In Honor of Jeane Kirkpatrick

Aristotle wrote that the criterion of good moral action is not a principle or a law so much as “the man of practical wisdom”—that is, the person in your environment who habitually makes the wisest and bravest decisions of anyone else you know. Aristotle mentions, in his context, Pericles. In my circle, I always wanted to ask Jeane Kirkpatrick for advice and counsel. I wanted to watch what she did. I guess nowadays they call persons of this type “role models.” But that term doesn’t quite get the whole idea. It misses the interiority of the thing, the inner life, the fount of the wisdom one is seeking. Not a role player but a person who has lived through a lot, learned from it, and has a burning desire to get things right, circumstance by circumstance. That was Jeane. Someone asked me once who I would like to see as the first woman president. I said I would pick Jeane Kirkpatrick, but I really want her to be the first woman empress of the world! There are not many tough enough, but she was. Like Margaret Thatcher. It was wonderful to have two such strong women leaders in those crucial decades of our time. Women strong enough to keep the men from going “wobbly.”

When Karen and I first came to the American Enterprise Institute in 1978 (although I had been an adjunct visitor once a week for a year or so longer than that), Jeane was already one of our most distinguished colleagues, a widely noted author and lecturer, and a teacher whose classes were much sought after by students at Georgetown. Democracy and human rights were two of her main issues, although she was also fascinated by their opposites—the old-style tyrannies of the Latin American caudillo school, and the real totalitarians of mind and body, such as the Soviets and Red Chinese. One of her first big books was on women in politics, although her most well-known writings were her powerful essays in Commentary, such as “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”

Before he ran for the presidency, Ronald Reagan had read some of her work, and during the later stages of his campaign he called her to California to test some of her arguments on dictatorships, the idea of human rights, the prospect of democracy, and even arms control. She told it to him straight. She told me later that she never met a man who so effortlessly treated a woman as an equal, and who felt totally secure of himself in his own person. She was more impressed than she had expected to be, not least by his probing questions and the well-thought-out clarity of his own views. He was not what the press had led her to expect.

Later, when he asked her to be his Ambassador to the United Nations—in those days, causing no small amount of mischief for the United States and its allies (being rather more than most observers had noticed under the influence of well-placed communists in key staff positions)—Jeane consulted with her husband, a very wise political scientist himself, and quickly said yes. She demanded the kind of candor and straight-up treatment that her Oklahoma upbringing had taught her to expect—and to demand. She loved having roots back in Oklahoma, the freedom of the Plains, the toughness of the land and the people, the Will Rogers humor, the hard shell of having been brought up a Baptist. (“Came in handy for me at the UN,” she told me once, after some of the criticism her early boldness brought down on her head. “I’m grateful for that education.”)

Jeane was a wonderful gourmet cook and had friends (Chuck Lichtenstein, for one, and Anne Crutcher for another—food editor at the old Washington Star) who were as good or better. Eating at her house was a rare delight, even on impromptu occasions. She spent summers at her small cottage in the Macon region of southern France, and so her selections of wines for her meals were also a special delight—and an education. But the best part about her dinners was the feast of conversation: probing, wide-ranging, drawing upon everybody present, funny, full of friendship and cheer, intellectually invigorating.

Jeane would tell me quietly about how much more religious being under fire at the United Nations had made her—fire not only from certain overseas delegations but also domestic criticism from the usual suspects—because she found it necessary to clear her mind, and drink at the founts of conscience and inner light, and strengthen her resolve. Being outwardly so active and strong required of her a deeper and quieter inner life, she said. She didn’t do what she did for ego but for justice and liberty.

Jeane was the architect of the emphasis on democracy and human rights that turned the later years of the 1980s into one of the most dynamic and star-bursting periods ever for the birth of new democracies. What she added to the Carter rhetoric was a firmer sense of the necessary habits, dispositions, actions, and institutions that turn human rights from “parchment barriers” on paper into real social forces. She tried to put substance and action into the high-flown empty statements of UN resolutions. When nations said one thing, then did another, Jeane carefully called them to account, privately or publicly as seemed to her wisest. She demanded straight-shooting. Countries that begged the United States for aid and relief, military help or emergency airlifts—and then stood rhetorically with the enemies of the United States on the floor of the UN—were informed that greater integrity was expected from them.

Jeane Kirkpatrick was an enormous force for honesty, liberty, candor, straightforwardness, and sheer moral bravery. She was a valiant woman and a gallant soul. She was a thoughtful and gentle colleague; a very warm, generous, and open friend; and a great, brave American heroine.

She will add much to the arguments and intellectual excitements that rage, I imagine, at the celestial banquets to which we are all called. It will be fun to engage with her again.

Published in First Things December 11, 2006

What the Islamists Have Learned: How to Defeat the USA in Future Wars

By the will of Allah, in all wars to come, may it prepare our brave martyrs for combat operations! Today, the purpose of war is sharply political, not military; psychological, not physical. The main purpose of war is to dominate the way the enemy imagines and thinks about the war. Warfare is not, these days, won on a grand field of battle. Nor is it won by the force that wins series after series of military victories. Nor is triumph assured by killing far higher numbers of the enemy. The physical side of warfare no longer holds precedence.

The primary battlefield today lies in the minds of opposing publics.

The main strategic aim of war today is to dominate the mind of the enemy's public, and then ultimately to dominate the mind of that public's leaders.

Let me offer three examples. At what moment did the war in Vietnam come to an end? At that precise moment when America's leaders decided that they could not resist the unrelenting storyline of the enemy, which had long prevailed in their own press. The press surrendered first, then the leaders of the nation.

Observe that the Cold War ended not in an explosion of unprecedented violence, but rather at the precise moment when the Soviet elites no longer believed their own storyline. Superior ideas cowed them, superior will, superior narratives. Quite suddenly, the invincible Soviet elites folded, accepted humiliation, allowed the Wall to come down, and watched in bitterness as hundreds of millions of formerly captive peoples chose new forms of government.

The endgame was psychological, not military. There was a military component--Star Wars--but nobody knew whether or not that would ever work. It was the idea of that weapon, and will or Reagan to proceed with it.

The weaker political will yielded to the stronger will.

Yet, as always, will followed storyline. First comes narrative, then the acts that give it flesh in history.

What we have discovered in Iraq is the weakest link in the ability of the United States to sustain military operations overseas. That link is the U.S. media. They are Islamists' best friends.

Experience shows that the mainstream press of the United States is alienated from the U.S. military. In addition, the American press is extremely vulnerable to anti-U.S. propaganda. Thus, the American public will be fed nearly everything that foreign adversaries--our band of brothers--wish to feed it about the war. Therefore, I write: Maxim # 1: To defeat America, impose upon the imagination of its media your own storyline.

Even if you can muster only 10,000 soldiers over the entire countryside of Iraq, paint the narrative like this: The Americans are irresistible occupiers, and yet they cannot prevent small (even individual) acts of destruction. Daily, unrelenting acts of destruction demonstrate that chaos rules. The American strategy, and the American storyline of the war, are invalidated by continuing chaos, highly visible, every single day, on worldwide television. The new dominating story is that the Americans cannot win.

Even though our own forces (for nearly two whole years now) can no longer afford to fight in a single operation lasting longer than a few hours, our martyr-brothers cannot be prevented from committing daily acts of destruction--the more stomach-turning the better--which demonstrate a ferocious will and a determination to destroy.

In such wars, my brothers, whichever party maintains the stronger will, along the most durable storyline, always wins.

To defeat the United States, then, it suffices to demonstrate that their vaunted military, for all its awesome power and tactical bravery in the field, cannot halt daily "chaos." To achieve this victory over America, it is not even necessary to create actual "chaos," but only its appearance. This definition of chaos cannot be made on cerebral, analytic, statistical, or comparative grounds. (In October the Times of London reported, "An average of 112 cars a day have been torched across France" this year, with 15 attacks a day on police and emergency services and nearly 3,000 police officers injured. We don't need comparisons like this or comparisons with traffic deaths and violent crimes in individual U.S. states.)

No, the shadowy existence of this "chaos" in Iraq is projected by a steady stream of stomach-churning, atavistic, destructive acts, staged day by day where the cameras of the U.S. press cannot resist them. Some of these acts bring orange explosions and black smoke, others consist simply of dumping dead and tortured bodies where the public cannot avoid discovering them.

We design these images to show that our fighters will go where the United States will not, that our brave martyrs have harder linings in their stomachs than anyone in the West, and that our ferocity and determination, day after day, cannot be resisted.

The aim of our terror is to induce surrender before the great battles are even fought. This is the true meaning of "asymmetric" warfare. The weaker side in military strength may demonstrate conclusively that it has a stronger stomach for relentless, unstoppable acts of terror.

Besides, brothers, there seems to be a psychological tic in the minds of American journalists, which prevents them from understanding that our terror is ultimately aimed at them. Today, yes, they think it is aimed at their government, and will cripple their political opponents within that government. Without qualm or fear, therefore, they do our bidding day after day. Willingly, gleefully, with much self-congratulation, they pump our storyline into the bloodstream of the Western public.

This is far easier than anyone ever taught us. This is our new discovery, our contribution to the history of warfare. Before our very eyes, the West grows fainter and weaker every day.

Maxim # 2: Take heart, then, my terrorist brothers! Bin Laden is even more correct than we knew before the last two years. The West does not have the will to resist. Those elites among them who do have the stomach to fight back, inexorably, day after day, are being undermined by their own media.

Now and in the future, the media will do our work. All we need are martyrs sufficient in number to keep a steady stream of orange flames and black smoke before their cameras, and to dump before them bodies that are stone-cold dead, and bear all over them the unmistakable blue marks of power drills and other disfigurements.

Of such martyrs, we need each day only a handful. In 365 successive days, we need fewer than one thousand.

This small band of brothers can defeat the most powerful army in human history. The path, my brothers, is to come to dominate the minds of their public, which they must suppose is supporting them, and in reality turns quite quickly into our best ally.

This is not so huge a task, my brothers! In the long run of glorious history, the time required is like the blinking of an eye.

Published in The Weekly Standard November 27, 2006

The New Ethnicity, Si!, Multiculturalism, No!

It is hard to believe that thirty-five years have gone by since the long summer of 1971, when I was writing the first edition of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (published in April 1972). The world has changed a great deal since then. Some of the goals I set out to promote in that book came to pass. For example, my subtitle announced “The new political force of the seventies.” It can surely be said that the word ethnic (used of white ethnic Catholics, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe) entered public speech at that time, and that by their voting power, the newly identified “ethnics” reached out and grabbed the attention of politicians as seldom before. Moreover, reporters slowly began to pay unaccustomed attention to these “ethnic” voters and to the leaders who were rising from their ranks, such as Mario Cuomo in New York, Richard Celeste and George V. Voinovich in Ohio, Dennis DeConcini in Arizona, Pete Domenici in New Mexico, and Barbara Mikulski in Maryland. In 1974, President Gerald Ford initiated an office of ethnic affairs at the White House under Ukrainian-American Myron Kuropas. Jimmy Carter opened his September 1976 campaign celebrating “family days” in white ethnic neighborhoods of Newark and Pittsburgh, flanked by Joseph Califano and Msgr. Geno Baroni. In 1980, I was both surprised and pleased when the sunny Californian Ronald Reagan showed an unerring instinct in speaking the language of those who, after his two unrivalled landslides, came to be called Reagan Democrats, and also when he chose as his campaign slogan symbols that could have been taken directly from the last pages of my book: “Work, family, neighborhood, peace, strength.”

In fact, I learned much later, Reagan’s pollster Dick Wirthlin picked up those symbols from an article of mine addressed as a challenge to both Democrats and Republicans, tested them in his polling, and recommended them to the future president. Like many other “ethnics” (if on these grounds I may so include him), Ronald Reagan had started his political life as a labor-oriented Democrat and then, feeling more and more abandoned by the cultural Left of his own party, became increasingly conservative. Much of the rest of the country, including that other stout pillar of the Roosevelt coalition, Southern and Western evangelicals, began to do likewise. Reagan had the capacity to cast this “revolution” as a re + volvere (a revolving back) to this nation’s founding principles. He portrayed a new progressive vision–not a socialist or statist vision, but one based on limited government and self-rule. It inspired many of us, and it infuriated the cultural Left.

The publication of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in 1972 marked my own declaration of independence from the cultural Left, at that time the preeminent force watching over what could be said and what couldn’t in American culture. As readers will see firsthand in the 1996 edition (which leaves unchanged most of the original text), I was still writing as a man of the Left, certainly a man of the anticapitalist Left. But I was, in truth, departing from left-wing orthodoxy in singling out cultural issues, rather than economic issues, as the primary neuralgic point in American (and not only American) life. I was defending—no, calling into political and cultural self-consciousness, and trying to inspire—those whom the elites liked to picture as paunchy fascists in undershirts, bigoted and unwashed. I was repelled by “the bigotry of the intellectuals” and the unworthy prejudices of the cultural Left. At a time when intellectuals were celebrating the “liberation” of the swinging singles, I thought they ought to be stressing the importance of family, even the psychological differences between “family people” and those who find the unencumbered self a more fundamental reality. They ought to admire the latent strengths of traditional values and ethnic neighborhoods (even ethnic suburbs). To say the least, these ideas were premature. At the time, they were regarded as reactionary. They were said to be the insult our elites hurl when they are being unmasked—"spreading hate.”

Secretly, of course, I wanted very badly in those days to be accepted by the cultural Left, the gatekeepers all aspiring young writers must pass if they are to be allowed into the national dialogue. I wanted to be seen as offering a necessary and helpful corrective to mistakes being made in progressive politics, mistakes that were alienating the Democratic party from its base and even from its traditional tacit commitments. Naively, I thought this difficult analytic effort would be greeted with gratitude. I did not then know the fury of the Left when it marks someone down as beyond the pale of acceptability. I had never before understood how secular excommunication works: how effectively one can be banished from the innocent banter of old circles of trust, how even old friends change the flow and tone of a conversation when one approaches, signaling with a certain chill that one’s presence is no longer desired. All this is a good thing to go through when one is young. One will need the toughness later.

I have to confess here, however, that the many vivid anticapitalist sentiments I sincerely expressed in this book saved me from the full fury of rejection that was to be my lot when, a decade later, I published The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. In the circles in which I traveled in the late seventies, not to be sympathetic to the motives and spirit of socialism, at least democratic socialism, was a very great sin. To be positively in favor of capitalism was a sacrilege so great that to seek forgiveness was useless. Even friends who continued to agree with me, I couldn’t help noticing, would in their writings distance themselves from me even when taking positions close to mine. I would have been alone except for the fact that, at about the same time, a handful of other former leftists was beginning to agree that the death of the socialist idea, at least in economics, was the most underreported fact of the late twentieth century. After 1989, many more began to concede the point. And the problem for the “progressive” Left became, as a poster on Manhattan’s West Side put it in 1991, What’s Left of the Left?

Culture was left. The Left occupied most of the commanding heights of American culture by that time, in Hollywood, in the chief national television and newspaper news departments, in the most influential national magazines, in the universities, in the prestigious publishing houses (one or two excepted), in the great foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, Pew, Mellon, and others, and even among most corporate executives who were likely to sit on the boards of symphonies, museums, operas, and theaters. Dinner table conversations in elite circles of American culture were likely to be in the grip of the latest animosities, enthusiasms, and hygienic speech codes of the Left. What not to say lest a dinner party be thrown into an uproar was always somehow clear.

I had begun noting in 1971 that people on the Left increasingly lived in one culture, people on the Right in another. (This process only got worse in the 1980s, and still deteriorates.) Certain exceptions are made for persons of proven social graces. A few on each side are allowed on certain polite conditions to penetrate the circles of the other. A few mischievous persons, knowing exactly where the limits are, could always light fuses by saying with feigned innocence in a left-wing crowd something kind about Reagan, the Religious Right, Jesse Helms, or pro-life demonstrators; or, at a right-wing table, about Teddy Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, feminists, and how this country is taxed too little. In the circles of the Left during this period, guests from the Right would feel like social climbers admitted to the inner sancta of this culture’s movers and shakers.

In the circles of the Right, guests from the Left would usually feel as though they were slumming. Reagan with his Hollywood glamour changed that a bit, but not much. The contempt for him at the heights was wonderful to behold. (Not that this really mattered. Clare Boothe Luce once explained that a movie star who became president had an occupational advantage: Early in his career, a Hollywood veteran like Reagan had learned the difference between box office and the critics, and being secure in the former he could cheerfully be kind to the latter.)

And yet something funny happened to The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics on the way from its basic thesis about the “new ethnicity” of the 1970s to the “multiculturalism” and “diversity” of the late 1980s. My friends in the university began to send menacing dispatches from the front saying that I had to do something, my book was being cited in favor of some of the absurdities they were now witnessing on campus in the name of “multiculturalism.” From having been excoriated in 1972 for daring to divert attention from “blacks, women, and the poor” to such forbidden subjects as cultural diversity and “ethnics,” by about 1992 I was being quoted in roughly the same quarters in support of that new beast called “multiculturalism.” Setting aside the “honor” of the attribution, I abhor the new thing and disavow the allegation of paternity. A few important distinctions should not have been missed.

This is adapted from the Introduction to the 1996 Transaction edition of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics.

Published in First Things September 1, 2006

A Footnote on Welfare Reform

The year 2006 may for most people mark the tenth anniversary of the 1996 Welfare Act, signed by Bill Clinton, after he had vetoed two previous efforts, and just before crucial midterm elections that November. Some supporters apologized for him before his Democratic critics that he was forced into it, and many Democratic party leaders ripped into him for condemning a million or more poor kids to poverty. One even imagined gangs of very young poor children roaming the streets. Two distinguished Democrats once close to Bobby Kennedy, and old friends of mine, Marian Wright Edelman and her husband Peter distanced themselves from the Clinton administration when Peter resigned his high-level post at Health and Human Services in protest of the proposed reform. For my part, I always gave Bill Clinton credit for the substance of his act, signing the bill into law, whatever his motives. On large matters, substance makes all the difference.

So I was happy on August 22 to see Bill Clinton in an op-ed in the New York Times taking credit for signing the bill into law and for all the good things that have happened since. Especially the reduction in black poverty and the poverty of black children. And most important of all to the future, the decline in out-of-wedlock births.

For my part, though, I have been celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the welfare act, because in 1986 some twenty colleagues and I, Democrats and Republicans, from the Left and from the Right, got together in what we called a project in “social invention,” to see if we could agree on what went wrong and what went right in the War on Poverty during the preceding twenty years and then invent a battery of proposals for reform that we could all agree upon.

Since, naturally, no one is giving our study group any credit for changing the field of play with our left/right consensus, and our new definition of the problem, I think a footnote to history might be within the bounds of modesty and candor, especially since I cherish our work on the commission as one of the most important projects in which I have ever cooperated. Maybe a few of my colleagues do, too.

Let me pause here to mention their names. It was Michael Horowitz who put us up to it and insisted that I ought to be the moderator and drafter of the agreement, precisely because I was the least expert in the bunch on the material to be studied, and the least involved in mutual arguments among the professionals in the field. John Cogan, an expert’s expert, was made co-chairman to make some crucial decisions and to add some professional solidity to the public presentation.

Our great colleagues included Alice Rivlin, Robert D. Reischauer, Stanford Ross, Franklin D. Raines, Richard P, Nathan, Lawrence Mead, Charles Murray, Donald Moran, Michael Stern, Blanche Bernstein from New York City welfare studies, Douglas J.Besharov, Barbara Blum, Allan Carlson, S. Anna Kondratas, Leslie Lenkowsky, Glenn C. Loury, Richard John Neuhaus, and our brilliant young staff researcher and drafter was Karl Zinsmeister.

We began by studying the War on Poverty and compared its stated aims with what it actually achieved during its first 20 years. The book was published in 1987, to quiet but virtually universal acclaim—it won a cover story in The Economist. In our testimony before the U.S. Senate, both Republicans and Democrats praised it firmly and solidly. Senator Moynihan wrote of it quite warmly: “Rarely does a work of scholarship attain to statecraft. The New Consensus on Family and Welfare does that and more. It compels agreement and arouses energies where all has been dissentience and resignation. A wondrous work.” Perhaps one reason he liked the study so much was that it focused most on the family, not on the individual. Most works at that time didn’t, although all through Moynihan’s career he had singled out the family as a central axis of sociology, even when he was swimming against very powerful tides. Our study helped to turn that tide. It was not alone in that, but it was significant.

• We were the first to make prominent the term “dependency” as a better indicator than “poverty” for what was going wrong. Many people (immigrants from Africa and Asia, for example) who had income below the poverty line had high morale, worked hard, and were rapidly moving up the economic ladder. The problem of many of those young and healthy adults over twenty or so, who didn’t move up, was not really lack of money but some inability to become independent and govern their own lives, let alone to care properly for those who were necessarily dependent upon them.

We noted along with this that welfare programs for the elderly had really altered the lives of the elderly for the better, and dramatically. Many were now living more independently and comfortably than ever before. Many were now also living far beyond sixty-five, so that a new word had to be coined for those over 85: “the elderly elderly.” Yet the same welfare reforms had been disastrous for the young family, partly because increasing numbers of the young did not even form families. “Single, never-married” had become a larger and larger category in the profile of the poor, as also did “Single householder with children, never married.”

• We showed how it was reasonable to discuss illegitimacy as an issue without racial invidiousness, since it was now afflicting whites in larger numbers (although, of course, at lower rates) than blacks. It could be found in growing numbers in white rural communities, as in Iowa, Nebraska, and the like. Besides, whatever one’s moral feelings about illegitimacy, no one could deny that it was becoming financially very costly for the government, for the hospitals, for youth unemployment (or worse, unemployability), and for the criminal justice system. Once you turned your attention to what was going on in different types of families, the facts spoke with lightning and thunder in their stark clarity.

• We demonstrated for the first time that if a young couple did three things (this was the part that The Economist liked best), they had about a 93 percent chance of moving out of poverty:

– Complete high school (after all, it’s already mandatory, and it’s free)

– Work full time year-round, even at the minimum wage

– Get married and, even if not on the first try, stay married

Couples who did these three simple things had less than a 7 percent chance of remaining in poverty. You could look it up in the federal tables under “Characteristics of Poor Families, Households.”

• Then, looking toward the future, and a new period of social invention, we proposed about seventy different reforms in government legislation and regulation, as well as practical initiatives for active, caring citizens who mean by “compassion” not a feeling but a sharp eye on results.

As usually happens, today we get very little attention for our early arrival on the battlefield, but we did bring a lot of attention to Governor Tommy Thompson and many other local officials who were racking up success stories. We took care to spread the book on the Hill and to both the Bush I and Clinton White Houses.

Since our book was bipartisan and gave plenty of evidence for each assertion, and each new definition of terms, it became part of the common understanding, working like yeast in dough.

It was a good piece of work. The reforms that followed ten years later, under President Clinton, and then their almost immediate and still growing success—justly celebrated by his op-ed with facts and figures—vindicated our analysis, prescriptions, and predictions.

The project is a source of great satisfaction to me personally, because the experts provided the facts and arguments, while Karl Zinsmeister and I merely wrote up what they provided and got each sentence revised until it was approved by the whole group, sentence by sentence. We did not leave a sentence until everybody approved.

What we aimed at was consensus, with complete agreement and no minority reports. It was a thirty-Excedrin-long and painstaking project. It took a certain amount of diplomacy and, most of all, honest reporting of what people in the field had learned and were now willing to stand behind in public. It took great bipartisan generosity on the part of all who participated.

Looking back on it, I think bipartisanship operated as protection for everybody. No one could score partisan points, and everybody worked to make sure that what we were all going to publish under our own names had solid intellectual support. What we were finding was not then common knowledge, and many on all sides were prepared to be opposed to our analysis and our proposals. In our group, everyone’s reputation was at stake.

On publication, astonishingly to many people, our main arguments carried the day almost universally, although of course at various points disagreement continued, quite properly.

When we finished our report of our findings to a Senate hearing, and submitted to a long round of questioning, one of the senators (I think it was Senator Dole) looked at the political range of our group and said, “Well, if you cowboys and ranchers can be friends, I think we might rustle up support in both parties over here, too.” The domestic side of the White House cabinet, including President Reagan, met with us for a seminar. They concurred that they would welcome a bill from the Congress along these lines but doubted the time was quite ripe for the whole Congress to go that far. President Reagan said such a bill would fulfill the third of his original promises to the nation, which he had not yet been able to get to: welfare reform.

I should end by thanking the Bradley Foundation for its support, and especially the visionary advice of Michael Joyce; and also Marquette University and the American Enterprise Institute, which both turned over to us space for all-day meetings during the year 1985-86, on those occasions fed us and paid for many costs.

Ideas really do have consequences. But they often take a long time to gestate and mature. One of the great satisfactions about working at a think tank is to watch this maxim at work, over and over again.

Published in First Things August 23, 2006

Did I Make Two Mistakes ... or One?

In my blog on Bobby Kennedy, I know I made one mistake, and at least two readers have written the editors (not me) to allege that I made another one, “a terrible error.” The mistake I know I made was to give the wrong name to the great little journal of the Methodist Church, edited by the very smart and gentlemanly B.J. Stiles, Motive magazine. My 73-year-old memory is still photographic, but when I need a clear picture, I don’t have enough film. My memory came up with Momentum magazine. Wrong name. Very sorry. Especially since Motive also published my wife Karen Laub-Novak’s sixteen prints on The Apocalypse and pointed out that Laub-Novak was the first artist since Dürer to create so ambitious a series on that book. They are powerful prints. She executed them in Rome and is still selling them (a few favorite numbers are sold out or virtually so). You can see some of Karen’s work on our joint website,, and on her own website,

The “terrible” error I am accused of is that I mixed in the Protestant and agnostic W.B. Yeats among the “Catholic writers” of the twentieth-century Catholic Renaissance. Well, I confess that I would have been more guarded if I had separated one long sentence into two sentences: the first on Yeats, as a favorite of Gene McCarthy, and the second on the Catholic writers in whom Gene was so well read.

Still, a blog is a conversation, not an academic essay or a public written lecture. In one sentence, I first mentioned Gene’s special love for Yeats (at least for reciting whole reams of Yeats, forty-five minutes at a time, from nothing but memory). Then, in the same sentence, I went on to offer a selected list of some of the Catholic writers who gave him great pleasure and much enlightenment. Not many in our generation, certainly among politicians, were equally literate in their faith. There were a few thousand, maybe; a good community, but not a large percentage of all graduates of Catholic or other colleges.

But really, when my own eyes were opened to this powerful literature—at least four or five Nobel Prize winners in the set—I remember being struck by the capacious sense of “Catholic” used by my professor Fr. Joseph Keena, C.S.C., himself a student of the legendary Frank O’Malley of Notre Dame. I remember his including C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and others who were not actual members of the Catholic Church. He included them because they manifested a respect for the thickness of the Catholic imagination–not exactly correct doctrine and not necessarily a flawless moral life—in fact, sometimes a quite scandalous moral life.

It would take me too far afield now to define what we meant then by “the Catholic imagination.” We certainly would have agreed that William Shakespeare, whatever his personal affiliation, exhibited a Catholic imagination and sensibility; so did Alexis de Tocqueville, whatever his exact formal relations with the Church. But our real interest lay with the Catholic Renaissance of the twentieth century. We found Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and the medieval studies of C.S. Lewis to be marvelous, and sometimes rollicking, definitions of the Catholic imagination. Chesterton, in paraphrase: Catholicism is a thick steak, a glass of stout, and a good cigar. And analogous expressions in Sigrid Undset and Leon Bloy. (“This place reeks of God!” the latter protests against one Catholic setting, whose sensibility disgusts him by its narrowness.)

I would not assert that Frank O’Malley or Fr. Keena listed W.B. Yeats as a Catholic writer. But I would even then, back in the 1950s, have enjoyed the challenge to show convincingly how Catholic his imagination was. And today I judge his imagination, after more experience of my own, to be even more so than I might have seen then.

Obviously, others disagree. Is that not the beauty of literary studies? We try to define standards and definitions, and then we argue where x fits with w, y, and z.

It would not be a bad time to define again, as we yield place to a younger and smarter generation, “the Catholic imagination.” And to see how many would include Lewis, Eliot, Yeats, and others among the artists who express that imagination in their work. And how many would, by contrast, limit their list of Catholic writers to the formally inscribed, the orthodox, and the relatively virtuous (or at least repentant).

Published in First Things August 18, 2006

Dear Heather...

Heather Mac Donald opens up one of the most important arguments necessary for this nation to face soon, that is, What is the relation of atheism to Jewish-Christian belief? Her immediate wish is that there were more respect for atheists within the Republican party, or at least a diminishment of her feeling of being an “outsider,” which she now often feels when there is—if I may put it this way—“Christian talk” in the air. She is “bewildered” during times in which President Bush speaks of God in a personal way. Again, she doesn’t understand how Christians can thank God for the recovery of an unharmed kidnapped child but not blame God for those times when a kidnapped child is not recovered, but horribly abused and viciously killed. No matter what God does, he is clung to either way. This is, she said, a “double standard” worthy of the worst aspects of affirmative action.

She also regards speech about “natural law” as a kind of mysticism. At the same time, she writes in a later blog that the main point she wished to make in her earlier article is that atheists like her don’t need belief in the biblical God in order to maintain certain ethical principles by reason alone, in the light of experience, and thus in a “conservative” manner. But this is exactly what many of us mean by “natural law”—the law discovered by reason alone, without revelation.

The Ten Commandments, for example, long Jewish and Christian intellectual traditions hold, are discoverable by reason alone, but as a short cut also by revelation. That short cut is very helpful to those who are neither philosophers nor abstract reasoners. The short cut seems to them like common sense, perfectly reasonable in the light of common experience. (Tocqueville even adds that the short cut by way of revelation is also convenient because it tells people what to do now, without waiting to sort out all the arguments of competing philosophers, whose arguments sometimes seem never to end.)

I very much like Heather’s main point, about the common strait in which believers and unbelievers often find themselves. She even points out that from the outside—if she never told you she was an atheist—you might easily think that she held values very much like those of other Christians that you know. (“What do they lack but churches, these atheists of our generation, to distinguish them from being Christians?”—if I may again paraphrase Albert Camus, as in an earlier blog a few days back. As if anticipating an objection, Miss Mac Donald brushes aside the old argument that atheists are simply living off the spiritual capital of a distinctive Jewish and Christian civilization.

“Miss Mac Donald,” rather than “Heather,” that is no doubt the way I ought to have been addressing her since the top of this piece. After all, we have met only glancingly in a large meeting, and it would seem I have no right to use her first name. Yet I have so long been in internal conversation with her writings, and so frequently admired her steadfast realism and intellectual bravery, that the formal address seems untrue to the conversations my mind has had with her. After reading an especially sharp point made by her, I mentally exclaim to her: “You go, girl!” And friends are likely to ask, “Did you read Heather today!” A blog is a kind of conversation, a conversation of minds, and that is why so often in them first names replace formal address.

A roundabout way of saying that the rest of what I write here is intended to be personal—not secret, but still one-to-one. The question Heather has raised is the most important one humans can address in each other’s presence. For the difference between Jewish or Christian belief and atheism is so profound that it utterly shifts the axis of one’s personal life. Conversion stories tell us that—in both directions, from belief to atheism, and from atheism to belief. And thus to address these matters openly requires a personal and somewhat mutually trusting circle.

I would hope that my earlier blogs—read here, here, and here—have made clear the kinship I feel with serious atheists. I am certain (from experience) that we walk very much in the same night. On the other hand, what it means to walk “in the presence of God” is so all-embracing a presence, so weighty, that it places one’s life on a wholly new axis, which is difficult to clarify. Let me begin by trying to place myself in Heather’s shoes, if I can at all do that.

If the words of George Bush bewilder her, as when he says that his foreign policy is much affected by his Christian faith, it seems to me that she must often have had to bracket, as well, the words of Washington, Lincoln, virtually all our presidents and Congresses, and even the language of many of our founding documents. Is she bewildered by “endowed by their Creator” and the Declaration’s other words about “Nature’s God,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” and our nation’s “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence”?

I think that atheists must often feel like outsiders with regard to a certain dimension of our national experience. That does not make them any the less true and good citizens. But it must cause a twinge of pain now and again, as obviously President Bush’s occasional religious language does, and perhaps the even heavier use of religious language by President Clinton. (The two presidents seem to have had a different personal relation to their own religious words, however—or is that only my errant imagining? It is in any case possible that a different personal relation to particular words results in two different reactions by the public.)

Sometimes in the questions raised in Miss Mac Donald’s article, it seems that she is thinking of God as though he were just a larger-than-life human being, or another item in the inventory of the universe. I don’t think she quite feels the overpowering sense of God’s sovereignty over all things, painful or pleasant, virtuous or perverse, in human experience. She must think this way, because her point of view places her in judgment over God.

Thomas Jefferson felt this overwhelming sovereignty of God over all things, because he wrote (in his bill for religious liberty in Virginia) that no sooner did a person become aware of the proper relation between creature and Creator, to whom the creature’s very existence is owed, than the creature becomes aware of a self-evident duty to worship and give thanks to so infinitely superior a Being. On that inviolable duty is based a right, in whose exercise no one whatever—not parent, not friend, not foe, not state, not even civil society—may legitimately interfere.

To grasp this relation of awe, thanksgiving, and worship owed to the Creator is to place ourselves under his judgment, not him under ours.

I feel that I am not making my words here nearly clear enough.

Although neither the atheist nor the believer actually “sees” God, not with the naked eyes nor even with the eyes of the mind, the believer has felt the earth shift under her feet. The axis of her identity is no longer what it was. One cannot see other things in the same light as before. Everything is somehow altered—while in another way, nothing has changed. If the believer did not reveal it in so many words, one might never perceive that the believer is really a believer. (A really good friend who is an atheist may from time to time probe a little: “Do you really believe that…? What do believers really mean by…?”) Unless the atheist had learned from earlier conversations about one’s own faith, and the manner in which to discuss it, he probably would not know for sure, nor care, what we believed. From the outside, we are all just human beings doing our best.

In the twelfth century, when the lost works of Aristotle were finally uncovered in a library in Spain, and especially Nicomachean Ethics, it became evident that Aristotle, the pagan, had described a quite noble and brilliantly thought-out approach to human ethics. That system, as it were, came to be referred to as natural law, in order to distinguish it from the pattern of ethics discernible in the Bible. This was discernible by reason alone, as distinguished from reasoning derived at least in part from revelation. One of the points on which Thomas Aquinas is held in such high repute in Catholic circles is his careful exploration of the stretches of territory that lie between reason and revelation, giving full validity within their own sphere to the discoveries of reason alone.

Can a man be good apart from revelation and the grace of Christ? Thomas answered, as he almost always did, by making a distinction (his method was “distinguish in order to unite”): If you mean, can a man be good within the boundaries of the civitas, make a good citizen, be a good person according to the canons of reason, then the answer is yes. Just look at Aristotle. There’s some of the evidence.

But if you mean, Can a man be saved without the grace of Christ, the answer, alas, is no.

What it means to be “saved” is to be invited into the love and friendship of God, and that capacity is far beyond anything we have in ourselves. We need to be enabled to dwell in that relationship by saying “Yes” to God’s invitation to us, and by welcoming in ourselves the superabundance of living in God’s presence. When we are living in active friendship with our Creator, it is a delight to take up the duties imposed on us by that unimagined, undeserved friendship. These duties do not contradict those we discover by the use of our reason alone (and that we call the natural law). But they go far beyond those duties and invite us to participate in an inner life far beyond our poor powers to conceive.

The fundamental question of our age is this: Can humans really maintain a civilization if a predominant majority live etsi Deus non daretur, as if there is no God? If there is no God, humans are likely to live one way, at least in a few boundary territories, such as life, family, and daily, humble self-sacrifice. If there is a God (the true God, no false gods before him), at least some—and not altogether minor—decisions are likely to be taken in a quite different direction, along a different axis.

The answer to the question “Who am I, under these stars, with the wind upon my face?” is quite different in the two cases. To choose not to believe is to choose for oneself an identity quite different from the identity of one who chooses to believe.

Both choices, springing from the most profound of inner sources, are worthy of infinite respect. From the Christian and Jewish point of view, the Creator himself set before every single individual this inalienable choice and thus gave to every human being a dignity higher than that of any other creature on this earth.

This difference in radical choices is, therefore, the epicenter of human dignity. Each person is created free. This fact demands more than tolerance—more than the mutual agreement, for reasons of peace, merely to put up with (tolerate) each other. It requires, not tolerance, but something higher—mutual respect.

Published in First Things August 16, 2006

Bobby Kennedy: The Secular Saint

In about March or April of 1968 (is it really so many years ago?), I received a call in my Stanford office asking me whether I could meet with Robert F. Kennedy in San Francisco on his first trip to the Commonwealth as a presidential candidate. I said yes, for Bobby was already my favorite among the Kennedy brothers, the one I felt a closer bond to. But the invitation also troubled me. One night at the beginning of the year, all over California, election parties were being held at candlelight dinners to gather signatures so that Eugene McCarthy would run for the presidency, and I had been among the minor-level instigators of the effort.

At that point, Bobby was not running, and it looked as though no one on the sane anti-war side would challenge Lyndon Johnson. In addition, Senator McCarthy was a close friend of mine. We had met and talked a number of times, both of us “Commonweal Catholics,” and from the first talked as old friends talked, citing the same books and similar experiences. Gene had attended St. John’s in Collegeville and was an exceptionally literate and gracious Catholic. He had read with pleasure and intelligence hundreds of serious Catholic works by Claudel, Peguy, Yeats (maybe most of all, Yeats), Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, G.K. Chesterton, Belloc, Maritain, Yves Simon, Romano Guardini, Sigrid Undset, Heinrich Böll—all the writers of the “modern Catholic Renaissance.” Thus, if Bobby invited me to join him, I would face a painful dilemma.

The Senator from Minnesota’s Catholicism didn’t think much of the unlearned “Southie’s” Boston-style Catholicism. McCarthy wanted to blaze a new path for Christians and Jews in public life. A path of learning and poetry and joyous fun.

The day after the phone call, I was met at the San Francisco hotel by John Seigenthaler of the Nashville Tennessean, who ushered me up to meet Senator Kennedy. Either he told me, or Bobby told me, two things. The first was that my article in Motive magazine, a Methodist journal then edited in Nashville by B.J. Stiles, had had a profound influence on Bobby’s decision to get into the race. The article was called “The Secular Saint” and made a case for a kind of heroic existentialism, beyond the then prevalent value-free liberal realism.

The second was that I was among the first people Senator Kennedy wanted to see on his first day in California. Even then I knew enough to discount what a politician says in passing praise, even a political leader with such clear and penetrating and vulnerable eyes.

The bottom line was that Kennedy asked me to join his campaign. He urged me to help, especially among the young, among whom he said I had a certain influence. He asked if I could first go up to Oregon for the campaign—the campaign would pay the fare and put me up and provide transport. He wanted me then to help him in the truly decisive campaign in California.

“I’ve had a talk with Mayor Daley,” he told me, in whose Chicago the Democratic Convention would be held, “and he will not support a loser. I have to win in California. I have to win California.” He looked into the distance (something he often did while talking with others). “Then I have to persuade him I am going to win in November. Odd how it’s two totally different campaigns, winning the nomination, winning the presidency. I’ve got the job of my life winning California. But then it will be even tougher, going into November. But it’s doable. Can I have your help?” He turned those clear blue eyes full on my eyes: “Will you help?”

I told him I had urged Gene McCarthy to throw his hat in, and that it would be hard for me to abandon him now. I asked for twenty-four hours to think about it. Both the candidate and Mr. Siegenthaler respected that. They said they would be hoping for a good answer the next day.

Even at that time, I was thinking of the working-class ethnic wards of Chicago, Milwaukee, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other cities, and of the need to unite both blacks and working-class whites. If not Bobby, I couldn’t see who else could do it.

Later, after Bobby’s assassination, and Hubert Humphrey’s defeat of Gene McCarthy at the convention, it became clear to me that Humphrey could also unite those two wings of the Democratic party. But earlier that summer, because of a visceral disgust that rose in me from a silly talk on the Vietnam War that Humphrey had given on the Stanford campus (which I have described in Politics, Realism, and Imagination), I could not envisage Humphrey as a candidate. For months, I could not support him.

Reflecting on the primaries already concluded, it seemed to me that Gene McCarthy was doing better in the suburbs—energizing a whole new type of Democratic electoral “machine”— but was not doing so well in the “ethnic” cities that preoccupied me then. (I believed then, and still believe, due allowance being made for changing times, that they are the key to presidential politics.) The more the elite press sneered at Bobby as “ruthless,” the more it seemed to me that white ethnics were flocking to him. If he was an s.o.b., so much the better, because they had already decided that it would take some really ruthless s.o.b. to straighten out the way the Democratic party—and the country’s elites—were marching backward in the name of “progress.”

I loved Gene McCarthy. The verb is not too strong. Many an evening, before and afterward, he would sit in our living room after dinner and respond to the invitation to recite some poetry—especially Yeats—and he would demur, and wisecrack, and then launch out into thirty or forty minutes of long ballads he had committed to memory. He had the perfect Irish voice for the part, understated but full of music. Occasionally, he’d stumble on a line and have to begin it again. Once or twice a tear would appear in his eye at an especially affecting part. “Michael, do we have time for another one?” he would ask. “Just this short one,” he would rush on with a smile. He loved reciting poetry and had too few occasions for it. He much preferred poetry to political speeches, but at the latter he also excelled.

I had to telephone Gene that night to tell him I was switching to Bobby, and why. He was wounded, I could hear it in his voice. From such as me, especially, he expected better. But the gentlemanly senator never let that deed of mine injure our friendship. He still came to our table for many years afterward for an evening, after dinner reciting poetry.

So I called back Mr. Siegenthaler in the morning and said yes. That is how I came to campaign for Senator Robert Kennedy in Oregon (and had to be corrected during my very first outing how to pronounce the name of the state). It was the first primary that Bobby Kennedy ever lost.

At the end of the California campaign a few weeks later, I had another call from the Kennedy campaign, inviting me to join the senator and his traveling staff in a small plane at the San Francisco airport for the ride down to Los Angeles. I was thrilled, but my wife had two babies at home, the youngest only nine months old, and it seemed I really ought not to go. Later that evening, after it was clear that Senator Kennedy had won, I went to the other room, the children being asleep, and then heard Karen shouting out to me to come quickly to the television. There he was, in replay, falling under a sudden shot, on his way out to the arena, in the midst of his closest staff. I would have been among them, relative outsider though I was. Plunging downward from the exultation of a decisive electoral victory, it was a sickening, devastating night, and morning, and night again.

A few days later, I was lucky enough to sit quietly at the funeral at St. Patrick’s to take the family funeral train down to Washington and to attend the sorrowful burial in Arlington Cemetery. Is my memory deceiving me, or do I remember a priest from Ireland presiding at the grave and calling Bobby Kennedy a saint for his efforts for the poor and downtrodden? It was a note I did not like.

Yet in my mind, Bobby was, in fact, a kind of “secular saint” such as I had described in the article by that name in Momentum. True, I had in mind people even more secular than he, who show compassion and do good deeds and work with hope. They may be secular and yet they act as Christians would want to act. How can that be, not to believe, and yet to act as though one were a Christian? Albert Camus pondered that puzzle.

In Bobby’s case, I tended to agree with Gene McCarthy. Bobby seemed to me, like his brothers, Catholic by birth, habit, and perhaps even sentiment—but not by intellect or the learning appropriate to his station. One wondered which serious religious authors he or his brothers had read, if any.

Thus, in a sense, Bobby, too, struck me as a “secular” saint. He seemed to touch a lot of nonbelievers in a highly moral, aspiring way. It is said that “at the heart of Christianity lies the sinner.” So I am by no means arguing that Bobby Kennedy was sinless. We didn’t know then about his liaisons with Marilyn Monroe. Yet even if we had, some of us would not have been too hard on his weaknesses in certain areas, but more inclined to look upon his sheer raw guts and the burning determination of his eyes when he glimpsed something he had to do and fight through, whatever unknown difficulties he must face.

In those days, I was fascinated by the overlap, in actions at least if not in words, of many people I knew, some of who were believers and some unbelievers. The latter seemed to me, in action, far more Christian or Jewish than they would admit to being. (They certainly were not nihilist nor even amoral, and not relativist nor morally indifferent.) And the Christians seemed to me to live in a deeper, darker night than they much speak about, closer in many ways to unbelief than to belief—at least so far as feelings go. There are many days when the believer, trying to become conscious of God’s presence within, feels nothing at all, sees nothing at all.

Sometimes it is easier to act as a particular way of life demands than to say one believes in it. And it may be a quite noble way of life, indeed.

Let God sort us all out, I used to think (and still do). He sees it all more clearly.

Published in First Things August 12, 2006

Belief & Unbelief, Part III of III

Allow me to pick up a thread I began to weave in our last conversation. My experience is that believers and unbelievers live in a darkness that is remarkably the same. More than once I have been in conversation with a respected scholar who confessed to me that he would like very much to believe in God, but when he looks, he finds nothing at all, only silence. I have sometimes replied that that is pretty much what I have found. Nothing. Silence. Once or twice I have quoted for my companion some texts from St. John of the Cross, about the nada y nada y nada. St. John writes in poetry of his much-sought Lover:

My house being now at rest. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday, to the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.

It is the teaching of St. John of the Cross that the mature Christian ought to expect to dwell in the darkness. And he offers some guides for doing so. (These guides go back to the First Epistle of St. John, mentioned in my previous post.) When the mind goes dark, one can with confidence fall back upon acts of kindness toward one’s immediate neighbor. Love is a dim but steady guide when the light fails.

Sometimes I have also told the story of the drunk who is looking intently up and down the curb under a street light. The policeman on the beat, before hurrying him along, asks him what he is doing. “Dropped a half-dollar. Looking for it.” The cop hesitantly asks, “You sure you lost it here?”

“No,” the drunk says. “Down there,” waving down the dark street.

“Then why aren’t you looking down there?”

As if deeply pained, the drunk looks up at the cop incredulously:

“Any fool can see there’s more light up here.”

If you are looking for God, it makes a big difference what you think you are looking for, and where you are looking. If you think God is going to show up in the searchings of your senses—some voice or blinding light or scent or taste or touch—you are bound to be disappointed. God isn’t like that. He is not like the golden idol of Baal. The senses are not his wavelength, so to speak.

If you think you might be able to imagine him, sorry—can’t be done. Except by little children. (“Where is God?” the nun asks her second-grade class. “Louise?” Louise shakes her head, but Mary Margaret is waving her hand. Called upon, she blurts out: “In the bathroom.” Amused, the sister asks Mary Margaret, “And why do you say that?” “Because every morning my father knocks on the bathroom door and yells out to me and my sister: ‘God, are you still in there?’”)

That leaves you with the best efforts of your mind. You try to form a coherent, plausible concept of God. Sorry again. God is not on the same wavelength, so to speak, as our poor minds. He is much more full of intelligence, light, and benevolence than our minds can handle. Approaching his vastness, our minds blow out like a 120-volt hairdryer in a 220-volt socket. Or worse. No one can conceive adequately of God. Any concept we form will be found to be conspicuously ridiculous.

By the effects of his intelligence and efficacity in the universe, which our minds try to grasp, however, we are led to aim our minds in a certain direction, like arrows that are bound to fall short. We are led toward awe. Wonder. At times, silent admiration. And by the drive to push further. As if like deer in the wood, we run swiftly and somewhat in panic toward the infinite.

“Our hearts are restless, Lord,” St. Augustine addressed the Creator of the sun and all the nighttime stars into which he stared on the shores of the Bay of Tunis. “And they will not rest until they rest in Thee.” That is to say, one path along which we aim our arrows upward is by reflection upon the quarry our restless minds seek, and upon the working of our own minds as they relentlessly pursue. “I sought Thee everywhere, and when I found Thee, Thou wert within.”

I remember a British-American journalist telling me—a man who often says he is a hater of God, a man who attacks religion with delicious ferocity again and again—that one argument that almost does convince him about God is the mystery of our own conscience. Why do we cling so to telling the truth and seeking out what is true amid all the lies? Why do we have so fierce a longing for justice and such burning outrage at all the myriad swamps of injustice that life drags us through? Why, that is, if everything is at bottom meaningless? If it is all random? Then who the hell would care about honesty or justice or outrage? That would all be wasted breath, a bit of utterly pathetic histrionics. A very silly pose.

“That is,” he intimated, “almost enough to turn me toward God.” But, instead, he is sickened by the hypocrisy of the religious, so he turns back from his most promising lead.

Yet what on earth have the moral failings of others to do with what he himself pursues with all his heart? With what he himself decides to make of his own life? So long as there are only a dozen just men, or even one just man on earth, the teeth of his original question still cut into the flesh. How are we to account for the persistence of a burning sense of justice and truth and, yes, even love in this bitter world as we know it?

As I said at the beginning, neither the believer nor the unbeliever actually sees God. But they do reason a bit differently about what their own experience presents to them. They understand their own destiny under these stars, with the wind on their faces, a little differently. Perhaps, most strikingly of all, they reflect quite differently upon their own inner experience of the relentless drive to understand within them, and their striving for truth, for justice, for love.

They read the clues differently. But neither one actually catches sight of the quarry they ardently pursue. This fact—that they both stand in darkness—is not often brought to attention and meditated upon. It is pregnant with clues—about, for instance, how humbly we ought to proceed.

Published In First Things Online August 10, 2006

Belief and Unbelief, Part II of III

Writers who call themselves atheists have often surprised me by their reasons for not believing in God. In the long history of humanity, of course, their unbelief is an anomaly, a distinctly minority position. Even Clarence Darrow once said that he certainly did not believe in the Jewish or Christian God, but any damn fool knows there is a force and an intelligence that has shaped the universe we live in. But a few others, oddly, do not even believe that much. I remember once reading a book about atheism by an atheist, who after considerable study of the situation in the United States wrote that (I forget the exact number) something like 70 percent of those who call themselves atheists do actually believe in a force or energy or ordering intelligence within the natural order. If that is what “God” is, they believe in God. They say “atheist,” it seems, to distinguish themselves from being Christians or Jews. For a similar reason, some call themselves “naturalists,” as if Christianity and Judaism mean “supernaturalist.”

One reason I have often encountered for not believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus runs like this: As long as there is even one orphaned child, who uncomprehendingly sobs alone in the dark, I will not accept a God who permits such a world to exist. I refuse.

Another reason I have heard is this: Any God who would throw human beings into unmitigated torture in hell for all eternity, just because of a minor infraction of some silly taboo, is a being to despise, not to accept.

Doubtless there are other reasons besides these two. A full inventory would make a marvelous anthropological study. Yet, the tribe of atheists worldwide is, after all, a small one. Check out the estimates for the religious beliefs of humankind published in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Despite the efforts of communist Russia and China to coerce people into atheism, the number and the proportion of atheists are still impressively small. To return to the two reasons for unbelief given above: The first is a rather odd one. The inquirer assumes a position of moral superiority to God, as a person more intelligent, more pure, more noble, more compassionate. It suggests that the inquirer cares more about the child sobbing in the dark than that child’s Creator and Father does. That would certainly be odd.

The second objection, concerning hell, evinces a most primitive notion of hell, and also of what constitutes a sin. A sin, writes St. Thomas Aquinas, is an “aversio a Deo,” a turning away from God, a turning away from Light, a deliberate and fully considered turning away from the light, however dim, of one’s own conscience.

From this it follows that hell is the utter absence of God, made fully conscious to the unfortunate one who with full deliberation excluded God from his life. In his lifetime only dimly aware of the vastness of God’s love for and friendship toward humans, such a person recognizes too late that it is only by his own personal choice that he forever cut himself off from the presence of the Divine Lover. It was pride that led to his total isolation, cold and dark. Pride that led to a fully considered and deliberate choice to live as though there is no God.

No one can complain about being in hell. Hell cannot be entered inadvertently but must be deliberately chosen. The choice that constitutes it is to exclude deliberately the God of Love from one’s own heart. It is to push away the extended arms of the divine friendship.

Some choices, like diamonds, are forever.

In a word, if the rest of us had the same notion of God as such atheists seem to have, if their words are to be trusted (and are not simply rationalizations), we would reject God, too. That is, if God had less compassion than we for those he has created. And if God out of pettiness chose hell for some, rather than giving all a personal choice to accept or to reject his eternal presence in their lives.

Intelligent people, one would think, would spend a little more time in inquiry before squeezing tight to such primitive notions. The real scandal is that atheists appear to think so shallowly about God. But the worse scandal is that believers do not inspire in atheists much desire to inquire more deeply.

Still, for curious minds, let me propose a path to investigate. One might, for example, take Christians at their word; check out the First Epistle of St. John, for instance. There St. John writes that no one sees God. How do we know, then, that we love God? Certainly not just by uttering the words. “No one has ever seen God; but as long as we love one another God will live in us and his love will be complete in us” (I John 4:12).

And again: “A man who does not love the brother that he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen” (4:20). St. John has much more to say in this epistle. But questioning this much is a good first step.

Not even a fully believing Christian, an Evangelist, then, can claim to see God. The Christian is in as much darkness, really, as the atheist. So the atheist uses Ockham’s razor and cuts away the excess babbling about what cannot be seen, and just sticks to the darkness. The believer is not surprised by the darkness but interprets it very differently.

Granted that we all live in darkness, even the atheist must decide how he should live. Many in our generation claim that they are every bit as moral as the Christians they know, and maybe even more thoughtful about the needs of others and more compassionate.

In that case, maybe they should go back to another line in St. John’s first epistle, near the end of the New Testament: “God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him” (4:16).

So many of the atheists of our generation do in fact live (at least in many respects) as though they were devout Christians or Jews. What do they lack but churches or synagogues, to distinguish themselves, so far as praxis goes, from being Christians or Jews?

That was the question Albert Camus put after watching the secular saints of his generation sacrifice themselves under conditions of war. That was the paradigm he sketched in the life of the heroic Dr. Rieux in The Plague.

If you listen to their words, they are atheists. But if you watch how they actually live, they are Christians or Jews.

Recognizing this paradox in his own conduct, Jean-Paul Sartre committed himself to scrupulous efforts to live as a true atheist. He tried his best not to draw upon Jewish or Christian capital. He tried to eliminate every trace of Christian or Jewish faith from his practice, even from his thoughts. This task, he wrote, took full-time concentration. Even he, Jean-Paul Sartre, when not on guard, on a truly fresh May morning in Paris, in the brilliant and fragrant air, was tempted to utter a silent “Thank God.” Or in a time of acute danger, to cry out for help. Each time, he had to stop himself.

It is not easy to live as an atheist all the way through.

Published in First Things Online August 9, 2006

Belief & Unbelief, Part I of III

People who call themselves atheists often say rather strange things about people with faith—things like, “Well, if you need the comfort, go on and believe.” An odd notion, that there is “comfort” in faith. Serious believers often don’t find it so.

Actually, it has sometimes seemed to me that the persistence of horrible evils in the world creates no discomfort at all for consistent atheists. Why should the world be otherwise, since everything springs from absurdity, chance, meaninglessness? For that matter, the obviousness of great evil in the world is often used by atheists to account for their atheism.

It is the believer who suffers great pain internally in coming face to face with horrid poverty in Haiti, and in the heat of swarming, overcrowded Bangladesh, and with images of human brutality and sadism, generation after generation. For the believer holds that God is good—all-seeing, all-powerful—and yet he allows so much human suffering to continue.

Who feels in tumult internally about evil in the world—the believer or the unbeliever?

And who feels discomfited when seasons of dryness and aridity blow through the soul, when no God appears, when there is in imagination, senses, memory, and intelligence no presence of God at all, no sign, only nothingness?

If it is comfort that you seek, do not go to belief. Stay with those who take malicious pleasure in chance, meaninglessness, and nothingness “all the way down,” in what Richard Rorty calls “nihilism with a smiling face.”

And feel superior to those so weak they still need the “comforts” of belief.

Published in First Things Online August 2, 2006