New York Times Columnist Peter Steinfels’ Letter To RD; With Author Response

 Next month’s RD redesign will feature a curated letters section in lieu of comments. Until then we will post selected letters to the blog. — ed.

Peter Steinfels Writes:

Mark D. Jordan, I have it on good authority, is a talented and conscientious scholar. If that is true, it makes the attack he launched on me in Religion Dispatches last month all the more puzzling [see ‘Traditional’ Christianity vs. ‘Liberals’? It’s Not That Simple].

Apart from his strange drive-by shooting at my reputation, Jordan’s post has three main points:

First, recent Christian debates about sexuality cannot be reduced to religious tradition versus secular liberalism. Many arguments for changing Christian teachings have long been made on specifically Christian, not secular, grounds. What is at issue, he writes, is “a divide within Christianity over what exactly should count as tradition. … a deep disagreement inside Christianity over what conserving faithfulness means.”

Second, to quote Jordan further, “no present church position on sexuality would be recognizable to Christian writers of two hundred years ago—much less two millennia ago.” Even the most “traditional” of Christian writers rely on concepts like “sexuality” itself and assumptions, like the importance of sexual pleasure, that hardly qualify as “traditional.”

Third, Jordan has been constantly frustrated in his efforts to communicate this more complex picture to journalists, who fall back on the “familiar plot” of religious tradition versus secular innovation.

I could not agree more with Jordan’s first two points.

And while I obviously cannot attest to his frustrating experiences with reporters—I have never met Jordan or spoken to him about any news story or column—his experiences ring true. They echo criticisms of reporting on religion that I, along with others, have made many times over—and that he could have regularly encountered in my columns.

Indeed, in December I looked back over two decades of writing Beliefs columns in the New York Times. One of my abiding themes, I suggested, had been that “the great world religions are complex and multilayered; they are rich in inner tensions and ambiguities that allow beliefs and practices to evolve over time as the faith is tested by new circumstances and insights. The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn.”

I quoted the well-known distinction between tradition and traditionalism offered by Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Given this amount of agreement, how did Jordan manage to make me the whipping boy, from beginning to end, of his January 8 catalogue of grievances?

He begins with one sentence in my final Beliefs column on January 2. In that column, he writes, I “reflected on the polarization of American religious rhetoric.”


Even a cursory reading of that column would see that the sentence he quotes was not part of a general reflection on American religious rhetoric. It was part of a valedictory reflection on the (quite reasonable) journalistic constraints governing the Beliefs column and the personal challenge of writing it.

Here is the sentence that Jordan, having misstated its context, then used to beat me over the head:

“Not only abortion and older questions of public morality and church-state relations, recently heightened by the political mobilization of conservative believers, but also newer issues like embryonic stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage, have pitted significant elements of traditional Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other faiths against leading voices of political and cultural liberalism.”

Those leading voices, I went on to say, “included the editorial columns of this paper” and some other pages as well. Beliefs was often “caught in the middle.” While I was happy to provide a hearing for “well-founded traditional stances,” the column’s limited leeway for personal opinion did not allow me to explain when I agreed with those stances and when I didn’t.

It is this specific context of writing the column in the Times that explains my reference to conflict between “significant elements of traditional religion” and secular liberalism. Where I carefully referred to “significant elements’ of these faiths, including Christianity, Jordan soon has me equating those “significant elements” of traditional Christianity with Christian tradition or traditional Christianity altogether.

Now anyone who doubts that “significant elements” of traditional Christianity have been contending over hot-button issues with “leading voices of political and cultural liberalism” such as the New York Times must be residing on another planet. But to make those obvious statements about “significant elements” of traditional Christianity and their clash with secular liberalism over same-sex marriage does not say anything at all about whether there are also “significant elements” of traditional Christianity that, for religious reasons, might favor same-sex marriage.

I am well aware that there are such elements, just as I am aware that Christians (and other faiths) are divided within their ranks on religious grounds, not just secular ones, over the other issues I mentioned—abortion, public morality, religion and politics, embryonic stem-cell research, and physician-assisted suicide—to bring my single sentence back to my own scope rather than Jordan’s shrunken rendition of it.

But none of that was within the purview of my column, which was not an essay on Christianity and same-sex marriage nor on recent religious rhetoric but a few paragraphs on the challenges of my work at the Times.

Jordan writes of “Steinfels’ description of our recent debates.” What exactly is he talking about? Between 1988 and 1993—oh, what a distant era!—I covered debates over homosexuality in several religious denominations. But I have not been a reporter since 1997, when I left the staff of the Times. I did not cover the struggle within the Episcopal Church following the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, or the Religious Right’s mobilization to pass state constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman, or the Vatican’s ban on accepting gay candidates for the priesthood into seminaries, or the recent lowering of bars to clergy in same-sex unions in the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or the role of religious groups in both supporting and opposing Proposition 8 in California.

As for my Beliefs columns, they have often listed homosexuality and same-sex marriage among many topics dividing churches or embroiling politics. Two columns dwelt on concerns of some constitutional scholars, including both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage, about the religious freedom implications of legalizing same-sex marriage without providing robust conscience protection for religiously affiliated institutions. Of the few columns dealing directly with homosexuality or same-sex marriage, not a single one is framed in the terms—traditional Christianity versus secular liberalism—that Jordan declares has been not only my “familiar rhetorical device” and “neat divide” but also my “sleight-of-hand” and “trick.”

Quite the contrary. Several columns have stressed the serious theological debate among Christians and the barriers to having this recognized in the media. A May 22, 2004 column, for example, discussed The Way Forward?, a collection of responses and rebuttals by British thinkers, including Rowan Williams, afterward elected archbishop of Canterbury, to an evangelical manifesto urging the church to maintain its condemnation of sexual acts between same-sex partners.

Here are my column’s final paragraphs:

“Despite the inevitable unevenness of any collection like this, and a disappointing sense that the evangelical authors of the St. Andrew Day’s Statement have not quite engaged their critics, The Way Forward? operates at a level far above the usual battling about a handful of biblical passages and the usual volleying of stereotypes and sentimentalities. Yet to read these essays is almost to despair.

“For one thing, simply by way of contrast, they bring to mind how rarely it is acknowledged that the current debates about homosexuality involve matters that remain unsettled, matters about which serious thinking is still required and about which more than one side may have points worth considering. The prevailing attitudes are quite different: Either resistance to revising the traditional Christian teaching (or the traditional legal arrangements) can only be the fruit of bigotry or uninformed fundamentalism; or the demand for change must spring from accommodation to a permissive culture or surrender to relativism, individualism, hedonism, etc., etc.

“But still more daunting is the fact that these theological essays are in fact genuinely theological. . . . The essays, even where they attend to empirical and cultural issues, make God and God’s self-revelation, whether in Scripture, creation or tradition, the framework for their judgments.

“This is not, in other words, psychology or sociology or political philosophy presented in a religious wrapper. It is theology. It is a theological exploration of a theological question. And who, in the sound-bite-driven state of religion no less than of secular culture, actually has the patience, the appetite or the resources for that?”

Other columns similarly demolish Jordan’s charges (a) that I “forget” that “significant elements” of Christianity support same-sex marriage; and (b) that from reading Steinfels one would never know that the present debate involved “a divide over what exactly should count as tradition … over what conserving faithfulness means”; and (c) that I share uncritically the dichotomized treatment frequently found in the media.

Yet Jordan’s parting shot is to call on me to reconsider “the storyline” I have been “following for the last twenty years.” He shows very little evidence that he has examined what I have been writing over twenty years. Actually he shows none at all.

What, then, is going on here? What is behind this weird attack?

Here are two possibilities.

1. Jordan read a phrase in my valedictory column that pricked his pent-up frustration with journalism and let loose a screed in which I and apparently every journalist he has dealt with were amalgamated into a single lump.

2. His real objection is not to the way I have framed the debate about homosexuality and same-sex marriage but that I have not come down on his side. Jordan’s version, in other words, of the Bush doctrine: if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

This would explain why Jordan can ignore the fact that I patently agree with him that this is a genuine religious division among Christians who honor tradition (not just one between Christianity and secular liberalism) and that many journalistic accounts do the complex substance of the debate great injustice.

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that this situation cuts both ways—against the serious religious defender of established strictures on homosexuality as well as the serious religious advocate of revising those strictures. This is something that I have felt worth stressing, especially in the Times, where the thoughtful (or not so thoughtful) liberal on this topic is really not at a disadvantage compared to the thoughtful conservative.

It is true that I have not entered the lists unambiguously on one side or the other of this debate. There are many reasons for this. One is that I am not entirely decided on what I described as “matters about which serious thinking is still required.” Another is that the format of the Beliefs column—approximately 900-word columns in which I was not free to make straightforward arguments in my own name—was hardly conducive to addressing this topic satisfactorily. But that, after all, was exactly what my final column was explaining—and what Jordan ignored.

I am sure that my writing about homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not flawless. I am sure that between Professor Jordan and myself there may be important disagreement about how Christianity or any religion clarifies its tradition and how journalists, under the constraints of space and the knowledge of readers, choose language for that process. But let us discuss the real flaws and the real disagreements instead of ones that are trumped up.

Professor Jordan is said to be writing on the rhetoric of American church controversies over homosexuality. I look forward to it. Echoing his parting shot at me, I only hope—no, plead—that he take greater care in examining evidence and reporting it accurately than he did in this case.

Mark Jordan Replies:

Peter Steinfels thinks that I distorted his last column to stage a “weird attack” on him—a “drive-by shooting at [his] reputation.” I think that he mistook both the scope and the tone of my brief piece, then replied at double its length with unwarranted vehemence.

Mr. Steinfels and I will have to sort out the ethical implications of our misunderstanding privately. Still the exchange may offer some lessons about public religious rhetoric for anyone who has followed us this far.

A prefatory note: My piece was not about Mr. Steinfels, much less about the whole of his remarkable career. Really, he was not at center stage—certainly not as the “whipping boy, from beginning to end.” He allows that I am a scholar, so perhaps he’ll concede that I wouldn’t attempt a bio-bibliographical conspectus of a prolific writer in a thousand words. (I’ve been known to take five thousand to explicate the prologue to a pamphlet by Thomas Aquinas.) I wasn’t trying to portray Mr. Steinfels’ corpus. I took a single sentence from one of his columns to illustrate a persistent rhetorical pattern of dichotomy. I moved immediately from that sentence to consider the dichotomy’s functions and wide circulation. What he takes as stupid or malicious misreadings of his views are in fact analyses of that pattern, “familiar” not from his writing, but from a thousand sources in any hour. That’s the thing: we don’t own deep rhetoric. It tends to own us.

If I turned back to Mr. Steinfels at the end, he might recognize that as a tried-and-true device for closing. (I believe I learned it from the Times.) Perhaps he could also see that the melodramatic posturing of my last sentence (“I am bold enough to suggest—to plead”) was deliberate and even (could it be?) humorous. I punned on the word “story,” which I meant both in the journalistic sense and as a reference to repeating rhetorical plots. In fact, the title I suggested to RD for my piece was not “A Chastisement of the Iniquitous Peter Steinfels,” but “The Same Old Story.” So I wasn’t trying to summarize Mr. Steinfels’ distinguished journalistic career. I picked out one rhetorical feature of a coda he wrote to it.

Let me then turn to rhetoric, which was after all my concern. Here are three things I think I’ve learned from studying recent American debates about religion.

First, the most powerful rhetoric operates not at the level of intention or inference, but through cliché and assumption. What struck me in the sentence I quoted was precisely the reappearance of a clichéd opposition between traditional religion and liberal, ‘secular’ critique. That cliché condenses a story, and the story gets written over and over again.

In his reply, Mr. Steinfels wants to insist both that the opposition is plain to anyone who hasn’t been “residing on another planet” and that he didn’t mean ‘traditional’ in anything like its ordinary sense. Good! But please note that his ambivalence is also characteristic of the relation to deep rhetorical contrasts, even in the most expert writers: we disavow them when pressed, and then we find ourselves somehow speaking through them.

Second, rhetoric is about power relations. I didn’t shoot at Mr. Steinfels’ reputation. I didn’t “beat [him] over the head.” I didn’t want to do anything (especially whipping) to him or to it. Of course, I couldn’t harm his reputation even if I tried with all my might. His reputation as one of the most astute and influential American writers on religion is rightly secure—and entirely immune from the slightest harm by thousand-word comments emanating from divinity schools. Which is what makes the detailed vehemence of his rebuke rhetorically interesting. What tempts an unassailable cultural authority to cast itself as the victim of physical violence? Why does that temptation insinuate itself so regularly in the vicinity of religion and sex?

Third, rhetoric works best not by exegesis or argument, but by projecting figures or characters. Chief among these is the character of the speaker. What a character says is less important than the affects or passions it acts out through its words.

Let me be clear here, so that I don’t annoy him again: I am not talking about Mr. Steinfels. I am not inventing motives for him or pretending to unlock his psyche. My attention is directed to the voice projected by the letter that rebukes me. I have characterized the voice as ‘vehement.’ I have pointed to a few of its metaphors and images. But I would urge the readers of RD—the two of you still here—to go through the trio of texts again while listening for the tone. You can (and doubtless will) decide for yourselves which voice is right or wrong, fair or unfair. But I hope that you will reflect most of all on the tones of voice we Americans habitually use when we disagree about sex and religion.