The new fault line on the right.
Neocon v. Theocon

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 conservative revolution.

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 to overturn.

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 natural law.

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 order."

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 of Thomism.

"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 as un-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 hand.




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(Copyright 1996, The New Republic)