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Religion Commentary -- April 7, 1994

Religion and the Cultural Elite:
A lecture given at Saint Ambrose University, in Davenport, Iowa.

by Cullen Murphy

I noted in the press release from Saint Ambrose that went out far and wide--urbi et orbi as the Pope would say--in advance of this occasion that a previous speaker in this series was the Rev. Robert Drinan. I have met Robert Drinan only once, but the occasion was unforgettable. As the writer of the comic strip Prince Valiant, I was asked a few years ago to come to Capitol Hill and present an original page of the strip to the venerable Congressman Claude Pepper, who was celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday. Congressman Pepper was apparently a big fan of the strip, which had begun publication the very month and year--February of 1937--in which he moved to Washington. I had expected a small and informal private gathering, but it turned out that the presentation took place in a baronial hall in front of most of the Senate and House of Representatives. Faced with what was, in effect, a joint session of Congress, my knees turned to jelly. I had a distinct sense of fumbling through my remarks, parched tongue and palsied hand, and at last the blessed moment came when I could slink from the podium and climb under a rock. As I walked away, Congressman Robert Drinan, as he was at the time, stepped forward and held out his hand. He said: "You did great." It was a lie--and, I would contend, grounds for sainthood.


As I was contemplating coming out to Davenport this week, I realized that the coming Sunday would be Whit Sunday, and my memory was suddenly jolted back exactly thirty years to a spring weekend in Ireland, when the Irish boy scout troop to which I belonged escaped from Dublin for its annual Whit Camp. We traveled north to the banks of the Boyne River, the place where, in 1690, the forces of William of Orange, a Protestant, had defeated those of King James II, a Catholic, in a battle that effectively put an end to Stuart claims to the English throne, and that also ratified--once and, perhaps, for all--the break of the English church from the church of Rome. The Catholic people of Ireland had, of course, been siding with James, and the aftermath of the Battle of the Boyne saw the institution of harsh restrictions on the Catholic Church in Ireland. On that Whit Sunday weekend thirty years ago we decided to replay the Battle of the Boyne in the form of a game of capture the flag, and the action ranged for hours over field and stream. In the end, the forces of William of Orange proved victorious yet again. The result seems to illustrate one of Ireland's problems: Even when you give history a chance to rewrite itself, it can't.

I bring this incident up because sectarian conflicts in Europe, like the one that flared on the Boyne, were always very much on the mind of the man who, as much as any other, was responsible for enshrining religious toleration as a constitutional principle in the United States of America. I refer, of course, to Thomas Jefferson. He could hardly avoid knowing about how religious strife had for two centuries been tearing Europe apart. The William who prevailed at the Boyne was the William of William and Mary, Jefferson's alma mater. The Church of England was the established church in the Virginia of Jefferson's youth, and dissenters were frequently persecuted. Heresy was punishable by death. Denial of the Trinity was punishable by imprisonment on the third offense--a forbear, it would seem, of "three strikes you're out." The result was a growing sectarian fractiousness that the mature Jefferson could see would doom an increasingly diverse state and nation. After independence was declared, he worked for ten years to pass Virginia's Statute of Religious Freedom, which he had largely drafted. "The legitimate powers of government," Jefferson wrote, "extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." When a compromise was proposed, essentially changing the concept "freedom" to the concept "toleration," Jefferson dug in his heels and refused, and prevailed. The statute as he had drafted it became law in 1786, and it became the model for the clause in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state. Jefferson was passionate about this issue. When he wrote the epitaph for his tombstone, Jefferson did not mention that he had been President of the United States. He did say that he was the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment, and his own religious views as an adult, which he tended to keep to himself, never conformed neatly with those of any denomination. But on grounds of principle he was welcoming of religious pluralism: The way to truth, he believed, was to let all beliefs contend--freely, and out in the open. The practical side of Jefferson also acknowledged that, because religion is in fact a social force, it must be socially accomodated. Whatever the pillars of his thinking, Jefferson, a member in good standing of what today would be called the "cultural elite," held religion to be at once salubrious and relevant.

There are many reasons why one might want Jefferson around today. I find my thoughts turning to him, for example, every time I start thinking about the addition I must soon add to my house. But I would particularly like to have Jefferson's opinion of what has happened to the cultural elite in our own time. Let me concede at the outset that the term cultural elite itself is bothersomely vague. Nor was its reputation enhanced when, a few years ago, it became one of the whipping boys of Vice President Quayle. But one needs to give some sort of name to that group of people in America who populate academe and the news media and the entertainment industries, and who do so much to shape the national agenda and set a national tone. One could use the British term "the chattering classes," but that has a connotation of frivolousness that is not appropriate. "Intellegentsia" won't do--it's too narrow, and in any event America doesn't really have one in the European sense. So we're stuck, I suppose, with "the cultural elite." Still, whatever one thinks of the term, the group being referred to is a real one. And the attitude toward religion in general that has long predominated within it is one toward which Jefferson would not have been sympathetic. It is an attitude toward religion characterized at times by a blend, varying with the circumstances, of ignorance, suspicion, and hostility. At other times--and this is perhaps the worst stance of all--it is characterized by an impermeable indifference, a dismissal, as being profoundly irrelevant, of the religious enterprise itself.

There is, I might add, plenty of ignorance, suspicion, hostility, and indifference running in the other direction as well. And the result, as Garry Wills has observed in his book Under God, is not a happy one. "Clearly, in our society," he writes, "two large groups are talking past one another. One fails to see legitimacy in religious values. The other fails to see legitimacy in irreligion." The fact that these two large groups are talking past one another is not a trivial matter. It has consequences--consequences for the nature of human inquiry and moral discourse; consequences, in practical terms, for the way in which we as a pluralistic polity deal with a host of pressing national concerns. The United States is not, after all, Western Europe, where religious alienation runs through society at all levels--is almost a form of common ground. Here, religious faith remains powerful. According to a recent Gallup Poll, nine out of ten Americans say they have never doubted the existence of God. Is it conceivable that without a conversation between the cultural elite and the rest of America we will ever be able to deal effectively with such things as the crisis of the family, children having children, abortion, violence, poverty, welfare, genetic engineering, the dilemmas of medical ethics, and the pervasive national sense of having turned down the wrong path? There are some, perhaps many, in each group who would say that their group does not need the other. I believe that they are wrong.

During the past year I have been privileged to participate in a faculty seminar at Boston College's Jesuit Institute devoted to these very issues. There are twenty of us all told, drawn for the most part from the Boston College community--not only from the department of theology but also the departments of chemistry, history, economics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The religious traditions from which we are drawn include Judaism and Islam as well as various forms of Christianity. The subject of the seminar has the somewhat ungainly formal title: "The Alienation of Intellectuals From Religion Within American Culture," which doesn't even have the grace to compose itself into a memorable acronym. That alienation of the cultural elite on a vast scale has occurred can hardly be a matter of serious dispute. Doesn't the message come through many times every day in what we read and hear and watch on TV? In academe, survey data drawn from interviews with faculty have documented the estrangement from religion time and time again; as George Marsden pointed out in his presidential address at the American Academy of Religion last fall, outside of divinity schools and institutions with a religious affiliation, voicing a religious perspective is just not intellectually respectable. In some circles, religiosity constitutes in addition an embarrassing lapse of taste. I remember William F. Buckley catching some of the flavor of this attitude when he remarked years ago during an interview with Malcolm Muggeridge that "if you mention God more than once at a dinner party you're not invited back."

There is no secret about where the origins of this division between religion and irreligion within our culture ultimately lie. Tomes have been written about the forces set into motion by the Enlightenment, by the transforming power of rationalism and science and technology. To appreciate the effect of all this on one person's actual life, one need look no further than The Education of Henry Adams, which in autobiographical form offers a microcosm of what was happening to America's elites on a larger national canvas. Born into a Puritan world view, Adams would die a secular child of the twentieth century. Giving himself symbolic status, Adams writes of himself at one point, in the third person: "He was in a fair way to do himself lasting harm, floundering between worlds past and worlds coming."

If the origins of the division are plain, not so the developments in our own time that act to keep the chasm wider than it needs to be. Our discussions in the alienation seminar turn frequently to these developments. I will mention three.

Number one: the virtual disappearance of that species known as the public intellectual: people like Dewey and Trilling and Howe and Niebuhr who were generalists and inhabited the outside world--even made some of their living there--as much as or more than they inhabited academe. They displayed a broad knowledge of the culture as a whole, of all its parts, and wrote widely of what they saw in a style that Irving Howe once characterized as "free-lance dash, peacock strut, and knockout synthesis." One thinks of them almost as circuit riders, keeping disparate segments of the national culture--segments that sometimes may not have been talking--informed about one another. Whatever their conclusions, they engaged moral and religious considerations with respect, and helped preserve the public role of these things. As recently as 1950 Partisan Review could devote portions of four consecutive issues to commentary by some fifty prominent figures on the subject "Religion and the Intellectuals." Hannah Arendt. John Dewey. Robert Graves. Alfred Kazin. Paul Tillich. Allen Tate. Dwight Macdonald. Can one even imagine such an undertaking now? The public intellectuals are mostly gone, the victims of many things. Victims, for one, of a popular culture that no longer supports very many of the kinds of publications that once helped support the intellectuals. Victims, too, of an academic culture that puts too much emphasis on narrow specialization, too little emphasis--or perhaps I should say, too much penalty--on the value of public outreach.

Number two: the expansion of the functions of government. As the role and reach of the state has grown ever more pervasive, working its way into ever more areas of life, the opportunities for secular authority to come into contact--and therefore often into conflict--with religious belief have multiplied rapidly. This is the stuff of newspaper headlines, headlines about school prayer, about curriculum, about the legality of ritual practices, about forcing parents to seek medical care for a child. When such issues ignite, they must be resolved, and as Stephen Carter has shown in his recent book The Culture of Disbelief, the drift of jurisprudence has hardly been accomodating to religion, has tended to push it off into some private realm, and has helped promote the evolution of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion--designed to protect religion from the state--into a right of freedom from religion. I take no position here on specific cases, but simply note that the situation in general is hardly a formula for mutual understanding.

Number three: the abdication of the Fourth Estate. Writing recently in the Columbia Journalism Review, D. Patrick Miller called religion "the blind spot of American journalism." His assessment is for the most part accurate, and I would like to go on to explore attitudes within the media in some detail.


In the alienation seminar I represent something of an anomaly, being the only participant who is not an academic. I have worked with scholars and written about scholarship all my professional life, but it was for the sensibility of a journalist that I was asked to participate, and it is that sensibility which underlies whatever contribution I make. Because of its bridging function--its fundamental mission to make known to the many the ideas and activities of the few--the news media is an essential component of the cultural elite. It provides one important means through which the attitudes of intellectuals are woven into the fabric of our national personality. It also provides the filters through which news of reality passes on its way to everyone else--if the news is deemed fit to be let through.

The world of journalism is, of course, as diverse as the world of academe, probably more so. It has some extraordinary highs and some truly appalling lows. It has countless specialty niches. But if one looks at what can be regarded as the mainstream elite media--urban newspapers and urban TV and radio stations, and perhaps a hundred national magazines--one can make some general observations about the undeniable gulf that lies between journalism and religion, and why it exists.

To begin with, we in the media are still living to some extent, as far as religion is concerned, with the legacy of the Scopes Trial, in 1925. It may seem odd that an event almost seven decades in the past should still exert an influence. What is sometimes forgotten is that the trial was one of the first examples of what today is called a media circus. At issue, of course, was the teaching of the theory of evolution in a public school, in defiance of a Tennessee statute. Network radio was in its infancy, and the trial was broadcast nationwide. Reporters descended on Dayton, Tennessee, by the hundreds. Among them, of course, was H.L. Mencken, an iconic figure with a zest for mockery whom some in journalism still seek to emulate. The Scopes Trial was one of those events that works as a powerful fixative. In this case, it ensured a certain mindset, ensured that religion would always be approached in the knowledge that it could go strange on you at any time.

The Scopes Trial is also important for one of the object lessons it offers: how profoundly the press can get a story wrong. As Garry Wills has pointed out, two worlds had collided, but for decades the press failed to appreciate the true nature of the impact. Ask reporters even today what the result of the trial had been and you'll likely hear that William Jennings Bryan and the Fundamentalists had been made, once and for all, into national laughingstocks. Well, perhaps in some quarters. But most people forget that Scopes was found guilty, and the Tennessee law was upheld. Also, soon afterwards, laws similar to the Tennesee statute were introduced in more than a dozen states. (In the Rhode Island legislature, by the way, hearings on the anti-Darwin bill were held, appropriately, by the Committee on Fish and Game.) Meanwhile, regardless of legislation, the teaching of evolution, which had been going on for decades, was more or less completely phased out of public schools by nervous educators. It would not return until the 1960s.

There are many reasons why the press just doesn't "get" religion. Quite apart from the psychological legacy of the past, there is the matter of present-day demographics: that is, of the type of people who hold influential reporting, editing, and management positions in the print and broadcasting media. These people do not represent a broad cross-section of the American population. They are professional skeptics. They are also by and large irreligious, and if they have a sectarian affiliation at all, it is nominal. Survey data show that only about 8 percent of those in the elite media attend religious services with any regularity, and that 86 percent attend "seldom or never." I bring this up not as evidence of any bias, but simply to explain why the base level of knowledge is sometimes so low. Peter Steinfels, the religion correspondent of The New York Times, tells of how, some years back, after the U.S. bishops had released a draft of their pastoral letter on the economy, a business reporter at the Times came to him asking for some general guidance on a story he planned to write on the subject. Steinfels said, By all means. "Okay," said the reporter. "First, what exactly is a bishop?"

The conceptual structure that the media demand of reality, or impose on it, exacerbates the situation. Daily journalism in particular depends on a limited number of templates in order to quickly give structure and meaning to a story. Of all those templates, the real workhorse is conflict: us versus them, veterans versus upstarts, good guys versus bad guys. From a journalistic point of view, the fact that 120 million Americans may have attended a religious service on a particular weekend will never be news, even though it is a defining feature of American life; it's not news because the same thing happened last weekend and will happen again next weekend. What tends to get reported on instead--accounts, indeed, for some 60 percent of all news about the Catholic Church, for example, according to a study by Robert Lichter and his colleagues at the Center for Media and Public Affairs--is abortion, dissent, homosexuality, pedophilia, and the church's role in American politics. The coverage of other denominations follows the same pattern. It came as no surprise that the only news reported from last year's annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was that someone--quickly disavowed by Baptist officials--had come up with a formula for determining what percentage of people in a given community would end up going to hell, and was publicizing county by county estimates for the state of Alabama. Stories like this have a disproportionate impact because, taken as a whole, there is so little religion reporting to begin with. Only 50 of the nation's 1,500 daily newspapers have full-time religion correspondents. A few years ago I had occasion to measure the amount of space in the New York Times index devoted to the category "Religion and Churches" and found it to be equivalent in size to the category "Teeth and Dentistry."


Having said all this, it is only fair to ask whether there have been any developments in recent times that work against the general tendency I have been describing, the tendency of religion and the cultural elite to pass like two ships in the night--when they're not colliding like two ships in the night. I believe that there have been such developments on several widely varied fronts.

The first front is the world outside what we know as "the West": It has grabbed hold of religion and is shaking it in our faces. In the Balkans, in the Caucusus, in North Africa, in Central Asia, on the Indian subcontinent, sectarian conflict is a hallmark of our time. In the summer, 1993, issue of the journal Foreign Affairs the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote an article called "The Clash of Civilizations" which created a considerable stir within the international-affairs community. Huntington's argument is too complex to be given justice here, but his major point is that the chief source of conflict in the world in the future will not be the economic or ideological differences between nation states but the cultural conflicts between civilizations. And in his definition of civilization, he fingered religion--he says this in two places--as far and away the most important component.

And yet, as Bryan Hehir, another person who has preceded me to this podium, noted in the course of a recent discussion of Huntington's article during a meeting of our Boston College seminar, the discipline of international relations, which is his field, had developed no language for talking effectively about religion. In this respect, said Hehir, the discipline had, in his words, been "immaculately conceived." In standard international-affairs textbooks--those of Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron, for example--religion is scarcely given any treatment at all. The assumption in political science was that as societies modernized, became more developed, they would also become more secular. But as Huntington pointed out, one cannot survey the last decades of the twentieth century and find a ringing endorsement of that assumption. In many places, perhaps most, the idea that religion should have nothing to do with the running of a polity is simply incomprehensible. And so, Huntington asks, Is it possible to understand the world while maintaining a view of religion as a purely private matter, as we so often do in the West? And his answer is: No, we cannot. Whether one is sympathetic to religion or not sympathetic to it, one must understand religion in order to understand the world. One must understand, too, that religion is not like economics, is not like politics. In today's world, it is generally religion that people are showing themselves willing to die for. There have been no martyrs on behalf of the Laffer Curve.

Huntington's article aroused fierce debate on many specific points, and the debate filled the next two issues of Foreign Affairs. But his larger proposition about religion seems to me unassailable. Huntington has helped to make the discussion of religion legitimate--religion outside our borders, yes, but, as he emphasized in a tart rejoinder to his critics, not only outside our borders. The multiculturalism being celebrated at Saint Ambrose this week reminds us that "cultural fault lines," as Huntington calls them, run through our own country as well.

A second factor that is giving new prominence and legitimacy to the discussion of religion is the profit motive in American journalism. My own magazine has always covered religion extensively, and in doing so has always taken religion on its own terms--taken it to be something worth discussing for its own sake, not because it will have an impact on something else. We have done so out of a sense of journalistic responsibility and, I think, moral curiosity. But I must also tell you this: every time we make an article on religion the cover story, our newsstand sales increase by 30 to 50 percent. As noted earlier, ordinary Americans are a religious people, but such appetite as they may have for good writing about religion has long been ignored by the mainstream press. That situation is changing, in part because newspaper and magazine editors have begun to realize--as book publishers always knew--that there is, in fact, a big market out there. You may have noticed that the cover story of last week's Newsweek was titled "The Death of Jesus." U.S. News & World Report recently published a cover story on spirituality, and three months ago published a cover story on the life of Jesus. Time magazine last November featured a cover story on "Angels." Life magazine just this March had a cover story called "The Power of Prayer."

The motives here are not entirely pure, of course--some publishers, surely, have no interest beyond praying all the way to the bank. And it may be that what we're seeing is a temporary enthusiasm. But there are grounds for hope, in my view, that such coverage will be sustained. Quite apart from the economic incentive, the past decade has seen the emergence of a group of journalists who have developed a personal interest in religious subjects. Why has this happened? For one thing, there is nothing like having come to adulthood in the 1970s or '80s to make one lose faith in the human capacity to create a social heaven on earth--to make one open one's eyes to other possibilities. Furthermore, the advance of technology, including biotechnology, has raised the deepest questions about human values, questions that science itself plainly lacks the power to answer. Meanwhile, the past few decades have brought forth a wealth of accessible religious scholarship that educated, sophisticated, skeptical, thoroughly modern people can encounter without being made to feel that they must check the twentieth century at the door.

A third factor to be considered are developments in science, particularly cosmology. One of the participants in the Boston College seminar, a scientist, made the point one day that, in his experience, those working in the hard sciences, especially physics, were the people in academe most open to discussing seriously the question of the existence of God. We all know why, I think. With each new advance in our understanding of how the universe came to be--with each new advance in our understanding of how the subatomic world is ordered--we seem only to deepen the mystery of existence, even as the architecture of physical reality is cause for dizzying wonder. In John Updike's novel Roger's Version the character Dale Kohler tells the theologian Roger Lambert about recent developments in astronomy and physics. "The most miraculous thing is happening," he says. "The physicists are getting down to the nitty-gritty, they've really just about pared things down to the ultimate details, and the last thing they ever expected to be happening is happening. God is showing through." Well, Kohler is excessively enthusiastic. But books by physicists that go on to address questions of ultimate meaning are by now a distinct and populous genre. And even those who, like Steven Weinberg in Dreams of a Final Theory, reject the idea that science will lead to God, find themselves writing sensitively and poignantly and at length about religious belief. I will be forever grateful to Weinberg, by the way, for a story he tells about Bertrand Russell, who had been imprisoned during the First World War on account of his pacifism. A prison official, as was customary, asked Russell what his religion was. Russell replied that he was an agnostic. The jailer looked puzzled, then smiled, and said. "I guess it's all right. We all worship the same God, don't we?"

A fourth development is the emergence of a cadre of vocal and articulate black intellectuals. I referred earlier to the decline of the public intellectual, and yet there is a small, distinct, and glaring countertrend, and it is occurring among blacks in academe--a group of people who, thanks to the historically prominent role of the black church in black communities, are more likely than the average person in academe to come from strongly religious backgrounds and to empathize with religious institutions. One sees a strain of spirituality in much black literature--in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, in Toni Morrison's Beloved--and now one is beginning to see matters of religion cropping up in discussions by black academics, such as Cornel West and Stephen Carter, of issues in public policy. In The Culture of Disbelief Carter asks this question: "What precisely does it mean to be an American and religious? What is the proper scope of the influence of the religious self on the public self? How hard are politicians and others in the public square required to work to make this separation--and is the separation possible or even desirable?" Carter argues powerfully that religion must not be relegated to the private sphere--to the status of a hobby, like woodworking--and that indeed it is precisely when religion has public influence that it best serves democracy. As an independent source of moral understanding, it exists in a state of fruitful tension with the urges--and sometimes the excesses--of majoritarian rule. Black intellectuals do not forget that religion animated the civil-rights movement.

A final development to consider is--and I hesitate even to mention the next two words--Bill Clinton. I cannot plumb his soul, and can say nothing about his sincerity when he speaks, sometimes movingly, about religion. I can say this: He is the first President in decades who maintains close ties with both the cultural elite and leaders of the religious mainstream. We all know about Clinton the Rhodes Scholar and Clinton and Hollywood; his meetings with evangelical Christian leaders with whom he has been associated for years rarely get reported, but they are frequent. In one statement that did get publicized, he went out of his way to endorse the line of argument pursued by Stephen Carter, saying that "the fact that we have freedom of religion does not mean we need to try to have freedom from religion." (Interestingly, on the "freedom from religion" front, a White House reporter had seen Carter's book on Clinton's desk a few days earlier, and deliberately chose not to ask Clinton anything about it.) Is Clinton the politician, driven by expediency, merely trying to hold an unlikely alliance together? Even if that is the sum total of his motivation, I find myself mildly heartened that an alliance is at least being attempted.


Let me conclude on a personal note. I have been talking this evening about a fundamental division between two worlds, and some of the implications of that division, but it is important to remember that there are many who, by whatever path, have found a place for themselves in both of those worlds. Certainly that can be said of many who teach at this university. It can be said of me. We live in both, moreover, in a way that cannot be easily disentangled, cannot be easily compartmentalized. In thinking about this, I'm always reminded of a famous remark in a Times of London editorial about attempting to separate the inseparable, that it's like asking a sheep how much of its time it spends growing wool as opposed to turning itself into mutton.

But those of us who find ourselves in this position are uniquely placed to look, Janus-like, in both directions. It is we who must seek out those places where a span can be thrown over the gulf, and the two worlds can be joined.

Copyright © 1994 by Cullen Murphy.
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