Politics and Prayer


One of the high points of this fall’s campaign season was the vigorous debate over the place of religion in America’s public life. In retrospect, it may some day be regarded as the most meaningful public discussion of the question in this century. The exchange began early in the campaign when President Reagan asserted in a Dallas prayer breakfast that politics and religion are “necessarily related” and later; in an American Legion speech in Salt Lake City, attacked “antireligionists” for trying “to twist the concept of freedom of religion to mean freedom against religion.” Walter Mondale responded in a B’nai B’rith speech in Washington by accusing Reagan of violating the constitutional separation of Church and state by supporting school prayer and of thereby asking “the state to enforce the religious life of our people.” Religious attitudes toward abortion were soon added to the agenda, as Senator Kennedy, Governor Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, Archbishop O’Connor, Moral Majority, and many others joined in the fray. Handicapped by a stunted religious sensibility, the national media often lapsed into threadbare clichés, denouncing the New Right effort to “impose” religious views on the nation. Fortunately, some media outlets moved beyond these deceptive platitudes by seeking understanding from more qualified observers, including Richard John Neuhaus, Lutheran pastor and director of The Rockford Institute’s Center on Religion & Society in New York. In interviews with Newsweek, Time, Nightline, and others, Pasto Neuhaus explained why the concept of secular America is historically and sociologically false and why religious convictions should be part of the country’s political dialogue. “The present confusion,” he explained,”… can turn out to be a watershed moment in American political and cultural life if we begin to reconstruct a public philosophy, one that is responsible to, and in conversation with, the religious-based values of the American people.” Much discussed, Pastor Neuhaus’s book The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America also helped to define the terms of the Church-state debate. (Further discussion of this work will appear in future issues of Chronicles.)



Unfortunately, the political leaders involved in the debate abandoned it before some central issues were addressed. Fairly early, Reagan’s aides urged him to drop the subject, while Mondale’s advisers likewise steered their candidate away from the topic. In part, prudential considerations dictated the abbreviation of the debate. Reagan’s camp believed it already had the religious vote sewn up and did not want to alienate other constituencies. Mondale strategists on the other hand were worried about sagging support among Southern Protestants. But beyond these calculations lay a more fundamental barrier to prolonged discussion of religion in modern electoral politics.


“Religion,” Santayana observed, “is the enjoyment of life in the consciousness of impotence.” Contemporary politicians are all for the enjoyment of life. Their slogans invariably promise more and more of it. Consciousness of human impotence is another matter. A sense of human contingency and sinfulness has always been at the center of a religious sensibility, yet such themes rarely surface in American life today. When during a rare moment of clarity President Carter rashly suggested that Americans might be suffering from a “malaise of spirit,” his popularity tumbled over­ night. Voters perpetually reminded how great they are and how much greater their leaders can make them could not stand for such talk. Even most churches now soft pedal religion’s humbling themes in favor of homilies less likely to threaten their parishioners’ tender self­ esteem. The social gospel or positive thinking provides safer texts.


But besides being perilous to the soul the absence of any public sense of human finitude makes for self-destructive politics. Voters become unrealistically utopian in their expectations and politicians become Promethean in their altitudes. Too many political leaders are already like the one of whom Winston Churchill remarked, “There but for the grace of God goes God.” They claim the keys to making everyone affluent, healthy, and comfortable, to securing international peace, to eliminating prejudice and inequality, and even to putting man­ kind into the heavens. Once in office, these leaders invariably display their mortal limits by failing to deliver on their inflated pledges. The result is often despair and cynicism among the electorate.


In a remarkably candid letter, Karl Marx once admitted that anyone who pondered on human contingency must concede the existence of God and that therefore “this question is forbidden to socialist man.” For too long, this question has been tacitly forbidden to American men and women as well. No one expects the appearance of “Humility Now!” as a campaign slogan. But America would be a healthier country if all those engaged in winning “grass-roots” sup­ port for their political policies knew, with Isaiah, that “the grass withereth, the grass.”   cc


Fame: I’m Going to Live Forever


The death of Truman Capote at the early age of 59 raises some questions about the career of the artist in our time. By now we are used to the spectacle of creative talent destroying itself for public amusement. Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix — we thought of them as heroic victims of their excesses in the great tradition of Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan. Most recently, comics like John Belushi and Andy Kaufman, writers like Tennessee Williams and Capote, actors like William Holden and Richard Burton — all have gone to wherever it is that guests on the Tonight Show go. You could make a movie, Someone is Killing the Celebrities of America, in which it turned out that a fired editor of People magazine was getting revenge on his former employers by destroying their material.


Of course, no one is actually murdering them, if we exclude drugs, booze, and the devil as possible agents. They did it to themselves, but why? Apart from all the arguments you can make — the decadence of our society, the hollowness of its values, our habit of celebrating the second-rate and insecure — there is still the nagging feeling that these people are, in a sense, victims of their celebrity. Since the days of P. T. Barnum, the American public has had an appetite for sensations. A man writes a reasonable book or a decent play and before too long finds himself talking to Johnny and Phil in front of millions of viewers. He gets used to seeing his picture in Time and his name in the papers. He becomes a celebrity, and that is his undoing. He no longer has to write good books — he just has to sell them. Above all, he has to stay in the public eye. But eventually the public gets tired. If the Second Coming took place on the Letterman show, it would boost the ratings for a week and then be forgotten — replaced by a new starlet on Dallas or a Sex Diet for Cats book.


Capote’s case is all too typical. In his youth he wrote some almost first-rate short stories, two pretty good novels. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was made into a successful movie. Before long, Capote started talking about the contest between himself and Norman Mailer — which would emerge as the greatest postwar American writer? The comparison was revealing. In his long and embarrassing career, Mailer has written one good novel, his first. What he has achieved is a triumph of the will, the conversion of a second-rate James Jones into a stage Irishman, an American Behan, a Jewish Jimmy Breslin. His talent for self-promotion would have made him a fortune on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood. No matter how much Capote camped it up at parties of the rich and famous or dripped out his venomous little apothegms, he could never equal Mailer’s performance or his success. For one thing, he had too much taste. It prevented him from turning out, year after dismal year, tl1e thousands of pages which Mailer calls books. Then too, Capote’s deviate chic did not wear so well over the years as Mailer’s would-be machismo. Fifty years ago, Capote would have become a man of letters. He would have composed essays on old books, written introductions, published his correspondence. Instead, he pursued his dream of celebrity, a dream which turned out to be a succubus that drained him of his talent, his principles, and in the end his life.      cc



Center for Christian Studies


As a late-20th-century proposition, ecumenism has its good and its bad sides. On the bad side, “ecumenism” is often simply a euphemism masking the col­ lapse of faith. When no one believes in the creeds anymore, why not ignore the differences and join together? Indeed, it is hard not to see such ecumenism, for instance, in the willingness of many mainline Protestants to share communion with virtually anyone, no questions asked.


But on the other hand, ecumenism may develop as a fruitful effort by devout believers to listen to the religious positions of others and to share what can be shared, while still recognizing where doctrinal convictions and ecclesiastical loyalties diverge. The Center for Christian Studies, headquartered in Notre Dame, gives promise of ecumenism of the better sort. Dedicated “to the investigation of the interaction of Christianity and modernity,” this center and its publication, Center Journal, foster serious dialogue among men and women from many parts of the Christian spectrum. Here leading Catholic scholars such as Gerhart Niemeyer and Ralph McInerny explore issues with leading Protestant thinkers, such as George Marsden and Richard John Neuhaus, director of The Rockford Institute’s Center on Religion & Society in New York. Agreement on all issues is not to be expected, but, as Pastor Neuhaus so often reminds us, informed disagreement is itself an achievement.         cc