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Liberal Pieties | The Nation

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Liberal Pieties

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The conflicts Jenkins discusses might have presented an occasion to challenge the slippery concepts of hate crime and hate speech so readily embraced by liberals, the repressive simple-mindedness at the heart of efforts to reduce socially bred antagonisms to matters of criminal punishment, and the dangerous equation of speech and action that is made by self-advertised defenders of freedom when it suits their purposes. Jenkins flirts with this, expressing skepticism that censorship or expanded prosecutorial powers can accomplish shifts in consciousness. But he is so intent on advancing his thesis--"anti-Catholicism must be seen as the great unknown 'anti-ism' or phobia, the most significant unconfronted prejudice in modern America"--that the book distills to a contest between angry, impolite liberationists and beleaguered, presumably conservative Catholics. As ever, the accent on feelings, however collectivized, rather than the push-pull of social forces, leads to terribly pinched conclusions. His argument dead-ends, as it's bound to, in the politics of sensitivity training, a watch-what-you-say political correctness, this time toward Catholics.

CORRECTION: The Fisher family
of Six Feet Under is Episcopalian, not Catholic. (10/1)

About the Author

JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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One could debate how "significant" anti-Catholicism is today. By pop culture's gauge, it's surely also significant that the most interesting television family, the Fishers of Six Feet Under, with their secrets and faceted sexuality, is Catholic; that the liberal icon of mainstream TV for the past four years, President Josiah Bartlet of The West Wing, is Catholic; that the Sopranos, who both confirm and confound stereotypes, are Catholic. Although they figure far larger in mass consciousness than the theatrical satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You, Jenkins doesn't mention them. Instead, he catalogues potshots taken at the iconography, the clergy, the Pope--Sister Mary, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Sinéad O'Connor's Saturday Night Live tear-up of the Pope's picture, Tony Kushner's denunciation of the Pope in these pages after Matthew Shepard's murder--and notes that similarly vituperative statements would not be tolerated against any other group.

He points to the pains taken recently to argue that Islam is a religion of peace when in practice it has also been repressive and bloody-minded. But he misreads the motivations of Islam's non-Muslim mainstream defenders. Since the same government officials who flatter Islam and warn against vigilantism are also the authors of state-sponsored harassment of and terror upon Muslims, their encomia to the faith ought properly to be understood not as sensitivity but as social control. Likewise, generosity toward Islam among liberals these days largely reflects respect for civil liberties, not religion. Individual Catholics might take offense at the freewheeling criticism of their church, but among them there is no equivalent of The Muslim, The Arab, who really has become the bogeyman.

The church is in a different category, and political jabs against it are more usefully compared with those against Saudi Arabia or any other religious state except Israel. On that last point, Jenkins is right: There is a double standard when it comes to addressing Jewish power, which barely can be spoken of, and Catholic power, which inspires no such reticence. Jenkins recognizes that such power is political not religious, institutional not individual, but he quickly retreats, identifying "a very thin line between protest and blasphemy" when the target is the Vatican, between protest and anti-Semitism when it is Israel, and seeming to accept "offense to believers" as the standard for judging on which side of the line political speech falls. That is nonsense. Politics being organized conflict, offense is its nature. Tiptoeing around Jewish sensitivities to avoid plainspeaking about Israeli brutality is neither honest nor healthy. Attacks on the church's policy interventions on sexuality and reproduction may sometimes be raw, but at least they recognize power for what it is. Certainly he Vatican's seven-page multilingual denunciation of homosexuality following the Supreme Court sodomy decision, and its vow to lead a global campaign against gay rights, gives the lie to any suggestion that the church is the put-upon weak sister in the culture wars.

Like Jenkins, McGreevy recapitulates the history of anti-Catholic ugliness--the Know-Nothings and Klan attacks, the various state bans forbidding Catholic children from public schools, the scare literature and elite tracts, sometimes one and the same. But his historical pairings more effectively reveal the poisonous nature of that ugliness. Prejudice, as McGreevy shows without actually arguing the point, is a problem not because it makes people feel bad but because of the blinders it requires the bigots to wear with respect to their own, favored culture, and the way that culture, if dominant, is enforced and reproduced.

Thus in the nineteenth century, the liberal intelligentsia decried Vatican authoritarianism. No quarrel there. But for priests, nuns and ordinary Catholics to be branded enemies, as they were, this authoritarianism had to be made utterly alien; and America, its opposite, made a model of liberty. In 1870 the First Vatican Council announced the dogma of papal infallibility on matters of faith and morals. Writing from Rome for The Nation, Charles Eliot Norton said that the world was now divided "between the principle of authority and that of freedom in matters of opinion." That simplistic formula would be reiterated down the decades, and in the late 1940s would form the basis of a celebrated series of Nation articles against the church by Paul Blanshard, who railed against Catholicism's "organized system of cultural and moral controls" (and whose passion for "American freedom" was matched only by his enthusiasm for anti-Communism and eugenics). Other intellectuals of the day rated those faiths or sects that fostered freedom and those that inhibited it, with the historian William Warren Sweet crediting Puritans and Calvinists with "all the great concepts for which American democracy stands today." One of those was capitalism, whose rise Weber had associated with Calvinist asceticism and whose iron logic was associated in the liberal imagination not with dogma but with dynamism.

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