Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Linker links

Rick Garnett calls our attention to these two reviews of Damon Linker’s The Theocons, one from the left, the other from the right. (The latter is only available in full to subscribers, so you’ll have to rely on the chunk Garnett provides.) Neither reviewer much likes the book.

I’ve just started it, and share some of Paul Baumann’s qualms about DL’s framework:

Linker sees inordinate peril in Neuhaus’s insistence that democracy be grounded in metaphysical, and ultimately religious, claims about the transcendent nature of the human person. The “liberal bargain” Linker extols, on the other hand, explicitly rejects the need for democratic societies to come to any comprehensive agreement about first principles. In the liberal bargain, we can disagree about the ultimate good, about “first things,” and still order our political life in a fair and peaceful way.


The theocons reject this conception of liberalism, insisting that only a political order based on absolute moral “truth” can protect human dignity and freedom. Such an insistence appears hard to square with our society’s inability to agree on the moral truth about such issues as abortion or same-sex marriage. Emphasizing such shortcomings, Linker is too quick to dismiss the appeal of the theocon position. (Neuhaus would argue, for example, that the law’s failure to protect unborn life is a far greater threat to democratic values than his protests against Roe v. Wade.) In a time when science presents excruciating dilemmas about when human life begins or ends—and about who should make such determinations—it is not just conservatives who balk at the idea that individual autonomy trumps all other moral values. Nor can Linker’s strictly secular “liberal bargain” account for the role religious convictions have played, for example, in the triumph of democracy in Poland’s Solidarity movement or America’s own abolitionist and civil-rights struggles.


Suffice it to say that while some on the religious right are anti-democratic, the arguments Neuhaus and company make about the religious origins of our ideas about human dignity and the intrinsic value of each life are hardly a recipe for theocratic tyranny. Liberal religious thinkers embrace similar premises yet come to very different political conclusions. As Galston and Edsall note, while Americans want a firm separation of church and state, they don’t want a purely secular public square, and there is no moral or constitutional reason why they should accept one. Yet Linker thinks the explicit disavowal of religious-based moral claims should be a prerequisite for entering into the political debate. He’s wrong, both philosophically and historically.

I wouldn’t endorse everything in these three paragraphs, but would certainly agree that DL’s account of the necessity of the liberal bargain is unpersuasively thin gruel.

I should note that our very own Peter Lawler has a bit part in the book, as a follower of the notorious theocon Leon Kass and associate of the other notorious theocon (?) Diana Schaub.

I’ll render a fuller (though perhaps still half-baked) judgment later, but my first reaction is that Linker ought to have been able to do better than this.

Discussions - 1 Comment

I would say something here about the very word "theocon," but I’m following the ignore approach to the book.

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