Among the Intellectualoids

Thundering Theophobes

They see Richard John Neuhaus behind every corner.

By 3.29.06

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At some future date, an intrepid scientist will announce that he has made a discovery: there is a correlation between heroin and liberal outrage. Apparently, when a leftist goes off on a tirade against conservatives, religion, or Evil America, it triggers an opiate release in the brain that causes a blissed-out high. Thus, as the addict must hunt down smack, the liberal must have a constant supply of outrages to feed his jones. If none are available -- if, indeed, our modern age is criminally short of witch hunts, McCarthyism, religious intolerance and racism -- then one must be made out of smaller things. Thus the almost ardent obsession with George Bush. Thus the depiction of the Catholic Church as a tsunami of fascism. Thus Cindy Sheehan. Of course, as is the case with addicts, truth is often a casualty.

Which brings me to Damon Linker. Linker was once an editor at First Things, the neoconservative journal edited by Father Richard John Neuhaus. Linker recently left First Things, and has landed a book deal with Random House, and a cover spot on the New Republic. Linker's book, called The Theocons, is about "secular America under siege" by people like, well, Richard Neuhaus. According to Linker in the New Republic,

In Neuhaus's view, what was happening in the United States could only be described as "the displacement of a constitutional order by a regime that does not have, will not obtain, and cannot command the consent of the people." Hence the stark and radical options confronting the country, ranging "from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution."

That is the America toward which Richard John Neuhaus wishes to lead us -- 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.


It's like an alcoholic's first shot of bourbon. The problem is -- like all addicts -- Linker is a bit paranoid, not to mention unreliable.

It's pretty simple: like a lot of conservatives, Richard Neuhaus wants to arrest judicial activism. In 1996 First Things ran a symposium called "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics." It argued that when judges start ordering our lives, democracy suffers -- and taken to an extreme can be lost. The most stark example of this is abortion.

In fact, Neuhaus was arguing the exact opposite of what Linker claims. Linker writes that Neuhaus sees an America "in which moral and theological absolutists demonize the country's political institutions." He was, in fact, calling for a revitalization of those very institutions. Linker says Neuhaus wants a public able to "make nonnegotiable public demands under the threat of sacralized revolutionary violence." No, he was calling for the negotiable demands of a democracy that arranges its public life through debate, not judicial fiat. In Neuhaus's dystopia, warns Linker, "citizens flee from the inner obligations of freedom and long to subordinate themselves to ecclesiastical authority." In fact, Neuhaus was calling citizens to precisely exercise their inner obligations of freedom -- obligations which have been purloined by judges. As for a world in which "traditionalist Christianity thoroughly dominates the nation's public life," this is just a mindless abstraction. What, exactly, does Linker mean by this?

Leftist Christians like Linker -- and leftists in general - can easily get away with their prevarication; the high of a rhetorical blast like the one Linker delivers above is just too sweet to let the truth get in the way. Linker will no doubt find a home in the mainstream media, and among liberal Christians suffering from similar addictions. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, liberal Catholic historian Garry Wills, author of a new book about Jesus, revealed that there is a conservative Catholic fringe group that is pulling the levers of power in the church and the government. Specifically, there are four men: George Weigel (whose terrific new book God's Choice is required reading for serious Catholics), Joseph Fessio, Michael Novak, and (cue scary music) Richard John Neuhaus. Perhaps suffering from a Da Vinci Code-like fever dream, Wills charges that these men, well, run the country. They are connected with Karl Rove (natch), and guide their nefarious neocon policy from the fringe. They are, that is to say, an anti-democratic oligarchy imposing its will on a public that does not support them.

The problem is, aside from his paranoid style of politics, Gary Wills is a liar. In his piece he claims that the Catholic cabal, realizing that most Americans disagree with them, have formed their own little revolutionary government. As a primary example, Wills cites the 1996 symposium, "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics," that was sponsored by First Things. The symposium's point was that an activist judiciary had overtaken the role of politics, subverting -- even eliminating -- democracy itself. As a result, Americans might have to refuse to obey immoral laws, change the constitution and possibly engage in civil disobedience.

Wills offers the symposium as exhibit A of the right's desire to undemocratically take over politics. He does so by selectively quoting, for example, Judge Robert Bork's piece "Our Judicial Oligarchy." In it Bork argues that activist courts can and should be reined in by the democratic process. But it's useful to let Bork explain and then show Wills's deception. Bork:

On the evidence, we must conclude, I think, that this tendency of courts, including the Supreme Court, is the inevitable result of our written constitution and the power of judicial review. Even in the depths of the Warren Court era some of us thought that the Court's performance, though profoundly illegitimate, could be brought within the range of the minimally acceptable by logical persuasion or the appointment of more responsible judges, or both. We now know that was an illusion. A Court majority is impervious to arguments about its proper behavior. It seems safe to say that, as our institutional arrangements now stand, the Court can never be made a legitimate element of a basically democratic polity.

The way to fix this, writes Bork, is through democracy:
Only a change in our institutional arrangements can halt the transformation of our society and culture by judges. Decisions of courts might be made subject to modification or reversal by majority vote of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Alternatively, courts might be deprived of the power of constitutional review. Either of these solutions would require a constitutional amendment. Perhaps an elected official will one day simply refuse to comply with a Supreme court decision That suggestion will be regarded as shocking, but it should not be.

Completely clear, right? However, in his piece Wills accuses Bork et al. of a "quiet extremism" hidden behind "a quiet air of reasonableness." They want nothing less than armed rebellion and the refusal to obey the Supreme Court. Then Wills quotes Bork this way:
It seems safe to say that, as our institutional arrangements now stand, the Court can never be made a legitimate element of a basically democratic polity....Perhaps an elected official will one day simply refuse to comply with a Supreme Court decision. That suggestion will be regarded as shocking, but it should not be.

See how specious this is? Wills complete eradicates Bork's contention that any change in the courts must be done democratically, through a constitutional amendment -- just as Linker obfuscates Neuhaus's advocacy for democracy. Wills's truncated quote makes it seem as if Bork is calling for revolution. What he is calling for is a democratically fueled restoration. Yet as Wills proves in his Catholic-bashing later in the piece, he has things a bit backward. He wants a representative republic, the United States, to be run by liberal elites like judges. And he want a hierarchical institution, the Catholic Church, to be a democracy.

He and Linker need to get to rehab.

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About the Author

Mark Judge is a Washington writer and author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series, and other books.