Fr. Richard Neuhaus may have midwifed
the religious right—but that doesn’t mean
always returns his phone calls. By Paul Baumann
Named by Time in 2005 as one of the nation’s 25 most influential evangelical leaders, a thinker who has the ear of President George W. Bush on moral and cultural issues, Father Richard John Neuhaus remains little known in secular liberal circles. According to his former protégé, Damon Linker, that’s a serious problem. In The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, Linker portrays Neuhaus (a Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism in 1990) as the charismatic leader of an extremist movement bent on saving the nation from its headlong descent into decadent relativism by remoralizing politics and returning America to its Christian—perhaps even its unsuspected Catholic—roots.
That’s exaggerated and alarmist, like much else in this tendentious book; yet Linker gets the basic political outlines right. If you are perplexed about why George Bush and so many other Republicans can’t stop extolling “Almighty God” in public, you need to inform yourself about Neuhaus and his decades-long campaign to put religion back into the center of American politics. In his influential 1984 book, The Naked Public Square—Linker calls it the theocon “manifesto”—Neuhaus argued that the American “experiment in ordered liberty” is premised on religious assumptions about the freedom and dignity of the human person. In his view, freedom of religion is the first freedom, and the effort by liberal elites to strip the public square of religious language and advocacy is an assault on every American’s freedom of conscience. According to Neuhaus, government, because it must inevitably order aspects of our common life that touch on our ultimate moral concerns, cannot turn a deaf ear to the religious aspirations of the governed. Nor, he argues, can the fundamental values of democracy be sustained outside of a larger religious context. Politically, Neuhaus is a master of dire prognostication. Divorced from its religious foundations, he warns, democracy is doomed.
From 2001 to 2005, Linker worked side by side with Neuhaus as an editor at the latter’s monthly journal, First Things, and presumably shared his boss’s enthusiasm for mixing prophetic religion and radical politics. But Linker seems now to have been born again as a strict secularist. Belatedly, he has come to the conclusion that nearly everything Neuhaus stands for is inimical to the freedoms Americans cherish. “Loyalty to the truth and devotion to the good of the nation,” the author grandiloquently announces, have prompted this exposé, the inside story of a “cultural counterrevolution” that has commanded millions from right-wing foundations, won the allegiance of the conservative religious community, and gained the attention of popes, powerful evangelical ministers, presidential speechwriters, Supreme Court justices, and politicians alike. The Theocons offers a frequently damning, but unfortunately also frequently cartoonish, portrait of “a tightly knit group of ambitious and deeply conservative writers who set out over thirty years ago to devise a comprehensive political program that would reverse the secularizing direction of the country since the 1960s.”
That group, as Linker describes it, comprises little more than a handful of major players. In addition to Neuhaus, they are: the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Novak, a contemporary of the 70-year-old Neuhaus who made a similar pilgrimage from the political left in the 1960s to the right wing of the Republican Party; Pope John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel, long associated with Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center; and two scholarly advocates of natural-law reasoning, Robert P. George of Princeton University and Hadley Arkes of Amherst College.
Novak and Weigel have no more than walk-on parts in The Theocons, while George and Arkes get even less ink. This is really a book about Neuhaus, and Linker makes little effort to widen the lens beyond the pages, Manhattan office, posh watering holes, and esoteric controversies of the First Things crowd. It seems unlikely that this puny cast of characters could place “secular America under siege.” Nor is it likely that either Novak or Weigel see themselves as somehow secondary figures to Father Richard. At the very least, a serious study of contemporary conservative Catholic intellectuals would need to delve into Novak and Weigel’s work in much more detail. In short, Linker is prone to exaggerate his former employer’s influence.
Still, this chaste kiss-and-tell story should hold considerable fascination even for readers unfamiliar with the somewhat circumscribed world of religious opinion journalism, where Neuhaus is a prominent and polarizing figure. (Note: I once wrote a book review for First Things, and on occasion have been praised as well as criticized in its pages.) For Neuhaus is that rare religious thinker who “likes contact,” as football coaches say. He’d rather hit than play nice. Delighting in attention, he relishes intellectual combat, and his willingness to say what others only think endears him to his admirers. He can also be an elegant and compelling writer, combining the cadences of a preacher with the clever ripostes of a practiced debater. He knows how to flatter, and he knows how to get under someone’s skin. His skill at combining the loftiest of moral appeals with the bluntest political rhetoric and tactics makes him an emblematic—and effective—figure in our era of highly partisan politics.
How should liberals, especially secular liberals, think about Neuhaus? How to respond to the challenge he presents, his aggressive efforts to inject religion into politics?
One reaction to avoid is the blunderbuss approach put forth by Linker, an amplification of the equally scattershot efforts of Garry Wills and Andrew Sullivan to raise alarms about Neuhaus. Their strident assessments notwithstanding, Neuhaus is not a fundamentalist or a theocrat. He is a very serious churchman and sophisticated political actor, one who excels at mixing high-powered theology with hardball politics. Neuhaus is well aware, as he wrote in The Naked Public Square, that exaggerating the faults of one’s foes is a strategic necessity in politics. “Almost every movement depicts its opponents in the least attractive light,” he observed, while cautioning his readers to “resist being taken in by inflated and romantic views of politics.” It is strategy, more than the revolutionary zeal Linker attributes to him, that explains Neuhaus’s outlandish—sometimes frankly operatic—rhetoric about Supreme Court abortion decisions, or the “homosexual agenda,” or feminism, or the corruption of secular culture. Rising to the bait, as Linker does over and over again in denouncing a religion-inspired politics, only makes him sound intemperate.
Indeed, the more stridently the theocons’ opponents attack the place of religion in our public life, the stronger—at least strategically—the Republican political position becomes with churchgoing voters. Neuhaus knows that trying to divorce religion from politics, especially in America, is a losing proposition. As philosopher and Democratic activist William Galston recently observed, “a simply secularist stance by a great political party is a formula for defeat and irrelevance.” Galston argues that the Democratic Party’s perceived hostility to people of religious faith has become an enormous handicap, and was in all likelihood the determining factor in the decisive swing of “persuadable” Catholic voters to Bush in 2004. “I think the real story of American politics in the next ten years,” Galston predicts, “will be written as much around the behavior of Catholics, persuadable Catholics, as around…evangelical Protestants.”
Father Richard is on intimate terms with both alienated religious groups. As Linker tells the story, Neuhaus first articulated his belief in a populist religious opposition to the nation’s allegedly corrupt secular elites in the 1960s, as an associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War. During the economic and political turmoil of the 1970s, he became convinced that the United States was undergoing a “crisis of meaning” that only a return to its religious roots could resolve. Along with other evangelical leaders, however, Neuhaus was dismayed by Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “White House Conference on the Family,” convinced that the conference’s goal of finding ways to strengthen American family life had been undermined by the demands of radical feminists and gay activists. Soon afterward, following in the footsteps of his many friends among the mostly Jewish neoconservatives, he threw his support to Ronald Reagan.
Published on the eve of the 1984 election, The Naked Public Square was an effort to analyze why the Moral Majority had frightened many Americans even as Reagan was resoundingly reelected. Neuhaus urged evangelicals to replace biblical exhortation and testimony about their private religious experience with “a public language of moral purpose.” The best way to do that, he suggested, was to adopt the natural-law arguments long championed by Catholic and some mainline Protestant thinkers. Instead of simply pointing to Bible passages that condemn homosexuality, for example, Christians must make arguments about the self-evident nature and purpose of human sexuality and how those purposes—procreation, the nurturing of children, the normativity of heterosexuality—are incompatible with the public acceptance of same-sex marriage.
The Naked Public Square garnered considerable attention, and opened Republican doors and coffers for the once seemingly left-wing Neuhaus. Three years later, he published The Catholic Moment, speculating that the morally and theologically conservative Catholic Church, rather than the burgeoning evangelical movement, would replace the shrinking mainline churches as the moral conscience of the nation. In 1991, he was ordained a Catholic priest, and was soon a confidant of New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor and Pope John Paul II, well-placed to follow his vision of building a sturdy bridge between the religious and the political.
Neuhaus can be impatient, even reckless, in his pursuit of that vision. His willingness to push the boundaries of political debate is best illustrated, as Linker points out, by a symposium titled “The End of Democracy?”, published in First Things soon after the Supreme Court’s 1996 Casey decision reaffirming the constitutionality of legalized abortion. Along with Hadley Arkes, Robert George, and others, Neuhaus questioned the political legitimacy of the Supreme Court and, by extension, of American democracy itself. Echoing his apocalyptic, New Left ruminations of the 1960s, he hinted at “morally justified revolution,” writing that the Casey decision raised the question of “whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”
Neuhaus’s neocon allies were appalled by his “extremist hysteria,” and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and sociologist Peter Berger both resigned from the magazine’s editorial board. Evangelicals, on the other hand, rallied to the magazine’s position. Anticipating the political alliance Karl Rove would so effectively orchestrate in the 2004 election, Neuhaus had already been forging ties with conservative leaders in the evangelical community through his friendship with convicted Watergate conspirator Charles Colson. In 1994, Neuhaus, Colson, and other religious figures released a statement titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The statement, addressing many of the pressing “culture war” issues dear to conservatives, helped align two groups—or at least elites in both religious camps—long deeply suspicious of one another, and presaged an alliance that would prove critical to the electoral success of George W. Bush.
How stable the alliance is remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that Linker is right in saying that Neuhaus has marshaled a real intellectual and political force. Echoing their hero, Pope John Paul II, the theocons argue that without a “transcendent, a religious vision,” a hedonistic democracy (what the pope called “the culture of death”) will drift inexorably toward totalitarianism, where no protection from the powerful is available to the weak. Abortion-on-demand, the theocons continue to insist, is the greatest evil undermining the moral character of the nation, and a harbinger of the Brave New World that lies just around the laboratory corner. The impact of such arguments was most obvious in Bush’s appointment of several close Neuhaus associates to the President’s Council on Bioethics. More recently, it was evident in July, when Bush used the first veto of his presidency to prevent expanding federal funding for stem-cell research.
Abortion, of course, is only the most neuralgic of a host of divisive issues that comprise the so-called culture wars. Whether it is same-sex marriage, welfare reform, or traditional gender roles, the Republican Party has used such “wedge” issues to forge narrow yet effective majorities. As Thomas Edsall points out in his forthcoming Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power, many Democrats still don’t grasp the fact that cultural issues like marriage and the fate of traditional sexual morality are not peripheral to politics. Like Galston, Edsall argues that the culture wars determine how a crucial segment of the American electorate—one still coming to terms with the social, sexual, racial, and economic upheavals of the last 40 years—votes. Father Neuhaus and his compatriots recognized this reality long ago, and (abetted by their mirror-image opponents on the left) have gleefully helped create and maintain the political polarization that keeps Republicans in power. Some observers think the power of the religious right reached a high-water mark in the 2004 election. Possibly. What is certain, however, is that the Democrats’ “religion problem” is not going away any time soon.
For a portrait of an influential and provocative public intellectual, The Theocons has some curious omissions. Linker describes Neuhaus as “a handsome and charismatic man who delights in public attention,” eliciting great loyalty and even affection from his followers. Yet the nature of this charisma is never explained. Occasionally we get a glimpse of Neuhaus and his cronies, cigars and brandy snifters in hand, reacting with “blind rage” to this or that liberal deprecation. But the man’s personality remains opaque; he comes across more as an inexhaustible engine of argument than a flesh-and-blood person. Furthermore, if it is true that Neuhaus’s “ultimate goal is nothing less than the end of secular politics in America,” why did Linker go to work for him in the first place? Not knowing what made Linker enlist in what he now regards as a dangerously authoritarian movement raises serious questions about his forthrightness and credibility. Yet The Theocons never offers an explanation of his change of mind and heart.
There are other weaknesses, and excesses, too. Linker is right about Neuhaus’s political ambitiousness, but his movement is hardly the ideological colossus this book would have us believe. (Karl Rove, we can assume, returns the phone call from James Dobson or Fred Barnes before the one from Father Richard.) Nor is it plausible that the theocons’ ultimate goal is the destruction of the nation’s democratic political order. Linker sees inordinate peril in Neuhaus’s insistence that democracy be grounded in metaphysical, and ultimately religious, claims about the transcendent nature of the human person. The “liberal bargain” Linker extols, on the other hand, explicitly rejects the need for democratic societies to come to any comprehensive agreement about first principles. In the liberal bargain, we can disagree about the ultimate good, about “first things,” and still order our political life in a fair and peaceful way.
The theocons reject this conception of liberalism, insisting that only a political order based on absolute moral “truth” can protect human dignity and freedom. Such an insistence appears hard to square with our society’s inability to agree on the moral truth about such issues as abortion or same-sex marriage. Emphasizing such shortcomings, Linker is too quick to dismiss the appeal of the theocon position. (Neuhaus would argue, for example, that the law’s failure to protect unborn life is a far greater threat to democratic values than his protests against Roe v. Wade.) In a time when science presents excruciating dilemmas about when human life begins or ends—and about who should make such determinations—it is not just conservatives who balk at the idea that individual autonomy trumps all other moral values. Nor can Linker’s strictly secular “liberal bargain” account for the role religious convictions have played, for example, in the triumph of democracy in Poland’s Solidarity movement or America’s own abolitionist and civil-rights struggles.
Suffice it to say that while some on the religious right are anti-democratic, the arguments Neuhaus and company make about the religious origins of our ideas about human dignity and the intrinsic value of each life are hardly a recipe for theocratic tyranny. Liberal religious thinkers embrace similar premises yet come to very different political conclusions. As Galston and Edsall note, while Americans want a firm separation of church and state, they don’t want a purely secular public square, and there is no moral or constitutional reason why they should accept one. Yet Linker thinks the explicit disavowal of religious-based moral claims should be a prerequisite for entering into the political debate. He’s wrong, both philosophically and historically.
Linker’s tendency to make imprecise and exaggerated claims is especially evident in his analysis of Neuhaus’s influence with the Catholic hierarchy. He writes, for instance, that the theocons convinced “the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to intervene in the 2004 election on behalf of the Republican Party.” The USCCB did no such thing, and in fact Linker later contradicts himself on this score. It is true that a handful of bishops, apparently at Neuhaus’s urging, threatened to withhold Communion from John Kerry and other pro-choice Democrats. The vast majority of bishops, however, rejected this demand. Linker proves even more unreliable in reporting on the internal politics of the bishops’ conference, particularly with regard to a letter the Vatican’s Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent concerning the 2004 Communion controversy. According to Linker, Ratzinger endorsed Neuhaus’s hard (and Republican-friendly) line. There is scant evidence, however, that the Vatican’s aim was to “summarily deny the sacrament of Communion to nearly every Catholic Democrat in the nation,” as Linker speculates. His version of the story does little more than buy into theocon claims regarding their own influence in Rome.
A similar resort to right-wing boilerplate mars the book’s treatment of two pastoral letters written by the bishops in the 1980s, one on war and peace and the other on economic issues. Linker describes the letters as advocating “a foreign policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and a socialist economic policy.” In fact, the bishops guardedly endorsed the morality of nuclear deterrence, while the socialism of the letter on “Economic Justice for All” consisted in the shocking claim that economic systems must be judged by how they provide for the poor. One can disagree with the bishops, but to say they advocated unilateral disarmament or socialism is nonsense of a recognizably partisan theocon sort.
Again and again Linker lapses into the worst rhetorical excesses of the theocons he is trying to discredit. Baptized into the apocalyptic world of the theocons not long ago, he has returned to warn us that at Neuhaus’s direction the Republican Party is leading the nation into “the arms of absolute ecclesiastical authority.” Apparently, evangelicals provide the foot soldiers and Catholics the intellectual generals in the theocon battle plan. Linker’s worries that the theocons want to put an end to religious pluralism in America sound paranoid. First Things, after all, remains an “ecumenical” journal. Presumably Neuhaus would like his many conservative Protestant and Jewish friends to follow him to Rome, but he would not compel them to do so even if he could. Detecting The Grand Inquisitor behind every Roman collar is an old and ugly canard.
Clearly, Linker is still mesmerized by Neuhaus, depicting him as a kind of Charles Foster Kane who holds the nation’s political fate in his hands.
But politics is a more various and complicated business than that, and while Neuhaus’s influence is real, Linker provides little evidence that it is as pervasive as he claims. Republican leaders, after all, have to mollify the competing and often contradictory interests of corporate sponsors, libertarians, and tax-cutters, as well as religious/social conservatives.
After six years of Bush, many evangelicals think they have given more than they have received from this administration. Neuhaus’s own overreaching—in his support for the war in Iraq, the cogency of Intelligent Design theory, and Congress’s intervention in the Terri Schiavo case—has also weakened his position.
Still, if Galston and Edsall are right and the Democratic Party does in fact have a serious religion problem, then contending with Neuhaus and the forces he represents requires a much more nuanced strategy than Linker’s over-the-top indictment. Father Richard may not be about to carry out a religious coup, but he remains a formidable presence and a shrewd observer of American culture and politics. After all, there are not many intellectuals or political activists who can boast that they got their start marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and ended up marching (at least figuratively) into Baghdad with George W. Bush. Nor did many religious figures intuitively recognize and embrace the charisma of both King and Pope John Paul II. What’s more, Neuhaus understands how to translate these credentials into political clout. “It is in the interest of politicians and the hordes of people who make their living by talking about what politicians do to disguise the stark and simple truth that they are engaged in getting and keeping power,” he wrote in The Naked Public Square.
If, as Linker suggests, Neuhaus has a prophet’s uncompromising temperament, it is the temperament of a prophet strongly drawn to the stark and simple truth of getting and keeping power. Neuhaus has made a number of surprising but very canny conversions in his lifetime. If I were a betting man, I’d pay careful attention to where he is headed. For better or worse, the nation (or a slim electoral majority, at any rate) is usually not far behind, led by a cohort of voters who also happen to be religious believers. It would be a welcome miracle if liberals could get there first, with a plausible appeal to some of those same voters.