abortion license. These were not issues in the election? Does Mr. Wilson think Karl Rove was deluding himself in counting on Bush’s “base” among pro-life and pro-family voters? Wilson writes, “It is true that President Bush improved his voting support among people who attendchurch frequently and who describe themselves as Catholics, Protestants and Jews, but Sen. Kerry won nearly half of all Catholic votes and over three-fourths of all Jewish ones.” Wilson presumably knows but does not mention the huge switch of Catholic voters to Bush, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews never go to church, seldom go to synagogue, and have a deeply entrenched habit of voting Democratic. I recognize and sympathize with what Mr. Wilson was trying to do in his Wall Street Journal article. It is true that the election was not about establishing a theocracy. It is equally true that it was not about nothing.


One of the problems with a literalistic “Bible only” approach to Christian thought is that it has no place for the role of reason or a tradition of authoritative interpretation. Here is an article by a Christian ethicist attacking the idea that abortion should be a decisive, or even a really major factor, in how a Christian votes. There are so many other issues, such as war, capital punishment, poverty, world development and on and on. Interestingly, he invokes the Catholic bishops on “a consistent ethic of life”. But of course there is no reference to the document of the same bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, or to their statement of June 2004, on the singularity of abortion in making political decisions. One probably should not expect from a Protestant writer any allusion tomagisterial teaching, such as John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The author does acknowledge that the first century “Didache” condemns abortion, but qualifies that by noting that the condemnation “does not stand alone”. The clincher in this way of thinking, however, is succinctly stated: “Nor does Scripture give us any precise definition of what constitutes innocent life.” There you have the widely and rightly criticized fundamentalist approach: if it ain’t in the Bible—and explicitly and precisely so—it ain’t necessarily so. The author of the essay is Father John Coleman, S.J., professor of moral theology at Loyola Marymount University , Los Angeles .


If you don’t like the Constitution, you can always rewrite it. Or resort to the creative use of ellipses. The American Civil Liberties Union has an impressive website on free speech. The opening paragraph introducing the website is this: “It is probably no accident that freedom of speech is the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ The Constitution’s framers believed that freedom of inquiry and liberty of expression were the hallmarks of a democratic society.” The first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment is, of course, the free exercise of religion. It appears that among the libertieschampioned by the ACLU is that of taking liberties with the text of the Constitution.


Back when the Lambeth Conference said that homosexual practices are not compatible with scriptural teaching, retired Episcopal bishop John Spong opined that the ultraconservative position is attributable to pressure from culturally backward African bishops who are only a generation removed from the jungle. It was later pointed out by us (in First Things, May 2000) that the African bishops, who govern dioceses many times the size of their American counterparts, are also much better educated than the American bishops, with many of them having earned advanced degrees at European and American universities. Gene Robinson, the gay New Hampshire bishop, now tries a different explanation of why Africans and others oppose the attempt of American Episcopalians to overthrow traditional teaching onsexuality. “I’ve had people say to me that in developing countries, people don’t see any difference between you and George Bush, and this is being experienced as yet one more unilateral action on the part of Americans, and we’re sick of it and we’re not going to take it anymore,” he said. “I’m not saying there aren’t theological issues, scriptural issues and so on, but I do think that . . . may have something to do with the vociferousness of the debate.” Add to the sidelining of the United Nations and the alienation of “Old Europe” George W. Bush’s responsibility for the breakup of the Anglican communion.


“Why do you hate us?” That, says Mustafa Akyol, writing in the American Enterprise, is a question frequently put to Muslims by Americans. “The first answer from someone like me, who is repulsed by terrorists who kill in the name of Islam, is that most of us do not hate you. Yet it must be acknowledged that radical Muslim rage is real in many countries.” A major source of such rage is the moral decadence of American society as communicated by Hollywood and other media. Akyol writes: “This distaste derives not only from culture but also from ideas. When ‘Western ideas’ are mentioned, many Muslims think not of Jefferson, C. S. Lewis, Lincoln or Burke, but rather of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Carl Sagan. The behavior of some Westernised local elites in Muslim countries makes the situationeven worse. In my country of Turkey , one popular stereotype of the Westernised Turk is of the soulless, skirt- and money-chasing man drinking whiskey while swearing at Islam. Although a caricature, it carries enough truth to further a bad image of the West . . . Obviously, that is a distortion of the truth. America stands out in the Western world as ‘a nation under God’, particularly compared to ‘Old Europe’. The aggressive secularism of Europe is one reason why European Muslims are especially radicalized. (Another spur is the lesser opportunities for upward mobility in Europe as compared to America .) As a Muslim, I feel at home in America when I see people saying grace at the table, praising the Lord, filling houses of worship and handling currency inscribed ‘In God We Trust’. When I’min Europe , on the other hand, with its empty cathedrals, widespread atheism and joyless cynicism, I feel alienated.” So what is to be done? “To erase this false image, America must help Muslims see that it is indeed a nation under God. The culture it exports should celebrate more than materialism, disbelief, selfishness and hedonism. America must do a better job of portraying the principles of decency that undergird its society. Otherwise it will be despised by devout Muslims throughout the world, and radicals will channel contempt into violence. Of course, avoiding radical Islamist rage is only one reason for Americans to resist empty materialism. A deeper reason is that materialism is a mistaken philosophy. If they will save themselves from its disappointments, Americans will enjoymany benefits—including a better chance to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, and avert a clash of civilizations.”

Faith Magazine

March - April 2005