Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: April 2024

Letters to the Editor: April 2024

Dancing Around the Dilemma

Pieter Vree’s column “Transanity Is Taking Over. How Will the Church Respond?” (New Oxford Notebook, Jan.-Feb.) was excellent, insofar as it goes, but it dances around the source of the gender-identity dilemma. For that, we have to go back some 60 years to the development of the birth-control pill. When women use the Pill to prevent having a child, and later decide they want to have a child, their bodies will retain some residue of the life-preventing chemicals the contraceptive contains. The genes that were to naturally give their infants a sexual identity are affected by the chemicals, which leads to confusion in the child.

We cannot blame young people for being confused about their sexual identity when the cause took place long before their birth and developed as they matured, thanks to birth-control pills.

Rev. Edward Olszewski

Miami, Florida

PIETER VREE REPLIES:

Well, that’s one possible theory. And, believe it or not, it does have an anterior analog of sorts in actual science. But you have to be willing to make a few leaps to make it seem plausible.

Back in 2010 a biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an experiment in which he and his team exposed 40 male African clawed frogs to a water solution containing atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S., at a level below what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows in our drinking water. As described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (March 1, 2010), the continuous, three-year exposure led to 30 frogs becoming chemically castrated and four actually turning female, going so far as to mate with other males and produce viable eggs, despite being born male.

Could the same happen to humans? Atrazine is, after all, the most commonly detected contaminant found in U.S. drinking water.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. thinks so. The presidential candidate (a Democrat until this past October, when he went independent) has repeatedly speculated that man-made chemicals in the environment could be causing the feminization of boys and masculinization of girls, making them homosexual or even transgender. “If you expose frogs to atrazine, male frogs, it changes their sex and they can actually bear young. They can lay eggs, fertile eggs,” he said in June 2022. “And so the capacity for these chemicals that we are just raining down on our children right now to induce these very profound sexual changes in them is something we need to be thinking about as a society.”

Raining down? Yes, according to Scientific American. “The bountiful fields of the U.S. are awash in atrazine,” it reported (March 3, 2010). “Some 36 million kilograms of the odorless, white powder are applied on farms to control grassy weeds. Some 225,000 kilograms of the herbicide fall with the rain each year.”

But is that enough to cause gender confusion in humans, whose body size and mass are much greater than those of frogs? Not according to the EPA. “It is difficult to make definitive conclusions about the impact of atrazine at a given concentration,” it stated (April 28, 2016).

However, in an earlier study, the EPA admitted that “the primary target of atrazine in humans and animals is the endocrine (hormonal) system. Studies thus far suggest that atrazine is an endocrine disruptor; an agent that has been shown to alter the natural hormonal system in animals. Implications of possible endocrine disruption for children’s health are related to effects during pregnancy and during sexual development, though few studies are available” (April 24, 2007; italics added).

Interestingly, the European Union banned atrazine in 2014. The EPA, however, is reluctant to do so.

Needless to say, Kennedy has been ridiculed for repeating this claim about atrazine, despite the (hedged) warnings of the U.S. government. CNN called it an “unfounded conspiracy” and “baseless” (Jul. 13, 2023). Is it?

Admittedly, it is a pretty big leap from frogs to humans. But Kennedy’s campaign manager insists that Kennedy isn’t making a “definitive” pronouncement but only calling for further research, which he clearly did in 2022. The problem is that gender identity is so politically polarizing that even calling for further research is controversial, and in some quarters verboten. For that reason, the studies of atrazine’s effects on “children’s health,” especially “during sexual development,” will likely remain “few.”

All this is to say that, yes, there must be some explanation for the sudden explosion of transgenderism in our society, and, in light of the above, Fr. Olszew­ski’s theory that birth-control pills affect gender identity could hold water, so to speak. It is given added weight by another, more recent study, published in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology (July 2022), which found that hormonal contraceptives “can alter neuroactive hormones, neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, as well as emotional states, cognition, social and sexual behaviors” in female rodents. (The birth-control pill is a hormonal contraceptive; its primary components are estrogen and progesterone.) “Animal studies,” it says, “provide insights into the neurobiological effects” of hormonal contraceptives on women — women, mind you, not their offspring. So, this study, too, is not conclusive, and it would require another leap to believe that what happens to animals in a lab also happens to humans in their habitat.

There are herbicides in our drinking water, synthetic hormones in our food, chemicals in our meds — Americans are the most medicated people in the world, according to the National Center for Health Statistics — and microplastics everywhere (BPAs are known endocrine disruptors). It certainly could be true that we have so polluted our environment with man-made toxins that we are now reaping the whirlwind in tragic and unforeseen ways. Whether that includes the sudden explosion of transgenderism is anyone’s guess.

The War In Between Christ’s Advents

James Patrick’s article “Are We Living in the Last Days?” (Jan.-Feb.) is what the Church needs more of on a topic that all but dominates some Christian communions (in ways that easily confuse) and is all but missing from others.

A browser search of “are we living in the last days” yields page upon page of entries. The algorithms deliver hundreds of results on the first pages alone from Protestant evangelical dispensationalists’ books, blogs, articles, and videos, and many from Reformed writers who disagree with them. Other entries recount a history or comparison of differing eschatological views. And there are surveys, like the December 2022 Pew Research study, which found that “47% [say] we are living in the end times, including majorities in the historically Black (76%) and evangelical (63%) Protestant traditions. Meanwhile, 49% of Christians say we are not living in the end times, including 70% of Catholics and 65% of mainline Protestants who say this. Viewed more broadly, the share of Protestants who say we are living in the end times is greater than the corresponding share among Catholics (55% vs. 27%).” And there are news articles (e.g., “Shocking Number of Americans Believe We Are Living in the End Times,” Newsweek, Nov. 28, 2022) showing what Americans believe about the question. This is not new or news.

At the pinnacle of the “Jesus Revolution” in 1970, the year I became a Christian (or, as I now refer to it, the year I confirmed my baptism), Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth came out. It was the talk of the town, or at least the talk of American Protestant evangelical dispensationalists. My new group of Christian friends took me to a bookstore and encouraged me to buy a Scofield Reference Bible. I was soon awash in dispensationalism as Lindsey’s book and the Scofield Bible became the subject of many late-night conversations and constant questions about the “end times.” We were convinced we were living in the Last Days. Our pressing duty was to interpret the signs of the times; we were sure contemporary events marked the fulfillment of ancient prophecies. We believed Christ’s return was imminent, and the rapture at hand. There was an urgency to spread the Gospel so our friends and encounters wouldn’t be left behind.

Unlike Anglican theologian N.T. Wright, Dr. Patrick does not rail against dispensationalism — he doesn’t even mention it in his article. But it is clear that Patrick, as a good Catholic, does not endorse the dispensational parenthesis-of-discontinuity view of the Church in God’s redemption story. Nor, while accepting the biblical phrase “new creation,” does Patrick endorse a this-world-is-waste view held by many dispensationalists. His article is not a survey of the variegated history of the views of the Second Coming (ancient and modern); it is simpler than a panorama of historical theology or exegetical and theological argument. Yet its force comes from that simplicity, for it is a very deep simplicity.

In fact, Patrick’s article is a kind of homily, a proclamation of the warnings Jesus gave to His disciples when, in response to His prophecy of the Temple’s destruction, they asked, “When shall these things be, and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”

Despite the assurance of Pentecost promised and fulfilled, and how the Paraclete has empowered the Church’s witness to the Gospel through the ages, spreading it to the ends of the earth, Patrick cautions against a false historical fulfillment, or realized eschatology. He warns against the 19th-century higher-critical winds that discarded Jesus’ Olivet Discourse as irrelevant or as an ancient delusional superstition, and against the 20th-century progressivist social gospel and secularized political eschatologies that dismiss any real Parousia. Patrick remains confident in the bodily fulfillment of Jesus’ promise before His Ascension and affirmed in the celebration of every Mass: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”; “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Running through these and other warnings, Patrick stresses how we are easily led astray by the Tempter, the Deceiver, Satan. As such, the Last Days, inaugurated in the first advent of Jesus through His life, death, and Resurrection, and lasting from then until His second advent, are a war — a war won by Christ the Victor on the Cross and confirmed by His Resurrection. But it is a war which, in these Last Days, His Church must fight, through the power of His Spirit, against the principalities and powers of this world, the skirmishes of which continue and are effective even while doomed, until He returns in glory.

So, in the face of temptation, deception, and the persisting pain and brokenness of this in-between time, we should not lose heart. We should endure this time as “the beginning of birth pangs,” as Jesus said, confident that the pains are not forever, that on the Last Day the new creation will be born, a new and joyous beginning when God will dwell among the mortals, when He will wipe away every tear, and when death will be no more.

Are we living in the Last Days? Yes, Patrick says, just as the Church has said across the ages. But it is not the Last Day. Only the Father knows that day. As Patrick says, “Until then, the Church will have the peace that surpasses understanding, but not peace as the world gives it. The Church will enjoy the victory of faith, but not earthly victory. These, the Last Days, are our days. To persevere to the end is to be saved (cf. Mt. 24:13).”

James M. Roseman

Plano, Texas

JAMES PATRICK REPLIES:

James M. Roseman sees that my purpose was to steady down the Church for the long haul between Jesus’ first advent and His return in glory. It is important to the health of Christians to remember that time is in the hands of the Father, who alone knows the day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, wars and rumors of wars, the failure of love, and betrayal, sometimes by those who should be defending the Church, are our common lot.

Mr. Roseman also sees that I am as steadfast an opponent of eschatological skepticism — Christ will return in glory — as I am of eschatological enthusiasm.

Ed. Note: Between the submission of this reply and its publication, Dr. James Patrick, chancellor emeritus of the College of St. Thomas More in Fort Worth, Texas, went to his reward. Please join us in praying for the repose of his soul.

The Enemy’s Own Terms

Thomas Storck’s review of Thomas P. Sheahen’s book Everywhen: God, Symmetry, and Time (Jan.-Feb.) makes the excellent point that Catholic thought has a rich history of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics. Storck’s criticism of the book for ignoring this history might not be completely on the mark, however. If the purpose of the book is to reach modern people, it needs to approach them on terms they understand, using their language. In the case of moderns, this means approaching Catholic truth from the direction of the natural sciences.

It is a measure of the strength and dominance of Catholic thought that it can defeat its opponents even in this “enemy territory” and on the enemy’s own terms. Sheahen’s book is certainly not the last word in Catholic thought, but in approaching people who worship at the altar of scientism, it might be a good first word.

John F. Fay

Freeport, Florida

THOMAS STORCK REPLIES:

I appreciate John F. Fay’s remarks. I agree that we need to approach people where they are, and few moderns have any knowledge of metaphysics or how to reason philosophically. For them, science is usually the last word in knowledge. So it is appropriate to use arguments drawn from the empirical sciences whenever that can be done. But that doesn’t mean we should use bad arguments or pretend that experimental physics, let alone mathematics, can prove more than it really can. The natural sciences cannot go beyond phenomena; hence, they cannot reach the existence of God. At best, they can serve as a kind of propaedeutic, or to clear the ground by refuting some of our opponents’ pretensions.

Harvesters of Death

Loretta Bedford, in her letter (Jan.-Feb.) regarding John M. Grondelski’s article “The Demise of the Parish Cemetery” (Nov.), states that organ donation is an acceptable option for Catholics. In his reply, Grondelski says his “sole caveat” is that “we really be dead” because medicos in our contemporary culture of death are “ready to ‘harvest’ bodies or body parts before death, arguably sometimes even contributing to the latter.” How true!

Even worse is that medicos are not only “ready” to but routinely do take body parts before death. In every case in which a vital organ is taken — as opposed to one a person can live without, such as one kidney or one lung if the person has another functioning one, or part but not all of the liver — it is the very act of taking the organ that causes death. Few people are aware of this horrific reality or want to be aware of it. Least of all do the medicos want people to be aware of it.

Organs are only useful for transplant if warm ischemia has not set in, but this happens almost immediately after death. Thus, if they want organs suitable for transplant, the medicos cannot wait for death to occur because then the desired organ would be useless for transplant. So they take the organ — again, I am speaking of vital organs here — before its original owner (deceptively called a “donor”) is, in fact, really dead. So, of course, taking vital organs causes death. But it is all cloaked in misleading language that allows everyone involved, if they are so inclined, to avoid confronting this truth. Yet in medical journals, in which medical personnel, so to speak, talk freely among themselves, they make no pretense of this fact. Indeed, they argue that the criteria for so-called brain death — a totally fictitious concept that was invented to allow the taking of desired organs from severely and possibly permanently impaired persons — be loosened even more to make a greater number of people eligible as sources of desired organs.

Holy Mother Church has pronounced that organs can be given and taken so long as no higher-order principles are violated thereby. Yet such moral principles are violated all the time for vital organs, and hardly anybody — even within the Church — acknowledges this.

Susan Thomas

Syracuse, New York

The Heart of Our Disagreement

In her response (Jan.-Feb.) to my letter (Nov.) regarding the pro-life rescue movement, Monica Migliorino Miller, among other things, ascribes to me the “belief that unjust laws should be obeyed.” That mischaracterizes my argument, but it does seem to go to the heart of our disagreement about using physical force to block women’s entry to abortion facilities.

I do believe that a person may, as a matter of conscience, disobey a law he believes to be unjust. However, such an exercise of my conscience would be applicable to my behavior. If I were to substitute my conscience for yours and then try to coerce your behavior accordingly, I would have completely depersonalized you.

Obviously, when we choose to participate in a society, we accept a certain amount of collective conscience, in the form of positive law, that prohibits or requires behaviors at odds with what we would like. In that case, we may choose to endure (likely because we think the benefits of belonging to our society outweigh the costs), to leave, to revolt, or to try to change the law via the political process. The key point is that we, as members of society, have at least some choice in the societal control of our own behavior and that of others. We choose to live in such a system largely because it is better than the alternative of a might-makes-right, will-and-power showdown — sans rules — among all comers.

Of course, positive law is flawed; its makers are flawed. But if we accept — or worse, encourage — the imposition of one person’s conscience and will on another person, as a matter of private judgment, then we edge toward true chaos.

Lastly, Miller accuses me of not taking into consideration that “there is a form of pro-life rescue that does not involve using one’s body to block the path to the extermination rooms.” This reference to her admirable work in Red Rose Rescues, in which women seeking (or at least exploring) abortions are counseled and, hopefully, convinced otherwise, shows exactly the correct path. The Red Rose Rescuers fully respect the human dignity of the women whose consciences they try to inform and correct. The physical-force brigades negate that same dignity in the hope of preventing a wrong. And as terrible as that wrong is, two wrongs do not make a right.

Charles R. Splawn

Greensboro, North Carolina

Another Baffling Display of National Hubris

If I understand Will Hoyt’s argument aright in his article “America’s Deposit of Faith” (Jan.-Feb.), I would summarize it as follows: Because of the work of a small group of writers in a period of about ten years, all of whom were “wary of organized religion,” and because of the alleged “inherited capital banked on our behalf before the Civil War,” Americans “as a people, have a unique ability to see and recognize truth” and perhaps someday will “turn America into a place where (on the entire world’s behalf) a new heaven and a new earth finally do come into view.”

If this understanding is correct, I confess it leaves me completely baffled.

Many Americans do, it is true, feel a desire to make of this country something of worldwide importance and even attribute some sort of theological meaning to her history and institutions. From Daniel Webster’s “with America, and in America, a new era commences in human affairs” to George H.W. Bush’s “America — not just the nation — but an idea, alive in the minds of people everywhere” and beyond, we are prone to see our nation as having some kind of world-historical significance. Of course, right now America is a very powerful and influential nation, but a little acquaintance with history shows that there has been a parade of powerful nations along the path of history, and no doubt at some point America will cease to play such a role.

Hoyt rejects the idea of America as a “city on a hill,” along with other myths about the founding of our present regime, but it seems that what he calls Americans’ “unique ability to see and recognize truth,” and the possibility that we will become “a new heaven and a new earth,” suffer from the same national hubris.

What would I suggest instead? Hoyt rejects the idea that “we are overly indebted to Lockean anthropology and…completely entrapped by liberal terminology,” but I’m afraid this is the truth nonetheless. We can indeed “still read Plato,” as Hoyt says, but I fail to see how that invalidates our instinctive Lockean understanding of man and government. So far, at least, it hasn’t done so. No, what this country needs is a conversion, a conversion of both individuals and of the culture, something the large number of Catholic immigrants arriving here in the 19th and early 20th centuries might have attempted if they had understood their world-historical task: transforming what was soon to become the chief Protestant world power into something Catholic. Then, and only then, could we have hoped to create something not entirely unlike “a new heaven and a new earth,” even while dwelling in this valley of tears.

Thomas Storck

Westerville, Ohio

Will Hoyt’s article was excellent, entertaining, and insightful. His writing style is lively, even “punchy” (including an account of a fistfight), and his thesis of “Four Literary Evangelists” was interesting and a clever way to approach the problem of how to “celebrate America as a land of promise.”

Hoyt is correct that he can’t turn to the Great Awakening, with its separation of nature and grace, for an answer. We meet reality in stories, our own and those of others, and stories are mainly about plot twists. The literary quartet is, therefore, a clever strategy, though Henry David Thoreau is a perplexing addition to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. Walden Pond is not so much about nature as about suburbia; you get about as much of a connection with nature as you do in mowing the lawn: not exactly nothing but not really something.

Hoyt does get that the real issue is reality itself. Man is the only animal who needs technology to make his living, be it the spear or the fishhook, the plow or the scythe. Our relationship to nature changed when our view of nature changed from the organic to the mechanical. Prior to this mechanical view, technology aided the craftsman. The flying shuttle made a better weaver, and the spinning jenny a better spinster. But with power looms, the weaver and spinster were replaced by the machine, and what roles remained were workers — often women and small children — who were just servo-mechanisms of the machines, the last bit of the process that had yet to be automated. We are now able to talk about the “conquest of nature”; the problem is we just might succeed in this conquest, which would be the end of everything. Freed from nature, we are trapped in the machine, which becomes the new reality.

Hoyt’s connection of Melville with William Shakespeare was spot-on. And his analysis of Dickinson, the “debauchee of dew” who disdained both “men and oxygen,” as a “consecrated” woman who “steered toward true North rather than by it,” was stunning.

But I wonder about Hoyt’s selection of successors to the literary tradition. Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens are certainly plausible, but I’m not sure how Ernest Hemingway, a braggart and a bore, got into his college of bishops. But then I wonder how some of the actual bishops got there! I would have gone South, to Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, and Flannery O’Connor. These are people within the tradition, who must also confront the tradition, including its dark side, the twin legacies of slavery and racism. And tradition is always like that, with a dark and a light side. Indeed, that’s what makes a writer like Hawthorne great: his willingness to confront the received pieties of the “conservatives” of his day.

The same is true for Hoyt’s other “evangelists.” In fact, it was true both of the original Evangelists and of the One on whose behalf they were evangelizing. Indeed, there is a great irony in “conservatives” pushing “liberal” education. Some progressives would have us believe it’s the study of “dead white males.” Not quite. It’s largely the study of dead, mostly white, liberal males and females. It was not the liberals who handed the hemlock to Socrates. The “traditionalist” archbishop of Paris condemned St. Thomas Aquinas. And these stories are practically a constant of history. The people our students pore over are almost exclusively those on the leading edge of their societies. Oh, there are a few true conservatives who creep into the curriculum, like Cicero defending the usurers, but I prefer Catiline, the populist. If Hester Prynne appeared today, the conservatives might not pin a scarlet letter to her blouse, but they would certainly cut off her welfare payments.

Indeed, the saying is true that yesterday’s Whig is today’s Tory, and the actual content of “conservatism” is the discarded liberalism of the previous age. That’s why nearly all American “conservatives” are just 19th-century liberals. What American “conservatism” actually conserves are the values of the Enlightenment, writ large in our Constitution, and the privileges of the wealthy, those so admired by Cicero, writ into our native libertarianism.

It is precisely on this point that Mr. Hoyt goes a bit weird on us. His reading of the U.S. Constitution in general, and the 14th Amendment in particular, is so bizarre that I barely know where to begin. I will confine my remarks to two of his points: the legal tradition and abortion.

If we were to place the 14th Amendment within tradition, that tradition would be Catholic canon law. The Church established the first legal code in Europe, and perhaps in all world history, that applies equally regardless of rank, wealth, race, ethnicity, or class. Nearly all law codes, including the Law of Moses, treated the rich and poor differently, but in canon law, the prince and pauper are treated the same. And that’s really all the 14th Amendment says. For any overthrow of our tradition, Hoyt will have to find some other source.

But then he connects the amendment with abortion. I find this totally baffling, on both historical and legal grounds. First, he has the history backwards. There were no laws against abortion at the founding, and there wouldn’t be until 1821, in Connecticut, and that dealt only with abortions after “quickening,” which at the time meant the moment the mother could feel the baby move in her womb. The great push to criminalize abortions in toto didn’t arise until the 1870s and 1880s, and it wouldn’t be complete in all 50 states until 1910. And the impetus was neither legal nor religious but commercial. The American Medical Association was in a campaign to “medicalize” natural birth and take two lucrative markets, birth and abortion, away from the midwives. You could still get an abortion for a “medical” reason, but it was solely the denizens of the AMA who could certify those “reasons” — for a fee, of course. The midwives were then reduced to the status of “back alley” abortionists. And if you were going to argue on legal grounds, then the command “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” would seem to argue for Dobbs v. Jackson, not Roe v. Wade.

Hoyt goes on to connect the 14th Amendment with credit scoring, which he calls “social credit” scoring, a thing that exists only in China. The connection is obscure, to say the least.

He closes with a reference to Hamas, reducing a century-old struggle to an off-hand remark. I searched his article to find something that prepared for this remark, but in vain. I don’t know. Perhaps the Zionists and the Palestinians hate each other because of the 14th Amendment? I can think of no other reason for the comment.

With the coming of the railroad and then the automobile, Thoreau’s suburban vision would win out. The modern carriage will only stop for death, and then only for as long as it takes to clean up the mess. Freed from the care of the horse, our new reality is highly regulated by stoplights and traffic cops. How would Dickinson write it today, “Because I could not stop for death, the stoplight stoppeth me”?

John Médaille

Irving, Texas

Having just recently made a pilgrimage to Steubenville, Ohio, as part of a quasi-bachelor party with my future best man, I was eminently pleased to see Bookmarx Books (mentioned by Will Hoyt in his article “America’s Deposit of Faith”) among the businesses along this former steel town’s main artery.

Our day included stops at local staples such as Chesterton & Co. Cigars and a refreshingly reverent Novus Ordo Mass at St. Peter in the town’s historical North End. Chief among the highlights of this trip occurred when we stumbled into Bookmarx for what turned into a three-hour immersion into stacks upon stacks of books, curated with the utmost care by the store’s owners, John and Catherine Kuhner.

The shop possesses quality copies of all the authors Mr. Hoyt so adeptly details as part of the American Literary Renaissance. The collection extends far beyond American literature, however, and boasts a cache of patristics literature expansive enough to make even St. Justin Martyr blush.

I walked away with a pristine copy of Costume of Prelates of the Roman Catholic Church by John Abel Nainfa, with a copyright date of 1926. Texts of this nature are as customary at this Steubenville establishment as is the requisite Nicholas Sparks novel at your local Barnes & Noble franchise.

If NOR readers should ever find themselves on a pilgrimage akin to our own, they would do well to visit this diamond in the rough along the Ohio River Basin. The only question remaining is whether there is precedent for establishing a Bookmarx Books Wedding Registry!

Robert Tunney

Franklin, Tennessee

Ed. Note: Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials! Bookmarx is located at 181 N 4th St., Steubenville OH 43952.

WILL HOYT REPLIES:

Thanks very much to John Médaille and Thomas Storck for their considered responses to my thesis that Americans can draw on a “deposit of faith” that enables us to meet and, hopefully, solve challenges posed by the woke technocracy rising in our midst. Thanks also to Robert Tunney for estimating my article’s worth while riding a wave of good will resulting from his recent engagement, thereby providing me with buoyancy and strength as I prepare, now, to refute Médaille’s and Storck’s rather drastic charges.

Médaille sums up my arguments as “weird” and “bizarre,” let alone “perplexing,” and Storck, for his part, thinks they are “baffling.” When I first read their remarks, I started to reach for the handkerchief neatly folded in my suit jacket’s breast pocket so as to blot the beads of cold sweat that would soon, no doubt, appear on my forehead. But after reading Tunney’s letter, I decided I wouldn’t need the handkerchief after all, given the flawed aspect of Médaille’s and Storck’s reasoning.

Let’s start by looking at Médaille’s logic. Though he claims to believe that “reality” is the key issue nowadays, he nevertheless states that Walden — a book whose every chapter is oriented toward a conclusion that reaches an apex when Thoreau states, “It is reality we crave” — is really about “suburbia” and, well, “mowing the lawn.” Is it? Maybe it is, if you consider that the smell of freshly cut grass combined with the labor of pushing a mower can gladden a soul. But I don’t think Médaille intends for his remark to be interpreted in that way. Rather, he is saying that when we mow a lawn, we are stuck in a meaningless routine that has nothing to do with “nature.”

Things get worse when Médaille dismisses Hemingway as “a braggart and a bore.” Seriously? Hemingway is the guy who wrote “Big Two-Hearted River,” the story about fly-fishing in timbered country that ranks, by most critics’ standards, as our country’s best depiction of a contemplative disposition.

But enough. Médaille’s chief point is that I go “a bit weird” on everybody by misstating the reason for the 14th Amendment’s significance by (1) linking it to the availability of abortion, (2) connecting it to the appearance of “credit scoring,” and (3) mistakenly thinking its passage accomplished other crucially important things besides guaranteeing that “prince and pauper are treated the same.”

Regarding the presumed link to abortion, let it be known that I never mentioned abortion in my article. Perhaps Médaille inferred it from my remark about how, thanks to the amendment’s passage, we disenfranchised the dead and “the unborn” by jettisoning custom and tradition in favor of universal suffrage. At that point, though, I was citing Edmund Burke’s remark about how the state is, ideally, “a partnership” between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born” — i.e., future generations. Burke didn’t mean fetuses; nor did I.

As for “credit scoring,” I most certainly did suggest that it will become every bit as common here as it already is in China. Am I being too aggressive by assuming that? I think not. Lest there be doubt on this point, we have only to look at the complaint filed against the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families in February 2023 by Michael and Catherine Burke after their application to become foster parents was denied owing to their skepticism regarding the rightness of transgender surgery and the use of nonbinary pronouns.

As to my belief that the 14th Amendment is about more than equality before the law for paupers as well as princes, dare I suggest that this belief is well grounded? Indeed, we need look no further than the amendment’s crafting and the text itself to prove that groundedness. In the first place, the amendment — as crafted by John Bingham of Cadiz, Ohio! — intentionally protected “persons” rather than “citizens” so as to make it possible for corporations, long understood to be “persons” in a legal sense, to fight irregular seizure of corporate assets by state governments. In the second place, the text itself spells out a degree of federal control over state governments that would have been unthinkable in the days of our founding and especially during the convention that ratified the Constitution. In short, our country was founded anew thanks to the passage of the amendment. If Médaille doubts that I am correct in this assumption, I suggest he pick up a copy of Laurence Tribe’s textbook on constitutional law, available in any good library.

Moving now to Storck’s letter, I am glad to see that he has graciously leveled just two clearly stated charges after calling my argument “baffling” so as to dispatch me quickly rather than slowly and painfully. Therefore, I will try to meet the gentlemanly standard he set.

Storck begins with a brief summary of my argument: “Because of the work of a small group of writers in a period of about ten years, all of whom were ‘wary of organized religion,’ and because of the alleged ‘inherited capital banked on our behalf before the Civil War,’ Americans, ‘as a people, have a unique ability to see and recognize truth.’” That’s a fair summary, technically speaking. The writers who comprised the American Literary Renaissance were indeed few. But — consider their stature! These are writers who collectively and singly create imaginations, much less feed them. Writers in and through whom we learn to propose, fight, stay honest, and even convert to the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church — the very thing Storck calls for in his prescribed remedy for American society at large. Writers, in short, who make possible the contemplative space John Locke spent his life trying to protect.

Storck doesn’t like Locke’s interest in physics or his treatises on government, owing to the philosopher’s entrapment in (pre-Pentecostal) Protestant conceptions of nature. Storck is right to be wary of Locke on this score; given that faith precedes reason, the famous zone of presumed neutrality that Locke and the liberal thinkers who followed him assume to be possible does not, in fact, exist. Locke’s view of human government, however, is a godsend owing to the protections he devised to ensure toleration of dissenting viewpoints, and this is a claim with which Storck, by definition, cannot agree. Why? The answer is simple. It’s because Storck thinks correct viewpoints regarding what and how to think should be enforced by the state. Which means Storck is an integralist. He doesn’t see the value in an Enlightenment-inflected First Amendment that protects us from all thought control, be it from the Left or the Right. To that very extent, it makes perfect sense that Storck would be “baffled” by my relative lack of concern regarding the extent to which we are indebted to Lockean conceptions of government.

What is the second charge Storck levels against my argument? Succinctly put, it’s that I am prone to the very same American exceptionalism that I critique when I claim that Americans have “a unique ability to see and recognize truth.” In one way, it makes sense for Storck to call me on this. How can he not, given that early in my argument I explain why city-on-a-hill conceits are no longer tenable?

In another sense, though, it doesn’t make sense for Storck to level this charge, for the simple reason that my variant of exceptionalism is tempered by — and, even more importantly, is, to at least some extent, based on — the destructive power of our presence on the world stage. Storck says dismissively that we are “prone to see ourselves as having some kind of world-historical significance.” But we do have world-historical significance. Walter McDougall opens his marvelous history of the United States by claiming that the appearance of America as a power is the most important event in the past 500 years, though I think his estimate is modest, given that our empire extends far beyond Rome’s. And that’s before even mentioning the number of immigrants who’ve risked their lives to emigrate to our country on account of our professed commitment to self-government.

Hence, I would like to close with a question. Why not believe that America is special? Why not profess allegiance to our country and the hope for which it stands? There’s a lot on the line here, and the stakes are high.

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