Religion, Politics and Christian Realism at NEH

An Interview With William J. Bennett

William J. Bennett was confirmed as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities by the U.S. Senate in February 1982. He was formerly Director of the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy as well as a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Dr. Bennett is the author of numerous articles in professional journals and is the co-author of Counting by Race: Equality in American Thought From the Founding Fathers to Bakke.

C in C: What is the National Endowment for the Humanities, and what do you understand your mandate to be?

Bennett: NEH is a federal agency which was created in 1966 to encourage teaching and learning in the humanities, to support research in the humanities and to help foster a better understanding of the humanities among the American people at large. My charge is quite explicit: I am to develop programs and policies that will serve those ends, and I am given a fair amount of discretion as to how to achieve those larger purposes.

C in C: What kind of budget does NEH have?

Bennett: $140 million this year. It’s been at about that level for the last five years.

C in C: What kind of criteria are used to determine recipients of grants and support from NEH for projects?

Bennett: Quality, pertinence and quality. We have a very elaborate review process. We take it very seriously, we’ve shored up that process, given more money to our panels so that we can get the best people reading proposals. The project must satisfy the end it sets for itself, and it must serve the larger purposes of the Endowment. We don’t have money to waste, so we don’t support the twiddling of thumbs. We support books that ought to be written, curriculum changes that can justify themselves to us, the production of children’s radio and television programs, and programs for teachers in the schools which serve the national interest.

C in C: Does politics play a role in this determination, and should it?

Bennett: As Tommy Corcoran once said, “You can’t get politics out of politics.” In Washington one works in a world that is infused with politics. One could say volumes on this. When you enter the agency you can see there is a political tendency already present. It is in effect; I don’t think it is any surprise or there is there any especially covert operation—but one sees generally the politics of liberal Democrats in a place like the National Endowment. That is not surprising, since the politics of most of our clientele are those politics. Academic humanists are probably the single most liberal group by profession in the country, and it is no surprise therefore that their politics are felt around here.

C in C: Some would argue that the federal government really has no business funding such projects, no warrant for using tax dollars to support what some would argue are “luxury items,” such as the humanities—especially now with the need to restrain government spending. How do you respond to that?

Bennett: Well, I don’t think there is a hard warrant, that is, it’s fair to say that the Founders didn’t talk about the establishment of endowments for the arts and humanities; they really did not. They didn’t write this in; it is not the first responsibility of government. The first responsibility of government is the security of its citizens, as John Jay said. The question is, can a case be made? I think, on balance, that a modest case can be made for a modest enterprise, even more modest than we have now. I’ve been arguing for that in a smaller budget. When the federal government does get involved in things like this, there are going to be problems, and I think that whoever has this job will find himself in controversy, either because controversies are put on him, or he enters into them. Most of the ones we’ve been in, I am happy to say, are ones we’ve wanted to be in, and have not been put upon us. Does there have to be an NEH? No, there doesn’t have to be. Would the humanities in general be much worse off if there weren’t? No, I don’t think so. Would some things be worse off? Yes. I think it would be hard for some projects, some dictionaries, some encyclopedias, some archeological digs, some things that we support, that should be supported—it would be difficult for these projects to continue without support. I think it is not a bad idea for the federal government to have some very modest involvement in this. But ever-expanding budgets, ever-expanding previews, no, that is not a good idea.

C in C: We are in the midst of a rather heated controversy over the role of religion in politics. Are there any projects or investigations in this general area in which NEH is interested?

Bennett: We are in the thick of this, and we have been in the thick of this for some time. My first year at the Endowment we gave a grant to a group called the Coalition of Christian Colleges, for a summer institute for faculty to work in the humanities. They were going to read a fair amount of Aquinas and Augustine in the course of the summer institute. An article came out in a magazine, I can’t remember the name of the magazine, a front-page story on the “National Endowment for Religion,” suggesting that we were somehow violating the alleged wall of separation. This is silly. If you’re going to do the humanities you cannot ignore religion and theology. How can you do the history of art without reference to religion? So we find ourselves in that kind of controversy from time to time. Then you find yourself in the sort of situation I observed one day where we had a professor apply for a grant to do a book on certain aspects of the Bible, and the panel said, “This is all very good, the scholarship is quite good, the problem is that this man believes it, he really takes it very much to heart.” So here we had the notion of “outsiders only,” no insiders; as long as you don’t make it an article of faith, it is all right. This is a strange kind of notion, but these are the kinds of things that happen, and the kinds of risks you run when you have a federal agency. I’m not saying people raising a question about us supporting something which involves the study of religion and theology isn’t fair. The question can be raised, but it can be responded to as well. I think, in terms of the current date, the fall of 1984, this is a very rich area for us, and I expect we will see some applications in this area.

C in C: Have you supported studies of the First Amendment? That would seem to be a prime candidate for attention.

Bennett: Sure, history of the First Amendment, what does it mean, the continuing debate, establishment, separation: this is all grist for our mill, entirely appropriate.

C in C: Your background includes a doctorate in philosophy, a degree in law, you’re a Catholic—from this background would you comment on the phenomenon which Richard John Neuhaus has called “the naked public square,” that is, the attempt to keep religion and religious values out of the public domain. Do you think religion is, or ought to be, a purely private matter?

Bennett: No, not only is religion not private, it’s demonstrably not private. It never has been private, it’s never been private in this country. I think if I had to pick one general area of background reading for the current debate it would be a good biography of Lincoln. Look at those speeches, at the debates with Douglas, at the First and Second Inaugural Addresses. This is an invocation of right, as God gives us to see the right. This has always been part of our tradition. Again, I think the invocation of the idea of the “wall of separation,” as if it were constitutional doctrine—which it is not—has suggested that the spheres of religion and politics can somehow be separated. You can no more separate these spheres than you can separate the spheres of what is sometimes called private morality and public morality.

C in C: Many social critics have noted that intellectuals in this country routinely take up an adversarial stance vis-a-vis America and American institutions—what you might call a posture of skepticism towards our market economy, democratic polity and Judeo-Christian moral ethos. Do you discern any shift away from this counter-cultural posture, say among the younger generation of scholars and writers? Bennett: I don’t know the younger generation of scholars well enough. I know there’s certainly a strong group, I think it’s still very much in the minority, of younger scholars and thinkers who would not adopt this knee-jerk posture. I plainly see this view among younger people, not academics, but younger citizens in general. But I think this kind of adversarial enculturation is still quite lively in many of our educational institutions. This has to do with the fact, I think, that many of the people who, hold these views, who originally had them perhaps in the late sixties or seventies, are now in charge of departments in schools and colleges and the like. There is a tremendous discrepancy, as Michael Novak has pointed out, between what in some circles is regarded as “respectable opinion” and what the opinion of most Americans is. There is a tremendous gap between the general ideological tone of most colleges and universities in the area of the humanities and what most people believe. The notion that people should come to college and be confronted by people who have different views doesn’t bother me, but there has to be something more than this knee-jerk ideological reaction. I hope that this kind of thing is breaking down. I’m not sure it is.

C in C: The presence of that sort of adversarial posture towards American institutions, I take it, would not by itself disqualify someone from NEH support?

Bennett: Certainly not. Nor would the opposite view on that disqualify someone. We read the proposal and we evaluate the proposal; we don’t give support on the basis of ideological leaning.

C in C: We have a rather long tradition in America, beginning with the founding generation of statesmen, which recognizes that a self-governing polity requires a virtuous citizenry, and that this in turn requires religion. Would you agree with this view, and do you think religion, in fact, is performing this role at present?

Bennett: I certainly think that religion as the mainspring of virtue continues to be the case for most people. Whether Kant was right [that morality is logically independent of religion and is founded solely on reason] is a question I’ve been asking myself since graduate school. I still don’t know. I still think it’s possible [to be moral apart from religion], and the reason I think it’s possible is because I know people who have a good and firm sense of themselves and who are people I would call virtuous and who are not religious. I don’t think that is the lot for most of us, however. I think that it is still the case for most people that their religion and their morality are intertwined and religion is the bulwark of their lives. What is the second part of the question?

C in C: Do you think religion is in fact playing this role to day, performing it well? The reason I ask that—to take the other side of the coin—is that some maintain that, on the contrary, religion tends to be very divisive and corrosive to public unity.

Bennett: Certainly, from time to time. But what religion and what church, and what preacher or priest are we talking about? I can go through many Sundays without hearing much encouragement about my being a better man than I am, less of a sinner, and more encouragement to virtue,—because of a whole range of issues which now people want to speak about from the pulpit. I have no argument with people in the pulpit taking on a lot of questions, but let’s remember that attention to the nurture of the individual soul is at the heart of the church’s mission. There are some Sundays and even some months and weeks of Sundays that that doesn’t seem to merit the attention of the pulpit.

C in C: Let me ask a personal question. How does your Catholic faith shape your outlook on public affairs and the formulation of public policy?

Bennett: Oliver Wendell Holmes has a phrase that says “Everyone has their ‘can’t helps,’ ” that is, things they just can’t help believing or thinking. Religion had a lot to do with molding a number of my “can’t helps.” For example, certain beliefs about human nature, that it is not perfectable in this life, original sin—that, I think, is not a bad notion to come to Washington with, so you’re not particularly surprised. “Christian realism,” as Flannery O’Connor called it, is not only a good preparation for life, it’s a good preparation for life in Washington. I believe we are deeply flawed, that those achievements that we are able to gain are things we should be very pleased about; and when we achieve some semblance of civility with each other and some sense of civilization about ourselves, then we’re really doing very well indeed. Ultimately, I believe with Isaiah that “it’s all wind, all our institutions will perish.” I’m a theoretical pessimist: I think that in the end all of this, all our schemes, are as nothing. But I’m also a practical optimist, that is, I believe we have to do the best we can, and occasionally we can. That doesn’t make me sad or somber. I think Christian realism really gives you the opportunity for more joy and celebration, because when something does go off right—that is, when you have the sense of all the odds that are against it—and it happens…

C in C: …it’s a nice surprise.

Bennett: That’s right, it’s a nice surprise. And we can give thanks.


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