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Friday, September 15, 2006

Damon Linker's Theocons

Damon Linker's The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege will be widely released next week, and the reviews are beginning to come forth. So I figure I ought to get my thoughts out there, before they get swamped by everyone else's. After all, I've followed this book closely for as long as Damon's been working on it.

Full disclosure: Damon is an old friend, and he thanks me and some other friends of ours in the acknowledgements to his book for all the arguments we've had over the years regarding this and many other topics. For that reason, my review of the book is probably a little different from most others; not necessarily better, but different. Most reactions to the book will probably fall into one of four groups: there will be the committed, self-described theocons themselves, who will attack Damon's descriptions of Father Richard Neuhaus and others, attack his motives for writing the book, and strongly defend their political activities and beliefs; there will be political and social conservatives who may or may not be aware of or care much about deeper religious and theoretical issues, but who will be bothered at the power Damon ascribes to the theocons, will insist that it is entirely legitimate to defend traditional moral values in the public square, and leave it at that; there will be liberals who are more or less sympathetic to religion, who don't like the First Things crowd but who will find Damon's book extreme and counterproductive in terms of advancing progressive causes in a very religious America; and finally, there will be secular liberals and libertarians who will agree with everything Damon has to say, and who won't need any convincing at all that his case is accurate.

I'm not in any of those groups, and Damon's political and intellectual journey is party responsible for that. I am where I am today, and have the take of The Theocons which I do, to a great extent exactly because I've been measuring my own beliefs against his claims the whole time he's been developing them. So consider this essay the partial payment of a debt.

Damon, who as everyone who knows at least one thing about this book already is aware, is the former editor of First Things; not only did he work closely with Neuhaus and others in developing theoconservative positions and arguments through the magazine for a number of years, but he also was a genuinely believer in many of the core principles which "theoconservatism" stands for. While several factors soured him on the theoconservative project, what ultimately distanced him from that agenda was his belief the present-day movement by many conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants to introduce greater public religiosity into American life, and by many of those in the Republican party to advance that religiosity through executive and legislative action, is simply "unprecedented in American history." This is where Damon and one large group of his critics (at least partially including myself) part company. They point to Martin Luther King and William Jennings Bryan; they point to the huge role which serious Christian belief and action have played in shaping our political rhetoric and institutions; they point to straightforward acceptance of an ecumenical religiosity which characterized almost all of American social life up through the 1950s, if not longer. Compared to all that, they argue, "theoconservatism" is nothing more than yet another religiously grounded accounting of and prescription for American politics, of which this very religious country has had hundreds over the years. Damon disagrees, and the substance of his disagreement comes down to how he sees Neuhaus and others of having developed a "public language of moral purpose." He writes, in a series of passages that I think gets at the real heart of his complaint:

In Neuhaus's view, this populist religious uprising [that is, the decline of the mainline Protestant establishment and the return of fundamentalist Protestantism to prominence and public debate in the 1970s and 80s, through the agency of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and such] demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that, despite its influence and prominence, secularism could never prevail in the United States. . . . Yet throughout the book Neuhaus also insisted that the triumph of secularism was an active possibility to be struggled against at all costs. . . . Relying on the writings of the Jesuit John Courtney Murray . . . Neuhaus argued that the public affirmation of some kind of absolute authority was inevitable because "transcendence abhors a vacuum." The attempt to expunge traditional religious faith from public life would thus end up empowering an "ersatz religion" of the state. . . . Hence, the true danger of the advance of secularism was not that it would succeed in creating a society without religion, but rather that "it will lead . . . to totalitarianism." Unless, that is, the country first experienced a violent rebellion on the part of those traditional believers who refused to go along with the establishment of the substitute state religion. . . .

The country's only hope of avoiding these nightmare scenarios was for it to embrace the reinvigoration of public religiosity--or, in the language of Neuhaus's chosen metaphor, to reclothe the public square. Yet it was far from clear how this should be accomplished. On the one hand, expressing a perennial sentiment, Neuhaus indicated that "populist resentment against the logic of the naked public square is a source of hope." On the other hand, however, simply allowing each and every religious group to bring its own distinctive truth claims to bear on public questions would not yield the authentic "voice of Christian America". . . . The case of the Moral Majority demonstrated this more vividly than any other. . . . [T]he religious agenda of the evangelicals was based almost entirely on publicly unverifiable subjective experiences of being "born again" in Jesus Christ. . . . The public comportment of the evangelicals thus threatened to set back the cause of revitalizing public religion by confirming the warning so liberal secularists about the inevitably private character of religious faith (pgs. 49-50).

So what, according to Damon, did Neuhaus believe had to be done? What was needed was a broadly authoritative and public religious language--which he found, in the 1980s, in Roman Catholic dogma:

In furthering this project, Neuhaus and [George] Wiegel drew heavily on the writings and example of . . . John Courtney Murray. . . . The theocons thoroughly endorses the Vatican's Murray-inspired thaw with regard to democracy and human rights, as did most Catholics in American and around the world. But equally important were a different and even more contentious set of arguments that Murray made about the character of the American political system itself. In Murray's view, the reason the United States had proven to be such an accommodating place for religion was that it "had preserved the political-philosophical heritage of medieval Christendom" . . . [T]he American founders upheld an "older wisdom" rooted in the political limits prescribed by Catholic "natural law". . . . Earlier in the century the responsibility for defending the country's moral and religious consensus against its assailants would have falledn to the Protestant churches, but now . . . the time had come for the Catholic Church to take on this responsibility . . . of preserving and even reconstituting America's theological essence. . . . As Wiegel wrote in a striking sentence that nicely summarizes the theocon position . . . :"The issue , Murray boldly claimed, was not whether Catholicism was compatible with democracy; it was whether American democracy could survive unless it reconstructed a public consensus around those 'elementary affirmations' upon which it was founded--'affirmations' whose roots Murray believed were not the original product of the Enlightenment and its American deist heirs, but of the Catholic medieval theory of man and society." Either the United States would return to its medieval Catholic roots or the very existence of its democratic order would be imperiled--those were America's only options (pgs. 70-72).

That was a lot of quoting, I know, but it is necessary in order to get at Damon's real, substantive argument: contemporary theoconservatism is different from past efforts to democratically maintain or expand the influence of religious principles and groups because it is sectarian and authoritarian in a way those past mergers of political agendas and spiritual witnesses were not. The theocons, in Damon's accounting, have crafted a "public language of moral purpose" that is constructed primarily or at least significantly around claims to naturally grounded, religiously orthodox imperatives--imperatives that, because of their organic connection to the American liberal order itself, are held to automatically carry an objective weight that makes all opposition to them not so much disagreements as potential instances of profound civic and moral treason. The practical, if unstated, aim of building one's theologico-political language in that way is thus not to generate perfect consensus--which is neither expected nor really needed--but rather to lead Christian majorities, even merely small ones, into feeling culturally justified in taking, and religiously required to take, extreme populist action. What Damon observes about some of Neuhaus's various statements in regards to atheists and Jews (both of whom he says can, of course, be citizens, but perhaps not entirely good ones, especially not if they insist on calling attention to themselves and their rights in such a way as to make themselves appear to be "strangers in their own [increasingly Christian] country"), and how such words contrast with the more ecumenical efforts (such as between Catholics and evangelical Protestants) that he is better known for, is just one example of the evidence he marshals to support his claim. So Damon's argument does make a distinction between the public religiosity of a Bryan or King and the religiosity of a Brownback or Dobson; his analysis does point to a difference between the religiously informed campaign against slavery in the 19th century, and the religiously informed campaign against stem-cell research today. Whether that difference amounts to the latter being fairly labeled "theocrats" is a separate issue; this basic distinction is Damon's real contribution to debates over religion and politics in America today.

As I said above, I'm only partially persuaded by his contribution; I tend to believe that folks like Bryan were in fact a good deal more orthodox and commited to developing sources of moral authority in and through their union of religion and politics than Damon would likely admit. But first, a couple of obvious caveats. One, Damon's claims about Neuhaus, Wiegel, and other members of the theocon movement are obviously all contestable. While I find many of his observations and arguments quite compelling, the fact is that Neuhaus & Co. are an astounding productive, passionate, voluble and varied bunch (just consider the sometimes head-scratchingly odd intellectual journeys some of these folks went on from the 1960s to the 1990s, as Damon details in the first chapter of his book). Moreover, they are first and foremost polemicists, extremely sensitive to the political tides. So it is not as though the "ideology" of theoconservatism, from what I can tell, is quite as complete as Damon sometimes seems to want to portray it; those more sympathetic to the First Things crowd than I (and the fact is I read it regularly, and find much that they publish smart and admirable) could no doubt go back through the archives of that journal and find any number of comments, claims, and counter-claims that modify or present in a different light much of what Damon asserts.

Two, and probably more importantly, what I've spelled out above is not what most people reading the book are going to get out of it. If the reader happens to be a secular liberal or libertarian, then the fine distinctions which Damon's analysis reveals between different forms of public religiosity are not going to matter; if it has to do with making (supposedly) private things like religion more "public," then they're against it. And if the reader is a theocon or at least a social or political conservative wanting to protect their side in the culture war and keep their bases of political power intact, the subtlety of Damon's argument will similarly be lost; all they'll see is another hysterical attack on the (quite reasonable) idea that politicians ought to employ religious ideas, particularly those which are manifestly popular with their constituents, in making policy. And frankly this result doesn't surprise me--because Damon himself, in my view, doesn't actually do nearly enough with the particular elements of theoconservatism which he analyzes. Instead, the book (which, to be fair, he intended to be read polemically anyway) invites unsubtle, either-or reactions. Damon has become a lot more secular over the years I've known him, and I think that as he worked through the enormous amount of material before him in order to craft his indictment of the theocons, he much too often employed, either explicitly or implicitly, straightforwardly (and rather easy) secular dismissals and arguments.

So, for example, he takes up Madison's writings on factions and applies it to religious denominations, concluding that above all the founders wanted to see a liberalized, disestablished, civic religious pluralism in America--thereby ignoring the important legal and historical argument that national disestablishment was meant to guarantee that the federal government would not interfere with the widely accepted and often quite orthodox public religious establishments in the states. He condemns populism at almost every opportunity, reading the populist elements of the theocon argument in light of the irrational "paranoia" that Richard Hofstadter and other midcentury liberals diagnosed as motivating all forms of popular discontent with mainstream secular liberalism--thereby ignoring the important ways in which the progressive roots of midcentury liberalism, in the Populists and the Progressives and even in the New Deal, were themselves often very publicly religious. He quotes (twice) President Kennedy, holding him up as an example of a properly secular liberalism--thereby ignoring the ways in which Kennedy had both the need and the luxury to make himself into a vanguard of secularism in an America (the need because he was a Catholic running in for president in a strongly and contentedly Protestant country; the luxury because, as a strongly and contentedly Protestant country, America at that time felt no more need to see Kennedy position himself in light whatever explicitly religious public concerns might have existed in 1960 than they did for Eisenhower to do the same eight years earlier, or for Truman before that). In short, Damon really does believe that the increasing mix of religion and politics is a bad thing--bad for religion, bad for social and educational and foreign policy, bad for American freedoms themselves--and is happy to say so, complete with occasional allusions to theocracy when it suits his purposes, even if that does what he frequently accuses the theocons of doing: reducing complicated issues to simplistic accusations. (Though again, to be fair, Damon is plainly aware of this; for better or worse, his aim was not to produce a work that didn't take sides.)

Damon's well aware that I'm disappointed in his having become enough of a secularist to be willing to bang the theocracy drum; he has similar disappointments in me, I'm sure. But let me, instead of going on about the flaws of the book (others who actually disagree with Damon more and have something invested in seeing elements of theoconservatism succeed for whatever reason can do that better than I), explain why I found it valuable nonetheless.

Unlike Damon, I don't see why I should think that increased levels of public religiosity, or even public responsiveness and limited incorporation of religion on the federal or state level through executive and legislative action, is necessarily a threat to that kind of social order which keeps our pluralistic society from falling into civil war. Damon knows that the theocons are not out-and-out Christian Reconstructionists; Neuhaus does not aim to recreate a reign of Hebraic judges. Thus, the practical threat he sees is not a potential theocratic attack on pluralism itself; rather, it is what he sees as theoconservatism's blithe willingness to play the majoritarian card in response to that pluralism. But such resistance to populist expressions invites, even demands, an argument about the place of majorities in one's scheme of democratic legitimacy, an argument that Damon does not provide. The closest he comes is in taking a few swipes here and there against the idea that sectarian, majoritarian expressions can ever be successfully discussed in light of the communitarian ideal of "civility," as opposed to being closely policed by a liberal regime of rights. Religious populism always turns, in Damon's view, secularism into a seeming enemy of "ordinary folks," and modern secularism is too delicate to be trusted to the masses.

I actually think there is an important truth here, but it is not the liberal one which Damon articulates. What is secularism? If it really is primarily a "stripping away" in some Rawlsian sense, the bracketing and veiling of metaphysical and spiritual commitments so that all that remains as a common, shared and/or public good is that which can be determined through the canons of rational discourse (whether Habermasian or utilitarian or Cartesian; take your pick), then plainly Damon's worry about the authoritarian meanings buried within contemporary theoconservatism is a real one. If you buy into the idea that modern life is atomized, denuded, individualized and deprived of meaning, then surely the last thing you would want would be to encourage the masses to engage in cultural uprisings, because the "culture" which would motivate them could not possibly aspire to any broader meaning; it would, rather, be narrowly built out of the aggregate consent of individuals. And the thing is, if you look at the many ways in which Neuhaus and other theoconservatives have defended the principles of liberalism, insisting that the liberal account of the individual and society is both accurate and workable assuming authoritative Catholic-Christian principles animate it, you have to conclude that most of them actually do by into this very account of secularism. Secular society has stripped down and made "naked" the liberal order; a religious revival is needed to clothe it again. But if this is so, that suggests that theoconservatism actually agrees with the liberal distinction between the public and private realm, which this account of secularism depends upon. In other words, the baseline problem with the modern world is that people have become too lenient in moving certain elements of human life from the public over into the private realm; the solution is not to change how people think about religion and public life, but simply rhetorically and politically get large numbers of individuals to move their religion out of their private world and into the public one. Neuhaus's pre-occupation with finding a language which is both public and authoritative thus makes sense; he wants to persuasively recast religion as something public and ordinary, something that popular majorities will agree and submit to, not because it is, say, the underlying structure of all human consciousness, but because we'll all, as individuals, consent to it (if we know what's good for us).

Looked at this way, Damon and Neuhaus really agree: the whole politico-theological problem in the modern world is, what do you fill up the public square with? Damon says its sufficiently full and authoritative; Neuhaus says it isn't. But really, they're just arguing over different sorts of content, rather than looking at the context within which the public square emerges.

In so doing, theoconservatism's drive to turn religion into ever stronger, firmer, more compelling public arguments sometimes does a real disservice to some of the great spiritual public figures of the past. One might be tempted to draw a Protestant-Catholic division here, and there may be some truth to that; whatever the weakness of Protestantism as a way to maintain the strength and flexibility of public religious presumptions over the long term, one thing it does always make clear is the level of subjective participation in that establishment, in contrast to legalistic readings of nature that present its authority in dogmatic terms. In Neuhaus's hands, Martin Luther King (whom, it must be said, Neuhaus knew well and greatly honors) sometimes seems turned around; rather than portraying King's religious call as a witness that brought people out against mainstream society, it gets turned into an argument about moral principles that are objectively right and thus must necessarily obtain. Yes, the civil rights movement was as interested as any other movement in using their moral authority to generate as many straight-up votes as possible; but it is wrong to imply that the power which civil rights movement wielded was anything other than the result of widespread, personalized, sectarian convictions, as opposed to a logically-driven consent to a particular religious doctrine. MLK shamed and praised America; he didn't catechize it.

What's going on here, I think, is that the theocons, as Damon notes several times in his book, want to believe, and sometimes say they believe, that the religious identity of Americans (and, when they get civilizational in their rhetoric, all of the West) is and always will be there, that it is a gift from God, a sign of God's hand in history....and yet, they don't actually act in accordance with that belief. Rather, they often essentially appear to be the sort of communitarians who think religious community actually isn't inevitable, that a secular and individualized world really is a functional possibility, and so religion and civil society must be fought for; they must be redeemed. But of course, as liberals at heart, or at least as conservatives who have reluctantly bought into liberal accounts of how modern society has secularized and moved away from religious community, the only way they can imagine actually fighting for religion is to transform it and its practitioners into authorities who, because they have nature on their side, you must logically consent to. They are, to borrow and turn around an old Vogelinian phrase, "eschatizing the immanent." Voegelin argued, anticipating Neuhaus (who for all I know has been greatly influenced by him), that human beings crave immanence; without religious or traditional orthodoxy to satisfy that craving, otherwise secular ideas will take the form of a kind of gnosticism, and the eschaton, the promise of salvation and completion which religion holds out, will be "immanentized." There's more to say on that subject; but for now, note simply that theocons commit this error in reverse: they are trying to take the end-times, the battles and judgments and absolutes of the last days, and make them present in presidential elections and foreign wars. They are trying to identify the immanent, the ordinary, the partisan, with the revelatory. And they probably feel they have to: if they don't, if they trust or even just allow the people to subjectively work out a religious order through their own spiritual experiences without objective eschatological guidance, then they're not going to generate enough populist force to win at the ballot box. In this, they may be right.

Of course, things aren't ever so theologically tidy. In practice, in real battles over abortion or divorce or public decency or any number of other social conservative concerns, coming up with good content matters, and hence I can still read First Things and benefit from it. And similarly Damon, in defending his secular priorities, can attack the content he reads therein. But I confess being sad that Damon didn't feel inclined to wonder if there isn't a completely different reading of secularism--one that sees it as part of the broader religious history of the West, one that doesn't implicitly accept the liberal account of things and thus unintentionally agree that modernity had stripped community away--which would suggest different ways of talking publicly about religion besides transforming it into something that can be perfectly aligned with a partisan agenda. (Though I guess I can't be too sad--if Damon's arguments hadn't forced me over the years to consider where I really thought the theocons had gone wrong, then I might not have ever been able to articulate how I think religion and public life can potentially go right.) There are, in fact, many of forms of deep and serious (even "conservative"!) piety that are obviously public but not in any sense driven by populist pre-occupations; populist sentiments themselves are, I think, quite abused when taken out of their subjective contexts and turned into an objectively accounted crusade. Among other things, that's when populism is most likely to become warlike, exclusionary, paranoid--qualities which I do not at all agree with Damon in thinking always characterize public religiosity, but which admittedly have graced the pages of First Things a fair amount lately, especially as things have turned bad for their champion, George W. Bush.

There is a religious discontent with modern liberal secularism in this country; this Damon knows. He would have rather the theocons had, at the first signs of that discontent, rejected public religiosity entirely, embraced the liberal account of secularism as not only correct but a wise compromise, and preached solely private resistance to changes in our culture. I'm glad they didn't; they have done good things with their influence, they've put issues on the agenda that might never have made it there otherwise. But now, with them fixated, at least as Damon persuasively presents them, on their current path of preaching unity between moral truth and popular power and partisan success, I think they need some serious correction. If Damon's book can help provide it, more power to him.


Silus Grok said...

( Did you notice that you were mentioned  over at the Crunchy Con's blog? )

Posted by Silus Grok

Anonymous said...

"MLK shamed and praised America; he didn't catechize it."

This is a wonderful line. I am still thinking about whether I have anything else to say on this... 

Posted by Nate Oman

Anonymous said...

If you look at the quotation from Weigel that Linker says summarizes the theocon position, and then look at Linker’s summary of it, you can discern the elementary error that governs his whole book. Weigel’s summary of John Courtney Murray has a twofold thrust: first, the political/ethical judgment that this country needs to return to “those ‘elementary affirmations’ upon which it was founded”; and second, the historical claim that those affirmations ”were not the original product of the Enlightenment and its American deist heirs, but of the Catholic medieval theory of man and society.” Then Linker’s summary: “Either the United States would return to its medieval Catholic roots or the very existence of its democratic order would be imperiled.” But of course neither Weigel nor Murray says that, as is obvious to any competent or fair-minded reader. They say that America needs to return to those “affirmations” themselves in order to be politically and morally healthy; they don’t say anything about returning to “medieval Catholic roots.” (Since no one in the history of American governance has been aware of those supposed roots, “returning” would scarcely be the right word anyway, would it?) They obviously would prefer people to see the justice of their historical argument — that the picture of humanity that guided the Founders was not invented in the eighteenth century — but it is not necessary that anyone accept that argument in order to accept the affirmations about human dignity and value that reigned at this country’s founding. (As it happens, I don’t think their history, on this point, is very good.) So there is actually nothing “sectarian” at all about the claims that Weigel and Murray are making. But by inaccurately combining the two claims into one, Linker is able, he hopes, to create an impression of sectarianism. And I’m sure he will succeed. No one has ever gone broke by telling one segment of the American public that their political opponents are scheming monsters bent on taking over the world. 

Posted by Alan Jacobs

Russell Arben Fox said...

Alan, I respect what you're saying, but the key point in your criticism is the nature of these "affirmations." If I agreed with you that Weigel and Neuhaus were primarily looking to revive/restore/revivify Christian and communal precepts that formed the background for America's political traditions and institutions, I'd have far more complaints about Damon's book than I already do. But the fact is that I am  persuaded that the contemporary theocon project goes beyond what you describe. I think the real insight to be found in Damon's survey of their writings is not his criticism of their historiography (as you note, that is in some cases a fairly easy target), but what they hope that historiography (and sociology, etc.) will help accomplish: the construction of a public language of religiosity that makes a certain dogmatism--one which gets associated with a single political agenda--incumbent upon those who wish to show fidelity to the American experiment. That's not a project of broad spiritual revivification; that's a project aimed at engaging and empowering specific sets of believers into acting in concert. And as I try to say in my review, I think that is theologically problematic within a liberal context. Among other things, it plays to some very negative elements of populism--and as I'm something of a populist, I would like to protect that political perspective from all possible (even unintentional) abuses. If populist sentiments--the weak against the powerful, the masses against the elites--which arise organically from our society are interpreted as conforming to a specific, objective religiosity, that's a recipe for danger, a danger that, for example, did not much characterize the work of those spiritually and morally energized by the religious language of Martin Luther King or a dozen other such revivalists. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...

Yep, I did notice Silus. Thanks for letting me know though; it's good to find out that I personally know at least one other reader of Dreher's blog!

Thanks for the compliment Nate.

Anonymous said...

Linker's book seems to have missed the FT counter attack against the recent spate of theocracy books. (See here ) Was this political, or was the timing on Linker's book simply off? 

Posted by Nate Oman

Russell Arben Fox said...

I don't know what Damon himself would say, Nate, but having followed the book through it's development, I would guess that the manuscript was probably much too far along to incorporate Douthat's arguments in FT  by the time his essay appeared. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

Russell -- you say that theocons are dangerous because they desire:

the construction of a public language of religiosity that makes a certain dogmatism--one which gets associated with a single political agenda--incumbent upon those who wish to show fidelity to the American experiment. That's not a project of broad spiritual revivification; that's a project aimed at engaging and empowering specific sets of believers into acting in concert. 

Here's where you lose me by becoming far too abstract and fuzzy -- which, no offense, seems to characterize some of your points in the post as well. I read that, and I read it again, and again, and I still have no idea what it means in concrete, real-world terms. Are you saying that theocons are dangerous because, say, they argue against the governmental recognition of gay marriage? That would hardly work here; until just within the past few years, nobody on earth recognized gay marriage, so the fact that the theocons make arguments for this position hardly marks them as a dangerous novelty in the American experiment.

Well, maybe you're not talking about gay marriage. But do be specific: What *specifically* does it mean for a "certain dogmatism" to be "incumbent upon those who wish to show fidelity to the American experiment." Dogmatism about what? Incumbent HOW? Are you merely saying that if people don't agree with the dogmatic beliefs (which ones?) of Neuhaus, he'll write another Public Square column in which he deems that his opponents are not showing fidelity to the American experiment? In other words, Neuhaus might -- gasp -- make an argument about something? How on earth is that supposed to be frightening? How does it affect anyone's actual life?  

Posted by Anono

Anonymous said...

Also, since you seem to have known Linker for a long time, what do you suppose really propelled his seemingly dramatic conversion from a theocon into an author of a book denouncing theocons as an unprecedented danger to America? Isn't it a bit weird? After all, I understand (from early reviews) that Linker uses especially harsh language in denouncing the "End of Democracy" symposium from First Things. Yet that symposium took place in 1996, and it wasn't until 2001 that Linker started working at First Things. So the symposium couldn't have bothered him THAT much. What really occurred in the meantime to trigger his distaste?


Posted by Anono

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Russell, I was non compos mentis for a few days. I think the key phrase in your response is "the construction of a public language of religiosity." What the theocons, as far as I can tell from my unsystematic reading of them, say  is that they want to (re)construct a public language of morality. As Americans, they say, they want to restore a strong moral language as the cement of public life and discourse; as Christians, of course, they wouldn't mind if people followed the trail back from the morality to the religion that gave rise to the morality, but that's not their actual project. Linker insists that the moral language is just a smokescreen for a program that is essentially and consciously religious. And what I say is: where's the evidence? I have tried to find in his book and elsewhere one clear piece of evidence to support the thesis, but I haven't turned it up yet. I'm not saying it doesn't exist — if you can find it for me, I's be obliged to you. As far as I can see, Linker simply assumes the truth of his thesis, suspiciously interprets the writings of Neuhaus et al. in light of that thesis, and calls that evidence. But the way he conducts his prosecution makes his thesis non-falsifiable. If the theocons don't own up to their nefarious scheme, that just shows how deeply nefarious it really is.  

Posted by Alan Jacobs

Russell Arben Fox said...


Sorry I've been away for a while; I had a conference last week that kept me busy. Thanks for contributing your thoughts.

"Are you saying that theocons are dangerous because, say, they argue against the governmental recognition of gay marriage?...What *specifically* does it mean for a 'certain dogmatism' to be 'incumbent upon those who wish to show fidelity to the American experiment.' Dogmatism about what? Incumbent HOW?"

You're reading too much into my review on the one hand, and not enough on the other. First, please note that I never in my review call the theocons "dangerous"; that's Damon's label, not mine. Now, I do think Damon has shown (if one can avoid being distracted by his polemical overreaching) an important way in which what they are doing is damaging or troublesome, but that hardly warrants paranoia over their influence. I think what Neuhaus, et al, have had to say about gay marriage and whatever else is as legitimate a part of the national debate as what anyone else has or will have to say.

What Damon has helped me to see, however, is that there is something worrisome about a religious language which states that 1) America's soul (as revealed through history, etc.) is defined by natural laws; 2) natural laws can only be effectively understood and instantiated through Catholic Christianity; and so therefore 3) American politicians and political movements that do not derive their principles from Catholic Christianity are not just purusing immoral ends, but are also pursuing unAmerican  ends. As someone who has learned much from the Catholic Christian tradition, I admit to being bothered by--even, yes, a little frightened by--a group of people seem intent on arguing that existing partisan arrangements (the Republican party, George W. Bush, etc.) are near-perfectly adaptable to that tradition, and that anyone who accepts the authority of that tradition must logically accept its present-day realization with the GOP platform.

Why do I find that frightening? I guess because I really don't think appeals to religious authority ought to be used to transform very particular political battles into referendums on one's place in the enternities. Majoritarain democracy is not a very appropriate tool for developing a religious worldview. I think what Damon has gotten right is that the theocons do not see any problem with identifying the articulation of religious dogmas with the development of a political platform. But there are problems with that; among other things, as I say in my review, it brings out the worst elements of populism, encouraging people to see their salvation and their citizenship as one, and thus to also see their opponents as both unAmerican and as their theological enemies. Which is not a healthy thing for any polity. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...

Also Anono,

"What do you suppose really propelled his seemingly dramatic conversion from a theocon into an author of a book denouncing theocons as an unprecedented danger to America? Isn't it a bit weird?"

I don't know if it's "weird"; admittedly, such turnarounds like that aren't common, but they aren't unheard of either. I actually do know a fair amount about Damon's intellectual/spiritual journey over the last several years, but I don't think it's my place to talk about it. I'm sure he'll write about it himself in the future. In the meantime, check out his new blog--appropriately titled The Apostate . 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...


I also apologize for being a little slow in getting back to this.

"I think the key phrase in your response is 'the construction of a public language of religiosity.' What the theocons, as far as I can tell from my unsystematic reading of them, say is that they want to (re)construct a public language of morality. As Americans, they say, they want to restore a strong moral language as the cement of public life and discourse; as Christians, of course, they wouldn't mind if people followed the trail back from the morality to the religion that gave rise to the morality, but that's not their actual project."

Ok, now this is a serious challenge to what I take from Damon's book; if what the theocons really do want to do involves the construction of a morality  within the liberal order through appeals to American history and its Christian roots, etc., then much of my concern about them falls. Generating a moral consensus is not, I think, a bad conceptual fit (to say the least!) with majoritarian politics in the way generating a public religion is.

I'll have to think about this for a while, and do some more reading. My initial take, however, is to think you're eliding some of the evidence Damon generates, however indirect it may appear. There is their frequent presumption (on display most recently in Robert George's claim that, logically, every serious Christian needs to be vote Republican) that moral arguments which are solely based on appeals to the authority of the natural law tradition are entirely and uncomplicatedly applicable to political questions of the day. There are Neuhaus's comments about the place of atheists and Jews in a Christian country. There is their constant invocation of America's Christian tradition as something we need to show "fidelity" to, as opposed to something which can be used as part of an ongoing (presumably "moral") interpretation of America's meaning. I admit one could probably argue that none of these amount to anything necessarily "dogmatic" or relious in some institutional sense; as I said, I'm going to have to think about your challenge Alan. But I don't think the answer is as obvious as you suggest. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to say that the answer is obvious, Russell. I should say that, insofar as I understand the natural-law tradition, I am not (to coin a phrase) a natural-lawyer. I have serious reservations about the usefulness of natural-law language in intra-Christian debates as well as debates with others. But I am not a political philosopher either, so I may be missing or misunderstanding something in the tradition. I am just saying that I do not see in Linker's book anything that could be construed as evidence for his key claim unless the validity of the key claim is already assumed.  

Posted by Alan Jacobs

Noah said...

"One might be tempted to draw a Protestant-Catholic division here, and there may be some truth to that" 

Quite a lot of truth, I think.

I haven't read Damon Linker's book yet, and I'm very much looking forward to doing so. But it seems to me that the difference between MLK and WJB on the one hand and Neuhaus on the other is that the former are Protestant while the latter is Catholic - by which I don't mean simply to call attention to their religious affiliations but to the nature of their religious inspiration.

It is very hard for Linker to argue that America has not admitted religiously-based crusades into the public square: abolitionism, temperance and anti-evolutionism are all obvious counter-examples. What is notable about the difference between these crusades and the crusade against abortion is *not* that the abortion cause is sectarian while these are more universal; if anything, the *opposite* is true. Bryan and Garrison were far *more* likely to argue from scripture than is Neuhaus; the temperance crusaders were often *explicitly* sectarian in that their crusade was sometimes overtly and almost always implicitly anti-Catholic.

Linker's objection can't be that the theocons ally religion to politics, because that's an old tradition in America. Rather, I think his objection is that they ally *reason* to *religion* (or, arguably, subordinate reason to religion, make reason the instrumental tool of religion) - and that's not a *political* project of the *theocons* but a *religious* project of the Catholic church, one that goes back at least to Aquinas if not further.

So I suspect that Linker's argument really *is* an anti-Catholic argument, rather than an argument about the proper boundaries between religion and politics in America.

Mind you, I don't mean that disparagingly. There is nothing wrong with making an anti-Catholic argument. I'm a Jew; I think Catholic teaching on a whole host of issues is literally and profoundly wrong. And I don't have much use for a religious version of PC that rules out of bounds certain kinds of criticism as "anti-religious bigotry." But I believe in calling a spade a spade. And if Linker doesn't have a problem with a scripture-quoting William Jennings Bryan denouncing teaching our kids that we're descended from apes, but he worries about theocracy when Robert George says that any reasonable person conversant with biology who believes that murder is wrong *must* support the abolition of abortion, well, let's just say I think I've made my point. 

Posted by Noah

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks very much for stopping by--as well as for prompting that long and revealing post  of Damon's.

"Linker's objection can't be that the theocons ally religion to politics, because that's an old tradition in America. Rather, I think his objection is that they ally *reason* to *religion* (or, arguably, subordinate reason to religion, make reason the instrumental tool of religion)--and that's not a *political* project of the *theocons* but a *religious* project of the Catholic church, one that goes back at least to Aquinas if not further."

Yes and no. Damon himself in his book does not draw the distinction I do between revivalists like WJB and MLK, and the theocons. Unfortunately, I think this makes some of the arguments he makes about the incompatibility of formal religious appeals to political action and secular political presumptions a little simplistic. The better side of Damon's argument does reveal that distinction, however, and that's what I focus on. Is the better side of that argument also, by implication, an anti-Catholic one? I'm not sure. It may be.

While it is certainly true that Catholicism is far more willing to, as you put it, turn reason into "the instrumental tool of religion," and thus presumably is a lot more likely to seek out a language of truly "public" (but also dogmatic) authority than Protestantism, I'm not sure if that captures the whole story. The Thomistic synthesis, with all its political claims, nonetheless was understood as embodying the natural political order; there was no question of building majority support for the Thomistic "agenda." Whereas, in my reading of Damon's argument at least, the theocons are revealed as moderns and quasi-liberals who really do think about their use of the natural law in terms of an "agenda." This places them against the modern world, but simultaneously committed to using the modern world's tools. If this is a problem which is peculiar to Catholicism, it is also peculiar to this specific group of people who seem to think that they can use reason to remind people of natural Christian foundations as well as build populist majorities simultaneously. I would insist that the latter is a project that needs to be and ought to take place through subjective conviction and conversion, a point that Protestant evangelists have perhaps historically been more aware of, even if they haven't always articulated it theologically. (Of course, now that so many evangelicals have themselves adopted the language of Catholicism for different reasons, perhaps the issue is moot.) 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, Damon seems to have deleted his blog. Wonder why.

Anonymous said...

Where did Linker's blog go? Do you know Mr. Fox? 

Posted by joe strummer