The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Doubleday, 2006), 288 pp., $26.
The history of our era seems to move in tragic circles, strangely analogous to those presented symbolically in Greek tragedy. The democratic nations of the world are involving themselves more inexorably in world catastrophe by their very efforts to avert or to avoid it. . . . Why are democratic nations so tragically committed to this dance of death?
Christianity and Power Politics (1940)
The war in Iraq, tragic though it may be, provides an occasion for some sorely needed philosophical reflection. Such reflection would soon lead us to the realization that in situations leading up to war, action often precedes thought. Sometimes decisions have already been made before debate begins, and in such circumstances the mind does not so much determine events as respond to them; as history unfolds, philosophy invariably arrives too late to be of any use. “The Owl of Minerva takes flight after dusk”, Hegel warned, leaving us in the dark when confronting the rush of events. Thucydides said it both earlier and better in A History of the Peloponnesian War:
Think, said the Athenians to the Spartans, ‘of the great importance that is played by the unpredictable in war; think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcomes in the dark. And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way around. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think.’
Yet philosophical reflection about the politics and morality of war does not always come too late, nor need it necessarily arise only in situations of failure and defeat. During World War II, three books appeared as the Allies were heading for victory over Nazi Germany: Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Children of Light, Children of Darkness. All three attempted to explain the phenomenon of totalitarianism and its horrors so that it and the wars it caused might not be repeated. Totalitarianism was then seen as a monstrous Frankenstein of an idea, a mentality resistant to doubt and self-interrogation (Popper), certain that the expansion of the state would never threaten individual liberty (Hayek), and confident that human nature is too good and rational to be corrupted by sin and the temptations of the flesh (Niebuhr). Popper looked to the intellect’s capacity to stand back and re-evaluate theories and propositions to see if they were falsifiable; Hayek looked to the operations of the free market to generate an equilibrium of spontaneous order; Niebuhr asked us to reconsider efforts to remake the world based on the illusions of perfect reason and inevitable progress. None of them looked to authority to save the Western world from the perils of political passion—not to the authority of the state and not, even more importantly, to the authority of religious orthodoxy. They looked instead to the wisdom of philosophy.
But in the present Administration of George W. Bush, religion has marginalized philosophy and made politics and diplomacy both depend upon “faith-based” convictions so fervently promoted as to be, in effect, infallible. Some aspects of foreign policy—the idea of exporting democracy, for example—are so steeped in religiosity that they seem to cling to claims of absolute truth in the face of changing and often recalcitrant realities. The neoconservative would defy what Walter Lippmann, in A Preface to Morals (1929), called “the acids of modernity”, the sobering thought that knowledge is always problematic, that beliefs must be tested in practice and verified by the consequences of experience, and that truth may be heroically pursued but never humanly known. Modern philosophy, from which liberalism draws its epistemological bearings, insists that beliefs are meaningless unless they can be verified in practice and their results observed. Thus Popper, Hayek, Niebuhr and others regarded the human condition with a healthy sense of “fallibilism”, the theory that all knowledge is tentative and revisable. Sidney Hook once summed up the essence in a single sentence: “What cannot be tested in action is dogma”—not knowledge, and certainly not wisdom.
Today, much of America lives in a world in which politics and diplomacy are carried out not experimentally but dogmatically, and whatever is tested in action, even on the field of battle, remains immune to doubt and reconsideration. This is a throwback to premodern philosophy, which was caught up in a foundationalist effort to establish a basis for knowledge safe from all reasonable doubt. As experience proves policies ill-conceived, they need not be abandoned or even revised as long as leaders feel certain about their convictions. Intellectual historians once thought that God went out of style with the gas lights of the 19th century. Today, however, foundationalist religiosity has swept across the country and inhabits even the White House. The opening years of the 21st century have turned into the age of infallibility in which faith has become so dogmatized that experience ceases to educate. Pragmatism is out; piety is in.
The situation America faces today is thus highly un-Niebuhrian, though the great theologian himself would not be surprised by it. Niebuhr was fond of William James’ warning that “the trail of the serpent is everywhere.” So, too, the ways of sin. When Niebuhr came to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s, his battle was against a Christianity that saw itself carrying out “The Sermon on the Mount” in refusing to take up arms, and even turning the other cheek, against evil. In the face of the totalitarian threat—first from Hitler’s Germany and then from Stalin’s Russia—the religious aversion to violence seemed to Niebuhr to be a delusionary conceit, the bad faith of a conscience trying selfishly to retain its innocence in an amoral and power-driven world. Today the situation is reversed. Those like George W. Bush, who look to heaven and speak of “the Father above”, are eager to go to war and delighted to say, with a cocky smile, “bring ’em on.” In our time, the problem of religion is not its debilitating pacifism but its overbearing militarism.
The religious ferocity of Iraqi (and other) suicide bombers in the still-discernable shadows of 9/11 has convinced the American people that they are in the midst of a war of faith with an alien culture. But a war for the soul of the American Republic is taking place right here on native grounds, and it has less to do with the “clash of civilization” between East and West in the larger world than with a struggle between the secularism of contemporary American liberalism and the godliness of contemporary American conservatism. At the outset of the Cold War, six intellectuals (Richard Crossman, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender and Richard Wright) wrote The God That Failed to explain their disenchantment with the Soviet Union and the messianic pseudo-religious mystique of Marxism. Today we are told that there is another truly real God, and that unless He succeeds, America will fail.
In a televised debate in 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush was asked to specify the “philosopher” who most influenced him. The audience was stunned to hear him reply, “Jesus Christ.” Clearly, Bush did not mean specifically either the gentle Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the angry Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple, or the prudent Jesus who warned us against rejoicing in success. But Bush was speaking for much of the country with his startling answer. During the early years of his presidency, close to 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as “born again” Christians. Books and television programs dealing with religion remain remarkably popular in a country that most thought had left literalist readings of the Bible behind with the Scopes Trial of 1925.
What explains the resurgence of religion and the return to scriptural authority? The religious imagination is haunted by cataclysmic thoughts, and no doubt the horror of 9/11 conjured up visions of Armageddon in which Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein served as the Antichrist. Preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson warned Americans that they had been attacked because of God’s anger over a chosen country stinking in decadence and the deadly sin of lust. But it did not take 9/11 to produce an American religious resurgence. Robert William Fogel saw it rising in his 2000 book The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, but few secular political observers paid much attention to the social analysis of a mere Nobel laureate in economics. Now, at last, the full and unignorable implications of the religious revival have been dealt with—at the political-cultural level in Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy and, at the higher intellectual level, in Damon Linker’s The Theocons. The subtitle of each book portends danger: “The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion” and “Secular America Under Siege”, respectively. Their arguments, in essence, are the same: Those who are born again are convinced they have been saved, and now they seek to save a country about to lose its soul—whether the rest of us like it or not.
Beware this kind of messiah, warned Emerson, who, along with Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists, tried to rescue America from the gloom of Calvinism and its doctrines of predestination and fiery Hell awaiting a nation that loses sight of God and the Commandments. The contemporary movements that Phillips describes, however, are not Calvinist. They seem focused more on hope than fear. Evangelical, Fundamentalist and Pentecostal denominations, once regarded as fringe sects at the margins of the Protestant establishment, are each in varying degrees moved by the comforts of religion rather than its threats. If anything, its adherents feel threatened not by the thought of divine punishment but by the sight of an America rife with crime, drugs, disobedient children, pornography, abortion, homosexuals and their marriage demands, immigration and identity politics, multiculturalism in the classroom and affirmative action in the workplace. Throughout the Clinton years, such citizens flocked to the Republican Party convinced that liberal Democrat elites, in a state of denial about Monica Lewinsky, were turning a once-virtuous Republic into Sodom and Gomorrah.
Phillips has been a sensitive seismograph of the shifts and realignments in American politics beginning with his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, in which he discerned how conservative America, in response to the radical Sixties, would come to dominate the South, the Midwest and the Sunbelt Far West. But the seismic shift has been born again and now represents a religious challenge to secular America that Phillips finds threatening. In American Theocracy, Phillips spells out the political implications of this religious dialectic of outrage and comfort. The Christian Right supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and George H.W. Bush in 1988, but it went overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2000 and again in 2004. Voters in the vast swath of red states that Republicans won, from the borders of New York to those of California, were animated by a nativist, down-home religious fervor to which the cosmopolitan New Englander John Kerry and even the lapsed Tennessean Al Gore could never appeal. The culture wars that had begun to simmer decades earlier exploded in fury at the turn of the 21st century, which Phillips marks as the beginning of America’s “Disenlightenment.” He is convinced that a zealous religiosity threatens the American Republic to its very foundations. He cites Edward Gibbon, Michael Grant and other historians who viewed the dramatic fall of Rome as a result of Christianity becoming a state religion that enforced a coercive hegemony leading to its decline and dissolution.
Gibbon, however, also emphasized that Christianity instilled a tender love-thy-neighbor pacifism that unmanned the Roman will to power and victory. Today in America, as Phillips is at pains to point out, Christianity is having the opposite effect, instilling a martial psychology that looks on war as a test of the nation’s manhood. Evangelical Protestant ideas are taught in military schools, and at the Air Force Academy many instructors have been reprimanded for trying to force religion upon cadets.
Another institution that would like to see America converted to its religion is the Roman Catholic Church, or at least those irrepressible intellectuals who see themselves as qualified to speak in its name. In The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), G.K. Chesterton explained that he turned to Catholicism out of its appeal to reason and truth. In the arms of the Church, the Catholic relishes two convictions: “One is that he believes it to be solid, objective truth, which is true whether he likes it or not; and the other is that he seeks liberation from his sins.” Lippmann, Niebuhr and other modernist thinkers would question whether truth enjoyed an objective status independent of human interest and whether faith can conquer desire. But Chesterton’s faith is alive if not entirely well in contemporary Catholic political advocacy, whose version of certitude in political philosophy resembles a kind of papal infallibility.
The very sound of the phrase “papal infallibility”, whether properly understood or not (usually not), is enough to arouse most liberals to fighting postures. “If you threw a glass of cold water on a liberal in the middle of a sound sleep”, Ann Coulter writes in Slander, “he’d jerk awake denouncing the religious right.” Most liberals, yes; Damon Linker, no. The Theocons was written more in anguish than arrogance. Linker took pen to paper after working for many years with the conservative, religion-friendly magazine First Things, founded by the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus in 1990 and currently read in the Bush White House. To understand what Linker has written and why, one need first understand something of his experience at First Things.
A former Lutheran minister converted to Catholicism, Father Neuhaus wrote The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America in 1984, convinced that our civic life had been stripped of all spiritual significance and that “only a transcendent, a religious, vision can turn this society from disaster and toward the fulfillment of its destiny” as a “sacred enterprise.” To a nation taught to honor the separation of church and state, Neuhaus boldly declared that Jefferson’s “wall” must be surmounted, that “religion’s contribution to the renewal of democracy depends, first, upon the renewal of religion”, and that the spiritual stimulus for moral renewal must come from Catholicism.
Neuhaus must be feeling good about the trajectory of the years since his 1984 book. The five Catholic members of the Supreme Court may be the first step in Rome’s ascendancy in America; even so, the American Catholic theocons had to defy the Vatican to support Bush’s war in Iraq. Neuhaus has criticized the liberal press as “defeatist” since defending the invasion on the grounds of “just war” theory, and has continued to deny that the war is “an unmitigated disaster.” In minds aflame with religious fervor, there is no place for fallibilism. It is this sense of certitude, precisely, that animates Linker’s critique.
In a review in the New York Times Linker was criticized for exaggerating his warning of the “threat the theocons pose to the country.” There may be something to the threat, for the theocons have no reservation about using political means to advance religious ends. In 1994 they started “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” to join the forces of the Christian Right in a united front against secular America. In exchanges that followed the book, Linker has reaffirmed his worry that Neuhaus seeks to impose on America a comprehensive theological view to guide the country because “transcendence abhors a vacuum.” But Linker avoids addressing a deeper and more historical issue: Did America’s political founding require any basis in a transcendent faith? Whether or not Linker is correct about the danger the theocons pose to contemporary political life, as a teacher of intellectual history I am more concerned about the distorting challenges they pose to the American mind. Consider the theses of the three wise men at First Things on whom Linker focuses his perceptions and polemics.
Michael Novak was bold enough to deny the originality of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by claiming that, historically, Catholicism did not retreat into the monastery to lead a life of contemplation; on the contrary, it endorsed the active life of entrepreneurialism and the acquisition of wealth. George Weigel, author of a biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, maintains that American political institutions require religious foundations, and that the “just war tradition of Catholic reasoning” can be used, in Linker’s words, to “justify Ronald Reagan’s revival of the arms race with the Soviet Union, the 1991 Gulf War, the war on terror, and the ongoing war in Iraq.” Robert George, a law professor at Princeton and a fierce opponent of abortion, believes that only a return to Catholic natural law theory can save America from the quicksand of relativism.
The stances held by these three thinkers are clear and firm; their implications, however, are puzzling if not illogical. Novak’s spiritualization of capitalism demolishes the Christian dualism between God and Mammon, leaving Americans to believe that they could drive their SUVs through the eye of a needle. At one time religion promised to rescue America from “materialism and its petty pleasures”—in Tocqueville’s words. But Weigel would have America turn to Rome without much concern for the Vatican’s manifest fallibility in condoning Mussolini’s fascism with the Lateran Treaties, remaining almost unmoved by Nazism and the Holocaust as it protected itself with the Reichskonkordat, and covering up the seemingly boundless pedophilic scandal of our own times. George wants to resurrect the idea of natural law, a concept formulated in the feudal Middle Ages when St. Thomas Aquinas sought to reconcile reason and revelation to prove God’s existence on the grounds that what has a beginning must have a cause. This is all fine for some, but it’s got nothing to do with America. America skipped feudalism and got along quite well without its doctrines. The 18th-century Deism of the new world left God behind as a mere cosmic jump starter, and 19th-century Darwinism demonstrated that natural selection, not God, is the origin of the species. The American Revolution was about natural rights and resistance to authority, not natural law and demands to submit to it.
When reading Linker on the theocons, one comes to realize that the American Right faces the same dilemma as the Left in confronting the historical ubiquity of liberalism. Catholic conservatives like to think that there existed a premodern historical stage to which America may return for inspiration; radical Marxists like to think—or used to think—that there is an already predicted stage after capitalism toward which America may aspire. But as Louis Hartz pointed out in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), in a New World unfettered by feudalism, liberal capitalism can develop without any stage before or beyond it. Neither a medieval God nor a positivist Marx (apologies to Jean-François Revel) can do much about America, a purgatory of paradise that Lincoln called “an almost chosen country.”
The problem with the theocons is that they think of themselves as devout Christians when they are in truth much closer to pragmatic managerialists, more interested in what works than what redeems. The stances taken by First Things authors were addressed and rebutted by Niebuhr long before that magazine ever began publishing. In Applied Christianity (1959), Niebuhr asked: “Can the Church give a ‘moral lead?’” He answered by suggesting how the Church easily misconceives its mission in life:
If we seek to justify Christianity because it preserves democracy, or inspires a hatred of dictatorship, or makes ‘a free enterprise system’ possible, or helps us to change our system into something better, or creates a ‘third force’—our utilitarian attitude debases the Christian faith to the status of a mere instrument of the warring creeds from which the world suffers.
Chesterton converted to Catholicsm because he thought truth could be seen as objectively valid; the theocons seem satisfied that it is subjectively useful.
America today is experiencing what Max Weber once called (in his essay on “Science as a Vocation”) nothing less than “a war of the gods”, a struggle to the death between those who believe that the country is founded upon religious principles and those who believe that secularism, a disavowal of the sacred, defines America from the moment of its political conception at the birth of the Republic. In this new “war of the gods”, Catholics suffer from disorientation. Whereas the 19th-century Transcendentalists realized that it is precisely because America’s constitutional foundations were secular that society needed to be spiritual—hence turning from Locke, property and acquisition to Kant, duty and imagination—contemporary Catholic intellectuals have taken on a more difficult task. They believe they can document the extent of religiosity at the moment of the Founding. Thus Novak and others scour the writings of Washington and Jefferson to find evidence of religious sentiment.1 But they deliberately shun the Federalist authors and John Adams, theoreticians of the Constitution who placed little faith in religion when dealing with the unruly “interests and passions”, emotions they saw animating religious “sects.” Catholics join Protestants in reminding Americans that reference to God and a Supreme Being is cited six times in the Declaration of Independence, but both avoided explaining why such concepts go unmentioned in the Constitution. As Arthur O. Lovejoy pointed out in Reflections on Human Nature (1961), the Constitution’s framers were primarily concerned to explain not what the American people ought to do but to predict what they would do: “vex and oppress” one another unless subjected to the restraints of the “machinery of government.” The Founders, in short, paid respect to religion, as Washington himself did in his Farewell Address, but they did not count upon it alone to guide people toward civic virtue. Legend has it, according to the historian Joseph Ellis, that when Ben Franklin recommended that the constitutional convention be opened with a prayer, Alexander Hamilton responded: “We don’t need foreign aid.”
The Catholic intellectual has much to teach us, even those of us who are fallen apostates and still need knowledge of evil and goodness. But “what begins in mystery”, warned Charles Péguy, “ends in politics.” First Things, which is almost all politics, could use a little transcendence into the realm of mystery that lies, as Simone Weil put it, “at the point of intersection between creation and the Creator.” It could use more Augustine and less Aquinas, more spiritual yearning and less logical reasoning. In Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams observed that Catholic philosophy denied God freedom as well as fun since He could not change His ways: “St. Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict Himself, which is one of man’s chief pleasures.” Yet politically driven Catholic intellectuals, according to George Orwell in his marvelous essay on Graham Greene, comprise “a sort of high class nightclub”, closed to non-Catholics “too ignorant to be held guilty.” Catholic thinkers, said Orwell, “retain their superiority, since they alone know the meaning of good and evil.” So do born-again Protestant presidents who speak of the “axis of evil” and point to specific countries as though they are entries on a Pentagon hit list. One can only imagine what Popper, Hayek and Niebuhr would think of them.
President Reagan, it should be noted, mentioned the “evil empire” only once, and when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he became far more interested in the arts of diplomacy and negotiation than in the facile rhetoric of religious condemnation, which Lincoln warned against as the sin of pride. “Let us judge not that we not be judged”, he admonished in the Second Inaugural. Today, alas, piety serves power at the expense of peace as our leaders go to war thinking they are right with God. There is, after all, a big difference between believing that God is on our side, and believing that God has a side that it’s up to us to discover. The latter requires real piety, leavened with a bit of philosophy, one may hope. The former needs only the illusion of infallibility. When “Mission Accomplished!” blared from the top of a U.S. fleet carrier in May 2003, genuine Christian humility witnessed its crucifixion on the banner of political vanity. ?
1. See, for example, Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter, 2002), and Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Washington’s God (Basic Books, 2006).