James Wall

A Moral Dimension, Part I

VTR Date: July 23, 1989

Guest: Wall, James



Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James M. Wall
Title: “A Moral Dimension”, Part I
VTR: 7/23/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

And I must first beg your forgiveness if I should have to sniffle and cough my way through today’s program…for as we record it I have an absolutely awful cold whose unpleasantness I now have to inflict upon you, too. Sorry, but I couldn’t – wouldn’t, really! – call off our video recording session not just because even in this “talking head” end of broadcasting the show must always go on, but also because my Georgian guest today, Dr. James Wall, the brilliant, Peripatetic Editor of the Christian Century magazine, has flown in from the Midwest to record this program – and another to follow – and I’m just not about to lose these opportunities to beard this journalistic religioso friend in my den once again. Indeed, having recently celebrated this program’s 33rd anniversary, we’ve even toyed with the idea of turning things somewhat upside down, getting Dr. Wall to ask me questions about how different it is, for instance, to have an open mind on the air these days as contrasted with the 1950s, when it all began. Indeed, to be able to talk that way is a temptation, but one not as great as my desire to needle my Southern friend more than just a little bit about what seems to me to be his continuing editorial assumption that if one is Eastern and somewhat intellectual (or at least university-oriented), and if one doesn’t think of Liberalism as the hated “L” word – and particularly if one is involved with the media – one couldn’t possibly be ambivalent and have real questions, as my guest does, about the rights and wrongs of abortion, couldn’t think that burning the flag is an abomination that could possibly call for the revision somewhat of traditional Constitutional notions.

In other words, my friend James Wall finds lock-step stereotypes of Southern or heart-land Americans to be unrealistic, but seems to carry a whole wagon load of his own fixed ideas. Indeed, on the telephone the other day, he just assumed that I would take exception to his recent editorial on one subject or another and was surprised (indeed, I think, unbelieving) to find quite otherwise.

So, I would ask…Dr. Wall, is it mostly my involvement with the media that makes you see me as so naturally opposed to your own fix on the way life and things should be?

Wall: You put me in a position of having to accept a lot of the premises that you’ve laid forth. But, for the moment, I’ll, I’ll accept those. Perhaps we’ll debate later whether they’re accurate or not. But, what I am probably reacting to is not so much your involvement in the media, as in my growing conviction that the American culture, which the media simply happens to be one spokesperson for, or the central spokesperson for, is Liberal. It has been Liberal for quite some time, regardless of the political situation with Mr. Reagan and now Mr. Bush; we’re dealing with a Liberal culture. The national ethos is Liberal. And for that reason the openness to alternative ways of thought is just not there, and especially is this true in media. And the reaction to alternative ways of thought is usually set up in a kind of a defensive, hostile manner. So, I think one of the roles that I am able to perform is to raise a question about that, since I too, I think, could consider myself a Liberal, but a chastened Liberal.

Heffner: What do you mean “chastened”? Who punished you and for what?

Wall: A chastened Liberal in the sense that since the ‘60s we’ve learned something about absolutism. I think the Liberalism that helped us to get out of that abominable war in Vietnam, which I’m glad we did. The Liberalism that helped us to see how bad segregation was, which was a good thing to do, has given the Liberal community a kind of cockiness. I am somewhat chastened by all of that because I find that in cockiness, as Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian so well put it, in that cockiness we…is our failing because we may think we’re right, but we usually could also be wrong.

Heffner: It’s interesting to me that you attribute that to what you call “Liberalism”. How so? How does it come about?

Wall: It’s typical of any reigning ideology…any reigning ideology. It just so happens that Liberalism has been the reigning ideology since the ‘30s in this country.

Heffner: But you seem to think that it still is. Is…

Wall: I think…

Heffner: …that really true?

Wall: I think it is now, I think it’s slowly, obviously going to be shifting. The reigning ideology is Liberal. For us to notice columnists, for example, who are different…the George Wills, and the Safires, and the Buchanans, they are different because they go against the reigning ideology of the culture. The day may come when a Liberal columnist may be seen as a change against the reigning ideology, but right now it’s still Liberal.

Heffner: You know, Jim, you said something…you talked about “openness to alternative ways of thinking”. Isn’t that the essential description of the Liberal persuasion?

Wall: It should be. By definition the Liberal should be “open” to alternative ways of persuasion. But, as you’ve alluded to in your introduction, as a Southerner…I’ve been in the Midwest since 1960, but my roots are Georgia. I’m particularly sensitive to the national Liberal ethos’ rejection of the Southern culture, of seeing it as somewhat below standard, as somewhat less…some more “corn pone”, “good ole boyishness”. As Tom Wolfe coined the phrase, “the good ole boy”, and I just find that a disturbing dimension in the Liberal mindset which is supposed to be, supposed to be open to alternatives and entertaining different ways of looking at reality.

Heffner: Would you say, though, not by way of extenuation, but by way of explanation, that that had essentially to do, in years past, with racial matters?

Wall: Well, it’s certainly true that the segregation patterns of the South gave the reigning Liberal ideology an opportunity to bash the South, and it still does so and deservedly so. But, as we’ve seen, subsequent to the 1950s, ‘60s amendments…and not “amendments”, but laws changing and Supreme Court decisions, segregation is not a Southern phenomenon, it’s a national phenomenon. Racism is not a Southern phenomenon, it’s a national phenomenon. The case could even be made that racism is more pronounced outside the South than it is within the South.

Heffner: Let’s go back to this matter of your definition of Liberalism, as the prevailing, prevailing mode of thought in our country. We have, nevertheless, elected Ronald Reagan twice and George Bush once.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Certainly in the campaign of 1988 my allusion to the notion of the “L” word indicated that you couldn’t really get away, no a national scene, by being called a “Liberal”.

Wall: When I say that Liberalism is the reigning ideology, I mean in the power centers of the country. Clearly the voters this past election in ’88 voted Conservative, voted down the “L” word, and…

Heffner: And the two previous elections.

Wall: Yes, correct, and Jimmy Carter was no liberal. His…as Ted Kennedy tried to show us by trying to run against him in the primaries, defeating him at any cost, which helped, as you know, to bring in Ronald Reagan…I mean I give Kennedy credit for bringing Ronald Reagan to power, for fighting a reigning moderate Democratic President, when he insisted on the reigning Liberal ideology being given the power to take over the country, to continue to run the country. But the reigning ideology of Liberalism is not in the body of the public, it is in the educational institutions. It is in the societal structures. It is in the media, particularly in the media. As I say, for someone to be Conservative in our media is to be a change of pace. Your dominant media centers in this country, Time, Newsweek, Post, New York Times, LA Times, Atlanta Journal, regional papers are basically non-Conservative.

Heffner: Let me ask you about flag burning. I’ve been intrigued (a) with your own position, and (b) with your assumption that if you had to turn to some “damn Yankee”, the likelihood is that he would not agree with your differentiations on this subject. You quoted Reinhold Niebuhr in an editorial…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: What about your, your…what’s your fix, what are your ideas about that, Jim?

Wall: You see what I…the thing that I feel very strongly about these days is that one of the reigning motifs of the Liberal mindset is the emphasis on individualism, “My right to do what I want to do”, the right of the individual, the superiority, if you will, of the individual, over against what? Inevitably it’s going to be over against something, and I think what it’s over against is the community’s right to curb that individual. So the tension we’re living with right now, I think, is…oh, we always have lived with it in a democracy, the individual versus the community; the individual versus the state, the tension. But one does never absolutely prevail over the other. But the ACLU mindset, as the phrase was used in the 1988 election, says there’s an absolutism about individualism, about individual rights, and one of those absolutes, according to a lot of people, is the “right” to express one’s self in anyway one wishes to express one’s self, including the expression of burning the flag. Now, my editorial simply raised the question of whether or not, at some time, doesn’t the state have a right to say, “this particular form of individualism violates the very entity that we call the nation, itself”? Interesting reaction to my editorials in the Christian Century. I don’t think I have done an editorial in recent years that got the kind of reaction I got on the flag burning.

Heffner: What were the reactions?

Wall: It was a consistent reaction, absolutely consistent. It was, and I hated to see this because it came, I’m afraid, from an essential Liberal Left-to-center group of readers, that said “the US has been wrong on so many things”. This is an entire United States feeling running through these letters, and therefore, we have to have a right to protest today, and therefore, we’re going to support…most people say, “we don’t want to burn the flag, we just want to give people the right to do so”. Which I think is absurd. I think there are so many ways of protesting against government policies, that flag burning is not one that you have to fight to the end for. I said in my editorial that it wasn’t the flag that sent us to the war in Vietnam, it wasn’t the flag that keeps the homeless on the street. The flag embodies, symbolizes the nation, and what I was suggesting in my editorial borrowing from thought of Paul Tillich, the theologian who made a distinction between symbols and signs…symbols meaning that which partakes of the reality for which it stands. A symbol partakes of the reality for which it stands, a sign merely addresses the reality, and I’m suggesting that the flag, in this country, partakes of the realty for which it stands, namely the nation, and therefore, for us to pass a law in a state, as many…most states have done, actually, that you can’t burn the flag, is not because we favor everything the state or the nation does…we don’t, we object to much that the state and the nation does…but we object to the action of an individual who burns a flag because that is an attack on the nation itself. Not on the nation’s policies, but on the nation itself. And that is illegal. The country has a right to say, “You may not attack this nation because that’s insurrection. Or if you want to attack it, then suffer the consequences”.

Heffner: Let me ask you how much…to what extent the concerns you’ve just expressed and to what extent your concern about the importance, the prevalence of individualism, stems for your religious background?

Wall: Well, I’m glad you asked that because I do feel that, or at least I try, in everything I do in public policy comments, or in public policy actions, to function out of a religious base. Everyone has a base. Mine, I think, as best I can understand it, is out of the Christian tradition, and certainly the Christian faith celebrates the individual. But the Christian faith and other religious bodies in this country, I think, put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the community, on the importance of the group, and the responsibility of the individual to fit into that community, and to function, to some extent within the discipline of that community. Now, we do this all the time. We function within the discipline of the community in terms of being drafted to fight in a military engagement we may not particularly like. Paying taxes…I certainly do that against my will, but I’m doing it as part of the community. Does that come out of my religious convictions? Yes, I think it does because I do turn to the community, the common good being manifested by a leadership group to find a way of expressing how we, as a community, will move forward. That is, I think, I hope, rooted in my own Christian tradition.

Heffner: Do you feel that this nation shares those beliefs with you?

Wall: No, this nation is a very secular entity. Has been for…really more and more so in recent centuries.

Heffner: Aren’t you willing to accept that, therefore?

Wall: Oh, no, I’m…I’m…this is a secular nation…let’s be perfectly clear about that. It is a secular, pluralistic society in which we operate. But individuals who belong to Christian communities or Jewish communities or Moslem communities, have every right and responsibility to manifest their own religious convictions in that secular pluralism. After all, the word “pluralism” means exactly that, we’re all allowed a part in this operation. The problem has been, I think, is that increasingly we’ve found secularism being the religion of the country and the superior religion of the country, and I think it is that that has caused an awful lot of fundamentalist Christians to rebel and to be upset, and has caused me to be troubled by the fact that individualism, the secular faith of the nation, predominates over the rights and the thoughts and the preferences of the rest of the people.

Heffner: If we use the phrase “secular humanism” then…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …where do we put Dr. James Wall?

Wall: You know, secular humanism is one of those political terms that have been used in…by the fundamentalist Christian Right to, to do what I’ve just done…talk about the problem of a central faith in the country. And I hate to use it.

Heffner: Why?

Wall: Because it isn’t really a philosophy, it isn’t really a religion, it isn’t really a codified group of principles, it’s simply the reigning cultural ideology of our time that disdains religion, that insists on individualism as superior, all of those things. But that’s not…that’s not in my mind a religious faith, and it’s not to be disparaged, it simply is what is, and you can’t buck what is, you can protest it, you can resist it, you can try to adjust it, you can try to influence it, but our culture is secular in its humanistic outlook.

Heffner: And a civic religion is no religion?

Wall: A civic religion is not religion.

Heffner: That’s a question on my part.

Wall: I understand, but I’m just…I’m just trying to think what you’re asking me because, because the words “civil religion” is an important term in our…in our land, and by a civil religion we mean those things in our tradition that have been elevated to moments of great significance, paradigmatic moments, if you will…the Gettysburg Address, George Washington’s presidency, the Civil War. I mean things have happened in our tradition, in our country, that have elevated these moments to certain status. That’s our religion, that’s what we celebrate as a people, as a democracy. But those are events, those are traditions, those are values that constitute a civil religion. I don’t think we should say they constitute the prevailing religion of the country.

Heffner: Which is what?

Wall: Prevailing religion in the country? There is no…

Heffner: Nothing.

Wall: …prevailing religion in the country, there’s just simply a struggle to find common values in the country, and right now I think we’re still floundering as to what they ought to be.

Heffner: Jim, I know that over the years that we’ve talked together, I surface in your estimation as again, one of those Eastern Liberal establishment people. I’ve always been interested in the role that you play. You must write…since you write editorials that please me to no end, that I find not only brilliant, but so well reasoned, you must find yourself in a good deal of trouble much of the time with more Conservative religious persons.

Wall: Well, I would think that the Conservative religious community, and I have conversed on brief occasions with some of them…Jerry Falwell, for one, done radio shows with him…engaging, charming man by the way, he just happens to be dead wrong on a lot of issues. Pat Robertson and I have corresponded. We simply live in a different space in American culture. And if you call that being in “trouble”, we simply don’t jibe. But my readership tends to be the mainline Protestant leadership of the country that I think is closer to my chastened Liberalism than to the Liberalism of the sixties, which I think is a thing of the past. But there’s still elements of it, as letters that I get about freedom to burn flags would indicate.

Heffner: It…coming back to that point…it seems so strange to me that you don’t yet feel that that Liberalism is past.

Wall: That extreme Left-wing Liberalism…

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: …is subsiding, but it’s still the dominant…it’s still the assumed cultural ethos of this country.

Heffner: And you talk about the media as…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: …provoking this a good deal.

Wall: And simply…it’s the easy…it’s the way, it’s the way media folk have lived from the very beginning. It’s the way they’ve thought, it’s the way they write their editorials, and therefore they keep…this is the norm…things…individualism…liberal thought is the norm. Non-religious, especially non-religious, is the norm in American culture, and so, everything else is measured against that norm.

Heffner: Now, the question of abortion is certainly one that has provoked great dissent, very much along the lines of what you were just saying.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Where do you take your stand?

Wall: Well, predominantly I would say the readership of my magazine, and again, you see the individualism coming into play here…would, would be pro-choice. And the great emphasis would be “I have a right to the privacy of my own decision regarding abortion”, this is a woman’s statement. Or “my wife, or my friend has a right to that”, this is a man’s statement. That’s an emphasis on individualism. Now, we are, in our magazine, we’ve done one editorial already in which…I didn’t write it…but my managing editor wrote it with my backing…have taken the position that the abortion issue has shifted. We’re dealing here with the law of the land, and we have to deal with what is. And what is, right now, is a Supreme Court that’s made the decision that it’s already made to greatly water down Roe versus Wade, and most certainly will water it down even more, if not eliminate it within the span of the next two years, perhaps, depending upon the make-up of the court. So we really have to deal with realism here. In our pluralistic culture there’s been a shift away from, and this may be part of what I’m describing earlier about the move slowly away from ideology…Liberal ideology as a reigning thought. The right of the individual to make his or her choice, in this case its’ a woman’s choice, simply is running head-on into a community’s feeling that someone has to stand on behalf of the unborn child. Personally, like most politicians would say, I’m…in my case am more pro-choice that “right to life”. But you’ve got to acknowledge that our community…that is to say the national community, seems to have developed a feeling that abortion cannot be lightly undertaken.

Heffner: Jim, what does that mean then about the century just about aborting? What does it mean about the central ethos of American life? Communitarianism? As opposed to individualism?

Wall: You’re saying “will the 21st century be focusing more on the community than the individual”? I think it’s quite possible. I think it’s quite possible just from what I have sensed in younger writers who do work for us in The Christian Century, younger editors, people who are thinking through the struggles of the last fifty years, moving more away from individualism as the prime way of thinking, which is what I grew up with. Individualism was the most important thing. My “right” to see, read, think anyway I wanted to, regardless of the community’s uneasiness about it. And so I’ve even adjusted in the area of pornography, for example. I just feel that communities do have a right to say “Wait a minute, I don’t want this in this neighborhood because isn’t good for the larger community. I may offend your right to free speech, but nonetheless it’s not good for the community”. Yes, I could see the 21st century developing as a much more…and I don’t want to use the word Conservative because I hope that won’t be the case, but a shifting away from the emphasis on individualism as a prime focus, and to some concern, larger concern for the community.

Heffner: In fact, it may well not be a conservative…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …century, given the potential for community action, state action, if you will. We may be in for something that is so very, very different from what has been considered “conservatism”…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …in the past. Indeed, an effort to conserve the freedoms of the past may not be a very successful effort in this new century that you describe.

Wall: Well, it’s going to be an interesting period of time to study.

Heffner: You say you see it in younger writers…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: …you see in the people who are…How, how does this come about…and our time is almost over for this particular program…then we’ll…you promised to sit still and we’ll do another one…how does this come about if the major organs of persuasion – the educational community, the media, etc. are geared in another direction?

Wall: I’ll give you an example. Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind was really appreciated by a lot of younger people that I know and have talked to. They really resonated to his statement that the classics need to be looked at more seriously, the values of the culture needed to be looked at more seriously. He was rebelling against the sixties chaos and anarchy, but the educational community and the academic community has come down on his head with such an incredible fervor because he is not playing along with the traditional game. Because he represents what they see…the traditional academic, intellectual community of the country. To them Allan Bloom represents a throwback to the past. I think there may be faults with his book but he certainly represents a call to move away from this pre-occupation with a modernism that he finds not very creative.

Heffner: I keep saying that I see the rest of my life as a race between the grim reaper, my own demise, and the demise of my Jeffersonian principles, and maybe in terms of one person’s observation that’s the way it goes. At any rate, Dr. Wall, you sit still. We’ll come back, and do another OPEN MIND. Meanwhile thank you so 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, 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 an 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 Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.