The Theocons

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By some odd quirk of fate or the publishing business, I received earlier this week a copy of Damon Linker's The Theocons. (How ironic that it should come shortly after TSO featured my a quote about politics and Chilton's Manuals in his "Spamming the Globe.") While there may be cordial disagreement about the quality of Dr. Gould's book (I stand by my recommendation), I doubt that among most St. Bloggers there will be much doubt about this one.

It is difficult for me to review because it stands so diametrically opposed to the way in which I see things. I am not an ardent fan of Richard John Neuhaus's politics and societal views--nor am I a particularly scathing critic. And one must try to be fair in evaluating a work sent for review.

However, I must say that this lived up the metaphor I proposed. With the precision of a Chilton's manual we get trotted out one after another the hoary old stories of Bush's "stealing the election." The horrendous Supreme Court Judicial Activism--which amounted to saying that the constitution of a state when it affects matters Federal must be observed and cannot arbitrarily be set aside.--sneaks aboard to provide a sidelong slap to the conservatism who oppose judicial activism. We get the Rooseveltian mythos of the absolute separation of Church and State--something the founders never envisaged or at worst did not codify as this book claims.

You name the trope, Linker trots it out. But there is a remarkable twist in this plot. All of this insidious wheeling and dealing is laid at the feet of the 60s leftist activists turned constitutional subversalists, Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. And these clever, clever people early on forged a "deal" with Evangelicals to subvert them to their insidious purposes--to wit, to assure that abortions really do become rare, to protect the institution of marriage as we know it, and to inject some sense of morality into secular politics. All of which, we know from Linker's careful tutelage was absolutely forbidden by the Founding Fathers.

The book is far too easy to take pot shots at, and I should feel ashamed of the paragraphs above, but I do not. While Linker has some interesting arguments, none of them are particularly compelling. While I agree with some of the points he has to make about some of Neuhaus's, Weigel's, and Novak's positions, I find the idea of an insidious Catholic plot to subvert the American Government too ludicrous for words. Was this book deliberately planned to be released around Guy Fawkes day? Because it is in the spirit of the Gunpowder plot and other such trumped up nonsense that this book makes its points. Anti-Catholicism is alive and well and, unfortunately, relying on exactly the same old arguments it always has--plot, conspiracy, and subversion.

Let's take Linker's "clincher argument" from the very last chapter.

from The Theocons
Damon Linker

Which brings us back to the problem of religion in a free society--and to the political and social arrangements the American founder proposed to mitigate and manage it. Under our system of government, religious believers are required to leave their theological passions and certainties out of public life, but pace the theocons, this requirement does not amount to an assault on religious freedom. On the contrary, it is the precondition of religious freedom in a pluralistic society. The privatization of piety creates social space for every American to worship God as he or she wishes, without state interference. In return for this freedom, believers are expected only to give up the ambition to political rule in the name of their faith--that is, the ambition to bring the whole of social life into conformity with their own inevitably partial and sectarian theological convictions.

I'll let you parse how completely disallowing any vestige of the moral opinion that comes from religious conviction from our public life is not a restriction on the exercise of the franchise for religious. If one followed this logic strictly, one would be compelled to vote only for those with agnostic or atheistic convictions, and issues of import, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must necessarily be left out of the equation. I suppose Linker does not see it as at all problematic that only believers are expected to live in a society in which they can have no say about its direction, because that say will inevitably be formed from fundamental moral and religious convictions. Despite what he seems to imply, all of the world's major faiths do have at heart a shared set of convictions (along with a good many disparate ones) that would form the nucleus of a sane and sober society. According to his argument here, we are only asked to completely eschew any thought of acting on those convictions in return for being able to practice a progressively more restricted faith.

Linker's book is remarkably well written--and if you're inclined to partisan diatribe that lacks any sort of comprehensive focus other than fear of faith, you might find it entertaining. Myself, I was intrigued by two points, one of which is patently none of my business. The first, why is the inevitable shift in the conservative direction after four decades of Rooseveltian unleashed social reconstruction seen as anything other than the rightward swing of the pendulum after social engineering: it is a fundamental rhythm of societies? Neuhaus alone could not engineer the victory of George Bush. The Red State/Blue State phenomenon is not an illusion, it is a representation of the fact that the center has shifted back to the right in a very predictable and ordinary rhythmical shift in society. It is entirely possible that it has reached its apex and with the elections ahead we may see it shift the other way, though I tend to think that we are at the maximum disequilibrium phase and will be for a while. Right now the pendulum is all potential energy driven to the right.

The second question is how a young man who worked with First Things for some time came to divest himself of any shred of the faith and morals that he must once have had. Now we have "a woman's right to choose" and those standing in the way of "productive medical research." I've no idea what could provoke such a change, and I'm not sure I wish to know. another good mind has taken a wrong turn and rather than lavishing our time worrying about Mr. Dreher and his difficulties, we might do well to direct our prayers Linker-ward, for he has lost his faith in a thunderbolt like, "I saw Satan falling from the sky. . . "*

As to recommendation: this book falls into the category of "know your enemy." It is salutary to be aware of the type and amount of poison spewing forth from this froth of belabored and misrepresented arguments. The writing is fine, and even individual points are fine, but the frothing conspiratorial implications of the work suggest a foment that has the liberal world chasing its tail and wringing its hands, wondering when wife-swapping will be back in vogue and we can return to the carefree-days of protectionless sex. As I said, I used toothpicks to prop my eyes open to read what I could--but that isn't a reflection on the writing at all--that is my own limitation. In fact, the writing qua writing is splendid, with the smooth polish of the accomplished propagandist. This may be a name to watch among those opposed to the return to reason of society. Recommended for those whose minds are engaged by this--but for most of us, it is likely merely to be an experience in queasiness.

*Lest this be misconstrued--I use the quotation not to speak of Mr. Linker himself, but of the suddenness of the change in mind--or the seeming suddenness. Obviously, we have no right to make any judgment regarding persons at all--and one must assume that Mr. Linker's arguments and statements are all made in good, if malformed, faith.

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I think you are much braver than I and I think it would take much more than toothpicks to keep my eyes open to read it.

There has been a lot of Chicken Little books lately on the "impending theocracy." The constant tide of eliminating religious belief from the public square seems to be a more accurate indicator of this ebb and flow. In some ways there are more dangers of an atheocracy where believers talk about personally believing something but feel they have to vote otherwise. Groups like the ACLU suing every city with a cross on a seal or going after roadside shrines with crosses are also prevalent.

I think your comment on a reaction to social reconstruction is correct. The pendulum is shifting, but the shift is not as far as how religion in the public square was treated through most of our countrie's history.

Dear Jeff,

You give me far too much credit. There's no bravery at all--tenacity,perhaps--sheer stubbornness, maybe. But not bravery. After a while the "blah, blah, blah" circuit cuts in as I hear what I've heard unconvincingly for the last five or six years.

I agree with you entirely. We are far more in danger of banning religious insight from public discourse--school principles who are interfering with individual students reading the Bible, banning prayer in everything from School Commencement to Methodist Neighborhood Picnics, and other assorted nonsense.

Linker's book is, of course, another foray in the same attack. He sees it as restoring the integrity of American Politics--an artificial integrity that never had a basis in fact. What we neglect in the whole "founders" argument is that the constitution was not the work of a select group of men. It was these men and many others whose counterbalancing opinions operated against the Deists. I am certain that Charles Carroll of Carrollton was no deist. I rather suspect the Rev. James Witherspoon was not either. The constitution was crafted by a few influential people, but it was crafted with the help of a great many whose names we tend to filter out of the Argument. So what if Jefferson and Madison were deists--the majority of people who had to vote and ratify the new code of law were neither deists, nor particularly enlightment prone.

Anyway, thanks for the comment.



I recycled the copy I was sent, literally without opening it, after reading the back cover.

Dear Tom,

Were I wiser, or less curious, I might have done the same. You certainly didn't miss much you don't already know or haven't heard a million times.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 14, 2006 4:40 PM.

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