The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege

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9780385516471: The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege
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George W. Bush has gone out of his way to blur the line between religion and politics in America—this is acknowledged by his strongest supporters no less than by his most strident critics. The most common explanation of the president’s religious agenda points to rise of evangelical Protestantism. Yet as Damon Linker demonstrates in his groundbreaking book, an exclusive focus on the role of evangelicals misses the heart of the story. At its core, the Bush administration’s overt religiosity represents the triumph of an ideological movement that for the past several decades has devoted itself to fashioning a theocratic governing philosophy for the United States—a governing philosophy rooted in Roman Catholicism. Led by Father Richard John Neuhaus, this group of “theoconservatives” has actively sought to roll back the division of church and state in American life.
The election of 2000 brought the theocons to the peak of political power and influence in Washington. Their ideas inspire the most controversial and divisive policies of the Bush administration—policies whose ultimate goal is nothing less than the end of secular politics in America.

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About the Author:

Damon Linker is a Senior Writing Fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Policy Review, The Public Interest, The Review of Politics, The Review of Metaphysics, and the American Behavioral Scientist. From May 2001 to February 2005, he worked under Richard John Neuhaus at First Things—first as associate editor of the journal, then as its editor. Prior to joining the magazine, he taught political philosophy at Brigham Young University and served as a speechwriter for New York’s Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Linker studied history, philosophy, and writing at Ithaca College, graduating with a BA in 1991. He went on to earn an MA in European history from New York University and a Ph.D. in political science from Michigan State University. Born in New York City, Linker currently lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two children.
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1

THE ORIGINS OF AN IDEOLOGY
Red state and blue state, conservative and liberal, pro-Bush and anti-Bush, prolife and prochoice, religious and secular--the culture war that divides America is about many things, but it is in large part about the legacy of the 1960s. Most "blue" Americans feel at peace with the cultural revolution that began roughly four decades ago, believing that for all of its excesses the decade of the 1960s made the country freer and more just than it once was. Others, however, are more troubled. Some of these "red" Americans feel deeply ambivalent about the profound cultural changes wrought by the 1960s, while still others take a more strident view, convinced that the decade inaugurated a period of moral decadence that continues to this day, diminishing the nation, coarsening its culture, corrupting its children. Theoconservative ideology has played a crucial role in legitimizing this last view--the outlook of those who take it as axiomatic that (in the words of founding theocon Richard John Neuhaus) the 1960s were "a slum of a decade."(1)

But this highly tendentious account of the 1960s obscures the historical record, which shows that the theocons themselves were once enthusiastic participants in the very activities they now passionately decry. During the 1960s, Neuhaus was moved by his religious faith to join the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, flanking Martin Luther King Jr. in protest marches, clashing with Mayor Daley's police force on the streets of Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Although a well-known advocate of free-market capitalism and cultural conservatism today, theocon Michael Novak, too, was a member of the far left during the 1960s, advocating a religiously inspired revolution in consciousness that would lead the country toward greater freedom in all areas of life, including sexuality. For both men, participating in leftist political agitation was a means of bringing the country into greater conformity with its own principles of justice and freedom, which they understood in explicitly religious terms.

After the 1960s, these figures of the far left would migrate right, sometimes gradually, sometimes in sudden lurches. This chapter tells the story of how, between the mid-1960s and the publication of Neuhaus's seminal The Naked Public Square in 1984, these two radicals became the authors of the ideology that currently dominates the Republican Party and, increasingly, the nation as a whole. The story is, in many of its details, one of dramatic change--from sweeping criticism of the United States and its policies to a defense of the country in theological terms, from a passion for political violence to an enthusiastic justification of capitalism, from support for the sexual revolution to intense hostility to its cultural effects. Through all these changes, however, Neuhaus and Novak would remain political radicals, patriots to an America they believed to be deeply and pervasively religious, and agitators who delighted in challenging political authority in the name of their faith. In the 1960s, their religious ideals inspired them to fight for greater justice and freedom in the United States. Two decades later, those same ideals convinced them that above all else the country needed to combat the spread of secularism and push for the expansion of public religiosity. Both positions derived from the same theological sources.
QUESTIONING AUTHORITY

Richard John Neuhaus always had a troubled relationship to authority. Born on May 14, 1936, in the agrarian community of Pembroke, Ontario, Richard was the sixth son of a conservative Lutheran pastor, Clemens Neuhaus (there were eight children in all). Nicknamed "The Pope" by his seminary classmates, Clemens was a stern authority figure--one whom, according to Richard, "you did not directly cross . . . without direct repercussions."(2) Pastor Neuhaus's decision to send his son to a Lutheran high school in Nebraska, several hundred miles away from the family, may have been one such repercussion. Continuing his pattern of youthful defiance, Richard managed to get himself expelled from the school by the age of sixteen. Over the next few months, the teenage Neuhaus became a naturalized American citizen and relocated to Cisco, Texas, where he ran a gas station and grocery store, becoming the youngest member of the local chamber of commerce.(3) Eventually resolving to follow in the footsteps of his father by becoming a Lutheran minister, he somehow managed to get around his lack of a secondary school diploma to gain admittance to and graduate from Concordia College in Austin, Texas. He completed his pastoral training at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis; ordination followed in 1960.

From the beginning of his ministry, Neuhaus proved himself to be a highly unusual Lutheran. As the leader of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther had taught that an unbridgeable, infinite chasm exists between human law, which is inevitably flawed, and the gospel's message of perfect, unconditional love. This teaching, which is often called the "two kingdoms" theory, has been criticized for producing complacent citizens who react to political injustice with indifference, in the belief that it would be an act of prideful impiety to expect better from human institutions. At its best, the Lutheran emphasis on human imperfection can encourage political wisdom and humility, as it did, for example, in the case of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose writings and political activity in the middle decades of the twentieth century were models of moderation and responsibility.

Although he clearly admired Niebuhr and at times even liked to think of himself as his successor, the young Reverend Neuhaus very quickly showed himself to be a theological and political radical who planned to treat his preaching as an occasion for political protest--for narrowing and even eliminating the gap between Luther's two kingdoms. Drawing on more volatile, eschatological strands in the Christian tradition and feeding off of his own irrepressible rebelliousness, Neuhaus made a habit of disobeying temporal political authorities in the name of upholding and enforcing a higher, divine authority whose wishes he (along with a few like-minded allies) had somehow managed to discern. It was an explosive mixture--one in which the very longing to obey encouraged acts of disobedience.

Neuhaus fell into this radical pattern very soon after his ordination. After a short stint as a pastor in the small town of Massena, New York, Neuhaus requested and received a difficult inner-city assignment--to take over St. John the Evangelist, a parish straddling the neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. The German immigrants who worshipped at St. John's had long ago begun their flight from the area, and very few of the recent arrivals (most of them black and desperately poor) were Lutherans. When Neuhaus arrived in April 1961, there were two dozen regular parishioners, and the church was on the verge of being shut down for good. Over the next few years, the charismatic and articulate minister revived the church by turning it into a vibrant center for political agitation--in favor of civil rights, and against the Vietnam War.(4)

At first Neuhaus's political activity focused on local issues in New York City, but before long he began to take on the authority of the federal government, at home and abroad. Like many activists of the time, he portrayed his protest as an effort to bring the country into greater conformity with its own democratic ideals--though Neuhaus invariably viewed those ideals through the lens of his piety, as expressions of a moral vision ultimately traceable to God. In the fall of 1965, after President Lyndon Johnson insinuated that all opposition to American military policy in Vietnam bordered on treason, Neuhaus signed a declaration with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Father Daniel Berrigan defending their God-given and patriotic right to engage in prophetic protest. Within weeks the three men founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam (eventually renamed Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, or CALCAV), the most important religiously based antiwar organization of the time.(5) The following summer, Neuhaus led an Independence Day fast in order to draw attention to the injustice of American actions in Vietnam.(6) Soon he began to act as the New York liaison for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in his attempt to bring the civil rights movement, which had begun and flourished in the rural South as a religiously inspired crusade for justice, to the slums of the urban North.(7) But perhaps nothing captures Neuhaus's distinctive combination of religious faith, hostility to political authority, and patriotic reverence for the ideals of his adopted homeland more than his decision to lead his parish in a protest at which young people were invited to turn in their draft cards at the altar--provided they did so while singing "America the Beautiful."(8)

As the decade progressed and the protest movement began to question authority more radically, Neuhaus's own rhetoric and actions grew increasingly extreme. Challenging St. Paul's injunction in his Letter to the Romans to obey lawful political authorities, Neuhaus spoke of the need to build a "vital and virile subculture" that would "knock out some of the mythology of Romans 13, . . . [and] this whole notion that they [the powers that be] know more than we do."(9) He even went so far as to insinuate in his sermons that the Vietnam War might very well be divine punishment for the collective sins of the United States, describing the Vietnamese people as "God's instruments for bringing the American empire to its knees."(10) By the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention...

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