Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Catholicism and America

Ross Douthat and Damon Linker are midway through an exchange of views at TNR. Toward the end of his first contribution Linker articulates his view of the "liberal bargain" and the "theocons’" rejection of it:

In my book, I describe this bargain as the act of believers giving up their "ambition to political rule in the name of their faith" in exchange for the freedom to worship God however they wish, without state interference. What does this mean, in practical terms? It means that your belief in what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches is irrelevant, politically speaking. It simply shouldn’t matter whether or not you think that justice has a divine underpinning, anymore than it should matter whether you prefer Jane Austen to Dostoevsky. In a word, liberal politics presumes that it’s possible and desirable for political life to be decoupled from theological questions and disputes.

But there is a complication: What if a faith forbids its adherents to accept the liberal bargain? What if it explicitly refuses to permit believers to decouple their political and religious convictions? What if it demands unity--unity in the name of one set of non-negotiable theological truths? Such a religion may be incompatible with liberalism. Whether Islam is inherently illiberal in precisely this way is one of the most pressing questions confronting the Western world today.

And Catholicism? Since Vatican II--and especially since the start of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate--the Catholic Church has staked out a novel position on these matters. Like most anti-liberal faiths, it has demanded a unity between politics and religion. But it has also maintained that Catholic moral teaching is perfectly compatible with liberalism--indeed, that it is the only solid and sure foundation for liberalism. By contrast, liberalism without Catholicism is, in John Paul’s arresting phrase, "thinly disguised totalitarianism."

Catholicism does not so much reject what liberalism affirms as it denies the validity of the distinctions liberalism typically assumes--distinctions between private and public, secular and sacred, reason and revelation. In place of these distinctions, the Church proposes a higher synthesis, all the while claiming that such a synthesis produces a purified liberal politics. This is pretty much what the theocons propose for the United States.

There’s a lot on which to comment here, but I’ll restrict myself to two points. First, Linker seems to concede that genuinely faithful Catholics (and I would add, any believer whose faith doesn’t permit the compartmentalization that DL says liberalism demands, which at least includes many adherents of the Reformed tradition) can’t be good American citizens, by his lights. So much for toleration and pluralism. (I can be as brief and oversimplified as he is. If you want my longer view, read my contribution to this book and/or this review essay.)

(I assume that Peter L. won’t disapprove of my discussion of DL if I refer readers to books and journals with which he is associated.)

My second observation is actually a question: does DL really believe that Roman Catholicism doesn’t accept the validity of the distinction, for example, between reason and revelation? Nominalists might come close to that position, but surely not the "orthodox" Roman Catholics (and others) associated with First Things.

I still haven’t finished the book, but I am on my way to forming a considered opinion, which I’ll inflict upon readers somewhere somehow.

Update: MOJ’s Rick Garnett has comments here and here.

Discussions - 30 Comments

The quote given there is just so dishonest and willfully stupid that I’m not sure it’s worth taking seriously. Has anyone who has read what its author has read really able to deny that religious liberty depends on certain metaphysical and at least in a way theological premises about human nature? Can religious liberty really exist in absolute indifference or even agnosticism about the human capacity to transcend political and economic determination? The author certainly affirmed negative answers to these questions himself when he reviewed my ALIENS book and enthusiastically published in FIRST THINGS some of my Introduction to Orestes Brownson. For NLT fans, I simply say read Harry Jaffa.

Here, for those who haven’t read it, is Linker’s review of Lawler. At that time, he at least appeared to endorse the positions Lawler articulates, though most of the review is (seemingly sympathetic) summary.

Is there, in DL’s view, a consistent and powerful conservatism that doesn’t have theological roots? Or are conservatives necessarily theoconservatives, and hence un-American? Or does America need these "aliens"?

Joe: Just read Benedict’s Regensburg address. "Reason," properly understood as God’s word (logos), is indistinguishable from God’s revelation. In my view, that’s a denial of the distinction between reason and revelation. It’s precisely nominalists who affirm the distinction most rigorously. As for whether Catholics can be good citizens, as I say, of course they can, as long as they’re willing to give up the demand to political rule in the name of their faith. What you denigrate as compartmentalization is better understood as being modern. A Catholic can be a devout believer in what the Church teaches and believes, but he ought not seek to bring the political realm into conformity with it.

Peter: Your comment is just so self-satsified and self-congratulatory that I’m not sure it’s worth taking seriously. And that’s great advice, telling the readers of NLT that they need only read material that will confirm them in what they already believe. Wouldn’t want any thinking to take place, now would we? I’m afraid you’re in danger of turning the phrase "conservative intellectual" into an oxymoron.

Isn’t there a great deal of conceptual space between attempting to rule on the basis of one’s faith and thinking that one’s faith is politically irrelevant? To not do any sort of what we might call "translation work" (i.e., the former) seems irresponsible, but the latter seems well nigh impossible.

I think Mr. Linker misunderstands the liberal "settlement" (though he certainly isn’t alone in this). The settlement isn’t that we entirely divorce ourselves politically from our "private" views. That sort of claim is only made by a narrow strand of very contemporary liberal thinkers and doesn’t even capture what Rawls is up to (at least in his Political Liberalism). The liberal requirement is that we approach one another politically on terms that don’t imply disrespect, *not* that we approach one another on "secular" grounds.

For the religious believer, there is work to do - it’s not enough just to say, well, the Bible says... But it’s a caricature of liberalism to suggest that what the Bible says should play no role in one’s political deliberations.


Referring to an "encounter between faith and reason" is not the same as denying the distinction between reason and revelation. The Thomistic distinction between natural law, accessible to human beings through the reason God gave them and adequate to guide their earthly lives, and divine law, not accessible to unaided reason and necessary for salvation, still holds, does it not?

Further, there seems to me to be something to the critique of modernity that you seemed to embrace in the FT review, and that has been articulated by lots of smart people, not all of them associated with FT. Must one be "modern" to be American? Are there no "pre-modern" elements in American politica culture, and, if there are, should we be in the business of extirpating them, regardless of the price we thereby pay?


I don’t know why you want to cede the "modern" to the secularists - is there really only one way of being "modern"? Isn’t it *really* the case that the debates between the "theocons" and Mr. Linker, et. al. a debate about and within modernity? Ceding modernity to Mr. Linker’s views only makes sense if we think that modernity is no more than what, say, a Weber would say it is. Why accept that?

Joe beat me to the punch on this.

But, Damon, are we to believe, then, that the Pope, believing that reason is indistinguishable from revelation, now disbelieves in the joyful mysteries? Or that they are no longer mysteries, but joyful rationalisms?


Depends. I’m pretty happy with pre-modernity and some forms of post-modernity, though I’m also willing to engage in a discussion of the meaning of modernity. And if "post-modernity" can mean practical pluralism and openness to transcendence, I’m not sure what I gain by fighting for the "modern" label.

But I’m open to persuasion.

Joe, Michael, and Erik: well said, all (even in connection with the "contested concept" (W. Connolly) of "modernity").

By invoking "modernity" I meant one thing only: social differentiation and pluralism. This differentiation and pluralism is the fundamental social fact of modern times, and all kinds fo implications flow from it. I’ll try to make this point by posing some questions.

Do any of you believe that orthodox Catholicism can or should serve as the public philosophy of the United States? If you’re honest, I think you’ll have to say no. Why? Because the beliefs of the Catholic Church are not affirmed by (anywhere close to all of) the American people. And yet it seems that most of you are sympathetic to the theocon project. That must mean that you think that some watered-down version of Catholicism can or should serve as the public philosophy of the United States. In other words, you want a new Catholic "mainline" to serve as an American civil religion. OK, but I ask: Is this lowest-common denominator Catholicism -- a Catholicism that amounts to little more than a spiritualized version of the Republican Party platform -- really what you’re after? Is this what you think America needs -- something without which the country is doomed? And do you really think that it would be good for the Church to play this role? Was the old mainline really good for Protestantism in this country?

Am I really alone in believing that it would be better for the Church and for the fate of authentic religious conviction in the United States for Catholicism to refrain from direct political engagement? Yes, I think it would also be better for American politics. But the benefits run both ways.

Damon Linker accuses his critics of anti-intellectualism even as he shows not the slightest inclination to equitably report what they have to say in the first place. He lumps together anyone who asserts that there are metaphysical or religious underpinnings of human libery under a polemical category("theoconservatism") that raises the bogey of theocracy without contributing an iota to reasoned discussion about the place of religion in a free political order. He simply asserts that the Founders uncritically endorsed the radical separation of power and opinion, statecraft and soulcraft put forward by some early modern political philosophers. But the evidence suggests that a good many of them believed that "the spirit of religion" and the "spirit of liberty" stand or fall together. Linker speaks about the Catholic Church in a manner reminiscent of Paul Blanshard, the anti-Catholic bigot who wrote best-selling books in the 1950’s about the threat that "Vatican power" posed to American democracy(is that the independent intellectual spirit that Linker has in mind?). Most fundamentally, Linker fails to appreciate that the radical "privitization" of religion(no decent person today challenges the wisdom of liberal civility and religious tolerance) weakens not only religion but all the intellectual and moral contents of life. In a world where religion becomes a merely private concern, indifference to truth becomes integral to the "liberal bargain." Instead of refighting the wars of religion, perhaps Linker should reflect a bit more on the spectre of nihilism which haunts late modernity. To be a friend of democratic self-government today entails something more than resurrecting the anti-theological ire of the least responsible wing of the Enlightenment. Come to think of it, Tocqueville knew all this 175 years ago. Perhaps, he was a "theocon" avant la lettre.

His comment 10 has a point or two worth responding to, but by and large, the tendentiousness of Linker’s thinking is astounding. As is its potential for harm. Let me repeat a comment I made on NLT some time ago, since our definer of liberalism and liberal bargains is in the house:

Names, dates, and quotations, please, in which Neuhaus calls for the repeal of the first amendment so that one church and one set of doctrines will become the official one. Names, dates, and quotations, please, in which ANY American Christian Conservative with ANY sort of public prominence in the LAST FIFTY YEARS has called for the repeal of the first amendment. Anything short of that, ladies and gentlemen, and we are talking about a few Christians hoping that a vague notion of “Christianity” or “Judeo-Christian heritage” becomes approved of by free popular opinion in unofficial ways as a central part of our culture, i.e. a return to a public consensus that existed at least until the 1920s, and more likely, until the 1960s, and a much larger group that simply do not want the likes of Linker or the Supreme Court ruling their opinions as verboten for public discourse or law-making. The existence of American theocrats, by any coherent definition of the term, is a myth. The only “liberal bargain” with regards to religion that counts is the Constitution. Period.

Call American constitutionalism "modern" if you like (comment 6 is solid) or "liberal" if you want, or "mixedly liberal and implicitly reliant on the pre-liberal and pre-modern," (what I like), but don’t then try to trick Americans into unconditional affirmation of what you define your ruling adjective, in Linker’s case, "liberal," to entail.

As an ex- and non-Catholic, I’ll venture an answer: we need the natural law articulated in the Declaration of Independence and sung about by Abraham Lincoln. We need "metaphysics."

I regret my first comment because it might have been responsible for any of the others. On the other hand, it’s always great to hear from Paul, Erik, Carl, and Dan, among others. The emphasis and the various metaphysical spins put on the Declaration by almost anyone who’s really thought about the issues Dan talks about shows that those who defend genuinely religious liberty as a human good are never really indifferent about the human soul or human nature or the human condition etc. And the letter of the Declaration is Thomistic--the God of Nature is also a providential and judgmental (and hence personal in some sense) Creator. Whether that means that the Founders built better than they knew is a controversial issue, but one on which Catholic citizens can certainly make a contribution without bringing theocratic havoc across the land.

The only one succumbing to "ire" in here is you, Dan. As far as I can tell, this tyrade amounts to you saying, "Linker doesn’t even consider the possibility that he is wrong and that I, Dan Mahoney, and my close personal friends and favorite philosophers (as I prefer to interpret them), are correct."

In fact, Dan, I have considered that possibility -- and rejected it. I give multiple reasons for that rejection in my book -- backed up with hundreds of footnotes to hundreds of citations in which I equitably report what Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel, George, Arkes, and others have written. I repeat a few of these reasons in comment 10 above. In response, you simply assert your own very different way of understanding the issues that divide us. Fine. But don’t flatter yourself by thinking that ominous talk about "nihilism" is an argument.

Peter: I would very much like to be able to engage you and the others in civil debate about these very important questions, despite our differences, so I’m pleased that you may be willing to back down a bit from the way this started this morning. I would be happy to do the same.

Carl: I’d be equally happy to see what you have to say about the point or two in comment 10 that you thought worth responding to. As for the rest, read my book. The theocons do not propose to repeal the First Amendment. They propose to interpret it in such a way that it supports their position, which I find to be historically unconvincing -- just as I find Peter’s attempt to read Thomism into the Declaration to be unconvincing.

Joe: With your short comment we’ve reached the heart of the matter: Is politics without metaphysics possible or desirable? I think it is both. Perhaps this is just like Lessing’s ditch, and there’s nothing more to debate once we’ve each pitched our tents on opposite sides of the question. Still, I enjoy trying to build a bridge.


I’ve made the argument that we can ultimately have neither morals nor politics without metaphysics since the beginning of my career. Perhaps that’s why I’m still an obscure blogger....

It is a little late in the game for you to play the disinterested critic interested in reasonable dialogue with your unfortunately fevered critics. And let me add that ominous talk about theocracy(and cheap comparisons of RJN with Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss with Diogenes the Cynic) doesn’t an argument make...

My "regret" has nothing to do with the substance of comment 1, but only for what it might have unintentionally caused. I’m still in the ignore mode.

I know you guys are having a grand time in a private dispute and that I am butting in, but this is interesting and I have a question. As a person of faith, how would I ignore my faith in relation to my politics? My faith informs my moral decisions, which are reflected in my politics. How would I decouple my political and religious convictions if they both arise from my moral sense and the faith that forms that sense?

My church, about as unorganized a religious expression as you can get, is constantly involved in local politics and private prayer meetings are full of political talk. In a sense, participation in the church is a democratic act. No one tells us that we must belong or that we must believe. (Surely, this is true of Catholics, too.) It is not a large church and has out-sized local influence because its members are willing to do what other people are not willing to do, as in run for public office. Our voting habits and political interests do not make those liberal distinctions mentioned above. Yet we are all aware of being part of a democratic body politic and seek to persuade, at the least by our votes. I do not see how this is a threat to anyone, nor especially to the liberal traditions of America.

Kate, Your criticism about the guys and their private dispute is on the money, and neither you nor your church are a threat to our liberal traditions. I hope you run for public office. Maybe you already have.

I say let’s send Kate to Congress!

I think Linker is embarrassing himself. I’m not at all sure how he reached the lofty position of editor of First Things.

Damon, what’s worth discussing is to what extent Thomistic natural law thinking is or should be recommended by your so-called theo-cons as the American public philosophy. (And its cheap of you on one hand to adopt the term theocon, whose ONLY positive quality is its ability to refer to all Judeo-Chrisitan religious conservatives, and then on the other to say, "Ah, you want a Thomistic, John Courtney Murray-ish public philosophy--you theocons are therefore advocating Catholicism as the American public philosophy/civil religion." Whole bunches of Jewish, Protestant, and E. Orthodox thinkers friendly to Thomistic/JCM-esque arguments get short shrift with this kind of move, which is precisely why you don’t hear even the hard-core if-you-want-faith/reason-you-gotta-be-Catholic thinkers talking this way.) But on the main issue, either thinkers like Strauss, Lippman, JCM, and James Ceaser are right that there is a crumbling of philosophic foundations beneath modern liberal democracy or they are not. And if they are correct, it would be rather absurd for Jewish and Christian intellectuals to say, "Well, don’t look to us, our traditions have nothing to offer democracy, nothing to say about all men being Created equal, no siree. T’would cheapen our convictions to think so."

Having said all that, I don’t think there’s nothing to your concern about the public philosophy promoted by Neuhaus or Robbie George having a distinctly Catholic aroma, and the more fundamental concern about religion becoming instrumental if its political benefits are excessively focused upon. Not that they’re unaware of these problems, as again, you in fact know but choose not to report. To speak to merely the first problem, I will just say, as a Catholic-friendly and influenced evangelical, it doesn’t seem to me that even the most stringent challenges that, for example, Barth, Calvinism, Jansenism, or E. Orthodox mystical theology can throw in Thomism’s path do much to make the basic political case advocated by your so-called theo-cons less convincing.

What Carl says so well deserves discussion. With all due respect to Neuhaus and Robby George, the classic Catholic commentaries on America political principles are Orestes Brownson’s THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC (hard to read but get my ISI edition with the long user-friendly intro); John Courtney Murray’s WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS (get the new Sheed and Ward edition with my intro), and G.K. Chesterton, WHAT I SAW IN AMERICA.

According to Chesterton: "Men will more and more realize that there is no meaning in democracy if there is no meaning in anything; and that there is no meaning in anything if the universe has not a center of significance and an authority that is the author of our rights."

Ross D. has added a response to DL’s initial response to his comments.

Violating my, and Peter Lawler’s, code of silence on this book and associated articles/interviews, let me restate the objections that drove me to silence in the first place.

First, the very existence of the book is an act of treachery by its author. Let me be blunt--the history by which this book came about is slimy. And lest I have to hear the author’s “…I change my mind…” trope yet one more time, the issue is not intellectual conversion (I like Brownson, for God’s sake--and most of us have had religious and/or intellectual migrations), but the six figure advance the author took while still enjoying the good faith, trust and confidence of the benefactor he intended to betray. The author was an underemployed Straussian intellectual (no shame here—we all know plenty) who received unexpected (inexplicable?) mentoring and employment from Fr. Neuhaus at FIRST THINGS--kindness from strangers, to borrow a line. For this kindness, Fr. Neuhaus is subjected to a remarkably uncharitable interpretation of his amalgamated writings by his former protege. This is the intellectual equivalent of cheating on your wife before leaving her.

Second, the author mistakes a refusal to engage his book with a refusal to engage with opposing ideas. To reverse the saying, it’s not business, it’s personal. I would highly encourage engagement with the likes of Andrew Sullivan, Kevin Phillips and Gary Wills, inter alia. These are all principled men whose movements to the left are well documented and above board. They are also men of substantial achievement. Even if I disagree with Gary Wills’ interpretation of contemporary Roman Catholicism, he is still the author of CINCINNATUS and INVENTING AMERICA and has earned the right to be heard. Likewise Phillips and Sullivan, though I do not endorse the bulk of their positions. But what does the book under discussion add to the conversation, save inside gossip? Furthermore, do we really think that an underemployed Straussian would have been offered a six-figure advance but for the inside gossip, or at least the promise thereof? In short, this is a book that exists only because of its author’s betrayal (see above). Absent this book, and his FIRST THINGS gig, what is this author’s resume but (once again) that of an underemployed Straussian? Finally, we should not participate in the increasing desperate attempts by the author and/or publisher to garner publicity and save the book from its well-deserved trip to the Border’s bargain bin.

Kate, Read comment 28. It explains in a clear and detailed way what the "private dispute" is all about.

Peter, Yes, I knew. I AM a faithful reader of NLT and who could miss the painful public exchanges on this? I had asked these same questions of bloggers on Faithful Democrats, where Joseph directed us a few weeks ago. No one answered me there, either. I don’t have much time here, but they suppress their moral convictions to get along with their party, which seems to me is to abandon convictions and principle to "get along and go along" which seems to me to lead to a death of morality in the culture and ..... Sorry. Later, maybe.

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