Volume > Issue > Briefly: March 1988

March 1988

Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance

By Mar­tin E. Marty

Publisher: Beacon

Pages: 391

Price: $25

Review Author:

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

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 235

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 327

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 276

Price: $24.95

Review Author:

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

Publisher: Beacon

Pages: 286

Price: $24.95

Review Author:

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

Publisher: Regnery

Pages: 245

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

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

Publisher: Westminster

Pages: 678

Price: $34.95

Review Author:

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

Pages: 332

Price: $27.95

Review Author:

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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