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Theocons on the warpath: radicals turned republicans clothed initiatives in Catholic moral language.

THE THEOCONS: SECULAR AMERICA UNDER SIEGE By Damon Linker Doubleday, 272 pages, $26

Damon Linker's book on the theocons uses a term that first appeared in Jacob Heilbrunn's 1996 New Republic article, "Neocon v. Theocon." The neoconservatives are mostly secular and Jewish, the theoconservatives mostly Catholic.

While both have supported using military force to promote democracy, the religiously motivated theocons have sought to build a coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians to challenge the secular mainstream's contention that religious convictions are essentially private and should not influence public policy.

Foremost among them are Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak and George Weigel. Mr. Linker knows them well; for three and a half years, he was an editor of the flagship theocon journal, Neuhaus' First Things.

His book is fascinating reading. Both Fr. Neuhaus and Mr. Novak were 1960s radicals who eventually reinvented themselves as theoconservatives. Originally a Lutheran pastor, Fr. Neuhaus was one of the founders of Clergy Concerned about Vietnam and was arrested by Mayor Richard Daley's police in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In the early 1970s, his writings wrestled with the alternative of revolutionary violence.

Mr. Novak, a former seminarian, began his career as a writer reporting on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). As a liberal Catholic, he was eager for aggiornamento in the church, a less repressive, sexually liberated egalitarian society and a "religionless Christianity."

But both changed in the late 1970s. Mr. Novak's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism appeared in 1982, providing a theological justification for free market capitalism. Two years later, Fr. Neuhaus published his signature work, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, which became, in the author's words, "the manifesto of the nascent theoconservative movement."

In 1990 Fr. Neuhaus was received into the Catholic church and a year later ordained a priest. Also influential is Mr. Weigel, the official biographer of Pope John Paul II. Mr. Weigel used the Catholic "just war tradition" in the 1980s to defend Ronald Reagan's revival of the arms race and his military interventions in Latin America; later Mr. Weigel joined with Fr. Neuhaus and Mr. Novak in supporting the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq.

Others identified in different ways with the theocon agenda include Robert P. George, Hadley Arkes (who is Jewish), Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Mary Ann Glendon, and Robert Bork.

At the heart of the theocon position is what Mr. Linker calls a "historical fantasy" that American ideals and institutions derive ultimately from Catholic-Christian principles.

Concerned that the country has moved away from its original inspiration in an increasingly secular direction, their strategy from the beginning has been to build a popular religious coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians that would reverse this direction through the political process. Fr. Neuhaus' freelance ecumenical effort, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," set up independently of the American bishops but with important friends in Rome, has as one of its main goals an alliance for common cause in the culture wars.

Opposing abortion has always been a central concern, but other energizing issues include gay rights, stem-cell research, end of life issues and same-sex marriage. More recently, Fr. Neuhaus and Mr. Weigel have turned specifically to Roman Catholic teaching, particularly as articulated by John Paul II, to ground their movement.

The book is challenging from a number of perspectives. As early as 1998, Fr. Neuhaus saw George W. Bush as someone who might further the theocon agenda. Fr. Neuhaus served as an adviser, providing him with "tutorials in Catholic social teaching" and the language of a "culture of life." Later he editorialized in First Things that Mr. Bush's war on terror was an obvious example of a just war.

Mr. Weigel went so far as to suggest in 2002 that "duly constituted public authorities" had a "charism of political discernment" for addressing issues of war and peace not shared by bishops and other religious leaders. To help Mr. Bush win re-election against Catholic John Kerry, Fr. Neuhaus encouraged his allies among the U.S. bishops to exclude Sen. Kerry and other pro-choice Catholic Democrats from Communion. The theocons' success in helping to clothe the political initiatives of the Republican Party in the language of Catholic morality while saying little about recent papal teaching on the death penalty, preemptive war, or justice for the poor raises disturbing questions. Such a vision is only partially Catholic.

What role do personal religious beliefs and moral convictions have to play in the political process? Mr. Linker's own position is "that liberal democratic government works perfectly well (and perhaps best) without any religious or metaphysical foundation at all." Nowhere does he suggest that abortion (always a difficult issue for those on the left) or unregulated biomedical development may indeed be moral issues, and he tends to characterize moral arguments against them as examples of a "rationalistic moral absolutism" or simply "rationalism." He also does not adequately explain his own metamorphosis from a fellow traveler with the theocons to a defender of secular politics, save for a brief last page acknowledgement of Fr. Neuhaus' generosity toward him and Mr. Linker's late recognition of the negative influence of First Things on the country.

But his characterization of the two pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops, "The Challenge of Peace" (1983) and "Economic Justice for All" (1986), as advocating "a foreign policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and a socialist economic policy" suggests that he is still viewing them through the theocon lenses of his former colleagues. Still, the book is well worth reading, both for the history it reviews and the questions it raises.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas P. Rausch is T. Marie Chilton professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]
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Author:Rausch, Thomas
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 9, 2007
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