The Outer Limits: Or Pluralism According to Michael Novak
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Sep 23, 2007 at 10:00:19 AM EST
Last week we introduced some of the ideas of Catholic neoconservative Michael Novak. Novak often poses as a lover of liberal democracy. And we might believe him considering how often he uses such key words and phrases as "pluralism," liberal democracy" and "separation of church and state." But as we shall see, for Michael Novak, pluralism has its limits.
If this were an episode of the TV show The Outer Limits, and a visitor had just landed on Earth from Mars and opened Michael Novak's 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism he would find this passage on page 53:

In a genuinely pluralistic society, there is no one sacred canopy. By intention there is none at. At its spiritual core, there is an empty shrine. The shrine is left empty in the knowledge that no one word, image or symbol is worthy of what all would seek there. Its emptiness, therefore, represents the transcendence which is approached by free consciences from a virtually infinite number of directions...

Believer and unbeliever, selfless and selfish, frightened and bold, naïve and jaded, all participate in an order whosecenter is not socially imposed.

Our Martian might say, "Hey, this fellow Novak is quite the liberal!" But he would be mistaken. And being from another planet, it would be an understandable error. But since we are from here, it is up to us to notice there is something alien about Novak's definition of pluralism.  

The first thing we need to notice is that Novak's definition of pluralism has continuously evolved from a point beginning in the early 1960s of one being truly tolerant to one being exclusive to those politically and religiously socially conservative. Reading Novak between the lines, his pluralism now applies only to certain Christians and Jews--provided they ultimately bend to neo-orthodox Catholic notions of Natural Law.

In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism there is an underlying sense that Novak wasn't fully 'fessing up to what he truly meant by pluralism. Throughout the book I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it wasn't until a later book, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism -- that shoe finally dropped with a loud thud that has reverberated through his subsequent works.

From 1982 let's fast forward to page xiv of the preface of his 1993 book The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Novak reveals himself with his statement:

"The only long-lasting foundation for a capitalist society is moral, spiritual and religious one." The issue then becomes, How does Novak see this occurring in pluralistic societies where there is a constitutional separation of church and state?

By the time of John Ashcroft's nomination for U.S. Attorney General in 2001, Novak was engaging in downright revisionist history, demonizing anything vaguely left of center with such labels as "the far-left" or "liberal-extremists." Here is a taste of his 2001 screed:

Liberal extremists don't seem to know that conservatives, drawing on a long tradition of their own, have a very different theory of law and morality. John Ashcroft told the Economics Club of Detroit in 1998, "It would be against my religion to impose my religion on others." That's an old tradition in the dissident Christian churches opposed to state-established religion. If liberals knew religious history, they would know that.

Even John Locke, drawing on these traditions (cautiously, for fear of his head) pointed out in his Letter on Toleration that to respect the liberty of the consciences of others is the true teaching of Jesus Christ, and that tolerance is another name for Christian charity. This same point is picked up in the last provision of the Virginia Declaration of Religious Rights.

Liberal extremists don't seem to remember that the primary energy behind the First Amendment came from the Baptists and other dissident churches of Virginia, Jerry Falwell's ancestors, who suffered grievous punishments - public whippings, jail, heavy fines - for the "crime" of preaching without a licence from the state. They held the state had no power to licence preachers of the gospel, only the gospel did. When James Madison was opposed to writing amendments into the new Constitution, the Baptists of Orange County reminded him vigorously that they had elected him to office, and they wanted religious liberty put down in writing. "No establishment - free exercise" turned out to be the perfect formula in their eyes.

Baptists and other evangelical Christians need no lectures from secular liberals about the meaning of the First Amendment. In 1791, it was their idea. John Ashcroft is a true son of that tradition of liberty.

Revisionist history, indeed! What Novak conveniently ignores is historical context. The Danbury Baptists of Thomas Jefferson's day did not stand in the same shoes as the evangelicals of today. They were an often ostracized minority that wished for a religiously neutral state. (At the time, Connecticut had not yet disestablished its state Congregational church.) But Novak and some of today's Baptists (and their cobelligerents on the religious right), have fogotten this heritage and would deny others the very same protections the Constitution afforded their religious forebearers and all others. Novak is a master of omission.

Perhaps even more importantly, he is knocking down the same infamous strawman that religious rightists from Tim LaHaye to R.J. Rushdoony to Jerry Falwell have thrown down and stomped on for a generation -- pitting "secular liberals" against religious conservatives -- when in fact, issues of the right of individual conscience and separation of church and state are upheld by most mainstream religious bodies. There are theoretically inclined factions that want to leverage state power in the name of unstated religious agendas, and are willing to erode if not demolish the wall of separation of church and state to accomplish their ends. Novak is squarely in their camp.

As I pointed out in a previous post Locke also stated in his Letter on Toleration:

"For whatsoever some people boast of... the orthodoxy of their faith -- for everyone is orthodox to himself -- these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ..."

"The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light."

And yet Novak fails to let his own personal experience to be his guide. In a 1999 New York Times op-ed when he wrote:

If I were an atheist, I do not think I would worry about my children being intimidated by the prayer of others. I would tell them what it felt like to be a Roman Catholic in my youth in a public school, where the prayers were distinctly Protestant and the atmosphere could not help being genteelly anti-Catholic (What else do words like "Enlightenment" and "Protestant" mean?).

Incredible, isn't it?

Michael Novak identifies himself as a Catholic, a follower of Jesus. Yet, it was Jesus who taught, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Apparently, Brother Novak has forgotten that particular lesson. Instead, he imagines using the power of the state to establish his particular beliefs and to impose them upon others. Over a period of forty-five years he has journeyed across the political spectrum to the point where he believes religious tolerance means that the underlying tenets of one particular faith is held aloft as the standard and the rest are tolerated, but not given equal treatment.

Michael Novak is adept at appropriating and twisting the meaning of such terms as pluralism and church-state separation to the point that only an alien from a theocratic planet would recognize them.  He is not alone in this, and serves as an excellent model for how to listen for alien definitions of terms that give basic definition to bedrock aspects of constitutional democracy.

This will continue to be the case until liberals cease staring into space, reclaim their lexicon and use it to further a truer, intended sense of the freedom of conscience.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. 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   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five   Part Thirty-six   Part Thirty-seven

If you think Novak's view of pluralism is spacey, just wait until next week when we explore his "Catholic ethic" of economics.


by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Sep 23, 2007 at 10:04:41 AM EST

Chris Hedges notes the tendency of fascist movements to rewrite language. I don't think Novak is a fascist, but your article shows that Novak does have a tendency to give different meanings to words.

by khughes1963 on Sun Sep 23, 2007 at 08:40:10 PM EST

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