Peter Steinfels

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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The cat with nine lives


During my half century of life in New York City, race relations here have gone through many ups and downs.  One reliable contributor to the downs has been the Rev. Al Sharpton.  Sharpton is to racial understanding what Rupert Murdoch is to the news media or steroids to batting records.  Others have drawn larger conclusions about Sharpton’s ascent from a demagogue inflaming the tragic Tawana Brawley fraud to Official African-American Leader at the side of Mayor Bill de Blasio or President Obama.  For myself, I can only say (1) nothing else can inject doubts in my mind about some case of apparent racial injustice as quickly as Sharpton’s arrival on the scene, and (2) this cat really does have nine lives. 

The latter reality is being demonstrated by Sharpton’s casual dismissal of a New York Times report that he owes millions of dollars in unpaid taxes, to say nothing of other debts—and Mayor de Blasio’s rush to his defense.  “I know a lot of good people who ran into one kind of problem or another with their taxes.”  A million here, a million there, good to have a mayor who stands up for the little guy. 

Douthat on the Synod


Despite my criticism of Ross Douthat’s history of recent American religion, I look forward to his columns in the Sunday New York Times. Even when seriously wrong, they are almost always usefully (and enjoyably) contrarian to the paper’s dominant worldview.  Compared to the portrait of the Synod appearing elsewhere in the Times, for example, Douthat’s analysis last Sunday was certainly contrarian.  And no less certainly also seriously wrong.

Let’s review Douthat’s argument before offering a critique. 

Dotty Lynch

There were only two obituaries in the New York Times on Tuesday, August 12. One was of Robin Williams, starting on the front page and continuing inside at great length. The other was of a friend and occasional contributor to CommonwealDotty Lynch.

Archbishops Playing House

If anyone were keeping a list of Flimsiest Religious Exposes of the Year, here is a contender.  It’s a report from CNN’s Belief Blog exposing “The Lavish Homes of American Archbishops,” and it is now eliciting predictably self-righteous comments around the Web.  

It’s a pretty pretentious piece of work, complete with photos that will shock almost everyone who has never driven through an upscale neighborhood and concluding with a bragging note on “How We Reported This Story.”

“Records reveal that 10 of the country's top church leaders defy the Pope's example and live in residences worth more than $1 million,” the story begins breathlessly. 

“Defy” the Pope’s example?  $1 million?  Please remember that the infamous German “Bishop of Bling” whom Francis ousted was spending $43 million to remodel a palatial residence, $300,000 for a new fish tank, $2.38 million for bronze window frames, almost $1 million for the garden, etc., etc.

If you know anything about real estate prices and about the number of archdiocesan residences built in the day when American Catholics expected their leaders to live like VIPs, as well as about the number of archbishops’ residences that also house offices, reception areas, chapels, and rooms for other priests—well, then, you might be surprised that CNN’s Belief Blog found only ten of 34 archbishops so shamefully lodged.  Certainly I was.  And I suspect CNN was also. 

Syria and us

Today I have been doing my best to fast and pray for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and the world as the pope, seconded by our bishops, asked us to do.  But my prayer and fasting are agitated by concerns that take quite a different turn from those of many of my closest friends and those of many voices on this blog. 

Some days ago, when I began turning all these things over in my mind, I basically thought the Obama administration, for all the reasons that it has given, was doing the right thing, including requesting congressional approval.  I recognized reasonable objections to taking a limited, punitive military action against the Assad regime for its breaking yet another barrier to total depravity in warfare.  To my thinking, and I did quite a bit of thinking, those arguments against acting were less substantial than the argument for acting.  As of this moment, I am less sure, largely because of the President’s inability to rally more international support.   

But I am far less concerned to add my own arguments to ones that are being advanced all over the place than to look at something else. What I sense going on and what I have been including in my prayers does not have much to do with any careful weighing of reasons.  It is a mood, a reflex, a gut reaction, and it resembles all too much a state of mind I spent years studying.  We complain, not quite fairly, that generals always refight the last war.  But to the extent that it is true of generals, it is no less true of anti-war activists.  They are always opposing the last war.  

One Marcher's story

The steady streams of recollections and images from the March on Washington, as well as the posts here at dotCommonweal, have been valuable and moving.  But I was taken by this small story of one man's experience of that historic day'.  Maurice Berube, now an emeritus professor at Old Dominion University,  was an activist in the Catholic trade union movement, an educator, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.  He is also the author of thirteen books.  Mo's account appeared the other day in the Virginian Pilot:

"I remember Aug. 28, 1963 as one of the most glorious days of my life," Mo begins, "but one of the most fearsome nights.

Remembering Jean

Last evening, from Matthew Boudway’s post on dotCommonweal below, we learned of the death of Jean Bethke Elshtain. Although we knew that Jean had been wrestling with deadly illness, the news was a shock. Like everyone who ever received an Elshtain Christmas letter detailing every school and sports success of her grandchildren, every vocational progression of her children, and always the devoted presence of her husband Errol, we thought first of the loss to her family and only then to the debt owed her as a political philosopher, wise teacher, and public intellectual of the highest rank. For Jean the links between the realities of family and those of political community were profound.    Two years ago, at a conference on Jean’s writing about democracy, I recalled the beginning of our friendship. In 1969 an unsolicited manuscript arrived at the office of Commonweal. It was a long review of a children’s book – a new edition of the First Book of American History by the eminent American historian Henry Steele Commager. The reviewer sliced into Commager’s complacent and inaccurate portrayals of American Indians, slavery, racism, and imperialism. The reviewer suggested that the book should have been subtitled, “How to Speak with Forked Tongue to the Kiddies.”   The reviewer was unknown, identified as a graduate student at Brandeis University. The book was not one we would have chosen for a review. But as a junior editor of a Sixties ilk I shared the reviewer’s impatience with grandees of the liberal establishment like Commager. I argued energetically for accepting and featuring the review as a “book essay.” It was published in the November 21, 1969 issue. Jean went on to contribute 16 more articles and 35 reviews to the magazine. I like to think that, in the words of Dean Acheson, I was “present at the creation.” 

Religious Progressives?

Are religious progressives the wave of the future? 

That is the conclusion that a number of people have drawn from Do Americans Believe Capitalism & Government Are Working?, the study that has already been discussed here following posts by Paul Moses and myself.  Besides surveying Americans on economic conditions, inequality, capitalism, government economic policy, and religious values, the study paid special attention to what it considered the understudied counter to the religious right, namely “religious progressives.”

By combining scales measuring Americans’ views on theological, social, and economic issues, the study concludes that 28% of the population are religious conservatives, 38% are religious moderates, and 19% are religious progressives. 

The latter, however, may have prospects that those numbers belie.  First of all, that 19% of religious progressives are close in outlook on political, social, and economic questions to the 15% of Americans detached from any particular faith, the "nones.".  So a broader view of the nation’s religious landscape shows it roughly divided in thirds: 28% conservative, 38% moderate, and 34% progressive. 

More importantly, the authors of the study, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in collaboration with the Brookings Institute, emphasize that religious progressives are significantly younger than religious conservatives.  Religious conservatives' share of the population shrinks with every generation.  That’s what has been celebrated in blogs from the Washington Post to the Huffington Post by way of Salon.  The day of the religious right is passing, the era of the religious left is upon us. 

Sorry, it's not likely. 

Capitalism, Government, and Religion

Last Thursday the Public Religion Research Institute, in cooperation with the the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, published a report titled Do Americans Believe Capitalism & Government Are Working?  Religious Left, Religious Right & the Future of the Economic Debate.  

The survey on which the report was based, a very professionally designed phone poll conducted last month, has already been discussed below in a July 18 post by Paul Moses.  Having been invited to be part of a panel at  the Washington event introducing the report, I worked my way through it in considerable detail and am adding my own observations.

Here are some of the basic findings about the economy, inequality, capitalism, and government aid and competence:  

Whether one looks at Americans by ethnicity or race, by educational level, by party affiliation, or by generation, there is unusual agreement that the lack of jobs is the nation's number one economic problem.  There is also a general pessimism about the economic future.  Almost two-thirds of the population believe that the government should be doing more to decrease the gap between rich and the poor, and should provide a safety net to take care of people who can't care for themselves.   Less than 6 of 10 Americans think capitalsim is working well while more than 4 in 10 think that it isn't.  More than half think that unequal chances in life is a big problem.     

But more than two thirds also say that the federal government is "broken," either partially (40%) or "completely" (26%).

Beyond the Stalemate

In January we were amply reminded by marches, protests, editorials, op-ed screeds, and TV sound bites that it has been forty years since Roe v. Wade. Americans who were fifteen and barely beginning to register the personal and moral implications of this sweeping change in the law are now fifty-five. At least two generations have now lived out their choices about sex and parenthood entirely under the post-Roe regime. And yet the matter remains unsettled.