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.