James Wall

America’s Sacred Reservation, Part I

VTR Date: November 17, 1990

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “America’s Sacred Reservation”
VTR: 11/17/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…and though we record these programs here in New York, I try very hard to make THE OPEN MIND as national in scope and relevance as possible. At the beginning, in the 1950s, we frequently recorded at WGBH in Boston. Once we did so at KQED in San Francisco. For the most part, however, only our minds soar, while our feet are in concrete…here in New York. Which is why at every opportunity over all these years I’ve again and again hijacked visitors from elsewhere to our Manhattan studio…as, many years ago, Martin Luther King from America’s South; writer, editor Norman Cousins from California; press pundits William Safire and David Broder form the nation’s capital; foreign commentator Vladimir Posner from Moscow; psychiatrist R.D. Laing from London…and so on…but none with such frequency and delight as my distinguished guest today Dr. James Wall, Editor of The Christian Century, out of Georgia and the ministry by way of Chicago now, where his distinguished weekly journal is published.

In fact, I appropriate Dr. Wall for THE OPEN MIND just about every time I learn that he’s headed here to Sin City East…this time, mid-November, 1990, to participate in a Hofstra University conference on Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Dr. Wall was Carter’s winning Illinois state Democratic Chairman, and clearly identifies with the former Chief Executive’s religious affinities…applauds President Carter’s ability to make manifest his faith even within the context of our secular society…perhaps serving only one term in the White House as a consequence.

Now, in the fascinating paper he delivered at the Hofstra conference on Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Dr. Wall describes someone else’s term “The sacred reservation” as that part of American culture “to which religion is expected to be confined, the specific sacred space where it is discussed and ritualistically practiced, but from whence it is not expected to emerge except on those public occasions where it might lay a wreath at a tomb, open a football game…or even bless a Presidential Inaugural with prayer”.

Now, it’s quite clear that Dr. Wall bridles at this contemporary American insistence on assuring that religion not get off its “sacred reservation”. But I want to ask him how it possibly could be otherwise…in our secular society. Dr. Wall?

Wall: Well, it certainly should be otherwise in our society and the thing that I particularly feel strongly about regarding the phrase “the sacred reservation” that belongs to David Tracey of the University of Chicago, is that if you take that metaphor and play it out, it comes out, of course, native Americans…where we confine native Americans to a reservation…where there’s a sacred reservation, we keep them out of the picture. If they leave the reservation they’re known as “hostiles”. If they stay on the reservation, they’re known as “friendlies”. This has been true of all the great Westerns that we’ve seen in the movies. Religion should not just be confined to a reservation. Religion, which is to say the religious sensibility of the individual who has religion in their own lives, has to be out in the world. If I’m out in the world as a religious person, with a religious sensibility, I have to be, if you will, a “hostile”.

Heffner: But, you know, you said “should”…

Wall: “Has to be”.

Heffner: Well, but you started off by saying “should”…you used a moral imperative. Right?

Wall: Go ahead.

Heffner: And I wonder whether that isn’t different from “has to be” and whether it conforms simply to the understanding of “Well, this is the nature of America”. And if it is the nature of our people, our country, why do you protest so against it?

Wall: This being…what do you mean by “this is the nature of America”?

Heffner: The notion of confining to a kind of spiritual, or a sacred reservation, religiosity.

Wall: Let me back up a minute and play with that term a little bit. In my paper at the Hofstra conference, I tried to make the case that religion in our society, it permeates all of our people. There is a religious feeling…95% of the American people say they believe in God. Even 37% say they believe in a real Satan. I mean we are a religious people. So why is it that we can have a discussion like this and even question whether religion should be off the reservation? I think the answer has to finally lie in the modernity of our cultural leadership…the elites. Especially the academy, which is to say the universities, the colleges, educational system, that says to us that truth has to be measurable and that anything that is not concrete and rational and provable has to be relegated off to the side into the realm of the imagination or superstition or the mysterious, but not in the real world. And I think that all of our cultural leadership, the media, political and academic is influenced in this sense of modernity in such a way that this kind of question can be raised. As you just raised it.

Heffner: Now, wait a minute, wait a minute. What do you mean “this kind of question can be raised”?

Wall: To even imply that there is something strange about having a religious sensibility operative in society.

Heffner: You’re, you’re always at this business of whipping me, using me as a whipping boy…

Wall: You know, you belong to the academy, so you…

Heffner: Yeah?

Wall: …you’re part of this…

Heffner: How, how could you be so willing…so willing to stereotype people that way? I’m a media person, I’m an academic…

Wall: Laughter.

Heffner: …my gosh, what’s the…what’s the next one? There were three, I think, categories, and I’m…fit into two of the bad…

Wall: The political world…

Heffner: The political…but, of course, you come from the world of politics too.

Wall: I do. And let me tell…let me say that I’m very much inspired right now by the book by Gary Wills…Unto God, in which he makes the case of the, the elites of our society being so rational and he, he traces this back to Henry Steele Commanger…not, not the beginning, but at least an example of how the American academy elevates and celebrates the rational, the real, the provable, the scientifically “there”, and turns away from the irrational which is what non-rational religion is described as.

Heffner: Well, now, of course, you’ve got me. I was Henry Steele Commanger’s student…

Wall: Really?

Heffner: …and I was his teaching assistant…

Wall: That explains everything.

Heffner: But, Jim…seriously. How can you attribute to a historian, a reporter, if you will, that this stems from a book he wrote?

Wall: It does not stem. I, I was trying to suggest to you that it doesn’t stem from Commanger, but Commanger’s book, The American Mind, very well sums up how the modern academy feels that the American mind should proceed. So that if you have a religious sensibility, if you do look to an ultimacy in your life, then you should, to be polite, keep it to yourself. Don’t bring it into polite conversation. Don’t…certainly not introduce it in any kind of dialogue that might be involved in the moral discourse of our society. Keep it out of the mainstream…leave it on the sacred reservation.

Heffner: But you know, I’m puzzled, literally puzzled by your ability to , and willingness to, and insistence upon, suggesting that these elites…journalistic, political, academics have hornswaggled the American people, the American people who you say 95% of them believe in God. What was the figure about those who believe in Satan?

Wall: 37%…actually believe in a personal devil.

Heffner: Now…are you serious in offering those responses to questions, “Do you believe in a personal Devil?” as a sign of the religiosity of the American people?

Wall: Preferably I’d rather use the 95% that believe in God, and equally high that believe in some sense of the afterlife. Our culture, the case I’m trying to make here, our culture, our people ha a deep longing for ultimacy. Indeed, I was thinking this morning, coming in on the train, the two words I wanted to get across to you today…”ultimacy” and “intimacy”. Those are the two terms I think are most meaningful to the human spirit. We seek and long for intimacy…with each other, with others, the world, with God or whatever we call God, and we long for ultimacy…a connection to that which is other than the sum of all we have to deal with in this life.

Heffner: It sounds like the…that wonderful section in the “Brothers” of the Grand Inquisitor. You haven’t added “bread” though. You haven’t added men’s need for bread. You have for…you haven’t quite said miracles, but you’ve talked about a belief that one could identify that way. But I come back to the question…with our assumption and your insistence that so many Americans feel this way, how strong is that feeling if the academics, the media people and those others whom you will single out as the villains of the scene have taken and distorted this almost universal, as you suggested, universal American desire for ultimacy and intimacy.

Wall: There is a sense of repressing, repressing this longing for ultimacy in our modern educational system. Do you remember William Buckley’s book, 40 years ago, God and Man at Yale? The man wrote the book that long ago, and said what bothered him, he wrote it when he was in his twenties, and I remember reading it and being impressed by it, and deciding to reject it, at the time, because I was a very young and liberal person, because it was a conservative viewpoint. Now I look at this and I say, the man had a point”. That God and Man at Yale, the book that I’m describing carefully was pointing out that there was no place for God at Yale, that was his whole thesis.

Heffner: But you are then, positing the notion that our almost universal faith in God, belief in God…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …and belief in a personal devil is so weak that it can be undermined by a few academics, or many academics and the media and you people in politics.

Wall: Well, when you say “so weak”, I think that the last 100 years in this country has…can be seen to be the epitome of modernity in Western civilization so that the ability of the academy to make us feel embarrassed about hiving a connection to the ultimate has peaked, has come to its full fruition, and now we look around and say, “Is that all there is, are you describing for us that scientific truth is the ultimate, is the all we can get?” And I think our culture is saying, “We’re not very comfortable with this. We want something other. And we want to be able to reach out to that which is ultimate”. And I think it’s been with us all along, this longing. But that modernity, the academy, the insistence on the only truth that is available to us is measurable truth and that God is irrelevant. That is finally being undermined. I, I can’t help but think of an interesting parallel here, which I know is on dangerous ground, but I’m going to venture into it. Now Rosalind Carter was at this conference, and she’s just come back…Jimmy Carter…Jimmy Carter’s wife, the former First Lady…she was describing to me, in a personal conversation, and she spoke to the entire group and talked about this too, but she said to me, “You have no idea how religiously hungry the people of the Soviet Union are”. She said people would come up to her and in their limited English describe themselves, “I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian”. They want to…they’ve been suppressed for so long, in the communist environment and being an atheist environment that their longing for a connection with ultimacy is so strong that they’re just desperate to be known as religious…whatever their religious backgrounds…many Muslims, many…not very many Jews, but some Jews also in the Soviet Union. The point is, there’s a hunger for spirituality in the Soviet Union. I think there’s the same hunger in this country. The repression hasn’t been by Communism, the repression has been by modernity and the American mind mentality.

Heffner: Now, many people have sat at this table, Jim, and spoken somewhat similarly, but their, the dichotomy has not been between modernity and the sense of ultimacy as you refer to it. It has been a matter of morality. It has it a statement that we in this country have become so involved, not in matters of enlightenment or of the enlightenment, but in greed. And that it is morality, that it is a sense of oneness with the community, and you and I have talked about this before…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …that has been missing, and that the greed factor…you used the expression “peaked” before…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …and I think you were suggesting that the enlightenment, rationality…pure and simple with nothing else…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …has peaked. And these people frequently feel the need, and they use the word “should” too, the need to believe that greed has peaked and they talk in terms…not of religion, but of morality. Now, are we talking about much the same thing?

Wall: I say we’re talking about much the same thing. But let’s assume for the moment the people you’re describing, who’ve also been sitting at this table, are reluctant to identify this, this longing to break out of greed, this longing to have meaning, to have some sense of ultimacy. I thin what I sense in your approach to this is some resistance to quote “religion”, and I understand that because there is a lot that passes for religion in our culture that needs to be rejected. But the hunger for spirituality, the hunger for connection to the ultimate, and the hunger to have that which is other than simple greed is very strong in our society. And I think the other people you’re describing who sit at this table, who speak of greed, if they’ll go one step further and acknowledge, just the possibility, that there is an ultimate dimension to our existence that is calling us into that movement out of greed.

Heffner: You do know that many of those people, if pressed, would probably say, “We find Dr. Wall inappropriately incapable of identifying these feelings which we all sense in common with a need for social justice. Not for the Godhead”.

Wall: And you say, “not identifying it with social justice”?

Heffner: No. I think what, what has happened has been there are many people who, again, have sat at this table, who find a hunger for community, a sense of community, and you see that community as an identity with the Godhead. And I, I…don’t assume that I’m, I’m pooh-poohing that, I’m not.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Even though you want to see me as an Eastern establishment Liberal.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: As opposed to your good Midwestern or Southern ideals. I don’t think we’re so far apart, but it seems to me that the two groups are really talking about the same thing. Something’s missing.

Wall: Something is missing. I thought I heard in your question some reference to the absence of social justice in the approach I’m talking about.

Heffner: No, no.

Wall: On the contrary…

Heffner: No, no, I don’t mean that, Jim. I don’t mean that.

Wall: Alright.

Heffner: I do mean that these others put their emphasis upon a quest for social justice…

Wall: Yes, that’s right.

Heffner: …and you say it’s because, in a sense they’ve been trained away from, out of the ability to see this as the same thing that you’re talking about.

Wall: That’s so, yes.

Heffner: They’ve been trained away from religiosity.

Wall: Their social justice zeal is unrooted, it has no base. There is no value structure that drives their social justice other than sheer humanism, which has its merit. But after a while, it dries up if there’s no source to drive us further. I’ve just done an editorial that I’m sure will draw outraged cries of pure pietism, that’s coming out in an issue sometime this month, attacking the concept of one of my great peeves and dislikes. And that is the state lottery. I thin the lottery is one of the more evil developments in American society. Do you know now that we have 33 out of 50 states with lotteries? We are exploiting the poor in our society because that’s who pays the lottery. We are, in effect, the taxing the longing for security among the poor people in our country by saying…”Buy this ticket, and will not have to raise the income taxes of the rich in these states”. Incredible. But 33 out of 50 states are doing this. That’s evil. That’s a social injustice.

Heffner: Now, Jim, how are we going to make correspond that figure…33 out of 50 states…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …with your 95% or 97% figure, the notion that somehow or other, the academy, the media and again, right at the moment…the politicians…

Wall: You reject that, I see that.

Heffner: …that trinity, that they have undermined the good thinking, the good feeling, the good will and indeed, the insistence of the American people by such incredible majorities…

Wall: Now…

Heffner: …who is playing the lottery if it isn’t…

Wall: The good people are, of course. I mean the…

Heffner: Are they forced to…

Wall: The whole…no…they’re not forced to, but you exploit the basic weakness of the human condition…all of us are both potentially humanly good and woefully humanly bad. And that it’s what it means to be human. And you certainly know that we can exploit the human weaknesses that exist out there, and we, being the leadership…I mean the state legislature is willing to exploit the poor, rather than raise income taxes on the rich, is sheer exploitation of the weakness of the poor. Of course a weak person…a poor person, if given a chance to buy one lottery ticket in the hope of winning a million dollars, is going to bite. Because they do long for some kind of security. This is exploiting. That’s another favorite phrase of mine, you may recognize…is exploitation.

Heffner: Well, there is a…there is certainly the possibility of one saying, “Dr. Wall, what we’re talking about is listening to the will of the people, and acting accordingly”. Now what do you do with that, Jim?

Wall: Well, that is what we’re doing, but legislators are supposed to be leaders, and legislators if they stop and really reflect upon what they’re doing, surely they’re…they’re not responding to the will of the people, they’re responding to the need to raise money. And it’s much easier to exploit the weakness of the people than it is to raise the taxes of the better off.

Heffner: What are you going to do, what are you going to do when someone who’s crueler than I am…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …brings up the matter of church lotteries, church bingo games, all those games of chance that we’ve identified with churches?

Wall: I’d be very happy…cruel or not…to say you’re absolutely right. I mean to the extent to which the churches, and this has not been a practice in my own Methodist Church, I may hasten to point out, but it is a practice in some religious bodies in this country, to the extent to which they play for money, and bingo games, in the churches, if they play for any money, it’s rather a pittance, that’s a different thing from the lottery that promises you a million dollars a year for life.

Heffner: It’s only different…the only difference is…

Wall: Well…

Heffner: …is in the number of dollars.

Wall: Lotteries…I mean lotteries are one thing, bingo games which are not my favorite way of entertaining people and I think are really beneath a church and their activities, but they have done so, and that’s part of their tradition, which I don’t particularly like, it’s a free country. But I think it is a slight exploitation of people’s weaknesses. Yes.

Heffner: Jim, before you talked about when you were young and liberal. Are you now…old and conservative?

Wall: (Laughter) Certainly I’m not old. I don’t know how you can even come up with that phrase…and no, I’m not conservative. I think I’m…I am still liberal. I like to think that I’m Liberal, which means that I’m open to the pluralistic society that we live in. But then as we discussed before, these terms don’t have the meaning they once had. Liberal and Conservative are ideologies that are more rigid and preset than any religious ideology that I have been able to run across.

Heffner: But have you found yourself moving, politically, on the political spectrum from Left to Right, or Right to Left, as accepted?

Wall: Well, I certainly feel politically that I have changed from the 1960s and the 1970s, when I thought that it was possible, in the Liberal sense, to create the perfect society. Yes, I’m a little more moderate than I was in the 60s and the 70s.

Heffner: And how do you feel about your, your…not only your support for Jimmy Carter, but your very successful work on his behalf?

Wall: Well, he was, of course, and remains a fairly conservative human being. One of the things we discussed at this conference at Hofstra was the fact that Carter’s serious problem was trying to run a Democratic party for our years as a president and head of the party in the direction of the conservative mood in the country, which it certainly proved to be, with Reagan coming in for eight years and then Bush for another four, against a very Liberal Democratic party, and he didn’t succeed, which is one reason he failed.

Heffner: And your own feeling?

Wall: Failed to be re-elected, not failed otherwise.

Heffner: That’s an interesting point that you’re making, you don’t think that he failed.

Wall: Oh, absolutely not. I think his administration is going to be shown, and already if you look at it carefully, the things he accomplished are incredible. Someone made the case that Ronald Reagan was supposed to be such a great communicator, and Jimmy Carter was a poor communicator. Carter was able to communicate the country into passing the Panama Canal Treaty, for example, which was very hard to do. When they started on the Panama Canal Treaties, the public was 25% in favor, 75% against it. Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, you know what he had to do, he had to communicate and convince the American public to let him lower their taxes. That’s not very hard to communicate.

Heffner: What was the great success, in your estimation of the Carter years?

Wall: Oh, the Panama Canal Treaties is certainly one, the People’s Republic of China, the opening to the People’s Republic of China, Camp David…

Heffner: I, I thought that was Richard Nixon.

Wall: No. I think we formalized it, and Richard Nixon started it, and we formalized it in the Carter Administration. Deng Xiao Ping came over here, we signed the final relationships…

Heffner: But certainly Nixon is going to be remembered rather than Jimmy Carter as the person who…

Wall: Well, in there, yes.

Heffner: …opened, having help shut the doors…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …between the two countries, then helped re-open them.

Wall: Then, of course, Camp David, and the human rights movement. Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights around the world, which were clamped down by the Reagan Administration and Bush hasn’t had time to do much of it one way or the other. But, I would say the Camp David accords…incredible achievement in the Middle East, which kept Egypt and Israel from going to war with one another, and then his human rights emphasis…and his, his high sense of purpose which is now being shown as he operates as a person individually through the Carter Center. We now see what it was he had in mind as a president.

Heffner: Jim, it sounds to me that those who admired the President, the former President, continue to, and see his administration in rosier and rosier hues.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Do you think the American people would subscribe to the same notions?

Wall: I think the American people are currently thinking very highly of him because of his post-White House career. I mean the polls would show that. What was it Time magazine said, “finest ex-president we’ve ever had”. We haven’t really gotten into the historical re-evaluation of his administration, but I think within a few years that will be shown to be a very successful administration.

Heffner: James Wall, I hope that you will…I hope that we can do another program now…we’re going to do many others in time to come, but anyway, I’d like to talk more about Jimmy Carter and his political instincts. Thank you very much for joining me today.

Wall: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s topic, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.