The Theocons
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Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 02:02:19 PM EST
Damon Linker, once an editor at the conservative religious journal First Things, has a new book out this week called The Theocons. Linker blames a small group of Catholic intellectuals and especially Richard John Neuhaus for our current theocratic leanings.
Back in April Linker wrote a review (in The New Republic) of Neuhaus' book, "Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth." The complete text of the review can be found here. Some excerpts:

Whether or not the recent prominence of religiosity in the nation's public life signals that America is undergoing a new Great Awakening, it is undeniable that the rise of the Republican Party to electoral dominance in the past generation has been greatly aided by the politicization of culturally alienated traditionalist Christians. Countless press reports in recent years have noted that much of the religious right's political strength derives from the exertions of millions of anti-liberal evangelical Protestants. Much less widely understood is the more fundamental role of a small group of staunchly conservative Catholic intellectuals in providing traditionalist Christians of any and every denomination with a comprehensive ideology to justify their political ambitions. In the political economy of the religious right, Protestants supply the bulk of the bodies, but it is Catholics who supply the ideas.

Several Catholic writers have contributed to fashioning a potent governing philosophy for traditionalist Christians, but the one who has exercised the greatest influence on the ideological agenda of the religious right is Richard John Neuhaus--a Catholic convert from Lutheranism, and a priest who for the past two decades has attempted to lead an interdenominational religious insurgency against the secular drift of American politics and culture since the 1960s. In his voluminous but remarkably consistent writings, Neuhaus has sought nothing less than to reverse the fortunes of traditionalist religion in modern America--to teach conservative Christians how to place liberal modernity, once and for all, on the defensive. Any attempt to come to terms with the religious challenge to secular politics in contemporary America must confront Neuhaus's enormously ambitious and increasingly influential enterprise. [     ]

Neuhaus's writings from the mid-1970s (including the now largely forgotten Time Toward Home: The American Experiment as Revelation) were his first attempts to cast himself in this exalted role--to become America's Christian Marx, and create a comprehensive religious ideology that would enable the United States to break out of its spiritual crisis. [      ]

Neuhaus claimed that his proposed fusion of extreme populism and theological doctrine would lead to a "radical rethinking of the role of religion in the public realm." The point of such rethinking was not to engage in a nationwide "return to religion," but rather to become "more honest and articulate about the religious dynamics that do in fact shape our public life" without our being fully aware of it. Drawing on the work of Paul Tillich, Neuhaus asserted that whether or not it is publicly acknowledged, politics in all times and places is finally an expression of culture, and culture is finally an expression of religion. The fate of democracy in America was thus inseparable from the fate of public religiosity in America. [      ]

In place of the notion of a "contract" among equal citizens, which secular intellectuals and academic political theorists had done their best to spread among the American people, Neuhaus proposed that the American experiment in self-government be reconceived in terms of a communal "covenant" under God. Unlike the signatories to a contract, who view the world through the lens of individual self-interest, the members of a covenantal community think and act in light of a time in which "judgment is rendered, forgiveness bestowed, renewal begun, and the experiment either vindicated or repudiated." For this reason, talk of a covenant raises questions about the eschaton--the "end times" in which individuals and peoples will be judged by the Lord. Neuhaus wished his readers to believe that God is watching and judging our every action as individuals and as a nation--and that we ought to order our public life in light of his divine oversight. [   ]

Neuhaus's arguments in favor of a radical religious populism came to seem prescient with the rise of the new Christian right, and above all the Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1979 in order to combat the spread of "secular humanism." It would take Neuhaus several years to respond at length to this development. He finally did so in his most influential (and best) book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, which appeared in 1984. Published in the run-up to the general election, when journalists were focusing increasingly anxious attention on conservative evangelicalism and its influence on Ronald Reagan's campaign, Neuhaus argued that the emergence of the Moral Majority had "kicked a tripwire" in the United States, alerting all thoughtful citizens to a fundamental, and potentially fatal, tension in modern American life. "We insist," he wrote, that "we are a democratic society, yet we have in recent decades systematically excluded from policy considerations the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief." [  ]

The Naked Public Square contained Neuhaus's first tentative attempt to solve the problem of the evangelicals by developing an alternative way for them to talk about religion in public. Instead of referring to their personal religious experiences, they would adopt a nondenominational "public language of moral purpose," as well as learn to make more sophisticated, intellectually respectable arguments about American society and history, democracy and justice, culture and the law. Such language and arguments could be effectively deployed not just by evangelicals but by any Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish opponent of secular politics. [   ]

Neuhaus was now convinced that Catholicism's tradition of natural-law theorizing could serve as a (supposedly) universal moral-religious vocabulary for the nation's public life. In the words of Neuhaus's friend and ally George Weigel, whereas evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants resorted to citing "proof-texts from Scripture," which convinced no one who was not already a believer in biblical literalism, Catholic natural law could act as a morally absolute "philosophical foundation" to which "virtually all men and women of good will" could appeal. [   ]

In Neuhaus's view, John Paul II's uniquely sweeping attack on legalized abortion--which portrayed it as the leading edge of a much broader trend toward nihilistic despotism--could serve to galvanize conservative Christians, convincing them of the dire necessity of toiling together to redeem the nation from its dalliance with death. All Christians were called to witness the unspeakable evil taking place in their midst, in hospitals and abortion clinics, in every city, in every state, on every day of the year--with the supposed sanction of the Constitution of the United States, and thus with the tacit approval of every American citizen. Christians owed it to God, to their country, to the defenseless victims of constitutionally protected lethal violence, and to the mothers who inexplicably inflict that violence to do everything in their power to build a culture in which every human being, from conception through natural death, is "protected by law and welcomed in life." At the very least, Christians were called to vote exclusively for pro-life politicians--which meant, in practice, to vote exclusively for the Republican Party. [   ]

Neuhaus teaches traditionalist Christians that they need not choose between modern America and their theological convictions, because, rightly understood, modern America has a theological--and specifically Catholic--essence. He has pushed this position for nearly twenty years now--in books, in his magazine First Things, in sympathetic Washington think tanks, and even in the White House, where George W. Bush receives counsel on social policy from the man he affectionately calls "Father Richard." This is why Neuhaus's new book is so important: it gives us a detailed and up-to-date account of the kind of Catholicism that he is peddling, which he aims to inject into the heart of American public life. [     ]

And what would the Catholicizing of the United States portend for the country's millions of non-traditionalist Christians and Jews, let alone its many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics? To judge from a troubling essay that Neuhaus wrote in 1991, they would likely have to be excluded from the category of good citizenship. Focusing on unbelievers, he declared that while "an atheist can be a citizen" of the United States, it is on principle impossible for an atheist to be "a good citizen." The godless, he maintained, are simply incapable of giving a "morally convincing account" of the nation--a necessary condition for fruitful participation in its experiment in "ordered liberty." To be morally convincing, such an account must make reference to "reasons that draw authority from that which is higher than the self, from that which is external to the self, from that to which the self is ultimately obligated." No wonder, then, that it is "those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus [who] turn out to be the best citizens."

To his credit, Neuhaus fully acknowledged the blatant circularity of his argument--the way it excluded atheists from the category of good citizenship by appealing exclusively to the assumptions of those religious traditionalists who believe that good citizenship requires the affirmation of divine authority. Yet in his effort to defend this circularity, Neuhaus made a startling admission. Establishing standards of good citizenship on the basis of exclusionary theistic assumptions is thoroughly justified, he claimed, not because such assumptions can plausibly be found in the Constitution or in its supporting documents or in established American practice or tradition, but because such assumptions are supposedly made by "a majority" in contemporary American society. [   ]

That is the America toward which Richard John Neuhaus wishes to lead us--an America in which eschatological panic is deliberately channeled into public life, in which moral and theological absolutists demonize the country's political institutions and make nonnegotiable public demands under the threat of sacralized revolutionary violence, in which citizens flee from the inner obligations of freedom and long to subordinate themselves to ecclesiastical authority, and in which traditionalist Christianity thoroughly dominates the nation's public life. All of which should serve as a potent reminder--as if, in an age marked by the bloody rise of theologically inspired politics in the Islamic world, we needed a reminder--that the strict separation of politics and religion is a rare, precious, and fragile achievement, one of America's most sublime achievements, and we should do everything in our power to preserve it. It is a large part of what makes America worth living in.

The Theocons, look here.

by Carlos on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 02:07:02 PM EST see so many books about the Religious Right's bad religion, bad politics, bad history, and underhanded tactics. I've read several of them - in fact, I pick up every new one I can get my hands on - and can honestly say that every one of them comes from a somewhat different perspective and contains at least a few "AHA!" moments and pieces of history that are new to me.

Moreover, the more of them are out there, the more likely the average citizen is to pick one up and read it, and maybe give some real thought to what the wingnuts are up to and how distorted their religion and politics really are.

In a country inundated by loudmouths blaring their RR crap, most people have a hard time hearing the little voices yelling that the Emperor is not only bare-assed naked, he's butt-ugly too. The more of those little voices, the better. Bring 'em on!

by anomalous4 on Thu Sep 21, 2006 at 12:52:14 PM EST

Patrick T. Reardon, staff writer at the Chicago Tribune, published a long article yesterday about the current wave of books critiquing the Religious Right. He includes a list of over 20 such books representing the broad range of viewpoints on the subject.

This article (without the book list) was also posted at Faith in Public Life.

by anomalous4 on Thu Oct 05, 2006 at 07:12:35 PM EST

So many of the seemingly endless procession of books on the rise of the new religious right seem to follow a by now dreary formula.

"The Theocons" sounds like a welcome addition rather than another carbon copied litany of complaints, warnings, and hand wringing.

Like so many new theories, it sounds a bit overboard, but that's almost an inevitable by product of advancing a new perspective. I doubt the new religious right is purely a Catholic enterprise, but the role of the Catholic right certainly has been up to now ( except for a notable few such as Frank Coccozelli here on Talk To Action ) largely ignored.


by Bruce Wilson on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:02:24 PM EST

you are right about the "endless procession of books." How many religion and politics books have been published this year alone? 30? 50? 100? Perhaps even more. Who can keep up with it all?

by Carlos on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:17:11 PM EST
For an advance copy of "The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot" by Bart Ehrman.

I'd rather read that - I just need to figure out how to weave it into the fabric here. Maybe I'll pair it with a book by Sam Harris.

But, as far as all the books on the religious right.... I don't have the time, do you ?  I'm afraid that soon Hollywood celebrities will start jumping into the game too - " ' How I Fought The Religious Right In Movies ' - The New Tell All By Brad Pitt" or some similar dreck.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:52:51 PM EST

I am not aware of very many books about the religious right. But there is certainly a boat load of books about faith and politics, some of which offer some opinions about the religious right, but most of which are not of much relevance to our discussion here.

The Linker book, however, seems to be an important contribution to the literature of books about the religious right.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:57:08 PM EST

So did I! I'd enjoy reviewing the various books that are out- and even categorizing them into 'gotta-read', 'oughta-read' and 'don't waste your time'.

(Time? What is that?)

by Lorie Johnson on Thu Sep 21, 2006 at 05:20:03 PM EST

Fascinating book which I must read! So...not having read the book much "air time" does Deal Hudson (another prominent conservative Protestant turned Catholic) receive?

Moreover, what might his role have been in the narrative of the theocratic movement had he not been credibly accused of unwanted advances by certain female students from his days as a professor at Fordham?

Although Deal's influence (and his presence in print and broadcast media of the Catholic right) immediately disappeared after this came to light a few years ago, he and Neuhaus were quite the religious/lay Catholic tag team during much of the post-Carter bridge-building between the Catholic and evangelical right.

by zentrumspartei on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:34:58 PM EST

Thanks for this review. On a related note, the current issue of First Things has on its front page a review and defense, by Ryan T. Anderson and dated Sep 20, of the Pope's recent controversial speech.

It is a revealing statement in synch with Neuhaus's views. Id love to see someone critique it. Im new around here and may not be able to stay around long, but I think this topic - specifically the infusion of politically activist catholics into the American political scene - is monumentally important and receives much, much too little attention. Thanks for all the great work here.

by Splash on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:41:23 PM EST

Who knows. Somebody may take up your idea. I wouldn't be surprised.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:55:00 PM EST
I have read the text of the pope's speech. After looking for content that would give the pontiff the benefit of doubt, I cannot.

The speech was about "the Hellenization" of Christianity. The central issue raised was whether God is reasoned and follows the rules of a Natural Law (Thomistic Catholicism) or whether God transcends reason, being able to break His own rules--something that we as humans cannot hope to understand why.

I believe that the pope may have been speaking esoterically. And if I'm correct, this comment

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels," he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

was intended to demonstrate that Catholicism--based upon logic--is superior to Islam, which according to the pope, is not.

Beyond that point, I was troubled by other portions of the text. The greater issue here was the superiority of the current Church with some, though not all of its cumbersome dogmas is superior to the very early Church either with its very Jewish customs or the eloquent simplicity of St. Augustine.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Sep 22, 2006 at 07:28:43 AM EST

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