Reviews > Culture

Do as I say, not as I do

Culture | The case of the conservative's mistress

Issue: "Religious liberty fight," June 20, 1998

In his book Intellectuals, the British historian Paul Johnson exposes the personal lives of some of the most influential thinkers of the modern world, showing how their immoral lifestyles shaped their immoral ideologies. The 18th-century French philosopher Rousseau, for example, had five children out of wedlock and abandoned them all. No wonder he argued that children, being naturally creative, do not need external discipline; and that the state, not families, should be responsible for raising the young-notions that are twisting educational and child-rearing theories to this very day. Marx, the champion of the worker, never paid his housekeeper a penny, and his economic theories grew out of his own antisemitism and love of violence. From the logical positivist Bertrand Russell to the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, from the American novelist Ernest Hemingway to the left-wing linguist Noam Chomsky, Mr. Johnson chronicles their deceptions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies, showing how the private lives of intellectuals often undercut their public teachings. Intellectuals is a first-rate book, a useful resource for conservative cultural critics. So are Mr. Johnson's other books, such as Modern Times and his recent A History of the American People (see WORLD, May 9). A Roman Catholic vocal about his faith, he has emerged as a scholarly champion for traditional values and Christian morality. But now British tabloids have turned the tables on Mr. Johnson. It seems that the 70-year-old scholar has a mistress. Reportedly, she was upset about a tribute Mr. Johnson wrote to his wife and the fact that she was getting dumped for a new girlfriend. The tabloids went so far as to wire his ex-mistress and make a tape of Mr. Johnson admitting his infidelity. When she tells him she is going public, he can be heard saying, "Oh my, oh my. This will hurt Marigold [his wife] terribly. But if you feel you must, you must." The mistress rails on him for his religious hypocrisy and asks why he goes to Mass every day. His reply: "Because I am a sinner." Mr. Johnson, who subsequently admitted to the affairs, is now an object of fun for his liberal opponents-Mr. Traditional Values exposed as a dirty old man. Do the revelations about Mr. Johnson's private life cast doubt on his ideas? The ad hominem argument-criticizing an idea by attacking the person who holds it-is a classic logical fallacy. Mr. Johnson's contentions that America is a great country and that modernistic ideas have been culturally disastrous are supported by the abundance of evidence that he gives. Those facts do not become invalid simply because Mr. Johnson has committed adultery. Nor is Mr. Johnson's inconsistency the same inconsistency he unmasks in Intellectuals. Rousseau, Marx, Sartre, and the rest justified their immorality by forging a new worldview that would excuse their behavior. They change the standards to fit their lifestyles. Mr. Johnson affirms the standards, even though he does not live up to them. Nevertheless, despite his going to church for the right reason, his long-term, persistent pattern of adultery shows a real, though not rare, spiritual problem. In his recent book on his religious beliefs, The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage, he affirms his belief in the Catholic Church, taking the conservative positions even when it comes to birth control. He then turns around and says that it is all right to address God as "She," says hell will just be reserved for a few of the most extreme sinners, and argues that non-Christians can be saved. Here and in his History of Christianity, he minimizes the historical truth of the Bible and seems to go squishy when it comes to Christianity's supernatural claims. Above all, The Quest for God presents Christianity essentially as a moral and philosophical system, neglecting the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. It is an occupational hazard for culture warriors and even conservative intellectuals to value Christianity for cultural or intellectual reasons, while neglecting the spiritual transformation of genuine faith in Christ. That Mr. Johnson affirmed the morals of Christianity, yet failed to keep them, is proof of the depths of human sin and the necessity of God's grace and forgiveness through Christ. Scratch any Christian and sin will not be far beneath the surface. The mystery of iniquity keeps manifesting itself, in shocking and embarrassing ways, even in the church. All human efforts and achievements are tainted by sin. Christians should not be disillusioned at any human failure, because they should have no illusions in the first place. Sin will be everywhere, which is why salvation has to be by grace, not works. And while intellectuals and culture warriors can be useful, the only resource that is fully reliable, authored by the only Person beyond reproach, is the Word of God.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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