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:
- "Without a doubt: The Christianizing of America," Damon Linker, New Republic 4.3.06, reg req'd
- "Brain trust: Why Catholics are the Court's new brain," Franklin Foer, New Republic 11.3.05, reg req'd
- "Fringe government," Garry Wills, New York Review of Books 10.6.05, $3 for full text
- "Thinking with the Church," Richard John Neuhaus, Boston Globe op-ed 5.16.05, reg req'd
- "The evangelical pope?: How evangelicals and Catholics have formed a new ecumenical axis," Mark Noll, Boston Globe 4.10.05, reg req'd
- "Getting right with the pope," James T. Fisher, Religion in the News Spring 2005
- "How Catholic conservatives got Iraq wrong," Peter Dula, Commonweal 12.3.04
- "Conservative group amplifies voice of Protestant orthodoxy," Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times 5.22.04, reg req'd
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 26 March 2006 at 4:06 PM