Damon Linker, a former editor of First Things, sees a great battle coming. No, not a clash of civilisations. The great struggle of our time that he foresees is the assault on secular America by those dastardly theocons. Or so I gather from the title of his book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Doubleday, September 2006). The subtitle tells us the thesis: “For the past three decades, a few determined men have worked to inject their radical religious ideas into the nation’s politics. This is the story of how they succeeded.” I assume he is referring here mainly to the editors at First Things, which begs the question: what radical religious ideas? Let us keep in mind, this critique comes from someone who argued that John Paul II’s “moral absolutism” was where he went wrong (linked article requires subscription). Have your saltshaker handy while you read his bizarre book review in the latest New Republic issue with the cover title, “Father Con.” After some extensive background on Neuhaus, Linker then gets into the review of Catholic Matters itself.

Neuhaus is evidently one of the “determined men” Linker has in mind in his book, and as the chief “theocon” he seems to embody whatever it is that Mr. Linker fears most. What is striking about Linker’s indictment of Neuhaus is not what it tells us about the “theocons” or First Things, as the description of Neuhaus in Linker’s TNR piece bears little resemblance to his overall vision of the relationship between Christianity and “liberal modernity.” The striking thing is that Linker has drawn out the best ideas in Neuhaus’ book and woven them together to create an all together different Neuhaus than the one readers of First Things know. This Neuhaus is a hard-line Catholic apologist who stresses the need for authority and fidelity above all else.

To put it mildly, whatever his views of the abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church or the obligation to submit to authority (which is such a basic obligation that it is hardly “radical” or specific to Neuhaus), Neuhaus is not a determined opponent of “liberal modernity” in any sense that I can understand it. In many respects, he sees points of fairly close accommodation between “liberal modernity” and Christianity everywhere. His enthusiasm for “democracy” and the promotion of “democracy” are only the most prominent examples of this. He is a Catholic neocon, with all the contradictions and errors that implies. Random case in point: he said in his entry online last week, “I usually agree with, and always learn from disagreeing with, Charles Krauthammer.” Religious Christian radicals do not “usually agree” with Charles Krauthammer. As I see it, biased as I am, Fr. Neuhaus has done his best in his writings to make Christianity safe for secular America and to make sure that secular America prevails by giving it an occasional, small dose of religious direction.

You must know that Linker’s critique is unbalanced and ludicrous when he begins eliding Neuhaus’ invocations of tradition and authority with those of 19th century reactionaries (my sort of people) and a modern German conservative:

And then there is politics. In his insistent emphasis on the need for order, authority, and tradition, as well as in his warnings about the psychological and social ravages of modern skepticism, Neuhaus echoes such luminaries of the European (and Catholic) right as Joseph de Maistre, Juan Donoso Cortés, and (once again) Carl Schmitt, all of whom were staunch opponents of liberalism and modernity. Yet Neuhaus would have us believe that his own anti-liberal and anti-modern views are perfectly compatible with–no, synonymous with–the principles underlying modern American democracy.

Neuhaus is so far removed from the ideas of these men that I have to assume that Mr. Linker is engaged in a kind of willful misrepresentation of his former colleague. Why he would paint Neuhaus with the black brush of blackest reaction, I do not know, but as a reactionary myself I can assure everyone that it is complete nonsense.

The one point where Linker does understand Neuhaus correctly is actually the weakest point of the review, as he uses it to show Neuhaus’ failure to observe his belief in church authority rather than demonstrate, as he thinks he is doing, some weakness with Neuhaus’ claim of commitment to obeying that authority:

The pope, Neuhaus implies, is always right. (When politics intrudes, however, Neuhaus honors this idea in the breach: over the years he has shown himself to be perfectly willing to break from a suddenly fallible Vatican when it endorses economic and foreign policies that diverge from those preferred by the Republican Party.)

This is the main problem with the Catholic neocons in general. Obedience and fidelity are all very well, but provided they are only for the really important and binding commitments and not commitments that might contradict the reigning ideology in the GOP. In such cases, when there is an opportunity for dissent, they tend to take it. Should someone point out their disagreement with the Pope on, say, the Iraq war, Neuhaus and Novak will suddenly discover a newfound joy in autonomous judgement. If they are not absolutely compelled to obey an authority, on many occasions they will choose not to follow the lead of their bishops. Here is Novak quoting then-Cardinal Ratzinger, taken from Mr. Feser’s anti-paleocon attack, in the conviction that he has found some silver bullet to kill paleocon criticism:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Of course, Cardinal Ratzinger was speaking there in general terms and was clearly not referring to wars of unprovoked aggression. Note the phrasing: “it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor”. He did not say, “it may still be permissible to launch an invasion of a country for dubious reasons of pre-emption and nonproliferation” or anything of the kind. The alternatives Cardinal Ratzinger posed were between seeking peace and taking up arms to fight in self-defense. As I read that quote, he was saying that good Catholics could legitimately disagree about those two alternatives. There is not a third option of attacking a country without just cause that Catholics can legitimately support. That, I suspect, is not part of what he would have called “legitimate diversity of opinion,” because it is never a legitimate option to counsel or support aggressive war. It is fairly well known what he had to say about the invasion of Iraq, and for Mr. Novak to try to weasel out of that clear statement of moral disapprobation shows us what his sense of fidelity is. Just in case any have forgotten, here is then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s judgement on the war:

The Holy Father’s judgment is also convincing from the rational point of view: There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a “just war.”

I used to read First Things from time to time in those days of silly youth when I thought “we” conservatives of various stripes were all in it together. Ah, the salad days of the early and mid-’90s, when all you needed was some solid contempt for Clinton to be generally considered a conservative! Obviously, I understood nothing then, and eventually I began to wise up. Growing up a staunch constitutionalist (with some unfortunate libertarian leanings), I was constantly puzzled by First Things. Not because of their so-called religious “radicalism”. Their religious angle was, admittedly, more strange to me in my unillumined youth than it was later, but it was so far from being radical that a secular agnostic ignorant of Christianity such as I was could page through it without the slightest danger of being infused with radical religious ideas.

What really puzzled me was their enthusiasm for the civil rights revolution. Surely, I said to myself, don’t these people know that all of that was unconstitutional? Then there was their contempt for the gentlemen at Chronicles and a strange preoccupation with both Judaism, the Holocaust and the state of Israel. Ecumenical collaboration with conservative religious believers was one thing, but the fawning enthusiasm with which they, mostly Catholics, celebrated Judaism was a little odd. If “Judeo-Christian” has a negative connotation in my mind, First Things is responsible for it. I did not understand why they did this. But, as I said, I understood nothing about them. “Religion in the public square”–it sounded good to me, so why were they always espousing such strange things that seemed to have nothing to do with their religion? I began to see more and more problems with the magazine (they were, as I recall, only too happy to see Serbia being bombed), and then I began to pay attention to their background and their politics much more closely than I had done before. With their fairly wanton encouragement of the war in Iraq, I could scarcely bring myself to look at it anymore, except to find things to critique in it. Obviously, I have no love for First Things or its ideas, as I have made clear on numerous occasions, which makes the portrayal of Fr. Neuhaus as a veritable authoritarian reactionary Catholic at once offensive and laughable. Offensive because it gives him credit for good ideas about the role of Christianity in society that he would never espouse, ideas that actually offend him, and laughable because it shows Linker’s transparent polemical purpose in inventing this cardboard Neuhaus to attack. I’m sure it will win him plaudits among all the good liberals, but it will be impossible to take him seriously in the future.

On another note, there is the problem of Linker’s use of the term theocon. As I have explained at some length before, I think the term theocon is idiotic and pretty much meaningless. If it has any meaning, theological conservative as a category of conservative could not seriously refer to the editors of First Things. However, once it emerged in the wake of the 1996 “End of Democracy” crack-up between the secular neocons and the neocons who made the mistake of thinking that the other neocons were serious in their respect for “religion” (which they mistook for respect for Christianity) the term theocon has only become more popular, even if it has nonetheless become increasingly amorphous and empty as a term of abuse slung at anyone who thinks religion (any religion, but especially Christianity) might have some role in public life. It is in the neocon fashion that I assume Linker uses the term, as he makes specific mention of the “End of Democracy” symposium that created the split and makes it into a key example of Neuhaus’ radicalism.

For those who do not waste their lives following the ins and outs of neocon infighting, I will tell you that the “End of Demnocracy” symposium saw some of the Catholic neocons propose that the judiciary had usurped so much power and Roe constituted such a moral evil that the regime might be fundamentally illegitimate and morally bankrupt. To even suggest something like this was horrifying to the true regime supporters, who took this opportunity to castigate the “theocons” for their anti-Americanism. Duly chastised, the “theocons” have since dutifully supported the war in Iraq and the grand democracy project. The word usurpation does not come up much in their writings anymore.