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Religion's Role in Public Life

R&L: Alexis de Tocqueville observed that religion is the first political institution in America, an observation you have said is even more true today than it was in the nineteenth century. Would you explain?

Neuhaus: One can make the case that America is in many ways more religious today than it was in the 1830s when Tocqueville wrote. Tocqueville’s understanding of religion as the first political institution had nothing to do with what is viewed today as the influence of religion in lobbying and direct political action. Rather, apart from the family, which is not a political institution, it was in religious associations that people came to experience their first and deepest sense of participation. In that sense, religion is the first political institution. Second, the great majority of Americans, both in de Tocqueville’s time and our own, believe that morality is derived from religious faith and religious tradition–however confusedly and indirectly. It is in these indirect ways that religion has had its primary influence in the shaping of character and the sustaining of communities of memory and mutual aid.

R&L: There is a perception that the vocal, liberal policy makers and special interest groups are not representing the majority of Americans–that democracy is not working. Do you think this is true?

Neuhaus: Democracy is almost by definition a raucous and unsatisfactory process that never works satisfactorily. Here Churchill’s minimalist proposition that democracy is the worst of all political systems except for all the others has a measure of truth. Indeed, the great majority of people are not politically engaged. There are theorists, like Benjamin Barber, who view this as a major problem and call for a “strong democracy” in the tradition of Jean Jacques Rousseau. I am not sure that strong democracy, in which the great issues of the polity are front and center for the majority of the people, is a very good form of democracy at all. One might make the case that the popular disposition of suspicion, and even a measure of indifference to politics, is itself a mark of vitality for a democracy that is all in all working reasonably well.

R&L: Do you think there is a connection between democracy and the work ethic? In particular, do you think the difficulty in establishing democracy in Catholic countries stems from a lack of the same type of work ethic so prevalent in Protestantism?

Neuhaus: Your question touches on the thesis of Max Weber with regard to the connection between the rise of democratic capitalism and the Protestant work ethic. I think a more relevant factor to the development of democracy and of market economies is the reality of anti-Christian and anti-Catholic sentiments in the eighteenth century, especially the case of the French Revolution. The third wave of democratization taking place in the world is in large part taking place within cultures that are predominantly Catholic–in Latin America, the Philippines, very clearly in Portugal and Spain, and other places.

R&L: Can you briefly describe what you call the “new capitalism” of Centesimus Annus? Does this encyclical represent a shift in Catholic social teaching?

Neuhaus: The “new capitalism” that the Holy Father describes in Centesimus Annus is intended, as I understand it, to distinguish what he is proposing from the capitalism at the early period of the industrialization process. This “new capitalism” is marked by a keen appreciation of the need to maintain a vibrant and critical interaction between economics, culture, and politics. It must be emphasized that of those three, culture is the most important, and that at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion. So this “new capitalism” is in many ways what writers such as Michael Novak describe as democratic capitalism. It is an idea that is historically embodied in a number of advanced societies, not least of all the United States. This is a very significant development in Catholic social teaching that will, in my judgment, nurture a new phase of Catholic social thought with respect to the relationship between a Christian anthropology and a Christian understanding of history as it relates to economics and political justice.

R&L: You were among the first religious intellectuals to warn about the excessive claims of the environmental movement. How do you see the state of affairs today?

Neuhaus: Almost twenty-five years ago I wrote In Defense of People which, as far as I know, was the first book-length critique of environmentalism. In many ways the basic questions haven’t changed that much over the last twenty-five years. As the title of that book indicated, I am unapologetically a “specieist.” I believe, both on the basis of Christian revelation and compelling reason, that humanity is cantor and caretaker of the created universe, the crown of creation, and therefore has priority in the created order. It is a priority of privilege, but above all a priority of responsibility. The goals of environmentalism–whether in its moderate or extreme forms–can only be implemented by human beings. This is the great paradox among those who are “anti-specieist,” who do not want to privilege the human role in creation. Whatever they propose for the spotted owl or forestry or wetlands needs to be carried out by human beings. And so, if anything, the environmental movement has unconsciously and inadvertently accentuated the utterly singular role of humanity in the care of the creation.

R&L: What are some of the specific problems you see with environmentalism’s advocacy of population control?

Neuhaus: The problem with population control is that the “anti-specieists” are anti-humanitarian, despite the fact that the frequently hysterical and apocalyptic warnings of population control advocates have been discredited again and again. Here, again, Centesimus Annus has something of critical importance to offer. If we look upon every human being as one who has been called into being by God, and is destined for God, every human being is the bearer of an enormous potential, which is also a potential for contribution to the city of man. It is a perverse and evil view that maintains if a calf is born to a cow in a poor country, the country is considered richer, but if a human being is born, the country is considered poorer. This completely ignores the understanding that wealth is the product of human effort and ingenuity, a teaching central to Centesimus Annus. Wealth is not primarily something that is found in the ground to be extracted, as  gold or coal or oil, but is something that human beings produce. The most dramatic example of this is the computer revolution where a previously “worthless” resource, sand, was made valuable by using it to produce silicone chips. Many countries of the world are poor, not because there are too many people, but because there is very bad government–dictatorial government, a corrupt government, or no government at all. Without government insuring order–its primary obligation–human energies and talents cannot be creatively and securely employed in the production of wealth and the uplifting of the world’s poor.

R&L: What does prosperity do to religious sensibilities?

Neuhaus: Prosperity can be a great temptation to pride and smugness and complacency, but I am not sure that prosperity is any greater a spiritual temptation than is poverty, which is a temptation to despair and lethargy and indifference. The Christian ethic is not anti-prosperity. Certainly within the Christian community, voluntary poverty that is chosen for the sake of the kingdom of God is elevated spiritually and is something that is held up to be emulated by those who are called to that vocation and as a critical reference for all Christians. But there is nothing in the Christian ethic which says it is better to be poor than to be rich. Even the Beatitudes are premised upon the promise that those who are now poor will be rich–that being rich is good. At the same time, the church relentlessly challenges every Christian not to become consumed by prosperity. Consumerism is not simply the state of being well off, it is the spiritual disposition of being controlled by what one consumes, of living in order to consume, of living in order to have things. This, of course, is a great spiritual danger for rich and poor alike.

R&L: Would you agree that there is a general lack of appreciation for liberty, particularly economic liberty, among the clergy?

Neuhaus: Clergy do tend to dismiss the importance of economic liberty. Among those one might call professional moralists there is an understandable desire to create a “just society.” Since no society short of the kingdom of God can meet the appropriate criteria of justice, it follows that people want some kind of power, some kind of authority, to rightly order a society that is not rightly ordered by the simple exercise of individual liberty. This creates a circumstance which makes socialism, in one form or another, a very strong temptation for the moral imagination of politically engaged religious leaders. This is an endemic problem in religion and in America that found its most extravagant (some would say admirable) expression in the social gospel movement among Protestants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We should never deceive ourselves into thinking that even by the most vigorous and effective kind of educational effort we are going to be rid of the problem of the unbridled moral imagination seeking to employ the coercive power of the state to create what some view as a more just society.

R&L: You have been involved in ecumenism throughout your career. What trends do you see in the ecumenical movement? Also, what prospects for success?

Neuhaus: During the thirty years I was a Lutheran pastor I was intensely involved in the Jewish-Christian dialogue and, among the Christian communities, in Roman Catholic dialogue. The goal of ecumenism from the viewpoint of the Catholic church is ecclesial reconciliation with the end in view of full communion in faith and in ministerial order. This goal, according to the extraordinary synod of 1985 is “indelibly imprinted upon the church’s heart and mind.” I think that Catholics need to take this very seriously, ecumenism is a part of Catholic orthodoxy. There is a kind of ecumenism, of course, which tends to be minimalistic and to water down the distinctive truth claims of the Catholic church, and that kind of ecumenism is rightly regarded as dangerous.

The trend today is one of diminished ecumenical expectations. Five or ten years ago there was, especially among Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, a strong sense that ecclesial reconciliation was something that could happen in the foreseeable future. Today, however, people have a keen awareness that the goal of ecclesial reconciliation is in the distant future. But our commitment to ecumenism does not depend on any schedules. From a Catholic viewpoint, ecumenism is inherently and necessarily part of the church’s life and mission. As Lumen Gentium makes clear, all baptized Christians are truly but imperfectly in communion with the Catholic church, and thus the Catholic church is committed to working toward the realization, the fulfillment, of that true but imperfect communion.

R&L: You have ministered in the inner city, and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King in the sixties. To what extent do you see the welfare state of the eighties and nineties as responsible for the moral breakdown in society in general, and the disintegration of the family in particular?

Neuhaus: I don’t know that the welfare state of the eighties and nineties is responsible for the moral breakdown of society in general or the disintegration of the family in particular. With respect to the inner city, however, there is this awesome dilemma of the urban underclass that is mainly, but not only, black. This urban underclass is not typical of all of black America. Indeed, roughly two-thirds of black America are full participants in American life.

There were, nonetheless, a number of things that happened back in the 1960s with the war on poverty and related efforts that contributed to the truly alarming state of alienation of the urban underclass today. Charles Murray and others pointed to the system of incentives and disincentives that discouraged work or seeking work among a sector of the poverty population in America as one factor in this alienation.

Another often overlooked factor is the role of the elite culture in the 1960s, seventies, and eighties that threw itself into a spasm of myriad liberationisms: sexual liberations, liberation from the family as an oppressive institution, gender liberation, etc. These liberationisms, which may indeed have been experienced as liberating by economically secure and socially stable Americans, were absolutely devastating for the very poor whose lives were in no way stable or secure.

R&L: What has been the point of reference for your philosophy and has it remained consistent?

Neuhaus: My point of reference, which I hope I have maintained since the early sixties, is my persistent hope of being religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic. That was my quadrilateral–my four basic points. I still want to be those four things, and in that order of priority. The main thing that has changed in the last twenty-five years has been the definition of politically liberal. I would contend that what today is called neo-conservatism and even frequently what is called conservatism is in fact an older form of American political liberalism. But I don’t lose any sleep at all over these labels. I take issues as they com and, within a stable context of theological and moral commitment, try to make the best of circumstances which will always be wanting until our Lord returns in glory.