A few days ago, Wendy and I were in upstate New York for a literary festival at Houghton College. I shared the program with the poet Julia Kasdorf, author of two excellent collections from University of Pittsburgh Press, Sleeping Preacher and Eve's Striptease; Tim Stafford, who spoke both about journalism and about historical fiction and read from his first-rate novel about the abolitionist movement, Stamp of Glory; Justin Niati, an African journalist who was forced to flee the Congo more than a decade ago after he exposed corruption in his native land and who currently is an assistant professor of French at Houghton; and a number of student writers.
At one session I spoke to students about "The Role of the Journal in Culture." That may sound rather grandiose, but it's a subject that anyone who edits a publication resembling BOOKS & CULTURE needs to keep in the back of his mind. And now and then, something occurs to move it up to the front burner.
In its issue of April 3, The New Republic featured as its cover story an essay-review by Damon Linker, "Without a Doubt: The Christianizing of America," ostensibly occasioned by Richard John Neuhaus' Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (Basic Books). Linker was until recently an editor at First Things, where Neuhaus is famously editor-in-chief. The essay, posted on TNR's website on March 24, is very long16 pages in the printer-friendly version I readand very strange.
Some of its constituent parts, to be sure, are all too familiar. Linker's fevered warnings against the "offense that Neuhaus' political theology gives to American pluralism and civility" are of a piece with Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking) and dozens of other exercises in apocalyptic huffing and puffing. Linker tells us again and again how "radical" Neuhaus' program is, but he never gets around to saying what terrible things will happen when theocracy is established. The excommunication of Garry Wills?
Then there are the staples of anti- Catholic propagandaabove all the notion that Catholic faith entails a blind submission to the authority of the Church, a "comprehensive and hermetically sealed religious ideology that will definitively insulate [the believer] from doubt." Evidently Linker has not read, for example, the Introduction to Christianity written by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in the late 1960s, in which Ratzinger observes that
both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man's destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty.
And certainly we've heard, ad nauseum, about the need for "traditionalist believers" to "adapt to modernity by embracing at least some degree of liberalization," though unlike some more forthright players in this conversationJohn Shelby Spong comes to mindLinker never makes clear precisely what adaptations are required.
What makes the essay odd, even a little creepy, is its personal dimension. Here is a piece by a man who was until very recently in the bosom of First Things, portraying Richard John Neuhaus as the Cardinal Richelieu of the Religious Right, a megalomaniac whose machinations imperil American society with "the threat of sacralized revolutionary violence." (Students of rhetoric may want to ponder the way in which Linker suggests that Neuhaus suffers from pathological delusions about his own world-historical significance even as the essay is casting him as a Catholic version of Osama bin Laden.)
I happen to agree with much of Linker's critique of the November 1996 First Things symposium, "The End of Democracy?" But Linker's essay is as intemperate as anything in that symposium. I've never met Linker, nor have I talked with anyone at the magazine about his article, but it seems to be driven by a personal animus that has little to do with the issues at stake.
If the primary theme of Linker's essay is "The Catholicizing of America" (not, as the subtitle has it, "The Christianizing of America"), evangelicals play a part in his narrative as well. You may recall a TNR piece by Franklin Foer, apropos the Alito nomination, published shortly before Foer was named as TNR's new editor ("Brain Trust," November 14, 2005). "In 1994," Foer begins, "the eminent evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote a scorching polemic about his own religion called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." Pause there for a moment to note Foer's utter cluelessness. Noll's "religion" my religion, Richard John Neuhaus' religionis Christianity. Evangelicalism is not a religion, and no one with more than a journalist's crash-course briefing on the subject would think otherwise. Remind me to write a piece sometime about the scandal of Franklin Foer's mind, taking Foer as representative of the very bright people who routinely pontificate these days about evangelicals and religion in America. The scandal is that such intelligent, generally well-educated folk are as ignorant of the subject as they are confident in their pronouncements.
It was in that piece that Foer laid out the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals for the benefit of TNR's readers, describing what he called "the reality of social conservatism: Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft." And again: in the culture wars, "evangelicals didn't just need Catholic bodies; they needed Catholic minds to supply them with rhetoric that relied more heavily on morality than biblical quotation."
Now here is Linker on the same topic:
Countless press reports in recent years have noted that much of the religious right's political strength derives from the exertions of millions of anti-liberal evangelical Protestants. Much less widely understood is the more fundamental role of a small group of staunchly conservative Catholic intellectuals in providing traditionalist Christians of any and every denomination with a comprehensive ideology to justify their political ambitions. In the political economy of the religious right, Protestants supply the bulk of the bodies, but it is Catholics who supply the ideas.
And later in the essay we hear of "Neuhaus' first tentative attempt"in Naked in the Public Square
to solve the problem of the evangelicals by developing an alternative way for them to talk about religion in public. Instead of referring to their personal religious experiences, they would adopt a nondenominational "public language of moral purpose," as well as learn to make more sophisticated, intellectually respectable arguments about American society and history, democracy and justice, culture and the law.
The problem of the evangelicals! Is that really how They talk about Us? There's too much confusion here, as Bob Dylan said; it's hard to know where to begin. In general, the figures most readily identified with the Religious RightJerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, et al. have been negligibly influenced by Catholic thought. Among evangelical intellectuals, Catholicism is much more influential than it was a generation ago, but it is only one stream among many shaping public discourse among evangelical élites, and certainly not on a par with the Reformed tradition represented by thinkers such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw, and many others. Hard as it may be for Foer and Linker to grasp, evangelicals are not entirely dependent on crumbs from the Catholic table.
And so on. For a corrective to Foer and Linker on this score, a good place to start is A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement, edited by Michael Cromartie (Rowman & Littlefield/Ethics and Public Policy Center).
Who knows what really goes on in the offices of First Things? It was my good friend Jody Bottum, after all (who left The Weekly Standard to become editor of First Things a year or so ago), who introduced me to "The Inquisitor," a lay Catholic hitman featured in a series of novels in the 1970s written by Martin Cruz Smith under the pen name Simon Quinn. If I were Damon Linker, I'd watch my back. Perhaps in those labyrinthine chambers, where bottles of single-malt Scotch are no doubt more numerous than Bibles, Father Richard John Neuhaus mocks his intellectually challenged evangelical allies while planning the coup d'état that will turn the United States into a Catholic theocracy once and for all. Politicsand religion toomakes strange bedfellows.
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