Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book Review: Get your Catholic mad on

Secular Sabotage: How Liberals Are Destroying Religion and Culture in America, by Bill Donohue (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2009)

When I picked up Secular Sabotage, I expected that Bill Donohue, the former educator who is the pugnacious president of the Catholic League, would load down the pages with innumerable references to the battles he’s fought over many issues in the last two decades, from his study of the ACLU’s political positions in 1988 to the recent attempt by the Connecticut legislature to dictate the structure of the Catholic Church.

In this much, I was actually disappointed. Donohue, both as a writer and as a speaker, is often so darn witty and likeable that, when he does pat himself on the back—and he does so quite often—it’s like a great speaker’s monologue being periodically interrupted by a loon rushing onstage to splutter a few vulgar notes on a cornet. Given the book’s gloomy, apocalyptic subtitle, you would expect that the book would and even should be devoted to the battles that have been lost, not those that have been won (save in the penultimate, or even the antepenultimate, chapter). Yet at times Secular Sabotage reads as though it were a campaign book for a political candidate in danger of losing his office.

It should be clear to most politically-aware people that the split in the American body politic now being labeled the “culture war” is growing wider by the year. Polite public debate on many issues is now almost practically impossible: the wild-eyed zealots on the left are as hysterical and intolerant as the rigid fundamentalists on the right, and are no longer interested in persuading each other … if, indeed, they ever were.

Donohue knows this. Therefore, his book isn’t written to the undecided academic (if there be such a creature), far less to the fair-minded person of liberal bent. His object is to get Catholics mad as hell. So, while there are plenty of citations of other sources, Donohue doesn’t spend much time or effort in making the case for conservative Christian morality. This economy does make sense: odds are, if you aren’t an orthodox or conservative Christian, you’re not likely to read the book anyway. However, I usually like my books to at least aspire to impartiality, even if it’s ultimately beyond one’s grasp.

Despite this, and despite Donohue’s jarring self-congratulation, I do recommend this book precisely because of the growing rift. The time for polite argumentation is most likely past. The people and groups whom Donohue calls the “nihilists” have long struck me as a set of badly-behaved spoiled brats in dire need of a long “time out” (as a spanking would only confirm the martyrdom of those it didn’t turn on). Like G. K. Chesterton tells us in Orthodoxy, the way to deal with insanity is “not … to argue with it like a heresy but to snap it like a spell.” I firmly believe the most intolerant people in the Western hemisphere are the ones doing the most talking about tolerance, and that the most inhuman, inhumane factions are the ones calling themselves “humanists”.

One thing that, in my mind, helps the book is that Donohue is not out to impress us with his holiness. Although there’s a certain prissiness to the way he reports obscenities—which, given his New York City background, is almost incongruous—his piety is not on display. Rather, he treats the matter of liberal anti-Catholicism as one of basic fairness:

“It is said that we should be careful about celebrating Christmas in the schools and at work because not everyone is Christian. But to be excluded is normal. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Veterans Day, Black History Month, Gay Pride parades—they all exclude someone. So do the Olympics: they are a showcase of segregation—men are barred from participating in women’s sports—yet not even radical feminists object. Moreover, if a white student said he felt excluded during Black History Month and wanted it canceled, would we seek to educate the bigot or allow him to veto the celebrations? If the answer is obvious, why do we tolerate different rules when it comes to the bigots who hate Christmas” (pp.23-4)?

Also, it helps that Donohue has an often mordant wit: “The Roger Smith Lab Gallery of the Roger Smith Hotel in New York City was set to display a six-foot-tall anatomically correct sculpture of Jesus in milk chocolate; the figure was depicted as crucified. Artist Cosimo Cavallero titled his work My Sweet Lord and invited the public to eat his creation of Jesus, genitals and all. This pushed me to challenge the hotel’s president and CEO, James Knowles, to substitute Mohammed for Jesus and display him during Ramadan. For some reason, he wasn’t interested” (p. 25).

Donohue pulls no punches when it comes to Catholic dissidents and dissident groups, not hesitating to name names: theologian Fr. James F. Keenan, author/sociologist Fr. Andrew M. Greeley, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Catholics for a Free Choice founder Frances Quisling … er, Kissling. Of the last, Donohue reports this: “The truth is that to many—and count me among them—the CFC is really just an anti-Catholic front group that promotes abortion on demand all over the world. Consider what Kissling once admitted: ‘I spent twenty years looking for a government that I could overthrow without being in jail. I finally found one in the Catholic Church’” (p. 171; cit. Naomi Theodorou, “Hail Frances,” Mother Jones, May-June 1991, p.11).

The book is not a long read; I finished it in the space of about four hours. It ends on an oddly “up” note, as Donohue quotes San Francisco columnist Mark Morford’s analysis of birth rates: “Despite all the divine hope and prayer to the contrary, it looks like baby-happy conservatives are outbreeding liberals by a margin of some 20 to 40 percent” (p. 222; cit. “A Call for Progressive Breeders to Bed Down Already,” San Francisco Chronicle, 9/29/2006, p. E9). Given liberal support for contraceptives, abortion and gay marriage, it’s not surprising that natural selection would work against them. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough of a positive to allow relaxing to savor the poetic justice.

In the end, I suppose you could call Secular Sabotage a jeremiad or a screed. However, as screeds go, it’s not all that bad. And maybe it’ll get some Catholics up off their timid butts, go to their windows, and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more!”

Or to march in protest, yelling, “We’re here! We’re Catholic! Get used to it!”