Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Looming Theocracy or the Catholic Menace (cue music)

Ross Douthat and Damon Linker engage in interesting debate (scroll down)over Linker's book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege. Linker, unlike many pounding the theocon drum, actually has some familiarity with conservative religious voters being a founding member of First Things an online magazine which:
is published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.

Mr. Douthat begins with the book saying:
Earlier this year, I spent several months reading a series of books on the looming theocratic menace--by Kevin Phillips, Michelle Goldberg, and Randall Balmer, among others--for a review essay that appeared in (where else?) First Things, and The Theocons is definitely a cut above that sorry crop. (How's that for a blurb?) Unlike most of these authors, you have the advantage of understanding the terrain you're writing about, and you actually engage with the ideas of your friends-turned-opponents rather than simply caricaturing or smearing them. (I can't tell you how relieved I was to read a book about the menace of the religious right that didn't pin its narrative on the supposedly vast influence of the Christian Reconstructionists.) Your description of the intellectual trajectory of figures like Neuhaus and Novak is often illuminating, and--though, as you might expect, I took their side more often than yours--I thought you scored your fair share of points.

From there Douthat segues into an examination of a hoary old arguement on religion and American politics, notably Catholicsm. Not those Johnny-Come-Lately Evangelicals , oh no. Again, Douthat:
But, of course, it's not enough for a book (particularly a book about a coterie of intellectuals that most people have never heard of) simply to dispute particular aspects of the "theocon" agenda, or to point out holes and contradictions in its worldview. You need a big, bold thesis about its malign influence over our national life--preferably one that involves the end of America as we know it. And so you favor us with the inevitable and hysterical talk about "secular America under siege," the dire warnings--redolent of old-school anti-Catholicism--about the "the imposition of an alien religious ideology onto an otherwise secular nation," the ridiculous comparisons between the "theocons" and the old throne-and-altar European right ... and so on. None of it even begins to convince, and your attempts to detail the supposedly sweeping influence of the First Things crowd feel strained: On your evidence, their direct power seems to extend to consulting with George W. Bush on how he can play to the Catholic vote, inspiring a largely symbolic bill protecting infants from postnatal abortion, and having their friends show up on the President's Council on Bioethics. (My God--presidents are appointing like-minded intellectuals to powerless commissions! Where will it end?)

.... theocons, you inform us, want to return abortion law to the states, allowing the procedure "to be banned outright in states dominated by populist religiosity." (That is, they want the abortion regime that prevailed throughout 95 percent of America's existence.) They want a return to more traditional family structures, and they want to keep gay marriage and assisted suicide illegal. Oh, and they want people to be more religious, so that all the events of daily life would be "permeated by Christian piety and conviction." I understand that you disagree with all these positions, but is it really shocking news--let alone a looming threat to the republic--that socially conservative Christians want America to be more, well, socially conservative and Christian?

...for the most part, I suspect that you believe that the attempt to link the American Founding to the Catholic natural-law tradition--which is at the heart of the "theoconservative project," insofar as there is one--marks a greater departure from America's supposed secular ideal than did the God-soaked politics of, say, Bryan or King.

...If this is what you mean, I wish you had been gutsy enough to take your argument to its logical conclusion and to say outright what you repeatedly imply--namely that orthodox Catholicism is essentially incompatible with the American liberal order, and that Neuhaus (like John Courtney Murray before him) is wrong to tell his co-believers that there's no great tension between Rome and the United States. You spend a great deal of time talking about the "authoritarian" political inclinations of Neuhaus and company and how they threaten liberalism, but your evidence is nearly always that they believe in accepting the Catholic magisterium's religious authority on matters of faith and morals--with the implication being that, if you let the magisterium tell you what to think about birth control or the Virgin Birth, you aren't fit for the responsibilities of democratic self-governance.

It gets juicy and interesting from there.

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