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Capitalism’s Theologian

The renowned Michael Novak, on his journey to conservatism.

By 10.28.13

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Writing From Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative
By Michael Novak
(Image, 336 pages, $24)

MICHAEL NOVAK IS one of the great public theologians of the last half-century, and his new memoir, Writing From Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative, illustrates why. Born in 1933 to a Slovak family in flood-famous Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Novak witnessed the last century’s great political
 disasters. His earliest such memory is of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. 

As an Eastern European and a Catholic, Novak viscerally felt the totalitarian horrors that brutalized his ancestral land. And he would deeply identify with, and come to know, his fellow Slav, Pope John Paul II. Novak ideologically pivoted right when the mainstream Left lost interest in robustly defending democratic order. In the 1980s he pioneered a spiritual defense of democratic capitalism that morally explained the resurgent success of America and Britain under Reagan and Thatcher, both of whom credited Novak’s insights.

In earlier years Novak worked for Robert Kennedy, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Sargent Shriver, and he writes fondly of them all. He also briefly served Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, about whom he’s less appreciative. At first he felt drawn to the priesthood, but, after much anxiety, he realized his calling was to be a philosopher and writer. As a Harvard student, Novak was deeply influenced by Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, whose focus on irony, realism, and unintended consequences further equipped Novak against Utopianism.

“There were always wars in human history—new ones, generation after generation—because wars spring from the human heart itself,” Novak writes, citing St. Augustine. “Peace never lasts.” He eventually turned against “progressivism” because it “overrates human innocence and goodness and underrates human weakness and preference for getting things for free rather than as a result of arduous work.”

After his rightward turn, Novak recalls that former colleagues and friends shunned him as a heretic to the Left’s faith in unstoppable progress. He writes that these wayward friends like to cite his more appealing early work, such as his favorable coverage of Vatican II in his book The Open Church, in which he dissected the “nonhistorical orthodoxy” of those who understood the Church “in the idiom of the sixteenth and the highly defensive subsequent centuries.” But he states that their opponents, then called progressives, were the true “probing traditionalists”—future Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI among them, he sardonically notes. The Catholic Church humbly moves “along a sinewy path in the jungle, where patches of light only occasionally break through the darkness.”

His first conservative impulse came from religion, as Vatican II was reinterpreted to align with the secular “thinking of the age” instead of the actual texts and the “counter-cultural voice of ancient truths.” Novak was horrified by the assassination of America’s first Catholic president, and then two months later, his brother, a priest in Bangladesh, was beheaded during Muslim riots against Hindus. (See “The Day My Brother Was Murdered,” TAS, December 2008-January 2009.)

Vietnam momentarily derailed Novak’s conservative shift, as he demonstrated against the war while teaching at Stanford. He was especially horrified by a disingenuous speech there by Vice President Hubert Humphrey that provoked student riots. He also toured Vietnam as a reporter. The later horrors of communist conquest in Indochina persuaded Novak his thinking had not been “steady,” and he noticed the Left’s “double standards” toward communist brutality. 

In 1968, Novak praised Robert Kennedy in a Methodist student magazine as “The Secular Saint,” which led Kennedy to seek him out, although Novak was already supporting McCarthy’s presidential bid. He declined Kennedy’s invitation to join him primary election night in Los Angeles, when Robert was assassinated.

Increasingly repelled by campus radicalism, Novak agreed to work for Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, a fellow Catholic intellectual, in 1970 on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates. He again helped in Shriver’s 1972 vice-presidential campaign, noticing the radicalization of the Democratic Party. That year his obituary for Reinhold Niebuhr in Commentary waxed nostalgic for political realism.

Novak’s 1972 book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics foreshadowed the surge of Reagan Democrats and emphasized social issues like defense of the family. The New York Times Book Review trashed it for spreading hate. Its theme of ethnic patriotic traditionalism contrasted with the new fad of multiculturalism that relied on the “logic of relativism” and denied national cohesion. Even as the New Left captured the Democratic Party, Novak worked loyally for George McGovern, an unpretentious Midwesterner with whom he retained lifelong friendship. It was among his last liberal exertions.

BY 1976, NOVAK was ready to come out as a free marketeer in a Washington Post op-ed headlined “A Closet Capitalist Confesses.” He wrote: “Socialism is the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, without religion.… Capitalism, accepting human sinfulness, rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace.” But his new views left him intellectually homeless, without a base.

Novak met but declined to support a still-obscure Jimmy Carter, whose views on international relations were evasive. He feared that the personalizing of policy, fueled by Carter’s Baptist faith, would inhibit the shrewd detachment necessary for a president. Novak had helped found the Coalition for a Democratic Majority for a forceful U.S. foreign and military policy, as championed by Scoop Jackson, whom Novak supported for the White House instead. In 1977 he joined the American Enterprise Institute as resident theologian.

At a 1980 poolside party for hawkish Democrats, Senator Daniel Moynihan asked how many were considering voting for Reagan. Every hand reluctantly went up, including presumably Novak’s. He served Reagan as ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights. “I loved the Reagan presidency,” he recalls. Reagan gave him direct instructions for his UN post: “Condone no human rights abuses.”

Margaret Thatcher excitedly greeted Novak in a D.C. reception line, exclaiming she relished his work, and later invited him to 10 Downing Street. His most important book of that era, perhaps ever, was The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which made the moral case for markets, and which underground movements in Eastern Europe translated and read in secret.

Novak has kind words for Presidents Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, with the exception of Clinton’s abortion zealotry, and he especially salutes Bush II’s commitment to universal human rights. He hopes democracy will yet sprout in the Arab world ,while admitting the prospect is long-term. He warns against the collapse of political conversation, imploding birth rates, the redefinition of marriage, and aggressively intolerant secularism. He inveighs against government debts, which he sees as stealing from our kids and grandkids. “I am glad that I am in my eightieth year and will not live to see the suffering, and perhaps bitterness, of these grandchildren. How they will despise us!”

The memoir concludes with Novak’s inventory of his deep admiration for Pope John Paul II. In particular, he explains the conflict he felt in the run-up to the Iraq war, which Novak thought necessary and the pope attempted to avert. He worried about losing John Paul’s friendship, but he found solace in the Catechism’s
 teaching on just war. In the last paragraph, Novak describes attending John Paul’s funeral with President Bush:

At one point a sudden breeze turned the pages of the open book of the Gospel highly visible on the central lectern. Then, as the varnished wood casket was slowly being lifted to be carried into St. Peter’s, the breeze nudged the clouds away from the sun, and for the first time that day a beam of sunlight fell directly upon the casket and the pallbearers.…I am not saying an act of God occurred; natural causes could explain it. But these signs expressed what we felt when we shouted into the great roar of the throng, “Santo Subito! Saint Soon! Declare him saint soon!”

Novak dedicates his book to his late wife, Karen, an accomplished artist who famously served Dove bars at a dinner for Clare Booth Luce. And he ruefully laments that he outlived her. 

Conservatism’s support for free markets always threatens to implode into sterile materialism. Novak has, across decades, helped to construct a spiritual framework for a winsome capitalism premised on liberty and human creativity, sustained by biblical tradition. His old friends on the Left resented him for it. But all who cherish freedom and authentic human progress should be grateful. 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.