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Letter from the Editor

One of my greatest pleasures, believe it or not, is reading back issues of magazines such as The TLS, The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and so on. When I'm working on a new issue of Books & Culture, I like to go back and look at an issue of the mag that came out at the same time of year at some point in our history—in this case, the May/June 2006 issue, which featured a special section on "The State of the Ministry." As usual, I ended up re-reading a good chunk of the contents, including my own column, titled "American Theocracy." (Remember, this was ten years ago!) Here are some extracts plus commentary from the vantage-point of the present.

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….

Our genial host at Houghton in 2006 was the poet Jack Leax. Can that really have been ten years ago? It was the first time Wendy and I had a chance to meet Julia, with whom we became friends. Tim has the cover story in the May/June 20016 issue. And I wonder what Justin is up to.

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 long—16 pages in the printer-friendly version I read—and 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 propaganda—above 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 conversation—John Shelby Spong comes to mind—Linker never makes clear precisely what adaptations are required ….

[L]ater 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 Right—Jerry 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….

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. Politics—and religion too—makes strange bedfellows.

It was enjoyable, but also strange, to read this piece from the vault. That coup never materialized. Neuhaus is presumably enjoying the heavenly equivalent of ambrosial Scotch while carrying on a conversation with John Henry Newman. Jody is in South Dakota, writing splendid essays and books, and Rusty Reno is presiding over First Things, which seems to be thriving under his leadership.

The same issue from which I've been quoting, May/June 2006 issue, included an essay by Roger Lundin, " 'To the Unknown Gods,' " adapted from his book From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (Rowman & Littlefield). I encourage you to read it. Roger zeroes in on a passage from Stanley Fish, "packed with avowals of skepticism and denial" of "transcendent truths," noting that "Fish slips in a parenthetical phrase—'although some [such truths] may exist in a realm veiled from us'—as a gesture toward the possibility of transcendence. Many great works of modernist literature and postmodern theory make similar gestures toward some form of 'the protean, and the unpredictable,' " Roger goes on to say. He adds, "This is a conversational gambit with a distinguished history. In first-century Athens, the Apostle Paul covered similar ground with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers." And then this splendid conclusion: "As lonely as these Stoics and Epicureans were in their cosmic isolation, 'when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, "We will hear you again about this" ' (Acts 17:32). And a number of those who did listen no doubt found the rules of the game, and the direction of their conversations, changed forever."


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