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FROM THE MOYERS FILES: Bill Moyers talks with ather Richard John Neuhaus and Reverend James Forbes on NOW with Bill Moyers, March 1, 2002

MOYERS: Tonight I've asked two prominent men of faith for their opinions.

Father Richard John Neuhaus is President of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Once a Lutheran pastor, now a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of New York, he is editor of the influential journal FIRST THINGS. In a recent survey he himself was named as one of the most influential intellectuals in American life.

The Reverend James Forbes showed up in another survey as one of the "most effective preachers" in the English-speaking world.

He grew up in the Pentecostal movement, and is ordained in the American Baptist churches and the original United Holy Church of America.

For thirteen years now, he has been the Senior Minister of New York's historic Riverside Church, where he leads a large interracial congregation gathered from many Christian sources.

Thank you both for being here.

Let's talk about the Attorney General's speech.

Father Neuhaus, do you find it disturbing when the Attorney General cloaks his mission in religious terms?

FATHER NEUHAUS: It's a risk to democracy and it's also a risk to religion, which is at least as great a concern, I think, or should be.

However, it's a risk that is in many cases unavoidable, and it's a risk that was certainly taken by this founders of this country.

It was a risk that was taken by Dr. Martin Luther King with regard to the politics in the civil rights movement. It's a unavoidable risk.

What I heard and what I've read elsewhere of what he said:

He's pretty much in the mainstream of an American tradition when he says, for example, that our freedoms come not from the state but from God.

Well, that's pretty much the Declaration of Independence, isn't it?

Namely that we have certain rights of which we are endowed by our creator, et cetera, et cetera.

FATHER FORBES: The danger that I see, especially in the post-9/11 era, is that anyone who is in a powerful political position who uses the language of God as if God actually endorses the position, the action, whether it's political or military; if you claim that God put you on this course, you immediately preclude the possibility of self-criticality, because you're simply doing what God told you to do.

NEUHAUS: The difficulty, of course, Ji, as you are aware is that after September 11 there was in some circles immediately this kind of "Oh, what have we done wrong? Why do they hate us, somehow this is our fault?"

And there was, I think, quite understandably just given social dynamics of cohesion and sense of solidarity an enormous reaction against that which led perhaps to an excessive use of God-talk, if you will, in terms of identifying with simply one aspect, one side of the conflict; but one must say that at the same time without in any way compromising the fact that what was done - the flying of these planes suicidally into these towers with no other purpose than to murderously take as many human lives as possible - if that is not evil, if that is not antithetical to everything that we understand to be the being and purposes of God, we've got a major theological problem.

FORBES: Well, let me ask you this.

In the fact that when we look back on history, we are the only nation that ever dropped the atomic bomb.

Does that mean that at that point we were not with God and that now we in our relationships around the world are more with God than at that dark moment in our history?

NEUHAUS: No, in my judgment, in 1945, august 6, 1945 - and I say this not simply as my personal opinion, but I believe it is grounded in the 2,000-year tradition of just war reflection of the Catholic Church and of the Christian tradition - is that that was a great and an evil thing to have done.

Now, I know that there are people who argue this on prudential grounds and cost effectiveness, et cetera, but it seems to me that Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no, are to be condemned as evil.

It's a question of how presumptuous one is.

I remember years and years ago, Jim, during the Vietnam War years...

MOYERS: And you were opposed to the war.

I remember that.

When I was in government, you were opposed to the war in Vietnam.

NEUHAUS: That's right.

Sure, very much so.

I was a founder of the Clergy and Laity Concerned for Vietnam with Father Dan Berrigan at that time and Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The good illustration of this - one time - I forget, in the mid-Sixties, '66 - we took out a full- page ad in THE NEW YORK TIMES.

I think it was when the bombing began in Cambodia.

I'm not... Don't pin me on the dates.

But what I remember vividly is that the ad said, "God says,"

And in big letters, "stop!" Exclamation point.

And Rabbi Heschel and I said, "No, no, I don't think we're going to run that ad."

You know, that would be the height of presumption.

What we can say is, "In the name of God, we say stop."

FORBES: I function out of a sense of Godly commitment, but when I do what I do, I happen to know that I am not able to demonize other religions and think that God says, "Yes, that Jim, that's my boy."

I do the best I can to say, "As I understand the nature of God's calling, this is an unjust act."

And so while I come out of a religious base, in conversations particularly with people of other religious traditions, which is part of the democratic approach to life, I claim, as I understand God's call to our nation, this is the right way for me to go, and I call you to this action.

MOYERS: How does this strike the millions of humanists or atheists or agnostics, the Hindus, the others who were not included when the Attorney General said, "Christians, Muslims and Jews should unite in the war against terrorism"?

Shouldn't they be protected against this kind of talk?

NEUHAUS: Of course.

Should they be protected against this kind of talk?

Should a minority... Does a minority have a right to be protected against the evidence that it is a minority?

The answer, it seems to me, is manifestly no.

The minority does not have a veto power over saying... For example, there are people who are in the minority - let us hope - in parts of this country with regard to racial segregation, in regard to attitudes toward African Americans.

Let's hope they're in a very, very distinct minority.

They are profoundly offended, outraged, and no doubt in some cases, religiously, self-righteously excited by what they view as a position being imposed upon them.

We say, look, we're not going to kill you.

We're not going to kick you out or whatever, but we as a society deliberate together in the first sense of political deliberation.

Aristotle said, "What is politics? Politics is free persons deliberating the question, 'how ought we to order our life together?'"

And the ought involves what you believe morally and religiously, as well as other things.

FORBES: But I would say in a democratic society, people of power are committed to preserving the right of those who seem to be less powerful to be participants in the dialogue and to exercise their political influence as is appropriate in their vote and public discourse.

And we have to protect...

NEUHAUS: But who is less powerful here, Jim?

FORBES: It changes about.

It changes about.

But right now, in regards to religion, Bill, the key thing is, I do not believe that the issue is there is too much spiritual influence.

There is too much partisan, religious influence.

And what I believe is the best approach right through here is to call the various religious groups together to identify the things they hold in common that relate to the space we share together.

So I want to know from my Muslim brothers and my Jewish brothers and sisters, what does your tradition have to say about hope, about freedom, about justice, about compassion, and about the integrity of creation?

MOYERS: But before we began, Father Neuhaus was saying to me that he is dubious about any ability of Muslims and Christians to talk each other in this present environment, and in no small part I would assume because we criticize Muslims, I criticize Muslims where they do not have a concept of the separation of church and state.

Do you think the kind of dialogue that Reverend Forbes is talking about is possible between Christians, Muslims, and Jews?

NEUHAUS: At this point in history, certainly between Christians and Jews, emphatically, yes.

MOYERS: But I mean with Muslims an equal part.


A very big problem has been raised.

It has been a problem seething there as people like Bernard Lewis and others have been trying to bring our attention to it for the last 25 years, that you have Islam, that, in his marvelous phrase, Mohammed started out being his own Constantine.

It never had a history, as Christianity and Judaism did, of being in the minority, of being persecuted.

It never had the Christian notion of render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.

And that now has created what may be the largest single problem quite arguably for this century: is Islam capable... And Muslims will have to answer this.

It's not interesting that Jim says it or that I say it or that George Bush says that Islam is a wonderful religion and it's very peaceful, et cetera, you know.

I mean, as much as we may respect our President, I don't think he's a Quranic scholar.

And I'm sure Muslims view that with a certain degree...

MOYERS: Do you think Islam is a violent religion?

NEUHUAS: Well, clearly the most forceful public presentations of Islam today in the world, and to some extent domestically in this country, seem to believe that the permanence and violence of jihad...

MOYERS: Holy war.

NEUHAUS ...holy war, is an integral and necessary and permanent part.

We'll have to see.

FORBES: I do not... See, I believe that there are extremists within all of our religious traditions.

There are those people who could explain in our history that Christianity has had its share of acting as if jihad or holy war was the way to go, or crusades, shall we say.

But right today, there are conversations going on between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

And my belief is that the world we live in requires beginning these conversations with those persons who are ready to have conversations, not about, is Christianity better than Islam, better than Judaism, but what do we hold in common that gives us a path to pursue peace and respect for the various religious traditions?

There are enough people who are ready for that conversation.

MOYERS: Last word.

NEUHAUS: Jim, I want to respect the sincerity of that, but I think that's - just between us as friends - sentimental hogwash.

And I think it does not do justice to the fact that as Jews, as serious Jews, believing Jews, observant Jews, serious Christians, serious Muslims are making certain kind of truth claims about the nature of reality, the nature of the world, how it's constituted and what is our moral duty to abstract to the absolute, namely to God.

And the truth is that in Islam today, some claims are being made with the overwhelming majority's support, not only of religious authority...

FORBES: Is this happening in Christianity?

NEUHAUS: ...but of states.

No, it's not.

FORBES: It is.

There are claims...


FORBES: Christianity that are opposed to what you and I believe.

NEUHAUS: Oh, are there some...

FORBES: And what I'm talking about...

NEUHAUS: ...are there some Christians.

FORBES: What I am talking about is getting together...

NEUHAUS: No, there are...

FORBES: hear each other more clearly, because I think it's a distortion...


FORBES: characterize Islam or Judaism or Christianity as not capable of being in conversation.


I hope...

MOYERS: Clearly... Clearly...

NEUHAUS: ...Islam is capable.

NEUHAUS: That's where I started, and we must hope and pray that that's the case.

Today it is very much in doubt.

MOYERS: I have to give you the last word then.

FORBES: The last word is we are going to keep getting together.

And we're going to get together more, because the future of our world depends upon our learning to hear each other across these very serious divides.

MOYERS: A discussion has clearly begun, but is far from over.

Thank you both, Jim Forbes and Father Neuhaus for being with us.

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