A review of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, by Damon Linker

Like audiences who pay to peek between their fingers at horror movies, certain liberals love to frighten themselves with nightmarish visions of an America governed by religious zealots. The specific imagined terrors vary by writer and occasion, but their common theme is that a sizeable portion of the electorate would, if it could, reunite church and state. Although the proposition is risibly preposterous, those who warm their fantasies before such fires love to tremble at the imminent prospect of thumbscrew and rack. And there’s a ready answer when the dreaded consequence fails to materialize: ask a man who believes in vampires whether he’s actually encountered one, and likely as not he’ll point to his garlic necklace saying, “Of course not, I take precautions.”

In fiction as opposed to real life, nightmarish scenarios do come to pass, as for example in Margaret Atwood’s widely touted 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which sketched a totalitarian America born again as a Christian fundamentalist state. Many mainstream reviewers praised the work as a thinly disguised if somewhat exaggerated account of what would happen if the Religious Right ever came to power. For many who dine out on this sort of stuff, George W. Bush’s election and re-election threatened to make fiction all too real. Why this should be so is hard to say. True, Bush has made a particular point of wooing the “traditional values coalition,” but so has every Republican president since Richard Nixon. In the broad political context of the past four decades, Bush’s position on the so-called “social issues” is not radically different from most of his GOP predecessors. Whatever the explanation, the run-up to the 2006 congressional elections gave birth to yet another gush of books and articles on the sinister motives of the GOP and its conservative religious supporters. The most celebrated was Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy (2006), a near-paranoid rant against (in more or less equal parts) the Bush family’s baleful influence, their business allies’ oligarchical pretensions, and the Religious Right’s theocratic predilections. About the only thing missing from the Phillips account was the familiar Monty Python line announcing the Spanish Inquisition.

That omission has now been remedied by Damon Linker’s The TheoconsSecular America Under Siege. Linker argues that critics who worry about the threat posed by Protestant evangelicals are worrying about the infantry when they should be paying attention to Central Command. In case you haven’t been following important developments to which the author is privy, Central Command consists of a coterie of (mostly) Catholic intellectuals who are associated with First Things magazine and its founding publisher, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Welcome to the inner sanctum of the “theoconservatives,” where wily theologians and political philosophers labor night and day to tear down Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation. Their goal, writes Linker, is “to sanctify and spiritualize the nation’s public life, while also eliding fundamental distinctions between church and state, the sacred and the secular.”

Such efforts, if successful, would not be fatal to the nation, but they would cripple it, effectively transforming the country into what would be recognized around the world as a Catholic-Christian republic. I hope that prospect is disquieting enough to inspire thoughtful American citizens to educate themselves about the theocons, their ideology, and the very real threat that they pose to the United States.

More about this presently. Consider first, however, the book jacket. The top of the front cover features a drawing of the White House with a prominent cross upon its roof. In case that bit of subtlety eludes you, the cover goes on to proclaim: “for the past three decades, a few determined men have worked to inject their radical religious ideas into the nation’s politics. This is the story of how they succeeded.”

If your paranoia remains unaroused, check out the back cover, where large boldface letters at the top ask, “WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE ABOUT AMERICA?” This is followed by a series of sub-questions, in somewhat smaller type, beginning with “Do you believe the Catholic Church should be actively intervening in American politics on the side of the Republican Party?” and ending with “Do you believe the United States should be a Christian nation?” Then, in larger boldface font again, “The theocons answer yes to all of these questions. DO YOU?”

The back cover’s concluding paragraph warns that if theocons have their way, “the political and cultural landscape of our country [will be transformed] to such an extent that the separation of church and state as we have known it will cease to exist.” To put it gently, the cover material is crude, heavy-duty propaganda of a sort traditionally associated with unsavory pamphleteers of malign inclination. What it’s doing in a work that wishes to be understood as a serious analysis of an important intellectual phenomenon is a question best answered by Mr. Linker and his agent.

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As with most works of this genre, the plot unfolds more by insinuation than by actual argument. While the book purports to be a tell-all insider’s tale (Linker served as the editor of First Things from May 2001 until February 2005), the text doesn’t begin to support the dust jacket’s lurid anticipations. He does briefly address the work of a number of Catholic intellectuals associated with Fr. Neuhaus’s various projects (e.g., Michael Novak, George Weigel, Robert P. George, Mary Ann Glendon), as well as the ideas of a few fellow-traveling non-Catholics (e.g., Hadley Arkes, Charles Colson, and Leon Kass). His analysis of their thought, however, is at best superficial, yielding little more than the obvious observation that First Things acts as an intellectual magnet for moralists of conservative disposition. Imagine that.

The particular focus of Linker’s concerns is Fr. Neuhaus, for whom (despite protestations to the contrary) the author bears a rather active dislike. Although other players perform cameo roles in this account, Linker suggests that Fr. Neuhaus stands at the head of a cabal whose animating goals are fundamentally at war with the American political tradition. Linker’s evidence on this point relies heavily on a rehash of the controversial November 1996 First Things symposium, “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics,” in which Robert Bork, Russell Hittinger, Charles Colson, Hadley Arkes, and Robert P. George excoriated the Supreme Court for various sins of omission and commission. Individual differences aside, their collective indictment advanced two propositions: that the Court was arrogantly disdainful of public sentiment on moral and cultural issues, and that the justices were substituting their own ideological preferences for constitutional text and tradition.

The controversy arose from a few sentences in a number of the essays, and above all in Fr. Neuhaus’s pungent introduction, suggesting that the Court had in effect created a new constitutional order, and questioning whether conscientious citizens should give their assent to it. The resulting brouhaha on the latter point caused a major rift among long-time ideological allies and prompted three members of the First Things editorial board to resign. Criticisms and replies filled many pages, not only in First Things but also in other leading journals of opinion, including Commentary, which countered with a symposium of its own. (For those who are interested, the entire exchange, including a lengthy defense and reassessment by Fr. Neuhaus, has been republished in book form by Spence Publishing.)

Viewed ten years on, the differences may be more prudential than substantive. Some of the rhetoric in the original symposium was undoubtedly over the top, but the core of the indictment deserves to be addressed: what is to be done about unelected judges who claim that autonomous individualism is the guiding moral philosophy of the Constitution? Instead, Linker uses the controversy to suggest that Fr. Neuhaus and his allies pose a different and more dangerous threat to the American way of life. Their first loyalty, he avers, is not to the Constitution but to Catholic doctrine, which they wish to read into American constitutional law. This, he asserts, is the true lesson of the whole controversy—one that also reveals itself in efforts by Neuhaus & Co. to influence policy on everything from abortion and stem-cell research to foreign affairs.

This is an old canard of disreputable lineage, and although it once enjoyed widespread support among intellectuals of a certain description, Mr. Linker does himself no credit in seeking to revive it now. The credibility of his charge is further undermined by his own history. The controversy surrounding the First Things symposium, on which Linker places such great weight, occurred five years before he became the magazine’s editor. The issues, including those he highlights, had been vetted ad infinitum not to say ad nauseam in many journals, yet he sought and accepted a major position in what he now describes as an unsavory enterprise. He stayed on in that position for another four years without voicing his dissent. That’s a long time for one who now accuses his former colleagues of seeking to impose sectarian beliefs upon an unsuspecting public; and it raises serious questions about his bona fides.

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Herewith a personal note. I am well acquainted with most of the figures discussed in Linker’s book. Some are close friends or former colleagues with whom I have deliberated or worked on matters of common interest. Over many years I have passed countless hours in energetic conversation (or as Hadley Arkes likes to say, in heated agreement) with almost all of them, either one-on-one or in small gatherings, on every sort of matter both grave and lighthearted. I have written frequently for First Things and participated in a number of symposia conducted under the magazine’s auspices or that of its affiliated think-tank, the Institute on Religion and Public Life. Linker to the contrary notwithstanding, the animating spirit of those who are drawn to the magazine and its various causes is not a desire to instantiate some kind of Catholic-Christian regime but rather a deep and abiding hope that the American proposition, rightly understood, can be restored.

“Rightly understood” is of course a loaded phrase, the content of which is today hotly disputed. The central divide in our time lies between those who believe that the heart of the American proposition consists in its dedication to universal principles of natural right, and those who deny that any such principles exist. Broadly speaking, the former camp includes everyone from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to Harry V. Jaffa and the late John Paul II, as well as Fr. Neuhaus and his allies. Despite various theological or philosophical differences, all would agree with Jefferson when he asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” Modernists or postmodernists of various stripes, by contrast, tend to believe that Jefferson was here indulging so much metaphysical twaddle, and that his answer to his own question, which he set forth, so to speak, in the Declaration of Independence, was mere high-falutin’ rhetoric. Among those who belong to this latter school may be found most teachers of constitutional law in our time and, alas, most members of the Supreme Court.

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Where Mr. Linker comes out on this framing of the question I cannot say. But he accuses Fr. Neuhaus et al. of violating what he calls “the liberal bargain,” by which he means that “religious believers are required to leave their theological passions and certainties out of public life….” At that level of generality, Linker would have to characterize the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the late William Sloane Coffin as enemies of the liberal bargain too, but surely he cannot mean that. Two sentences later, he fleshes out his thought, but in a manner that only compounds the confusion:

The privatization of piety creates social space for every American to worship God as he or she wishes, without state interference. In return for this freedom, believers are expected only to give up the ambition to political rule in the name of their faith—that is, the ambition to bring the whole of social life into conformity with their own inevitably partial and sectarian theological convictions. (Italics in original.)

What he means by “the privatization of piety” is hard to say. Would he argue, for example, that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the liberal bargain? If so, he needs to include virtually all members of the national legislature in his indictment. It was only a few years ago, after all, that a clear majority in Congress voted to condemn the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for ruling that “under God” in the Pledge violated the Establishment Clause.

And what about the executive branch? Early on in the book, as evidence of dangerous religious encroachment, Linker notes ominously that certain modern presidents have at times concluded their addresses to the nation by saying “God bless America.” Is he suggesting that that custom must also go by the boards? But if references to God in presidential speeches offend the liberal bargain, Linker will have to read George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt (among others) out of the American political tradition as well.

Does his mandate for “the privatization of piety” also cover speeches by Supreme Court justices? Consider, for example, Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1954:

I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses…. I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country.

On Linker’s premise concerning “the liberal bargain,” the mere utterance of such sentiments by a Chief Justice should be cause for alarm. And while we’re at it, what about the crier’s “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” that opens every sitting of the justices, the invocation that ends with “God save the United States and this Honorable Court”?

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Merely to raise such questions suggests the fragility of Linker’s governing standard concerning the propriety of religious sentiment in American political discourse. What precisely does he mean when he says that the liberal bargain requires believers “to give up the ambition to political rule in the name of their faith“? Linker’s italics are important, because he wishes to suggest that Neuhaus and others like him are engaged in an illicit effort to baptize the American political order. I read recently that a Lutheran pastor in the Midwest has kept track of everything Fr. Neuhaus has written. The current total, apparently, stands at a staggering six million words. From time to time in that vast outpouring Neuhaus has no doubt indulged in rhetorical overreach and said all sorts of things that in the light of cool reflection he wishes he hadn’t. He is among other things a powerful writer, a passionate advocate, and a preacher of considerable eloquence, who has been refreshingly candid about some of his rhetorical sins, offenses, and negligences.

But in the great bulk of his political advocacy, the fire and the passion are informed by appeals to his fellow citizens based on reasoned argument that does not depend for its validity on any sort of doctrinal affirmation. It is a travesty to suggest otherwise. Fr. Neuhaus openly acknowledges the extent to which his understanding of politics has been profoundly influenced by the Catholic tradition, but his public policy arguments on such matters as abortion, euthanasia, and the First Amendment’s proper meaning are hardly sectarian appeals. Linker, however, seems to believe that any sort of reliance on natural moral philosophy is indistinguishable from appeals based on religious doctrine. To take one of his favorite bêtes noires, embryonic stem-cell research, which undergoes heavy drubbing in this book, he argues that Neuhaus’s opposition exemplifies his effort to make Catholic doctrine the law of the land. Linker might wish to have a talk with Charles Krauthammer, whom no one has accused of flirting with Catholic doctrine. In a recent column, Krauthammer said this:

You don’t need religion to tremble at the thought of unrestricted embryo research. You simply have to have a healthy respect for the human capacity for doing evil in the pursuit of the good. Once we have taken the position of many stem-cell advocates that embryos are discardable tissue with no more intrinsic value than a hangnail or an appendix, then all barriers are down.

Fr. Neuhaus and his colleagues realize full well that reasonable people can and do disagree about such difficult issues, and they would be the first to say that their political resolution must depend on moral reasoning independent of any scriptural authority. (They also add that the people’s right to resolve such questions should not be usurped by judges who impose their own special brand of sectarianism.) Linker is at great pains to tie moral philosophy of the sort embraced by Fr. Neuhaus to specifically Catholic doctrine because, by so doing, he can then argue that Neuhaus’s advocacy offends “the liberal bargain.” But Linker’s liberal bargain is so narrowly defined that he has to rewrite most of American history to make his argument stick. In castigating Fr. Neuhaus for applying his distinctive brand of moral reasoning to constitutional matters, he ignores a long train of American moral and political figures who thought along similar lines. Consider John Adams, no lover of churches he, who wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In uttering that sentiment, Adams spoke for most members of the founding generation. Though for the most part an unchurched lot, they were hardly indifferent to the importance of morals in the effort to preserve republican liberty. Although Fr. Neuhaus most often speaks in the rhetorical rhythms associated today with the Catholic Church, there is nothing uniquely Catholic in what he has to say about the consequences of contemporary moral autonomism for the American regime. In The Naked Public Square (1984) and other writings to which Linker takes strong exception, Fr. Neuhaus harkens back to an earlier time when most citizens, regardless of sectarian differences, understood the necessity of controlling human appetites. Without that constraint, as Edmund Burke famously remarked, men forego their capacity for civil liberty.

Damon Linker is determined to keep religion out of the public square on the assumption that only by doing so can a decent neutrality be maintained regarding religious sentiment. But as Fr. Neuhaus has pointed out again and again, a religion-free public square is anything but neutral. That space will be filled, indeed is being filled, by the nostrums of relativism and the assertions of moral autonomy. It is hardly an idle question to ask whether the American proposition can be sustained under such conditions. And it is hardly un-American to argue, as Fr. Neuhaus does with passionate eloquence, that Christian thought has much to teach us about the nature and importance of an objective moral order. Just ask Earl Warren.