04 October 2010

Joseph Sobran, R.I.P

Joe Sobran's passing has already been noted in other places on the net, but I feel honor-bound to make a few remarks here.  When William F. Buckley, Jr., died, I wrote a positive remembrance post.  I was in a very different political place at the time, but even during my Buckley adulation phase it always bothered me how Buckley had essentially thrown Sobran on the scrap heap and (at least) aided and abetted slander towards a brilliant writer and loyal employee.

Sobran made National Review worth reading for many years.  His tenure predated the time when the battle for philosophical leadership of the conservative movement between paleo- and neo- conservatives was settled decisively in favor of the neo.

Buckley was undoubtedly intelligent.  Sobran was intelligent-- and always lucid.  His writings shine with the soul of a Catholic seeking to fight the rearguard action against the oncoming infidel hordes, but one who knows the joys of life and who appreciates the things he seeks to defend for their own sakes.  He was slandered as anti-Semitic by enemies, and former friends.

Below is an excerpt-- one many will find too long and at sight of it will simply spin their mouse wheel to the next post-- from an even longer piece published in National Review in 1985.  If you dare, you will not be disappointed in reading it from start to finish.  It is prescient and insightful.  The excerpt below is about the liberal aversion to organized religion:

IN THE Catholic Church it takes several centuries for a doctrine to become a dogma. In progressive circles the same process can be achieved within months.

There is no institution from which the progressive is so deeply alienated as from religion--or, as he calls it, "organized" religion, as if religion would be all right if only believers avoided association with each other. He can reconcile himself to the idea of a spontaneous internal belief, provided the believer stands under no ecclesiastical authority.

The enemy, for socialism, is any permanent authority, whether it is a long-standing church or a holy scripture, whose tendency is to put a brake on political power. In fact power and authority are often confused nowadays: the thoroughly politicized man who seeks power can only experience and interpret authority as a rival form of power, because it impedes his ambition for a thoroughly politicized society. But authority is more nearly the opposite of power. It offers a standard of truth or morality that is indifferent and therefore often opposed to current desires and forces, standing in judgment over them. If God has revealed Himself to man, the progressive agenda may find itself seriously inconvenienced.

For this reason, religion is a source of deep anxiety to the liberal. He harps on its historical sins: Crusades, Inquisitions, witch burnings, wars. He never notices that the crimes of atheist regimes, in less than a century, have dwarfed those of all organized religions in recorded history. He sees Christianity's sporadic persecutions as being of its essence; he regards Communism's unbroken persecution as incidental to its potential for good. He warns of the "danger" posed by American fundamentalists (one of the most gentle and law-abiding segments of the population) and is unchastened by the results of "peace" in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Religion offers, par excellence, anchorage in a tradition that can't be altered to suit current interests, whereas the liberal wants liberal interests to enjoy a sort of sacred status. He has his own orthodoxy, but it is a floating orthodoxy that requires it votaries to adapt quickly and unpredictably, as new occasions and passions dictate. To adhere to traditional doctrines (as on abortion) is to be "divisive"; the sin of divisiveness is never imputed to the innovation he would have us adopt at once. He wants to invest his novelties with authority. He wants the church to become "relevant."

The liberal avoids a frontal assault on religion; he has no taste for persecution, even if he turns a blind eye to it when socialists inflict it on those believers he regards as reactionary. He typically expresses his objections to religion in procedural terms: he isn't against religion, he merely favors the "separation of church and state." But here his indifference to Communist persecution gives him away: the very idea of separating church and state presupposes firmly defined spheres for both. Without limited government, the sphere of the church is merely residual, and the state may crowd it out of any area of life the ruling power chooses to usurp, as when the Polish Communist regime invoked the principle of separation to demand the removal of crucifixes from all state classrooms, there being no other classrooms in Poland. (There was no protest from liberals in the West against this campaign of religious apartheid.)

The liberal's ill-disguised uneasiness with religion recalls C.S. Lewis's remark that some people say they dislike Milton's God when they really mean they dislike God. The most the liberal can bring himself to say in favor of religion is that it has given painters and poets and composers some pretty ideas from time to time; that is about as far as his appreciation goes. For the rest, religion in liberal rhetoric usually occupies the role of a dark and backward force, and progress is measured by the distance we have come from the "Dark Ages," the period of churchly ascendancy.

The liberal regime is one of virtual atheism; though it professes agnosticism, as if this were a form of neutrality between belief and unbelief, it constantly enlarges the range of the things that are Caesar's at the expense of the things that are God's. There is never a wholesale rejection of religion, only regular appeals to "pluralism" to justify stripping away features of the Western moral tradition as they offend the progressive agenda of the moment. In this way liberalism keeps the option of retaining what it likes of the Christian heritage, while ruling out as sectarian whatever it doesn't like. The content of "pluralism" in this way becomes a lowest common denominator that is continually reduced to liberal specifications by liberal vetoes. The result is a piecemeal apostasy that pretends to maintain continuity with the tradition it is destroying. Liberalism thus gains a furtive monopoly over the political culture. "Pluralism" serves, on the one hand, as an invitation to (say) homosexuals to make demands on the polity and, on the other, as a prohibition against Christians' doing the same.

Moreover, the current liberal position is asserted to be our constitutional tradition, "the American Way." Robert L. Cord, among other scholars, has shown this to be historical balderdash, since the first Congress after the ratification of the Constitution expressly tried to promote the spread of religion through the Northwest Ordinance, and several states retained their religious establishments well into the nineteenth century. In refusing to create a national religious establishments well into the nineteenth century. In refusing to create a national religious establishment, the Framers of the Constitution aimed not to exclude religion from public life but to allow it to operate freely, on equal terms with other participants, and with all denominations on an equal footing. The Declaration of Independence itself has openly theological underpinnings. For the Founding Fathers, religion was a genuine way of knowing. That the Federal Government did not profess competence in deciding religious truth was no more a derogation of religion than its refusal to take sides in a scientific controversy would be a derogation of science. Those who say otherwise are reading their wishes into the Constitution.

Consider the endless debate over school prayer. The discussion begins and ends with the problem of the outsider--the occasional Jewish child, the largely hypothetical Buddhist--who would feel oppressed by having either to join the class or to excuse himself from the morning benediction. It is remarkable that the discussion never revolves around the possible benefits of prayer, e.g., that the good Lord might actually shower blessings on the children. No though is given to the needs of piety, the social value of reverence, the sublime joy of adoration. The rights of the minority are of course a fully legitimate and necessary consideration, in some cases decisive, but they are hardly the only one.

And we have been so obsessed with the question whether children should be encouraged or pressured to worship that we have totally overlooked an equally pertinent one, namely, whether children should even be informed about religion. It is rather obvious that they should: that without understanding what people have believed, they are disabled from fully understanding history, literature, politics, and even each other. They remain ignorant of an area of concern that by its nature is central to the lives of millions of people. How can a young person even read Hamlet without understanding the Christian doctrines and practices involved in the play's references to heaven, hell, purgatory, the sacraments, revenge, and suicide? Is he to be exposed to sex education but shielded from the beliefs of his own ancestors? Religious education is even a secular necessity. The child who is deprived of it is to be pitied.

The prevailing notion is that the state should be "neutral" as to religion, and furthermore that the best way to be neutral about it is to avoid all mention of it. By this sort of logic, nudism is the best compromise among different styles of dress. The secularist version of "pluralism" amounts to theological nudism. We are not "imposing" our beliefs on others (whatever that means) when we act on our beliefs. A culturally Christian society is not "discriminating against" non-Christians when it draws on its own moral idiom in its deliberations; what else can it use?

There is something strained and artificial about forcing ourselves to act as if we didn't believe what we do in fact believe, just as much as if we were to force ourselves to act on beliefs we didn't in fact hold. It is a little like speaking pidgin English in case a foreigner should happen to be present. As a practical matter, of course, a man who doesn't believe in the Bible won't be persuaded by arguments from Scripture; but this is no reflection on the right to argue from Scripture. The atheist is equally free to argue from his own premises, and equally at the mercy of those who find his premises irrelevant. But a lowest common denominator should not be taken for a universal. Public discussion can't very well be oriented to the solipsist; a man who doesn't believe other men exist hardly has a claim on their deference. There are some beliefs so widely shared that, as Chesterton puts it, those who reject them "are not so much a minority as a monstrosity."

It may not clarify matters much to say that "America is a Christian society." Many devout Christians will deny it, though they wish it were so; some non-Christians may believe it, while wishing it weren't so. And if it is true in some sense, maybe nothing is gained by having the state affirm it. Elizabethan England and Byzantine Greece were both Christian societies, but in vastly different ways. The particular way in which Christianity penetrates a given culture is always subtle and hard to define, whether or not it is the official religion. But by the same token, nothing is gained by insisting that secularist "pluralism" is the American Way. It may be enough to say that America has a free market in faith. Every pair of interlocutors has to feel its way to the terms of its own special conversation.

There are even different styles of atheism. A visitor to Northern Ireland, appalled by the violence between Catholics and Protestants, asked if there weren't any atheists. "Oh yes," he was told. "We have Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists." The bon mot has a serious point: unbelief may have its roots in a former belief and take shape from it; atheism may be a Christian denomination.

A man may lose his faith innocently, by inability to believe. But he may also refuse to believe. If faith is a gift, it is a gift that is sometimes rudely rejected. Atheism as well as religion may be "wish-fulfillment," Lewis reminds us: and, he sardonically observes, to this day people talk as if St. Augustine had favored infant damnation. There is no simple correlation between desires and creeds, and we are too charitable if we presume that the atheist is always acting in good faith when he rejects faith.

There is such a thing as the pious atheist, the man who comes sadly to unbelief, but with at least some appreciation of what he has lost. An ancient Roman convert to Christianity need not have despised everything in the polytheistic Roman culture; he might continue to love the Aeneid, the Pantheon, the old myths and the art they inspired. We are still grateful that the Christians didn't try to obliterate every trace of that culture, in the fanatical spirit that led some Puritans to want to destroy all records of English life before Cromwell's revolution.

A modern man who has lost the faith of his fathers will still, if he is morally sane, treasure the heritage of that faith--not only the art of Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, and Mozart, but the philosophy, science, law, and general manners that have been generated by belief in a good Creator Who made man in His image and gave His only Son to redeem our sinful race. Only a boor could write all that off as bad or vain.

But there is also such a thing as organized irreligion, militant and bloody-minded, despising the entire past. If you hear Rigoletto performed in Moscow, you may be puzzled, as I was, to find that Gilda's dying aria is cut; the problem, it transpires, is that the aria refers to heaven, thus violating the decorum of the official atheism. A small thing like this can piercingly remind you of the horrors that have been visited on countless believers. As Chesterton wrote eighty years ago: "Earnest freethinkers need not worry themselves about the persecutions of the past. Before the liberal idea is dead or triumphant we shall see wars and persecutions the like of which the world has never seen." Only those possessed by the liberal idea have failed to notice.

In America religious people refer to organized irreligion as "secular humanism." The irreligionists scoff at this name, as if it were some gauche backwoods coinage; they forget that they used to use it themselves, as a euphemism for a militant unbelief that pretended its sole purpose was to separate (or segregate) religion from public life on constitutional grounds. Nobody is really deceived any more: the driving motive is hostility to Christianity. Anthony Lewis, the New York Times columnist who welcomed the Communist victory in Cambodia in 1975 as representing a "vision of a new society," was much less sanguine about the Religious Right during the 1980 presidential campaign: he saw the political activities and pronouncements of conservative Christians as "unconstitutional" and, yes, "dangerous." He had seen no violation of the Constitution in all the activism of left-wing clergymen over the years; and thereby hangs a tale.

If the American Left doesn't contemplate persecution of Christians, it has found its own alternative: seduction of the clergy. Why make martyrs of people who can be enlisted as allies? And the strange fact is that many of the clergy have accepted this role.

The liberal clergy see no tension between the sacred and the trendy; they virtually identify the two, hailing their own leftist protest as "prophetic"--as if they were defying contemporary currents of power, rather than being swept up in them. They are embarrassed by dogma; they adapt their theology to politics. It is tempting to imagine them carrying loose-leaf Bibles, from which embarrassing passages about sodomy, fornication, and the subordination of women can be yanked out and replaced by the gospel of gay rights and feminism. Their fluidity offers anything but the kind of permanent truth against which the fashions of the day can be measured; their beliefs, such as they are, derive entirely from secular fashion. They fluctuate between claiming to return to pure and primitive Christianity and dismissing inconvenient parts of Scripture as "culturally conditioned." For them, early Christianity dovetails nicely with the current radical agenda; and nothing is more plainly "culturally conditioned" than the trendy clergy themselves. They "speak out" against the targets of the Left--the "arms race," South Africa, Chile--but are careful not to speak out against the Left's persecution of their fellow Christians. They speak hopefully of "Christian-Marxist dialogue"--a diabolical fatuity best appreciated by imagining a "Christian-Nazi dialogue." Some Christians were afraid to speak out against Nazism; but at least there was no attempt to find in the Nazi program a fulfillment of Christian social ethics.

Incredibly, even the Catholic hierarchy is beginning to play this game, echoing the secular progressive agenda instead of offering resistant to it. In its denunciations of poverty and prescriptions of collectivism, it forgets that even altruistic materialism remains materialism, and that its primary mission is to promote the saving of souls. There is a core of timidity in all this "speaking out," a spirit of abdication in all this activism. The doctrine of the "seamless garment"--which holds that if one opposes abortion one must also oppose nuclear war--has ingratiated the hierarchy with the Left, but it hasn't converted the Left. On the contrary: the Left continues to favor abortion, and the doctrine has been interpreted on all sides (correctly) as a rebuke to the Right. The bishops have weakened their authority by annexing it to "progressive" causes rather than risking embarrassment by continuing to oppose, in any effective way, Communism, pornography, and contraception. It can be exalting to belong to a church that is five hundred years behind the times and sublimely indifferent to fashion; it is mortifying to belong to a church that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up.

C.S. Lewis says sensibly that Christian politics must come from laymen who are experienced in politics rather than from the clergy, who aren't, "just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists--not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time." And Burke, deploring the spectacle of "political theologians, and theological politicians," comments that politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity. The cause of civil liberty and civil government gains as little as that of religion by this confusion of duties. Those who quit their proper character, to assume what does not belong to them, are, for the greater part, ignorant both of the character they leave, and of the character they assume. Wholly unacquainted with the world in which they are so fond of meddling and inexperienced in all its affairs, on which they pronounce with so much confidence, they have nothing of politics but the passions they excite. Surely the church is a place where one day's truce ought to be allowed to the dissensions and animosities of mankind.

Which is in no way to deny the real relevance of religion to politics--provided that religion keeps its "proper character," not as preceptor of daily policy, but as custodian of an eternal vision of God and man, from which practical policy can take its bearings. "Mankind more frequently require to be reminded than informed," says Samuel Johnson. One gets the uneasy feeling that the clergy are trying to inform us when they ought to be reminding us, or that they want to posture as bold rebels a la mode. Perhaps they need reminding themselves.

Let Chesterton have the last word: "We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one's grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers."


Joe Sobran, requiescat in pace.


Anonymous said...

I once had the good fortune to spend a day with Joe Sobran. He was as warm personally as he was witty with the pen. Vere, requiscat in pace.


StGuyFawkes said...

Joseph Sobran was without doubt the wittiest and brightest writer to ever grace the columns of the National Review. However he was an anti-semite; and his fellow Catholic William Buckley provided ample evidence for that charge in his essay "In Search of Anti-Semitism."

But then as another National Review writer, John Podhoretz, used to say, speaking of Chesterton, "well there's anti-semitism, and there is anti-semitism."

Having a specially sharp tooth for the Jewish people was a flaw in an otherwise shining character; he brought grace and insight to our reading of political life.

My favorite Sobran column was in the Wanderer some twenty seven years ago. Sobran was keen to point out the difference between the just disgraced, new style politician, Gary Hart and the old machine ward heeler, Walter Mondale, both of whom sought the Democratic nomination for President.

Joe said that if Mondale had ever dreamed of having an extra marital affair with a bikini kiosk floozy, he'd kill the thought instantly, knowing that he'd have to get the permission of the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the teachers unions and National Organization of Women. In other words the old politician at least felt an obligation to his coalition.

Gary Hart felt none. Neither did Clinton.

Sobran will be missed.

thetimman said...


It is a slander, and Buckley saying it doesn't make it true. For Buckley to turn on him and flay him for his enemies' benefit was wrong. I could say more but I suspect X is already at his keyboard. I hope it stays civil...

StGuyFawkes said...


I'm not arguing ex-cathedra and saying that Buckley's saying something is so, makes it so. I happened to find Buckley's arguments against Sobran cogent, I urge everyone to read them.

Slander is when you simply repeat something without argument or evidence and expect that the crowd will pass the untruth on without reflection.

There is a cogent argument as to Sobran's anti-semitism. However since this post, and my comment were intended as a "requiescat" I'll save the debate for some later time and ask everyone to read as much Sobran as they can but avoid his writings on Israel.

X said...

I'm an anti-semite,
Although I don't hate Jews,
Still I'm an anti-semite,
With anti-semite views.
You see I don't hate Moslems,
Or Muslims if you please,
I also don't hate Germans,
Nor even Lebanese.
Yes I'm an anti-semite,
And though it may not show,
I am an anti-semite.
I just thought you should know.

In memory of Joe Sobran, a Catholic.