A Question for Neoconservatives of the Catholic Right (Part Seventeen of a Series)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Nov 26, 2006 at 04:18:47 PM EST
Over the last two weeks I have been reading The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Harvard University Press, 1993). Written by NYU law professor Stephen Holmes, it gives an excellent insight into the philosophers who influence many of the neoconservatives now driving much of the Religious Right's agenda.
Particularly illuminating was the chapter on Leo Strauss. It was Strauss whose very undemocratic reading of Plato and Aristotle still influences the actions of both the Institute on Religion and Democracy and Ethics and Public Policy Center many common members (as Right Web observes, "The Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) is one of several policy institutes established by neoconservatives to promote the increased role of religion in public policy"). It is their commonly held scorn for modernity and its dominant philosophy, Liberalism that leads them in an arrogant crusade to remake society in Strauss's more aristocratic vision; one that perniciously distrusts the common man so celebrated by Americans of all mainstream political philosophies.

Central to the Straussian neoconservative belief is that humanity must be led by a select group of philosophers who keep "the truth" from the masses lest society splinter into disorder and chaos. But just what is this "truth" that they believe cannot be disseminated to the greater society, even if it must be guarded by "noble lies."?

But for all the neoconservatives' bluster about the need for a religious orthodoxy to hold society together, Strauss was an atheist and taught that "philosopher-kings" had to maintain their special standing by keeping silent about their personal atheism, playing along with the illusion of there being a God and an afterlife. Believing that reason and revelation cannot be reconciled. Strauss believed that religion can only have currency if it stifles dissent, imposes clannishness and gives citizens a reason to die for one's homeland. As Professor Holmes observes, Strauss also believed that only philosophers can handle the truth that there is no Creator and that we are only left with nature which is indifferent to human values and needs. In other words, organized religion is nothing more than exoteric myths for the rubes, designed to sedate them by fear of eternal damnation.

Strauss also adopted the ancient view that any attempt to master nature is therefore futile and can only result in calamity. This belief is now heard in the likes of Eric Cohen and Leon Kass as they try to hold back the rising tide of support for embryonic stem cell research.

As Jeet Heer wrote a few years ago in The Boston Globe:

Strauss believed that Martin Heidegger possessed the greatest mind of the 20th century. But unlike those Heidegger admirers who excused the philosopher's flirtation with Nazism as a mere personal failing, Strauss believed it showed that modern philosophy had gone deeply astray. [Clifford] Orwin explains: "Strauss's question always was, What was it about modern thought that could have led Heidegger to make these disastrous practical misjudgments?"

In Strauss's mature work, he would argue that Plato and Aristotle were wiser than modern thinkers like Machiavelli and Heidegger. This exultation of ancient thought wasn't merely a nostalgic celebration of the good old Greek days. As the political theorist Stephen Holmes observes, Strauss believed that classical thinkers had grasped a still-vital truth: Inequality is an ineradicable aspect of the human condition.

For Strauss, the modern liberal project of using the fruits of science and the institutions of the state to spread happiness to all is intrinsically futile, self-defeating, and likely to end in terror and tyranny. The best regime is one in which the leaders govern moderately and prudently, curbing the passions of the mob while allowing a small philosophical elite to pursue the contemplative life of the mind.

Many of Strauss's followers believe that the only true joy in life is to be above the fray and secretly be able to communicate esoterically through texts chock full of hidden meanings with other "philosopher-kings" about the meaning of life. The rest of society is to exist so that the "thrill" of this secret adventure can be maintained.

As Stephen Holmes explains, Straussians see the Enlightenment and its liberal progeny as upsetting the philosopher's special place in society. But more than that, Strauss believed that the Enlightenment resulted in the more open discussion of atheism. And for Strauss, it is the tolerance of this belief that corrodes the structure of society. This in turn, is leading the West into a realm of as "nihilism" and "moral relativism." For Strauss and his current stable of neoconservative scholars society must be recast so that atheism can be "put back into the closet."

This raises a question that never seems to be asked—at least by those in the mainstream media: Are any of these neoconservative members of either the IRD or the EPPC themselves closet atheists who would deny others the right to publicly discus the existence of a deity?

Common sense tells us that studying under a given teacher does not automatically translate into making the student a carbon-copy follower. I have read both Marx and Strauss yet I am neither a Communist nor a neoconservative. Many faithful clergy have studied under Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago and still lead quiet, but faithful religious lives. We simply have no way of knowing if any today's neoconservative avatars of religious orthodoxy are closeted atheists. And of course, that is the truth. We don't know.

Certainly that is as far as the facts take us. But with said, it is a question that merits further scrutiny. And it is an inquiry brought on when neoconservatives use language that virtually mimics Strauss’s teachings. When I hear them discuss specific issues such as the “corrosive” effects of modern Liberalism, “radical” egalitarianism or medical science at least I begin to wonder.

But there is also one other bogeyman for Strauss and his purest adherents: Christianity. Whereas the esoteric message-reading philosopher favored clannishness and inequality, Holmes keenly observes that Christian belief with its faith in universality and equating the lowest with the highest, boldly proclaiming that "the first shall be last" severely upsets his aristocratic-led applecart. Even worse is St. Thomas Aquinas who believed that faith and reason are not antithetical, but can in fact be reconciled.

Neoconservative agreement with Strauss on this point can be observed when we read Irving Kristol droning on about the need for orthodoxy, deriding spiritual Christianity as "countercultural." It can also be found when David Brooks distorts the meaning of value pluralism in a democratic society or Robert H. Bork writes on the need for religion to be authoritative in nature.

Yet such attitudes provide insight into why neoconservatives would create an entity such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy. The IRD often serves as a vehicle to implement Strauss's orthodox vision for society by reshaping denominations. Its members, along with those of the Ethics Public Policy Institute (EPPC), target the mainstream Protestant churches that have remained true to their Social Gospel roots in an attempt to remove any universal, countercultural aspects of a spiritually based Christianity. Likewise within the Catholic Church, many of IRD's Opus Dei-affiliated members seek to purge or at least neuter bastions of  Social Justice Catholicism such as the Jesuits or Benedictine Sisters. The Thomistic belief in reconciling faith and reason is being systematically replaced with hallow, dogmatic elitism that seeks to justify inequality and condemn the use of science to better humanity.

As Holmes observes, natural law was not a problem for Strauss. In fact, it was "a useful myth" to combat modernity. More secular opponents of embryonic stem cell research such as the aforementioned Messrs. Cohen and Kass are able to appeal to the orthodox Catholic view by reminding the Church's hierarchy how the research may run contrary to Catholic natural law principles. Cohen and Kass may be after classic natural right, but they will use natural law to obtain that end.

This all raises another important issue that must be more frequently discussed: By what authority do these supposed "philosopher-kings" have the right to directly infiltrate the inner structures of various denominations in order to eviscerate their spirituality? Such behavior would be so hostile to the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom so as to be truly repugnant (if I may use one of Leon Kass's favorite terms).

Beyond that it raises an even greater question that must be answered by neoconservatives of the Catholic Right: How is this primary manipulation of the faith of others square with the actual teachings of Jesus? After all, neoconservatism notoriously ignores the lessons of both distributive justice as well as the pro-labor intent of the Bishops' Program for Social Reconstruction.

Christianity's founder was not concerned with Earthly political power. He never made domination of either the Sanhedrin or the Roman Empire a part of His mission. Jesus rarely preached of political involvement, just of spirituality and doing onto others in a just manner. And when the well being of society was broached, it was not to extend any nation's hegemony but instead to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless; all issues absent from the top of the neoconservative wish list.

Now, with all that in mind, why would any Catholic be eager to adopt the neoconservative agenda?

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank Cocozzelli :  Part One  Part Two  Part Three   Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen  

I submit that it is the Borks, Novaks and Weigels who do the greatest picking and choosing of what and what not to follow of Catholic teachings, not the average American faithful. And yet it is these very IRD associates who wish to downplay Jesus' teaching on humility and charity in order to make society "more cohesive."

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Nov 26, 2006 at 04:25:16 PM EST
I agree with you about the comments you made in your opening comment. Unfortunately, the hierarchy doesn't appear to have anyone who wants to rock the boat on this one. Some other thoughts-there has been some comment that the present Pope has pretty much given up on Europe and trying to come to grips with the modern world, and is concentrating the Church's efforts on the developing world. The other thought I had was about David Gibson's The Rule of Benedict and how the present Pope might want to have a smaller church. I recommend it.


by khughes1963 on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 06:55:52 AM EST

I'm not sure about Pope Benedict wanting a smaller but more orthodox church, but clearly that is what Opus Dei folks like McCkoskey want.

Our mission is to get lapsed Catholics who are turned off by the heavy-handiness but who still believe to return to their parishes, make a stand and reclaim the Church. Then and only then can we resume aggiornomento.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 07:10:47 AM EST

exercise articles.It is important to choose right one since the first time

by roneybhatt on Thu Mar 15, 2012 at 03:02:38 AM EST

This is a remarkable piece of work.  Leo Strauss IS the key to understanding several disparate aspects of American politics, e.g. why non-religious intellectuals would align themselves with the religious right in ideological ways, ala neoconservatism.

I first realized the power of this connection when I read an endorsement for an intelligent design textbook.  The endorsement was by Amy Kass, University of Chicago professor and wife of Leon Kass, bioethics advisor to the White House.  Why on earth would the Kass's promote intelligent design if it were not for the purpose of the "noble lie?"

I have long thought a film on Leo Strauss might be an interesting project- connecting the dots between him and neocons like Alan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, Newt Gingrich, Bill Krystol, Bill Bennett, and others.   I even went to the U of Chicago last year to meet with some of Strauss's colleagues.

Bravo on a fine piece of writing!

by Steven D. Martin on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 05:06:43 AM EST

You clearly understand what needs to be done.

I firmly believe that we can put a big hurt on the Religious Right by explaing to mainstream America how the neoconservatives are a driving force behind the Religious Right. More importantly, the very good common folks of our country need to know that they are doing this not for spirituality but to "render God unto Caesar."

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 07:17:01 AM EST

There has been a great deal of film and writing about Leo Strauss, inspite of his reclusiveness against such things, but that has only made the need greater.

Also just as many have read his work and come away unsubverted there are also many who have been subverted perhaps beyond Strauss's intent. It would not take a lot more for someone of pre-existing Authoritarian pathology to wrap themselves up in his theories, even if gotten second or third hand, and blow it up into full blown megalomania.

I cannot but look at the current administration record and see that very thing. Someone with the active and thoughtful mind (even if used for bad things) like Roberts or Bork might be able to dissemble, if Scalia levels of arrogance don't get in the way, but that same thoughtfulness reveals itself in omissions as much as Bush reveals himself in commissions, of smirks and fractured speech, most prominent when he does not believe his own words.

Examined closely most of these have revealed themselves, one can speak a good game publicly, but private asides and actions, reveal only surprises when they run into a crossroads with their faith, and choose their faith as Paul O'Neil, or David Kuo was forced to do.

Shadia Drury has done great work on Strauss, she has written many books and her interview here has a good outline of her books.

The BBC also did an interesting series
I suppose you probably know about both, but the links are there if not.

by FreeDem on Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 07:00:12 PM EST

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