The new fault line on
By JACOB HEILBRUNN
Issue date: 12.30.96
Post date: 12.12.96
On September 26, after the Senate failed to overturn President
Clinton's veto of a ban on partial-birth abortions, Paul Weyrich,
Gary Bauer and other leaders of the religious right assembled in
the antechamber of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's office. The
rhetoric could not have been more fiery. As Lott looked on approvingly,
Watergate felon and evangelist Charles Colson declared, "a nation
which sanctions infanticide is no better than China, no better than
Nazi Germany." Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, went even
further. "It is not hyperbole to say that we are at a point at which
millions of conscientious American citizens are reflecting upon
whether this is a legitimate regime," Neuhaus said. "That is the
solemn moment we have reached."
Despite the apocalyptic tone of what was, after all, an open meeting
convened by the most powerful Republican in Congress, the gathering
in Lott's chambers attracted little notice. But this meeting was
not an isolated or aberrant event. It was a harbinger of a political
development that has now reached fruition: a full-fledged war between
two leading groups of conservative intellectuals over the basic
question of what constitutes a moral conservatism and a moral society.
This war is deeply personal. On one side are the mostly Jewish
neoconservatives, a fairly small group of ex-New York leftists who
have wielded influence greatly beyond their numbers through sheer
intellectual energy. Since the conservative renascence began in
the late 1970s, the neocons have given it much of its form and heft;
building on the earlier work of William F. Buckley Jr., they provided
most of the ideas and arguments that allowed conservatism to compete
with (and in many areas triumph over) liberalism. As conservatism
benefited from the neocons, so did the neocons benefit from conservatism.
They made conservatism intellectually respectable, and conservatism
made them intellectually important. Now challenging the neocons
is an equally small (and equally ambitious, and equally disputatious)
group of what might be called theocons--mostly Catholic intellectuals
who are attempting to construct a Christian theory of politics that
directly threatens the entire neoconservative philosophy. This attempt,
in the eyes of at least some of the neocons, also directly threatens
Jews. What makes the matter all the more painful for both sides
is that, until recently, the neocons and the theocons were, for
the best of political reasons, the best of friends.
And this war is fundamental. It is rooted in a battle over the
identity of the American nation. The neoconservatives believe that
America is special because it was founded on an idea--a commitment
to the rights of man embodied in the Declaration of Independence--not
in ethnic or religious affiliations. The theocons, too, argue that
America is rooted in an idea, but they believe that idea is Christianity.
In their view, the United States is first and foremost a Christian
nation, governed ultimately by natural law. When moral law--moral
law as defined by Thomas Aquinas and enunciated by John Paul II--conflicts
with the laws of man, they say, the choice is clear: God's law transcends
the arbitrary and tyrannical decrees of what the theocons increasingly
refer to as an American judicial "regime."
The war between the neocons and the theocons first broke into
the open in November, when Neuhaus published a symposium in his
magazine, First Things, titled "THE END OF DEMOCRACY?" The
symposium made explicit for the first time the central point of
the Catholic intellectuals' thesis: that the government of the United
States (in particular the judiciary) had become so debased--so,
essentially, unChristian and therefore so illegitimate--as to threaten
the existence of America as a nation under God, and that this crisis
might require a revolutionary response. The ultimate paradox: a
In the introduction to the symposium, the editors likened the
United States to Nazi Germany and cited an encyclical from Pope
John Paul II to justify entertaining the possibility of revolution
against a judicial tyranny: "Law, as it is presently made by the
judiciary, has declared its independence from morality." The editors
asked point-blank whether "we have reached or are reaching the point
where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to
the existing regime." They went on to observe that "America is not
and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only
blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American
ways, may be happening here." The same issue contained quotations
from the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer on resisting the Nazi regime.
In individual essays, Robert Bork, Robert P. George, Russell Hittinger,
Hadley Arkes and Charles Colson discussed the three court cases
that form the foundation for the theocons' assertion that the judiciary
has usurped power and assaulted the values of its host society:
the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v.
Casey, when the Court refused to overturn Roe v. Wade;
the 1996 Supreme Court decision Romer v. Evans, when
the Court declared that Coloradans voting against gay-rights statutes
were driven by animus; and the 1996 Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals decision upholding euthanasia, a decision written by the
liberal judge Stephen Reinhardt, which the Supreme Court seems likely
Bork cited approvingly the suggestion of his staunchly Catholic
wife that the high court's rulings were essentially illegal: "My
wife said the Justices were behaving like a `band of outlaws.' ...
An outlaw is a person who coerces others without warrant in law.
That is precisely what a majority on the present Supreme Court does."
Bork called for stripping the Court of the power of judicial review
or subjecting its decisions to a vote in the Senate and House of
Representatives. (In his new best-selling book, Slouching Towards
Gomorrah, Bork sees the root of the evil in the Declaration
of Independence.) Russell Hittinger, a professor at the University
of Tulsa who has published a book on natural law theory, maintained
that "civil disobedience" may be necessary as a weapon against "despotic
rule" of the courts. Robert P. George, in an essay called "The Tyrant
State," advised readers that the "doctrine of the necessary conformity
of civil law to moral truth long predates the rise of modern democracy.
It ... was given careful, systematic exposition by Thomas Aquinas.
It has been a central feature of the tradition of papal social teaching."
These ideas are not entirely new. In one way or another, the right
has been inveighing against the judiciary since the Warren Court
and against the immorality of the government since Roe v.
Wade. And in recent years these arguments have gained political
strength, as the Christian Coalition became a power, as Patrick
Buchanan rose to national political prominence, and as the idea
of the government as an illegitimate occupying power gained greater
currency among a wider population increasingly alienated from Washington.
But what was new about the First Things symposium
was the attempt to fashion a cogent, serious and popular intellectual
framework for these ideas--to render respectable ideas that intellectuals
had come to regard as the province of the radical right and the
booboisie. Pat Buchanan and Bob Dornan and Phyllis Schlafly had
never threatened the neoconservatives because they didn't compete
on the same plane. This, though, was an attempt to do just that.
The neocon response was as impassioned as it was swift. Neoconservative
heavies such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, Walter Berns and Peter Berger
immediately resigned from the editorial boards of First Things.
Norman Podhoretz, the chief popularizer of neoconservatism, entered
the lists to denounce Neuhaus for the "aid and comfort you for all
practical purposes offer the bomb throwers among us." Podhoretz
declared, "I did not become a conservative in order to be a radical,
let alone to support the preaching of revolution against this country."
The furor caused by the November symposium begat a second symposium
in First Things, this one to be published in the upcoming
January issue. This time, the thoroughly alarmed neoconservatives
went ballistic, employing the language of the old right against
the old left and the new right against the new left, invoking the
ghosts of anti-Americanism and radicalism and "subversive" activity.
And Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that Catholics threatened to undermine
the very thing they claimed to want, the ordering of American society
according to Judeo-Christian ethics. The theocons' radical rhetoric,
she wrote, "discredits, or at the very least makes suspect, any
attempt by conservatives to introduce moral and religious considerations
into the `public square'--as if morality and religion necessarily
lead to such apocalyptic conclusions. It can only confirm many Americans
in their suspicion that cultural conservatism is outside the `mainstream'
of American politics, that it is `extremist,' even subversive."
William J. Bennett, who is both a Catholic moralist and a sort of
neoconservative, weighed in with a rejection of the Catholics' core
notion: "We are still America, not `Amerika.'"
The battle that was joined in November and continued in the January
issue of First Things has spread to other publications of
the right. David Brooks, writing in the neoconservative Weekly
Standard, warned of "the right's anti-American temptation,"
a play on the title of Bork's book The Tempting of America.
The Wall Street Journal and National Review have weighed
in on the controversy. In late November, a group of conservatives
from both sides, Neuhaus, William Kristol and Buckley, met in an
attempt to reach a truce. They got nowhere.
To understand why the dispute is likely to resist further efforts
at peacemaking, it helps to consider briefly the core beliefs of
both neoconservatism and American Catholic conservatism on the nature
of America. The neoconservative understanding of the United States
is strongly influenced by the works of the political theorist Leo
Strauss. Strauss began his greatest book, Natural Right and History,
by citing the Declaration of Independence as embodying man's natural
rights. He argued that contempt for natural rights and the Declaration
had led to the spread of relativism and nihilism in the West, but
his solution was not religion. The values of religion, Strauss believed,
should inform a properly constructed society, but the state must
not explicitly endorse any religious code. The formula is reminiscent
of Gibbon's famous observation that "the various modes of worship,
which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people,
as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the
magistrate, as equally useful." Strauss believed that America was
founded on the idea of the natural rights of man, but his vision
of those natural rights was not that of the Thomists. Strauss maintained
that Aquinas's conception of natural law could not be reconciled
with Aristotle's vision of natural rights, and that it was the Athenian
vision of democracy that must prevail in an America comprised of
diverse peoples: "the divine law is not the natural law, let alone
natural right," wrote Strauss.
The theocrats will have none of this. They are Thomists, would-be
prophets of a new Age of Aquinas; their properly constructed America
would, like the America of the Straussians, be based on an idea.
But for the neocons that idea is the natural law of Thomas Aquinas.
Like the Straussians, they decry relativism and cultural decadence,
but their solution is to embrace explicitly the notion of a Christian
nation: a nation that accepts the idea of a transcendent divine
law that carries universal obligations even for nonbelievers.
The founding father of the new Thomist movement is the theologian
Germain Grisez, a Christian ethics professor at Mount St. Mary's
in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Grisez, who helped persuade Pope John Paul
II to force the Catholic University of America to expel Charles
Curran in 1986, is the author, among other works, of the standard
two-volume guide to Catholicism The Way of the Lord Jesus: Living
a Christian Life. In it, Grisez develops a comprehensive natural
law theory in opposition to modernity. In his preface, he observes
that culture now influences Christianity rather than Christianity
influencing culture. Most notably, Grisez points out that obligations
to a higher law as defined by the Catholic Church can supersede
laws of the government; "sometimes, too, a government which on the
whole is just has laws which unjustly permit the violation of a
certain group's fundamental human rights, for example, laws permitting
abortion. Now, in general, if citizens observe one person killing
another, they may use the minimum force necessary to defend the
victim's life, and in such a case, laws against trespassing, the
destruction of property, and so forth should not keep anyone from
doing what is required." Among Grisez's followers are Princeton
professor Robert P. George, who serves on the U.S. Civil Rights
Commission, and John Finnis of Oxford University Law. Finnis, one
of the most prominent opponents of homosexuality, draws on natural
law to argue that society must publicly discourage "waverers" from
joining the ranks of homosexuals and that homosexuality "disposes
the participants to engage in an abdication of responsibility for
the future of mankind."
The most comprehensive explication of natural law theory, however,
comes in two volumes published by Oxford's Clarendon Press and edited
by Robert P. George. In The Autonomy of Law, for example,
Finnis argues that though "human law is artefact and artifice ...
both its positing and the recognition of its positivity ... cannot
be understood without reference to the moral principles that ground
and confirm its authority...." George declares that law is a "cultural
object that is created for a moral purpose." He concludes by quoting
Bork on the need for judges not to presume that they can dictate
For many years, as conservatism gained strength in America, the
natural gulf between the neocons' Straussian view and the theocons'
Thomism was ignored for a number of reasons. One was that modern
American conservatism was greatly defined by William F. Buckley,
and Buckley, though a devout Catholic, initially took a phlegmatic
view of doctrinal disputes. In the 1960s, as the conservative Catholic
movement split over the issue of pragmatic political decisions versus
doctrinal considerations in the matter of such issues as abortion
and homosexuality, Buckley chose pragmatism. In 1966, he outraged
many Catholics when he stated that non-Catholics were not bound
by Church teachings: "Surely the principal meaning of the ... pronouncements
of Vatican II is that other men must be left free to practice the
dictates of their own conscience." Buckley's brother-in-law, L.
Brent Bozell, broke with National Review to co-found with
Frederick Wilhelmsen a Spanish Carlist movement called "Sons of
Thunder" and a magazine called Triumph. "The Catholic Church
in America," he declared, "must forthrightly acknowledge that a
state of war exists between herself and the American political order."
In what Patrick Allitt in Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative
Politics terms "the first antiabortion drama of a type made
familiar two decades later by Operation Rescue," Bozell and his
followers, dressed in red berets and carrying papal flags, stormed
a George Washington University clinic that was supposedly conducting
abortions, and were arrested.
But by and large, Catholic conservatives, like conservatives in
general, chose Buckley's way, not Bozell's. Then came 1973 and the
Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, a radicalizing
event for many Catholics. Since then, the United States has seen
a more or less continuous debate over the old and new moral order
of things, and this debate has further radicalized many Christians.
It has also further eroded the dominance of Buckleyite pragmatism.
Another reason for the rise of Thomism is that the old cultural
divide between Catholics and Protestants has been shrinking for
years. As this has occurred, the moralist Catholics and evangelical
Protestants have discovered more and more that they share a natural
affinity of ideas, and they have been moving steadily closer together.
The first great step took place almost two decades ago, when religious
right leaders such as Jerry Falwell adopted the right-to-life stance
espoused by the Catholic Church. Falwell declared that Protestants
had "joined the fight" and lauded Pope John Paul II as the "best
hope we Baptists ever had." It was a little-noticed but important
moment in political history: northern Catholics and Southern Baptists--two
powerful blocs that had traditionally shared an allegiance to the
Democratic Party but had also traditionally viewed one another with
cultural suspicion--had joined hands in cultural conservatism.
In May, 1994, First Things issued a declaration titled
"EVANGELICALS & CATHOLICS TOGETHER." The declaration was signed
by Neuhaus, Colson, Pat Robertson, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade
for Christ and Jesse Miranda of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God.
It stated that "there has been in recent years a growing convergence
and cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics" and that "we
will do all in our power to resist proposals for euthanasia, eugenics,
and population control that ... betray the moral truths of our constitutional
The alliance has grown ever since, lending strength to both groups.
As the neocons provided the intellectual muscle for Reagan conservatism,
so now the Catholic Thomists are providing the brainpower for the
Christian Coalition. George and Finnis were the star witnesses on
behalf of the state of Colorado in the Romer v. Evans
gay rights case. The ballot, which would have permitted local communities
to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality, had originally been
funded by evangelist James C. Dobson's organization. And Supreme
Court Justice Antonin Scalia invokes Catholic teachings in his public
speeches and has written with approbation of a culture war in his
court dissents. "The court," he wrote in its review of the Romer
case, "has mistaken a Kulturkampf for a fit of spite."
The final reason for the rise of the theocons is the one perhaps
most painful to neocons. It is the work of the neocons themselves.
For years, figures such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol and
Norman Podhoretz have hailed religious populism and denounced liberals
for viewing it as a threat. And for years, the neoconservatives
have been arguing, in tones frequently of despair and anger, precisely
the theme espoused by the Catholic intellectuals they now denounce:
that the American cultural elite and the American judiciary constituted
an overclass both alien from and largely hostile to the values of
the nation as a whole. It was Kristol who concocted the theory of
a "new class" of intellectuals hostile to its own country. In recent
years, and to this day, the neoconservatives have embraced and defended
the Christian right. Writing in Commentary, in August 1991,
Kristol argued that the danger to the republic was not Christian
fundamentalism, but the secular humanism of the new class. "American
Jews, alert to Christian anti-Semitism," he wrote, "are in danger
of forgetting that it was the pagans--the Babylonians and the Romans--who
destroyed the temples and twice imposed exile on the Jewish people."
In the October 1996 issue of Commentary, Podhoretz compared
the "liberal culturati" to the "Stalinists of the '30s,"
and bemoaned the "bigotry with which the Christian Coalition itself
is routinely discussed in liberal circles." And it was the neoconservatives,
in their arguments, who laid the groundwork for the Thomists' portrayal
of the United States as a captive nation under an illegitimate judicial
"regime." The idea of the Supreme Court as the aggressor in the
culture wars, while conservatives are simply the beleaguered minority,
belongs to the neocons at least as much as it does to the theocons.
As Cornell professor Jeremy Rabkin recently wrote of the Supreme
Court justices in Kristol's Public Interest: "In an age of
confusing transitions, the justices are the last dogmatists. It
requires such dogmatists to sustain a culture war."
In the second of the First Things symposia, Midge Decter
wrote a poignant plea to the theocons to stop pushing their doctrine.
"I could hardly believe my eyes," she wrote of her readings in the
first symposium. "I presume in the name of friendship, then, to
accuse you of growing impatient with your labors, and in your impatience,
reckless. And I beg you: do not be impatient, and for heaven's sake
do not be reckless about the legitimacy of this country.... You
will only end by strengthening the devil's hand." Her essay was
followed immediately by what amounted to a response and flat rejection
from Dobson. Dobson declared that he stood in a long tradition of
Christians who believed that rulers may "forfeit their divine mandate"
when they contravene "divine moral law," and he concluded by asking
whether "clergy and laity alike [will] be willing to face cultural
ostracism, imprisonment, or worse."
When Neuhaus and Dobson and Grisez hear Podhoretz and Kristol
and Decter accuse them of not acting like true conservatives--of
being radical and subversive--they must be at least a little tempted
to laugh. Well, yes. Of course they are radicals and subversives.
That is what they intended to be all along; that is what they have
always been. They see America in 1990 as the abolitionists saw it
in 1860--as a state that is violating God's law and must be resisted,
by any means necessary. They suspect the neocons of mouthing the
rhetoric but not having the stomach for the consequences of their
own talk, and they regard them with attitudes ranging from exasperation
to contempt. Hadley Arkes, a professor of political theory at Amherst,
speaking of neoconservatives and abortion, laments that in "their
heart of hearts," the neoconservatives "don't think people are being
killed in these surgeries. They think we're going to the edge of
fanaticism." Paul Weyrich, who heads the Free Congress Foundation,
is openly dismissive. "I resent the political correctness of some
of the neocons who suggest that you can't discuss something." He
asks: "If a government is illegitimate, do you stop paying taxes,
do you stop serving in its armed forces? These are all questions
which need to be thoroughly thought through."
If the Thomists have a public face that is at all nationally known,
it is that of Alan Keyes, who this year made his second quixotic
run for the presidency. Last summer, in a half-filled hotel ballroom,
in the midst of the otherwise content-free Republican National Convention,
Keyes gave the inaugural address of a group he calls The Declaration
Foundation. The foundation is the Thomists' first attempt to organize
politically, and Keyes's speech was the first speech by an articulate
conservative to present an intellectually cogent argument on behalf
"I believe that it is absolutely clear, in everything the Founders
did, that they intended the Declaration to be a bridge between the
Bible and the Constitution, between the basis of our moral faith
and the basis of our political life," Keyes said. "The Declaration
constitutes a definition of the source and limits of our freedom.
The source is God. And the limits are quite clearly defined: we
cannot use the freedom in such a way as to claim unto ourselves
the authority which is the basis of our freedom."
Keyes knows this is a radical doctrine in the context of the American
experience. That's why he likes it. He maintains that he is not
preaching revolution, and he seemed surprised by the controversy
surrounding the First Things symposium. "How can that be
anti-American?" he asked last week. It is a question that the neocons
must wish they had never helped raise.
Keyes's campaign was a failure. The "Republican moneybags," as
he puts it, shut him down. But there does seem to be some grass-roots
receptivity to his message, which Keyes booms away at on his daily
radio show. The very success of Keyes and his fellow theocons in
propagating their doctrine inside the GOP would, however, condemn
the party itself to failure. A Catholic tradition that attempts
to infuse a religiously neutral Constitution with divine right is
a recipe for political disaster. Thomism is an ideology to which
only the faithful can subscribe. It is not so much anti-American
Until now, the neoconservatives have preferred to tune out the
message and embrace the messenger. These intellectual operatives
have operated on the comforting assumption that a common interest
animates evangelicals, Catholics and neoconservatives. Father Neuhaus
has not: in the December issue of First Things, he praises
the declaration of the Southern Baptist Convention last summer in
favor of evangelizing the Jews. "[T]he Baptists," he writes, "were
responding to Christian theologians who had singled out Jews as
being exempt from the otherwise universal need for the Gospel."
That's not the sort of overture you expect from an old friend. It
has begun to dawn on the neoconservatives what can happen when,
to borrow a phrase from Midge Decter, you strengthen the devil's