In a November 22, 1995, editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. joined his voice to the chorus of pundits who fear the political actions of the religiously minded. Predicting that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was indicative of things to come, Schlesinger wrote: “More than a third of American adults claim that God speaks to them directly. Am I alone in finding this a scary statistic?” Mr. Schlesinger, apparently, lies awake at night terrified that religious belief engenders an absolute perspective that is not only dangerous to democracy, but the primary cause of violence in the world today. Supported, to his mind at least, by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Schlesinger concludes, “unrebuked and unchecked, fundamentalists of all faiths will continue to believe that they are serving God by mayhem and murder.” Crisis asked some of its friends to respond.
Hon. Jeremiah Denton
After he condemns all sorts of ill-defined religious fundamentalism, which he equates to murderous fanaticism, Mr. Schlesinger subtly extrapolates through a series of currently familiar non sequiturs with an underlying theme: fundamental religious belief has been a scourge to mankind and is particularly dangerous to American democracy.
Perhaps the best single response to his thesis might be these words by George Washington:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morals are indispensable supports. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.
Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar stature, both reason and experience forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Washington and his contemporaries, even more than we, were conscious of flagrant harm done in their day by the evil of men in the name of religion. They had also read many then-current philosophers, who came down even harder on religion than Mr. Neibuhr or Mr. Schlesinger.
But they also had read many other philosophers, studied much history, and deeply deliberated the issue as they devised their political experiment.
Finally, with “reason and experience” they recognized morality as a key to civilization itself and regarded religion as the natural and only reliable source of morality.
Indeed, for their specific experiment in such unrestrained personal liberty, they perceived the sheer indispensability of continuing popular fundamental belief in a religion whose overriding behavioral command is: love your neighbor as you love yourself. Accordingly they founded this One Nation Under God.
Mr. Schlesinger sides with many who have been striving hard to change our valid foundation. They have made considerable progress, which our culture now so tragically reflects. That counterrevolution has been the real crisis of this century, of this millennium.
By their clever redefinition of death and their rationalizations permitting America’s sexual revolution, the cool headed mainstream secular fundamentalists have done more to damage life and the pursuit of happiness than even the sinfully fanatic fringes of the religious fundamentalists.
But at last there is a major good sign. It is evident in President Clinton’s change in choice of what he must say to get elected. In 1992, it was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In 1996, it’s the stunning reversal, “It’s our values.”
From here, it should be easier for us to find our way back to the valid and indispensable foundation of our Founding Fathers.
Had Mr. Schlesinger begun his animadversions about religion with some of his concluding observations—I am thinking especially of his praise for humility—he might have saved himself the embarrassment of his opening remarks. As it is, his assertion that “most of the killing taking place around the world has been caused by religious conflict” will occupy a prominent place in this year’s almanac of silly pontifications. One would like to think that a historian of Mr. Schlesinger’s acuity would be able to distinguish effectively between, for example, age-old ethnic hostilities that may employ religion as an alibi and religion itself. But it is precisely his obtuseness on this point that makes his article disturbing as well as silly.
It goes without saying that horrible things have been done in the name of religion. Every virtue can be perverted and, on the principle of corruptio optimi pessima, perversion of the highest virtues can lead to the greatest iniquity. But this is not the burden of Mr. Schlesinger’s argument. On the contrary, despite his genuflections to Niebuhr, Mr. Schlesinger writes as a confirmed secularist for whom religion is at best a quaint set of rituals and pious sentiments: existential window dressing that cannot and should not bear on the really important matters of life. Accordingly, what he excoriates as “fundamentalism” is not just fanaticism dressed up in religious rhetoric but also any attitude that takes religion seriously. Had Mr. Schlesinger been better acquainted with the phenomenon of prayer, for example, he might not have been so quick to ridicule the notion of God communicating with people.
What is perhaps most curious about Mr. Schlesinger’s attack on religion is how far it is guilty of the very things he excoriates. Quite apart from the issue of humility—an attitude conspicuously absent from the sweeping generalizations contained in his article—there is also the matter of mistaking what Mr. Schlesinger calls “a finite for an absolute perspective.” He rightly tells his readers that “there can hardly be a worse expression of human self-righteousness . . . than the attempt to endow fragmentary and corrupt human perceptions with divine objectivity and certitude.” Indeed. Which leaves one wondering whether it is Mr. Schlesinger’s blinkered vision or his arrogance that is more appalling.
New York University
Schlesinger has a point, but it is seriously weakened by layers of liberal pieties. He is right to be worried about the rise in religious fanaticism. We see this around the world, and even at home, and religious leaders need to be alert and willing to speak out against it. Catholics have long known that “the corruption of the best is the worst.”
However, the extremism that characterizes American society today is liberal and secular. Where was Schlesinger when the Supreme Court, filled with liberal fundamentalists, legalized abortion? The continued defense of abortion by such extremists means that countless secular fundamentalists have blood on their hands.
Schlesinger notes, but doesn’t give adequate emphasis to the fact, that this century has been dominated by nonreligious fanatics: Fascists, communists, and don’t forget nationalists, who have killed tens of millions of people. No group of religious fanatics comes anywhere close to such numbers, and the danger of resurgent secular fanaticism is far from over.
Schlesinger is worried that a third of the American population claim that God speaks to them directly. That is what prayer commonly involves, and, frankly, I’m much more worried about the other two-thirds who aren’t listening to God.
Schlesinger is also guilty of grossly overgeneralizing about religious conflict. The struggle in northern Ireland is hardly a religious conflict; it is basically ethnic. The IRA has often been denounced by the Church, and it rarely or never uses religious language; in fact, it is modeled on leftist terrorist groups. Much of the struggle in Yugoslavia is religious only in a very minor sense; the same is true in Sri Lanka and many other places where “theological differences” are a thinly disguised rationale for underlying racial, tribal, economic, and political conflicts.
University of Dallas
Dr. Schlesinger wisely quotes Niebuhr who stated that “the worst corruption is corrupt religion.” The scholar’s short article is replete with instances of men abrogating to themselves the will of God and murdering others in his name. By no means restricted to Islamic fundamentalism but spreading as well to Christian fundamentalism, the claim to personally know the mind of God and to punish those who transgress his will has been a heresy plaguing the world since the dawn of history.
The early insistence asserting that the Bible speaks to each man without any authoritative interpreter was the hallmark of nascent Protestantism in the early sixteenth century. The revolt from Rome turned each man into his own pope and gave him a presumed authority to know infallibly the word of God, altogether without benefit of clergy, tradition, natural law, or even basic learning. The delicate balance between authority and the power to implement its commands was shattered, and man has suffered the consequences ever since.
The natural law governing man’s conduct can be known by human reason, but that law does not operate in a vacuum. Every law implies a lawgiver, and the Catholic faith has always insisted that the ultimate lawgiver is God who alone is sovereign. The ultimate interpreter of that law is the magisterium of the Church, itself crowned by the infallibility of the successors of Peter, the popes, who have the keys to bind and to loose. Sound law is reasonable. It is not the expression of blind will. It makes sense, but often enough that sense can only be unraveled by whosoever is recognized as being its voice in matters human.
That voice, we have always believed, is the Church. Dr. Schlesinger is not a Catholic, but I can insist that he recognize that the evils he deplores have come upon the world because the faith was in large part lost. Our religion, the Catholic, condemns the assumption of killing or not killing on one’s own presumed authority. (Maintained by all the doctors of the Church, it found possibly its highest articulation in St. Thomas Aquinas.)
Power, Dr. Schlesinger, is a terrible thing! Power answers true authority, or it bows down before a false one, usually one fabricated by man himself. Power without any authoritative determination is a metaphysical monstrosity. But when men turn their power into its own authority, one man’s authority is as good as anther’s, which means that in the last analysis neither is any good at all.
Schlesinger is frightened to death by religious absolutes. But the very prohibition against murder is an absolute. Unless that absolute, itself reasonable, be illuminated by some ultimate authority in matters as grave as life and death, it floats in the air, ephemeral as are all human opinions.
If Schlesinger is to sleep peacefully in his bed, then he must exorcise the demon of a world in which every crackpot and half-demented fanatic can assume to himself the power over who lives and who dies. There are many powers in this world, civic among them, but all human power is delegated, received from some more ample power behind it. Unless we fall into an infinite regress, all power must repose finally in divine power, which is identically divine authority. Were the world to accept this reasonable and Catholic affirmation, we would all sleep easier in our beds at night.
Catholic University of America
One man’s absolute is another man’s belief. I have known personally and have written books about three public servants whose faith was integral to their politics.
Dr. Walter Judd was a medical missionary to China and long-time member of Congress who talked to God all the time. God helped Dr. Judd to make important political decisions, like refusing to raise one dime for any of his eleven campaigns and taking principled stands on issues whether they matched the wishes and wants of his congressional district or not.
As a result, House Republicans named Dr. Judd their “most admired colleague” while members of both houses picked him as one of the ten “most influential” senators and congressmen.
He once outlined his concept of Christian faith and works this way: “Christians must always be where the action is, and life-changing [i.e., politics] is where the action begins.”
Barry Goldwater now says, “There is no place in this country for practicing religion in politics.” But when he ran for president in 1964, Goldwater declared that “it is impossible to maintain freedom and order and justice without religious and moral sanctions.”
In his most influential book, The Conscience of a Conservative, he wrote, “The laws of God and of nature have no dateline.” Rejecting the one-sided materialism of liberalism, Goldwater asserted that the economic and spiritual aspects of man’s nature “are inextricably intertwined.”
Ronald Reagan is not a churchgoer, but his belief in God and his frequent communion with him is at the core of his anticommunism. It was no accident that president famously described the Soviet Union as “an evil empire” at a meeting of several thousand religious broadcasters.
When President Reagan and John Paul II met in 1982, they talked about the attempts on their lives. Reagan said he believed he had been spared because God had certain things in mind for him. As usual, God knew what he was doing: Reagan ended the cold war without firing a nuclear shot.
For those conservatives in public life whom I have admired and studied, a day without God would be Hell.
Michael A. Ferguson
Catholic Campaign for America
Arthur Schlesinger’s thoughts on religious extremism raise a number of questions. The most basic of these is whether religious absolutes lead to acts of terrorism and violence. The simple answer to this question is an obvious “yes,” which leads to the better question of “why?”
Religious absolutes lead to violence when teachings are misinterpreted and adulterated by deranged and self-serving individuals and groups who do not have a clear understanding of what their religious beliefs should mean in their everyday lives and actions. Those who truly understand the meaning of the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed would never advocate terrorism and death, since the authentic Islam tradition is one based on love, understanding, and devotion to praising Allah. Similarly, Christians who understand Jesus’ message would never impose hatred or suffering on another in his name, since we know that Jesus would never have condoned or participated in these sentiments were he physically on earth today.
Religious beliefs are the bedrock on which free society is built. How orderly would the U.S. be without those whose commitment to virtues like trust, honesty, goodness, and justice are based in their religious beliefs? Where would we be without social services and agencies sponsored by religious organizations, most especially the schools, crisis pregnancy centers, soup kitchens, nursing homes, homeless shelters, orphanages, and hospitals of the Catholic Church? Would our country even have been founded if not for those who felt so strongly about their religious convictions that they decided to flee oppression and risk their lives to create a more free and just society? Would we have been better off without these “religious extremists”?
Surely Schlesinger would agree that those with strong religious beliefs are an integral part of the very foundation of American society and that their positive impact is extraordinarily great compared with the isolated destructive incidents of a few mentally unstable individuals. But by suggesting that those who communicate with God are “scary,” he seems unable to comprehend those who seek to conform their lives to the will of God. Are not most major religious traditions based on a loving, reverent, and personal understanding of their Creator? Should this be so frightening? Would it not be scarier if this closeness was never felt? Those who attempt to play God, those who feel justified in taking innocent life, are scary. But the whole point of religiousness is to admit a limited viewpoint, a confession of creatureliness. To promulgate a misunderstanding of committed religious people, as Schlesinger has done, is disappointing for a scholar of his reputation.
The Cloister, Michigan
Whether “religious absolutes” produce terrorism and violence is a false issue. “Thou shalt not murder” is after all a religious absolute. A Jewish or Christian murderer just isn’t living his faith.
Religious terrorists use religion selectively and dishonestly, ignoring such religious absolutes. By Schlesinger’s own account, they practice what Walter Kaufmann called “exegetical thinking”—reading their own agendas and paranoia into their religions, then getting them back clad with authority. Resultant violence no more condemns religious absolutes than spouse abuse condemns marriage.
Moreover, since the Thirty Years’ War, exegetical-thinking religious “absolutists” have contributed mere drops to the ocean of Western political bloodshed. The main culprits, sanguinary secular fanatics—Jacobins, Marxist-Leninists, Nazis—discarded religion precisely because “religious absolutes” cramped their style. “Thou shalt not murder” was always the first one to go.
Religious oddballs we will have with us always—but properly observed “religious absolutes” themselves endanger no one.
As to whether religious beliefs undermine democratic society (Marian devotion?), or whether “talking to God” subverts political cooperation essential to democratic pluralism (the Paternoster!), this controversy implies that democracy and pluralism take precedence over religion. They emphatically do not—”Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” To pretend that they do is to commit one of the worst idolatries of an era full of them.
Also, for the record, most Christians are politically docile, and believers didn’t start the culture war. Many secularists undeniably wish that American public policy was informed by the philosophy of the marquis de Sade. While living in society obligates one to respect others’ rights, one is not obligated to cooperate with grave evil, much less finance it. When governments or factions assault religion and religious morality—through forbidding religious practice, requiring sex education in schools, funding abortion and so forth—nonviolent resistance is not only one’s right, but one’s bounden duty. If the lesser priorities of political cooperation and pluralism suffer thereby, the blame lies with those who initiated the mischief by using state coercive power to attack Christian civilization and impose a Sadean agenda on society.