Politics

American Catholicism

By and

Monday, October 9

Dear Damon,

On your blog, which you've recently shut down, you posted links to two diametrically opposed reviews of your new book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege. One, by Adrian Wooldridge in The New York Times, calls your tone "admirably restrained, dispassionate and scholarly when it could so easily have been rank and recriminatory." The other, by Commonweal Editor Paul Baumann, accuses you of being "exaggerated and alarmist," not to mention "tendentious" and "frequently cartoonish" in your portrait of your former compatriots on the religious right. You cited these reviews as examples of the inexact science of book-reviewing, which of course they are. But, having read your book, I can see where both Baumann and Wooldridge are coming from. Your brief against "theoconservatism"--that is, religious conservatism as embodied by figures like Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and others--is both "admirably restrained" and "exaggerated and alarmist," both "scholarly" and "cartoonish." It all depends which page of the book you're reading.

Earlier this year, I spent several months reading a series of books on the looming theocratic menace--by Kevin Phillips, Michelle Goldberg, and Randall Balmer, among others--for a review essay that appeared in (where else?) First Things, and The Theocons is definitely a cut above that sorry crop. (How's that for a blurb?) Unlike most of these authors, you have the advantage of understanding the terrain you're writing about, and you actually engage with the ideas of your friends-turned-opponents rather than simply caricaturing or smearing them. (I can't tell you how relieved I was to read a book about the menace of the religious right that didn't pin its narrative on the supposedly vast influence of the Christian Reconstructionists.) Your description of the intellectual trajectory of figures like Neuhaus and Novak is often illuminating, and--though, as you might expect, I took their side more often than yours--I thought you scored your fair share of points.

I share, for instance, your sense that the "theocons," like most of the American Right (myself included), went along too easily and eagerly with the Iraq war, and I agree that the famous First Things "End of Democracy" symposium--which argued that the overreaches of the Supreme Court had undermined the legitimacy of the American republic and hinted at civil disobedience or insurrection--looks intemperate in hindsight. And I think your book gets at a real tension in contemporary religious conservatism (and, again, conservatism in general)--it's desire to defend democracy and the will of the people against aggrandizing courts and overclass elites, combined with a frustration when "the people" don't play along, as in the Clinton years.

But, of course, it's not enough for a book (particularly a book about a coterie of intellectuals that most people have never heard of) simply to dispute particular aspects of the "theocon" agenda, or to point out holes and contradictions in its worldview. You need a big, bold thesis about its malign influence over our national life--preferably one that involves the end of America as we know it. And so you favor us with the inevitable and hysterical talk about "secular America under siege," the dire warnings--redolent of old-school anti-Catholicism--about the "the imposition of an alien religious ideology onto an otherwise secular nation," the ridiculous comparisons between the "theocons" and the old throne-and-altar European right (whose heirs, as you well know, regularly damn Neuhaus as a sell-out to modernity), and so on. None of it even begins to convince, and your attempts to detail the supposedly sweeping influence of the First Things crowd feel strained: On your evidence, their direct power seems to extend to consulting with George W. Bush on how he can play to the Catholic vote, inspiring a largely symbolic bill protecting infants from postnatal abortion, and having their friends show up on the President's Council on Bioethics. (My God--presidents are appointing like-minded intellectuals to powerless commissions! Where will it end?)

You deserve credit, in the section where you imagine an America where the "theocons" get their way, for avoiding dizzy fantasies about, say, national ID cards that guarantee preferential treatment to Christians seeking jobs and student loans. (One can find that slightly implausible prediction in Rabbi James Rudin's The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plan for the Rest of Us.) But your lack of hysteria about what Neuhaus and company want for America just makes all your "the hour is late" heavy breathing that much more puzzling. The theocons, you inform us, want to return abortion law to the states, allowing the procedure "to be banned outright in states dominated by populist religiosity." (That is, they want the abortion regime that prevailed throughout 95 percent of America's existence.) They want a return to more traditional family structures, and they want to keep gay marriage and assisted suicide illegal. Oh, and they want people to be more religious, so that all the events of daily life would be "permeated by Christian piety and conviction." I understand that you disagree with all these positions, but is it really shocking news--let alone a looming threat to the republic--that socially conservative Christians want America to be more, well, socially conservative and Christian?

At the same time, for someone who's happy to make sweeping claims about how the theocons are taking us back into the "world of religiously inspired social and political strife ... from which the American founders worked so hard to liberate us two centuries ago," you seem curiously unwilling to grapple with the role that religion has traditionally played in American politics. You offer a potted version of the case for understanding the Founding as an entirely secular event (as opposed to the more religious interpretation of America's inception favored by Novak and others), and then, like the Constitutional originalists whose theories you presumably disdain, you take the wall-of-separation deism of Thomas Jefferson as the final word on the interplay of politics and religion in American life.

"The guarantee of religious liberty" in the Constitution, you write, "institutionalizes the perpetual political impotence of religion." Maybe in Lilliput or or Never-Never Land, but not in real-life America, where an endless variety of religiously inspired political movements have jostled and competed for influence under the umbrella of government neutrality. Hence abolitionism and the Social Gospel; hence the religious populism of William Jennings Bryan and the eschatological politics of Martin Luther King Jr.; hence ... well, just pick up a history book. A lot happened between the Federalist Papers and the publication of The Naked Public Square--some of it good, some of it bad, and nearly all of it affected by precisely the kind of religion-infused politics that you see as a mortal threat to the American experiment.

Because you don't discuss this history in any detail, it's somewhat difficult to tell whether you think that previous irruptions of faith into American politics were just as dangerous to the health of our secular republic as the "theocons" and their sinister agenda--or whether you think there's something particularly un-American about Neuhaus and company. At times, you seem to be arguing that, any time faith influences government or vice versa, the results are "pernicious" for politics and religion alike. (You even chide the distinctly unzealous Christianity of midcentury mainline Protestantism for having "endorsed New Deal liberalism" and thereby succumbed to Christianity's "incarnational temptation.") But, for the most part, I suspect that you believe that the attempt to link the American Founding to the Catholic natural-law tradition--which is at the heart of the "theoconservative project," insofar as there is one--marks a greater departure from America's supposed secular ideal than did the God-soaked politics of, say, Bryan or King. (This is how your friend Russell Arben Fox interprets your argument, at least, in an exegesis of your thesis that's somewhat more interesting than the thesis itself.)

If this is what you mean, I wish you had been gutsy enough to take your argument to its logical conclusion and to say outright what you repeatedly imply--namely that orthodox Catholicism is essentially incompatible with the American liberal order, and that Neuhaus (like John Courtney Murray before him) is wrong to tell his co-believers that there's no great tension between Rome and the United States. You spend a great deal of time talking about the "authoritarian" political inclinations of Neuhaus and company and how they threaten liberalism, but your evidence is nearly always that they believe in accepting the Catholic magisterium's religious authority on matters of faith and morals--with the implication being that, if you let the magisterium tell you what to think about birth control or the Virgin Birth, you aren't fit for the responsibilities of democratic self-governance.

This argument--that American Catholics need to choose between the Pope and the republic--has a long pedigree in our political life, and it's far from an absurd interpretation of the relationship, or lack thereof, between liberalism and Catholicism: It is held, for instance, by Neuhaus's critics on the Catholic right, who accuse him of choosing the republic over Rome. So I put it to you--is this your opinion on the matter? Is the dissenting, the-Pope-can't-tell-me-what-to-think Catholicism of Garry Wills the only form of Catholicism that's acceptable in the American context? You accuse Neuhaus of hinting that Jews and atheists can't be good citizens; do you think that Neuhaus, given what he believes, can be a good citizen himself?

Or put another way: As someone who believes in what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches--and as someone who thinks that our laws should be just and that the ultimate source of this justice is God--can I be a good American? Is there a place for me at the table of your idealized secular state?

Best,
Ross

Tuesday, October 10

Dear Ross,

I very much appreciate the opportunity to discuss The Theocons with such an intelligent and fair-minded member of the religious right. I'm particularly pleased to learn that you found parts of my book to be illuminating, and that we see eye to eye about some important matters. You even imply that, had I limited myself to disputing "particular aspects of the 'theocon' agenda" and pointing out "holes and contradictions in their worldview," you might have found little in the book to disagree with.

Where I go off the rails, in your view, is in my attempt to defend a "big, bold thesis" about how the theocons are bringing about the "end of America as we know it." You find this thesis to be "hysterical," both because I provide so little evidence of theocon "direct power" in Washington and because you find nothing particularly menacing about "socially conservative Christians" wanting America to be more "socially conservative and Christian."

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether I provide sufficient evidence of theocon influence to make my case. I point to meetings between theocon intellectuals and the president that lead directly to expressions of public support for preferred theocon policies. I show how theocon arguments and rhetoric permeate the public statements of the president and prominent members of his party. I explain the crucial role of individual theocons in passing anti-abortion legislation and authoring a Constitutional Amendment that was endorsed by the president and nearly passed by Congress.

But, in the realm of ideas, what exactly is "direct power" anyway? Back in the 1970s, for example, a handful of neoconservative social scientists writing for a quarterly journal with a tiny circulation (The Public Interest) managed to change the terms of public policy debate in Washington rather dramatically by arming fiscal conservatives with powerful arguments and evidence to support their views. Reagan's tax cuts and Clinton's welfare reform were the eventual results.

I try to establish in my book that the theocons have done something similar for the religious right over the last 20 years. First Things--as well as the ecumenical initiative Evangelicals and Catholics Together--has galvanized conservative Christians and provided them with a potent arsenal of ideological and rhetorical weapons that they have used to prosecute the nation's culture war much more effectively than Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority ever managed to do. When conservative Catholics and evangelicals speak as one about building a "culture of life," when they join together in support of teaching intelligent design in the nation's classrooms, when they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in describing the United States as a Christian nation whose founding principles derive from theological sources, when they unite in opposition to homosexual rights, sex education, and working mothers--whenever Catholics and evangelicals work in tandem to push this comprehensive social-conservative agenda, it is the theocons who deserve the lion's share of the credit (or the blame).

You ask me if I believe that theocon ideology is a greater danger to the country than previous irruptions of piety into the political life of the nation. Yes, I do, though this doesn't mean that I am untroubled by the religious politics of previous generations. I really do believe that liberal democracy tends to function best when theological passions and certainties are channeled out of public life and into the private sphere. Still, the abolitionists and Martin Luther King Jr. were not theocons, out to increase public religiosity as an end in itself. They were, instead, lovers of justice whose piety motivated them to fight for the civic equality of black Americans--an equality at once promised and denied them in the nation's (secular) Founding documents. The abolitionists and King may have been inspired by their faith, but the goals for which they worked--the emancipation of the slaves, the right to vote, economic opportunity for all citizens--were perfectly defensible in secular-civic terms.

Theocon ideology is very different. Yes, some of the policies it advocates (such as opposition to abortion) can be defended in secular terms, and, to that extent, it is a genuine successor to the civil rights movement. But theoconservatism was conjured into existence to do far more than fight legalized abortion. It was devised primarily (in Neuhaus's words) to provide a "religiously informed public philosophy" for the United States--a public philosophy that would decisively contribute to the nation as a whole fulfilling its divinely ordained end as a "sacred enterprise."

There are several reasons why it is a very bad idea to propose that a modern, liberal nation adopt a comprehensive religious ideology as its public philosophy. For one thing, it contradicts the social pluralism that is the default condition of liberal modernity. Short of universal conversion to orthodox Catholic Christianity on the part of the American people, theoconservative ideology cannot help but be an imposition of one narrow part of a highly diverse community onto its other (non-Catholic-Christian) parts. Like all modern monists, the theocons negate their claim to speak for the whole of society in the very act of presuming to do so.

This paradox of pluralism is especially pronounced in the case of the theocons because they so often combine lofty rhetoric about America's moral-religious essence with the crudest partisanship. I can think of no better example of such partisanship than the title of theocon Ramesh Ponnuru's recent book, which labels the Democrats as the "party of death." (Just in case you're tempted to dismiss the title as a rhetorical flourish devised by Ponnuru's publisher in order to drum up sales on the far right, Neuhaus recently made a point of wholeheartedly defending it, stating bluntly, "And yes, the Democratic Party is, with relatively few exceptions, 'the party of death.'") [See here.] It's hard not to conclude, from such a statement, that the theocons want us to believe that a vote for the Republican Party makes one both a good American and a good Christian, whereas a vote for the Democrats is a sign of civic and spiritual degradation. So much for a comprehensive public philosophy.

And that brings me to your final very important questions: Is my opposition to theoconservative ideology not better understood as opposition to orthodox Catholicism? Can you and Neuhaus, as Catholics, be good citizens of a liberal polity like the United States?

My answer is simple: Of course you can--on one condition. Like every other citizen, you must be willing to accept what I call "the liberal bargain." In my book, I describe this bargain as the act of believers giving up their "ambition to political rule in the name of their faith" in exchange for the freedom to worship God however they wish, without state interference. What does this mean, in practical terms? It means that your belief in what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches is irrelevant, politically speaking. It simply shouldn't matter whether or not you think that justice has a divine underpinning, anymore than it should matter whether you prefer Jane Austen to Dostoevsky. In a word, liberal politics presumes that it's possible and desirable for political life to be decoupled from theological questions and disputes.

But there is a complication: What if a faith forbids its adherents to accept the liberal bargain? What if it explicitly refuses to permit believers to decouple their political and religious convictions? What if it demands unity--unity in the name of one set of non-negotiable theological truths? Such a religion may be incompatible with liberalism. Whether Islam is inherently illiberal in precisely this way is one of the most pressing questions confronting the Western world today.

And Catholicism? Since Vatican II--and especially since the start of Pope John Paul II's pontificate--the Catholic Church has staked out a novel position on these matters. Like most anti-liberal faiths, it has demanded a unity between politics and religion. But it has also maintained that Catholic moral teaching is perfectly compatible with liberalism--indeed, that it is the only solid and sure foundation for liberalism. By contrast, liberalism without Catholicism is, in John Paul's arresting phrase, "thinly disguised totalitarianism."

Catholicism does not so much reject what liberalism affirms as it denies the validity of the distinctions liberalism typically assumes--distinctions between private and public, secular and sacred, reason and revelation. In place of these distinctions, the Church proposes a higher synthesis, all the while claiming that such a synthesis produces a purified liberal politics. This is pretty much what the theocons propose for the United States.

I tend to think that this way of thinking about political life obscures far more than it clarifies. It thus also leads certain Catholics to misunderstand the character of modern politics--in particular, the possibilities it opens up and those it forecloses. Does that make me anti-Catholic? I look forward to hearing your answer to this question.

Best,
Damon

Wednesday, October 11

Dear Damon,

Thanks for your reply; I think we're near the nub of our disagreement, which is over the precise nature of that "liberal bargain" that you mention. I agree that modern liberalism is founded on (among other compromises) religious believers giving up their right to impose their faith on others "in exchange for the freedom to worship God however they wish, without state interference," as you put it. I just think you take an extremely pinched and ahistorical view of what this bargain should mean in practice.

The Constitution of the United States has very little to say about religion. This omission offers an implicit rebuke to those Americans who would like to have the government endorse their personal beliefs about the nature of the Almighty, and rightly so--but it offers a rebuke, as well, to secularists like yourself who are eager to tell their fellow citizens which of their personal beliefs ought to be relevant to their political activity. You can inform me as many times as you like that, in order to participate in liberal society, I must pretend that my views about God--and, by extension, about public morality, a just society, and so forth--are as irrelevant to politics as my views about Shakespeare. But your saying it doesn't make it so (or even possible), and I think you'll have an awfully hard time pointing to any passage in the Constitution that buttresses your case. Yes, Congress may make no law establishing a religion, but, unless you take the most maximalist interpretation of what the word "establish" is supposed to mean, the establishment clause tells us next to nothing about whether and how religious convictions can inform public policy on (to list just a few of the issues in our history where religious faith has had a profound impact, for better or worse or both) war and peace, slavery and integration, poverty and the social safety net, the environmental movement and the temperance crusade, abortion and marriage law, et cetera.

Indeed, it's because the Constitution is deliberately neither a religious nor a secular document that American political history has tended to move in cycles, with religiously inspired movements waxing and waning, attaining power and then overreaching their way into backlash. Spasms of God-intoxicated moral reform like Prohibition are followed by swings in a more libertarian direction, which spark fears of moral decline and then renewed moralistic fervor, and so on. Political movements quarrel over the interpretation of Scripture--as abolitionists and defenders of slavery did before the Civil War and the religious left and religious right do today. Religious believers attack capitalism's excesses or defend its genius; clergymen whoop for war or pray for peace; bishops draw up detailed voting guides and issue position papers on nuclear disarmament or gay marriage. And through it all, somehow, the liberal bargain survives--because it was never meant to prevent majorities from legislating based on their religious beliefs, but only to prevent them from forcing others to share those beliefs, either through the hard pressure of persecution or through the soft pressure of an established church.

 Now, of course, there are limits to what kinds of legislation American majorities can pass, because the Constitution--and specifically the Bill of Rights--sets limits on how far a majority can go in imposing its convictions (whether religious, civic-republican, or something else entirely) on a minority. And, inevitably, nearly all of our most fraught culture war debates have been over the precise location of those limits, whether the issue is racial equality or sex and reproduction. But these limits exist to protect the individual from the tyranny of any majority, whether religiously inspired or not. If you think that legislatures can't ban abortion because the Constitution guarantees the right to privacy, for instance, it doesn't matter whether those legislatures would be passing such a ban for Catholic reasons, or on liberal-humanist principles. The Constitution discriminates against government actions--banning guns, searching homes without a warrant, restricting the freedom of worship. It doesn't discriminate against government motives.

Yet that's precisely what you seem to think the "liberal bargain" is intended to do--to discriminate against religious motivations in politics in a way that it doesn't discriminate against, say, the motivations of a secular social engineer seeking an earthly utopia. Sure, you do offer a way out for religious believers who want to put their faith-based ideas into action: As long as they're willing to make nonreligious arguments for their ideas, you generously allow, they're welcome in the public square. So the abolitionists and civil rights agitators pass your test, because "the goals for which they worked--the emancipation of the slaves, the right to vote, economic opportunity for all citizens--were perfectly defensible in secular-civic terms." (You also suggest, generously, that the pro-life movement might pass it as well.)

But the fact remains that the advocates of racial equality didn't defend their ideals in secular-civic terms--or at least not nearly as often as they defended them in terms of the Christian morality that most of their fellow American shared. And they wouldn't have succeeded without precisely these kinds of religious appeals, which were crucial to building white American support for black America's civil rights. (David L. Chappell's A Stone of Hope, which tackles the role of white Southern religion in the demise of Jim Crow, is the book to read on this subject.) I'm happy to concede that religious believers might benefit, at times, from couching their political arguments in nonreligious terms. But the deal you're offering, in which religious Americans are supposed to abandon appeals that have the capacity to stir not only the reason of their fellow citizens, but their consciences and souls as well, sounds like a fool's bargain to me.

The same principle holds true if we move from specific political issues to the broader question of public philosophy. This is what you see as the crucial danger of the "theocon" project--that it doesn't just offer a laundry list of causes, but actively proposes a larger political philosophy for America, one grounded in the Catholic-Christian tradition. Again, while I understand that you disagree with and dislike Neuhaus's public philosophy, I'm baffled by the suggestion that religiously-grounded political worldviews are required by the liberal bargain to cede the field to their secular competitors. American history is rife with competing public philosophies, and I'm uncertain why we would be better off if, say, the Christianity-infused partisans of the Social Gospel (a "far more comprehensive" religious ideology than anything Neuhaus has proposed) had simply conceded defeat to the less-religious, more scientific partisans of Social Darwinism, on the grounds that the Social Gospel's explicitly Christian ideology had no place in public life. (I don't see why I need to prefer the eugenics movement to William Jennings Bryan just because Bryan talked God and the eugenicists talked "reason.") By the same token, I don't see why religious conservatives in the 1970s, faced with an ideologically driven transformation of a number of fundamental American institutions, should have simply sat back and quietly accepted the complete social renovation of their country--because, hey, that's what the "liberal bargain" requires.

I know I'm harping on history a bit here, but I really thought that The Theocons's greatest weakness was its refusal to grapple with the complexities of the American past in any detail--as if Neuhaus and his compatriots had emerged from nowhere, rolling the apple of religious discord into a secular Olympus. If you had simply made the argument--which you did make, and make again in your response to my first post--that Neuhaus's Catholicism is ill-suited to serve as our national public philosophy, because not enough people are likely to accept it, then you might have persuaded me. (Though I would have remained puzzled by your assertion that a worldview that aspires to be a "comprehensive" public philosophy should shy away from rhetorical combat with its opponents. I can certainly understand your objection to the title of Ramesh Ponnuru's The Party of Death, but surely a little bare-knuckled political rhetoric in the short term is no bar to achieving moral consensus in the long run. If an abolitionist in 1859 had referred to the Democratic Party as the "party of slavery," and implied that a vote for a Democrat was "a sign of civic and spiritual degradation," would the Damon Linker of that era have suggested that this just proved how ill-suited the abolitionists were to govern America? How incapable they were of supporting "the social pluralism that is the default condition of liberal modernity"?)

But you couldn't just say that the "theocons" are out of step with America and leave it at that, because your alarmist thesis required you to have it both ways: Thus "theoconservatism" is somehow both wildly unpopular and primed to regulate every aspect of our daily life--out of touch with the public and somehow capable of keeping secular America "under siege." And, worse, you don't want to just argue with your political opponents; you want to remove them from public life entirely by accusing them of violating the bargain that supposedly holds our country together.

If you're the arbiter of what the liberal bargain means, then I want no part of it. The American experiment has succeeded for so long precisely because it doesn't force its citizens channel their "theological passions and certainties ... out of public life and into the private sphere." It forces them to play by a certain set of political rules, yes, which prevent those passions and certainties from creating a religious tyranny. But it doesn't make the mistake of telling people that their deepest beliefs should be irrelevant to how they vote, or what causes they support. The kind of secularism that you're promoting--and that Neuhaus and the rest of the "theocons" were originally reacting against--is an attempt to change those rules and impose greater restrictions on religious Americans than have heretofore existed. This isn't just blinkered, unfair, and contrary to the actual American tradition of how religion and politics interact; it's also dangerous to liberalism, because it vindicates those people--Christians and secularists alike--who have always said that faith and liberalism aren't compatible and that everyone need to choose between Christ and the republic, between God and Caesar. And, if you force Americans to make that choice, I'm not sure you'll be happy with the results.

Best,
Ross

Thursday, October 12

Dear Ross,

We have indeed reached the nub of our disagreement, which makes it all the more difficult to engage with you. On the central issue of the "liberal bargain," we're very far apart. I'm particularly struck by how differently we understand and evaluate American history.

It seems to me that you make a number of questionable assumptions that are common among intellectuals on the right. For one, you assume that American history should be understood as a contest between comprehensive views, some of them broadly religious, some of them broadly secular. When one waxes, the other wanes, and vice versa. I'll leave aside the irresolvable question of whether this oscillating account of American history is empirically accurate. (For the record, I don't think it is.) Instead, I'd like to focus on your insinuation that religious and secular views are, or have been, equally comprehensive in scope.

This kind of claim is frequently made, for example, by theocon Robert P. George, who titled a recent book The Clash of Orthodoxies, by which he meant the clash of Catholic-Christian orthodoxy with liberal secularist orthodoxy. The first is an explicitly religious view; the second, George believes, is an implicitly religious view (albeit an atheistic one)--that is, a religious view pretending not to be a religious view, with its own unexamined dogmas and metaphysical/theological assumptions. There is no such thing, in other words, as a noncomprehensive idea or set of ideas. This seems to be your view as well. And it is on this basis that you make your argument about how unfair it is to judge religious believers by a double standard. Why, you ask, must a pious Christian leave his comprehensive convictions out of politics when secularists bring in their (equally comprehensive) convictions all the time?

My answer is that it's more complicated than either you or George allow. Some views are not comprehensive, and some comprehensive views are more comprehensive than others. Take Marxism. There's an example of a secular ideology that is as comprehensive as the most dogmatic faith. It provides answers to every conceivable question in politics, economics, philosophy, history, and religion--and it cannot tolerate dissent from those answers. One way to respond to Marxism is to propose an alternative comprehensive view, which is what Pope John Paul II did in Poland and throughout the Eastern Bloc from the late '70s through the late '80s.

And then there's the liberal alternative, which opposes Marxism not because (or not simply because) it's wrong about God or the market or the movement of history or materialism, but because a political ideology shouldn't demand conformity on nonpolitical matters. And because, under modern, pluralistic conditions, the only way an ideology can bring about such conformity is through tyranny. Totalitarianism is monism with a monopoly on violence.

Now consider what might be called a thin comprehensive view--like mainline Protestantism in the middle decades of the twentieth century. There was a religious outlook so watery in content that it permitted an enormous amount of pluralism within it--so much so, in fact, that it eventually ceased to have anything very distinctive to say about any sphere of life, including religion. It was (in part) the dissolution of this thin comprehensive view that inspired Neuhaus to propose as its replacement the much thicker (more orthodox, Catholic, and Republican) comprehensive view that I call theoconservatism.

But, once again, there is another option--the liberal option of getting on politically without any comprehensive view at all. Neuhaus, by the way, insists that a political order without a comprehensive theological view to guide it will succumb inevitably to totalitarianism as the state takes the place of God, because "transcendence abhors a vacuum." I wonder if you agree with him on this.

So it's important to distinguish between degrees of comprehensiveness. (It would be fruitful to do so on some other occasion with Social Darwinism and eugenics, for instance.) But it's also a good idea to make distinctions between kinds of cultural-political phenomena--namely, those that are the intentional product of an ideological program and those that come about unintentionally, through structural causes beyond the control of any person or movement. And here we come to a historical example very closely connected to the rise of the theocons--what you call the "ideologically driven transformation of a number of fundamental American institutions" during the 1970s. In all honesty, I think you pretty seriously misconstrue what took place during the 1960s and its aftermath. You're hardly alone in doing so. Treating the cultural revolution of the '60s as something planned or controlled or directed by some powerful and sinister ideological force is commonplace on the right. But it is a fiction. (Though it is a very useful fiction, since it serves as a politically beneficial rallying cry for right-wing populist discontent with various social and cultural trends.) But it distorts our understanding of what really happened in those years. The relaxation of sexual taboos, the rise of youth culture, women's liberation, the breakdown of the authoritarian-patriarchal family structure and its replacement by more egalitarian arrangements--there have been positive and negative consequences of these and many other social-cultural changes over the past several decades. But they were not planned or controlled, certainly not politically. (Just as there was no bohemian Comintern directing the quite similar cultural revolutions that took place all over the free world at roughly the same historical moment.)

When we pretend that the cultural revolution of the late '60s was an "ideologically driven transformation," Neuhaus and other figures on the religious right look like populist heroes defending the common man and his simple but decent beliefs against the nihilistic onslaught of an atheistic cultural elite. But the theocons look far less admirable in the light of reality, which shows them to be reactionaries incapable of coming to terms with the developmental logic of societies devoted to freedom.

This doesn't mean that social conservatives must accept the post-'60s cultural order if their faith tells them it's an abomination. By all means, let them preach and implore and denounce and cajole their fellow citizens. Let them try to convert the country away from its hedonism and individualism--in short, away from its freedom. Liberalism frees them to do exactly this--to devote their lives to a private moral-religious project. What liberalism cannot abide is impatience--the impatience of those who cannot be bothered to convert one soul at a time and would rather the state prosecute their culture war for them.

But perhaps all of this arguing is superfluous. I was surprised to hear you say that if I had made the argument "that Neuhaus's Catholicism is ill-suited to serve as our national public philosophy, because not enough people are likely to accept it," then I might have persuaded you. Really? You mean that, after all this, your only significant criticism of my book is that I overstate my case? If I had merely called theoconservatism an extreme and unpopular Catholic political theology and concluded that we should be grateful that its reckless purveyors are so far from political power, then you would have nodded and said "amen"? I find that hard to believe.

And, indeed, your hostile tone in your final paragraph ("If you're the arbiter of what the liberal bargain means, then I want no part of it") belies your earlier concession. So, frankly, I'm unsure what to conclude from this little debate. I will simply note how perplexing I find your own concluding remarks--about how my construal of the liberal bargain is dangerous because it might vindicate those "Christians and secularists alike" who have contended that there is a tension, sometimes requiring that a choice be made, "between Christ and the republic, between God and Caesar." Funny, I thought it was Christ himself who pointed to just such a tension at the core of the human condition.

Why is it that you, like the theocons I examine and criticize in my book, seem so terrified of the American republic falling short of Christ-like perfection? Why is it not enough that the United States be a good and decent country among good and decent countries? Why is it not enough for you and other pious Christians to enjoy the freedom to worship and pray and proselytize in peace? Why, despite your own better judgment, do you so steadfastly resist seeking your salvation outside of politics? Why do you insist on identifying the fate of your soul with the fate of your country?

You may well be right that, at least at this moment in our nation's history, you have more of our fellow citizens on your side of this dispute than I have on mine. But that is precisely the problem--for American religion no less than America's politics.

Best,
Damon

 

Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. Damon Linker is the author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege.

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