Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Linker on Neuhaus

One of the great traditions of American political life is for ideological pilgrims--having moved from right to left or left to right--to write in condemnatory terms about their former associates. There’s David Horowitz, David Brock, Richard John Neuhaus, and, now, Damon Linker, who has this (among other things) to say about Neuhaus:

In Neuhaus’s view, what was happening in the United States could only be described as "the displacement of a constitutional order by a regime that does not have, will not obtain, and cannot command the consent of the people." Hence the stark and radical options confronting the country, ranging "from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution."


That is the America toward which Richard John Neuhaus wishes to lead us--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.

It’s a long article, richly detailed and theoretically sophisticated, but I’m not persuaded. It seems to me that Linker--who is a very smart guy--makes too much of some passionate rhetoric and too little of the appeal to natural law, which is exclusionary only if you reject reason.

What, I wonder, is Linker’s alternative to natural law as the source of America’s public reason? Or do we not need one? Are we not to be disciplined at all by authorities outside our most passionate desires or the resistance others can offer to them on the basis of their most passionate desires?

One last point: while Linker does darkly hint that Neuhaus is another Carl Schmitt--a favorite liberal bete noire--his most "frightening" example is the aforementioned First Things symposium, which also formed part of Jeffrey Hart’s polemic against Neuhaus, to which Neuhaus has already responded. If this is Neuhaus at his authoritarian worst, we don’t have much to be afraid of.

I expect that, in the coming days, we’ll hear more of this, both from Neuhaus (and friends) and from Linker.

Update: The comments below (and also here) are worth reading. My judgment of Linker’s abilities comes from APSA panels on German things, not from a close acquaintance with his punditry and religious writings, such as they are.

Linker’s evident hostility to religion in public life is not present in this review, nor here, where as Paul Seaton notes below, Linker appears to have been, for a time at least, influenced by Pierre Manent.

Richard John Neuhaus is surely regretting these words, at least (as would become a gentleman) in private:

[Linker] is resigning to write a book about the people involved with FT and their effort to advance a vibrant religious presence in the public square. Damon has been a conscientious, loyal, and exceedingly competent colleague, and I will miss him.

I wonder if Linker is following his first teacher Mark Lilla, whose thoughts along similar lines (albeit not with respect to Richard John Neuhaus) I criticized here and here.

Discussions - 35 Comments

Clear thinking is usually frightening.
And we always need it.

*waits patiently (or not so patiently) for "The Theocons" to be released in September*

I think you’re much too kind to Mr. Linker. The idea that the "strict separation of politics and religion" ought to stand as one of America’s signal achievements is just plain dumb. Separation of church and state - we can have a conversation. But someone who thinks that the signal achievement of American politics is its "strict separation" from religion is either entirely tendentious or ignorant. Neither is a particularly appealing option.

Damon was an anti-moral Straussian, then a Kantian, then a Mormon sympathizer, then a Catholic convert and editor at FIRST THINGS. Now he is biting the hand that fed him handsomely with the encouragement of a huge advance for an expose book on theocon conspiracy (which far less plausible, of course, than even the neocon conspiracy). And he’s drawing shamelessly and rather promiscuously from every theoretical weapon he learned during his Straussian Michigan State wonder years. At the end of the day, the indignant extremism of the article and forthcoming book comes nowhere close to ringing true. I can’t help but see the dollar signs dancing in his head. My advice: Ignore him.

I know/knew Damon Linker. I haven’t talked with him since he left First Things to write his book. After reading Joe’s post earlier today, I was wondering whether I should report the facts that Peter Lawler rehearsed above. I hate bringing in character[-flaws] when it comes to intellectual debates. But in Damon’s case his mind is deeply rooted in his character and his character is of the gyrovague sort. A shame.
I would disagree with one point in Joe’s initial posting: Damon is not "very [i.e., exceptionally] smart"; there’s lots of things he’s simply blind to, or obtuse about. He doesn’t understand the notion of "regime," he doesn’t understand the fundamental distinction between "separation" and "strict separation," he doesn’t understand that the Catholic intellectual tradition combines reason and Faith, he doesn’t understand the distinction between principle and prudence. A shame.
In the full disclosure mode: I’ve never met Richard John Neuhaus and we certainly are not friends, and while I subscribe to First Things, I do not agree with him (and Weigel and Novak) concerning the Iraq War. I enjoyed Damon’s contributions to the journal when he was there. He even wrote a fine piece on/against "The Anti-Political Temptation" (when he was influenced by Pierre Manent, if I remember correctly).

Wasn’t that First Things symposium years ago? Why does it keep coming up in 2006? I am geniunely curious...

I am just wondering...why not agree that there is a neo-conservative or a theo-conservative conspiracy? Just as there is no doubt a hundred of other conspiracies, many of them originating on the left...in the end the C word is overused to the point of reducing itself to agenda. And who denies that every group that exists in american politics has an agenda?

People scheme, and the problem isn’t just with conservative schemers. The problem is with anyone who seeks to impose a narrow worldview on the rest of us. The liberals aren’t guilt free by any stretch. In fact I am happy with conservatives provided the agenda they persue gets rid of or helps fight the liberals, and vice versa. And no, we don’t need a source for american public reason, the enemy is american public reason gone too far.

Joe, you’re right, Damon Linker is expert in German idealism (one of Lilla’s areas of expertise) and wrote his dissertation in that area. He has at least one good article on it that appeared in the Review of Metaphysics. On that understanding, he is a "very smart" fellow.

My earlier remarked were over-the-top. I was just a bit astonished to see the review. I want them stricken from the record as too personal. I still think ignore is the best strategy, thoough.

Not only that--I would like to apologize to Damon, who has been good to me over the years. But I still think the best strategy is ignore--the one I should have followed from the very beginning.

Maybe Neuhaus is more worth discussing?

Neuhaus is certainly worth discussing,
but not in terms of a theocratic conspiracy to overturn government by consent and the authority of modern science. He’s certainly for consent and so against the imperial judiciary, and he’s only against modern science when it becomes scientistic or authoritarian. For the record, I woke up this morning to find nine emails praising my too mean comments on the genealogy of the Damon-izing of Neuhaus.

For any who cares, the best article ever on the Neuhaus Damon slanders in mine in something like the 1988 POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIWER.

Dear Peter, you saved me some work: I was going to look up your PSR article, which is, as you rightly say, very good, and recommend it to "the interested reader". It’s a great exposition of his complex, intelligent, and well worth considering thought, while acknowledging that at the time he wasn’t a particularly clear writer. I think the years have helped him on that score.
I sympathize with your regret, but I still haven’t found my way to share it ... yet. His mischaracterization and defamation of a benefactor, and intelligent man, necessarily lead to questions of motive and character.

I meant discussing Neuhaus in an appreciative sense. Clear thinking is rare enough as it is. It will always be attacked, and I’m glad to see Neuhaus’s attackers aren’t given a free pass.

Please discuss Neuhaus in the appreciative sense. That obviously won’t happen on the pages of the paranoid anti-Catholic NEW REPUBLIC.

Owing a good deal of my political and intellectual education to the New Republic, I have to put in a good word or two. At times maddeningly inconsistent, and often maddeningly anti-Christian (it goes beyond Catholics) thanks to Wieseltier especially but obviously extending to top editor Peretz), it nonetheless remains a great magazine. Much of my own liberalism getting "mugged by reality" occurred in its pages. TNR is sort of a "smart non-insane liberals do their political thing while hosting a centrist salon" and the centrism they get most excited about is that of the intellectual moving left or right and casting aspersions on his former brethren. So, the Linker piece is right up their alley. The piece sounds pathetic to those familar w/ FT, but it will mislead a good deal of smart people, which is what rightly ires Peter about TNR’s role here.

Carl, I don’t see a lot of evidence for your "great" characterization, especially if Linker’s piece is "right up their alley." Doesn’t sound like they like to play it straight and fair with their opponents. As for the anti-Catholic/Christian animus: that’s kindof damning, isn’t it?
So, how would you grade them on 1) social-cultural issues; 2) the Constitution; 3) foreign policy; 4) religion; 5) Israel; 6) economics?

Not as great as First Things, for one, nor as strong as Commentary, for another, but I guess their extended book reviews, which is where the centrist salon aspect really kicks in, are often treasures that make for great intellectual journalism. And it is a weekly. As for grading: 1) A 2) C--were it Rosen only, D-- 3) B 4) D- 5) A 6) B. I admit the anti-Christian bias you and Peter assert, but it is not as bad as in many publications, and by and large, they seem an equal-opportunity relisher of big-think hit-pieces. In the past they published Jean Bethke Elshtain a lot, and I imagine if someone wrote a good "Liberal Intellectuals and their Theocon-Dergangement-Syndrome" article, they might publish it if it spared them. Do I imagine naively?

I wasn’t passing judgment on the New Republic as a whole. As a literary venture, it’s better than the Weekly Standard and is in the same league as Commentary. But it does promote the view in many ways that the biggest threats to our rights today is Christianity. And to say the very least, that ain’t true, and a certain author I’m ignoring knows very well it’s not true.


If a magazine is anti-Christian, it should be dismissed, just as an anti-Jewish magazine would and should be dismissed.

Let me be clear--it’s not anti-Christian in any overt, dogmatic, or programatic way--it is a question of bias that crops up from time to time in the way they frame key issues, the most prominent recent example being the green light they gave to Paula Frederiksen’s rather ludicrous advance critique of The Passion as anti-Semitic and ahistorical, and their poor handling of the resultant brouhaha they started. It is a matter, as Lawler argues, of an underlying paranoia about Christianity, especially when it comes to political matters. It is "kind of damning," to be sure, but it does not infect the magazine as a whole. Recent issues have featured, for example, what appear to be (I haven’t read the first) fair treatments of Jacques Maritain, the Thomist philosopher, and Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, the formerly Marxist now Catholic-friendly scholars of the antebellum South.

Gentlemen,

This has been fun.

But why has no one even attempted to address and refute the many substantive points I make in the review -- about authority (in Catholicism, in liberal politics, the life of the mind), about pluralism, about natural law, and so forth? Sure, my history at FT makes me a scintillating subject for gossip, but I propose we move on to something more philosophical than rumor-mongering.

Damon Linker

Dr. Linker,



Good luck doing that on this blog . . .


New to this blog. Good stuff.

What drew me here was a Google I did that was trying to get some background on Dr. Linker and his reasons for leaving First Things. Over the past ten years, I have, probably by the cross referencing that goes on in the various magazines, become a subscriber to TNF, Weekly Standard, FT, and Commentary. Subscribing does not mean I agree with all they have to say, but like Peter, I have found some of the TNR articles i.e. Weisleiter?, to be maddening in their basic premise of we have much to fear when religious people are open with their religiosity.

To be 100% fair to TNR, I am a Methodist Pastor, coming to this later in life after a career in the US Army, and thus, not sure I can agree with the apparent premise that Brother Leon seems to share in my of his articles.

I read them however to be stimulated, just as this blog was stimulating.

I was surprised by the presence of Dr. Linker on this one. Will I buy the book in the Fall? I don’t know. Maybe.

The Bishop in Denver did say, and here I am paraphrasing, ’that in the 21st century, anti-Catholicism has become the anti-Semitism of history’. The whole "Separation of Church and State" canard had it’s origins in concerns over block voting by Catholic immigrants who would be (theoretically) told how to vote by the local Parish Priest (circa 1845 through about 1900). There is tremendous irony in the current view on SofC&S now nad it’s historical roots.

Peace. Again, stimulating.

I wonder why Mr. Linker thinks that anyone need "refute" his point about "natural law," which was that natural law surely doesn’t frown on birth control given that so many Americans use birth control. Whatever the ultimate answer to this question, it is quite startling to suggest that "natural law" could be determined by taking a vote of a particular nation at a particular point in time. Linker’s point is exactly as if someone said in 1750 that "natural law does not condemn slavery; after all, so many Americans own slaves." Such a sentiment could only be uttered by someone who had no idea what the term "natural law" means.

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