April 17, 2006

by Reb Yudel
Sulzburger soft-balls the theocons

For those needing a reminder of the New York Times irrelevance to American public discourse, check out their shallow review of the new Richard John Neuhaus memoir, Catholic Memoirs. You wouldn't guess that Neuhaus is not just another Catholic thinker, but a lynchpin of the Culture Wars, how-can-I-support-liberal-democracy-if-gays-are-fucking sort of Republican. But that would go against the official story line at the Times, handed down from the publisher, that the Evangelicals and other Christians are to be covered respectfully and gingerly, sort of like Hasidim when they're at the zoo and aren't rioting.

The difference, of course, being that the Christians have a political party and a good portion of the electorate behind them as they try to rebuild America in their image.

Credit to The New Republic, however, for running a lengthy review critiquing Neuhaus and painting a portrait of a man... well, remarkably like mainstream Orthodox Jews: Sure of their faith, and blind to the virtures of secular democracy. The tenor of the review, by Damon Linker, can be seen in the subtitle to his forthcoming book, The Theocons : Secular America Under Siege.

Needless to say, Neuhaus and his supporters are none too pleased; but then, I've never found it useful nor profitable to underestimate the prospects of religious extremists.

Alas, as you've probably discovered, the TNR link is no longer available to non-subscribers. Here, though, is a useful excerpt via Commonweal:

In his voluminous but remarkably consistent writings, Neuhaus has sought nothing less than to reverse the fortunes of traditionalist religion in modern America--to teach conservative Christians how to place liberal modernity, once and for all, on the defensive. Any attempt to come to terms with the religious challenge to secular politics in contemporary America must confront Neuhaus's enormously ambitious and increasingly influential enterprise.

And for some of the discussion about the review: Thomas Adams at Without Authority declares that "Linker's portrayal lacks the nuance required to understand a person like Neuhaus," yet "almost choke[s]" on his sandwich when he reads Neuhaus' response:

Unlike the authors of TNR, I really have no interest in capturing Catholicism for partisan political purposes. More than that, I find the very idea repugnant. Which, I am well aware, does not mean that others will not keep on trying.

To which Thomas Adams responds:

Can he be serious? Does he really believe that his brand of Catholicism is non-partisan, or that his opinions on current events are not shaped by partisan (i.e., Republican) allegiances? For goodness sakes, the man serves as an advisor to President Bush, who chumily calls him "Father Richard". Indeed, one of Neuhaus' real "triumphs" (one that I thought he openly acknowledged) has been the mobilization of a Catholic right that marches in lock-step with the Republican party, even when the Vatican opposes Republican policies (such as the war in Iraq, which Neuhaus continues to support, although his enthusiasm has dimmed considerably). Father Richard might not be scheming to create an American theocracy, but he shouldn't pretend that he hasn't tried to harness the power of Catholicism for political purposes.

Philocrites also offers a summary with quotes. And over at the Carpetbagger report, Morbo reminds us that
In one controversial First Things essay from 1991, Neuhaus opined that an atheist can be American citizen but never "a good citizen." Who are the good citizens? According to Neuhaus, only "those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus…."
Needless to say, Neuhaus fans are not pleased by Linker's review. (Linker is a former editor at First Things, the Neuhaus monthly, so there is clearly some behind-the-scenes bad blood at work). Here is part of one critique:
He [Linker] doesn’t understand the notion of "regime," he doesn’t understand the fundamental distinction between "separation" and "strict separation," he doesn’t understand that the Catholic intellectual tradition combines reason and Faith, he doesn’t understand the distinction between principle and prudence.
Ouch? I suspect Linker understands, even his critics refuse to admit, that doctrine is a pillar of poitical religious warfare -- but in the end, the sharp distinctions get lost in the blood and thunder.

Personally, I agree with Linker (as cited by NewDonkey) that
T]he America toward which Richard John Neuhaus wishes to lead us [is] an America in which eschatological panic is deliberately channeled into public life, in which moral and theological absolutists demonize the country's political institutions and make nonnegotiable public demands under the threat of sacralized revolutionary violence, in which citizens flee from the inner obligations of freedom and long to subordinate themselves to ecclesiastical authority, and in which traditionalist Christianity thoroughly dominates the nation's public life. All of which should serve as a potent reminder--as if, in an age marked by the bloody rise of theologically inspired politics in the Islamic world, we needed a reminder--that the strict separation of politics and religion is a rare, precious, and fragile achievement, one of America's most sublime achievements, and we should do everything in our power to preserve it. It is a large part of what makes America worth living in.
Want more? Over here, we can get some Neuhaus fans opining that Hitler was better than Weimar, and (implicitly) raising the suspicion that Linker's Jewish background may have led him to find Catholic Every Sperm (and Stem Cell) is Sacred theology too much to swallow; maybe he himself is one of those Jews conceived through the sort of In Vitro fertilization that the "pro-Life" movement finds so offensive. (Can a Catholic be loyal to a country that doesn't execute women who have abortions? Read the infamous First Things symposium on the topic over here.)

Reading more of the attacks on Linker (here, here, here here and here) I'm reminded of a fundamental conflict at the heart of intellectual conservative Christianity: For a religion of love, they killed a hell of a lot of Jews. Now, I know it's not politically correct to say it; and the Christian right (as well as their Jewish amen corner) go to great length to prove that only secular socialists and Muslims kill Jews; but that's just so much self-serving bullshit. It's hard to be part of an infallible Church with so much blood on their hands; or for that matter, a would-be-infallible Christian sect founded to protect the American institution of chattel slavery from those who would apply the Gospel of Jesus to black people.

Then again, that sort of doublethink is probably good practice for someone like Neuhaus. How else to explain the facility with which having condemned America for not following the Pope on abortion, he goes on to cheerlead the Iraq war which the Pope opposed? Credo quia absurdum est, I suppose.



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