Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Linker/Douthat revisited

TNR gives Damon Linker the last word (and I’m grateful, since I don’t think the exchange of letters was ultimately very productive). You’re probably not surprised to learn that I don’t find the ground of DL’s criticism of his former associates very compelling: as a "theorist of liberalism," DL is basically a slightly more readable John Rawls. There’s nothing there that I haven’t seen before, and nothing DL offers that leads me to abandon my judgment that the claims of non-comprehensiveness are any less mistaken.

Purportedly non-comprehensive (call them "political," if you must) liberalisms rest on the denial that a comprehensive view is necessary to guide us. Rawls’s liberal predecessors (John Locke and Immanuel Kant, for example) recognized a comprehensive religious view required a comprehensive theoretical response: they engaged, rather than simply evaded, religion, attempting to reconstruct it so as to make it "safe for liberalism." As such, they made claims about religious truths that can be examined and criticized. The claim about the possibility of a (merely?) "political liberalism" either acknowledges or fails to acknowledge these essentially comprehensive efforts, which are, in effect, a denial of the comprehensive truth of any religious view, a denial that is itself obviously contestable.

Discussions - 11 Comments

Joe: Some questions for you.

What comprehensive view to you affirm?

Do you believe it is true, or is it just a noble lie?

Must all Americans affirm it? If they don’t, are they inevitably bad citizens? Is it currently affirmed by both political parties? If not, are member of (and voters for) the other party not merely wrong on various issues, but actively subverting America by denying its comprehensive vision of the world?

Is your comprehensive view religious? If so, is it, like Locke’s and Kant’s, a "liberal" Protestant view? If so, how do you respond to the potent attack on all such liberal compromises by such theologians as Karl Barth, Franz Rosenzweig, various popes, and (why not?) Richard John Neuhaus? All of them claim in one way or another that all attempts to domesticate Christianity by turning it into a civil religion end up denying God by refusing to let God be God.

If your comprehensive view is orthodox (not liberal), then what about all those Americans who are not orthodox believers in the comprehensive view? Are they second-class citizens (like Catholics in Locke’s constitutional government)? Are they dhimmis?

The politically relevant core of the comprehensive view I affirm is that all human beings are created as free and rational, yet finite and fallible (which is to say sinful), in God’s image. I do not believe that compulsion is justified in matters of religion.

I do not regard these propositions as noble lies.

I am neither a Roman Catholic nor a liberal mainline Protestant, but am a member of the Presbyterian Church in America.

My allegiance to the United States is based, above all, on two considerations: that its founding principles point to the truths I affirm and that it protects, among other things, my religious liberty.

I am comfortable with America’s practical pluralism and its openness to transcendence. I am not comfortable with those who in the name of "peace" would marginalize and, if need be, coerce those who affirm politically relevant comprehensive views like those I sketched at the outset, especially since the asserted basis of the "peace" seems to be really nothing more than an act of will. Is there really anything more to your position than "might makes right," or, if you will, a soft Nietzscheanism?

Very classy response, Joe.

Joe: I hope you’ll understand if I tell you that I’m somewhat less impressed with your response than Paul is.

What you articulate here is so watery as to make mainline Protestantism seem robust, which means that the liberal bargain would not require you to give up (or rather, bracket) anything at all in order to engage politically. Likewise, if the theocons advocated what you say as America’s governing philosophy, they wouldn’t be "theocons," as I use the term, at all. Indeed, no one would find them the least bit controversial. Well, no one besides Sam Harris, that is.

And this brings us right back to the criticisms of liberal Protestantism/civil religion that I listed in my original comment. You’ve had nothing to say about that.


I just resisted the temptation to respond in a snippy fashion. I’m happy to let God be God, which seems to me precisely what you don’t want to let happen, which, if God exists, is a pretty bad bargain for you and for other liberals. If you don’t think it’s a bad bargain, it’s either because you have a "domesticated" view of God yourself or because you’re implicitly affirming a "comprehensive" atheism.

As for what you want from me, would you be satisfied if I recited the Westminster Confession of Faith, which certainly doesn’t require that the state undertake any coercion in religious matters?

It strikes me that the propositions that I initially articulated are the beginning of chains of reasoning (open to some disagreement on the grounds of prudence and also plain old human fallibility) that issue in institutional and political consequences. And they controversial, at least in the sense that many deny our creatureliness, our fallibility, and our finitude. Indeed, it seems to me that the denial of all three of these propositions is implicit in the Enlightenment.

That many religious believers from a variety of different traditions can affirm these propositions doesn’t trouble me. That some misunderstand them, don’t understand them as I understand them, or derive somewhat different practical conclusions than I do doesn’t surprise me. We at least have the basis for a conversation and a stake in trying to get it right. We don’t explicitly deny the political relevance of the propositions and implicitly affirm that that they’re of less than the utmost importance.

And while we’re all about addressing questions, I wonder whether you’ve given any thought to these questions, which I posed here a couple of weeks ago.

Another very classy response, Joe. And the criterion I’m applying is civility (along with candor).


I’m going to leave it at this for now, but I want to be clear. I was not asking you to make some personal confession of faith. That doesn’t matter to me. And I have no problem whatsoever with holding a comprehensive view. Everything I argue in my book, and everything I’ve said since it’s publication, is about politics, and the proper relationship between politics and the various comprehensive views affirmed by individuals and sub-political groups. So, when I asked you about your comprehensive view, I meant what kind of comprehensive view you think the United States has to affirm.

As for your personal questions, I have no interest in discussing my history at First Things in this extraordinarily hostile forum. If I ever do so in public, it will be at a time and place of my choosing. And anyway, the book isn’t about me. It should be judged and discussed on its merits as a history and as an argument. Though I also know that several contributors to this website (not you, of course) are unwilling or unable to do this.

Joe, you could be forgiven for having understood Damon’s queries to have been about your personal faith. I certainly did not read him as asking for "the kind of comprehensive view you think the United States has to affirm." The point of the "personal history" questions is to establish facts relative to the issue of DL’s integrity and character, which some find inform and distort his views of his chosen subject matter, as well as his thesis/theses about it.

I guess I won’t address these remarks explicitly to Damon, since he has resigned from the field, at least for the moment.

In the book, I think he has at the very least a rhetorical problem in how he couches his criticisms of his former associates. I’d state it this way: if the issues are as clear-cut and unproblematically unfavorable to the folks associated with FT as he makes them seem, then how could he ever have been associated with them, or how could he not have resigned as soon as they did become clear? I happen to think that there are some complicated theoretical and practical/prudential issues on which reasonable people of good will could disagree. I don’t get the sense from the book that Damon would characterize matters that way. If he been writing the book entirely from the outside, these questions wouldn’t come up, but I’m not convinced that the book would have stood out as starkly from among the many attempts to criticize religious conservatives. What gives it its cachet is the fact that it’s an "insider" account, which makes the question of the relationship between the "inside" and the "outside" Linker something other than a prurient concern.

As for the comprehensive view that I think the U.S. ought to affirm, I’m happy with the Declaration of Independence, not because I think we get a fully worked-out "political theology" there, but because it is precisely open to transcendence in a way that Damon’s Rawlsianism isn’t. The Declaration offers the basis of a "public philosophy" that embraces religious witness in the public square, that accommodates pluralistic "establishment" (public support of multiple denominations in the states, without establishing an exclusive national religion)), and that offers the opportunity for peaceful and mutually respectful exchanges about the earthly consequences of transcendent matters in a variety of arenas. It certainly permits us to marginalize, if need be, those who deny the propositions affirmed in the Declaration, but leaves the question of whether we need to do so to the prudential judgment of the duly-elected and responsible legislative authorities.

I’ve written a bit about this issue here.

I echo Paul’s comments on your posts Joe.

I found your responses to DL perfectly reasonable.

Perhaps this is too far afield, or perhaps it does not pertain for I have not read DL’s book. The question in my mind is this: DL worries about theocons and wants to know what comprehensive view you (we) have. This is all fine and well, but he seems to ignore the socratic argument that all opinions are based on some metaphysic--and yes even DL’s opinions then, whether it is the dreaded "theocon" or the "atheist," we find theocratic opinions abound.

It’s weird that Linker’s reasons for his conversion aren’t just evident to those who read his book. You’d think that the arguments he makes against Neuhaus et al. would just make it clear why he changed his mind.

But they don’t. And that’s a pretty strong indictment of the strength of those arguments.

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