In her enjoyable new book, Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got it Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First, Mona Charen quotes the response of the historian Henry Steele Commager to President Reagan’s famous “evil empire” speech in March 1983. Commager considered it “the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all. No other presidential speech has ever so flagrantly allied the government with religion. It was a gross appeal to religious prejudice. ”
George W. Bush’s reference to an “axis of evil” has, of course, elicited many similar responses today—not least from religious people themselves, sorely troubled by representatives of the people appropriating the language of “good” and “evil” in matters of politics. Indeed, the charge that these political theologians make against theological politicians contains three characteristics of the humbug that has come to characterize the wider response of sections of the intellectual establishment to the pressing social and political issues of our day: a pious prejudice against religious prejudice; an elitist hatred of hierarchies; and a demonization of anyone who still believes in demons.
In this sense, perhaps, and only in this sense, our professional academic, legal, and religious thinkers might be considered among the most conservative of interest groups. While fully discharging their responsibility to encourage intellectual and material progress, and to think the unthinkable, a number of them balance this energy with a mindset that has changed not a jot in centuries. It is as if these revolutionaries, from their coffee shop retreats, urge les misérables around the world to take up arms against elitism and moral scapegoating, while carefully playing Inspector Javert behind the barricades, ensuring that prejudice, elites, and scapegoats remain firmly in their appointed places.
This issue of the University Bookman contains reviews of recent works that confront this scholastic schizophrenia by attempting to correct the record of history in important respects. Bruce Thornton and Robert Woods explore the exclusive discourse gripping areas of our academic life and institutions, where those who fail to use the correct language, or who argue for greater popular involvement in the academy, find that there are no empty chairs or tables set aside for them. David Bardallis and Glen Olsen expose the enduring vibrancy of demonology in modern academic circles, where there remains a powerful prejudice against the Catholic Church and the cultural achievements of the Middle Ages. Somehow, while much of the rationalist hubris of the Enlightenment has been left in tatters, eighteenth-century prejudices against religious institutions (together with Jefferson’s casual reference to a “wall of separation”) have taken deeper root. The effect of this prejudice is, of course, not only to obstruct scholarly advancement, but to stifle serious intellectual debate and thereby prevent the emergence of effective responses to contemporary problems—a point made forcefully in other contexts by William Hay and Mark Winchell.
Correcting the historical record is a vital first step to breaking the cycle of humbug. Yet, as Michael Dauphinais shows us in his review of a welcome new edition of Dorothy Day’s On Pilgrimage, and as anyone will know who has read Victor Hugo’s magisterial Les Misérables (or even, dare I say it, seen it on stage), there is also a path to real social progress (“regeneration” might be a better word) and a deeper understanding of our humanity that lies in front of us all, if we care to look. It is found in the conscience that is sharpened by an awareness of the demons that lurk among and within us, in the spirit that enables ordinary individuals to make extraordinary differences in their own neighborhood routines, and in the faith that is strengthened by the example of our Christian heritage. Dorothy Day, recalling Georges Bernanos’s novel The Diary of a Country Priest in an interview with Robert Coles, put it this way:
Maybe it’s my reading, and no one else’s, but I think of the rainy, melancholy weather as an accompaniment to the curé’s life, to his daily duties. Others make clear weather for themselves! They write and talk and imagine themselves getting rid of every problem, solving all the puzzles; they tell others what will be ahead, a bright, sunny future, if only they pay attention, listen to every word spoken, read every word written. Not that curé; he knew that even the best weather is only temporary, that clouds and a downpour are around every corner. But he chose to stay there, do what he could; the true reality, as our Lord told us when He chose a ministry, rather than a book to write and an empire to lead.