The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege
by Damon Linker
Doubleday. 288 pp. $26.00
If you find the neocons—that much-talked-about Jewish conspiracy—scary, you will be downright terrified to learn about their Catholic cousins, the “theocons.” Although this latter cabal is almost ridiculously compact, consisting essentially of three individuals—Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel—the “stealth campaign” it has waged to “build . . . institutions and form . . . alliances” has been so insidiously effective as to “propel [the thecons’] ideas into the White House.”
So argues Damon Linker after spending several years in the very belly of the beast at the theocons’ flagship journal, First Things. Ideologically, Linker informs us in this exposé, the theocons are like neocons, but with a twist. They think not only about politics but also about God, and about the relation between the two. Thus, Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and the founder and editor-in-chief of First Things, has not only worked tirelessly to infuse religious sensibilities into debates about public issues but, in Linker’s words, wishes us “to believe that God is watching and judging every act we make as individuals and as a nation.” Similarly, Novak, a Catholic thinker best known for The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1980), believes that social systems should be viewed as matrices of mutually reinforcing political, economic, and “moral-cultural” planes, in which religious ideas do and should play a big part. Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, works the foreign-policy side of the street by proposing Catholic “just war” doctrine as a framework for evaluating contemporary American decisions to employ military might.
Slavishly advancing the dictates of the Vatican, the theocons, in Linker’s judgment, already endanger the free practice of science and of birth control. If they have their way, things will become far worse. They will saddle us with “a future in which American politics and culture have been systematically purged of secularism,” in which “the separation of church and state as we have known it will cease to exist,” in which “anti-Judaism [will] be reborn in America,” and in which “the Constitution of the United States [will be brought] into conformity with the moral and sexual worldview of the Vatican.” Even if they do not succeed in all this, the theocons will surely “lead us back to a world of religiously inspired social and political strife from which the American founders worked so hard to liberate us.”
The person at the heart of Linker’s story is Neuhaus. In a 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus, then a Lutheran pastor disenchanted with his own youthful leftism, decried the banishment of religious sensibility from American public life. As Linker tells it, he also observed that evangelical Protestants, the group most insistently advancing a religiously based agenda, were too insular and too subjective in their religiosity to carry the cause to a wider public. Together with Novak and Weigel, he developed the insight that Catholicism, with its tradition of natural-law reasoning, offered a stronger basis than evangelical Protestantism for a political platform with broad appeal.
Taking to heart the normative power of Catholic doctrine, Neuhaus converted to the Roman church and was ordained a priest. Then—Linker’s narrative continues—the trio set out to assemble a wider Catholic-evangelical coalition capable of reversing America’s secular tide, and even recruited a few Orthodox Jews as fellow travelers. Seeking a political figure who might serve as a spear-carrier, they came upon the bornagain George W. Bush, who according to Linker adopted Neuhaus as something of a spiritual mentor.
The access to power afforded by the Bush presidency invigorated the theocons’ drive to clothe the “public square” in ecclesiastical vestments, putting new bite into the ongoing campaign against abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, sexual freedom, and “the modern [i.e., non-traditional] family.” Thus energized, they will, Linker assures us, stop at nothing in their determination to create a de-secularized America. “Neuhaus made it very clear,” he writes (without offering a direct quotation), “that he believed it was perfectly legitimate for the country’s Catholic-Christian consensus to be established and maintained by force.”
With the cabal’s intentions thus chillingly manifest, how to assess its impact so far? Linker offers an illustration. In 1962, addressing the nation at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy found it sufficient to close his somber remarks with the phrase, “good night.” In 2001, addressing the nation in the wake of 9/11, President Bush not only called upon God to “bless the souls of the departed” but finished with “God bless America.” From these contrasting speeches, Linker infers that “something”—that is, something very bad—“has happened to the United States during the past four decades.”
No doubt something has. But is it true that public life has become or is on the verge of becoming dominated by religious sensibility? It would hardly appear so. Abortion, illegal in Kennedy’s time, has been legalized, and efforts to restrict it have succeeded only at the margins. Divorce is easier and more common. Contraceptives are more varied and plentiful and more readily available. Premarital sex is more widespread, as are births out of wedlock. Sex education in the public schools is ubiquitous. Marriage between homosexuals is recognized legally in some localities and by some employers. Gambling, no longer a monopoly of the state of Nevada, is available legally around the country. Pornography is the leading product sold on the Internet. Euthanasia, although still rare, is practiced with relative impunity. Embryonic stem-cell research, restricted though it still is, receives billions of dollars in support, mostly from state governments. Living creatures have been cloned, and humans may not be far behind.
In short, the theocons and their allies, whether right or wrong in their beliefs, are far from having brought about a more sanctified America. If anything, they would seem to be fighting a rear-guard action against the relentless liberalization of norms.
So why this book? The answer would appear to be that whatever has happened to the United States, something has certainly happened to Damon Linker. Around the time he went to work for First Things in 2001—he was then also writing for other conservative journals, including Policy Review, National Review, and COMMENTARY—he penned a lengthy encomium to Pope John Paul II, whose many writings stood in Linker’s judgment as “a reminder of the greatness of which the human mind is capable when it sets itself to the task of understanding.” Five years later, the Pope appears in Linker’s book only as a stubborn reactionary.
What happened, clearly, is that (for reasons unexplained) Damon Linker has turned Left, and this leftward turn has launched him on a crusade—the term is inevitable—to unmask and undo the insidious influence of the dogma to which he himself once succumbed. The sharpness of this turn is apparent not only in his attitudes but in his ferocious rhetoric. Thus, he refers to U.S. foreign policy as the work of “the world’s God-intoxicated hegemon.” He accuses Michael Novak of having once been a “rabid populist,” Neuhaus of “making moral judgments in a condition of self-imposed ignorance of the facts,” and theocons in general of viewing “the modern family [with] abomination.” Especially virulent is his treatment of Catholicism:
All the early modern liberals viewed the Catholic Church as the greatest obstacle to establish free government in the Western world. . . . Catholicism seemed to be the religious “faction” least likely to play by the rules of a pluralistic liberal order. These fears were confirmed in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Church became the most powerful reactionary force on the continent. . . . [Today] the Church remains (and under Pope Benedict XVI is likely to remain) a profoundly authoritarian institution.
One cannot help wondering how Linker would square these sweeping judgments, especially the last, with the fact that more than 90 percent of the world’s countries with majority Catholic populations—including those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—practice democracy today. But one wonders in vain. Throughout, he spends much more time tracing the ascendancy of the supposed cabal and describing the peril it poses to American democracy than in debating the ideas of his subjects, which he takes to be selfevidently malign.
That is a pity, since some of those ideas have in fact been highly debatable. In 1996, for example, focusing on a number of recent Supreme Court decisions concerning abortion and cognate issues, the editors of First Things devoted a special symposium, “The End of Democracy?,” to what they regarded as a wholesale judicial usurpation of power in America. Agreeing with this premise, several contributors to the symposium inveighed against the current American “regime” in terms suggesting that it had altogether forfeited its claim to democratic legitimacy. The editors’ introductory statement went so far as to raise the possibility of a citizens’ revolt, one that might take forms ranging “from non-compliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution.”
This notorious episode in the history of the theocons caused bitter splits not only between them and some of their allies on the Right but also within their own ranks, leading to the outraged resignation of a number of members of the magazine’s editorial board. A vigorous discussion of the entire contretemps can be found in a February 1997 symposium in COMMENTARY, “On the Future of Conservatism,” whose contributors were invited to respond explicitly to the “radicalizing mood revealed in the First Things symposium.” But Linker’s recounting of this event, which was known to him before he signed on as an associate editor at First Things, as well as of similarly troubling episodes during his tenure there, succeeds only in raising a question. Why did he join and eventually accept the editorship of a journal with which, somewhere along the way, he came to disagree so vehemently? For an answer to this, too, the reader will search in vain.
There is a rich body of first-person literature devoted to tracing political odysseys. Usually the journey is one from the Left rightward, a journey encapsulated in the much-quoted aperçu of Georges Clemenceau, who as a fiery leftist newspaperman published Emile Zola’s historic “J’Accuse” only to serve in later life as a conservative prime minister of France: “Any man who is not a socialist when he is twenty has no heart, and any who is still a socialist when he is forty has no brain.”
There are also accounts of those who have migrated in the opposite direction. In recent years, the journalist David Brock moved leftward from the American Spectator, and Michael Lind did likewise from National Review and the National Interest. Each wrote about his experience less in order to explain himself than in order to trash his former colleagues and benefactors.
Linker’s book is unfortunately of the latter genre. On the final page, he writes that “I harbor no ill will toward the individual theocons, least of all my former boss, Richard John Neuhaus.” This is self-evidently true—in the sense that far from “harboring” any ill will, he pours it forth in a torrent. A work of explanation and of self-examination might have been worth reading. This breathless and tedious traducing of former comrades is something else again.