Our friend Chuck Chalberg is looking for a decent Catholic college for his son, and is not having much luck. You can read about it here. He’d heard that there is “diversity” in American higher education. Trouble is, he’s found, all our institutions are “diverse” in the same way. It all reminds me of my own experience as a visiting professor on the faculty of Georgetown University. The byword there—this at a time when, in the wake of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Catholic colleges were supposed to be returning to the idea that their mission was grounded in the heart of the Church—was something that the president referred to as “centered pluralism,” though he was careful never to name the “center” being spoken of. The faculty and administration consistently refused to describe the place as “Christian” or “Catholic.” Instead, the term “Jesuit identity” was the only acceptable stand-in for such distinctives—an odd thing, I thought, given the bad press that Jesuits have gotten through the years among non-Catholics. I was not alone among believing Protestants and Jews on the faculty in wishing that Georgetown were more, rather than less, Catholic. And more willing to be genuinely different. Not a view widely shared, however.
My friend, the composer Michael Linton, shares with me this very sad, and yet completely emblematic, notice on the Sotheby’s website. Evidently the First Congregational Church in Farmington, Connecticut is selling off the church silver, some of which has been in the congregation’s possession since the seventeenth century. Judging from the church’s website, this is being done largely to raise money for a massive facilities expansion. Not knowing any more about the church’s circumstances, it would perhaps be captious to find fault with their act. One could argue that hanging on to the silver would be foolish, even idolatrous, and an act of bad stewardship. All of this may be true. I hold no brief for the idea that hoarding valuables is in itself an act of superior churchmanship. No doubt the current membership will do wonderful things with the cash proceeds.
Yet one does not need to have the heart of Edmund Burke to find the sale of these ancient items at auction a profoundly saddening development. Not only because there is something inescapably crass about it. Also, because it breaks continuity, and breaks faith in a certain sense with the longer history of their own church, and the forebears who made that history. One could just as easily, and with sophisticated theological justification, argue for the sale of a highly valuable church burial ground. Doesn’t the earth belong to the living?
And so the auction is, like it or not, a powerful symbol of liberal mainline churches’ willingness to liquidate every bit of their inherited capital—material, physical, liturgical, and doctrinal—in order to keep themselves going as institutions. As I said, this particular decision may be entirely justifiable. But I would feel better about it if the church didn’t seem to be missing the main thing. It is worth noting that, in the church’s strategic plan, a dismal piece of babble prepared for the church not by deacons, elders, bishops, or even members, but by a professional consulting firm, the word "Jesus" does not appear, not even once. Perhaps that part of the inherited capital has already disappeared.
Perhaps we’ve all heard enough by now about the ongoing effort to erase the notion of Christmas as a public observance in the Western world. But there are plenty of encouraging indications that this effort will fail. I was struck by this almost casual invocation of "Christmas" coming from a Norwegian UN official, upbraiding the United States and other Western countries for their "stinginess" in offering aid for the relief of the Southeast Asian tsunami victims. This guy is really a piece of work, a Scandinavian social democrat from Central Casting—not only does he offer this criticism, unseemly more for its timing than its content, but he uses it as an occasion to bash the Bush administration’s tax cuts! One would have thought his mind would be on other things at such a moment; it’s rather like hearing a cop at the scene of an auto wreck deliver a disquisition about the need for mandatory air bags and alternative forms of transportion before calling the ambulance.
Read the whole thing. But note particularly these words:
"It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really," the Norwegian-born U.N. official told reporters. "Christmastime should remind many Western countries at least, [of] how rich we have become."
How true. And yet, how interesting to hear "Christmas" invoked in this context by this man. It would be nice if this gentleman were to explain to us precisely why Christmastime should remind us of our wealth. But in doing so, he would have to mention the name of Christ, something he would do with only the greatest reluctance. Is it not revealing, however, that even this bureaucrat feels it appropriate to draw on the moral capital of Christianity, in a moment of moral urgency. Imagine the difference if he had said, "The time of Winter Festival should remind us…." All it would remind us of is what we had lost.
The difference, then, is no small matter. It goes to the very source of the moral dispositions planted deeply in our civilization, the dispositions that lead us to feel obliged to help the suffering people of Southeast Asia. The UN bureaucrats will not be able to draw on that moral capital forever, unless they acknowledge and protect and replenish its sources. In this little episode is written the dilemma of all secularizing reform movements, including the Democratic Party.
One of the good things to be said for 2004 is that it was the year that Mark Steyn emerged into clear public view as one of the premier columnists of the English-speaking world. The latest evidence of his indispensability appears in The Telegraph and concerns the inevitable linkage between same-sex marriage and polygamy. One can’t paraphrase, one can only quote admiringly:
….I’d spotted an item six months back in that invaluable publication Pensions News. Contracting marriage with more than one spouse simultaneously is a crime in the United Kingdom. However, if a polygamous marriage is entered into abroad in a jurisdiction permitting polygamy, that marriage is regarded as valid under English law. Hence, the interest of Pensions News: trustees of pensions funds were concerned that, under new anti-discrimination regulations which came into effect in Britain last year, they’d be obligated to pay out to more than one widow, thus doubling, trebling or quadrupling their liability.
But you see how easy it is to start talking about polygamy in a nuts-and-bolts, incremental, legal-harmonisation, partners’-benefits, insurance-agent kind of a way. Just tidying up a bit of the fine print, old boy. Nothing to worry about. But, once a polygamous union is recognised as such by the Inland Revenue for the purposes of avoiding 40 per cent death duties, how long can the broader British state withhold recognition? No lack of taxation without representation!
When I mentioned the Pensions News item in a North American column on same-sex marriage, I was besieged by e-mails from huffy gays indignant at being compared with some up-country Nigerian wives-beater. "It’s not the same thing at all," they insisted. But why? If the gender of the participants is no longer relevant, why should the number be? "Don’t be ridiculous," they huffed back. "There’s no demand for it." Au contraire, recent investigations into de facto polygamy in Muslim communities in France and Ontario suggest that even in Western jurisdictions there’ll be many more takers for polygamy than for gay nuptials.
And why should only practising Muslims be entitled to its tax benefits? If you’re a travelling salesman with a wife in Solihull and a mistress in Stockport, why shouldn’t your better halves enjoy the same equality of treatment from the Revenue as Mullah Omar’s get? Polygamy could solve an awful lot of problems, not least among my colleagues at The Spectator.
Logically, one can be either opposed to both (as I am) or in favour of both, but activists who maintain that homosexual marriage is fine but multi-sexual marriage isn’t sound awfully like those couples who build their dream home in the country and then want to stop anybody else from moving in.
The YouGov poll on Britons’ lack of religious faith, reported in yesterday’s Telegraph, confirms that this country is well advanced in its post-Christian condition. Whereas 44 per cent of Britons believe in God and 44 per cent don’t, in recent American polls the number who believe is 92–97 per cent and the number who don’t is around three per cent. Three quarters of Americans believe in Hell, which is more than the bishops’ bench in the House of Lords can say. Most Britons, for good or ill, are content in their post-Christian state. The danger is in assuming it’s permanent, rather than an intermediate phase.
Last year, I was strolling down the boulevard de Maisonneuve in Montreal and saw across the street a Muslim woman, covered from head to toe in black, struggling home with her groceries past a "condom boutique" whose front window was advertising massive discounts on a, er, item of useful gay-sex paraphernalia. I wish I’d had a digital camera: there, in a single image, were the internal contradictions of the multicultural society. It seems highly improbable to me that gay hedonism and creeping sharia can co-exist for long. As yesterday’s dispirited poll results implied, the modern multicultural state is really a nullity, a vacuum. The question is what’s likely to fill it.
As the Democratic party’s post-electoral reconsiderations (it would be too much to call them "soul-searchings") continue, here we see in today’s New York Times an article in which it is said that Democratic party leaders are weighing "de-emphasizing" the abortion issue. It’s probably no coincidence that this article appeared on Christmas Eve, a slow news day—a good time to float a trial balloon without it getting too much notice. Too bad, though, because this article has more unintended humor per column inch than I’ve seen in a long time in Times‘s pages.
For example: We’re told that said leaders are "concerned that Republicans have hurt the Democratic Party by portraying it as an uncompromising champion of abortion." Well, shame on those Republicans! If it hadn’t been for that distorted portrayal, we would have known that the Democratic party’s fierce opposition to partial-birth abortion was, after all, a "compromise." With what, though?
Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager, complains that "I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies." But can she blame them? Is there another issue that is more central to what the Democratic party is about, not in theory but in practice?
But the finest quotation is this one:
Howard Dean, campaigning two weeks ago in Orlando, Fla., to succeed Terry McAuliffe as Democratic national chairman, drew nods of approval from Democratic state party leaders when he urged the party to embrace Democrats who oppose abortion.
"We ought not turn our back on pro-life people, even though the vast majority of people in this party are pro-choice," Dr. Dean said. "I don’t have any objection to someone who is pro-life, if they really dedicated to the welfare of children."
"If somebody is willing to stick with us who is pro-life, that means they are the right kind of pro-life person," said Dr. Dean, the former governor of Vermont. "What I don’t want to do is to have a national message that makes it impossible for you to be a conservative, or to be a progressive who can’t win."
This is a virtual Christmas meal to feed on. But I’ll show restraint and simply note that it seems somewhat short of a heroic gesture for a politician to accept the votes and support of quiet and permanently impotent minorities within his party. (Sure, that’s the "right kind" of pro-lifer. Though I wonder if he would use the same litmus test for pro-abortion Democrats, that they should be able to demonstrate that their defense of abortion rights is grounded in concern about "the welfare of children.")
In the end, though, he should rest easy—it will never be impossible to be "a progressive who can’t win." Any party that wants to deny its fundamental commitments, and yet maintain them proudly at the same time, is going to be a shoo-in for that status every time.
And the rest of the country should take heart too, because this is what it looks like when the conventional wisdom begins to wobble. It will be good for everyone, including the Democrats, if the wobbling continues and deepens.
The always-interesting (if also erratic) ex-conservative Michael Lind has penned a valuable article in the British journal Prospect, with the title "Red-State Sneer." The title is misleading, for the red states are here being regarded as the objects, not the originators, of the sneer in question. The article’s true target is the breathtaking and self-defeating arrogance of the academia-media-Hollywood core of the Democratic party, who claim to speak for the working class but who compulsively trash most of what most working people value—and then are astonished to find that this does not bring them success at the polls.
Although Lind does not mention Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which argues that middle America has been conned into voting against its economic interests, much of the essay could be taken as as directed against just such facile arguments. And for those who have been holding out hope for the "emerging Democratic majority," or the triumph of the "metro" over the "retro," the essay is a cascade of ice-cold water. It even defends suburbia—or rather, shows how futile and silly have been the attacks on suburbia over the years by its cultured despisers.
Above all, it shows that Democrats cannot hope to appeal electorally to those whose values they despise, or appear to despise:
There never was a time when working-class Americans voted for liberals whose values they rejected but whose economic programmes enticed them. Before the federal judiciary nationalised issues like abortion, gay rights and censorship, beginning in the 1960s, these controversies were part of state and local politics, not national politics. Conservative Catholics in the midwest or southern populists could vote for social conservatism in state and local elections, while voting for New Deal economic policies at the federal level. Thanks to federalism, New Deal liberals like Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson took positions on the economy and foreign policy; they did not have to take stands on abortion or gay rights. The very success of liberals in nationalising these issues has worked against them in a country in which self-described liberals are a minority, outnumbered by self-described moderates and conservatives.
Even the most appealing economic programme cannot save American liberalism if it is associated with values that most Americans reject.
This is all absolutely on-target. Unfortunately, the discussion that follows of the role of religion in American life is less than acute. Lind viscerally loathes the "religious right" (an always somewhat shifting quarry), and tries to isolate it as a fringe phenomenon, so that he can balance the crazy left and the crazy right against the sensible middle. The resulting analysis is surprisingly flat-footed. He clearly does not understand, and has never understood, George W. Bush’s religion, or the phenomenon of American civil religion, which is something very different from Enlightenment deism. (The language of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is not the language of a clockmaker God and a clockwork moral universe.) In this respect, he is just as uncomprehending as the staff of the New York Times or any garden-variety secular academic. He slips all too easily into a pattern of disparagement that perfectly mirrors the very ungenerosity he spends the rest of the article condemning. The physician needs to take his own advice.
This, I suspect, will continue to be the Democrats’ problem with religion, and it’s too bad that Lind offers them no help in that department. What has long been the case with Republicans and the issue of race—rather unjustly so, I might add, but that is another matter—may become the Democrats’s fate with regard to matters of religion: they may find themselves on the defensive on this issue for decades to come, unless they at least begin to knock off the contempt, and treat taunts against "Jesusland" as the ugly and ignorant sneers that they truly are. Either that, or let the party stop deluding itself into believing that it speaks for middle- and working-class Americans.
Chuck Chalberg, a Minnesota-based historian and friend of Touchstone who is also known for his wonderful impersonations of such historical characters as Theodore Roosevelt and G. K. Chesterton, has related a small but sadly indicative story on the Democracy Project website that is worth your reading. It involves an encounter with a high-school girl on a recent flight, and the girl’s request for help in catching a connecting flight. As you’ll see, she could have used help in other areas as well. One often catches such glimpses of the moral disorder surrounding us, illuminated momentarily, and eerily, as if by a bolt of lightning.