America’s Culture War
America Against Itself: Moral Vision and the Public Order
By Richard John Neuhaus
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Review Author: David Hartman
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that like Richard John Neuhaus, and have ever since he advised me, on the occasion of our one meeting, “Ignore the hierarchy.” It was sound advice, since taken to heart. But Neuhaus was a feisty Lutheran pastor then, and he practiced what he preached. Now he is a Catholic priest, and the way he responds to the Magisterium must surely differ from the way he responded to the fulminations of Protestant hierarchs. The proclamations of mainline Protestantism have very often been silly over the last quarter century, while the Magisterium has not. Of course, this is not to say that individual Catholics are incapable of goofiness. And it is goofiness, especially of the theological kind, that brings Neuhaus to the battlements. He says that “so much foolishness is published these days. Being an incorrigible reader, three times a day I stumble across something I want to counter with an article, and at least once a day across something that calls for a book in refutation.”
Which explains why, in the making of words, he is so fertile. He has written “some fourteen books, hundreds of articles, and innumerable columns and reviews…the toll taken on the minds and patience of [my] readers is unconscionable.” Not necessarily. Neuhaus may spend an inordinate amount of time writing (as opposed to, say, watching The Simpsons), but the things I’ve read have usually been very much worth reading, and America Against Itself may be his most important book to date.
These ought to be the best of times for our country. The Cold War is over, and our society is the model for the newly liberated nations of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Then how come things seem so rotten at home? Neuhaus says it is because we are engaged in a Kulturkampf — a culture war about values —in which a highly politicized elite, speaking a language of “rights and laws,” is in conflict with the religiously oriented majority, whose language has to do with “rights and wrongs.” He cites an international Gallup study undertaken to determine the spiritual zeal of the world’s peoples. Indians were the most religious, with Americans a close second. Swedes were the least religious. Peter Berger observed that the U.S. is “a nation of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes.” That maxim, says Neuhaus, gets close to the heart of the matter.
Though far from the only issue, abortion is the flashpoint of the Kulturkampf. Neuhaus’s former ministry at an African-American Lutheran church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn has given him valuable perspective. A Princeton sociologist had prepared a “quality of life index,” and said no child should be brought into the world without an extensive list of physical, psychological, educational, and financial guarantees. Neuhaus writes: “And on the next Sunday I looked into the faces of the hundreds of my people, of God’s people, at St. John’s and pondered the claim that none of them should ever have been born, for none could begin to qualify for the noted professor’s index of a quality life…. And yet, I was deeply impressed then and am deeply impressed now by the quality of their lives. They are great in their quality of love when it would be so easy to hate; great in their quality of endurance when it would be easy to despair; great in their striving to succeed when they are too readily excused for failing; and especially great in welcoming into lives already heavily burdened the gift of new life.”
Again and again, Neuhaus refers to human faces and human stories. This work is not mere theory.
Abortion entails more than snuffing out preborn lives. It involves the larger question of who is to be included in the human family. Thus, Neuhaus also writes of others who have been or are being ritually excluded — of America’s underclass; of Nancy Cruzan, the comatose woman who died of hunger and dehydration after her family secured a court order to remove her feeding tube; and of the Jews in Nazi-held Europe (and of the “righteous gentiles” who rescued them and said of their heroism, “I did not choose to do it…. I had no choice.”).
Because I read this book shortly after the L.A. riots, the most timely part was on the underclass. Neuhaus pondered the overall changes in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood he once served: “By any material measure, the people of that community are better off now than they were thirty years ago. And yet the conclusion is irresistible that they are, all in all, worse off…. Today there is more money, considerably more money. A combination of welfare, the underground economy and crime (mainly in drug dealing) sees to that. The things that money can buy — cars, televisions, gadgets and airline tickets to visit distant places — are in ample evidence. Thirty years ago one encountered children who were hungry simply because there was not money to buy food. Today some children still go hungry, because money is squandered or because parents don’t care or because they are otherwise preoccupied in their pharmaceutical wonderlands…. There are hungry children, but not, or at least not significantly, because there is no money.”
In 1990, 83 percent of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s children were born out of wedlock. Government programs contributed to the destruction of the community’s families. For example, AFDC payments can make a father’s desertion of his children and their mother an economically rational decision. What, Neuhaus rightly asks, will it mean if 83 percent of a neighborhood’s rising generation has no memory of what a father is, or is supposed to do? In our inner cities there are more and more “unencumbered selves” — as Michael Sandel dubs them — radically isolated people without sense of obligation to family or community or law, people who are, in the moral sense, absolutely free. Neuhaus has a couple of suggestions to ease the pain of the inner cities, one of which is ending the monopoly that religiously void public schools have on tax monies. But school choice is no panacea. Ultimately, mediating institutions — families, churches, voluntary associations — need the opportunity and motivation to flourish, freed from dependency-inducing government programs.
Neuhaus does believe government has a place, and an essential one, but it lies in rewarding potentialities rather than pathologies. For example, one study shows that 98 percent of those who finish high school, secure an entry-level job, stay employed for three years, and get married will not live in poverty. The question then becomes, how can the government affirm people who will finish school, enter wedlock, and be willing to work, as opposed to subsidizing those who won’t. Neuhaus says that the factors leading to productive citizenship “probably have more to do with culture than with public policy.” But he does not (as do many of his fellow conservatives) think government has no role to play at all, and he candidly admits that new public programs designed to help redirect the stray souls of America into productive lives may ultimately cost more than the ones now in place.
The importance and timeliness of this work cannot be overestimated.
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