Novak on Newt

In a recent piece in The New York Times about Speaker Gingrich's Catholicism, Michael had the following to say:

"He was just attracted by the stateliness and the beauty of the church, and the antiquity, and that’s what prodded his historical interest. As he got involved with the history, it blew his mind. There was just so much of it and I don’t think he had understood that before, that he really had a sense of the intellectual tradition behind it."

Read the whole piece here.

Truman’s New World

The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan, by Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C. (Cambridge, 192 pp., $24.99) Back when I was in graduate school at Harvard in the early 1960s, I hoped to do my doctoral thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr, so questions of morality and politics were uppermost among my interests. This led me, naturally, to wonder about the atomic bombs dropped on Japan — and the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo. At the Catholic University of America a few years earlier, a prominent moral theologian, Fr. John Ford, S.J., had condemned these bombings as immoral: They were the direct killing of civilians in crowded urban areas.

My curiosity led me to a joint study by U.S. and Japanese experts in military history, some of them in high enough positions to know the internal political struggles on their own side. Although I have not been able to locate this study since, I think its authors called themselves “The Pacific War Group.” Two of their considerations were new to me, a novice in the field: first, the pressures on Emperor Hirohito from his military command never to surrender; and second, the race by the Germans and the Russians to build the atomic bomb first.

TrumanThe horror of Hiroshima gave the emperor a powerful argument in favor of a negotiated peace to spare the homeland. The bomb on Nagasaki proved that there might be a steady stream of such bombs, on city after city. I remember, too, vivid descriptions of the obscurities and uncertainties under which decision makers in Japan and the U.S. then worked: Neither could know the fierce internal arguments going on in the other’s inner circles, nor the most persuasive personalities, nor all the military intentions, nor the mysteries of the new atomic science.

I was powerfully reminded of this early study by this new book by Prof. Wilson Miscamble, making use of a scholarship far more advanced in nearly all areas than it had been in the 1960s. Miscamble produced an earlier study, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War, focusing especially on the complexities of Truman’s personal strengths, weaknesses, hesitations, and uncertainties in the field of foreign policy. In this new book, he follows an analogous course — using all available scholarship to shed light on the human factors of decision making, but especially the internal controversies. Adm. William Leahy, for example, maintained that the atomic-bomb project was “the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.” Miscamble describes an army of participants slowly assembling to make, over time, this “most controversial decision” — passionately controversial even in their own midst.

The first chapter discusses Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Manhattan Project, on which Vice President Truman was never briefed. The second takes up the steep learning curve Truman had to mount when Secretary of War Henry Stimson finally gave him his first-ever briefing on the super-secret project, on the evening of the day FDR died and Truman (within two hours) was sworn in. Less than four months later, Truman would have to make a decision no man in history had ever made.

The fourth chapter focuses on the Allied summit at Potsdam, at which Truman, now president, and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes tried to preserve decent relations with the Soviets, even as they both saw clearly enough that the USSR was veering away from its past dependence on its Western allies into a competitive, adversarial, unbelievably cynical wrestling for dominance whenever and wherever an opportunity presented itself. (A later chapter on Japan and the USSR shows how pleased Truman was when, quite hurriedly, Russia did declare war on Japan and launch a powerful attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria — two days after Hiroshima, just before Nagasaki.)

Especially impressive is Miscamble’s account of the bitter Japanese arguments after Hiroshima. The emperor used the horrors of this new weapon as an honorable reason for surrender, but he did not fail to have a direct accusation delivered to the United States through the Swiss, to the effect that the huge immorality of the atomic bomb put it outside all international rules of war.

As for Truman, he never allowed himself to forget, in making his decision, the immensity of the Japanese atrocities in China, and Japan’s ferocious brutality in its losing battles of 1944–45. (Nor did he forget the Soviet brutalization of whole societies, although he also knew that success in World War II depended heavily upon the Soviets.) In other words, he put into the moral equation the character of the regimes the world then faced.

Miscamble’s discussion of the decision to drop the second bomb, to make credible the threat of further bombings, is gripping. Truman told his cabinet that the thought of wiping out another city of 100,000 civilians was “horrible,” and that the bomb must never afterwards be used again. After Hiroshima, Truman did not think of atomic weapons as just another instrument of war: They were far too indiscriminate. He summed up his view in his farewell address: “Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men.”

For Truman had come to see graphically after Aug. 6, 1945, the moral burden he had taken on his shoulders. But he thought it unworthy to moan publicly (or privately) about the hard necessities he inherited. He continued to be confident that the bomb’s use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been necessary, the least evil of choices available to him. And Truman did not scrap the growing American line of nuclear weapons: He knew how the Soviets would use their own growing arsenal to intimidate and to extort, if not far worse. He came to think that mutual deterrence, however morally compromising, was more moral than surrender, and as a command decision had the best chance of maintaining a fragile peace, even for a long time. Immediately after Hiroshima, Washington took no steps to wind down the war economy or the war effort. The American leaders could not be sure, given strong evidence to the contrary, that the Japanese would just surrender without committing national suicide. They could hope the Japanese would avoid the carnage, but they could not be sure.

Miscamble manfully holds back from making his book polemical. His aim is to present these historical decisions, which stand under moral judgment, in the full human complexity within which the decision makers had to feel their way. His aim is to offer a more concrete and realistic framework for the moral decisions of statesmen (and their advisers and critics) in the future. Yet Miscamble does not hesitate to state succinctly where the views of Truman’s critics — Gar Alperovitz, Elizabeth Anscombe, and others — are inadequate in the face of today’s richer body of evidence.

Miscamble’s arguments are both unsettling and, overall, convincing. Unsettling, because the moral ambivalence inherent in the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki stands out so starkly in his arraying of the evidence — and Truman himself understood it both quickly and clearly. Convincing, because I know enough about my own moral decisions and others I have studied to be impressed with how Miscamble makes concrete and believable the troubled reasonings of the human participants who made this most controversial of moral decisions.

Mr. Novak is the author of All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire and, with William E. Simon Jr., Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation. His website is

Published in National Review October 31, 2001


Called in Love: An Interview with Michael Novak

By Kathryn Jean Lopez In Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation, the philosopher and theologian Michael Novak and businessman William E. Simon Jr. have teamed up to highlight what Harvard professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon has called “The Hour of the Laity,” a real revolution in lay leadership in the Catholic Church. It’s a collection of profiles in Christian witness, offering both encouragement and a menu of options. And in All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire: Moments of Beauty, Sorrow, and Joy, Novak reveals his heart and soul, with poems he penned throughout his life, including some about his late wife, Karen. Novak talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about both fall books.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You went to Rome to cover the Second Vatican Council and hoped to pay your way by writing articles? Who was paying rates then that might make that possible? Did you pull it off?

MICHAEL NOVAK: We carried with us a famous book of those days, Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Well, each day cost a little more than that, but each time I sold a book review for about thirty dollars or an article for maybe ninety, that was like adding an extra week — or two weeks — to our budget. Once you set aside the weekly amount for our pensione, the cost of two meals out was not high, if you picked local places. Karen and I were both Depression children, able to get along on a little. Since we were newlyweds, Signorina Baldoni started to pray that Karen would conceive in her pensione, put us in “a room on the corner” (which was supposed to bring good fortune), and made sure Karen had a poached or soft-boiled egg every morning, in addition to the normal generous layout for the rest of us. Midway through, I took over a contract for a book on the Council (The Open Church, still in print) that the author was unable to fulfill, and so that solved our problem in one fell swoop.

LOPEZ: You use the phrase “social justice” in the book. That’s a phrase that has largely become a buzzword of the Left. Is it worth taking it back?

NOVAK: Don’t forget that the reason Leo XIII went searching for the new habit of mind and action that was later named “social justice” was to develop an alternative to statist forces such as Communism and Socialism. He wanted a habit that would enable the no-longer-rural Catholic people to achieve their social goals without falling into statism, that is, massive dependency on the state. That is why it is so sad to see many partisans of “social justice” nowadays, even in the United States, work uncritically to expand the federal state.

LOPEZ: The book gets into immigration early, through the eyes of a first-generation American from a Mexican family. The book notes that the Catholic Church grows in the United States, in part due to immigration. But look at a place like Los Angeles, and you realize some of those Catholic immigrants are not legal immigrants. How can we address this? There’s a definite gap between those looking at them pastorally and those looking at the issue as a public-policy one. How should lay Catholics be addressing this issue, as Catholics?

NOVAK: I never forget that I am the grandson of immigrants (from Slovakia, in the mountains of central Europe). This means treating new immigrants (from wherever) with a warm welcome and kindness. Illegal immigration is becoming a severe problem in many countries around the world (especially capitalist nations, which immigrants overwhelmingly prefer), no ducking it. Here it is the right and duty of each nation to set up orderly requirements and procedures. Meanwhile, at our U.S. birth rate (and abortion rate) our country has a severe infant deficit. We do not have nearly enough young workers to support the elderly, who depend on them. So it is right to encourage our nation to organize a good flow of immigrants. But it is wrong to foment lawbreaking through illegal entry.

LOPEZ: The Alliance for Catholic Education program at Notre Dame comes up in your book and is an undervalued gem there. Are programs like that and the Fund to Protect Human Life the hope of the place? Or will football and bad leadership kill the place, at least as a beacon for Catholic education?

NOVAK: The Alliance for Catholic Education has produced some great Catholic leaders for the future, and so have many other Catholic initiatives at Notre Dame. Some of the greatest lay (and priestly) thinkers in the world are on the faculty at Notre Dame. Don’t undersell the place because its Board of Trustees has become so secular and/or religiously shallow. . . . And would that the whole world hit such high standards for excellence as the Notre Dame football squad has down the years, despite its downturn periods. Kathryn, don’t ask me to bet against Notre Dame, ever!

LOPEZ: I walked by the Peace Corps building in Washington, D.C., the other day and thought of what a mainstay it has been in the American story in the last few decades. What the Kennedy family, too, for reasons good and not-so, has as well. You write about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and other groups — I’d count ACE among them — that are organizing and training servants. Can any of these play a similar kind of role in our national story?

NOVAK: Sargent Shriver was at the forefront of the Peace Corps (and Jobs Corps), and — with his great wife, Eunice — at the head of the Special Olympics. They surely knew how to inspire people, as Jack and Bobby Kennedy did. Cumulatively, though, I’ll bet all the young Christian (not only Catholic) volunteers serving around the world to help the poor, and to spread “the good news of second chances” taught us by Christ, are doing even more, although anonymously.

LOPEZ: What has impressed you most about Bill Simon’s sense of calling?

NOVAK: Bill Simon is one tough, persevering, steady, hardworking, always-thinking guy, and as cheerful as sunlight. When he decides to do more reading to become deeper in the ways of the Christian soul, he will spend a lot of time over books, but keep seeking out more, and before you know it he will have learned 60 of them deeply, and still kept going. At first, I tried to say no to doing this book, too many commitments already made. You don’t say no to Bill. Persistent cuss. And new arguments that eventually cut to the quick.

LOPEZ: Is this book about profiles in the Church getting beyond post–Second Vatican Council confusions and debates?

NOVAK: Yes, new generations are just getting on with it. They don’t even know about yesterday’s rivalries.

LOPEZ: Who is your favorite profilee? What is your favorite new group or project out there?

NOVAK: I loved the variety of Bill’s nine (he took charge of searching them out), and the little lessons that every one of them taught. The woman who said “her credential” for running parishes as “pastoral assistant” (CEO on the practical side) is “my baptism.” The accountant who learned of dire accounting needs in his parish — and others, and the diocese — who still does what he loves to do, but now with the extra sense of serving the humble needs of the Lord and his people.

The young teacher and youth leader, former doctoral student, who gave up a “life of abstractions” to be among poor people he loves, and who love him. The convert who was sitting in front of a portrait of the crucifixion in her parish church, when she felt a quiet but overpowering sense that the Lord wanted something more from her. The very successful businessman who felt early in his successes that “there has to be more to life than this,” and committed himself to bringing his personal skills to help the needy in a distinctive way. Like nine Gospel parables, no?

LOPEZ: We have had our Kennedys and we miss our WFB and Father Neuhaus. Who are our up-and-coming young Catholic intellectuals who give you hope and happiness for the future?

NOVAK: Golly, there are a ton of them. I used to wonder who would replace the old warhorses. I no longer worry one bit. There are a lot of them, and they begin higher up on the learning curve than my generation did. We are getting swamped by their greater talents. You, Kathryn, and Ramesh, Derek Cross, Brian Anderson, Ryan Anderson, all those on the mastheads of our prominent journals, young professors. Take over you already have. For that the Lord shaped you.

LOPEZ: You live in Ave Maria, Florida. Why live down in a Catholic ghetto instead of influencing the powerbrokers of Washington?

NOVAK: My second vocation is teaching, and I love it. This is also a rare place, steeped in a deep Catholic culture. At the age of 78, I feel much nourished by being here. So many of my academic colleagues here are from the Ivy League and other top schools, and some of the other ones are even better! At a certain point, it is good to send a new generation forth into battle. Our graduates are special. You watch and see their success rate.

LOPEZ: What’s the fire, the flames, you focus on in All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire?

NOVAK: The transitoriness of life has often struck my heart and mind, everything around us reminds us of it — a rose pressed in an old Bible, fires from a log leaping into nothingness. The play, of course, is on Hopkins’s line that all nature is a Heraclitean fire: All is change, all is vanishing, flashing forth the glory of God.

LOPEZ: Do you have a favorite of those poems — a real intimate window into your life so far?

NOVAK: I love a lot of them, for bringing back sharp memories otherwise forgotten — pieces snatched from the flames! My favorite two, of course, are the two for Karen at the end. The haunting emptiness, the warmth of laughter, sure knowledge that she surrounds me with care.

LOPEZ: Why should everyone write poetry?

NOVAK: Because at heart everyone has a soul that sometimes sings. The sheer effort of matching this lilt to words is good both for your sense of words and for the intensity with which you will observe things in the future. Poetry sharpens our touches, tastes, the scents we smell. Open a bottle of cologne — is it even close to the one your father sometimes wore? Brings back no memories at all? Poetry grabs onto passing things and fully dwells in them awhile.

LOPEZ: What if you’re bad at it? Does it say something about your soul?

NOVAK: Being first class at it is not the point; I know for sure I am not. One does it for the sheer enjoyment of the thing. It is worth it, and it is worth doing badly. Your life will be more joyful for the effort. And real poets will mean more to you.

LOPEZ: I loved this: “Do not neglect the humblest modes of inspiration. Close your fists around them quickly while in your grasp, seize them in mid-flight. They evanesce into the night.” But who has time?

NOVAK: A wise teacher once told our class: Keep a worn journal by the bed, and write in it every night — five minutes, no more — jotting down the most memorable image (or even insight) of the day. Four minutes if you must. But do it. You will be surprised how this will teach you to notice many vivid images each day, and many insights. Only choose one at night, though, “to snatch from the flames.”

LOPEZ: What is “the sacramental sheen by which the world of our Creation shows itself”?

NOVAK: The world shines like shook foil: Hopkins. The beauty of earth is all around us, if we notice, and in it the glory of God. To be a theist is to say “thank you” with glad heart many times a day.

LOPEZ: What is a “torment of beauty”? Why would it be such a good torment?

NOVAK: Don’t some beautiful sounds, sights, scents overwhelm you? So that you can hardly bear to be still? Beauty of many kinds is at times too much. It is a torment, overcharges inner equipment.

LOPEZ: “I wish that I had truly been a poet, not an amateur . . . so that they might be worthy of the Creator from Whose sweet hands they came. I did my best.” Reminds me of what Mother Teresa of Calcutta said about being called not to be “successful but to be faithful.” Is that something of what you had in mind in publishing this collection?

NOVAK: Some real poets have looked at some of my verses. They tell me how poor each is, undisciplined, not really poetry yet, possibly highly charged prose. Too dominated by Hopkins and a few other favorites.

All true, but oh! so much fun, and it has enriched so many other moments of my life, by teaching me habits of observation and joy. And on some special occasions, such as birthdays, a little more elegant than just “short remarks” — as long as a laugh or two is implanted in them.

After reading this volume, two or three friends have written how much they enjoyed moments of laughter, followed by mistiness, a smile here, an LOL, a heart wrench. How happy their notes made me!

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

Published in National Review Onine October 14, 2011

Calling All Catholics: Opportunities for Lay Persons to be God's Hands and Feet Have Never Been Greater

By William E. Simon Jr., published on October 8, 2011 Thirty years ago, if you had told me I was going to write a book about opportunities for lay Catholics to become more involved in the Church, I would have said that would take a miracle.

I grew up the oldest of seven children in an Irish Catholic family, going to church every Sunday. I even had a sort of evangelical experience while I was working at a hospital during high school. But by my young adulthood, I was not a model of religious piety. I worked hard, but I did a lot of partying too. I got married at 27 and was divorced by the time I was 32.

I still have some trouble piecing together how I got so lost in my 20s. But slowly, I returned to the Church.

After an annulment, I remarried, and though my wife didn’t convert to Catholicism until 15 years later, we raised our three children in the Catholic faith.

My churchgoing and sacramental life became consistent. I juggled a career and a family, and on Sundays we would go to Mass. Occasionally, I would yearn for greater spiritual engagement, but that feeling would usually disappear amid the busyness of life.

But about a dozen years ago, with some significant professional and material success under my belt, I began to feel that something was missing, that maybe these three things in my life – my family, my faith, and my career – shouldn’t be separate. And maybe the balance among the three wasn’t quite right.

So I started to pray.

I had this soft inkling, no great thunderbolt, that God wanted me to become more involved in the Church, even to speak or preach there or to be of service in some way. The message seemed to come out of nowhere.

The extent of my involvement in church until that time had been to sit in the pews and help with fundraising. But a little voice kept pushing me. So I thought, Okay, I’ll go down this path a little bit.

I discovered there were plenty of opportunities to become involved in daily parish life, partly because of, no doubt, the decline in vocations.

My niche has turned out to be the parish finance committee, but I also serve meals to the homeless who come to our church for help.

As part of my due diligence, I went to talk to an old friend of my father’s, theologian Michael Novak. His enthusiasm about the idea of greater lay involvement in the Church led to what, for me, has become a life-changing dialogue.

We talked about the future of the Church and all the difficulties it faces in the coming years: the steep decline in the number of clergy and the external pressures from an increasingly secular society are going to make the 21st century a challenging one. But my conversations with Michael made me hopeful about the opportunities for lay people to serve and to deepen their faith, and it became clear that there had been dramatic developments in the wake of Vatican II encouraging lay participation in the Church.

Indeed, my late father became a Eucharistic minister at age 65. I saw firsthand the great fulfillment it brought him, and I wondered why he didn’t start sooner. I think he would say he wished he had, but that he was too busy with his career and family. And I wondered if other people might feel the same way or simply do not realize how much they could give and gain by getting more involved in the life of the Church.

Ordinary Catholics can make extraordinary contributions. In my own parish near Los Angeles, I have seen firsthand the lay leadership in our high school, in parish business affairs, and in a majority of the 69 ministries that are presently on offer.

There are now abundant opportunities for people to serve and engage with their neighbors in varied and substantial ways, whether professionally or on a volunteer basis.

One might say the days when it was enough to “pray, pay and obey” are over; the opportunities to bring one’s faith alive, to be God’s hands and feet on earth, have never been greater.

A few years ago, I met Bob Buford, a successful businessman and author of a book called "Halftime," devoted to helping middle-aged people do something significant with their lives.

He likes to talk about how when you’re younger, you want to devote 80 percent of your time to your job and your family and 20 percent to other things.

But slowly, the priorities start to shift as you get older. Your 40s and 50s, he says, are the “bridge years.” Bob calls this transition, “going from success to significant.”

Well, I’m 60 now, so I guess you could say I’ve come to this shift a little bit later than many. My wife says I shouldn’t beat myself up over it.

But now I’m ready to cross that bridge. I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I have found a calling. And if my book can help others to do the same, well, I’ll thank God for that.

William E. Simon, Jr. is co-author with Michael Novak of "Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation" (EncounterBooks, 2011). This essay is adapted from the book.

What Obama Sowed, He Reaps

President Obama has just taught the people of the United States a very big lesson. If you want to hurt the poor and workers by destroying jobs and draining animal spirits, then do all in your power to discourage the rich from investing in new discoveries, new products, new industries. In his first three years in office, Obama has presided over the loss of more than one million jobs a year. So in the US we now have proof positive that promoting class warfare freezes economic growth and puts jobs in frigor mortis. This is a bipartisan point. Ronald Reagan understood it. Bill Clinton understood it. In his two terms, Reagan inspired and assisted in the growth of 16 million new jobs. In his two terms, Bill Clinton (with the wind of the post-1989 "peace dividend" at his back) supported the creation of almost 23 million new jobs.

The two presidents accomplished this in the teeth of the Carter depression of 1977-80, which left interest rates at 20 per cent, unemployment at 7.5 per cent, and inflation at 12.5 per cent. Because of this inflation, older people on fixed incomes lost about half the value of their incomes. Millions of them suddenly slid below the official poverty line. (In 1980, that line was at just $8,414 for a family of four, and $4,190 for a single person living alone. Today's poverty line is just over $22,000 for a family of four, and just under $11,000 for a single person.)

This is how Americans learned that it is foolish to drive the rich away from investing creatively and productively. The rich have many ways to spend their high income. The least creative and productive way is to spend it on idle living for themselves. Another unproductive way is to spend it lavishly somewhere overseas, which does not really help the poor even there.

It is wiser public policy to arrange both public honours and sound incentives (incentives both real and psychological) that challenge the rich, give them an opportunity to prove their mettle, and to show the world that they can be as inventive and dynamic as their ancestors.

President Obama has now taught our country this lesson afresh, by counterexample. No president in our lifetime has spoken of the rich so disparagingly and with such down-his-nose moral superiority, regulated them more gallingly, spoken more insistently about raising their taxes (not once, but again and again), and portrayed them as enemies of workers and the poor.

Meanwhile, the US Census Bureau has just released data which show that under Obama the raw numbers of those below the official poverty line have hit a level (43.6 million) never seen during the 51 years of recording such numbers. The percentage (14.3 per cent) of the poor has hit heights not seen since 1994. Census Bureau and other figures show, ironically, that no demographic group has suffered as much from loss of jobs, youth unemployment, diminished income, and longer periods out of work than black Americans. How can this be? No one can fault Obama for coming into office during a severe recession. But people do fault him for achieving much less than other presidents in similar recessions, who fairly rapidly turned downturns into upturns. They also blame him for failing to achieve the success from his policies that he himself predicted. He misunderstood reality.

The President is said to be a very bright man. How can it be, then, that he still doesn't understand that to create more employees he needs to inspire more employers — and that he can't find the funds to increase the labour pool unless he increases the pool of capital. The indispensable way to generate good, well-paying jobs in the market economy is by encouraging, cajoling, praising and challenging men and women of high animal spirits to do creative things with their capital. Like it or not, the way to create jobs, to raise up both workers and the poor alike, lies in shifting the interests and creative economic juices of the rich — and also of the not-yet-rich but lean and hungry — towards creating more wealth. This they do through creating new products, services, technologies and industries. Most became rich by being unusually creative people. So use them, don't abuse them.

There is an old maxim that you can more quickly get a man to loosen the heavy cloak he has tightly wound around him by letting the sun beam warmly upon him than by sending icy blasts of howling wind against him. Another maxim puts it: you can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a jug of vinegar.

Is that not also the best way to raise government revenues? Ronald Reagan had the wealthy paying more in tax revenues and also paying a greater proportion of all the income taxes paid a year than ever before — and liking it. They were prospering, and workers and the poor were moving up briskly in income and benefits. President Reagan saw to it that the public equilibrium was win-win.

Reagan concentrated on making America a creative society, favouring invention and entrepreneurship. Capital gains taxes were cut. Larger pools of venture capital were created than ever before. All sorts of new technological breakthroughs brought unheard-of goods to market: personal computers, fax machines, cellphones, fibre optics, gene therapies and many more. The nation moved out of the Age of Mechanics and into the Age of Electronics.

Government did not invent these products. Brilliant individuals did — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and a legion of others. President Obama thinks, against the evidence, that governments can routinely invest and innovate (see his chimerical plans for new "green industries" and "green jobs", at government's beck and call). Under Reagan and Clinton, private invention proved an infinitely shrewder revolutionary course.

Humans are not angels, and so of course there came in due time the historical quotient of abuses, frauds, and new ways gone wild, for which Enron, Fannie Mae, AIG, and other disgraced names may stand forever. Periods of human creativity have always brought chiaroscuro effects of dark cumulus clouds and brilliant shafts of light.

Reagan and Clinton prompted the greatest, most long-lasting burst of prosperity America (and perhaps the world) has ever seen. The US added to its own economy in those years new value equivalent to the entire economy of Germany. A higher proportion of adults were working for pay than ever before.

Ideas did this. Incentives did this. Praise and self-interest and open challenges did this. Above all, creative individuals did this. And governments, mirabile dictu, hit the correct balance among instigating, facilitating and getting out of the way.

Recessions and depressions are illnesses, like running a potentially serious fever or flashing an early warning of a cancer or a heart attack. Governments need to know what to do to break the fever quickly, and get the listless and the faint of heart back up on their feet, raring to go. Obama doesn't know how. He keeps repeating the same mistakes.

Concerning the presidential election already under way, a topmost adviser in the White House recently said to a Chicago friend: "From here, 2012 isn't 2008!" Support for President Obama in constituency after constituency is falling away like autumn leaves. Here is a telegraphic presentation of Obama's approval ratings on January 19, 2009 (Inauguration Day) compared with those of this autumn (data from Gallup). It shows a drop in support by independents (about a third of all voters nationwide) which is especially disheartening.

Every week, more and more Democratic leaders and influential opinion-makers voice disappointment with Obama. Their disappointment soon gives way to revised judgments about the man's strengths and weaknesses. The strengths (his poise in speaking on his feet) appear ever emptier; his weaknesses (a rigid fixed sum of ideas, repetitively repaired to) more irreparable. One even hears it said by early and strong supporters, "He isn't as bright as he seemed." There is even talk after the months and months of uncritical adulation that there may be a need for a primary challenger to Obama (Hillary, some improbably suggest), to save the skins of the rest of his party. More and more of them do not wish to run on his policies.

The ideological extremism of Obama's appointees to powerful regulatory agencie — the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board, among others — is finally becoming visible, in very unpopular and not easily defensible decisions. For instance, at the bidding of petulant union leaders, the Labor Department refused to allow a crucial American manufacturer and export firm — Boeing — to set up a new facility in South Carolina, one of a growing number of so-called right-to-work states (i.e., the right to work without joining a union). The principle that the federal government in cases such as this can control in which states a private firm may or may not do business is attracting withering political fire.

The Lilliputians of government are tying down the energetic, spirited Gulliver with thousands of silken threads, in order to impose a new "soft tyranny" by a myriad of tiny inducements on the one hand, and almost invisible restraints on the other. The result is enervation and lassitude in the body politic.

Already, nearly half of the American population (including the rapidly growing portion of retirees) depends on government for a sizable amount of its income. At what point does the ratio of productive taxpayers to dependents on government become unsustainable? The question is no longer idle speculation. When Bismarck arbitrarily set the age of eligibility for pensioners at 70, he did not have to worry that many would live that long, nor that highly advanced medical care could keep them living longer and longer, and at ever higher, almost astronomical, medical costs. Add to this mix the fact that families everywhere are having fewer children, so the labour force relative to the army of retirees is shrinking, and you begin to see the premises of the welfare state cracking open. Without especially creative and inventive economies, welfare states today cannot survive. Does Obama know enough to know what to do? The signs are few.

Barack Obama was born to a mother who fled from living in a corrupt America, and a father who was an ideological third-worlder. Both parents tended to picture American capitalism as an unjust system and a major cause of the larger world's poverty, backwardness and suffering.

So it is no surprise that Obama has presented himself as the president with the lowest opinion of business of any in our history, and the most persistent fomenter of class warfare, between the fat-cat with his private jet and the poor youngster on the street who just wants modest funds to cover his college tuition. Every chance he gets, Obama launches into "tax cuts for the rich" and the too-heavy burdens of widows and poor children. He portrays the rich and the poor as natural enemies.

But that isn't the way it is in America. The overwhelming experience of most Americans is of "moving up" through the income brackets. Many if not most of those who enjoy high salaries today remember when they were still poor. Americans do not value the ideal of income equality nearly as much as polls show Europeans do. They value opportunity much, much more.

In Europe, it seems to an American, a comparatively high proportion of the Continent's business elites have their roots in the old landowning class — aristocratic, privileged, with significant inherited wealth and position. Those of Europe's working class do not tend to see themselves or their children as potentially among the leaders of business. Americans do, however, which is why they have so marginal an awareness of "class".

In small towns across America's Middle West and West, villages would not survive without at least a few successful first-generation founders of businesses. Down the corridors of America's schools, one is less likely to see a portrait of a military officer or an aristocratic pillar than in much of Europe, and far more likely to find portraits of local business leaders.

In America, business is a creative force close to the bottom of society, classless and highly receptive to new talent regardless of social background. American business leaders cherish a reputation for daring, invention and discovery, taking significant risks today for larger gains tomorrow. Tocqueville points out how American sea captains left port before the weather was wholly clear, in order to gain a day on their European competition in getting to China's tea, and bring it back faster and a few pence cheaper.

Finally, the founders of America's small businesses (the source of nearly 90 per cent of all new jobs in America) have willingly sacrificed the higher salaries and greater security of working at larger firms, in order to gain personal independence and to prove just how creative they can be. In America, such animal spirits are still alive and vigorous, as Reagan conclusively proved during his two terms. And Clinton followed suit, "stealing" as it was said "the Republicans' clothes".

It is against this backdrop that Obama seems so petty, so obsolete a throwback, so oddly imperceptive, even impervious to obvious realities. There is no reason, a great many judge, why Obama should have been systematically discouraging and depressing job creation for three years, instead of helping it to blossom. His desire to punish business seems to have got the better of shrewd political judgment.

There is no institution more incessantly powerful in America today than the media, especially the many television and cable networks, but also the six or seven print and online organs that shape elite opinion. Most people in the media are considerably more secular than the nation's centrist voters, and also more pro-government, which leads to a certain blindness in our elites. They think the nation is more secular — a good deal more secular — than it is. They tend to favour the "reforming" progressive state over the business sector. They are the cheerleaders of the secular political state. They have loved Obama with an unparalleled love.

Yet this powerful institution has no ear for the music of popular outrage from the broad middle, and no ear for the music of America's religious vitality. As Tocqueville shrewdly observed, there are many things that the law allows Americans to do that their religious convictions prevent them from doing. Even under the heavy pressure of media-supported secularisation, the broad American middle-class is far more Christian in conviction and more loyal to the founding principles of the Republic than are the glitterati.

Most in the media, it seems, have a visceral distaste for the good folks who in unorganised but potent fashion called into being the Tea Party movement: the broad swell of public opinion against insupportable deficits and ever higher taxes on success. Much of the public feeling really does call to mind Boston in 1773 — weary of their political leadership, the first Tea Party supplied on their own the decisive signal of rebellion.

Similarly, still out of sight, a group of very successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who are part of the new class of highly educated, proficient and visionary evangelicals, are together putting up several million dollars to help kindle a revolt among those in the churches who have been hitherto unpolitical. Their aim is to inspire and register five million new voters among evangelicals. Observers today tend to forget that evangelical voters by the millions, especially but not solely in the "solid South", were once the backbone of the great Democratic majorities of the New Deal era. In any case, there is no area of life in which most journalists are less informed and less experienced than in the religion of their fellow citizens.

Here I am trying to make two points. The first is about the growing wealth, learning, and sophistication of American evangelicals (and other religious people). The second is about the swelling rebellion of the broad middle against the excessive and elitist secularisation of American life, secularisation from the top down, not the bottom up. My advice is: watch Iowa. Great movements deep under the surface are stirring there, and are being given strong local leadership and modest but significant resources. Pastors who steadily resisted the Moral Majority of the 1980s and other voices for political activism among religious people have reached a breaking point, and are becoming active with a fresh determination.

And stop looking at Iowans and others in the great religious middle through the bigoted eyes of H.L. Mencken who described them as ignoramuses, yokels and apes dragging their knuckles on the ground. Don't underestimate the ever-higher levels of education and the complex leadership experiences of the American clergy and laity. America today is home to the most highly educated and technically expert body of Christians seen on earth. One of the most modernised nations in the world has more in common with the religious Third World than other secular nations do, and an under-appreciated pitch of education and practical success.

Given the deterioration of Obama's popularity ratings in almost all areas, and among almost all constituencies (especially in his base), many Republican observers are crowing about a success that is not yet in their hands.

There is an old story about the Bengal tiger running briskly through the jungle toward a remote village. When warning reaches the village, most people run. But one young lad stops to lace up his Nikes. His companion tries to rush him along. "You can't outrun a Bengal tiger." The terse reply: "I don't have to — only outrun you."

There are many very good, and yet not quite presidential, Republican candidates in this pre-election run-up that Obama can probably outrun. Whoever comes out ahead as the Republican nominee is the only one Obama has to beat. And that nominee may not be without grave weaknesses, which the Obama-loving press will magnify.

Every American presidential race (well, a great many of them) seems to be a turning point for the country. This one certainly looks to be. I expect Obama to be resoundingly defeated. But that may not be the way American destiny works out.

Published in Stanpoint Magazine October 6, 2011

Ten Years Later, a New World

Ten Years Later, a New WorldTwo cultures at last look into each other’s eyes.

Ten years after Sept. 11, 2001, the world has a different face, a wholly new (well, fairly ancient) set of problems, and above all, a new promise. The Soviet Union seems to have slid into historical darkness mostly unmourned. The Arab nations are in great and maybe hopeful turmoil — “the Arab Spring,” many call it. Ten years from now, its fruit may be marvelous to behold. Or it may prove to have been a false spring.

Even sharp critics must observe, though, that such a hopeful emergence of spring in the Middle East is what President Bush foresaw when in Afghanistan and Iraq, to enormous criticism, he started movements toward self-rule, renewed civil societies, new freedoms of communication with the outside world, democracy, and “natural rights.” But the harsh test of reality — the long-term success of these springtimes — has not yet been fully met. To give freedom a chance was my main hope in supporting President Bush — a chance, but not a guarantee.

The New Front Line of Intellectual Life in our Time?As I see things, the Catholic Church and with it the West during the past 150 years has endured the worst that atheistic totalitarian power could throw against it. Tens of millions were brutally punished, exiled, tortured, and kept for long, hungry years in thousands of concentration camps and gulags, millions of them most foully and horribly murdered. Thousands of churches were burned down, bulldozed, turned to purposefully defiling uses. Monks and nuns by the hundreds of thousands were driven into backbreaking exile and death, their millennial monasteries and convents turned into academies for the training of torturers and interrogators and goons. The great struggle of the epoch since Marx and Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini has slid into the past.

Yet on Sept. 11, 2001, an even more ancient epochal struggle was reawakened, a struggle 1,500 years old. In 632, at the birth of Islam, all the basin of the Mediterranean Sea, from Jerusalem north to Ephesus and Constantinople, and south and east from Alexandria to Hippo and Toledo and up to the borders of France, was the glory of Christianity. That rim of faith also formed the proof that the Church of Jesus was so quickly planted in “the whole known world” that it was properly called “Catholic.”

Moreover, before the time of Constantine (and even for long thereafter), it had been implanted there without armies, but mostly among the poor (and the intellectuals), implanted peacefully by its witness to the caritas of God, and its intelligent arguments against the pagan classics. In 600 short years, Christianity rimmed the Mediterranean with small churches, cathedrals, monasteries, learning, and liturgy.

In 100 amazing years, the armies of Islam had advanced in both directions around the Mediterranean to Poitiers in France in the west, and into the borders of present-day Turkey.

Thus it came about that the earth thereafter bore on its bosom two extraordinarily populous (and inter-ethnic) religions whose mission was worldwide. The beginnings of their interaction were stained in blood, and hundreds of years of warfare stained them further. Then in a spasm of great battles — at Malta in 1565, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna in 1681 (on September 11) — a military standoff was reached.

Let us leave to one side the long, intervening history, except to say that the West became woefully ignorant of Islamic cultures, tensions, sufferings. And into the Arabic language are translated fewer books of other languages than into almost any other language on earth. For 500 years, Islam largely turned inward. Cultural separation between the West, Christian and secular, and the nations of Arabia (and Asian Muslim nations) ensued.

Then with a thunderclap of shock and horror, four American planes were cleverly turned into immensely destructive bombs, made up of their own aviation fuel. One by one, they were seized, guided, and cruelly exploded bright orange into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, and the Pentagon, with one still winging toward some other unknown target in Washington, D.C. (On that fourth plane, the Americans began to fight back, and forced it spinning down into the merciless ground, in humble Shanksville, Pa., not far from the most sacred of all American battlefields, Gettysburg, where Lincoln delivered the greatest of all political addresses since Pericles.) Thus it happened that suddenly on September 11 of 2001, on a day that already lives in infamy, curtains closed, as it were, on the struggle against atheist totalitarianism. And a far more ancient struggle — but this time on quite different terms — opened up.

It seemed to many of my friends of unshakable secular self-confidence as if the world, which they took so serenely to be going automatically secular, was suddenly erupting in religious energy. Jürgen Habermas was insistent on this theme.

So, Zarathustra need not have shed tears: Worldwide, God had not died, after all — only on some suddenly stranded islands. And if God had not died, neither had the imperishable standards of truth. Natural rights (now enumerated by name in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”), far from dying, were awakening in hearts everywhere, as never before. They are awaking in Muslim hearts as well as in all other hearts. These rights belong not to one religion, nor tribe, nor region, nor secular outlook, but to every woman and man on earth.

Furthermore, this renewed phase of an ancient struggle is not primarily religious. It is not only universally human, it is preeminently political. Humans in one part of the world after another are excited by a long, long argument, about what sorts of governments and moral principles they choose to live under, by the reflective and duly constituted choice of the people themselves. Did no one besides myself notice that in Afghanistan and Iraq, the foes of democracy did all in their power to disrupt civil society, civil governance, constitution-making, and democratic institutions? Their primary motive was clearly not religious: They bombed mosques, assassinated imams, gunned down whole temples of worshippers. Their motives were political, not religious.

And in important ways they showed themselves to be nihilists — by their method of killing others through suicide bombs strapped to certain individuals, and by their wanton destruction of truly ancient monuments of irreplaceable value, except not to their fanatical selves. These modern “revolutionaries” were the first ever to promise no improvements in human lives, or institutions, or practices. They acted out values of death and destruction. Wantonly, as nihilists who are serious do.

Thus we suddenly find ourselves in a wholly new sort of world. It is one in which a dominant world energy springs from living, vital, and growing religions — the two most dynamic of all religions today, and the only two with empirical claims to be thought of as world religions, Christianity and Islam. Suddenly visible and immense historical energies (long kept out of sight by the ideology of irreversible “secularization”) have been empowered from within by Christianity (now numbering 2 billion adherents, over 1 billion of them Catholic) and Islam (over 1 billion). Together, the members of these two religions now number about half of all human beings on earth.

And now these two energetic cultures again — and at last — look into each other’s eyes. And this, in an utterly new way. They no longer merely “face” each other, but spiritually and deeply interact with each other. They interact not exactly in a religious way but, rather, in a cultural way. As Benedict XVI has noted, the time is not yet ripe for theological dialogue — that would be far too demanding — but cultural dialogue after so many centuries is like a long, sweet drink at an oasis.

What is the meaning of so much suffering from the patently insane politics of the last 200 years, and not least in Arab and other Muslim countries? What is the meaning of so many indignities and tortures and assassinations and partisan wars? There are enormous forces of evil and suffering on the world stage. All peoples together have to cope with political evil as never before.

Above all, these two energetic cultures are slowly learning together to grasp some common truths (usually negative truths). These are truths about the immensity of human sufferings under tyrannies that rule with iron fists, through legions of ruthless secret police, electronic and Internet surveillance, and exquisitely modern scientific, as well as ancient, refinements of bodily torment. The dead bodies political murderers leave behind have been gruesomely dishonored, as a form of warfare — psychological warfare — against others. Our positive human reasons about why tyrants must be brought down may not yet be commonly the same. Yet we can all grasp the negative: We all can grasp that tyranny must be rejected, as unworthy of the dignity of human beings, and their right in self-protection and in self-worth, to choose their own form of self-government. People who have lived too long under tyranny can no longer bear its pain — and not its painful indignity, either. This New Epoch: Creative or Destructive??Will this new meeting of great cultures be creative, or destructive?

During the long Cold War that dominated most of the decades of my life, I often asked myself who would win. I used to quip that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I judged that rights and dignity would triumph. Then, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I feared that the West, even though our cause was right, did not have the stomach or the clear-sightedness to win.

And on Sundays, I prayed.

Yet, it ended well.

Moreover, in every moment of greatest crisis, the secular powers of the West appealed to peoples of faith and the Christian churches to come to their rescue. Even Stalin did, during his darkest hours in World War II. So did Churchill and Roosevelt (even his wife, the potent Eleanor to whom so many secular liberals looked as a heroine, and pretended not to notice when she revealed herself to be a devout Protestant Christian).

So did De Gasperi, Don Luigi Sturzo, and the early Fanfani — and De Gaulle, and the heroes of Christian Democracy in Germany and the Christian Democratic Union in Bavaria.

People in the West, especially the intellectuals, have down through modern history mocked the Church, and the culture of Christianity itself. Yet, secularists borrow all the best ideas they have, not from Plato and Aristotle and the greatest of the Roman pagan sages, but from the revelation of Jesus Christ. For instance, the ideals of personal liberty, fraternity, and equality.

These are not pagan ideals, or secular ideals, as Jürgen Habermas out of admirable honesty insists. Rather, they have been refracted through a complex history by the amazing brilliance of Jesus the Teacher of Human Dignity. The human being, no matter how humble, is made in the image of God, right in the core of her or his being, and infinitely loved by God. At the heart of things is human weakness and even cruelty and evil — but also mercy, and the knowledge that our Creator wants to be known as our Father, and bids us to be attentive, kind, and generous to the poor and the weakest, above all. So taught not the pagans, but Jesus. Jesus as no one else set out the Measure of Man, both in our weakness and in our high destiny.

What is especially novel about our present moment, then, is that in the new and vigorous dialogue between Christians and Muslims taking place all around us, especially in religious circles — does anyone else notice? — the imams and ayatollahs, and sages of Islam today, push forward precisely those aspects of Islam that are closest to the joys of Christianity: That is, they insist that Islam is a religion of peace, that at the heart of Islam lies compassion, and that Islam is a great, maybe the greatest, teacher of human humility — for so great is Allah, that even to suggest any comparison (image) of humans with Allah is blasphemous. Below Allah, all are as nothing.

Not to invoke contrasts between theological holdings — the propitious hour for that is not yet arrived — it does seem at this moment that the intellectual discussion tilts toward presenting Islam in a light easily grasped by Christians. That suggests something about the present status of the intellectual argument. But that argument is far from being fully engaged.

Far more important is the practical agenda of this decade, a worldwide inquiry into the intellectual underpinnings of human dignity, and of the human right to choose a form of government that reflects that human dignity. In this practical task, significant numbers of Arab intellectuals and activists seem to be joining the universal Party of Liberty. More has been published about the ideals of liberty and dignity in the Arab world since 2003, some Arab writers have asserted, than in the previous several generations combined.

A Personal Witness?When I was pursuing graduate studies in Rome (can it be?) 55 years ago, on my very first outing from Rome I set foot in Orvieto. Oh, how my heart was captured by Orvieto, and still is. My younger brother, the priest martyred by Muslims in 1964 in Dacca (then East Pakistan), also loved Orvieto well, and my wife, Karen, painted a portrait of him standing in front of the black-and-white cathedral there.

It was in Orvieto (1261–65) that the young Master Thomas Aquinas turned his attention to the new doctrinal threat to Christianity, emanating from the new philosophers of the Muslim world. At the time Frederick II was building a university in the south of Italy to support the work of such Islamic philosophers. It was through their early Arabic translations of Aristotle that these Arab greats were presenting Aristotle to the West, when the long-missing Greek texts were still largely unavailable, even unknown.

A student can still find a highly readable record of this intellectual encounter between Aquinas and Islam in his Summa Contra Gentiles, especially in book III, on Providence, and the contingency and freedom of this world. And on two contrasting views of the relation between God and man, God and human liberty, God and the contingency of the created world — the Muslim, and the Christian.

For the Muslims, Aquinas noted, all belonged to God, to his initiative and action, and nothing belonged to man. Even our insights and judgments were said to be God’s insights and judgments, which humans merely receive. But if this is so, Aquinas mused, why do I have to study so hard to acquire them? All initiative and freedom on the part of humans, Aquinas argued, seemed slighted, and in a way that told against another fundamental tenet of Islam.

That tenet is that after death there is for each human either Paradise or damnation, based on the choices and actions of humans on earth. They choose. The Judge ratifies their choice with reward or punishment. This tenet implies an immense role for human liberty and responsibility.

And what implications has that profound, axial tenet for a philosophy of man, a philosophy of liberty? And a philosophy of politics?

And yet this whole two-century-long Muslim, Christian, and Jewish dialogue (see Maimonides, too) was conducted civilly, with remarkable philosophic courtesy and mutual respect. Learning took place on both sides. In particular, Aquinas learned several key distinctions about God from his study of the Arabic philosophers.

Nowhere was Western freedom so deeply and powerfully defended until that time as in this encounter of Aquinas with Islamic philosophy in the mid-1200s. It is one of the reasons, I suppose, that Lord Acton called Aquinas “the first Whig.” The first intellectual defender of the human person, and his liberties and proper responsibilities.

Yet it was the civil context of that intellectual conversation with his Muslim interlocutors that most enchanted my younger brother and me. Indeed, Rich continued on to his ordination to the priesthood, even when after many long years of study it became clear to me and my spiritual directors that God called me elsewhere than the priesthood.

Out of our early enchantment with Aquinas and the Muslims (we studied in the same university), my brother felt the call to dedicate his life to Christian-Muslim civility and rapprochement. That is why he accepted the decision of his superiors in religion to go to Dacca, to study Arabic at Dacca University, and to begin his own teaching in Notre Dame College there, where many in Bangladesh’s elite today received early studies. My brother is still venerated there, as “Father Richard.”

One evening just a few years back, in Santa Maria Trastevere, there was a candle-lighting ceremony, at the behest of Pope John Paul II (whose secretary informed me that the pope had said Mass for my brother on his visit to Bangladesh), in which superiors of missionary congregations in Rome stepped forward one by one to read the names of the missionary martyrs from their communities during the 20th century, the century of more Christian martyrs, by far, than any previous century.

Without forewarning from anybody, I heard the name of my own brother read out in the darkness, as one more candle was lit on one of the little “trees of candle flames” in that loveliest ancient basilica, beneath the flickering dome of its glorious frescoes.

I like to think that “Father Richard” will one day be honored in the official lists of the Blesseds and the Martyrs of the Church, as a living example of the longing to lay down his life — not in the way he foresaw — for Muslim-Christian communion in suffering.

He was no simulacrum of piety, my kid brother, he was just an ordinary guy — with a sometimes impious sense of humor, and a realism that seemed to flow directly from the candor of the Gospels.

Fidelity to him, as well as to Christ, explains why I think the cause that Father Richard died for was, presciently, the one most vital to the life of the Church, and our civilization, in our time.

Michael Novak’s latest books are All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire and, with William E. Simon Jr., Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation. His website is

Published in National Review Online September 11, 2011.