The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege
by Damon Linker
Doubleday, 288 pages
"Who is Richard Neuhaus?" This is, in essence, the only question Damon Linker's Theocons sets out to answer, and if you already have an answer, you don't need to read the book. Actually, even if you don't have an answer, there's no reason to read this book—everything you need to know is on the back cover. "WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE ABOUT AMERICA? ... Do you believe legally available contraception is producing 'a culture of death' in the United States? Do you believe that women's liberation is a morally pernicious assault on the natural order of things? Do you believe that moral education should be used to inculcate disgust at homosexuality? ... The theocons answer YES to all of these questions. DO YOU?" I think this sounds like stale, un-nuanced retread. DO YOU?
This is not to say that the issues Linker purports to be tackling—the religious right, separation of church and state, and political theology—are not interesting. They most certainly are, which is what makes this book so infuriating. Linker is the editor-defector of Neuhaus's monthly journal of "religion, culture and public life," First Things, and Linker's book reads like a screed against his former boss, whose ideology he has come to repudiate, utterly without explanation. Moreover, the screed is made doubly worse because it pretends not to be a screed. Intellectual innuendo is omnipresent, and the gushing quotes of big-name academics grace the cover. Yet, at bottom, Linker does not care to tell us why Richard Neuhaus is gravely wrong, but simply that Richard Neuhaus is... well, Richard Neuhaus.
So, who is Richard Neuhaus? If Linker's book is valuable for anything, it is for its brief biographical sketch of the ideologue, for despite the size of Neuhaus's body of work, autobiographical musings on his early years are lacking.
As Linker tells it, Neuhaus was born to a conservative Lutheran minister in Ontario, Canada. Neuhaus demonstrated a rebellious streak from an early age, dropping out of school at age 16, migrating to Texas where he ran a gas station, and eventually earning a degree from Concordia Theological Seminary and entering the Lutheran ministry. Asking for and receiving a tough assignment at the impoverished parish of St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, Neuhaus emerged as a fiery far-left agitator. He used his pulpit to preach in favor of the civil rights movement and against the war in Vietnam, suggesting that the Vietcong were the wrath of God punishing American misdeeds abroad. Moreover, he wrote that internal, armed revolution against the U.S. government was all but inevitable, arguing that Che Guevara had been unsuccessful in his revolution because he had not been "man" enough to take decisive action and use terrorism to overthrow the Bolivian government. With the de-escalation of the war, however, Neuhaus's radical impulses were channeled into new political and social endeavors.
As the country began to sink into a malaise, sick from the war, from the deceit of the Nixon White House, and from economic stagnation, Neuhaus attributed the 1960's movements' failure to enact real change to a single source: a national crisis of meaning. America, Neuhaus decided, had fallen under the spell of a secular liberalism, had become alienated from the beliefs of the bulk of citizens, and had robbed democracy of any vibrant meaning. "Unless there is a new and widely convincing assertion of the religious meaning of liberal democracy," Neuhaus wrote by the 1980's, "it will not survive the next century." Without eschatological speculation about a common purpose, Neuhaus believed, public life was empty. Disillusionment with the Carter Administration, which Neuhaus had seen as a great hope for the possibility of Christian populism, drove him further right, and in 1984 he penned his famous book, Naked Public Square. Here, Neuhaus furthered his strongest and most famous charge: the removal of religious discussions from politics would lead not to neutrality, but rather to a new state totalitarianism like Soviet Communism. Neuhaus sought to stop this.
Yet a variety of private truth claims would not lend itself to fruitful public debate, so Neuhaus attempted to construct a "nondenominational 'public language of moral purpose'" linked to the American religious tradition. This language would respond to the secular notion that religion is fundamentally private and would try to be intellectually persuasive to people of different metaphysical commitments. Converting to Catholicism in 1990 and being ordained a priest in 1991, Neuhaus started First Things, a journal of religion and public culture which has been carrying on the debate about these issues ever since. Over the course of his rise in political stature, Neuhaus became the leading "theocon," a term coined in 1996 to describe those conservatives who believe that Christian religion should play a major role in public policy.
Having laid out the course of Neuhaus's career, Linker spends some time analyzing the theocons as a political group. In particular, he distinguishes them from the more prominent neocons (short for neoconservatives) with whom they often align politically. Linker writes that along with Neuhaus, the leading theocons include religious scholar Michael Novak, Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel, and political philosophers Robert George and Hadley Arkes, all of whose views differ meaningfully from the views of neoconservatives. The theocons, Linker tells us, are extremely religious and almost always Catholic, whereas neocons are generally Jewish and secular. The "proto-theocons" (Neuhaus and Novak) were 1960's leftist revolutionaries, while neocons-to-be merely embraced mainstream liberalism, according to Linker. And while neocons came to embrace capitalism as organizationally effective, theocons went beyond this, reading divine creativity into market dynamics. To be sure, Linker's labels are rough. Yet they are also useful, especially in understanding how discord can arise between these two groups, which are often lumped together but not always accurately.
While Linker's book compellingly explains the ideological divisions between the theocons and neocons (which have become more interesting during the George W. Bush years), Linker is a mess when he writes about more mundane matters of politics. The problems begin just seconds into reading, halfway down the first page of his hyperbolically-titled introduction "The End of Secular Politics." Linker asserts that President Bush openly supports the insertion of religion into the public sphere, yet the examples he cites as the bulk of his evidence fall short. "[President Bush] has acted to curtail abortion rights at home and abroad. He has endorsed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage ... He has strictly limited government funding for embryonic stem-cell research. He encouraged congressional Republicans to intervene in the 'right to die' case of Terri Schiavo," Linker writes. Though President Bush did support these and other efforts advocated by members of the Religious Right, Linker errs by automatically assuming that this signifies presidential complicity in the insertion of religion into the public arena. From the start, then, Linker appears to confuse the Religious Right's influential status with a Constitution-violating extension of religion itself into public life, as though Christians were eschewing rational argumentation and forcing nonbelievers to accept obviously untenable positions. Linker seems oblivious to the fact that these positions on abortion, stem-cell research, etc., are all forwarded by the same sort of public debate that his own opinions are.
Ultimately, Linker never makes clear why socially conservative positions on these issues are an indication of the Christianizing of Washington, D.C., but this simple assertion of social conservatism's obvious danger and irrationality is the bread and butter of Linker's attack on Neuhaus. Neuhaus is against abortion. Neuhaus is opposed to stem cell research.
Neuhaus is opposed to euthanasia. Neuhaus is opposed to gay marriage. By the time I was done reading, I had repeatedly peppered my margins with the penciled-in question, "so what?" Linker barely approaches an explanation for why Neuhaus's social conservatism is wrong, much less that it is somehow a threat to democracy.
Yet these are only Linker's sins of omission; his more direct attacks on Neuhaus are generally wrong or superfluous. He repeats the bizarre yet oft-repeated notion that the denial of communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians somehow poses a threat to political freedom in the U.S. Imprudent? Yes. But a threat to freedom that a religion chastises its members who hold positions directly opposed to its moral teachings? No. The logical progression is more than unclear, and it is less than helpful for Linker to suggest later that in the future, non-Republican Catholics may face excommunication. Linker's suggestion that Neuhaus's support for The Passion of the Christ might indicate anti-Semitism is essentially ad hominem. Then, Linker takes on Neuhaus's claim that the requirement for clerical celibacy was not itself responsible for the sex-abuse crisis, but rather that culpability lies with the failure of priests to live up to their vows of chastity. Linker concludes that this is "about as enlightening as saying that theft would never occur if people obeyed laws against stealing." Actually, it's more like saying that instances of stealing don't mean that there is something wrong with our laws against theft.
Regardless, it seems unlikely that Linker's target readers will take celibacy seriously enough to care. Finally, Linker sees fit to term the conservative Catholic college Ave Maria University a "peculiar combination of Disneyworld and Torquemada's Spainas—as it might have been imagined by George Orwell." If you weren't already convinced that Linker is uninterested in a nuanced consideration of the problems at hand, this should clinch it. Even the fact that I find myself diametrically opposed to Neuhaus on many fronts doesn't help.
What is most problematic, however, is not Linker's vitriolic writing, but that it is not clearly the venom of a former believer. It is uncanny that Linker demonstrates not an ounce of sympathy in considering political positions he himself once held. What is clear by the end of the book is that its aspirations are really much lower than it would appear at first. Linker is not concerned with debunking Neuhaus and the theocons, but with giving an exciting plane ride to people who already disagree with them. That being the case, there is a large body of books that treat the intersection of religion, ethics, and politics with much more depth and nuance—Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and Jeffrey Stout's Democracy and Tradition come to mind. In fact, if you're looking for the skinny on Richard Neuhaus, you'd probably do best to go to Linker's former boss himself.
Andrew Flynn is the Literary Editor of The Current. He is a junior in Columbia College majoring in philosophy and history. He is also the Features Editor of The Blue and White. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.