Despite my regular perusal of The New Republic, I somehow missed a massive cover article a couple of weeks ago about one of the most fascinating figures of the American Religious Right, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. It was penned, moreover, by Damon Linker, who until fairly recently was editor of the central vehicle for Neuhaus’ vast torrent of commentary, First Things magazine.Styled as a review of Neuhaus’ latest book, Catholic Matters, Linker’s piece is actually more of an intellectual biography of the influential Lutheran-turned-Catholic, and utlimately an indictment of Neuhaus’ contributions to the Religious Right assault on liberal pluralism in politics.I will not greatly indulge my hobby of amateur theological hairsplitting here, beyond noting that Linker views Neuhaus as offering a rigorous (if ultimately circular) natural-law justification for a coalition of conservative Catholics and conservative envangelical Protestants who agree for different reasons that fidelity to religious truth requires militant political action against legalized abortion, same-sex unions, feminism, and church-state separation. And Linker also rightly draws attention to the (literally) revolutionary implications of Neuhaus’ thinking as reflected in the famous colloquouy published by First Things in 1996, entitled “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics,” which challenged a host of conservative luminaries to respond to the proposition that they had a overriding obligation to think of “the current regime” and its “secularist” judges much as German Christians thought of Nazi Germany.I urge you–especially those among you who deplore the attempted hijacking of Christianity by the Cultural Right–to read the whole thing, but do want to quote Linker’s conclusory statement about Neuhaus:
[T]he America toward which Richard John Neuhaus wishes to lead us [is] an America in which eschatological panic is deliberately channeled into public life, in which moral and theological absolutists demonize the country’s political institutions and make nonnegotiable public demands under the threat of sacralized revolutionary violence, in which citizens flee from the inner obligations of freedom and long to subordinate themselves to ecclesiastical authority, and in which traditionalist Christianity thoroughly dominates the nation’s public life. All of which should serve as a potent reminder–as if, in an age marked by the bloody rise of theologically inspired politics in the Islamic world, we needed a reminder–that the strict separation of politics and religion is a rare, precious, and fragile achievement, one of America’s most sublime achievements, and we should do everything in our power to preserve it. It is a large part of what makes America worth living in.
While I’m less worried than Linker about maintaining “strict” separation, he’s right that people like Neuhaus pose not only a threat to America’s liberal heritage–but also to the religious freedom and religious creativity that continue to make this country the most observant and believing of advanced societies. Can I get an amen on that?