Friday, December 14, 2007

Mitt Romney and the Rise of Civil Religion

It’s been just over a week since Mitt Romney’s Big Speech, “Faith in America.” Meanwhile, the Baptist preacher is charging ahead in all the Republican polls. Perhaps we should think a little about religion and conservatism.

Romney’s speech was shrewd. There’s certainly been a lot of talk about the timing: announced on Monday, given on Thursday, means a whole week of media coverage, as the press first anticipates, then digests the speech. Note that he gave most of the week to anticipation.

What hasn’t been much noted is the audience to which it was pitched. The Speech was given in mid-afternoon, when no one but pundits was watching; are we to believe that he couldn’t have gotten cable airtime in the evening? The Speech was introduced, not by one of the many religious voices who have endorsed Romney but by former president Bush, the eminence grise of non-religious, socially moderate, mainline Republicanism.

And what was the content? The people to whom Romney needs to sell himself are socially conservative Christians. He could have talked about the issues they care about: abortion, gay marriage, school choice, prayer in schools, even patriotism. But these topics were conspicuously absent. Instead, he talked about tolerance, spewing out platitude after platitude on how we shouldn’t judge other people’s religion, how the president isn’t a pastor, how the Founders wanted a safe distance between religion and politics: because religion and politics are safe only when both are protected from the other. I find none of this in the least bit objectionable.

But who was his audience? This Speech was given not to socially conservative Christians but to the Press. And it worked. I don’t believe I have ever seen such bipartisan agreement, with the entire Press, conservative and liberal, standing up to pledge allegiance to Mitt Romney’s America. They loved it, he got lots of good press, and it’s provided a nice opening for the entire Press to attack Mike Huckabee’s mixture of faith and politics.

The Press’s reaction says a lot about the Press. Conservative and liberal alike, the media is nervous about religion. Let me share a couple of anecdotes. I have no idea if these experiences are truly representative; my point is not to comment on a particular person, but to give some idea of the possibilities.

I am a daily communicant in the Catholic Church, a family man, and almost a Ph.D. in theology. Last year I tested the waters for a career in the conservative press. I got an interview at one of the leading conservative magazines, in New York. They liked my credentials, my skills . . . but when we were finally face to face, they said that their magazine was no place for someone with a family or any interests outside of politics: the pay is bad, the work is furious, New York is hostile, etc. Now, the magazine’s managing editor, one of the people who interviewed me, writes music reviews, so I guess you can have some life outside politics; and I’m told that their national political reporter is a faithful Catholic and has kids, so I guess some families can make it work; but the fact remains that this Leading Journal is a pretty single, secular place.

(How it got to be that way would be an interesting story. The early leaders of conservative journalism, such as Bill Buckley and Russel Kirk, were known for their piety. Maybe the difference is that they were also known for their money: they could afford to be religious?)

I have had a little personal contact with the editor of a leading conservative website. She is a vocal defender of Catholic social issues, including at times Church teaching on contraception. She also loves to shop, and chit-chatted with me about “Fr. What-a-Waste,” an irreverent way of talking about priests you think are hot, like calling a nun Sister What-a-Babe.

Living on Capitol Hill in Washington, I sometimes see one of the conservative press’s leading voices on abortion. He and his wife arrive late, leave early, and chit-chat through the Mass, in cozy weekend blue jeans. (Somehow I can’t imagine Bill Buckley behaving that way: he’s famous for complaining, after the liturgical reforms, that the priest’s talking distracts him from his prayer.)

Now, I’m not trying to attack anyone personally. I don’t even know if my observations are accurate. It could be that the magazine’s staff breaks for the Angelus,or that the abortion writer and his wife run out to the car to pray a rosary in peace. I have no idea what these people are actually like.

Nonetheless, what I seem to have observed is a perfectly defensible phenomenon, known as civil religion. Civil religion means that God is important as a sort of vague defender of public order, and religious communities—whatever kooky stuff they might believe—are a good way to help hoi polloi stay in line. I have not the slightest doubt that these Catholic journalists believe what the Church teaches and stand up for “socially conservative” issues out of true conviction. What I’m saying is, you needn’t be exactly religious to do these things—at least not pious. Plenty of people ascribe to a religion because they appreciate its moral teachings, even if they aren’t all that concerned with things like prayer, or piety, or holiness. That is civil religion.

Mitt Romney’s speech was a beautiful example of civil religion. The point—and the point the Press, liberal and conservative, has eaten up—is that theology doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re a good person, committed to Moral Values. That’s great.

But it’s helped the press to cover up another issue: the symbolic importance of the presidency. Think of it negatively. Bill Clinton’s philandering was so objectionable not just because he lied under oath, or abused his power, or exposed himself to unnecessary risk, but because of what it said about America. A lot of Americans don’t want to think of their country—and don’t want other people to think of their country—as represented by a philanderer.

That’s one of the most important contributions of George W. Bush. He’s restored dignity to the office. He’s made some dumb decisions, and is paying for them in the opinion polls now, but for much of conservative America, he’s restored our confidence in our country, because he is manifestly a decent, God-fearing man. He is the kind of person we want setting the tone for our country.

The question at hand—and it is an open question—is whether a Mormon can do that. Mormonism is, perhaps, the perfect civil religion. The primary theological problem between traditional Christians and Mormons is that traditional Christianity believes in a transcendent Creator, while Mormons believe that God is a human who peoples the world with his children—indeed, the ultimate reward for the just is to become God of your own planet.

Mormonism replaces God with family, religion with community. It does a darned good job. Mormons are clean-living, decent people. Mitt Romney is a truly upstanding human being, without a skeleton in his closet. The question for conservatives is whether that’s all we want. Is it good enough to just be a good guy? Or is it also important to believe in God?

There might be policy implications. It’s hard to believe that the non-existence of a transcendent God would play no role in one’s worldview. Indeed, we might argue that Romney’s famous flip-flops are perfectly consistent with his beautiful family and his faith. Perhaps Mitt Romney’s heart is totally committed to looking upstanding. Raising five boys is heroic, but it’s not impossible to be a great family man just because it makes you look, or feel, upstanding. It might be the same motive that causes him to play to whatever audience is before him politically, committing himself to abortion in Massachusetts and a culture of life in Iowa. His success in business might be a function of an extraordinary commitment to success. And all of this would be consistent with a religion that has no transcendent source of morality, just a commitment to clean living. If Mitt Romney’s character and religion are built on nothing but looking upstanding, that could present some problems as President of the United States.

But even if there are no policy implications, the question at stake is whether conservatives want the figurehead of our culture to be the perfect image of civil religion. The East Coast press, conservative and liberal alike, certainly like that, because, for whatever reason, the press is filled with people who are interested in God only as the source of morality. But Christians in middle America should carefully consider whether they want a Mormon to be president.

That’s the significance of the Huckabee moment.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

On the Public Nature of Parenting

Preface: In its heyday this blog had only two or three readers, which is one of the reasons I haven’t gotten around to writing for the last three months. Another reason is there’s been a lot of stress in my life: a job search, a personally difficult part-time job, preparing to teach my second college course, and of course that danged dissertation. But maybe it will do me well to let out a little of that stress through writing. So instead of just sending this to my two or three readers, I’ll make it a little more formal and put it up on the web. Here’s a reflection on another, more personal pain I’ve been dealing with. Maybe the blog will help me complain less and reflect more.

One of the first things that drew me to Catholicism was the anonymity of the Mass. I first started attending Mass regularly at a small-town parish in southern Minnesota, a long-ish walk from Carleton College, when I was a freshman there. I remember being so enchanted by the fact that many of the small town folks never took off their winter coats. It’s still a very romantic image for me. I was also attracted by the liturgy itself. I was a very arrogant young religion major, totally relativistic, and what really attracted me about the liturgy was that I thought there were things going on that I understood and the priest didn’t—or really, it didn’t matter whether I understood. I was just glad to know that the priest didn’t. The liturgy is just so much bigger than us.

St. Dominic’s was a relatively nice example of that fashion in mid-twentieth century church architecture that sort of imitates a gymnasium: huge concrete and wood walls, simple vaulted ceilings, not many images, and big flowing wall drapings. Somehow in that big empty space, the priest seemed so insignificant. I really sensed, even with my screwed up mentality and that ugly architecture, that the liturgy is much bigger than any of us. The priest is participating in something he did not make.

I think that’s what made the winter coats so important to me, too. The people looked like “huddled masses,” like strangers and sojourners—so different from the Evangelical and Quaker services I had known, where everyone makes themselves comfortable, and shakes hands and smiles at their neighbors. None of those are bad things, I guess, but what those winter coats communicated to me is that the Mass isn’t about us. We are entering into something we did not make, like immigrants in New York harbor.

This idea is still central to my spirituality. I feel that the Mass, and liturgy in general, is more intensely personal the less personal it is externally. The person beside me is kneeling, with head down: is she praying? Composing an email? Planning a party? Just daydreaming? I have no idea – and it doesn’t effect me. Nor does anyone else know what’s going on in me. The depersonalized nature of the liturgy leaves me totally alone with the Lord, face to face, head to head. Somehow, I feel more alone, more intensely one-on-one, in this public, liturgical context than when I am physically alone. Part of that is the sacramental order: Jesus comes to me, flesh and blood, in the Eucharist, so he is really present in a way he otherwise is not. But part of it is liturgical: the fact that other people are in the silence, in the alone-ness, intensifies my own solitude. Sometimes I like to take off my glasses during Mass and keep my eyes down the entire time (except the peace), just to intensify this sense of being perfectly, totally alone with Jesus.

But now I am a father. Parenthood means never being alone, always caring for another person. And yet that person is part of me. This is a very important doctrine in Aristotle and Thomas: the child is part of the parent, so that what touches the child touches the parent—even more intensely. Indeed, this is why parenthood is so emotional: when I am attacked, I can deal with it, but if someone touches my child . . . it is not just a matter of coming to the help of the defenseless. When someone threatens my child, he threatens me in a way infinitely more personal, more emotional than even a direct insult to myself.

And so I love to bring my children to Mass. Just as the public nature of the liturgy enhances my solitude, so, in a way, do my children. Nowadays I spend almost every minute at Mass caring for my three year old, usually in pretty mundane ways. This Sunday he was telling me about the nails in Jesus’s hands and the bodily presence of Jesus on the altar. That was a truly transcendent kind of meditation: seeing more deeply because I saw through my little boys eyes. But mostly, I draw kitty cats or race car, point out a bird in the stained glass window, listen to him tell me about his favorite book, just trying to keep him still.

But again, even this non-liturgical, other-focused activity is intensely personal, a deeper experience of the solitude of Mass, because the other is my child, my very self. Everything I do to help him preserve the silence draws me deeper into it—deeper, in some senses, than I could ever go on my own. Bringing my little boy to daily Mass is a whole new level of Eucharistic adoration, a devotion deeper than I have ever known before.

The great pain in my life lately has been a perceived assault on this solitude. About a month ago, a priest pulled me aside after Mass to say my child was disruptive. After a little cool-down, we talked for a long time and mostly smoothed things out, but he said things like “why do you bother?” His comments pierced through my solitude. A professor I do not know personally but respect from a distance, an old, apparently single woman, has taken to turning all the way around in her pew and glaring at us when we come to Mass at my university. Another old lady has done the same to my wife at Sunday Mass. This last week my pastor published an item in the bulletin that seemed to me—everyone now agrees that I overreacted—to suggest a minimal tolerance for the inevitable noise my children make. I expressed concern in a voice mail, and asked to talk to him; my tone was inappropriately harsh, as if someone had attacked my child. That Sunday he approached me after communion (he was not saying Mass), with my infant daughter in my arms, to tell me my concerns were “unreasonable,” that I was “just a complainer,” and that “there is nothing to talk about.” Piercing the solitude.

Perhaps even more hurtful, though, I feel intensely the suffering of my wife. She has received the same judging glares, heard about what the priests have said to me. She was even asked recently to leave the foyer of our university church because someone thought my daughter’s happy squeals were inappropriate.

Maybe they were.

Why is this so painful for me? Why do I react so strongly—overreact? Because the silence is broken. The solitude is broken. I loved being alone at Mass. I loved even more being alone with my child at Mass. But suddenly there is a spotlight shining on us. We are surrounded by judgment. Even our friends agree that we should be under judgment, that we need to “be mindful of others’ concerns.” That is a reasonable request, of course. What hurts is the fact of being always under judgment, every time I try to enter into the solitude of Mass. Everyone watching, listening, wondering whether I—nay, my child, who is more me than myself and yet utterly beyond the reach of my own will—whether I will transgress, whether I should be cast out, whether I am being “inconsiderate.” Normally, you can’t be inconsiderate without doing something. But with my children at Mass, my very being is under constant judgment. The solitude has been replaced with a spotlight.

I could leave the children at home. That’s the “practical” answer. But to go to Mass without my children is not only impractical (because someone has to babysit the children, so that my wife and I have to go to two Masses), but is to be less than fully present. I can escape the spotlight only by forsaking part of my self.

Of course, this is universally the case with parenthood. I was on a plane recently with a shrieking child. The whole plane was talking about him. The woman next to me pronounced that the child should be medicated, and the people across the aisle – parents of an older child themselves – announced that the child was spoiled. My heart withered.

Last night I took my children, three and one, to a bluegrass concert. Shifting my seat to the side so that my son could see past the people in front of us, I laid the chair down on my daughter’s foot. The music was loud enough that I didn’t hear her cry. The usher pointed it out. Then he—a crusty, middle-aged man, who sure didn’t look to me like a daddy—picked up my daughter and tried to comfort her. (That sure kept her screaming!) It took several moments to convince him that he should let me hold her. I am no longer clumsy—I am a bad parent, under judgment.

(Margaret was fine. She was wearing a heavy boot, and she stopped crying as soon as she came to Daddy.)

This is what it is to be a parent: to have your deepest self on constant display, under constant judgment, every time a little yelp escapes from your innocent child. Does my little boy talk because he is spoiled? Does my daughter squeal with glee, or cry, because I am a bad parent? These are hard enough questions around the family hearth. But the publicity of parenthood is almost too much to bear. To hold your dearest self in your arms is perfect joy. To have your dearest self under judgment is a terror like I’ve never known.

But all the worse at Mass, at that point of perfect solitude, and that perfect opportunity to share the solitude with my little boy. I have been told, from a thousand sides, that I cannot expect priests to preserve me from this judgment. I suppose it’s true. So I write not to ask for anything, but only to express my pain.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In support of fads

Fads tell us something important about freedom and the common good. On one level, of course, fads are pretty silly. People get caught up in a hairstyle, or a gadget, or a silly activity or kind of music. There’s a stampede in one direction, and a couple weeks, or years later, it’s forgotten. And I certainly support the traditional, the perennial. I often argue for the superiority of the old. A book, a piece of music, or even an idea that has lasted a century or more has proved itself worthy of continued interest, while the fads of today may be popular only because they are current. Most of them will not stand the test of time.

But fads serve an important purpose. I was thinking this morning about the wipers on the rear window of my car. Mostly I was thinking how useless they are. I thought, from the car maker’s perspective, they can add this dinky little feature for minimal expense, and it gives the (false) impression of luxury. But in fact, it does remarkably little good. At least over the summer, I don’t think I’ve used it once. Rear wipers are, to some extent, a fad: just something that everyone likes right now, and that may not stand the test of time.

But “test” is a good word. For now, rear wipers come standard just because they are trendy. But in fact, society, the “Market” as a whole, is trying something out. For now, they are just a fad, but whether this fad lasts depends on whether the Market finds them useful. Ten years from now, there will or will not be rear wipers to the extent that they have been found worth having.

They may prove useful for reasons their inventors had not considered. I’m just conjecturing, but maybe the inventor thought they’d be helpful for cleaning off bird poop, or for rain when you’re sitting in traffic. Maybe he didn’t think they’d be useful, he just thought they sounded cool, in a James-Bond kind of way. And maybe people will find that rear wipers are not worth having for any of these reasons, but they really come in handy when you’re defrosting—just for those couple minutes when you first start the car, a few months out of the year. And maybe people will determine that the investment is worth it, because defrosting the rear window is really a hassle.

I’m just conjecturing. But that’s the point. The free market allows ideas to be tested out. Rather than a centralized authority, whether he be an inventor or a government regulator, making all the decisions, the market spreads the test out to the teeming millions. The inventor may be wrong about why something is useful. The manufacturer may never even know why he is packaging a given feature. But that’s irrelevant. The market allows society to determine what products are more useful, and makes those products available.

And it does so, as the great economist and social theorist Friedrich Hayek pointed out, by making “planning” more broad. In common parlance, a “planned” economy is planned by some central authority. But in fact, the free market is much better planned, because it allows many more people to do the planning, bringing in a million times more insight. No one person has to understand everything, because the market coordinates the decision-making of the millions.

This is especially important considering the complexity of human needs. To push the limits, let’s take the example of the hula hoop, fad of all fads. This one failed. But what was the purpose of the fad? Society was “trying out” a new form of exercise and entertainment. At the same time, I think, adult society was “trying out” bridge. It found that bridge well-suited the needs of that time, providing married couples, or men at work, or ladies’ clubs, a way to interact and to use their minds. But bridge, we might say, is a “secondary” activity. Bridge, or any game, “serves” society not just because of it’s own inherent excellence, but also because of other things that are already in place: ladies’ clubs, small groups at the office, the need of couples to interact (arguably a product of suburbanization, where people no longer see each other on the streets). Bridge was also valuable, perhaps, because of the particular needs of the mind at that time. It “fit” the strategic requirements of the age.

Nordic Trak is a contemporary example. Nordic Trak provides a solitary, low-impact, cardiovascular workout. It is a fad, maybe passing by now. But it was valuable for people who had back problems, because of their sedentary lifestyle, and heart problems, because they don’t get out much. Its solitary nature might serve an age that likes to watch tv, but it also might serve an age that likes to have some meditative time alone. I don’t know which need sold more Nordic Traks, and no one really needs to know. The point is, it was a fad not just because it was stupid and didn’t stand the test of time, but also because it served the particular needs of a particular times. It stood, we might say, upon other fads. When those fads (low-impact cardiovascular exercise, alone time) pass, so will the Nordic Trak—not because the Nordic Trak is bad, but because it was good for that particular circumstance.

Last example: the jump rope. Perhaps the jump rope has achieved its greatest and most lasting popularity among black girls. They like it, maybe, because it allows them to spend time outside (which is arguably a central part of black culture, and certainly melds with the urban life) and get some exercise. It is rhythmic, and lends itself to black dance and poetic-improv traditions. It gives the spotlight to one girl at a time, which plays to the desire, both universally human and particularly black, for virtuoso excellence. In these ways, it has a lot in common with rap and jazz. But jump rope allows a group of girls, possibly of very different ages, to hang out, serving particular needs of the black community.

Who could have come up with this? Someone started selling jump ropes, maybe for white suburban kids, maybe for individual adult fitness. Or maybe not—maybe some black girls just found a rope lying around. (But where do you find ropes lying around? I don’t know.) No central planner could have deduced that jump rope would serve this demographic so well. It had to be tried. The hula hoop was short-lived. Jump rope lasted, for a certain group. And it will last as long as the particular needs it serves are in place, or until something better comes along.

That’s no small thing. Or rather, it’s the kind of small thing that really matters. Windshield wipers have made life safer and easier for millions of people; rear wipers may serve a small niche, and they may pass. Hula hoops didn’t go anywhere, but jump ropes have proved of enduring value for the health and well-being of a particular underserved community. Bridge was great in one period (when people felt isolated and needed mental stimulation), NordicTrak in another (when people wanted isolation and physical exercise). Who would have known? Certainly no central planner. These are all fads, most of them dependent on other societal trends; planning ahead for such things is enormously complicated. They have been subjected to testing by the masses, and the masses have passed judgment, voting primarily with their pocketbooks. And so fads have proved to be the most intelligent sort of planning. Through fads freedom serves the common good.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Family at Home? (Part Two)

In the previous post, I discussed, and approved, Allan Carlson's goals to create a pro-family culture, in which young people aspire to have big families. We agree that devotion to family is necessary to a healthy republic. But Carlson believes that an important way of promoting families is to promote telecommuting, so that fathers can be at home with their families. In the last post I briefly indicated why I generally oppose efforts to engineer particular social results through government action. In this post, I will explain why I also oppose the particular goal that Carlson is trying to engineer.

Carlson argues -- and I've heard this also from "traditionalist"-type Catholics -- that the great destroyer of marriage was the industrial revolution, because it caused fathers to work outside of the home. The theory goes that before the industrial revolution, you basically had Paul-Revere city dwellers and Charles-Ingalls farmers. (They don't use the examples, but I think examples bring things into focus. Charles Ingalls was the father of Laura Ingalls Wilder.) Paul Revere worked in his silversmithy downstairs, Charles Ingalls worked on the family farm, and both of them were always around to put their arm around their daughters, share meals with their wives, work side-by-side with their cute little boy, etc. It was all so idyllic and family-centered. Why not go back?

(Ironically, Carlson's way back is telecommuting, so Dad can work on the computer in the basement. I'll address the problem with the romantic vision of Ingalls and Revere, though I think there may be further problems with assuming that manual labor and computer labor are equally interactive.)

My criticism of the Ingalls and Revere vision is that it totally conflicts with my personal experience. As a full-time student and a dorm director, I have worked at home on and off ever since my first child was born, almost three years ago. My wife and I have found that it does not work for us, either as individuals or as a couple. (My wife was recently talking with another mother, a few years ahead of her, who said something to the effect of, "oh, having my husband at home sounds terrible. I have enough trouble doing my own work as it is!)

The trouble is that we spend too much time together. I know pro-family people aren't supposed to say that, but this is our experience. To be fulfilled, we need to work. (That, at least, is both Catholic and traditionalist!) I need to make progress on my studies, both so I can make money and support my family, but even more so I can develop as a person. My wife needs to clean the house, and cook, and take care of the children, again, both because those tasks need to get done for practical reasons, but even more because that is her vocation, and she feels dead when she is not fulfilling it, not doing the work she has been given. When I am home, we tend to sit around and talk all day, or even just to distract one another, both kind of wasting time because we see the other one wasting time.

We have found two ways to address this problem. (Just trying harder, it turns out, is not a very good solution. Perhaps before the industrial revolution people were just more virtuous . . . but I doubt it.) One solution is for me to leave. We have found, and have had to learn over and over again over the course of our marriage, that we are each happier as individuals and stronger as a couple when I go to the library all day. It's hard work, much more tiring than wiling away the hours at home, and harder to organize -- but it's so much more fulfilling for each of us, because each of us can be what we are, engaging our vocations, and moving forward, "wing to wing, oar to oar."

The other solution is like the first: I can just lock myself in my office. This tends to be less effective, because I don't stay in there. But in effect, it works out the same. We are each happier because we are not interacting all day. We are each pursuing our own tasks.

I suspect that Charles Ingalls and Paul Revere had the same experience. Revere could work in the smithy downstairs because he closed his door. It's nice to imagine the kids hanging out with him, but I suspect that a silversmithy wasn't a great place for kids, and that Revere wouldn't have gotten anything done if they had been there. Similar for Charles Ingalls. Whatever happened, I imagine he got work done by not interacting. Perhaps the kids helped out sometimes. But I don't think there were a lot of heart-to-heart chit-chats, or playing games, or whatever else. (Laura Ingalls Wilder may make it sound like they interacted a lot. But that is probably because the few times they did interact, it left a memory, not because they interacted all the time.) In short, pre-Industrial Revolution, fathers may have "worked at home" in some sense, but I suspect it wasn't very interactive, and thus not "family-centered" the way traditionalists would like to believe it was.

My wife suggests that the traditionalists may be looking for something else. They may be looking, first of all, for shorter commutes. Work itself is fulfilling (if not, the problem is the work, not the place), but an hour of traffic each way is awful. That, says my wife, is probably why so many fathers need a cocktail before they can interact. (She remembers her grandfather, who used to drive from Rhode Island to downtown Boston every day, and be unable to interact when he returned until he had a Manhattan. I have no problem with the liquor -- but I agree that the commute was probably not very humanizing.) So we should seek ways to cut down on commutes, and to make commutes more pleasant, rather than just trying to get fathers to work at home. And that would be more like Ingalls and Revere, who weren't interacting with the family all day, but could just walk back from the fields, or upstairs, when they were done.

The other thing my wife points out under the heading "Blackberries." A friend of hers just went on vacation, and her husband, a Congressional chief-of-staff, had to check his email every fifteen minutes. I'd broaden this category to just "too much work." Incidentally, I suspect that farm labor, despite our Tolstoy-esque Romanticism, was probably pretty deadening, and purchased many an absent, spent father for those romantic little farm children. In any case, the goal should, again, not be to get father to work at home, but to get him to work less. The method here, I think, is two-fold: prosperity plus less consumerism. If fathers make more real dollars per hour and spend less per year, they should be able to work less. In my opinion -- we'll have to flesh this out elsewhere -- what this really means is getting bizarre government incentives out of the market and letting the market do its job: find more efficient ways to get people what they want. A prosperous society, where families are not bowed down under taxes and pushed by perverse government incentives to work in ways that benefit no one, is a society where fathers can spend more time with their families.

I know it feels less satisfying, but that means the real "pro-family" tax code is the simple, minimal one, not the one with tries to force everyone to work from home and to promote the "right" kind of mothering.

(How to fight consumerism, which eats up earnings and requires parents to work more, is of course another issue. I'm not going to try to address it here, but I do think treating people like adults and letting them make their own decisions is more effective at promoting wise decision-making than is pervasive government interference.)

Finally, let me point out (as an intellectual historian) that before the Industrial Revolution, all the great theorists, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Thomas, agreed that people like Ingalls and Revere, with their Romantic labor, were less than human, because they were engaging stuff instead of people. Add the third pre-industrial type: St. Thomas More, who did not work from home, and was often away on business, in the City for the day or even at Court for a week. In the view of the Tradition, the most humanizing tasks were the ones that got Dad out of the house -- and that humanization overflowed to his family. There is something perverse about a "traditionalism" obsessed with obtaining what the "Tradition" found abhorrent.

So I'm looking for work to get me engaged with the broader world, and I think my family will thrive more if I'm around a little less.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Family at Home? (Part One)

I had the opportunity recently to hear Allan Carlson speak. Carlson is, in some ways, the dean of the pro-family movement. I don't know his stuff real well, but he seems to be writing the most thoughtful stuff (he's a think-tank guy) on why families matter and how to promote them.

In this and my next post I will explain what I like and dislike about Carlson's position.

On the first part of his argument, why families matter, I am wholly in agreement with him. His new book, The Natural Family: A Manifesto, sets out to be a real manifesto, laying out why the promotion of family is necessary to a thriving republic. (He wrote it with Paul Mero, who seems to be more of an assistant than a co-worker.) Most of all, he wants to restore, especially in young people, the aspiration to have big families. He argues, and I agree, that without this aspiration, society is pretty much doomed.

Nowadays, even Evangelicals -- the mythical "Christian Right" -- almost universally proclaim that children are a burden on marriage, that young people should strive for "more" than "just" having kids (what a world view!), and that, if nothing else, you should spend several years building a "healthy" marriage before you think about having kids. All of these, Carlson and I agree, mean the death of the republic, because all of these mean minimal investment in the future, minimal care for the personal, and minimal love for Nature.

He also argues, and I agree, that a family movement that stages its battles on issues like gay marriage is hopeless. Once we concede all that we have conceded -- the new Evangelical view of marriage, plus no-fault divorce laws, societal acceptance of sex outside of marriage, in vitro fertilization and contraceptive sex, etc. -- there are really no grounds for fighting gay marriage. We need to restore a marriage culture. We need to engage the battle much farther up the hill. On all of this, I agree with Carlson.

But I disagree with his means. Carlson proposes a whole series of laws -- he's working closely with the mythic Senator Brownback -- to promote his vision of family. The laws include things like tax credits for stay-at-home moms and a whole series of things to promote telecommuting, so that families can be together during the day. Now, I oppose this stuff in principle because I really think social engineering is a bad idea. I'll talk about that more in other posts, but I think these things tend to give broad scope to limited ideas -- trying to force round pegs into square holes -- and they also tend toward abuse. Consider the mortgage deductions, which had noble intentions of promoting an ownership society, but ended up putting money in the pockets of people with good tax lawyers, killing urban real estate, and forcing renters to subsidize other people's real estate -- basically redistribution from the poor to the rich. Social engineering is bad.

In the next post, I'll explain why I don't like what he's trying to engineer.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Teresa of Calcutta: A further note

I've just been reading Michael Novak's commentary on Teresa of Calcutta. Novak is not my favorite spiritual writer, but he plays a valuable role, by putting forth decent commentary on things Catholic to be read by the broader conservative community. I can't link to his essay because it's for National Review subscribers.

But Novak makes an important point. Spiritual darkness doesn't prove (as Christopher Hitchens claims) that God doesn't exist. In fact, it "proves" (in another sense of the word) the opposite. Spiritual darkness is all about God being bigger than our minds. If God were just a figment of our imagination, there would be no reason to feel far from him.

I think that's a big part of the purpose of suffering, both spiritual and otherwise. Suffering reminds us that reality is bigger than we are. Physical suffering, or any natural kind of suffering, means we come crashing against something that we can't remove. Smacking against the pavement -- or against another person's rejection -- is so awful, in large part, because it is a slap in the face to our complacency. We are so used to our day-dreaming, and all of our efforts to make the world just how we want it to be. Suffering is the discovery that reality is not up to us.

Spiritual suffering, like Mother Teresa's, goes to the heart of this. It is the discovery that God is not at our beck and call. He is not our servant, not like the science-fiction machine where you just push a button and you feel good. What's really terrible about such a machine is it means complete detachment from the world around you. What's truly wonderful about suffering is it means profound awareness of the world around you. And profound awareness that God is so much bigger, so far beyond ourselves.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Teresa of Calcutta

There's been a lot of talk about Mother Teresa's "dark night," most of the talk not very helpful. I promised a friend to post something about it.

I'll just comment on some passages from her letters that I found in another article. I will follow St. John of the Cross -- though I know him mostly from secondary sources (especially Garrigou-Lagrange's Three Ages).

-"Always smiling, is what the sisters and the people say of me. They think that inside I am full of faith, trust, and love... If they only knew how true it is that my joyfulness is nothing but a cloak I throw over my emptiness and misery!"

Suffering, especially interior suffering, is said to be a gift from God, in order to draw us to him. We see that on the most superficial level in this quote. Someone who is holy, especially someone who is holy in a public way like Mother Teresa, is always at risk of losing her zeal for Jesus and getting caught up in the spotlight. I think the noisy atheist Christopher Hitchens has said that Mother Teresa was a product of television. Her interior suffering was a gift from God so that she could be deeper than television, so that her spirituality would not sink into self-worship:

"The interior suffering that I feel is so great that all the publicity and all the talk of the people has no effect on me."

-"Pray for me, that I do not reject God in this hour. I do not want this, but I am afraid I could do it."

These words go to the heart of it. The saint clings to Jesus. The saint knows that Jesus is everything, loves Jesus passionately, clings to Jesus. Because the saint knows that without Jesus, she will fall into nothingness. The sinner -- each of us -- thinks that he has it all together.

Jesus purified Teresa by letting her see the truth. There's nothing affected here. She's not preening, or anti-preening. She is just close enough to Jesus to see how far she is, to see how much she needs him. She knows that only grace, only the action of Jesus, can hold her close to Jesus.

-"There is so much contradiction in my soul, a deep longing for God, so deep that it hurts, a constant suffering -- and with this there is the feeling of not being wanted by God, rejected, empty, without faith, without love, without zeal.... Heaven means nothing to me; it seems a hollow place."

Again, we all think we are a gift to God. But in truth, there is nothing but his gift to us. This point is not marginal to the spiritual life. This is it, the whole thing. So deep that it hurts: she needs God, she loves him passionately. But she knows there is nothing lovable in her. It is all his mercy. And that makes her love him all the more. When she says she is empty, without faith, love, or zeal, that she does not long for heaven, she is just being honest. We . . . we think there has never been such sanctity, such spiritual perfection as ourselves. She has the courage to be honest.

But note: what makes all this so exciting for the press is that Teresa absolutely did not go on a speaking tour to talk about how humble she was. She did not "reach out" to people by saying that she feels like God doesn't love her. To others, she spoke the other side. To others, she was the example of sanctity, and of trust in God. Because she wanted to bring them to God. That is love. It is not love to talk up your doubts (and so get on Oprah). And this is not hypocrisy. She emphasized different things in different circumstances, and they were both true. To the public, she was holy. Before God, she realized that she was not so holy. Both are true: because she was holy, but only by the gift that God gave her, and never by her own strength. But what drove her choice of words in different circumstances was not a public (false) humility, not an eagerness to talk about her difficulties, but love: love for people, love for God, each requiring a different emphasis.

-"They say that the eternal pain that souls suffer in Hell is the loss of God... In my soul, I experience precisely this terrible pain of damnation, of a God who does not want me, of a God who is not God, of a God who in reality does not exist. Jesus, I beg you to forgive my blasphemy."

There's an irony here: it is only her trust in God that can let her admit her lack of trust. Only her trust lets her feel fear. Mother Teresa did not think God would abandon her. On the contrary, she could stand on the precipice, could see the possibility of damnation, could admit how unlovable she was, only because she trusted in mercy. And in this mercy, in her ever-deeper sense that God loved her because of who he is and not who she was, she could see more deeply how good he is.

-"If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation from you give you even a drop of consolation, my Jesus, then do with me what you will.... Impress the suffering of your heart upon my soul and my life.... I want to quench your thirst with every last drop of blood you can find in me. Don't be concerned about returning soon: I am ready to wait for you for all eternity."

And here is the ultimate love. Love is willing to do anything for the beloved. The deepest love is willing to suffer. The saints -- pretty consistently, and probably universally, if we could see their inner souls -- experience this willingness to hang on the cross with Jesus, to enter into the darkness of a dead God. Because only suffering allows perfect love. Only suffering gets to where love is not self-serving. Teresa doesn't want to be with Jesus just because he sure makes her feel good. She wants to be with Jesus because she loves him. And so she rejoices to suffer, rejoices, even, to feel distant from him. She is closest to him, loves him most perfectly, when she cannot see his face.

-"In this world that is so far from God, that has turned its back on the light of Jesus, I want to help the people by taking on some of their suffering."

And she shares in his love for sinners. On the Cross, Jesus takes on himself all the suffering of the world, all the abandonment brought on by sin. The Cross is where we belong, the only place that really makes sense in light of all our hatred and infidelity. But for most of us, if we saw the weight of sin, the weight of choosing self over love, of sin -- choosing anything over God -- if we saw this, we would be crushed.

But, say the saints, the process of sanctification involves entering ever more deeply into this darkness, seeing ever more clearly the truth of the human condition. This is only bearable for those who also see God. Until we know his mercy, we cannot bear to see the full weight of our sin. But in light of his mercy . . . ah, everything changes.

And that's all that happened with Teresa of Calcutta. Her interior suffering was only seeing clearly. It was a gift: the gift to see God's mercy and goodness in all its brilliance. But to see that, she had also to see her own darkness, the darkness of sin and of the human race. Neither really makes sense without the other. You can't understand her sufferings without also understanding her faith. And she couldn't see her faith, not fully, without standing before the Cross, and seeing her need in full relief.

Until she finally entered the final embrace. And now she sees nothing but light. . . .

(I don't know how to say all this without sounding trite. The thing about suffering is that it is real. This is the whole point: for Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, this wasn't a trite little theory, it was a direct experience of the horror of sin, of man's total distance from God. It's pretty hard to talk about that and put it into theological perspective -- especially on a blog -- without sounding trivial. Hmm....)

Friday, August 31, 2007

Buying Chinese

any Catholics (and other people of good will) boycott products made in China. China is a slave state. Chinese products are cheap because the workers aren’t paid. All profits go to the bosses. Unlike in a free country, labor cannot unionize or seek employment elsewhere, so the workers receive no just compensation. Therefore, it seems, buying products made in China means we benefit (through low prices) by supporting a coercive system. Therefore, the moral and just thing to do is not to buy Chinese products. Right?

I don’t think so. As happens with many moralisms, I think the boycott argument avoids one evil without considering the alternatives. I mean, what do the Chinese people get out of our boycott? Personally, I do not believe that the Chinese dictator class is going to change their minds about communism just because we don’t buy their products. I don’t think that’s how dictators think.

That, incidentally, is part of the Church’s argument against economic sanctions. The West loves to “punish” evil regimes—Cuba, Hussein’s Iraq, North Korea, etc.—by refusing, at a national level, to purchase their products. But Saddam Hussein fell from power only when the US military took him down; he didn’t liberalize his regime, despite a decade of sanctions. The regimes of Cuba and North Korea have withstood our economic sanctions for about fifty years now. Boycotts have not convinced these dictators to rethink the economic benefits of totalitarianism. The only result is to add our oppression to the dictator’s, and further starve the people of these countries. That is one reason the Catholic Church is always opposed to economic sanctions.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t care. I’m not denying that these are evil regimes. And I’m not denying that people would starve anyway, simply from the wickedness of the dictators. I’m just saying that boycotts don’t help.

(Incidentally, I’m also not saying that the Church’s political judgment is always spot-on. I think churchmen often take over-simplistic positions on complex political problems. I’m not accepting their argument here based on authority. But I happen to think they are right. I think twentieth-century history supports that judgment.)

have just finished reading an interview with Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, one of the leading Catholic dissidents in Cuba (so I’m told). I was struck by the following statement:

It is true that there is incredible civic and political illiteracy, the fruit of ideological extremism and of the systematic blockage of information other than that provided by the government. But this situation can be overcome only by breaking out of internal isolation, which is worse than the external embargo. There is a need of more information, more openness, more exchange. We need a systematic and deep process of ethical, civic, and political education.

Vaclav Havel (I think) said that the key to the fall of European Communism was more and more people refusing to accept the lies of the regime. But how does that happen if the people are isolated? How does that happen, for example, if Americans refuse to do business with them

I propose that doing business with China is one of the most important ways we can contribute to the fall of totalitarianism there. Because trade is the main channel of contact. In a recent discussion of the China boycott, friends of ours pointed out that the regime puts on displays every time Americans come to visit. If you visit a Chinese factory, for example, they show you the great condition of the laborers. And it’s all a lie.

Fine. Make them put on more shows. Let the Chinese workers know that we are watching, and that we do not approve of the status quo. Let them know that the way things are in China is not the way they have to be, that things are different here. Give China a big financial incentive to have contact with Americans, and to learn English, and to let us wander around their country, and to have them come here. Engage. There is no other way to call their lie.

Trade is the main opportunity for us to talk to them, and to be there, and to see them. Trade is also the main excuse for missionaries, of various kinds. The underground Church needs all the support it can get. I think that Church would receive a lot more support if there were a lot more rich American businessman, and American journalists, and American Catholics in China. China needs secular missionaries too, to tell their students, and their businessmen, and even their ordinary people about free speech, and democracy, and the free market, where a person can get a decent salary for his wage. And we need reporters over there. We wouldn’t know to fight China’s coercive abortion policies if we didn’t have people on the ground there doing the research. Boycotts are not going to convince the totalitarians to let these people in. But business will.

I am proposing, in fact, that business is the bribe that gets us behind enemy gates. The magic of the market is that the bribe ends up savings us money.

ometimes, I think, we let moralism get the better of us. We so want to do the right thing (and it wouldn’t hurt if it were something we could hold over our neighbors) that we don’t think enough about actually helping people.

There’s an important point about Catholic moral thinking here. It’s easy to get caught up in rules, and to go looking for new rules, in order to be moral. Certainly there are rules—or, as the theologians say, “exceptionless moral norms.” There are things that are always wrong, like adultery, contraception, abortion, murder, theft, perjury, blasphemy. But that doesn’t mean being moral is all about rules. These things are exceptionlesss moral norms not because morality is about rules, but because there is never a case where good can come from them. Something like contraception is so inherently contradictory that it couldn’t ever be an act of love. But most of morality is not about rules, because at its heart, morality is about love. The question is, what is loving? Moralism means putting rules above love. Relativism is denying the principle of non-contradiction, denying the fact that there are some things that are inherently contradictory and thus always wrong. But love, looking to how you can actually help people instead of looking for moral purity, is not relativist. It feels to me—tell me if I’m wrong!—like part of the boycott mentality is putting moral purity and the search for new rules above consideration of how we can actually help people. Morality isn’t about avoiding evil—“I’m just not going to participate in that wicked Chinese economy.” Morality is about doing good.

I know boycotts sound very moral. But until I hear how boycotts will actually help the people, and until I hear of something that will empower the Chinese people more than active cross-cultural engagement, I am going to continue to buy Chinese products. And even believe it’s a moral act.

And hey, if you feel guilty about all the money you save, send some of it back to a charity in China! They need it!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Anonymous places

y wife and a very dear friend have been having a wonderful blog exchange about anonymity in the cities. I'm going to throw in my two cents and try a very rough draft of an article I've been thinking about writing, entitled "anonymous places." At the start though, let me say that I heartily endorse everything said in those other two blogs. I'm not sure if I can make my thing come out in obvious agreement with Robyn's, but it's intended to be complementary, not contradictory.

So, recently I had a business lunch with a professor from a small town in Iowa. We were talking about the program where I work in a big East Coast city, and I started going on about how much I love city life. (I grew up in the suburbs, not far from Iowa.)

The professor, thinking that he understood, said, "ah, you like the anonymity, huh?" I don't know what I said then, but I've thought about it a lot since and . . . I think he's got it all backwards.

Cities seem anonymous to tourists, because obviously when you're somewhere new, no one knows you. (Of course, that's as true for a visitor in small town Iowa as for one in Manhattan.) But in the city, you see all those people, and of course they don't all know one another, and you just feel lost in the crowd, as if people don't matter anymore.

ut living in the city . . . I think cities are anonymous only in the most literal sense: you don't know people's names. My wife and I walk to church with the kids every morning. We see the same people every day -- lots of them! -- and we know a fair amount about them: how they carry themselves, how they dress for work, what time they leave in the morning, whether they talk on the phone, or listen to iPods, or space out, or watch people; whether they say hi; whether they put on their socks before or after arriving at work. They know that we walk to church every morning, and have little kids. They see my little boy's wheel chair, my funny hat, my wife's skirts. Now and then we stop to chat with one of these people, and we usually find we've each made a lot of correct assumptions. I think of one guy we finally talked to at a stoplight; I think the first thing he said was, "so you're a professor, huh?" (almost -- just finishing my Ph.D.)

In the suburbs (I'll leave small towns aside, because they're a different thing) it's the opposite. In my experience, in the suburbs you know people's names . . . and nothing else. We used to wave at a lot of people in our subdevelopment -- as we drove by in our cars. And what do you learn in that 1.5 second encounter? You see what they drive and whether they wave, but that's about it. We knew the names of almost everybody on our cul de sac, but mostly we saw them drive into their garages and disappear.

(I should define "suburb." I don't mean "anywhere but in the middle of a big city." Suburb, to me, means subdevelopments--including, most importantly, total separation of home from work, recreation, and shopping--, usually cul de sacs, cars for absolutely everything, and privacy privacy privacy. Our subdevelopment had no sidewalks -- why would it? There was nowhere to walk. Such suburbs are a big deal these days. But a lot of places are in between. Robyn brought up Salem and Beverly, Mass., where she and Susan used to live. They lived, basically, in row houses. That's not really the suburbs. There were some actual "main street" shopping sections, where you could walk to the little market, or church, or whatever. At the least, you had to walk down the block to your car, so there was some requirement of crossing paths with your neighbors. But most things were in strip malls. That's sort of half suburban. Susan's mom lives in "small town" Connecticut -- but the downtown is almost gone. Most of the shopping is in the big strip mall outside of town. Is that really "small town"? Well, sort of. And sort of suburban. A real, traditional small town, I think, is much more like "city" living: work and home close together, walkable shopping, etc. Although a big city, of course, has lots more people.)

Back to the suburbs: At the risk of being salacious, I'd like to talk about teenagers in driveways. For years I have been walking around my big city neighborhood and I have never seen anyone ever making out in their car. (I've seen prostitutes in the park late at night, but that's different.) Why not? Because there are people everywhere! Because, in a word, the city just isn't "anonymous" enough for that kind of behavior. On our cul de sac in the suburban Midwest though . . . oh my. Well, coming home late at night I once saw the girl next door rolling around with somebody--I never found out whom--in some sheets in the grass. Hmm. But of course, only other teenagers were out at night, and I think all of the teenagers on the cul de sac made full use of their driveways for similar--if not quite so lubricious--conduct. Why? Because there is nothing as hidden as a cul de sac. No one goes by. No one sees what you're doing. "Anonymous"? Well, not exaclty. But the point is, you can be totally alone.

Interesting counterpoint: when I see the thug teenagers in our urban neighborhood hanging around outside late at night, the first thing I think is, "at least they're not inside having sex." Whereas in the suburbs, outside the house is the best place, because not even your parents can see what you're up to.

f course, people can be really weird in the city -- much weirder than in the suburbs. But again, I think this is the opposite of anonymity. Visiting our friends in Brooklyn recently, I had to run out to the car late at night in my pajamas (flannel pants and an undershirt), as many fathers do. In the suburbs, it would have been down to the garage. In Brooklyn, it was down a busy city street, a block and a half. People saw me, and they knew just what I was doing. It occurred to me that city life is a little like dorm life. (Though you hope city people are a trifle more mature than college students. By senior year I guess things have usually calmed down a little!) People see you. They know what you're doing. They say, "oh, there's the guy from 1038 grabbing diapers for the kid in the wheelchair." They might not know your name, but they know you, and they know what you're up to. Because a lot less of your space is private. Much more of your life is out in public

I think city weirdness is just about this public-ness. Suburbs are about keeping private. And maybe that expresses itself in how people dress and behave in public: everything is hidden. In the city . . . well, maybe you wear your hair crazy, maybe you put on a red clown nose, maybe you do yoga out on the street. This could be about anonymity: people act weird because they know they'll never be seen again. But it might be the opposite of anonymity: you're used to people seeing you, so you're okay being open, "out there." You behave in public a little more like how you behave in private, because the city is your family. Most people don't make out where they can be seen, because they wouldn't want their family to see them making out. Some people do make out in public, and I think that's not about anonymity at all, but about proclaiming their identity. I am quite sure that many of the young lesbians in our neighborhood are so public about their displays of affection because they *want* to be seen, want to be known. Not because they think they're anonymous and will be forgotten, but because they want to be remembered. They are, I think, treating the city like their family.

This has been kind of a hodge podge. I'll end with a metaphor. We recently moved into a new apartment, our first one with wood floors, which we've always wanted. We've been amazed at how dirty they get. Always dirty. And we wonder, where was that dirt in our carpeted apartment? The answer: it was hidden. I think that might be a good metaphor for city vs. suburb. In the city, all the dirt is out in the open, begging to be dealt with. In the suburbs, the dirt hides, but it is still there -- plenty of it! There are advantages to both. I think you could make an argument that carpets are better, because you don't have to wash them until you feel like it. And maybe the suburbs are better, because if you keep all the weirdness and brokenness of people hidden away, at least it won't hurt their neighbors. But . . . well, I don't know if it's bias or truth, but I sure prefer having the dirt out in the open, where it can get cleaned up, and where it's clear that it needs to be cleaned.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Rationale

aving gotten this blog up and running, and having generated some traffic, I'd like to try to make clear its rationale.

The driving force of civis is theological. Catholic theology hinges on two central doctrines, the Creation and the Incarnation. So first, God made the world. Things are the way they are not by chance, but by the direct decision of God. And God, who is the Word, the logos, intelligibility-itself, creates in wisdom. That means that things not only exist, but exist with reason, with intelligibility.

In short, corollary to Creation is the philosophical doctrine of nature. Aristotle defines nature as "an interior principle of motion" -- in other words, created things have their own interior dynamism: they work in a certain way, independently of how we want them to work. For the Catholic, this is significant in two ways. Practically, it means that we can only succeed -- at anything -- by according with the way things are. If you pour water in your car engine, it won't go; if you pour gas on your plants, they won't grow -- and "casual" sex, which does not accord with the nature of sex, can only lead to human disaster; government policies that don't respect the nature of, say, economics, or cities, or families will not work. All the good will in the world doesn't make an ounce of difference if you do not understand the interior dynamism of things, because the world does not depend on our will. God made it in a certain way, and we can only hope to "succeed" at anything by working with his plan and not against it.

The doctrine of nature has a contemplative corollary, too. According with nature, with the interior dynamism of things, the way God made them, is not only necessary to success -- it is also necessary to seeing God. If we don't respect the order he has implanted in things, we kid ourselves to think we respect the Creator. Again, it's not just a matter of good will, of wanting things to turn out right. Loving God means receptivity, means allowing God to be God, means seeing things as they are, and not trying to mold them into something they're not.

This doesn't, of course, mean passivity. There's nothing passive about putting gas in the car, nothing passive about caring for a child, nothing passive about family life, nothing passive about government policies that concord with the nature of families, cities, economics.

he second foundational doctrine is the Incarnation. God came to restore nature. And how did he do it? By entering in. The Incarnation, the two natures of Christ, says something profound about the world. Because it means God's presence does not negate nature. Christ is not less human -- he's not differently human. He is fully human. He has our nature in all its integrity, with no diminishment of his godhead. Which means, on the one hand, that God's presence is not contrary to things as they are -- a corollary of Creation, but one that we see more clearly in Christ. In other words, being a Christian doesn't mean being less human, or less natural, or human in a different way. It means being fully human. In other words, it means being natural, according with nature, with the natural order that God made.

On the other hand, Christ comes to restore nature. Because sin is not natural. Sin means living in a deformed way -- for example, treating another person as not a person, treating the procreative act as not the procreative act, treating an economic transaction, a kind of equity, as not equity, but a way of stealing. (Those are the fifth, sixth, and seventh commandments, by the way.) Sin is being less natural, and Christ comes to make us more natural. And that doesn't mean just being unnatural in a new way; it doesn't mean now we're lifted up out of the natural order, and no longer care about these things. It means we care about them more.

nd that's the point of this blog. Civis is an effort to correct certain tendencies that mitigate the Christian truths of the Creation and the Incarnation. Much of civis is about politics. I believe that conservatism -- at least the paleo-conservatism for which I shall here argue -- means according with nature. It means, for example, that the government can't provide for people in ways that undermine the economy. The economy has a nature, based on the price mechanism, which regulates supply and demand, and the free exchange of goods. Liberalism is un-"Christian" (please don't misunderstand me) to the extent that it replaces nature with will: if we just try harder, force things a little more, then we'll have justice. Christianity, as I am arguing for it, means our will is good only as it accords with nature. The conservative "movement," at its best, means fighting -- and it is a fight, an act of will -- for government to do what it should, to support the market, not to counteract it. It means an act of will for nature, not against it.

The same goes for cities and families. In my post below on "local politics," my point is that you don't keep a neighborhood safe with big acts of will -- impregnable fences and brash displays of wealth -- but by letting it be a neighborhood, where people talk, and watch out for each other, and make wise decisions. That takes real work -- but not just work, not just will. It also takes understanding of what a neighborhood is.

Let me not be misunderstood. What I am arguing, in a sense, is that human action is most Christian when it is . . . least Christian. That is, it is most Christian when we're not looking for specifically Christian solutions, but when we are looking for natural solutions. That is part of my endorsement, below, of Giuliani: Christianity means reason, means treating things as they are. And that may be better served by one who is not Christian, one who cares for the real world and not for an imagined Gospel. Because ultimately the Christian Gospel means that the world is real.

This is a fine line, and I will surely stumble over it at times: to be truly Christian, we must be careful not to be too "Christian." We may sometimes criticize those who are too specifically "Christian" for not being Christian enough. We must be careful to be so radically committed to our faith that we can argue that our positions are radically Christian without making our positions matters of faith. In fine, we must believe in reason, with passionate faith. Where reason fails, we must be patient, and correct it rationally; but where this quest of reason is abandoned, we must criticize a lack of faith -- without confusing our reasoned positions with faith itself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Suburban Catholics (second draft)

This post has been re-edited. The first edition fell into all the infelicities of blogging: ranting, negativity, extreme statements. This time, I'll try to word it a little better.

I have often argued that the suburbs are not a natural place for Catholics. "We are a tenement people," I believe, meant for communities where we see our neighbors and where work and home are not so radically separate. Yet, my wife often points out, some of the best parishes and dioceses we know are in the suburbs.

We speak from our limited experience. We know Arlington, Virginia, in the suburbs of DC. Arlington diocese, where we lived one year and which we've often visited, is awesome. The people are orthodox, community is vibrant, the priests are great, liturgy is as good as it gets. We've also seen Boston: within the same archdiocese, the city is, for the most part, terrible, while the northern suburbs have some pretty decent parishes. Our experience suggests that the suburbs are better for Catholics.

Here are some preliminary ideas on how to reconcile our city ideals with our suburban experience.

Part of the conflict is probably socio-economic. The last hundred years of urban policy have been hard on our cities -- one of the goals of this blog is to argue for better urban policy. Urban parishes have so much more to struggle with. A solid priest in the suburbs can focus on rosary groups, men's groups, refurbishing the church, and fighting for good liturgy. A solid priest in the city, meanwhile, is often exhausted dealing with homelessness, crime, and poverty. Immigration may play into this, too. In the suburbs, immigrants have their own churches (with their own struggles); we who attend anglo churches don't see this. In the city, it often all gets mixed together, so that one priest is trying to serve not only rich anglos but also poor Hispanics, Islanders, French Africans, Eastern Europeans, etc. These are all things the church should be doing: but it certainly means that suburban parishes can do things that city parishes can't.

There are also some social issues. The suburbs, I would argue, are "voluntary" in a way the city isn't. City life is largely on foot, creating a much greater expectation that you go to your neighborhood church. Suburban life is largely in the car. You expect to drive to the things you like: drive to your favorite grocery store, your favorite restaurant, your favorite mall. Suburban car culture probably makes it seem more normal to go to the parish that fits you. So there are really orthodox suburban parishes and really unorthodox ones. They're all voluntary associations. You might say that Catholicism seems to thrive in the suburbs because it is more like Protestantism, with ideologically "sorted" churches.

In some places, this can even happen at the diocesan level. People who don't like the character of the Diocese of Arlington just cross the river and go to the Archdiocese of Washington. I've talked to plenty of people who do this. So even the dioceses get ideologically sorted.

Perhaps -- this is more of a stretch -- there is also an element of compartmentalization. One of my biggest concerns about the suburbs is that life gets so broken up: you work one place, and live in a totally different place. In the city, even if you commute, your home is surrounded by other people's work. I think there's more of a sense in the city that all of life interpenetrates.

It's possible that suburban churches "benefit" from compartmentalization. I'm pretty confident, from people I've talked to, that many of the pews in "fantastic" Arlington churches are filled with people who are not as fervent as the Church they attend. They are willing to be one thing on Sunday morning, and something else when they get home, just as they are one person at work and another person at home.

This comes out in the typical characterization of urbanites as combative. I think a big part of what people like about the suburbs is not having to fight. You go home to your fortress and what the neighbors are doing really doesn't affect you. In the city, the neighbors constantly affect you -- every conversation, every party, every time they play music -- and so you are used to struggling, speaking up, fighting. I'm not sure, but I can imagine this makes suburbia easier for priests. Possibly, urbanites, used to defending their turf, are also more inclined to fight for their parish, whereas suburbanites are more inclined to shrug their shoulders, knowing that the priest won't follow them home. Maybe.

But finally, there's probably a lot of simple chance. Most of America lives in suburbia (widely defined), and the cities are disproportionately filled with non-Catholic groups: Asians, blacks, Jews. In other words, if most Catholics live in the suburbs, you'd expect to find more good parishes -- and more bad parishes, and more of anything Catholic -- in the suburbs. And I think that's probably about right. Because the suburbs certainly have their share of bad parishes, too.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Local politics

I live in a run-down but reviving urban neighborhood, just down the block from an elementary school yard. At night, teenagers use the school yard for . . . well, you name it: at least drinking, drugs, and gambling, maybe sex, reportedly fighting. A meeting was recently held, with school officials, police, city government people, and neighbors, to discuss a proposal to refurbish the school yard. The proposal recommended a big iron fence, nice football and baseball fields, and a little water park for little kids. I didn't like the proposal. What follows is a letter I sent to my "Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner": the lowest level, most local government official.


Thanks for clarifying the purpose of the next meeting on the school-yard. That makes good sense. You said I should send to you, asap, any "alternate ideas" for the rehabilitation. I do have quite a few thoughts, so here goes.

Matthew's presentation was really impressive and very helpful for showing the progress of the neighborhood. But when it came to rationale for his specific proposal, I think there was just one sentence, on the last page: "Almost without exception," he wrote, "urban areas and property [are] only respected if [they are] maintained and secured." I would take issue with two parts of this statement, and thus suggest an alternate course.

First, he says that areas are only respected if they are "secured," and thus suggests a "tasteful/beautiful wrought-iron fence." I respect the desire to keep bad guys out, but I think his methodology is incorrect. As [Police] Commander Groomes said, you don't make a place safe by keeping bad guys out; you make it safe by bringing good people in. If you look at Capitol Hill [the very nice neighborhood to the South of us], the most beloved, respected places are safe not because of fences but because of people: Lincoln Park, Stanton Park, Eastern Market. These places are cornerstones of the community because they invite people in. Our school yard can be the same.

I respect the need for a fence around the school yard when children are present, so they don't get away. But I think the first thing that needs to be done is to *open* the fence when the children are not present. Right now, the only way onto those grounds is through a parking lot on the alley; I lived on the same block as that parking lot for almost two months before even realizing I *could* go onto the school grounds. What the fence presently communicates is that neighbors are not welcome -- only criminals, who enter illegally, are welcome. If nothing else, the gate at the corner of K and 6th should be open as much as the school will allow, so that neighbors know they can be there. I think it would be better to install bigger, open gates on both 6th and K. The only way to keep that place safe is by bringing good people in.

Along with opening the doors, of course, we need to have things to draw people. I would recommend moving the playground equipment out of the back corner and into the front corner, right out on 6th and K. This would serve two purposes. First, it would communicate to the community that we are welcome to be there -- I don't want to walk my kids down an alley to a playground that seems intentionally set where we can't get to it, and I suspect other parents feel the same way. Second, it would take away the hide-out criminals now have. They hang out on the playground equipment because it is presently set up as a den: a place to sit where no one can see them. Put the playground out on the corner (preferably with a police camera) and they no longer have anywhere to go.

Another way to draw people in is by naming the school yard a dog park. I know that sounds dirty -- but in Stanton Park and other dog parks, people are quite responsible about cleaning up after their pets; and anyway, it's a lot nicer for the custodian to clean up the occasional dog poop than the trash left there every night by criminals. If possible, we might even invite a coffee vendor (Sidamo?) to set up a stand on Saturday mornings, or something to get people onto those grounds. We certainly should put in a big trash bin, so that people who want to use that space don't have to throw their garbage on the ground. Benches would be nice, too. And some vines on the fences would look an awful lot nicer. We should also ask the deaf community how we could make them feel welcome.

(Full disclosure: I do *not* have a dog, and do not particularly like dogs -- but living near Stanton Park for three years, I saw what a positive community experience it was to have people out every morning and night just chit-chatting. A dog park becomes a magnet for community, even for those who don't like dogs.)

Along with security, Matthew's other rationale for his project is that a space must be "maintained." I think this points to a danger in his plan: he tells us the cost to *set up* fields and swimming pools, but he doesn't mention the upkeep costs. Almost all the cost for football, baseball, and soccer fields -- and certainly for a water park -- is in keeping the grass and dirt nice, keeping the lines painted, keeping the water coming. That's a lot of maintenance.

But what good would it do? I think what Matthew was trying to get at is that people -- including criminals -- have more respect for a space that is cared for. But maintaining fields that the community can't use is a pretty ambiguous kind of care. I think the bigger concern is not upkeep -- fancy football fields and such -- but community use. In my opinion, a football field would not get a lot of use. The kind of games that people in the community play are pick-up games that need a field, to be sure, but not a professionally maintained one. Go down and watch at Lincoln Park sometime: people play baseball, football, soccer, and frisbee not because there are fancy fields but because there are spaces where they feel welcome. I think painted lines and well-maintained fields would, ironically, *discourage* community use. They would only be valuable for intramural sports -- teams from outside the neighborhood. So keep open plenty of field for sports -- but don't waste money painting lines that will scare people away. (Incidentally, what do you think elementary school kids are going to do on a big "official" football field? Not much.) The care we need is basic maintenance and lots of community involvement.

We need the school's support on all this, of course. Maybe the school will decide that they don't want the community to use their fields -- but I would warn them that where good people are missing, bad people will fill in, and I suspect they'd agree. With apologies to Sheila, I'd say that family reunions may be loud ("like King's Dominion!") but nobody wants to sell drugs or do any of the other rotten things kids are doing out there if there's a family reunion right next to them. Communities have more power to force out criminals than we realize -- just ask Commander Groomes.

Finally, let me again say that I think we need to attend to the streets outside the school yard. I know that the present project is refurbishing the school grounds -- and, as I've just detailed, I think that's very important and can do a lot of good. But let's make sure that the school, the city, the police, and the neighborhood get together again sometime to discuss things like shattered glass and trash covering the sidewalk directly outside the school yard; drug dealers running a market just outside the school fence; and a store right across the street that sells nothing but malt liquor. These are school issues, not just police issues, and the solutions to these things, in my opinion, are not police solutions but community ones. We can do better, both for our neighborhood and for our school.

Thank you for your patience and consideration. I'd be happy to write a more condensed presentation and present it at the next meeting, if you would be interested.