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Reviewed by Jordan Hylden


Looking Toward the New Jerusalem

The powerful witness of Richard John Neuhaus' last book.

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Of course, Hauerwas and Neuhaus certainly had their differences, and readers of American Babylon will not find them difficult to discern. While Hauerwas' vision of Christians in American public life centered on the phrase "resident aliens," Neuhaus preferred the locution "alien citizens"—an emphasis that fell more on our citizenship in the city of man than Hauerwas liked. If one side of the book warns against substituting America for the church, the other side warns against dismissing our country as simply the Babylonian whore, full stop.

Neuhaus had long claimed that he planned to "meet God as an American." The point of this provocation wasn't to prop up an uncritical jingoism. In American Babylon, as elsewhere, Neuhaus simply argues that our national identity is an inescapable and not insignificant part of who we are, and that certain responsibilities go along with our citizenship. Neuhaus and Hauerwas agreed that the "first responsibility of the Church is to be the Church," but Neuhaus was always more ready to think aloud about what we owe as Christians to communities other than the Church.

He was also much more willing to think about the place of such communities in the "story of the world," meaning the story of God's providence. While ever wary of the dangers to which providential thinking about America has led in the past, Neuhaus argues that such discernment is a necessary and unavoidable part of thinking theologically about what it means to be not only a Christian but also an American, or a New Yorker, or a member of this school board or this family. Done rightly, such thinking does not lead to hubris but rather to a properly humble wisdom about our vocation, national and otherwise.

How then should we Christians participate in the public life of our American Babylon, the land of our exile? The chief political contribution of the Church, Neuhaus claims, is "to provide a transcendent horizon for our civil arguments, to temper the passionate confusions of the political ultimate with the theological ultimate, and to insist that our common humanity and gift of reason are capable of deliberating how we ought to order our life together."

The first part here is crucial. Without the sense that we as a nation are answerable to a higher judgment than our own, we are all too apt to fall prey to the sin of national hubris. What's more, we lose the prophetic language that has stood behind so many of our national reforms—it's no accident that black Americans like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke as Christians calling the nation to account for their sins. America is not now and never has been merely a "secular nation," bound by no more than the Lockean social contract. More than that, our Puritan heritage has always reminded us of our compact with God, who "created equal" all men and women and is the transcendent source of human dignity.

If we go wrong on the foundational question of human dignity, Neuhaus thinks, we're likely to go wrong on much else as well. Abortion had long been Neuhaus' first political concern, and in American Babylon he warns of what it means to have forgotten the basic dignity of the smallest and weakest among us. As manifested most famously in the 1996 "End of Democracy" forum in First Things, Neuhaus worried deeply about the anti-political implications of an imperial judiciary voiding both the deliberative decisions of the states and the right to life of the unborn. We desperately need to renew a sense of the transcendent dignity of every human person, Neuhaus thought, as well as the knowledge that America is not its own ultimate arbiter but instead stands finally "under God." Neuhaus knew his Tocqueville: both the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the minority are dangers into which a secular totalism can otherwise fall.

Beyond the transcendent horizon it offers for civil engagement, the Church's next great contribution is to insist that our commonly held "gift of reason" enables us to deliberate together about politics. Here, Neuhaus draws upon the Catholic natural-law tradition and figures like C.S. Lewis to argue that since we are all fashioned in God's image, we can all converse together about how to order our lives, regardless of religious or moral background. For Neuhaus, public enemy #1 was the pragmatic liberal ironist Richard Rorty, who (along with Alasdair MacIntyre's "barbarians") rejects both God and public reason.

Of course, Neuhaus thought that all atheists, not just Rorty, have a harder time accounting for where the gift of reason comes from, as well as the sense of transcendent judgment, human dignity, and our compact with God that are so central to American identity. What's more, Neuhaus rightly points out that most Americans, when asked about the source of their morality, will point to religion, and most often to Judaism or Christianity. Hence Neuhaus argues that the public philosophy by which American politics is guided should be "religiously grounded" in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition—otherwise, given the religious beliefs of most Americans, it simply will not be democratic.

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