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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Richard John Neuhaus's deputy turns on him.

What a startling New Republic cover story! Damon Linker, the former editor of the influential neoconservative religious magazine First Things, turns against the political theology of his former boss, Roman Catholic intellectual and Bush adviser Richard John Neuhaus, the magazine's prime mover. (I read the story online because I couldn't wait for my TNR subscription's increasingly tardy delivery, but you may find it easier to stop by the bookstore next week and buy a copy of the "Father Con" issue.) Linker is also finishing a new book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, the title of which suggests that his enthusiasm for First Things isn't what it used to be. That's worth an interview; I hope Commonweal gives him a call.

Linker's 8,800-word review of Neuhaus's new book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, provides an overview of Neuhaus's ideas and influence — but you may be asking yourself, Neuhaus who? Why should you care about some high-brow conservative theology journal? Linker explains:

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.

What is Neuhaus up to? Linker argues that the patriarch of First Things is intent on showing that American democracy can be vital only by embracing the transcendent authority of the Roman Catholic Church. You might think such an idea couldn't possibly be appealing or even coherent, but Neuhaus is brilliant, well-funded, politically connected, and he understands the allure of authoritarianism. (Oh, beg your pardon! I meant to say the allure of arcane intellectual justifications for authoritarianism, which never ever ever tempt smart people. Except too often when they do.)

If Neuhaus were just a priest with some crazy ideas, that would be one thing; but — I have to emphasize this — he really does understand the importance of ideas to political and cultural movements and he has cultivated and participated in organized movements to make those ideas effective. One of the most significant of these is a declaration of common mission by a group of prominent Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants entitled "Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," published in 1994. The conversations leading up to and following from that document opened up an informal ecumenical dialogue between groups that had long demonized each other. Politically, of course, that dialogue has also given new energy and depth to the Christian right. (It helps explain, for example, the enthusiasm of right-wing Protestant groups for conservative Roman Catholic justices.) Neuhaus also helped found the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the politically connected organization that "has helped incubate traditionalist insurrections against the liberal politics" of mainline Protestant denominations, in the words of journalists Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick. Neuhaus isn't a dilettante. He's a serious thinker with powerful friends and a clear mission. To ignore him is to overlook a central figure in contemporary American conservatism.

And what does Neuhaus think? The many problems within the contemporary Catholic Church, Neuhaus says, are due simply to the incomplete obedience of the clergy. Not secrecy, a disempowered laity, or anything like that — just priestly disobedience. (The motto "Question Authority" captures everything Neuhaus opposes.) But he goes much further, Linker writes:

All of these and many other problems, he claims, can be traced to an insidious culture of dissent infesting American Catholicism. The proper response, according to Neuhaus, is for Catholics to learn how to "think with the Church"—by which he means to submit absolutely to the authority of the Vatican. . . .

Since 1984, he has maintained that "only a transcendent, a religious, vision can turn this society from disaster and toward the fulfillment of its destiny" as a "sacred enterprise." Since 1987, he has further stipulated that this vision must be supplied by the Roman Catholic Church. The legitimacy of this ideological project—its potential to unify rather than to polarize the nation—stands or falls on its ability to avoid the social dynamic that Neuhaus himself once identified with Protestant evangelicalism.

Protestantism has a way of generating schisms and it grants considerable authority to the individual conscience, although Linker says Neuhaus criticized the (Protestant) Moral Majority for seeming to want to legislate its "private" opinions on all Americans. Catholicism's appeal to "natural law," Neuhaus thinks, can avoid this dilemma. It's not Catholicism, silly, it's natural law — which just happens to be most clearly delineated in papal encyclicals! Those who can't see the obvious will, of course, be obliged to think with the Church whether they want to or not.

Linker's conclusion strikes me as an instance of new convert's zeal, however. "[T]he strict separation of politics and religion is a rare, precious, and fragile achievement," he writes, "one of America's most sublime achievements, and we should do everything in our power to preserve it." As a new secularist, Linker overstates what keeps Americans free to practice or not to practice a religion. He also overstates the limits that a liberal society should place on religious groups. "Politics and religion" aren't strictly separated in the U.S. and never have been — it's church and state that we have tried to keep disentangled. Neuhaus is looking for a sophisticated way to make the secular state answer to a caste of intellectuals who can interpret the natural law for us. No, thanks!

But religious people don't need to sit down and shut up in the public square, which is how I'd interpret Linker's closing line. By grounding political authority in the will of the people and establishing it in a liberal constitutional order that limits state power and protects the rights of individuals, liberalism makes space for human diversity and cultural pluralism — including the pluralism of religious communities. The people have to ask what they as a diverse people need and want from their government. That's the distinctive strength of America and of liberalism.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy has only recently started coming to terms with what it means to embrace democracy and human rights. We live in a post-Christian world, but the end of Christendom is not the end of Christianity. I've appreciated the vigor Neuhaus brings to theological conversation, and I respect the intellectual challenge he has thrown to liberal theologians. His efforts to revive Christendom, however, and the antiliberal and antidemocratic dimensions of his thought must be challenged. But I never expected to see one of his own lieutenants skewer him like this.

Postscript: I'll acknowledge that even though I subscribe to and sometimes read First Things, my more immediate impression of Linker was based on his guest-blogging stint at the brainy Mormon superblog Times & Seasons early in his tenure as editor. Linker had been a visiting professor of philosophy at BYU for two years and became friends with a number of Mormon thinkers, including the democratic-socialist LDS political philosopher Russell Arben Fox. (Don't you just feel your head spinning?) As a post-Mormon Unitarian, I engaged a bit in those conversations here and at greater length here. My impression from reading his Times & Seasons contributions was that he was philosophically rigorous, keenly interested in theology and political theology, and that his interests were more abstracted from politics than Neuhaus's. I didn't pick up any hint that Linker might have decided that Neuhaus's theology was politically dangerous. When did he change his mind?

For a lot more on Neuhaus and his magazine see:

Update 4.1.06: The best responses to Linker are from Ross Douthat (who draws Linker into dialogue in the comments) at The American Scene here and here.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 26 March 2006 at 4:06 PM

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March 27, 2006 03:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

I've a response to your post. Take it with a grain of salt, I wrote it while trying to work.


March 27, 2006 05:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

In response to Scof, who takes me to task:

I'm not actually convinced that the concept of natural law is innately alien to liberalism. I first learned about it from the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, who, although wary of its uses to justify traditional (and often oppressive) authority structures, spoke sympathetically about it in at least a few cases. More importantly, though, he argued that modern democracy was historically rooted in the sectarian Radical Reformation, that the "priesthood and prophethood of all believers" in the gathered church created the laboratory in which modern democracy was forged. I find that historically plausible, although democracy doesn't seem to require a Protestant culture as it spreads around the world. It doesn't seem to require Catholicism, either.

I'm no fan of relativism, or arbitrary cultural standards, either, and I'm intrigued by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's work to identify empirical bases for a universal doctrine of human rights. (It's usually referred to as the "human capabilities" approach.) It looks, in many ways, like a secular form of natural law, and I find it compelling. So I'm not hostile to the impulse to look for some kind of natural law.

What gets my goat, though, is the need to treat a "common culture" as unitary. I don't think any culture really is unitary, and descriptions of human cultures that emphasize conformity or uniformity usually ignore or obscure the variety and conflict within them. And I see no reason to think that a culture must be accountable to singular principles. Isaiah Berlin argued that there are plural and ultimately irreconcilable goods in human life, and that the conflicts between them -- say, between equality and liberty -- can't ever be finally resolved. I'm convinced that this is true even within a religious tradition like Christianity, which is why I resist any claim to the ultimate adequacy of any doctrinal or authority structure. They're helpful, often indispensible, but they cannot claim infallibility and they cannot claim universality.

Liberalism at least acknowledges that contending values and commitments exist, and sets up a relatively low-violence context for them to compete. I grant that this leaves a lot of ultimate questions up in the air, but I don't think a political system has to answer these ultimate questions. I'm deeply grateful that First Things argues so passionately and articulately about the implications of theology for public life, but I usually find myself suspicious of the outcomes. As a heterodox Christian, though, that wouldn't seem too surprising.


March 28, 2006 08:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

I too can see the plausibility, or at least the influences, of the sectarian Radical Reformation on the development of democracy. I found this lil' primer on the Radical Reformation as my memory has waned on that subject (if you have a chance do show me another primer if the above is incorrect).

I'm curious if you've ever read a book Liberty or Equality, by Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn. I transcribed an small selection from the book here and think it'll be thought provoking for you.

It's also germane to this discussion because my concern here is culture, and how religion informs our culture, because there is a synthesis between our culture and how we run our State. If a culture is not accountable to singular principles, what makes it a culture? Doesn't the very term imply a unity of some sort? Why do we bother with soveriegnty at all?

Maybe the nation-state is an illusion, but they are a reality which we live and deal with.

I can appreciate your reasoning behind the preference against authority structures, especially when decisions are made blindly by an institution following untested dogma.

The problem (rather, a problem) I believe is as you laid it out: "Liberalism at least acknowledges that contending values and commitments exist"

Its not about the recognition that contending values exist, but the recognition that this culture (a culture), this country (a country), has made some decisions regarding these values of equality vs liberty, of duty vs expression, etc. We declared soveriengnty to defend decisions on these values.

With America these "values" I'm talking about are not just a legal structure within which to debate and make further decisions about these issues. The very fact that we have chosen these rules is reflective of something we share in our culture (or at least used to at the time of the founding).

I contend the way we have structured our State runs parallel with the values our culture seeks to cultivate. It is a synthesis in that they reinforce one another.

So with liberalism, does this mean we have to constantly question whether our culture, our country is worth it? At what point does liberalism defend a value or committment? It seems liberalism praises diversity, but questions the foundations of the society which allows for that diversity to take place. But its not that I get incensed that they question it, rather that tradition is rejected as barbaric or stupid when it helped to create the very society which allows such free expression.

Conservatism recognizes we must attend to and refresh our received wisdom. I get the feeling that liberalism refuses to make a decision, refuses to set up structures unless they serve endless questioning, endless diversity of discussion...not the clearest way to end my comments but that's what I got right now :)


March 31, 2006 07:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

Scof, you're asking an important question. I'm not challenging the importance of culture, but it seems you expect "a culture" to be much more uniform than any culture really is. My main contention is that culture is pluriform and dynamic — and that a vibrant and strong culture need not be accountable to a unitary principle, a unified scheme of principles, or to a singular authority structure.

My secondary claim is that a pluralistic culture is not the same thing as the "dictatorship of relativism" that dismayed Cardinal Ratzinger just before he became pope. I object to some arguments for the absolute arbitrariness of values, too, but I'm not advocating "relativism."

Instead, I am advocating pluralism. I hope that a revitalized and serious liberalism can help us appreciate the fact that no culture can be boiled down to the guiding principle of any institution. Cultures are more dynamic than any institution can adequately rationalize; institutions and their rules and legal structures can serve a culture, but they cannot direct or legitimately hope to dominate a culture.

A democratic nation-state is clearly accountable to a society, but that society is "the people," all of them. It's also true that a society has "a culture" — but when we say that, what are we really pointing to? After all, the American nation-state was designed to be accountable not to a singular people but to multiple peoples — the states — and even in 1789 these states had distinct characteristics, and they were internally diverse, too.

At the cultural level, the U.S. has always been a multilingual, multicultural place. The Louisiana Purchase seemed threatening to some Anglo Americans because it meant that the nation now had regions with two different legal, cultural, and linguistic traditions. True! That was 200 years ago. New Mexico brought another well-established set of alternate traditions, even older than New England's. So did Hawai'i. Utah (where I grew up) has some things in common with Massachusetts (where I live now), but culturally they are quite different.

My point is that even when there is a dominant culture, a society includes many cultures — each of them more flexible and dynamic than "unitarists" will acknowledge. The strength of American society is its capacity to accommodate multiple cultures that interact. Liberalism celebrates that fact.


March 31, 2006 12:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Fr Neuhaus offers an Olympian response to Linker — which is to say he sees no point replying.


April 1, 2006 09:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

The best responses to Damon Linker so far are from The Atlantic's Ross Douthat, who engages Linker in dialogue at The American Scene here and here.


April 13, 2006 07:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

See also Ed Kilgore's response.

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