Wednesday, June 25, 2008

No Rev. Wright, God will not damn America. Your Liberal Democratic friends have already done it!

Note: Another article is below this one. (also turn off sound)

Dechristianizing America
by Richard Neuhaus
Issue 110 - June 25, 2008

If you're not a Christian and not about to become a Christian, but you're a public intellectual who is paid to be an expert on a society that is overwhelmingly Christian, you have to make a decision about how to position yourself.

For a long time, beginning in the first half of the last century and accelerating in the aftermath of World War II, many thinkers simply decided to ignore "the religion factor" in American life. The dogma was promulgated, and reiterated in textbooks from grade school through graduate school, that religion was once important, but now America is a comprehensively and irreversibly secular society. Historian David Hollinger of Berkeley has written with admirable candor about the decision of the American intellectual class to emulate the more thorough secularism of European thinkers. This decision was strengthened, he says, by the influence of émigré Jewish intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s. Hollinger, one notes, strongly approves of the turn toward European secularism.

Over more than twenty years, that way of positioning oneself with respect to American culture became increasingly untenable, as religion of the unmistakably Christian kind began breaking out all over the public square. As a result, some non-Christian thinkers, and Jewish thinkers in particular, began to take a different tack. Since religion could no longer be ignored, one had to assume a posture toward it. In recent years, different postures have been assumed. (Not all the figures I will mention here would be recognized as public intellectuals, but they represent nodal points around which public attitudes and commentaries cluster.)

Some, such as Abe Foxman of the ADL, decided that the resurgence of religion in public poses a lethal threat to all they cherish about America, and to Jews in particular. Joining forces with older proponents of a rigid secularism, they rail against the dangers of the "religious right." Foxman, like the very influential Leo Pfeffer of the American Jewish Congress before him, is personally observant. The insistence is that personally religious means privately religious.

Others, such as Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine, recognize that religion in public is here to stay and therefore try to spin the phenomenon in the service of their "progressive" ideology. Lerner and a few others are the leftist Jewish counterparts to Jim Wallis (author of God's Politics) in evangelical Protestantism.

A more thoughtful response to the religious resurgence was for decades represented by Irving Kristol's magazine, the Public Interest. Kristol—and his mainly but by no means exclusively Jewish colleagues—took a generally benign view of the assertiveness of a new mix of religion, culture, and politics that challenged regnant secular liberalisms. Kristol's understanding of religion in public was usually described as "instrumental": It doesn't much care about the particularities of Christian beliefs; the assertiveness of Christian morality is socially and politically useful.

A more explicit alliance between Judaism and public Christianity is pressed by the likes of Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his movement, "Toward Tradition." Writers such as Michael Medved, Don Feder, Dennis Prager, and David Klinghoffer adopt a similar posture. Such figures are not intimidated by the charge that they are the Jewish wing of the "religious right."

Then there are those such as Rabbi David Novak and the hundreds of Jewish signers of the 2000 statement Dabru Emet ("To Speak the Truth"). Although Novak and others are generally on the "conservative" side of contested social and moral issues, their chief concern is the religious and moral engagement between Judaism and Christianity. This is presently the most vibrant expression of the long-standing Jewish-Christian dialogue. It is attentive also to grounding the search for a more just and free society in shared Jewish and Christian warrants. It is understood that, while there is not a shared Judeo-Christian religion, there is a shared Judeo-Christian ethic. In the long and troubled history of Jewish-Christian relations, this is the enterprise that goes most deeply and could, I believe, have the most lasting consequences.

Yet others take another approach to the problem of being public intellectuals who are expected to be experts on an assertively religious society in which they are, religiously speaking, in a small minority. One thinks, for instance, of figures such as Alan Wolfe, David Brooks, Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, and Adam Kirsch. These people are very different. Brooks is a frequently brilliant observer of cultural manners and quirks, and Fish is an energetic philosophical provocateur who would be sorely missed. What this group has in common, and what distinguishes them from other the thinkers, is that they have taken it upon themselves to adjudicate what is real and what is only apparent in the Christianity professed by the great majority of their fellow citizens. This might be described as a particularly bold exercise in chutzpah, but it is not without its charms.

Here, for example, is a review by Adam Kirsch of Washington's God by Michael and Jana Novak. Kirsch does not like the book at all. "It is not a serious work of history. It falls rather in the Parson Weems tradition of Washington biography, using the father of the country as a blank screen on which to project desires and fantasies about the country he fathered." Kirsch is determined not to let the father of the country, which is Kirsch's country, too, be claimed by the Christians. Now, as it happens, I think Washington's God would be a stronger book if it focused less on the personal piety and beliefs of Washington and more on the structure of Christian (and Jewish!) thought that marked the American Founders, including Washington. That structure is nicely analyzed in Michael Novak's earlier book On Two Wings. More pertinent to this discussion, however, is Kirsch's confident assertion about the kind of religion that can be safely admitted to the public square. It is "a vision of faith that does seem genuinely American: pragmatic, experiential, internal, more interested in love and forgiveness than judgment and punishment. More of this kind of faith, at least can't hurt the republic." A safely neutered Christianity whose hard edges have been replaced by the warm and fuzzy may be, according to Kirsch, admitted, if somewhat grudgingly, to the telling of the American story.

The most audacious effort to acknowledge "Christian America" while, at the same time, redefining it in a way that raises no awkward questions, and especially no awkward questions for those who are not Christian, is represented by sociologist Alan Wolfe of Boston College. In FIRST THINGS, I have regularly attended to his writings of recent years in which he assures his readers that Christians do not really believe what they say they believe. Wolfe, who says he does not have a religious bone in his body, set out his oft-reiterated thesis in the 1999 book One Nation, After All: What Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left and Each Other. Using interviews conducted by his assistants, Wolfe concludes that, except for their views on homosexuality, Americans are, despite their claims to be Christian, more or less good liberals like the rest of us. As for conservative Christians and the much-touted "religious right," they hardly show up on his radar screen. As with other "extremists," they are marginal, and must be kept that way.

In the days before religion began breaking out all over, the "religion factor"—meaning the Christian factor—was treated as epiphenomenal. Harold Bloom has an even more ambitious argument in his 1993 book, American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. There we are instructed that Americans, with exceptions, have left Christianity behind in order to join Bloom in embracing an Emersonian gnosticism centered in the actualization of the "divine spark" within each of us.

In these instances, we have non-Christians negotiating their place in a dominantly Christian society and their standing as experts on that society—more specifically as experts on religion in that society—who contend that 85 percent of the population is living in a state of false-consciousness by thinking that they are, in some way that really matters, Christian. It is passing strange.

This attempted de-Christianization of America is not very polite. These writers, in effect, are asserting that Christians in America are the Laodiceans to whom the Lord says in Revelation 3, "I know your works; you are neither hot nor cold. Would that you were hot or cold. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth." Admittedly, with Bloom there is the interesting twist that they are not, in fact, lukewarm but hot for Emersonian gnosticism, albeit with some vestigial Christian trimmings.

It is undoubtedly true that many Christians are mediocre in their faith and its practice. Ordinarily, most people are ordinary. And there is surely a strong streak of gnosticism in popular spiritualities. More striking, however, is the claim that people are not what they say they are; that the majority of Christians who say that being Christian is very important to their lives are simply deceiving themselves. Among social analysts, there is no other social indicator or identity claim that is so cavalierly dismissed or redefined in ways contrary to what people say about themselves. If someone says he is a liberal Democrat or a fervent Red Sox fan, he is thought to have said something significant about himself. If he says he is very seriously a Christian, Messrs. Wolfe, Bloom, et al., are eager to disillusion him, or at least to explain to the rest of us why he is deluded.

Stanley Fish's distinctive contribution is to argue that American Christians are not seriously Christian because Christianity is a "comprehensive account" of reality and comprehensive accounts of reality are of necessity fanatical. Since Christians in America are generally not fanatical but tolerant and quite nice, it follows that they are actually good liberals who do not really believe in the comprehensive account that is Christianity. If one accepts the premise, this has the charm of being logical.

Fifty years ago, Will Herberg published his justly influential Protestant-Catholic-Jew. In those days, the old Protestant oldline establishment was still very much in place, as was what was viewed as tribally intact Catholicism. Herberg insightfully traced the ways in which Jews and Catholics were successfully melding their religious identity with the American Way of Life as defined by the old establishment. A crucial part of this was the adjustment to an "unconscious secularization" that modified, but did not evacuate, religious particularities. Herberg himself was very seriously a Jew.

In American culture, politics, and religion, a great deal has happened in the past half century. The decline of the oldline Protestant establishment, and the energy with which Catholics and evangelical Protestants are prepared to challenge dominant patterns of thought and life are among the most obvious changes. The consensus about the American Way of Life that Herberg assumed has largely collapsed. Driving these changes has been the divide over abortion and related questions inescapably engaging morality and public policy. Yet all this seems to have bypassed some of the thinkers under discussion here. In 1961, sociologist Gerhard Lenski made the case in The Religious Factor that religion is a distinct phenomenon, not an epiphenomenon, in the ordering of public life. All these years later, and we still have public intellectuals working hard to deny that.

The de-Christianizing of America by definitional legerdemain sometimes assumes amusing proportions. I have previously discussed Andrew Heinze's recent book, Jews and the American Soul (FT February). His lavishly documented thesis is that, beginning in the early twentieth century, a handful of Jewish psychiatrists and pop-psychologists succeeded in transforming the ways in which most Americans understand themselves and what they believe. It is a provocative argument and there is something to it. At the same time, one may be permitted to observe that the suggestion that American Christianity is now under the magisterium of Jewish psychotherapy warrants a measure of skepticism.

Thinkers and pundits of all varieties are today paying much more attention to religion than was the case fifty or even twenty years ago. Almost nobody today claims that religion is in the process of withering away. What is being said by some who are uncertain of their place in a pervasively and confusedly Christian society is that the resurgence of religion in public is nothing to worry about.

It is nothing to worry about because it is not distinctively Christian, and therefore is not threatening to non-Christians. In the case of Jewish thinkers, this view reflects a longstanding assumption that the less Christian a society is the better it is for Jews. That assumption had some warrant in the European experience, although one does not forget that the regime that perpetrated the Holocaust was virulently anti-Christian.

Also in this respect, America is something quite new in world history. There is here a context of security and mutual trust that makes possible a genuine encounter between Jews and Christians, and between Judaism and Christianity. This is the encounter called for in the Dabru Emet statement and other initiatives.

Almost all Christians, and some Jews, are convinced that America is good for Jews not despite but because it is a Christian society. The mutually respectful encounter between Judaism and Christianity that is called for is a unique opportunity in two thousand years of history. That opportunity will continue to be squandered if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that religion in America is merely an epiphenomenal muddle of congenially liberal dispositions passing as Christianity.

Except, of course, for the members of the "religious right," who really are Christianly serious and therefore really are dangerous. (Some critics now call them the "Christianists," distinguishing them from the safe Christians.)

Once again, America is, as it always has been, an incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly Christian society. There are relatively small minorities of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Of these, only Jews play a large role in our public discourse, although that could change in the future. More important, of these only Jews have an intrinsic religious relationship with Christians. Christianity can be understood apart from Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism; it cannot be understood apart from Judaism.

Jewish thinkers who are determined to denature Christianity often do so because they view Christianity as a threat. Perhaps just as often, they do so because they are as alienated from Judaism as they are fearful of Christianity, or even more so. These factors converge in complicated ways.

If they have given up religious particularity in order to be part of the homogeneous American "we," they expect others to accommodate them by giving up their own religious particularity, and resent it when they don't. Or else, as in the instance of Alan Wolfe et al., they convince themselves that others have accommodated them when they haven't.

Will Herberg was right. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were finding a shared world in the American Way of Life. He recognized the possibility that religious particularity would be sacrificed to the pseudo-religion of Americanism. Critical to his argument was the belief that the American Way assumed and required a vibrant identity as Protestant, Catholic, or Jew.

This is the authentic pluralism in which difference makes a difference; in which, somewhat paradoxically, difference and habits of living with difference without denying that difference conduce to the distinctive form of unity that is the American Way.

Much has changed in the past half century. Protestantism in the form of the mainline-oldline Protestantism that Herberg had in mind has precipitously declined in numbers, influence, and confidence. The return of evangelical Protestantism from its fundamentalist exile was not in his line of vision. Moreover, the tribally intact Catholicism that he thought he knew gave way to the fissiparous dynamics triggered by the Second Vatican Council.

Decades later, the more self-consciously orthodox sectors of Protestantism and Catholicism are converging in a new and more confident cultural assertiveness. There is every reason to believe that these are very long-term trends in American life.

The question inevitably arises: Where does this leave Jews and Judaism? And where does it leave Jews who are alienated from Judaism? In many cases, the latter make common cultural cause with Protestants who are alienated from the oldline Protestantism that Herberg took for granted. The upshot is that there is no longer the secure religio-cultural triumvirate of Protestant- Catholic-Jew.

There is a large and more secularized sector of happen-to-be Protestants, happen-to-be Jews, and happen-to-be Catholics. These are the people who say they are Protestant, Jewish, or Catholic "by background." Together, and quite suddenly it seems, they are faced by, and made uneasy or hysterical by, a combination of more orthodox Christians who are newly assertive about moral truths that they believe should inform the ordering of our common life.

It is all very unsettling. And not least for Jewish intellectuals who make their living as experts on explaining America to their fellow-Americans. The situation is not made easier by the fact that Jews are, as a proportion of the population, a much smaller minority than they were in Herberg's day.

It is understandable that some of these intellectuals resort to the ploy of definitionally de-Christianizing America. "I am only in a small minority," they can tell themselves, "if you assume that the majority is Christian, which it really is not." The ploy is understandable. It is also poignant. More important, it is a great disservice.

It is a great disservice in that it gravely distorts the effort to understand the maddening changes and confusions that are the permanent state of American society. In a larger context that should matter to us immeasurably more, it is a great disservice to a unique moment of opportunity and obligation in which Christians and Jews, precisely as Christians and Jews, can respectfully engage one another in discerning the providential guidance of the God of Israel, also in the right ordering of our life together.

Father Richard John Neuhaus is editor of First Things, where this first appeared. First Things (June/July 2006).

Judges Ignore Real Constitution
by Donald Devine
Issue 110 - June 25, 2008

Even the very best judges fail to appreciate the real Constitution. It is not their fault. The document is simply ignored in law school. All they get of it is a sentence at a time followed by pages of judicial opinions about what that line really means. Lawyers rarely see the whole document. One lawbook mentioned that an outsider had read its proof copy and suggested printing the entire Constitution at the end, which it did, as if this were a radically novel idea.

The reason judges read other judges and lawyers opinions about the Constitution rather than the document itself is that judicial doctrine today holds that the Constitution is simply what judges say it is. That is what the “supremacy clause” says, right? At least that is what the judges think; so it must be so. Why bother taking the really radical step of reading it, right?

Just a few moments ago a judicial symposium covered by C-SPAN recorded a judge being asked at a conference what he would do in a specified legal circumstance concerning mandatory minimum sentences. He replied “I can do anything I want. I am a federal judge! [Laughter] I am only being a little dramatic. A federal judge has lifetime tenure and can do pretty much what he wants.” That is pretty heady stuff.

Even the most conservative jurists are captured by the idea that judges control the Constitution, for better or worse. There is none better than Robert Bork, the man who was so unfairly denied the Supreme Court because his views of the Constitution differed from the majority in the Senate, basically on one issue, abortion. In a recent major essay for The American Spectator, Bork was characteristically blunt. “The Federalists who favored the Constitution regarded its structural features as crucial.” But these proved a “false hope.” The adoption of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment “ultimately led to a virtually omnipotent aristocracy” of judges who have “rewritten major features of the Constitution.”

In no area has this been more true than in the area of federalism. The original idea that the national government is limited in power by the Constitution is a fantasy.

The idea of confining Congress to the enumerated powers of Article I section 8 (an idea reinforced by the Tenth Amendment) is dead and cannot be revived. Contrary to some conservative fantasies, federalism was killed not by New Deal justices who perverted this aspect of the Constitution but by the American people and the realities of national politics. The public wants a large and largely unrestrained national government, one capable of giving them what they want…

The people demand strong national government and the judges will deliver eventually.
The idea that the states or even the institutional structure as a whole can affect this is simplistic. “Today, the vitality of federalism is reduced to the occasional limitation of some federal power that has absolutely no relation to an enumerated power. Such cases tend to be trivial.” Notice that it is “cases” that count. He says he is talking about the “decline of federalism as a judicially enforced doctrine.” What counts is not the structure but what the judges did pervert, the Bill of Rights, and how they enforce their preferences through it.

It is of great importance what federal courts decide to enforce or not in interpreting the Bill of Rights, of course, but is that all there is to the Constitution? Perhaps so from the judicial perspective. Political scientists see it differently. Judges assume their decisions are self executing. Actually, judges do not “enforce” anything. A president by the name of Andy Jackson sitting in one of the other structural institutions the Founders relied upon, put it simply: “The Supreme Court has made its decision, now let it enforce it.” The Supreme Court had ruled that large tracts of land must be returned to the Cherokee Nation--but the Cherokee never got their property back because the president would not enforce the court ruling against the majority population.

Unlike most jurists, Bork can think like a political scientist, indeed he quotes one, when he explains how the courts have taken power from the other branches through an alliance with what he calls the “intellectual class” to change the meaning of the Bill of Rights. But he does not consider that such political alliances can change and new ones can alter the balance of power—this seems a “utopian myth,” although he also says it is possible. But change can take place not only within the judicial branch—but also and more likely can come from the other branches, including the very structures he says are dead. The President can nominate new judges or selectively enforce their decisions or delay or ignore them. Congress can agree to new judges or refuse those holding earlier interpretations, or even pass laws that undermine decisions or void them. Even the weakened states can evade decisions or ignore them.

An old study by the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl should be required reading for every judge. He looked at major Supreme Court decisions over a long period of history and found that Congress –when it was very concerned about the subject matter--often “overrode” court decisions by passing laws that effectively nullified them. Even today, Congress, the president and the states have effectively overruled court decisions against race preferences for decades. As recently as the first Bush presidency, Congress directly overrode the Grove City decision. President George W. Bush has effectively delayed judicial review of the Guantanamo prisoner cases, which will not be settled until long after he leaves office. Even the states have effectively delayed Supreme Court decisions on separation of church and state--cases of religious iconology at Christmas or about prayers keep coming to the courts decades after the judges supposedly had settled the matter.

No, the Bill of Rights does not “have far more viable relevance to individual liberties than do the structural safeguards stressed by Madison.” The individual structures--Congress, president, states (and de facto local and private structures too) as well as courts--still are primary. Checks-and-balances live. Most important, there is no reason to think the present judicial supremacy will last forever. Things change. The Founders did not set precise power boundaries between these structures. It is like a bridge that uses flexibility rather than rigidity for strength. Under Abraham Lincoln, the president was supreme, virtually ignoring Supreme Court demands for habeas corpus the entire Civil War—but he was immediately followed by the weakest president, and the strongest (even effectively unicameral) Congress.

Today, Mr. Bork is correct, the court and national government are the most powerful. But that can change—perhaps as soon as the next election. For the court does follow the election returns—and so do the other structures. And the later can fight back as Jackson, Lincoln and Bush prove. The national government has had a long run since the New Deal. But after its seven generations, its entitlements now are ready to explode and the most likely solution will be to send most other domestic programs back to the state, local and private sectors. After all, the national government was sitting pretty smug in 1787; but the states met, created a new constitution and changed pretty much everything in a few months period.

The law, as important as it is, is not everything. Politics and the structures through which it operates are by far the more viably relevant means, especially for change. That is how the Founders created it and it still pretty much operates how Madison envisioned it—checking and balancing power but with no predetermined result. As strange as this cumbersome and flexible structure seems, it has lasted longer than all of the more legalistic alternatives.

Donald Devine, the editor of Conservative Battleline Online, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981 to 1985 and is the director of the Federalist Leadership Center at Bellevue University.

3 comments:

David said...

The reference below should be to Rabbi Daniel Lapin not David Lapin. Please correct.

A more explicit alliance between Judaism and public Christianity is pressed by the likes of Rabbi David Lapin and his movement, "Toward Tradition." Writers such as Michael Medved, Don Feder, Dennis Prager, and David Klinghoffer adopt a similar posture. Such figures are not intimidated by the charge that they are the Jewish wing of the "religious right."

Norm said...

David...My assumptions are that you are 'the' David mentioned in the article or at least one who goes by the same name. Obviously I die not write the article which was very good by the way, I simply cross posted from another website. It is these kind of postings that I feel need a strong showing for the mainstream media will generally gloss over this sort of thing. That brainless bunch of voters out there need to know whats going on around them. In some small way I hope that I'm accomplishing just that. Although I won't get very far by calling them "brainless" it may gather the attention of some.

Norm said...

David...My assumptions are that you are 'the' David mentioned in the article or at least one who goes by the same name. Obviously I did not write the article which was very good by the way, I simply cross posted from another website. It is these kind of postings that I feel need a strong showing for the mainstream media will generally gloss over this sort of thing. That brainless bunch of voters out there need to know whats going on around them. In some small way I hope that I'm accomplishing just that. Although I won't get very far by calling them "brainless" it may gather the attention of some.