Religion in Politics; Politics in Religion
Not too many months ago, it seemed that 1988 would be the year that religion-in-politics came into its own.
To be sure, the 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns had featured religion-in-politics galore, to an extent perhaps unrivaled since the days of William Jennings Bryan. Ronald Reagan was swept into office partly on the wave of fervent support he had carefully built up for years among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians; and he was not bashful about acknowledging their support and speaking to their concerns. “I endorse you and everything you do,” candidate Reagan enthused in August 1980 to a large political-action briefing assembled under the auspices of the Religious Roundtable; and much to the astonishment of pundits, this association not only did not hurt him politically, but gave him an enormous boost, even running against the born-again Jimmy Carter. Nor did Democratic attempts in 1984 to implicate Reagan in the premillennial-dispensationalist view of Armageddon do anything to revive the fortunes of the hapless Walter Mondale.
Thus, when televangelist Pat Robertson announced, after long consideration and innumerable straws in the wind, that he would be a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1988, it seemed a logical next step for this increasingly powerful movement—and increasing reason for concern among those who disliked or feared it. In retrospect, however, the increasing power, like so much else in our public-relations-dominated politics, seems to have been more apparent than real.
The discrepancy began with Reagan himself, who, once elected, quickly made it clear that, although he liked to speak to conservative Christians’ social and moral concerns, he had no intention of doing much about them. Rarely has a political pressure group been more effectively coopted, for the evangelicals’ political clout was almost completely tied to Reagan; and Reagan would never risk his popularity by departing too far from the curve of mainstream public opinion. As if this were not ill fortune enough, the steady succession of fallen or besmirched televangelists made the entire movement look fraudulent and foolish. Nothing in the most lurid recesses of Sinclair Lewis’s imagination could have surpassed the lurid spectacle provided by press accounts of Jimmy Swaggart’s encounters in the seedy motels of Airline Highway, or of Jim Bakker’s ambidextrous doings behind the closed doors of various Xanadus. In politics, nothing can long withstand the force of ridicule. Even if Robertson had been a more competent candidate than he turned out to be, his candidacy would have been doomed.
Perhaps, then, it is a fair indication of the national mood that each of the parties’ 1988 nominees for President is a more or less non-ideological, pragmatic, managerial type, who does not evince more than a faint tinge of religiosity, and who does not (and will not) have any deep appeal to the religious groups that found Reagan so attractive. In short, the issues of religion-in-politics are dormant, for now. But it would be a mistake to think that they are gone for good. Certainly the history of the subject would suggest otherwise. As Mark Silk makes clear in his recent book Spiritual Politics1 a study of religion and politics in the United States since World War II, religion and politics have always been entwined in this country, although the form and intensity of their entanglement varies. If that is so, it would be hard to imagine that the present represents more than a momentary respite in an oft-repeated cycle.
Such entanglement is not an accident; it reflects the persistent demands placed upon religion in American political life. According to Silk, a Harvard-educated historian who is currently a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, religion’s relationship with politics has had constantly to balance two different tendencies, which he designates “adhesion” and “conversion.” The former tendency pushes a faith’s adherents to invest the political order with some of the scope and energy of their faith, sometimes even to the extent of proclaiming divine sanction for its existence and its actions. The latter tendency pulls adherents inward, toward an exclusive commitment to the faith alone, over and above any secular obligations—a commitment both realized and signified by the act of conversion.
Silk offers the example of pagan Rome, in which there were many “adhesional,” nonexclusive pagan cults and sects, whose very number and variety made it unlikely that they would siphon off devotion to the Roman state. Judaism and Christianity, however, made more exclusive claims upon their followers, claims that in the end would prove incompatible with the easygoing adhesion that characterized pagan pluralism. Hence, the question of what to render unto Caesar quickly became a problematic one.
And so it remains. In inheriting the conversionist creeds of the Western religious tradition, the United States would also be powerfully influenced by their tendency toward exclusivism. But such impulses have never been given full play in our history, for this country has also had a long tradition of civic piety—of a quasi-religious veneration of, for example, the Founders and of the Constitution—which has served to bring religious loyalties roughly into line with political ones. Of course, in its more extreme manifestations, such as the Puritan regime in Massachusetts Bay, or the crusading of 19th-century Protestants to Christianize the world at large, and extirpate the alien influences of Catholics and Jews at home, such adhesion could be a fearsome and intolerant thing. But in the more moderate, generalized, and pluralistic form dubbed “civil religion” by the sociologist Robert Bellah, it has not only helped to foster cohesion in a pluralistic society, but served the deeper purpose of legitimating the political order by relating it to transcendent purposes and ideals. One finds this tone struck preeminently in the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln; but in fact nearly all effective American political oratory taps into classic civil-religious themes.
In the story that follows, Silk traces the ways adhesion weaves in and out of recent American religious history. He has begun the story at the ideal moment, for World War II brought a previously unequaled unity to American religion, as indeed to the American nation as a whole. One manifestation of that new-found unity was the rise to prominence in the 1940′s of the idea of the Judeo-Christian tradition, an adhesional “new creed” which, he argues, had a fundamentally political purpose, although it was not without important roots in neo-orthodox Christian theology. Above all, the Judeo-Christian tradition provided a rallying point for a united democratic front—first against Hitler and fascism, and then against Communism. Indeed, some prominent exponents of the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, contended that the persistence of religious faith constituted the only real and saving difference between the secular liberalism and materialism of the West and the Communism of the East.
Hence, the 1950′s were a triumphant decade of adhesionist impulses, epitomized by the addition of “In God We Trust” to all U.S. currency and the words “Under God” (taken from the Gettysburg Address) to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was also well personified in the rising influence of the interdenominational evangelist Billy Graham, who overcame the resistance of mainstream Protestant leaders to gain for himself a place at Protestantism’s leadership table, as well as the confidence of many notable political figures. Graham was far more sophisticated and worldly-wise than his evangelical predecessors, and did not let conversion stand in the way of adhesion. His sermons, as Silk demonstrates, follow in the classic tradition of the American revivalist sermon, and more particularly of the Puritan jeremiad, which had a distinctly civil-religious, adhesive purpose: to chastise the nation for its sins, but in a way meant to reinvigorate its sense of purpose—“the special character, the transcendent mission, the dream, of America.”
Adhesion was, it seemed, bursting out all over. Roman Catholics, now finding less and less resistance to their acceptance as full-fledged Americans, were not about to embrace the conversionist path advocated by extreme Catholic separatists, like Father Leonard Feeney of Massachusetts. Questionnaires at the time indicated that Catholics now preferred to think of themselves as Americans who happened to be Catholic, and not the reverse. And Jews too could take heart, at least for the time being, from the fact that this new national creed, the Judeo-Christian tradition, had specifically made room for them, albeit in rather cramped, hyphenated quarters. “Our form of government,” President-elect Eisenhower proclaimed, vaguely, “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.” Thus did pluralism and adhesion make their peace with one another.
There were, of course, complaints about this dilution of faith and subordination to the secular, as in Will Herberg’s 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew. These dovetailed with that familiar critique of the 50′s as a time of mindless conformity; accordingly, Americans’ religious sentiments were judged tepid and unchallenging, merely a comfortable social adjunct to the comfortable life of the suburbs. Herberg deplored the essentially social group-identities that the three major divisions of American religion had devolved into, and was deeply skeptical of the depth of the current religious revival, longing instead for more bracing, more demanding faiths. Niebuhr, too, being an enemy of all complacencies, real or perceived, rarely passed up an opportunity to chide the American people for their sins of spiritual pride, and to attack Billy Graham for his superficiality and lack of social commitment.
As the country approached the 1960′s, and the civil-rights movement came increasingly to the fore of religious consciousness, however, both social quiescence and neo-orthodox complexity seemed to fall by the wayside. But adhesion did not—at least, not yet. One could readily find in the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. repeated allusions to the key elements of the American civil religion. In his well-known Lincoln Memorial address, for example, biblical and patriotic allusions abounded; and in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he proclaimed that protesters “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage . . . the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” Social activism and adhesion were not incompatible; King’s rhetoric was very different, in this respect, from that of the decidedly non-adhesional Christian abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79), whose most famous public act was the burning of the Constitution.
The spirit of Garrison, however, was increasingly abroad in the land, as openly adversarial religious leaders like the Berrigan brothers and Bishop James Pike began coming to the fore, along with a counterculture that strove to decouple established faiths (when it did not disdain them altogether) from the existing political order. The postwar period of adhesional unity crumbled under the force of the period’s social upheaval, and it remains unrestored, despite various efforts, including those of the religious New Right, to rediscover or rebuild it. Yet Silk concludes with the suggestion that the baby-boom generation, having now grown up, moved to the suburbs, and begun their own families, may be gravitating toward the established churches out of the same need for stable, child-rearing values that their parents felt. The pendulum, in short, may be swinging back in the direction of a kind of 50′s-style adhesion, mutatis mutandis.
Such, in any event, is the story as Silk tells it. A brief, stylish book which wears its considerable learning lightly, Spiritual Politics skillfully compresses a great deal of recent American history. It has many of the strengths of good journalism—a jaunty and memorable style, narrative verve, immediacy, and a fine knack for locating the single revelatory example that can illuminate a multitude of events. Silk is a gifted writer, and anyone who thinks the history of religion a dull subject will be in for a pleasant surprise upon taking up this book.
But it also suffers from some of the weaknesses of journalism, weaknesses that are probably inseparable from its virtues. These extend far beyond the author’s chronic inability to restrain his faintly satirical tone or his clever epigrams, which fly a little too fast and thick for the book’s good, and which are too often made to stand in for more detailed analysis. There is a deeper problem: as the above summary indicates, Silk has elected to concentrate almost exclusively upon a narrative account of the doings and words of religious leaders and intellectuals. These are the “players,” so to speak, in his story; the people who matter, the opinion leaders, the men whose names and views and foibles would be likely to turn up in the pages of the New York Times—the Billy Grahams, Henry Van Dusens, James Pikes, Harvey Coxes, Reinhold Niebuhrs. Valuable as this perspective is, it also oversimplifies the enormous complexity of religious experience. Religion cannot be covered the way one covers Capitol Hill—least of all in a country like the United States.
As the historian John Lukacs has shrewdly observed, the history of a democracy is particularly difficult to write, precisely because the actual evolution of its ideas, sentiments, and institutions may be (and often are) quite at odds with what appears on the surface. For all of its narrative energy, Silk’s account rarely penetrates beneath the surface to tell us what sorts of changes have occurred in individual churches and synagogues, how individual Americans have thought and felt about their religious commitments, and how those thoughts and feelings reflect a changing, even remolding, of American religion from the inside.
Religion is, at bottom, a social institution; churches are “moral communities,” in Durkheim’s parlance, and closer attention to those communities is likely to shed a good deal of light on the roots of the country’s spiritual politics. The study of 19th-century American religion, for example, is inseparable from—indeed, practically synonymous with—the history of immigration and of ethnic rivalries. This is not to say that Silk ought to have written his history “from the bottom up,” whatever that cant phrase may mean; only that religious history always and inevitably has a profoundly social dimension, one which ought not to be ignored.
Nor does his principal analytical leitmotif, the tension between the forces of “adhesion” and “conversion,” always help to further our understanding of American religion. It fits the particular circumstances of the 1950′s admirably; it is especially useful in understanding the tensions within Roman Catholicism during those years, as well as the rise and fall of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But its analytical utility drops off sharply as the story approaches the present, where the dualism appears to slacken, and finally collapses entirely. Jerry Falwell’s brand of Christianity, for example, is every bit as devoted to adhesion as to conversion; meanwhile, plenty of liberal Protestants are equally indifferent to both. Moreover, as the book’s exposition proceeds, the meaning of these terms becomes progressively fuzzier and less manageable. Sometimes adhesion even seems to be conflated with pluralism or ecumenism or, by the book’s end, with complacent middle-class suburban churchgoing and books like When Bad Things Happen to Good People. All of which indicates that the story of postwar American religion cannot quite be captured by the interplay of these two forces.
A rather different approach to the same subject, and ultimately a far more rewarding one, appears in a new study, The Restructuring of American Religion, by the sociologist Robert Wuthnow.2 In fact, the two books could hardly be more different. Some of the differences work to Silk’s favor, for where his book is lively and concrete, Wuthnow’s is relentlessly bloodless and abstract (although, one notes in gratitude, virtually jargon-free), and frequently operates on such a high level of generalization that one must strain one’s imagination to connect the argument with anything familiar or concrete. But the effort is well worth making. Once one adjusts to the author’s prose, what one finds is an extremely penetrating, nuanced, and largely convincing account of what is really happening to American religion—an account worthy of comparison with, say, Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew, or H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism, although Wuthnow’s argument ultimately supersedes both.
For Wuthnow, one factor seems more important than all others in explaining the evolution of postwar American religion: the steady growth of the state. In this observation, he confirms the foresight of Tocqueville, who predicted that as governments assumed many of the functions of private associations, such as churches and community organizations, those organizations that remained would be progressively weakened or radically altered. “The more [the state] stands in the place of associations,” Tocqueville wrote, “the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other.” Like a powerful magnet set down in the midst of scattered iron filings, the modern state reorients the entire field of social forces, and rearranges the constituent elements in its image. Nothing can stand entirely aloof from it for long.
“Causes and effects that unceasingly create each other.” Most of the controversial issues that have roiled this country’s spiritual politics in the past several decades—school prayer and other forms of public religious expression, abortion, tax-exemption for religious organizations, the proper provision of social welfare, nuclear strategy, and so on—have been responses to actions of the state, and have revolved around “the increasingly problematic boundary between church and state.” Hence, the crucial divisions in American religion are no longer denominational ones; nor are they the divisions among Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish “identities” once posited by Herberg. They are political divisions—liberal vs. conservative. But Wuthnow does not attribute this development simply to the secularization of American life—a view he rejects in any event. The process is more complex, a simultaneous politicization and privatization of American religion, which he follows from the close of World War II, focusing most of his attention on the evolution of the Christian churches.
Like Silk, Wuthnow is impressed by the way American religious organizations flourished as never before in the immediate postwar years. The widespread prosperity and surging demographics of those times ensured that there would be swelling congregations and expanding construction budgets. And the ominous prospects latent in a tense, post-Hiroshima world, although deeply troubling to religious leaders, also energized them with a profound sense of purpose—and their organizations grew to meet the demands. Indeed, the hierarchies of the established denominations, as well as numerous interdenominational and ecumenical organizations then springing into being, quickly became sizable bureaucracies with full-time professional staffs, and budgets in the many millions of dollars.
Paradoxically, however, this exponential organizational growth was accompanied by an increased emphasis upon religion as the champion of the individual, in a world threatened not only by totalitarianism but also by the dehumanizing effects of vast, impersonal institutions. Such concerns were at the center not only of the strong anti-Communism of the 50′s but also of such influential works of social criticism as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and William Whyte’s The Organization Man. This concern, as well as the ecumenical drive to deemphasize formal and doctrinal differences between denominations, gave rise to a highly individualized approach to faith, one eminently compatible with longstanding American traits and supported by the clear-cut disjunction, then observed by both conservative and liberal authorities, between worldly realities and religious visions.
In time, Wuthnow argues, “the corporate body” of each individual church “became subtly transposed into a service agency for the fulfillment of its individual members.” But as the churches’ adminstrative bureaucracies grew, and their expanding congregations became more socially heterogeneous, their purposes became more diffuse; individuals increasingly gravitated toward more narrowly focused kinds of association, where they could bring a more intense or communal dimension to their religious practice. Thus, even as denominational bureaucracies were growing and prospering, denominational identity was diminishing as a force in the minds of millions of individual Americans; instead, many members began putting their best energies into “special purpose groups,” many of them interdenominational groups with more or less political goals, and large offices in New York or Washington perfectly situated to pursue those aims. The modern American church had become restructured into a “mega-church,” with a “vast network of committees, classes, community services, choirs, schools, youth programs, and interest groups”; overlaid upon this structure were many dozens of “highly institutionalized organizations oriented to special-interest groups within denominations.”
The parallels with what was happening to American politics in the same years—as, for example, in the Balkanization of parties into special-interest groups oriented according to occupation, gender, race, sexual preference, age, etc.—are no coincidence. They further confirm Wuthnow’s insight that religious organizations have taken on the lineaments of political ones.
To be sure, many special-purpose groups have no political dimension; there are, for example, groups founded for Christians who happen to be big-time athletes, or drag racers, or magicians, or pilots, or musicians, or alcoholics. There are prison ministries, Bible study groups, charismatic groups, healing ministries. Even the proliferation of these organizations, however, has contributed to the internal division of churches and denominations, by drawing members’ energies away from the whole, and into highly specific channels.
More important, in any case, are the many organizations, large and small, with an explicitly political focus: Coalition for Religious Freedom, Moral Majority, National Federation for Decency, National Council of Churches, Christian Voice, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Christian Law Association, World Conference on Religion and Peace, Society of Separationists, Americans for God, American Baptist Black Caucus, and so on, and on, list without end. There are organizations for gay Mormons, for disarmament, for the handicapped, for the divorced, for women’s rights, for any and every cause. “Despite a formal wall of separation between church and state,” Wuthnow concludes, “a growing mass of religious organizations has come into being with the state very much a part of their specific objectives.”
Wuthnow has used survey data to confirm something most observers would suspect: that some people may participate in more than one special-purpose group, and, more significantly, that there is a predictable pattern to their participation (and nonparticipation), a pattern that has little to do with their denomination. He has found two clusters of activity groupings, one “liberal” and one “conservative,” and this liberal-conservative split cuts cleanly across denominational lines, reflecting profound and growing intra-denominational divisions. Hence the frequently encountered phenomenon that, say, a conservative Methodist may feel and have far more in common with a conservative Catholic, or even a conservative Jew, than with a liberal of his own denomination. Three decades ago, such experiences were exceedingly rare; that they have now become commonplace does not augur particularly well for the denominations.
In one of the most interesting of Wuthnow’s findings, the single best predictor of the category to which an individual will gravitate is level of education. Those who have been to college are far more likely to be, or to have become, religious liberals—liberal in their theological attitudes (for example, rejection of scriptural literalism), in their choice of causes (anti-nuclear coalitions rather than prison ministries; holistic health groups rather than Bible study groups), in their social attitudes (favorable view of social activism, homosexuality, feminism), and in their support for a specific political agenda (environmentalism, disarmament, affirmative action, Palestinian state). In the past, denominationalism correlated neatly with ethnicity, region, and class; think, for example, of all that “Episcopalian” once conjured up. Today the crucial distinctions are increasingly political, they exist within and across denominations, and they correlate more readily with educational levels than with any other single factor.
Here, too, the indirect influence of the state in furthering the liberal-conservative split cannot be neglected. It was the United States government that enthusiastically pressed the extension of higher education after World War II, through the generous provisions of the G.I. Bill and unprecedented investment in research and development—all of which fueled the pell-mell postwar growth of colleges and universities. Between 1960 and 1970, higher-education enrollments increased from 3.6 million to 8.6 million, or nearly 139 percent. By the latter year, one in three college-age Americans was attending an institution of higher learning. If mainline American religion has shown an increasingly leftward tilt in the postwar era, the expansion of higher education must be accounted a significant factor in that development. And Wuthnow’s argument has the interesting side effect of providing strong confirmation for the much-maligned notion that there is a “new class” whose distinctive worldview, virtually identical with that of Wuthnow’s religious liberals, is rooted in and promulgated through the distinctive culture of American higher education.
In the 1940′s and 1950′s, differences were downplayed, and the American civil religion saw to it that there was a powerful sense of the nation’s fundamental meaning—its legitimating myth, as Wuthnow puts it. Now, he says, we have not one but two legitimating myths in our civil religion: one to which conservatives appeal, and one to which liberals appeal. Religious conservatives are likely to point to the providential destiny of America, its special place in human history and the divine order, as validation of traditional American values and institutions. Religious liberals are more likely to disparage patriotism, and to speak in broad, universalistic tones of the country’s moral responsibility to use its wealth to make the world a more just and equitable place; and they point for justification not only to biblical sources but also to the egalitarian rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and the language of “human rights.”
As the conflict between liberals and conservatives has become more heated, the common ground has shrunk. As a consequence, the civil religion has lost its cohesive force. Hence, there has been strong reason for Americans to look for purely secular legitimating myths—and to look in their leaders for a cool, analytical, pragmatic, value-neutral, technocratic, managerial style, the style that may well be in the ascendancy in the presidential politics of 1988.
If the past is any guide, however, such politics will not likely last for long; not in a country that is, in Sidney Mead’s fine phrase, “a nation with the soul of a church.” Even the most uncontroversial secular legitimations have a way of drifting back to religious ones for ultimate support, and the classic patterning of a more openly religious sensibility is usually very much alive in the most powerful secular appeals—in the jeremiads of influential social critics against greed and narcissism, for example, or in the aura of divine judgment which is so often projected onto stock-market crashes, or medical emergencies, or (especially) environmental problems.
In short, pragmatic grounds for consensus will not be likely to displace the deeper need Americans have always had to link their political and social being to a transcendent order and universalistic mission. We can expect more outbursts of spiritual politics. And judging from the recent successes of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, as well as the humiliation of the TV preachers, the fire next time may well come from the Left. But no one can predict such matters with any certainty, for the spirit still bloweth where it listeth.
Still, the institutional restructuring described in Wuthnow’s book suggests that something more complex than pendulum-swinging is at work. Religion has become at once more private and more political in the age of televangelists and of the naked public square (to use Richard John Neuhaus’s term). Wuthnow tries to maintain a social scientist’s neutrality toward many of these phenomena, dutifully exploring the possibility that the changes he has described may represent a functional and healthy adaptation to a changing world. But his evidence paints a darker picture, of institutions devolving into mirror images of the bureaucracies and pressure groups from which they increasingly take their cues, their agenda, and even their thoughts. Indeed, for all of religion’s greater and greater political involvement, it is not really a first-string player in that politics. It is more like a cheerleader on the sidelines, who watches and stamps and shouts as the boys from the secular city slug it out on the gridiron. Religion used to have other, better things to do with its weekends.
Perhaps religion itself cannot be blamed for the fact that, in an era in which the state intrudes into nearly all aspects of our lives, politics seems to be the only game in town. Yet the most important task facing American religion may, in fact, lie in resistance to precisely those trends Wuthnow describes so convincingly. That will not be easy. One is reminded of the minister who began the Sunday prayers by saying, “O Lord, have you read this morning’s New York Times?” It is not wrong to enlist the forces of religion in secular causes. Sometimes it is morally necessary. But what may be more difficult, and more necessary, is to keep alive the sense of another, different, space in which we live and move and have our being—without which sense religion is little more than formalism or dogma or niceness. We have worried loud and long about the effects of religion on politics; but, as Wuthnow repeatedly laments, we have given precious little thought to the effect of politics on religion.
Perhaps, after all these abstractions, I may be permitted a concrete personal example, which illuminates something of what is being lost, at least in the mainline Protestant environment most familiar to me. A couple of years ago, I attended a funeral service for a young woman, a secretary at the university with which I was then affiliated. She was an attractive, generous, incandescent soul, beloved by everyone she worked with, no mean feat in such a contentious setting. She had died, tragically, in giving birth to her second child—a death even more bitterly shocking than an automobile accident or a street-corner shooting, for it seemed almost too atavistic to be possible. How, in this day and age, in a major American city with all the most advanced medical technologies available, could such a thing still happen?
Evidently the same question was on the mind of the minister who stepped up to deliver the eulogy to the overflow crowd of mourners that day. But where the rest of us had been stunned into reflective silence, awed and chastened by this reminder of the slender thread by which our lives hang, the minister had other things in mind. He did not talk about the deceased, except to praise her laughter briefly and imprecisely, leaving one with the feeling that he had not even known her. (I later found out this was not so.) He did not try to comfort her family and friends. Nor did he challenge us to remember the hard words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Will be done.” Instead, he smoothly launched into a well-oiled tirade against the misplaced priorities of our society, in which billions of dollars were being poured into “Star Wars” research while young women such as this one were being allowed to die on the operating table.
That was all the minister had to say. His eulogy was, in effect, a pitch for less federal spending on defense and more spending on the development of medical technology. There was also an unmistakable hint that the young woman’s doctors might well have been guilty of malpractice, but would of course be insulated from the consequences of their mistakes by our corrupt system. The only thing omitted was an injunction that we write our Congressman, or Ralph Nader, about this outrage.
I could hardly believe my ears. Had the minister set out to desecrate her memory rather than honor it, he could hardly have done a better job. But leave aside the eulogy’s unspeakable vulgarity, and its unintentional cruelty to the woman’s family. Leave aside the flabby and clichéd quality of language and speech. Leave aside the self-satisfied tone of easy moral outrage. Leave aside the fashionable opinions, too, since honorable and intelligent men and women can disagree about these things. I am even willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that the minister may have been right in everything he said. All these considerations are beside the point.
Nothing can alter the fact that he failed us, failed her, and failed his calling, by squandering a precious moment for the sake of a second-rate stump speech, and by forcing us to hold our sorrow back in the privacy of our hearts, at the very moment it needed a common expression. That moment can never be recovered. Nothing that religion does is more important than equipping us to endure life’s passages, by helping us find meaning in pain and loss. With meaning, many things are bearable; but our eulogist did not know how to give it to us. All he had to offer were his political desiderata. For my own part, I left the funeral more shaken and unsteady than before. Part of my distress arose from frustration, that my deepest thoughts (and those of many around me, as I later discovered) were so completely unechoed in this ceremony and in these words. But another part of my distress must have stemmed from a dark foreboding that I was witnessing another kind of malpractice, and another kind of death.
1 Simon & Schuster, 206 pp., $19.95.
2 Princeton University Press, 388 pp., $25.00.