Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine January-February 2007

Religious Left Identified
Repeatedly and ever more plaintively, the question is asked, “Where is the religious left?” Ever eager to serve, Jim Wallis of Sojourners responds, “Here am I, send me to repel the threatening armies of the theocrats!” Wallis steadfastly deplores the ways in which the religious right equates its politics with the will of God. To counter such religious arrogance, he wrote a popular book explaining his own politics. He called the book God’s Politics. It comes complete with the U.S. federal budget that the prophet Isaiah would have written if he had known more about modern economics. Jim Wallis is not alone in trying to revive, or invent, a religious left. The Network of Spiritual Progressives is a project led by Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine. Tikkun refers to the mending of theworld, which all can agree is a good thing to try to do. Recently, he and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, convened a gathering of the Network in Washington, D.C. Neela Banerjee, writing in the New York Times, reports: “They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.” Tony Campolo, the liberal Baptist, told the gathering that they should invoke biblical authority. “People in Congress respect the Book, even if they don’t know what it says. If we don’t recognise this, we don’t know squat.” A hirsute young man objected: “I thought this was a spiritual progressives’ conference. I don’t want to play the game of‘the Bible says this or that’, or that we get validation from something other than ourselves. We should be speaking from our hearts.” He possibly reads Tikkun. When the conferees deployed their forces on Capitol Hill, Carol Gottesman, a 64-year-old nurse from Hubbard, Ohio, engaged her Democrat congressman, Tim Ryan, who said he had heard of the progressive network. Mr. Ryan asked if the group was pressing specific policies. “No,” said Ms. Gottesman, “it’s more that we want to take caring and generosity and bring it into everything.” Mr. Ryan responded, “Spread love, not hate. Pretty simple. Do you have a little network back home?” Banerjee writes, “Ms. Gottesman squared her shoulders proudly and said, ‘I’m it.’” Validation from ourselves indeed. In truth, the 1,200 souls at All SoulsUnitarian Church were validating one another in their communal affirmation of their very singular selves. There is a religious left. It is defined by a shared reaction to the religious right. It is not about to change its name to the Network of Spiritual Reactionaries, however. These people understand themselves to be progressive, open-minded, inquiring and fiercely opposed to the moral arrogance of conservatives who claim that their policy preferences are, as Jim Wallis might put it, “God’s politics”.

Being up for Discussion

“Interestingly, many who urge more acceptance of religion in the public square want sceptics to keep quiet, and in fact if you actually go after someone’s religious ideas you are quickly accused of anti-religious bias. I find this stance highly problematic. If the faithful are willing to say that we should shut up about their ideas because, after all, they are private, then the faithful should not proclaim the relevance of those ideas to public affairs.” That’s historian David Hollinger of the University of California, Berkeley, in a symposium on secularism published by Religion in the News. He’s on to something. But then he goes wrong in thinking that it is only liberal secularists and liberal Christians who have an interest in making religious belief a matter of civil public discussion.In a 2004 article in Harper’s, Hollinger wrote: “Religious ideas have become oddly privileged. Since most secularists consider religion a strictly private matter, they generally deem it impolite to express about a believer’s religious ideas the kind of scepticism they might reveal in response to someone’s notions about the economy or race or gender. Of course, there is no excuse for rudeness, yet the more impact on public affairs religious ideas are understood to have, the more troublesome this deference becomes. In an earlier era, freethinkers understood that the society in which they lived depended in part on the basic view of the world accepted by their fellow citizens—hence Robert Ingersoll and Elizabeth Cady Stanton not only defended a clear churchstate separation but commented onthe merits of specific religious ideas held by their contemporaries. For the last sixty or seventy years, however, secularists have more often supposed that the ideas of religious believers did not matter; that the ideas could be scorned when out of the earshot of the faithful or, in mixed company, could be patronizingly indulged the way one might listen to the words of a child or aged relative before tactfully changing the subject.” Right again. He describes the presumption of atheism, or at least methodological atheism, in academic philosophy, and writes: “My point is not that philosophers should be more religious than they are—I want only to note that the discipline that once contributed precious analytic rigor to the evaluation of religious ideas rarely treats religion as arespectable rival to secular worldviews. In part, the shift reflects a striking and laudable change in the demographics of American academia after 1945. The integration of Jews into social science and humanities faculties ended the Protestant cultural hegemony of the leading colleges and created an atmosphere in which Christian ideas were no longer privileged; the liberation was a major enrichment of American intellectual life, and the philosophers, historians, literary scholars, and social scientists who participated in it were understandably reticent to turn their analytic powers towards Christian ideas in a society that had, until recently, excluded Jews as agents of ‘de-Christianization’.” Hollinger singles out liberal secularists and liberal Catholics as the people who can bringabout a new engagement of philosophy with religion. He has no more solid ally, however, than Pope Benedict XVI. The much-discussed September lecture in Regensburg was precisely an appeal to Western secularists to recognise that philosophy is crippled by its exclusion of the questions addressed by religion, and an appeal to Christians not to repudiate the Christian-Hellenic synthesis with its accent upon the mutual dependence of faith and reason. Hollinger thinks our intellectual culture would be healthier if we had today people such as Robert Ingersoll, a brilliant atheist who in the early twentieth century toured the country lambasting religion. (There is a plaque in honour of Ingersoll in Gramercy Park, around the corner from my office.) One hopes, however, that secularists could comeup with people more sophisticated than Ingersoll, and more interested in truth than in scoring points, but Hollinger is right about the need to move beyond the “privileging” of religion as a purely personal concern grounded in private experience and therefore immune from criticism. Christianity makes public truth claims about reality, and such claims are subject to reasonable challenge, as they are also reasonably proposed. Whether Mr. Hollinger knows it or not, he and the pope are on the same side in contending against both ideological secularism and religious fideism.

Media Manipulation

It’s a little thing but it pulls together so much. Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), an outfit on the cutting edge of the culture of death, puts on a full-court media press touting its putative discovery of a new way of getting embryonic stem cells without killing embryos. Nature magazine plays it up big. The New York Times bites and runs it as the lead story, written by its chief science editor, on the front page. Knowledgeable critics immediately jump into the fray, pointing out that the technology is not new, that in fact all the embryos used in the experiment were killed, and that the President’s Council on Bioethics had considered the ACT procedure a year earlier and unanimously rejected it as unethical. A few days later, down on a deep inside page, the Times has a story reporting thatthe Conference of Catholic Bishops brought pressure on the editors of Nature, who then apologized for their error. There is no acknowledgment of the Times’ error in promoting ACT’s fraudulent claims. Out of the paper’s journalistic sloppiness the editors manage to rescue the satisfaction of once again suggesting that the Church is the enemy of scientific progress. What would we do without the nation’s newspaper of record? Don’t ask.

Allegiance to God or Country?

I once got into a lot of trouble when, writing on the judicial usurpation of politics in First Things, I said we should be concerned about the possibility that many Americans might one day conclude that the motto “God and country” has been changed to the question “God or country”. Now comes an alarming finding from a poll by the Pew Research Centre. At least it greatly alarms David Van Biema, who, writing in Time magazine, senses theocracy on the march. Pew asked 820 self-identified Christians, “Do you think of yourself first as American or as Christian?” Forty-two percent answered “Christian first” and 48 percent answered “American first”; 7 percent didn’t answer. Now “self-identified Christian” is not a terribly useful category, since that includes close to 90 percent of the population.One would like to know a little more about the level of their Christian belief and practice. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that 62 percent of those who described themselves as evangelicals said “Christian first”, while Catholics and oldline Protestants went 62 and 65 percent, respectively, for “American first”. This might suggest that evangelicals are less prone to the idolatry of nationalism than are Catholics and oldline Protestants. Or, to put it differently, that evangelicals better understand that, in the long tradition of Christian fidelity, including martyrdom, allegiance to Christ of course takes priority over any other allegiance. But that, too, might be misleading. The term evangelical, as it has come to be used in recent decades, denotes a specific faith commitmentand, increasingly, a positioning of oneself in the ongoing culture wars. By contrast, Catholic and Protestant (even if one specifies mainline Protestant) is often a religiocultural identifier including many people who are just happen-to-be-bybackground members. In other words, if someone says he is an evangelical, he is probably saying what he himself believes and practices. If someone says he is a Catholic or a Presbyterian, he may simply be indicating the religious community into which he was born. (If evangelicalism is around in its present form fifty or a hundred years from now, there will no doubt be a lot of happen-to-be evangelicals.) The pity in all this is that only 42 percent of those who identify themselves as Christian seem to understand the priority of a Christian’sallegiance to Christ and his Church. But, as I say, Mr. Van Biema finds that 42 percent figure cause for alarm. He asks us to engage in a “thought experiment”. Would we not be alarmed if 42 percent of 820 Muslim-Americans, when asked, “Do you think of yourself first as American or as Muslim?” responded that they are “Muslims first”. Well yes, some people would be alarmed because they know very little about Muslims and Islam and do not understand that of course a Muslim’s first allegiance is to Allah. But the symmetry Mr. Van Biema suggests in his thought experiment is profoundly misleading. Muslims in this country are a small minority of no more than 2 percent, most of them relatively recent arrivals, and are associated with a religion in whose name, however illegitimately, war has beendeclared against America. Quite understandably, many, if not most, Americans think that Muslim allegiance to America is at least a fair question. Christians, on the other hand, are the overwhelming majority who share a Christian tradition, broadly defined, with those who settled the country, who devised its constitutional order and who have over almost three centuries given definition to what it means to be an American. It is perfectly understandable that Christians may think that they know what it means to be an American in a way that many or most Muslims may not know. What Mr. Van Biema does not know, at least to judge by his essay in Time, is the political, cultural and religious reality of America, both past and present. He is clear enough, however, about the ordering of his ownallegiances. He says he’s going to get himself an “American First” bumper sticker. One may reasonably suppose that that means he is not a Christian or, if he happens to be a Christian, not a very serious Christian. Or perhaps he is just terribly confused.

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