Tina Brown: Holy Smoke!

October 14 1963 cover
Our Oct. 14, 1963, cover featured five American Catholic cardinals in a story that celebrated the “fresh air” of Vatican II.

Jesus was a lone, wandering preacher with a small knot of followers. His message was radical. Leave your family, give away all you own, and devote yourself selflessly to God—which meant loving not only one’s neighbors, but also one’s enemies. He was adamantly apolitical, even to the point of refusing to defend himself at his own trial. He never spoke of homosexuality or abortion. And his only comments on marriage were confined to a condemnation of divorce and a forgiveness of adultery.

So, how did we get to a point where the message of Christianity in America has drifted so far from Jesus? Why has the religion been so thoroughly hijacked by political hucksters and “faith-based” hypocrites bereft of basic humanity? “We inhabit a polity now soaked in religion,” Andrew Sullivan observes (page 26). To repudiate what he believes is nothing short of a crisis in Christianity, Sullivan turns to two very different inspirational figures—Thomas Jefferson and St. Francis of Assisi. Jefferson, in order to purge all superimposed agenda, took a razor and edited out of his Bible every line that was not the actual words and teachings of Jesus, while St. Francis, after a postwar epiphany, rejected his personal wealth and spent the rest of his life humbly tending to lepers and living off alms. Today, not many of the fools telling us how to live are holy.

The use of Christian moralism as just another tool in identity politics would be no surprise to the sage Harvard biologist and social scientist Edward O. Wilson. His new book, The Social Conquest of Earth (page 42), argues that the tendency to form and join tribes is a fundamental part of what makes us human. No man-made idea—no matter how subversive or compelling—can withstand the sheer force of the tribal impulse. That impulse gives us our identities and serves as the source of our deepest convictions. It also leads to conflict—and, very often, barbaric slaughter. In Hitler’s Germany we saw identity politics take hold with terrifying speed, and with it the savage persecution of all those excluded from the Aryan “tribe.” Call it the tyranny of taxonomy. Andrew Nagorski’s new book, Hitlerland, reviewed by Christopher Dickey (page 52), is a brilliantly unsettling account of what that felt like from the point of view of such American correspondents as William Shirer and Howard K. Smith, who were based in Berlin in the 1930s. Unequivocal evil—evil so evil that it must be repelled—is easy to identify once it has gathered force. But to the correspondents watching the German people fall under the spell of the Nazis from up close—watching as the malevolence mounted in increments—that realization grew at first only from frightening, isolated incidents, and from suppressed stories.

The triumph over evil too often depends on the core conviction of a few individuals, the fragile luck of heroes who refuse to toe the line, and put themselves at risk. Correspondents like Shirer did that as dissidents do today in autocracies. Risk and danger, however, don’t always flow from evil alone. The Titanic hit an iceberg with nary a Nazi in sight, yet it gave us Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, the very last survivor to board the Carpathia after being swept overboard helping to load lifeboats to the bitter end. As Simon Schama writes, “Told at the end to get in [a lifeboat] himself, his reply, without irony, was ‘not on your life.’?” This amazing man, who had already survived one shipwreck and a cyclone before getting his position on the Titanic, went on to serve in World War I—and to take his converted yacht Sundowner to Dunkirk, where he got 130 British soldiers off the doomed beach. He did it all for his “tribe.” And he did it all as a hero.

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