To the Editor:
The COMMENTARY symposium “On the Future of Conservatism” [February] proved to be excellent reading, but, unlike the other contributors, Irwin M. Stelzer was not content with setting forth the intellectual merits of his case. In responding to the remarks of Father Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things, in that magazine’s symposium, Mr. Stelzer had to engage in making anti-Catholic remarks to sustain his position. His statement that Jewish neoconservatives should have known better than to “pitch an intellectual tent broad enough” to include “many Catholics brought up in a tradition that does not welcome dissent from its revealed truths” smacks of an animus against Catholics that Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. once said was America’s “deepest bias.”
Mr. Stelzer is right, of course, to suggest that certain teachings of the Catholic Church are not dependent on a referendum for validation, but he is wrong to phrase his words in a manner that is downright disparaging of Catholicism.
Even worse is his comment that Jewish intellectuals “should not expect to be partners in a governing theocracy” with Catholics. Precisely whom is he speaking about? Can he name even one Catholic who has proposed a governing theocracy?
This is pure, unadulterated bigotry.
William A. Donohue
President, Catholic League
for Religious and
New York City
To the Editor:
Irwin M. Stelzer’s asseveration that Catholicism is a “tradition that does not welcome dissent from its revealed truths” needs to be addressed. Roman Catholics share a profound tradition of faith and reason, a shared understanding of natural inquiry, and a shared conception of first principles, but this tradition is revealed through active engagement and critical debate. After all, St. Thomas Aquinas began his philosophical project to reconcile Aristotelian thought with Catholic tradition as a dissenter. More recently, the late John Courtney Murray, S.J., the theologian who did the most to articulate an accommodation between the Church and modern democracy, initially began his work as a dissenter. Anyway, before accusations are hurled as to which tradition has the better record on accepting dissent, let us not forget the troubles that Spinoza incurred in the Jewish community of 17th-century Amsterdam.
Mr. Stelzer also raises a larger issue concerning the market’s ability to address the major social problems confronting American democracy today. Is it grounds for excommunication from the ranks of conservatism to suggest that the market contributes significantly to the cultural decay evident in the breakdown of traditional family, communities, and moral values?
Clearly, the entertainment industry has served to undermine those values necessary for a healthy society to function properly. Of course, consumers who are outraged by movies that depict priests as womanizers or records that espouse violence against white police officers and women can boycott these products. But without a shared sense of community based on an agreed-upon morality, how effective can any boycott be under the onslaught of what is being spewed forth today as entertainment? Will downsizing government and giving tax breaks to the middle class restore a moral order in America?
These kinds of questions need to be asked by libertarian conservatives and traditionalists alike.
Donald T. Critchlow
Woodrow Wilson Center
Irwin M. Stelzer writes:
I regret that William A. Donohue found my remarks in COMMENTARY’s symposium “anti-Catholic” and “bigoted.” What I said was that many Catholics do not welcome dissent from what they deem to be “revealed truths”; Mr. Donohue says that “certain teachings of the Catholic Church are not dependent on a referendum for validation.” I am happy to accept his formulation. But if—and I emphasize the if—his is meant to be a political statement as well as a theological one, it confirms me in my uneasiness.
Recall: my quarrel was not with Catholics in general, but with the editorial statement that introduced the symposium in First Things and that cited papal encyclicals as if they were the final authority for all Americans, or as if the principles enunciated in those encyclicals should determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the American “regime.” To me at least, this seems to suggest a theocratic view of the polity.
It is precisely this attitude that makes me fear an alliance between neoconservatives and First Things—or any group that would place its views beyond the reach of democratic debate. The notion that a “regime” becomes illegitimate if it adopts a position that, although supported by a majority of voters, is offensive to the teachings of one or another religious group is one I find scary.
I share the nervousness of Robert H. Bork and others about the dangers inherent in a hyperactive judiciary. But the solution to this problem surely lies either in democratically approved constitutional changes to reduce the power of the judiciary or, as William Kristol has suggested, in persuading a majority of duly elected legislators to be more vigorous in their opposition to the confirmation of judges who hold views of which they disapprove.
Donald T. Critchlow also brings up the question of dissent. In citing the case of Spinoza, he means, I assume, to point out that Jews have also had difficulty accepting dissent within their community. But as I know of no source of data that would permit me to compare the number of Catholic excommunicants with their Jewish equivalents, I leave it to the reader to decide which tradition has the better record in this regard.
The more interesting issue raised by Mr. Critchlow relates to what he terms “the market’s ability to address the major social problems confronting American democracy today.” He concedes that consumers who find certain television programs, records, and films offensive are free to boycott them. But that, he says, may not be enough. Well, what then? Should others, who have different preferences, be denied access to these products? Should they be made to march to the beat of someone else’s drummer?
For Mr. Critchlow, a market-determined result—one that is produced by the accumulated preferences of consumers exercising free choice—that does not comport with an “agreed-upon morality” is problematic. Will we be asked next to deny seats to duly elected representatives who refuse to swear to support that “agreed-upon morality”?
No. Tax cuts cannot restore the old morality. But neither can central control of what goes out over the airwaves. Only personal responsibility, revived in ways suggested by Charles Murray, among others, can do that.
To the Editor:
In your symposium, Walter Berns’s comments on conservatism include so many questionable statements that it may be useful to call attention to at least some of them. He begins by characterizing Russell Kirk as the “doyen of the paleoconservarives” and thereby creates the impression that whatever view he attributes to Kirk is typical of all paleoconservatives. As the inventor of this term, I find that Mr. Berns does not know to whom or what it refers. Most paleos—e.g., Sam Francis, Tom Fleming, Lew Rockwell, and Allan Carlson—have studied the social sciences and other modern disciplines. They are not Anglo-Catholic traditionalists at war with the post-medieval world. Their complaint with the current American regime is not its failure to instantiate a “Christian commonwealth,” but its lack of constitutionality.
Mr. Berns gratuitously compares Father Richard John Neuhaus to those “self-righteous zealots” who impose their social policies through the courts. This comparison is misleading for two reasons.
One, there is nothing that Mr. Berns cites—or can cite—from Neuhaus’s editorial remarks in First Things to prove that he is a “self-righteous zealot.” Neuhaus never denies—and indeed affirms—that the American federal union was intended to be religiously pluralistic. But Neuhaus and his cosymposiasts also maintain (as Mr. Berns too admits at the end of his polemic) that the Founders assumed that a moral consensus would prevail in the new republic. They did not suspect that American courts would one day declare war on what had been the common moral ground of Americans whatever their denominational differences.
Two, the comparison between Neuhaus and the usurping judges overlooks a disproportion in power. While Neuhaus and company simply express their opinions, the judges, by contrast, are free to legislate and to overrule legislatures and referenda.
Mr. Berns fears that by making too much of these annoyances, we may be setting ourselves up for “some type of fascism.” As he warned during an interview with Insight magazine (February 3, 1997), a rightist dictatorship may be “the only alternative” unless we see ourselves as the “best regime.” Putting aside this alarmist speculation and the naive belief that today’s “best regime” would be recognizable as such to the Founders, the problem still remains of his misrepresentation of the protest expressed in First Things.
The First Things symposiasts, as far as I can tell, deplore not religious pluralism or natural rights or (unlike myself) the constitutional revolution carried out by the New Deal. They are complaining about the judicial assaults in recent decades on traditional family and communal life. Some who are especially outraged discuss the possibility of private disobedience in response to this development. By no means a call to violent upheaval, such musings seem far more modest than the organized disobedience that both Richard John Neuhaus and Walter Berns himself condoned during the civil-rights agitation of the 50’s and 60’s.
To the Editor:
In his contribution to the “On the Future of Conservatism” symposium, Walter Berns insults the late Russell Kirk and then attributes positions to him that Kirk never professed. As one of Kirk’s former research assistants who spent many hours with him and who is now completing a book on his political thought, I must respond to Mr. Berns’s unfair allegations.
Mr. Berns implies that Kirk was an anti-Semite because of a single incident. According to Mr. Berns, while Kirk was outlining his “plan for a Christian commonwealth” during a panel discussion, Mr. Berns abruptly interrupted his co-panelist to ask, “What are you going to do with us Jews?” Allegedly, the question
took him aback, first because he knew I was not Jewish, but most of all, I suspect, because it never occurred to him to ask it, or to have to answer it. After a short pause, he mumbled something to the effect that, of course, he did not mean to exclude Jews or anyone else.
I doubt that Mr. Berns has accurately described this incident. Kirk would not have responded so defensively and awkwardly, since he had frequently written about the Hebraic influences on the Western and American political tradition. Read, for example, his Roots of American Order (1974), in which he devotes an entire chapter to an examination of the Jewish impact on the American political order. “In both its Christian and Jewish forms,” Kirk wrote, “the order of Sinai still gives vitality to America.”
Nothing in my personal relationship with Kirk would lend any credence to Mr. Berns’s charge and nothing I have read in his writings would indicate that he disliked Jews.
Mr. Berns further alleges that Kirk claimed that “John Locke had nothing to do with the Constitution.” This is untrue. Kirk maintained that the Lockean influences on the Constitution had been exaggerated by the scholars Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter. Such historians, according to Kirk, ignored the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the British constitutional tradition, and the common-law tradition and its interpreters.
W. Wesley McDonald
Walter Berns writes:
Paul Gottfried claims to have coined the term “paleoconservative.” Well, good for him, but so far as I know, he hasn’t patented it.
He also artfully garbles my statement (made in a telephone interview) about the danger posed by talk of revolution. Let me quote it in full:
“I’m not angry that they [the First Things symposiasts] raised ‘regime questions,’ ” Berns explained to Insight. “I’m angry that they raised the possibility of civil disobedience and revolution. If ours is not the best regime, you have to consider the real alternatives. And since Communism has bitten the dust, the only alternative is some type of fascism. You always have to be on the alert about that.”
I should like to have edited that statement before it was printed, but I think its meaning is clear enough, and rather at variance with Paul Gottfried’s dissembling version of it.
In reply to W. Wesley McDonald, who says I am unfair to Russell Kirk: I did not imply that Kirk was an anti-Semite; I implied that he did not understand what he was saying when he suggested that the United States was, or was intended to be, a Christian commonwealth.
As to the Roots of American Order which, for my sins, I once read, I shall simply say that Kirk did not understand the provenance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with its separation of church and state.