Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance
By Martin E. Marty
Every culture is haunted by memories of a Golden Age, a time in the distant past when people lived in harmony and innocence, and society was not unsettled by the clamor of rival interests. America’s Golden Age can be located in a time when, as Martin Marty puts it in Religion and Republic, “The little white church and the little red school-house” dominated the small town, and it was presumed that Americans “truly shared consensus and promoted common values.” In those far-off days, people “lived good and godly lives because they did not have to deal with the mess and muck of pluralism, with people who did not fit into a single pattern.”
How accurate are these memories of an American Golden Age? Marty acknowledges that something resembling consensus over values did once exist. “People across the nation agreed on the authority of the Bible, on God and Christ and heaven and hell and rewards and punishments and law and order.” Paradoxically, even the Civil War highlighted this commonality of belief, since both sides “read the same Bible and prayed to the same God and claimed that God was on their side….”
But this consensus was always tenuous and did not long survive. The Industrial Revolution and the explosive growth of the cities displaced small towns and small-town piety. Successive waves of immigration in the later decades of the 19th century diluted the influence of the once dominant old-line Protestants, as newly arrived Jews and Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers continued to worship in the manner of their ancestors. By the latter half of the 20th century, even the tenuous consensus had long since vanished, replaced by a bewildering multiplicity of interests — religious, unreligious, and anti-religious — each seeking to impress its own particular stamp upon the public polity.
While many of us, with Abraham Lincoln, recall our Lord’s words that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and wonder whether our, or any other, society can long survive the loss of shared public values, Marty disagrees. He surveys the current moral confusion, calls it “pluralism,” and pronounces his blessing upon it. Religion and Republic is an unabashed celebration in 15 chapters — “fifteen cheers” — of the “crazy quilt of overlapping religious groups” that America has become.
Marty takes pluralism “to include the polity that assures freedom for…diverse groups to coexist creatively.” This is a revealing comment, for polity is the political ordering of society, and Marty seems to make the political order depend on pluralism. Surely the opposite is true. Pluralism is only one result of a polity that ensures freedom of religion and political expression. Where there is no commitment to a notion of the public good that includes religious or political freedom (and the willingness to restrict that freedom when necessary to protect the wider common good) there can be no religious or political pluralism. By itself, pluralism is too insubstantial to support the weight of public polity.
Martin Marty is a provocative writer, and Religion and Republic is a sweeping overview of American religious history. But in his celebration of pluralism, Marty forgets that society must revolve around a center — a core of accepted ideas and values — which holds together and balances contending interests. Otherwise the centrifugal forces will prevail, and when that happens — to paraphrase William Butler Yeats — “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere pluralism is loosed upon the land.”
While Marty lauds the pluralism that needs no common core of norms, the essays contained in Uncivil Religion focus on the tensions within American Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism.
In the volume’s concluding essay, Robert Bellah discusses the theme which unifies the book. “The important competing visions of the role of religion in American society today are not based primarily on differences between Catholics, Protestants and Jews but to a certain extent are differences within each of the great communions and to some extent between secularists and all the religions” (emphasis added). That is, when it comes to defining the contribution religion can make to American society, many Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews find themselves more in agreement with each other than with other members of their own communions. In fact, intragroup hostility is more characteristic of our modern experience than hostility between religious groups.
This is a curious situation, for one would expect Presbyterians or Roman Catholics to have more in common with their fellow believers than with each other. But not at all. The tension in religion in America these days lies elsewhere. As Bellah explains, “the key tension in our culture at the moment is that between tight- and loose-boundedness.”
The “tight-bounded” culture emphasizes membership in and identity with a larger social group, and individuals derive their identity from the place they occupy in it. Group membership suffices to tell others who you are and to define you for them. By this way of thinking, the statement “I am a Presbyterian” (or Methodist or Lutheran or whatever) would reveal more about a person than preference for Presbyterian worship on Sunday morning. “Tight-bounded” cultures have weakened in recent years as their members desert them for “loose-bounded” cultures.
In the “loose-bounded” culture the basic unit is “the liberated individual, not the social group.” Says Bellah, “although many people continue to be members of and identify with groups, they believe their group identities to be matters of individual choice which can be changed without stigma.” Membership in groups “thus becomes voluntary, contingent, and fluid, not ‘given,’ fixed, and rigid.” In the “loose-bounded” culture, then, the statement “I am a Presbyterian” (or whatever) means simply, “Right now, I choose to attend a Presbyterian church,” and reveals nothing else — not even whether the person is committed to or aware of the Presbyterian form of church government or the Reformed theology of John Calvin or the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Fortunately, the choice is not limited to tight- or loose-bounded cultures. Bellah concludes his comments on a hopeful note: “I believe that it is the middle course — maintaining group identities and group boundaries while remaining open to knowledge of and cooperation with others, including those of different faiths — that is authentically biblical and authentically American and that holds the greatest hope for our future.”
Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America
By Robert N. Bellah and Frederick E. Greenspahn
Not every woman is a feminist, but it can be argued that every woman has benefited from the feminist movement. By focusing public attention on discriminatory employment and pay practices, by helping women organize politically, and by stimulating legislative and judicial action sensitive to women’s disadvantages and injustices against them, the feminist movement has helped elevate women from “second-class status” to greater equality.
It has helped free women from a deep-seated self-hatred arising from a culture in which standards of superiority and inferiority have been drawn from concepts of masculinity and femininity. The collective judgment of centuries has told woman that her allegedly weak, passive, receptive, dependent, and emotional feminine nature is inferior to that of the strong, active, initiating, independent, and rational masculine nature. Few will contest the fact that nearly all cultures have been patriarchal, and women have been confined to subordinate places in which opportunities for achievement and leadership in public life have been restricted or altogether denied.
But in 1982 the Equal Rights Amendment met defeat not so much at the hands of males determined to keep women “in their place,” as from females intent on blocking the new “freedoms” implicit in it. For the feminist movement is immoral and against nature to the extent that it equates “liberation” with escape from biology through abortion, contraception, and homosexual marriage, and “equality” with promiscuity and the eradication of traditional marriage.
As the title implies, Why We Lost the ERA was written by a former ERA activist. Anyone who followed the news during the ERA ratification campaign years of 1972-1982 has a fair idea of why the amendment was defeated, and this work offers few new insights. It is interesting more for its depiction of the radical feminists’ goal of a completely androgynous society, and of their doctrinaire inflexibility in its pursuit — an inflexibility by which they have themselves become “patriarchal” in their desire to dominate and control the destiny of other women.
Jane Mansbridge writes that her purpose is to argue that “if the ERA had been ratified, the Supreme Court would have been unlikely to use it to bring about major changes in the relations between American men and women, at least in the foreseeable future.” In the end, all she really seems to say is: You people out there need not have been so scared of the ERA because it might not have brought about any major changes.
At the time, however, feminist proponents and lawyers insisted that the amendment not only could and should, but would result in such major changes as mandatory federal abortion funding, unisex toilets and prison cells, homosexual marriages, and the drafting and mandatory sending of women into combat. It was this last, the combat issue, that was most decisive in the ERA’s defeat. The interpretation by both the amendment’s proponents and opponents was that it would make unconstitutional any law, public policy, or government practice that distinguished in any way between men and women. Both sides insisted that the Supreme Court would require Congress not only to draft women but also to send them into combat on the same basis as men. Majority public opinion was opposed to both.
There is something almost fiendish about a minority of women insisting that an unwilling majority of their sisters be sent into combat, for that is precisely what radical feminists intended. Feminist doctrinal purity calls for a totally gender-blind society. Battle is the ultimate masculine arena, and, according to the ideology, not until women kill and die in that arena can they consider themselves fully possessed of equal rights. There is rich irony in that position, for the soldier, especially in wartime, forfeits his individual rights and equality.
Nor do feminists want to leave other women the choice between work in the paid labor force and a vocation as home-maker. From the very beginning of the modern women’s movement, feminists have opposed homemaking as a full-time career. Their “different concept” of marriage, in which men take half the responsibility for child care and housework, and women shoulder half the responsibility for bringing in money, has become an article of faith. Mansbridge writes: “The very existence of full-time homemakers was incompatible with many goals of the women’s movement, like the equal sharing of political and economic power. Women can never hold half the economically and politically powerful positions in the country if a greater proportion of women than men withdraw from competition for those positions. More important, if even 10 percent of American women remain full-time home-makers, this will reinforce traditional views of what women ought to do and encourage other women to become full-time homemakers.”
Such a position implies the dismantling of the traditional nuclear family. It matters little that millions of women choose homemaking as their preferred vocation. Just as many feminist organizations decided that women must be drafted and must be sent into combat, it is implicit in their ideology that women must work in the paid labor force, like it or not. Instead of respecting women’s freedom of choice and according homemaking equality of status and value, feminists attack and denigrate it. Feminists who had decried “second-class status” under patriarchal oppression now themselves relegate vast numbers of women to second-class status as homemakers.
The feminist movement’s actual effect has been the masculinization of women. Consciously or unconsciously, modern women have been rejecting their own feminine qualities. “Receptivity,” “nurturing,” and “gentleness” are often viewed with angry scorn as weapons used against women to subordinate them, and not as qualities essential to life and personhood. The liberated female sophisticate is competitive, hard-driving, materialistic, calculating, and power-seeking. This contemptuous rejection by women of essential parts of their nature demonstrates perhaps better than anything else the real damage done to them by the long cultural dominance and glorification of masculinity.
This destructive spirit should have no place in the life of Christian women. Christ instructed both women and men to possess in abundance not that which the world deems “masculine,” but that which it has long denigrated as “feminine.” He said: Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. I would gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings.
Meekness, nurturing, love, self-giving — it is not the way of the world. But it is the way of God.
Why We Lost the ERA
By Jane J. Mansbridge
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Few issues raise more hackles than the separation of church and state. To some it is the bulwark of the republic, to others a pernicious myth created by 20th-century judges. Three questions make up the heart of the debate: (1) The symbolic question: To what degree can we describe ourselves as a nation under God? (2) The ethical question: Is it permissible to call for public policy based upon a “religious” ethical framework? (3) The practical question: To what extent can government aid any or all religious bodies? Participants in the debate often appeal to the past, but, according to Fr. Thomas J. Curry, their attempts are flat-footed at best because they fail to interpret the Constitution in its historical context. Curry essays such a contextual interpretation in The First Freedoms.
The historical terrain Curry charts — the colonial world — is perplexing to moderns and foreign to Catholics. We often forget that that world was overwhelmingly Protestant and heavily influenced by the radical Puritan tradition. The investigator must put down his Aquinas and take up his William Ames if he wishes to understand this strange landscape.
Two underlying conclusions emerge from Curry’s study. First, the overwhelmingly British Protestant culture set most, if not all, the ground rules for the colonial debate. Many American colonists appealed to religious freedom, but it was always a proscribed freedom — even in “liberal” Rhode Island Catholics and Jews were effectively disenfranchised. Curry shows that this paradox was far from accidental; rather it undergirded much of the colonists’ confidence that they were both a religious and a free people. Their shared Protestant values were seen not as an imposition of religion but as “the warp and woof of civilization.” Curry’s second conclusion is that by the Revolutionary period Americans were suspicious of religious establishment, even in states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts which to modern eyes still had established churches. “Civil establishments,” as Curry notes, suggested exclusivity and haughty prelates in lawn sleeves. This suspicion is reflected in the First Amendment’s language forbidding any establishment of religion. The authors intended that the new federal government should exercise no power over religious matters, not merely that it should create no established church or national religion. The notion proposed by some 20th-century interpreters — that of general establishment or governmental assistance to all religious communities – cannot be justified historically.
Curry’s book is well-researched historical scholarship. Does it shed light on the modern church-state debate? On the surface the book would seem to give historical precedent for both the symbolic and ethical questions while expressing doubt about the propriety of practical support. In the last chapter, however, Curry seems to put a Whig spin on his analysis. The Whig historians presented history as the triumph of liberalism and enlightenment and the ineluctable passing of the narrow and parochial. Curry recognizes that a dichotomy existed between the self-perception of the colonists as a Protestant nation and their views on the separation of church and state. He dismisses the dichotomy, however, by using the old saw of “principle” and “practice.” Separation was the “principle,” the vision of the godly state merely “practice,” and history is the story of practice being reshaped by timeless principle. But of course this is the point of the modern debate. Is the traditional religious self-understanding of the republic merely part of the flotsam and jetsam of history, or must it still in some way be foundational — though certainly not in the narrowly Protestant form of the colonial period? Or to put the question in another form, is the story of America a saga of religion moving from a public force to a private predilection (a la Whigs), or is the tension that Curry shows to be seminal to the 1780s — the national desire to be both a religious and a free people — still the central theme? These questions aside, The First Freedoms illuminates the question of church and state in colonial America.
The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment
By Thomas J. Curry
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Those who aspire to rescue Marxism from the commissars, warders, and butchers would do well to latch on to Rosa Luxemburg, a task facilitated by Elzbieta Ettinger’s superb biography. Luxemburg spent her life quarrying Marx’s mind-numbing economics and ponderous cerebrations to fashion “a humanistic philosophy capable of restoring wholeness to people.” Her achievement suffered the misfortune to get crushed between two powerful forces: ruthless Bolshevism and the fat, complacent Social Democracy of her adopted German homeland. The Social Democrats’ endorsement of the German war machine in 1914 and Lenin’s penchant for dictatorship left her disconsolate. The shattering of her dream occurred when the Spartacists, members of a revolutionary organization she had helped to found, plunged Berlin into a blind fury of violence in January 1919. She did not live to recover her humanistic socialism from the ruins of war and revolution; in the aftermath of the Spartacist bloodbath she was murdered by an army officer.
Rosa Luxemburg: A Life
By Elzbieta Ettinger
Conservatives and liberals alike will find Right Minds invaluable; for the former, it identifies their friends, for the latter, their enemies. Gregory Wolfe, one of the keenest of the young conservative intellectuals, grinds no axes and settles no scores in this volume. As the subtitle indicates, he has compiled a “sourcebook” for further study. To that end, he divides the book into three parts: a bibliography of conservative writings; biographical profiles of leading conservative thinkers from John Adams to the present; and a listing of conservative periodicals, think tanks, foundations, and publishing houses. Right Minds effectively complements Russell Kirk’s classic study, The Conservative Mind.
Right Minds: A Sourcebook of American Conservative Thought
By Gregory Wolfe
Why all the fuss over Christian ethics? Aren’t the Gospel imperatives — love your enemies, succor the needy, do unto others as you would have them do unto you — clear and unambiguous? Doesn’t the example of Christ erase any doubts as to how a Christian should live? Yes and no. Yes: the New Testament is our guide to the ethical life. No: the dictates are plain, but their application presents untold difficulties. How, for example, does one translate “Love your enemies” into practice? Does it demand pacifism and nonresistance to the designs of evil men?
The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics supplies no definitive answers to the ethical questions that bedevil us, but it does present authoritative scholarly analyses of the obstacles one faces in converting New Testament admonitions into the stuff of daily living. The joint effort of 167 scholars drawn from Protestantism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Judaism, the volume assesses everything from such fundamental concepts as duty and virtue to the latest areas of concern — biomedical ethics, nuclear deterrence, the environment, and Third World liberation movements. The articles discuss controversial topics with percipience, clarity, and even-handedness.
The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics
By James F. Childress and John Macquarrie
Although these conversations mainly probe the meaning of Milosz’s often hermetic and philosophically recondite poetry, the interlocutors frequently elicit his reflections on religion. Milosz admits to a streak of Manichaeism in his outlook, but he also affirms that “one can believe in God out of gratitude for all the gifts He has given us. For the thorns, too.” He evinces a strong distaste for certain features of contemporary Catholicism, especially the “nonsense” spouted by some theologians and the “license” which some Americans mistake for the spirit of Vatican II. Pope John Paul’s personalist vision — the unyielding belief in the uniqueness of each human being — evokes his admiration, for Milosz fears that modern man’s “susceptibility to totalitarian terror is connected with his feeling that individual existence lacks foundation.”
Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz
By Ewa Czarnecka and Aleksander Fiut
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Frederick Crews has repented: not necessarily from sin (whatever his particular ones may be), but from Freudianism (which, in some circles, is a sin). These essays comprise a secular conversion narrative, for they recount how a prominent literary critic “spent a decade inching his way from a pro-psychoanalytic stance to an opposite one.” Whether as science or therapy, Freudianism is, Crews argues, a hoax concocted by a gifted flimflam man who supplied the intellectuals with one of the stellar ersatz religions of the 20th century. Only Marxism, another victim of Crews’s poison-tipped arrows, rivals it as an “opiate of the intellectuals.” Although Crews has not pronounced the definitive word on either of these ideologies, only those without eyes to see or ears to hear will be able to ignore his animadversions.
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