Damon Linker

A Liberal Or A Theoconservative?

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Ross Douthat is one of my favorite bloggers. He's an intelligent and thoughtful writer who nearly always teaches me something. Except when it comes to the issue of religion and politics.

Case in point: In his obituary for Richard John Neuhaus, Douthat claims, in response to some nameless silly person (who just happens to be me), that Neuhaus was dedicated to reconciling Christianity with the liberal tradition. I suspect that will sound pretty odd to those familiar with Neuhaus' role in arming the conservative side of the culture war with arguments intended to decimate liberalism. But then everything begins to make sense once you follow the link that Douthat supplies with his statement, which brings you to a Neuhaus article on "The Liberalism of John Paul II." Oh, that liberal tradition. The liberalism that traces American democratic ideas not to the Enlightenment but to medieval Christendom. The liberalism that believes (in Neuhaus' words, written in 1984) that "only a transcendent, a religious, vision can turn this society from a disaster and toward the fulfillment of its destiny" as a "sacred enterprise." The liberalism that holds (in Neuhaus' words, written in 1997) that the American experiment "may well be ending . . . under the iron rule of the 'separation of church and state.'" The liberalism that espouses the Manichean view that one of the country's two major political parties, the nation's media, and its courts--and perhaps 52.9 percent of the American people--are in the grip of a bloodthirsty "culture of death" that needs to be combated by champions of the "culture of life," who just so happen to make their home in the country's other major political party. That's the liberalism of John Paul II and Richard John Neuhaus.

And therein lies Neuhaus' greatest ideological innovation. Rather than maintaining that the religious right should replace liberal politics with some other, religiously grounded form of political association, he insisted that, properly understood, liberal politics is (or once was, or should be--on this he was often unclear) a religiously grounded form of political association. Viewed in this way, the Pope, Neuhaus himself, and their Protestant friends (like Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, and Karl Rove) become America's true liberals, while all those millions of Americans on the right and left who prefer a more mundane form of politics (and who in nearly every other context are considered liberals of the classical or modern variety) become the antagonists the true liberal tradition.

This is the great theoconservative shell game. And I'm sorry to see a writer of Ross Douthat's honesty and sophistication perpetuating the hoax.

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