Salt Lake Debate

Jonathan Last was happy with most of my post on Mormonism the other day, but he did object to one point. Before holding that a person’s religion is fair game for public comment during an election, I had written, it would be necessary to make a number of distinctions and to make explicit a number of assumptions. Last then asked whether these criteria had been met by the words from Father Richard Neuhaus that he had cited before, which appeared in First Things last April: I believe that many Mormons are Christians as broadly defined by historic markers of Christian faith. That does not mean that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christian. It is indisputably derived from Christianity and variations on Christianity, but its distinctive and constituting doctrines are irreconcilable with even a very liberal construal of biblical Christianity. It is, as Rodney Stark and many others have argued, a new religion and, by the lights of historic Christianity, a false religion. It is true that there are Mormon scholars who are working mightily to reconcile the LDS with Christianity, and one wishes them well, but they have their work cut out for them. It is not an unreasonable prejudice for people who, unlike Alan Wolfe et al., care about true religion to take their concern about Mormonism into account in considering the candidacy of Mr. Romney. The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.

Last found this quite satisfactory even according to my criteria, and asked if I agree with it. Actually, I do not agree with it. I did not want to get into all that in replying briefly to Last’s first post. I would just as soon not argue publicly against a dear friend like Richard, but challenged on it twice in the pages (so to speak) of his own online blog, I think I must.

To begin with a little historical background. Often, the Founders of the United States used to distinguish between true religion and false. The question of truth was important to them. When it came, though, to explaining how religious liberty in America would actually work, the Virginia Assembly voted against adding to the phrase “the Holy Founder of our religion” the clearly identifying name, “Jesus Christ.” They did so exactly because they had gone far enough in identifying the source of their own reasoning about conscience, they thought, a clearly Christian way, not found in other world religions. They did not want to go so far as to limit the reach of this reasoning only to Christians, but wished to make Muslims, Buddhists, and even nonbelievers feel at home here, too.

When General Washington asked Charles Carroll of the Continental Congress what Catholics would want from a new independent state, Carroll replied without hesitation “No religious test for public office.” The whole Carroll family had been barred from public office in Maryland where there was just such a religious test, intended to bar Catholics like the Carrolls.

To this tradition Fr. Neuhaus is adding a new test: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? Of course, any private citizen is free to invent any new religious test that he desires, in deciding whom to support in an election — but one would hope that he would be restrained by canons of good judgment, prudence, and concern for the public good. If Mitt Romney would make a great president, why deprive the nation of his services? And if he does become a great president, he would give a lot more credibility and prestige to the United States, and to religious believers in general, than simply to his own church. In any case, why should any of us begrudge the Mormon church the satisfaction of basking in the glory earned by one of its sons? In fact, as one of my Jewish friends puts it, contemplating the strong families and good citizens that Mormon families tend to produce: “Hell, I’m voting for Romney because he is a Mormon.”

Would the prestige of the Mormon Church rise with a good performance by Mitt Romney? This is true of the close associations of any and every president of the United States, of whichever faith, or of none. This new test is not constitutional, and if it has been employed at any time in our presidential history I am, except for one possible instance, unaware of it. During the election of 1800 some parties, asserting that Jefferson was an atheist, on that (false) ground urged that he be rejected by the electorate. He was not. He became president, and not at all a bad one. (It is probably true that Jefferson was the second or third least religious of the top one hundred Founders, but he nonetheless supplied the Marine band at public expense for the largest Sunday religious service in the United States at that time, held for some years in the U.S. Capitol building.)

The example Father Neuhaus gives as a reason to oppose a candidate because of his religion is this: Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? I feel fairly certain here that Neuhaus does not object to voting for presidential candidates whose faith he does not consider “true” in the full sense that he considers the Catholic faith “true.” The distinction that I suspect he wishes to make is between theological views concerning the nature of God, the human community’s relation to God, and the conscience and dignity of the human person, on the one hand — on which matters he is less comfortable with Mormons — and, on the other hand, those theological views that include God’s relation to political and social matters, and perhaps even to those moral matters that are of necessity regulated by public law, such as abortion and euthanasia.

Much more would have to be said here. The short version of it is this: I agree that questions may well be raised in good faith about a person’s religion in respect to some doctrines of that religion that bear upon social and political matters and public law. For instance, it once seemed to me permissible to inquire whether the Quakerism of Richard Nixon would, on pacifist grounds, prevent him from leading the country during a just war; except that, in that case, Nixon’s prior record rendered such a question moot. A presidential candidate’s religious views on capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, the taking of peyote, and other such public issues would seem to be legitimate grounds for raising questions or clarifications. It seems legitimate, too, to question a Muslim about his take on jihadism, suicide bombers, threats against cartoonists, shar’ia law—and about a new conception of Islam showing its compatibility with this republic’s own laws and institutions. I construe all such tests as tests of political and social policy, and perhaps legal and public moral policy.

I think it is not right to ask a candidate to defend each and every ruling of his church in the past. The Kennedys pressed matters of past history during Romney’s race for the Senate, and even more recently. And then called it “off limits.”

Thus, although I have agreed with Father Neuhaus on most matters for a great many years, I do not, alas, agree with the views he stated in the two paragraphs (above) which Last asked me to evaluate. But I can imagine Father Neuhaus coming at some point to endorse Governor Romney for president, if the race goes in certain ways. I do not take the questions he raised eight months ago as his final word.

In another vein, a writer in The Weekly Standard, a former Mormon, urged publicly testing candidates even about purely theological matters — transubstantiation, baptism by immersion, circumcision, and other particular practices or beliefs of various faiths — just to see how, by the criteria of Enlightenment and liberal correct reasoning, the candidate “reasoned” about such matters. This, I think, makes Enlightenment and liberal political philosophy a new orthodoxy. And that test would provide a very narrow gate into republican self-government. By that test, only a small part of the population of the United States might pass. Most Americans have a much larger definition of “reason” and the “reasonable” than that.

Meacham Nods

Jon Meacham (Newsweek) makes two related errors in his criticism of Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech. Meacham is the author of a good book on the subject, American Gospel. He is also a fair-minded thinker; so these two errors represent odd lapses. First, Meacham corrects Romney for a misreading of John Adams. But it is actually Meacham who misreads Adams. Romney takes Adams’s phrase “religion and morality” to mean that the two are interrelated, since each reinforces the other. But Meacham says Adams regards “religion” and “morality” as separate. However, no matter what Meacham or I may believe today, it is certain that Adams did not hold that morality could long endure without religion. It certainly could not for most people, and probably not even for a single individual.

For proof of this, one need only inspect Article III of the Massachusetts Constitution, in whose writing and passage John Adams was both an intellectual inspiration and (from Great Britain) an energetic supporter. Article III obliges every jurisdiction in Massachusetts to provide for religious schools and funds to pay for them. Adams argued that this provision did not violate religious liberty, since it coerced no one to believe in religion. If, however, citizens valued the sound moral habits and law-abidingness inculcated by Christian schools, they should pay for them. Good morals are necessary for a republic, more so than for a monarchy. And religion — for most people — is needed for the inculcation of morals. That is why religion is essential for a republic such as ours.

Actually Adams’s private views were even stronger. He challenged his friends to name a single denier of religion who was not a “rascal” — whether in history or in present-day America. No one in the Founding period — not even Thomas Paine — thought that atheists were morally reliable. Nowadays, Meacham and I believe otherwise. But it is not right to impose our views on the Founders.

II The second error made by Meacham lies in his and Romney’s quote from Washington. That quote is: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

Meacham holds that for Washington, religion and morality are “separate.” But this is not quite exact. In the sentence following the one Romney and Meacham quote from the Farewell Address, Washington wrote: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of a peculiar structure, reason and experiences both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”

Some editorialists in 1796 held that in referring to “minds of a peculiar structure” Washington was alluding to Jefferson. In any case, like Adams, Washington allowed that some few may be able to live morally apart from God, but he doubted very much whether most people, left to themselves, could do so. A few humans may live by reason (at least some of the time), but most people most of the time live by their passions, as David Hume and other philosophers had earlier observed. That was the common view in 18th-century America.

III For those who can afford the time, I append a few relevant quotations from John Adams and one or two others, to capture the views of crucial Founders more exactly.

a.) From Article III of the Massachusetts Constitution: “As the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by . . . public instructions in piety, religion, and morality . . .”

b.) From Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” [Emphasis added.]

c.) John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (November 4, 1816): “The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion. . . .”

d.) John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (June 28, 1813): “The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite. . . . And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence. Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.”

e.) John Adams to F. A. Van der Kemp (December 27, 1816): “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty, sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be a great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”

f.) John Adams (in his diary): “One great advantage of the Christian Religion is that it brings the great Principle of Nature and Nations, Love your Neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you, — to the Knowledge, Belief and Veneration of the whole People. Children, Servants, Women and Men are all Professors in the science of public as well as private Morality. No other Institutions of Education, no kind of political Discipline, could diffuse this kind of necessary Information, so universally among all Ranks and Descriptions of Citizens. The Duties and Rights of The Man and the Citizen are thus taught from early Infancy to every Creature.”

g.) John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817): “Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company. . . . The most abandoned scoundrel that ever existed, never yet wholly extinguished his Conscience and while Conscience remains, there is some religion.”

h.) John Adams to Zabdiel Adams (June 21, 1776): “Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”

i.) And it is always wise to check the judicious Tocqueville for an outsider’s perspective: “It is the product of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one another but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvelous combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. . . . Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws . . .”

Published in National Review Online, December 13, 2007

Victories and Defeats


What a thrilling victory for democracy was wrought in Venezuela on Sunday, December 2. Despite being blacked out on television and nearly drowned in a smothering red sea of banners and signs exhorting, “Vote Si! for Chavez,” the people of Venezuela voted No! to virtual dictatorship. It was a brave vote. A vote that seemed to have had in advance little chance of success. Nonetheless, democracy won, and dictatorship lost. A very hopeful sign for the world.


A victory for beauty has also just occurred, just a block down the street from us, and also about three blocks away — the blazing dark red of two small sugar-maple trees, such a deep red and so late in the season as we have never seen before. On December 2, even under a grey sky, these perfectly shaped trees still carried a full complement of leaves, brilliant against the tall, dark trunks of the almost denuded trees around them. To be sure, even the taller trees bore a fire of leaves until just a week ago. Never have we seen the brave leaves hold out so long, displaying for us weeks of gradually intensifying color.


Defeats are what we fans of Notre Dame football suffered through in unprecedented numbers during the season of 2007. No Notre Dame team in more than a century had lost so many times — nine out of twelve. Nonetheless, in some ways this might have been the most impressive season yet. The team was very young. They made a slew of mistakes, too many in almost every game. Right up to the last game, which they won (against Stanford, at Stanford), the Blue and Gold fumbled three times during the first quarter, two of those near the Stanford goal line, and stopping cold two highly probable scores.

At the end, though, the freshman quarterback was at last infusing his own passion into the game, and demonstrating remarkable self-possession. The freshman tailback gained more than 100 yards for the third straight week. The freshmen on the defensive and offensive lines began to show patches of real strength. Coach Weiss seemed duly humbled, willing to learn, and protective of his guys. After a nerve-racking loss to Navy in the third overtime, the whole Notre Dame team trotted across the field to congratulate the Navy team and their delirious fans in the visitors’ corner of the stadium. That was a show of class and generosity of spirit quite moving to all who saw it.

And I did get to see it — plus the losses up at Penn State earlier in the year, and Boston College. This was the first time since my high-school years on the Notre Dame campus (1947-51) that I had seen so many games in one season.

One of the great things about sports is learning to lose. Anyone who has played a lot of games knows what it is like to lose a good share of them, including some heartbreaking important games. It is not so much that such experiences “build character” — rather, they let you live out the fact that what feels like death, the taste of ashes in one’s mouth, is, after the pain subsides, only an episode. Resurrection follows. One can at least strive mightily for that, even in this one arena.


For the first week of Advent, when the Christian calendar begins a New Year, one month before the secular calendar, the very learned and intelligent Pope Benedict XVI sent round a Letter on Hope, as the greatest gift Jewish and Christian faiths brought into Western (and now universal) history. The expectation of a future better than the past. The knowledge that the Creator of all things has invited human beings into His friendship, not by coercion but by their own free will. This gift is better than any other on earth.

Recently, I visited the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, to listen to a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza on atheism. This is the first debate that I have ever heard Christopher lose. In it, I heard Christopher describe his own view of the world, which may be abbreviated as follows: It was just 100,000 years ago that humans finally appeared on this planet. On average, these poor creatures died by age 25, and suffered (often horribly) from disease, earthquake, flood, famine, and cyclones — not to mention murder and warfare. Only after some 96,000 years does Jewish history begin, and only after some 98,000 years does Christian “salvation” come. For all those thousands of years the Creator/Designer left human beings to suffer. Then, even after Judaism and Christianity arrive, the suffering continues almost unabated. In addition, these poor human beings are badly designed. They have developed too much adrenaline, and the frontal lobes of their brains are too small. All these together leave humans in a bleak condition in a bleak world, and with very little hope. Who is responsible for this bad design? Hitchens blames the Creator.


Benedict addresses these two points and many others. Benedict agrees that the condition of humans before the Jewish and Christian news of God’s intentions was as bleak as Hitchens says. The idea of progress was not present in consciousness. The idea had not yet been born that the Creator is a Person of goodness, reason, and friendship, especially disposed to those creatures He created free (as Jefferson noted). And that God wanted to invite humans into His friendship. The idea that each human is free in his individual conscience — not the conscience solely of city, tribe, or even family — had not been introduced. The idea that the human mind is proportioned to the world as it is, and capable, in the image of the Creator, of creating new inventions, discoveries, and means of progress in history, had not yet been grasped by the mind of humans.

Yet, Benedict notes, there is still more than this. Even the human capacity for invention and technological progress, we find, is not a consistent bearer of hope. Humans remain both free and also drawn to self-love, arrogance of power, irrational ambitions, and moral decadence (see Federalist 6). Thus, at any time even instruments of great good can be turned into instruments of unparalleled evil. Of this we had much evidence during the 20th century.

But humans need a reason to hope for justice, truth, and love. They need a reason to go on. In dire circumstances, this reason must be able to count on more than the human capacity to deliver. For the reality is that all human beings suffer from deficiencies and evils of all kinds. Yet the horrific evils that millions experienced in the last hundred years required more than logic, science, and crazy utopian ideas. Hitchens and others are free to accept or to reject the hope that Judaism and Christianity implant in the souls of many. The fact is that this Jewish and Christian hope, once it became the driving force of Mediterranean and European civilization, produced an unrivaled and enduring burst of optimism, inquiry, and stunning progress.

The atheism of the last two centuries, Benedict observes, is distinctive in its moralism. It chooses the pretense of being more moral than the Creator of all things. It holds that the Creator ought to have come up with a better design. They would have done it more brilliantly. Brave new world, and all.

Judaism and Christianity have the advantage of dealing with the world as it is. They take it with all its hurt and folly, stupidity and egotism, natural disasters and disasters by human hands. Both faiths prepare their daughters and sons to face a vale of tears, to meet much suffering equably, to keep their hopes unbroken no matter what, and to show courage worthy of the children of the True God. For both faiths, suffering is an irremovable fact of life. Nonetheless, suffering may be alleviated by tender care for the poor and the ill, and suffering can transform human beings from empty suits to practitioners of heroic service to others. Judaism and Christianity have given hundreds of millions of human beings–in the Socratic word — “chest.”

Since both the light of reason and the light of faith emanate from the same Source, the intelligent Creator of all things and would-be Friend of His conscious creatures, they cannot in principle contradict one another. If they appear to do so, either those using reason or those using faith are making mistakes, and need to go back to see where the errors arose. This very check-and-balance — this creative rivalry — sparks a remarkable thrust forward at the heart of our culture.

Hope, an overriding confidence in betterment (personal and communal), is a powerful driving force. Even many who claim to be atheists retain at least this gift from the infusion of Judaism and Christianity into the heart of our culture.

Benedict praises atheists for many of their intentions and achievements. He points to experiences the human race has endured in our time to call attention to the inadequacies of atheism. He proposes what billions have found a more promising path.


Those of us who hoped for the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy, and predicted it early in the conclave, now have in this encyclical on Hope, and his earlier letter on Caritas, more than enough to fulfill our high expectations. Both “letters to the world” confront central crises of our time, for whose solution nihilism, relativism, and atheism provide far too little help.


On the subject of victory and defeat, bleakness versus hope, here is my favorite story from Peanuts: Charlie Brown is swinging the bat — strike one, strike two, strike three. Lucy tries to comfort him: “That’s all right, Charlie Brown. You win some, you lose some.”

Charlie Brown thinks it over. “That would be wonderful!”

Published in National Review Online December 5, 2007

Hail Mary, Full of Grace…

Ave Maria School of Law is one of the newest law schools in America, and yet already it has produced some of the highest bar passage rates in Michigan in the last four years. It is widely regarded as a successful attempt to fuse the vocation to law with the broader vocation of a Christian under the auspices of training for the legal profession. Recently, however, I came across a link (one to a Professor Bainbridge) that accused the dean of Ave Maria School of Law (AMSL) of “bad faith” in turning down two (out of five) tenure petitions and dismissing a tenured professor “for cause.” Some “Catholic and other Christian” law professors (of whom Bainbridge is one), in particular members of the “Mirror of Justice” website, signed an open letter in support of allegations against the dean — even though many noted that they did not know all the facts. I am not at the School of Law, and not on its board of governors. But I am on the board of trustees of Ave Maria University in Florida — which is now building one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation. The university board is hoping that by the fall of 2009, pending approval by the American Bar Association, the school of law in Michigan will move to a place of honor at the university’s 5,000-acre campus. The two independent institutions, each under its own separate board, have not yet decided upon the exact nature of their affiliation. Speaking for myself, I will be delighted to have such a high-achieving school of law nearby, whatever the final affiliation. The Naples bar is also said to be delighted by the school’s decision.

Some of the professors at the temporary campus of the law school in Michigan are looking forward to the law school’s move to Florida. Others, however, may not want to move. In fact, three or more have indicated that they might under no conditions heed the decision of their board of governors.

The two who have been denied tenure (a normal event in a law school) have been given a year’s leave of absence on full pay. “Mirror Of Justice” calls this a “suspension,” but it seems to me a generous offer by their Board, which will carry them from now until the late summer of 2008, better even than a sabbatical year.

I do not know the “cause” behind the dismissal of the third professor mentioned in the complaint. But it seems natural to ask myself, in the present heated climate: Apart from any specific charges of misconduct, what if this professor had decided not to move, and was in addition doing everything possible to obstruct the Board of Governors’ announced decision, as well as undermining Dean Dobranski’s authority? Of course, I don’t know all of the facts, but this seems a question worth asking.

The Mirror of Justice accusations don’t seem to measure up. For one thing, I don’t understand how those who signed the public letter denouncing Ave Maria School of Law fail to consider — or even to present for others — the relevant background on both sides of this unfortunate dispute. Their statement has a prosecutorial ring, and yet it appears to be based on little evidence. Making such accusations, particularly against a school with a Board constituted by two Roman Catholic Cardinals of vast practical experience (Maida of Detroit — and now the Vatican — and Egan of New York), eight other distinguished persons, of varying professions (mainly the law), plus two de jure members, suggests a need for disclosure. Instead, Mirror of Justice has failed to disclose the facts (or has insufficient evidence), and nonetheless proceeds as though in a prosecutorial manner. In fact, it has been publicly reported that one of the signers of the Mirror of Justice statement has been retained to help make a case against AMSL before the American Bar Association.

On the other hand, — — the law professors who claim to be defending due process, should in all fairness, I think, report the reasons behind the decision made by the Board. Without knowing a lot more, how can outsiders form a just opinion? I certainly cannot.

Among the information that seems necessary for a just opinion to be formed, on the part of the Board, the MOJ webpage, and outsiders, is the following:

1.) What is the underlying issue at AMSL that divides some disaffected faculty from the Board of Governors and the Dean? Underneath everything else, is it the fact that the Law School is moving from Michigan to Florida? Admittedly this must be a difficult upheaval for faculty members with families.

2.) What is the actual position of the Dean and the Board of Governors on this decision? What are their reasons for so deciding?

3.) Does MOJ want the legally taken decision of the Board of Governors to be rescinded? This is an important question. Law professors have competence in academic matters, including tenure procedures, but do not have competence in the fiduciary responsibilities and due diligence of the Board.

4.) Is it false — or true — that one or more faculty members pledge to break away from the present law school if the Board of Governors does not rescind its decision? If they do that, what is their case for the school’s survival?

5.) In such a fight, is the Board not hindered in its own self-defense by its rules of confidentiality, as compared with plaintiffs seeking to create such public havoc that the Board will sue for peace? It is important to note that Board members are permitted to say very little. Administrators are quite limited in what they may say publicly about personnel decisions.

* * *

A propos of the bitterness of the Civil War, the grandpa of an old philosopher-friend of mine from West Virginia once explained to his grandson, “Ain’t no hate, son, like Christian hate.” It has been my experience, alas, that the two groups of people who turn quickest to sheer burning hatred are passionate political extremists, when they have just been rejected, and passionate pious men of stern “principle,” when an important decision has gone against them.

In both cases, utter certainty about their own virtue allows the aggrieved ones to find no other explanation for their defeat except the imagined perfidy of the other side.

On the whole, I have found it best to steer clear of such hornets’ nests. Sometimes, though, a violation of fairness seems so flagrant that one feels a duty to ask all contenders to step back, slowly examine the evidence on all sides, hear the best arguments from each, and then try to go forward in fairness and justice. Law professors, above all, should wish to hear both sides of a case. So should we all.

Some very good people have gone public in this dispute. It seems important for all to listen more systematically to those on the side opposite to their own.

Published in National Review Online October 7, 2007

Notre Dame Downers

Last weekend as a birthday present to myself I drove with a football friend up to Pennsylvania for the Penn State v. Notre Dame football game. Phil (an alumnus of Notre Dame) and I drove two hours north from Washington and then stopped to spend the night at one of America’s great inns, the Mercersburg Inn. There we enjoyed a marvelous (and expensive) dinner. We were upgraded to two huge, magnificent rooms, each with a high, canopy-covered king-size bed — with enough space to make going into the john part of a daily exercise plan. The next morning, after an enormous breakfast, we drove another two hours up to Penn State.

Mrs. Novak is not a believer in sports. Despite all my prayers and fasting for her, she doesn’t have the faith; she doesn’t get it — and she thinks spending money to go long-distance to a Notre Dame game is a bit collegiate, and not exactly acting my age. Fortunately, I have a lawyer friend who loves the team as much as I do.

Phil and I parked our car in the lot of another lawyer friend up in State College, and then were packed in with his family to drive a mile or so to one of the country’s greatest tailgate parties. There seemed to be mile after mile of them — but luckily our friend’s tailgate was tucked up quite close to the stadium. The game was not until 6:00, and we started feasting about 3:30. We didn’t make much of a dent into the abundant supplies.

Our lively and friendly hosts intended to return to the tailgate for another party after the game, and while eating and drinking, wait jovially until all the traffic moved out. In the shadow of Mount Nittany, it truly is Happy Valley!

Now to the game itself. After seven and a half glorious minutes of holding a 7-0 lead, Notre Dame began to be steadily, slowly, but inexorably ground down. The young offensive line was greatly improved over the week before. But, promising as they are, several were simply outmatched play after play. Notre Dame just could not run the ball at all, and freshman Jimmy Clausen, the most heavily recruited quarterback in the nation, dodged a heap of sacks and fell to a number of others.

Some of these sacks were due to Clausen’s own self-discipline, it seemed to me. When his receivers were not completely open, he didn’t pull the trigger and let go. He took few chances. He saved his fire, mostly, for sure things. He seemed to have a number-one priority: — no interceptions, no fumbles. I kept criticizing him during the game (my friend Phil chastised me: “Michael, he’s only 19”). Later, I thought back and admired his intense self-discipline. Clausen can throw quick, and he can throw long. He dodges blitzers pretty deftly. And he runs quickly when he spots an opening.

By the end of the game, the score was 31-10, Penn State. After the first half, it wasn’t really that close. Notre Dame never did score an offensive touchdown. Their one TD was a 70-yard run on a hard-won interception, a long and spirited run helped along by superb down-field blocking. That was about it, except for a great punt-return by Zbikowski down to the Penn State 7. The only score to come from that was a field-goal.

As you can see, those of us who love Notre Dame football are bracing ourselves for the possibility of eight straight losses during the first two months. Still, it could amount to Charlie Weis’s best year of coaching — to keep teaching the young guys, watch them improve tangibly week by week, hold their spirits high, and press their efforts to the hilt. It’s going to be very tough on him. The “offensive genius” has been lacking an offense for almost twenty quarters now, going back to the end of last year. Talk about dark nights of the soul.

Alas, Phil and I could not join the tailgaters at the end of the game. Instead, in pitch darkness we had to drive over the mountains for another two hours back to the Inn. Hair-pin turns, very slowly descending big rigs coming down the mountainside. As if in recompense, the innkeeper was still awake, and brought us each a cold beer and a sandwich to take the stiffness out of our bones. Two newlyweds sneaked upstairs while we were sipping the last of the beer, and we shouted congratulations. Not sure they even heard.

It was a fantastic weekend, despite the (expected) loss. My friend Phil even suggested that we stop off at his family’s new winery just south of Frederick, Md., at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain. It is called the Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, and if you ever get a chance to buy a case of their 2006 Circe, walk away with one of the classic red wines. Almost as good to my taste was the Comus (Comus is the son of Bacchus), mostly a merlot, with a bit of cabernet sauvignon.

I am not normally a lover of Chardonnay, but Sugarloaf’s is so light and clear that it is a “chardonnay for people who don’t like chardonnay.” I liked it better than their Pinot Grigio, although that, too, is no slouch. I liked the tasting so much that I bought a mixed case of all four of my favorites. The lineage of most of these is from the Bordeaux wines of France, and the rolling hills of Maryland on which the vineyards are planted bask in the sun all day.

Visiting the winery would make a superbly colorful October trip, and the tastings alone are worth it. The country views are extraordinarily refreshing to the soul.

Back now to my daily worries. For one thing, I am a bit worried about this Saturday’s game at Michigan. I will not be surprised if the team’s play improves yet again. Their spirit seems higher than Michigan’s, even if they lack Michigan’s experience and abundance of offensive talent.

“Improving” is not nearly as sweet as “winning.” But there are years when talent and character are hardened and burnished by adversity for a later break-out. Not unlike grapes being crushed for a very good wine.

Published in National Review Online September 13, 2007

Religion and Economics, Again

Many falsely contrived stories have appeared in recent weeks about huge gains in the proportion of national income taken by the top 1 percent of income earners (those earning about $328,000 or more per year). The truth is rather different, as Alan Reynolds has pointed out in a recent analysis for the Washington Times. The government keeps records only of pretax income. It doesn’t record income after taxes. For the government, pretax income remains the same, whatever the different tax rates imposed upon it. That is the first bit of dishonesty in the usual run of talk about income: Government figures get used that do not include taxes paid. Cuts in tax rates are castigated—without also noting that these lower rates bring in higher amounts of taxes.

The second common slipperiness ignores the fact that tax cuts influence incentives and behavior. Depending on which category gets better treatment in the tax code, alert people tend to shift their income from category to category. When, a few years back, taxes on personal income were higher than taxes on corporate income, many writers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, athletes, and artists incorporated themselves and counted a large part of their income as corporate income—a simple move that lowered the taxes they had to pay.

One advantage of the recent tax cuts is that tax rates on personal income fell to levels equal to or below corporate income. Thus, many alert taxpayers shifted their tax strategy. They moved out of their self-employing corporations and now take their income as direct personal income.

This shift significantly raised the total personal income that the highest 1 percent now report. On this greater base of income, they have now been paying more actual tax dollars than they have ever paid before. They also began to pay a larger proportion of the personal income taxes paid by all taxpayers put together. In other words, the shift in tax strategies creates an illusion of the top 1 percent having gained more income than they actually have. It is an illusion generated by an accounting device—and, in any case, the wealthiest 1 percent are now paying higher personal income taxes than ever before. And taxes paid by corporations are also higher.

These taxes are higher, naturally, because both the highest earners and the corporations are gaining higher income than before. From this higher income, they are helping to create new industries and new jobs. At 146 million today, the number of employed have jumped by twenty million since 1992. The explanation Reynolds gives (with greater detail and accuracy than this poor theologian is able to imitate) sheds clear light on three important outcomes that have been officially reported. First, the raw income reported as personal income by the top 1 percent has, in fact, taken a significant jump. Second, the proportion of all the personal income paid in taxes by the highest taxpayers has jumped from about 13 percent in 1988 to about 17 percent in 2005. Third, the proportion of all personal income taxes paid by the top 1 percent has jumped even higher. They used to pay 18 percent in 1979. They now pay 37 percent.

For my part, I prefer to see the wealthiest 1 percent reporting all their personal income as personal income. In this way, they greatly increase the base number on which tax rates are imposed. In addition, I prefer to see them pay the IRS a larger sum of dollars than ever before. I like it, too, when they send in a larger proportion of all the income taxes paid by all the rest of us. Finally, I prefer the top 1 percent to spend their gains for new research and new development. I prefer them to launch many new sorts of businesses and many whole new industries never seen before. From about 1980 on, these new investments have brought us new industries in personal computers, cell phones, faxes, iPods, high-definition television, cures for heretofore incurable genetic diseases, and the like. That is the way that employment grows—by creating new industries never before seen.

Without such sources of new wealth, there would be many fewer successful charities and philanthropies in the United States—and many fewer new buildings on our campuses, and many fewer new technologies in our hospitals and clinics. There would be fewer endowed chairs and fewer privately funded fellowships and scholarships. There would also be a great many fewer jobs, and a static or declining economy from which everyone would suffer.

Still, seeing rich people get richer makes some of my center-left friends really sad. My father taught us never to envy the rich but to feel sorry for them and to pray for them—because, he said, too many of them lead artificial and unhappy lives. It is better, he thought, not to have too much money. It is better to need to work hard for what one has.

Maybe he was just reconciling himself to his lot. But experience has proved to me that his words contain an important bit of wisdom.

Published in First Things June 13, 2007

Christian Socialism Is Dead! Long Live Christian Anti-Capitalism!

I keep reading through Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Tikkun, Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, and the parallel writings of the far Catholic left, and I fail to pick up much hankering for the old essential characteristics of socialism: the abolition of private property, the government-managed economy, and at least the pretense of economic equality. Even the soft versions of Christian socialism that Reinhold Niebuhr once cared about have disappeared, like old books and faded drapery put out of sight, upstairs in the attic. Still, the general flirtation with anti-capitalism seems not to have lost its attractions. It has always infected aristocrats and artists—all the better sorts of people. The ever-ready slogan “The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer” still has some power to stir the jaded indignation.

Even when the facts run to the contrary. As when one reads behind the statistics that are bandied about in newspapers and magazines. If you recall that income, as the federal government counts it, consists mainly of earnings from work, you will probably be able to think very quickly of quite a number of poor persons in your family or your immediate circle of acquaintances.

I remember my children filing income tax returns in college days while earning substantially below the poverty line in each of those years. Quite a few graduate students with two children are also below the federal poverty line; even if their spouse works at least part-time, they are still below it or not very far above it.

Then there were my mother and my wife’s mother, widows whose yearly earnings consisted mostly of investment income, plus a source of cash that doesn’t show up in poverty statistics: social security. Both owned their homes outright—no mortgages to pay, just taxes and utilities. Medicare covered medical expenses, which also is not counted as income by the feds. So both of our mothers and three of our children (at least in those years) counted as poor.

I have also met retired professors whose income stream has stopped except for social security and pensions (some of these more ample, some rather small). But they, too, own a little farm not too far from campus, debt-free. They live very comfortably but still show up as poor, or very nearly so. One can have modest wealth and still live cash-poor.

Think of the growing proportion of widows in the United States (since males die younger than their mates). Think of the several million women with children, no husband present, about half of whom do not have a job. These two categories of women alone make up a very large percentage of all the nation’s poor.

In all these cases, improved employment figures and a booming economy do not much affect the income of the poor, since nearly all of them are no longer participating in the workforce. Meanwhile, subsidies from government do not count in the federal poverty statistics. Even if all the subsidies together lift a person above the poverty line, officially that person still counts as poor.

There is one other wrinkle in the poverty numbers worth ironing out. In the lowest 20 percent of the population by income—the bottom quintile—about a third are above the poverty line. And all those in the bottom 20 percent are exempted from federal income taxes—and so are all those in the next higher quintile, too. The lowest 40 percent of income earners are exempted from federal income taxes.

Here those on the left always scream in rebuttal: “Yes, but they are still paying social security taxes (payroll taxes).” True, but these are only deferred earnings, returned to the payer after age sixty-five. The social security tax is a kind of enforced savings. Unless the earner dies too young to receive benefits later, he will receive more than he put into it.

By the way, the top quintile of income earners paid 44 percent of all payroll taxes in 2004 (the last year of reporting). In other words, quite a bit more than their share. And quite a bit more than the lowest quintile. The top 20 percent also paid 85.3 percent of all federal income taxes. Our tax system, say what people will, is highly progressive.

The fact that our tax system is progressive also shows up in the fact that, in 2004, the bottom quintile received 34 percent of all federal spending, well more than their share. The second quintile received almost exactly its share, 22 percent. The other three quintiles received less than their share: 16 percent for the middle quintile, 13 percent for the fourth quintile, and 15 percent for the top quintile.

Since most income taxes are paid by the top quintile—more than 85 percent—nearly all arguments about tax rates are arguments about which portions of the top 20 percent are going to pay a slightly higher part of the burden. It is a matter of adjusting the weights on the top twenty (out of a hundred) pairs of shoulders.

Despite the fact that the bottom four quintiles—80 percent of all earners—pay only 14.7 percent of the income taxes, any deduction of a few hundred dollars per year in the tax burden of each of them is much appreciated and quickly used. Still, any adjustments in this huge 80 percent base do not much affect the income flowing into the IRS.

In April 2007, the IRS received more tax dollars than in any month in its prior history. The new tax policies of the last few years are soaking the rich heavier than they have ever been soaked before. The rich are paying a larger percentage of the income tax than ever before (85 percent in 2004, compared to 65 percent in 1979). They are also paying higher amounts of raw dollars each year—but they have not been complaining.

Perhaps you have felt it in your own experience. If offered a thousand dollars for a freelance job, when the federal and state taxes were going to take $550 or more in taxes, it didn’t hurt much not to undertake the travel and the fuss. But when the government takes only $300 and leaves you $700, it feels like an obligation to your family, kids, and grandkids to accept it. Incentives affect decisions.

Since tax rates are lower than before, the rich gladly pay larger amounts of tax dollars at lower rates, than paying fewer dollars at higher rates. They hate the disincentives of the higher rates. The low rates make paying taxes hurt less. Meanwhile, lower tax rates also encourage fresh investment, to create even greater wealth (and later to pay even more dollars in taxes).

This seems to me a win-win-win outcome. The government gets higher and higher revenues; the rich pay higher and higher amounts of tax dollars; and the standards of living of the poor rise more quickly, as their rising percent of all federal spending—two years ago, 34 percent—brings in an ever more plentiful stream of actual dollars.

It seems to me that an economic system that works like this is far better than any prior economic system in history, whether landowning, agricultural, traditional, or early industrial—let alone the Mickey Mouse socialist systems of Eastern Europe and China. Whatever its faults, the American economy has proved itself capable of absorbing about ten million new immigrants every decade, nearly all of them poor, and helping them to rise out of poverty by themselves within ten years.

In fact, close study shows that if any American does the following three things—works even at a minimum wage all year round, stays married (even if not on the first try), and finishes high school—his or her chances of being poor are only 7 percent. He or she has a 93 percent chance of moving out of poverty fairly quickly. The vast majority of individuals at the bottom sure keep doing that, decade by decade. The actual population at the bottom keeps changing and churning.

Most of our poor do not stay poor. Most stride upward through the various quintiles decade by decade.

If you think about this concretely, I bet you can see how this has been happening through the history of your own family and those of childhood associates.

It really is not necessary, you know, to be anti-capitalist. That is just a tic from times past.

Published in First Things Online June 6, 2007

America and Its Dead

You can see them at many grave sites where the War of Independence was fought, and the battlefields of 1812, and the Civil War. You can see them at the Alamo. You can see them arrayed now in rows of crosses and Stars of David below the purpled hills of Anzio, and on the long sweeps of the green fields of Normandy. You may find them still at Flanders field, and all across the Pacific islands and atolls. This nation is thought to be entirely future-oriented. In fact, we look backwards very often, like a rotating wheel upon a stagecoach turning down again and again to fundamentals. We ride the revolutions up and away, and then ride back to first principles.

Memorial Day is one of many annual occasions to do so, publicly and liturgically, with prayers and patriotic discourses.

I have always loved to learn the basic facts about our dead. Age, hometown, names of spouse and children. I try to imagine what their lives, untethered from early death, might have become. Insurance salesmen like my father? Harried doctors in rural or urban clinics? Teachers? Pharmacists, lawyers, engineers, truckers, pilots? I wonder, Would they ever think that their years spent at war were wasted? Or would they think that these had been the most meaningful of all the things they ever did? Or would they have wanted not to think back on the sufferings and horrors of those difficult war years?

In any case, their deaths put me in mind of a Marine Lieutenant Colonel these very days in Anbar Province, Iraq, on his second tour of duty there (the first having been in 2004-2005). Very much alive, and very much committed to his mission, this brave man explains that he faces what he faces today, on behalf of his eleven-year-old son. The Marine father has seen up close the cruelty, barbarity, and ceaseless ferocity of the enemy of free Western peoples. He believes his job now is to defeat them there. And to defeat them soundly enough so that another generation of Americans will not have to return to do the job again. He says he does it so that he can look in his mirror in the morning, and see a man faithful to his principles no matter what the cost to himself. If not him, then who? If not now, when? If not here, where?

Such a day as this is not a day to argue politics, above all the politics of the present much-disputed war. The sunlit point this Marine officer’s life does bring out, however, is the connection between Memorial Days and first principles.

As Lincoln said at Gettysburg in 1863, not long after some 49,000 Americans lay dead, wounded or missing in just three days of fighting, the war dragged on:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. ... But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who fought here have consecrated far above our poor power to add or detract. The world ... can never forget what they did here. ... We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Death, remembrance, resolve, and a new birth of still living, still beloved first principles. That is what Memorial Day is about.

The words “under God” which Lincoln inserted into his Gettysburg address, one of the greatest of his public prayers, he almost certainly picked up from his perusal of the General Orders that General George Washington issued almost daily to his troops, which Lincoln had studied, in order to learn how to give such orders himself.

On July 2, 1776, the day Independence was first voted into effect, and on July 9, 1776, when copies of the Declaration were finally in print and distributed to all the men of Washington’s command, for public reading with the armies drawn up in serried order, Washington addressed his troops with the exclamation that now they, alone, “under God,” stood between the cause of freedom and its extinction. So they should hear the Declaration with close attention, throbbing hearts, and steely resolve to do their duty.

Back to first principles. It is always good for nations, as well as for individuals, to go back to first principles – to take fire again from the fire that plainly burned in so many brave others, who cast their lives upon the flames of patriotic duty.

God bless such men and women. God bless the people – and the principles – of the United States. And God bless the cause of freedom in every darkened quarter of the world.

Published in First Things Online May 29, 2007

The Imperial Catholics

More and more often on Catholic campuses, left-wing Catholics are hiding their own ideological preferences behind the mantra “Catholic social thought.” To listen to them, you would think that the Catholic social ethic has four main emphatic tenets and five great silences. The four emphases are: (1) pacifism and nonviolence; (2) legal limits on the income of the rich; (3) the extension of the social welfare state for the poorest 12 percent of the American population (about forty million people), until all are lifted by government grants above the poverty line; and (4) the elimination of the death penalty in the thirty-some states that still allow it. Merely on the terrain of social ethics, this creed is notable for (a) its silence about ending abortion (forty-eight million since 1973); (b) its silence about federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and cloning; (c) its silence about the fourfold increase in violent crime since 1965—committed disproportionately against the poor; (d) its silence about the sixfold increase in father-abandoned families (chiefly among the poor); and (e) its silence about the horrific oppression of Muslim peoples around the world, including the daily assaults on their dignity by secret police, and the normal, regular abuse of their individual rights. We might call these the five silences. But there are others, too.

Don’t believe me? Take up, for example, the article published in the May 2 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by the former president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, near my own hometown of Johnstown. Former president Maynard Brennan, who during his own term in the presidency invited on campus Herbert Aptheker, a leader of the Communist Party U.S.A., wrote angrily—and untruthfully—against the recent invitation of President Bush, by the archabbot of the Benedictine monastery, Douglas Nowicki, to give the 2007 Commencement Address on May 11. Bush, he writes, is out of step with Catholic social doctrine.

The current president of St. Vincent, Jim Towey, who once worked under President Bush, wrote a sharp and exact rejoinder to Mr. Brennan in the May 4 edition of the paper. So there is no need for me to take up the particulars. But there are some good background points to make.

Before I had read Mr. Brennan’s fevered letter, I had written of my own nostalgic fondness for St. Vincent, as I began thinking ahead to the visit of a president of the United States to my old stamping grounds in the small towns of southwestern Pennsylvania—the quarterback capital of the world, you may recall from The Joy of Sports.

I have long loved St. Vincent, visited there often, lectured there three or four times, and my wife’s seventeen prints of the Apocalypse hang there as a set, the gift of a former trustee of the college.

So Mr. Brennan’s falsifying screed made me angry.

It would be easy enough to tear down his argument detail by detail, so wildly wrongheaded and inaccurate is it. For example, he argues that the average income of the top one percent–1.1 million dollars–is in itself unjust. Yet closer study reveals that the average income of the top one percent is biased toward the very upper end by a few extremely high incomes. It is more instructive that the bottom income limit of the top one percent is $328,000–including a lot of doctors, lawyers, consultants, and other professionals who have incorporated themselves in past years but who now, with lower income tax rates, have gone back to paying themselves outside the corporations in which they used to find tax shelter.

Again, the numbers and the percentage of the poor have plateaued and wiggled around only slightly for some two decades—and for significant reasons. Only a tiny fraction of them work (or even can work) full-time year-round. The major part of them consists of female-headed households, some with children. Most of these are widows or never married women, the fathers of their children having abandoned them. Wages can’t go high enough, where there is so little work. (And for those who do work doggedly—modern immigrants, for instance—their stay in poverty is short.)

On top of that, generous government subsidies for income, housing assistance, Medicaid (or Medicare for the elderly), and the like do not count in the official poverty numbers. Therefore, no matter how much the government assists them with grants, their income cannot go up—by federal definition they cannot.

The actual amount of federal moneys targeted for the poor and paid out each year is so high that if it were paid out per capita directly to the poor, and also allowed to show up in official tallies of poverty, no one in the United States would be poor. But most of the money doesn’t reach those at whom it is “targeted.” It is rather inefficient, in Tom Sowell’s memorable simile, to feed the horses first in order to feed the swallows.

Further, in feeling sorry for the poor victims of Katrina, and blaming their condition on President Bush, I wonder if Mr. Brennan has been watching the way other people in other regions respond to even more total devastation, in the Midwest, for instance. I wonder if he remembers that the Johnstown flood of 1889, just over the mountains from him, killed almost five hundred more persons than Katrina.

Mr. Brennan stands by the Benedictine Peace Statement of 2005. He is free to do that, but that statement is by no means the best, deepest, or longest-standing peace statement of the Catholic social tradition. “We believe that violence does not yield peace,” he quotes. Perhaps he is confusing force with violence. It has long been the duty of states to use force in such a way as to establish and defend the tranquillity of international order, within whose rule of law alone peace can bloom among states. Peace depends on law, and law needs sometimes to be enforced, at great cost.

War is not the answer to everything, but in the recent past it has been the answer to slavery, German imperialism in 1914, fascism (1922–1945), and communism at various spots around the world until in 1989—checkmated and wildly overspending on arms—the beast withered from within and gave up the ghost.

Mr. Brennan praised 2,357 Benedictines who felt “concerned about the military and political ethos of our own country where justice is defined on the basis of our self-interest rather than on a consciousness that we are part of a common humanity.” This America hating is truly not admirable, and even if it does emanate from 2,357 holy, highly moral, and prayerful Benedictines, it remains a slur on many noble and brave fellow citizens. American men and women are not dying in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to advance their own or their nation’s self-interest but out of a noble purpose to bring long-suffering Arab peoples under the same elemental protections as the “common humanity” of the world community of democracies. The aim is to turn the tide toward a more peaceful form of government and economic progress.

Does Mr. Brennan think these bravest ones are dying for oil? The war has already cost more in dollars than our nation could ever pull out of Iraq in oil, even if it wanted to.

Does Mr. Brennan think the war in Iraq has been good for President Bush’s presidency? From the beginning, President Bush understood the costs to himself and his reputation. It would have been irresponsible for him not to act, given the intelligence that President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Secretary of Defense Cohen, and others had themselves learned of and spoken out about. The risk of not acting at all (on a scale of one to ten) was estimated variously by various sources, but by no one was it zero. Many before Bush and before September 11 feared that the probability was in the high range rather than the lower.

Meanwhile, under Saddam Hussein, every violent group in the Middle East was being assisted and given haven, and ten thousand Iraqi citizens were being killed each month. UNESCO reported that five thousand infants were dying a month, from malnutrition brought on by Saddam Hussein’s diversion of funds into his armies and his private palaces.

It is true that Pope John Paul II pleaded with President Bush not to go to war in Iraq. But the Catholic catechism obliged him to recognize that the concrete decision and the personal responsibility in that regard rested with the president himself, and on other world leaders, not with churchmen. In actual fact, as the American ambassador to the Vatican at that time has reported repeatedly, never once did the pope in their meetings insist on no military action by the United States, and certainly never on pacifism (Pope John Paul II was no pacifist). The pope didn’t want the war. But neither did President Bush; it would have gone much better for his presidency if he could have found a way to duck his responsibilities.

Rightly or wrongly, President Bush decided that his constitutional responsibilities could not shield him from the need to take action against Saddam Hussein. What he added new was a positive thrust, an attempt to give the Arab world a first-ever chance to turn the vital energies of their unemployed young into the search for human rights and legal dignity among Arabs, for the rule of law and for the economic opportunity and prosperity long denied ordinary people in that part of the world. This was an attempt to change the direction of history, from terrorism to civil creativity.

In short, there is more than one way of grasping the principles, working out the middle axioms, and examining with accuracy and through open, respectful debate the concrete realities addressed by Catholic social thought. The particular left-wing way so ardently backed by former president Brennan is one way of doing so—a highly questionable presentation even of the left-wing way, as I have tried to indicate. But Catholic social thought has more than one wing. It needs at least two to fly.

Alas, the imperialist Catholics try to foist off their monolithic, myopic vision of Catholic social thought as though it were the whole of that beautiful, long-lived, and many-colored intellectual tradition. Theirs is only a splinter, not the whole beam.

If Mr. Brennan were content to present his own views, and those of his allies, as one option among many, I would have no quarrel with them. We could then have many useful arguments about the concrete realities, as well as about the policy options most likely of success.

But in that case, Mr. Brennan would have to give up his imperial desire to pretend he is the official voice of Catholic social thought. He might actually learn to enjoy good arguments with persons of goodwill who roundly disagree with him on fundamentals, as well as on concrete matters of fact.

That used to be the good Benedictine tradition we all loved and admired—generous, open, respectful of diverse opinions, civilizing. That used to be the Benedictine charism. His colleagues are showing that it is still vigorous.

Published in First Things May 9, 2007

Good, Evil, and My Friend Irwin

Recently THE WEEKLY STANDARD published Irwin Stelzer's truly brilliant account of a literary luncheon arranged by President Bush to honor Andrew Roberts's History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, a thick, heavy book that picks up the skein begun by Winston Churchill with his long four-volume treatment of the subject. The President was not at all intimidated by his fifteen or so guests, including the formidable Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Paul Gigot, Allen Guelzo, Seth Lipsky, Mona Charen, Kate O'Beirne, Irwin Stelzer himself, and of course Mr. Roberts and his wife, the writer Susan Gilchrist. The President was not pretentious; and he was not at all showing off. Stelzer gives such a vivid account of the event that there is little to be gained by adding new details. (How does he memorize so well what others say? I don't remember him taking any notes.) But there is one thing I must clear up to save my theological reputation and one interesting detail that I had caught wind of before the meeting, and took the occasion to confirm.

Prior to the event, I had fixed two points in mind to insert into the conversation if an opportunity came up. (From past experiences, I had learned that merely going with the flow and not adding something--or if adding, doing so only on the spur of the moment--is afterwards a bitter memory). Before sitting down, therefore, I was already determined to press the president on two of his favorite themes. The first is the peace and calm that he says comes to him from the Almighty, which allows him not to be perturbed by the high-decibel (and often mean) shrieks of critics. The second is a phrase he often uses, "the war between good and evil." Stelzer actually quotes me a tad inaccurately on the second discussion, in a way that brought me a sharp warning from a theologian friend. Stelzer had written: "The discussion centered on Novak's contention that although there is indeed evil, there is no such thing as absolute good." My theologian friend noted that this formulation not only abandons the orthodox Christian tradition (Catholic and Protestant) since St. Augustine, but is a total inversion of it. Augustine reasoned that there is an absolute good, namely God, in all His radiance and power; whereas evil has no ontological existence on its own at all, being no more than a defective good or a perversion of the good.

In actual fact, of course, a White House lunch or even a lunch with friends anywhere is no place for a formal disquisition. Nor did I wish to prompt the president in any pre-determined direction. When he himself introduced his usual phrase about the Almighty, I leapt in to say that some folks criticized him for claiming to have a telephone line to God, Who told him which policies to follow and what to do. The president scoffed. "Hey, no telephone line. I know I'm a sinner. I know that." He added that every day he wants to make sure that he is not being diverted from what is right. "I want to have my conscience clear with Him. Then it doesn't matter so much what others think."

On the question of good and evil, I had heard the president telling a group of clergymen a few days before that "We are engaged in a war of good and evil." The clergymen had said he should repeat that phrase publicly over and over: "good versus evil." That advice had made me very uncomfortable. So at this lunch I seized the chance to introduce that very phrase, and to say I didn't like it. "I have no problem with evil," I said, I have seen plenty of real evils in my lifetime. But I have a problem with saying that anyone is good. Purely good.

To my mind, the context here was solely about human beings, not God. And I was, without saying so, alluding to a point made by Reinhold Niebuhr, about the irony of American history: America serves a noble, good principle, but yet often does so through flawed men and flawed policies (such as slavery). "In my good, there is always some evil," I was thinking.

However, I was trying to instruct neither my fellow guests nor the president. Many (including my wife, she told me later) did not like my formulation. Some, pre-occupied with the threat from relativism, made fun of the left-wing fetish for limiting speech to various shades of gray. But my own worry concerned the tendency of the pious to be too moralistic and careless in speaking of good and evil. After batting this around, pretty soon the president and then the whole table came up with a rather neat formulation, very much as Stelzer records: In this world there are good causes and evil causes. When we commit ourselves to advancing a good cause, we need to recognize that we are not so good ourselves, but quite imperfect agents.

There is today an intense battle between good and evil principles. It is correct to focus on good v. evil in this sense. But it would be incorrect to imagine that we ourselves are purely good, without flaw and fault in ourselves. We must not let our imperfection, however, detract from the nobility of the good we serve, and the horrible damage the triumph of an evil principle always wreaks. All in all, the discussion ended up just exactly where I had hoped it would, without knowing it for sure, and without my trying to guide it there. My aim was to throw down the provocative propositions. Pardon me for writing all this, just to clear up my theological conscience. I do think of God as, to quote from George Washington, "the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." But no human being stands in God's sight perfectly good--exceptions made (in the Catholic view) for Jesus and his blessed Mother.

The one tid-bit I picked up prior to the lunch, and confirmed at the meeting, is that the president and Karl Rove are competing to see who can read the most books during 2007. For the first six weeks, the President was ahead. But by the beginning of March, Rove had surged ahead to twenty books, to the President's sixteen. Just to make sure that no one cheats, Rove also keeps track of the number of pages and the number of lines per page.

I would not have guessed that the President had read more books than most of us from January 1 to February 28. When I asked him about it in informal conversation, he said that the ones he was enjoying best "to relax his mind" were some of Travis McGee's novels. Those John D. MacDonald stories depict a knight errant who runs his own house-boat in Miami "engaged in the salvage business," and comes to the aid of needy persons (especially needy damsels) in distress. Travis McGee used to be one of my favorites, too, until when I was laid up for a week, I read six of them in a row, and over-dosed on them. For many years, though, they had given me considerable pleasure when I was tired and needed a book, on an airplane for instance.

Travis McGee: not such a bad choice for a President, especially one who thinks about good and evil, and often enough in a hard-boiled way.

Published in The Weekly Standard March 14, 2007