Neuhaus and Liberalism

Damon Linker:

In his obituary for Richard John Neuhaus, Douthat claims, in response to some nameless silly person (who just happens to be me), that Neuhaus was dedicated to reconciling Christianity with the liberal tradition. I suspect that will sound pretty odd to those familiar with Neuhaus' role in arming the conservative side of the culture war with arguments intended to decimate liberalism. But then everything begins to make sense once you follow the link that Douthat supplies with his statement, which brings you to a Neuhaus article on "The Liberalism of John Paul II." Oh, that liberal tradition. The liberalism that traces American democratic ideas not to the Enlightenment but to medieval Christendom. The liberalism that believes (in Neuhaus' words, written in 1984) that "only a transcendent, a religious, vision can turn this society from a disaster and toward the fulfillment of its destiny" as a "sacred enterprise." The liberalism that holds (in Neuhaus' words, written in 1997) that the American experiment "may well be ending . . . under the iron rule of the 'separation of church and state.'" The liberalism that espouses the Manichean view that one of the country's two major political parties, the nation's media, and its courts--and perhaps 52.9 percent of the American people--are in the grip of a bloodthirsty "culture of death" that needs to be combated by champions of the "culture of life," who just so happen to make their home in the country's other major political party. That's the liberalism of John Paul II and Richard John Neuhaus.

And therein lies Neuhaus' greatest ideological innovation. Rather than maintaining that the religious right should replace liberal politics with some other, religiously grounded form of political association, he insisted that, properly understood, liberal politics is (or once was, or should be--on this he was often unclear) a religiously grounded form of political association. Viewed in this way, the Pope, Neuhaus himself, and their Protestant friends (like Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, and Karl Rove) become America's true liberals, while all those millions of Americans on the right and left who prefer a more mundane form of politics (and who in nearly every other context are considered liberals of the classical or modern variety) become the antagonists the true liberal tradition.

Damon and I have been round and round on these questions many times before (though unfortunately our major exchange has vanished into the maw of TNR's archives), so I'll be brief. Basically, if you set aside the tendentiousness, there's truth to what he says above. Neuhaus argued that the American constitutional order, and the form of liberalism it embodies, "is premised upon moral truths secured by religion," to quote from his essay on John Paul II and the liberal tradition. Moreover, he believed that the modern left's emphasis on the separation of religion and politics (as opposed to church and state) ran toward illiberalism, and that the left-wing promotion of legalized abortion and euthanasia amounted to a frontal assault on essentially liberal principles - human rights and human dignity and so forth. These are not uncontroversial views, to put it mildly, and they certainly made him a conservative in the modern political landscape. But they are views have deep roots in Anglo-American political history - the notion that liberalism's basic premises depend in some sense upon religion, in particular, is as old as Hobbes and Locke - and as such they properly belong within the big tent of the American liberal tradition, rather than outside it. And a liberal tradition that cannot find, within its many mansions, room for Neuhaus (and, yes, for John Paul II as well), is a liberalism that any Christian worth his salt should think twice for before subscribing to.

For more on the Linker critique of Neuhaus's work, Noah Millman and Russell Arben Fox have characteristically thought-provoking musings. And for anyone interested in passing a fuller judgment on Neuhaus' thought, and its relationship with the liberal tradition, I recommend going to the horse's mouth: To the above-mentioned essay on JPII and liberalism; to Neuhaus's fascinating exchange with Stanley Fish on religion's compatibility with liberal democracy (and vice versa); to his rebuke to the theonomist temptation; to his recent lecture on "Our American Babylon" (which forms the basis, I believe, of what will be a posthumously published book); and to many other places as well. Whatever one's opinion of Neuhaus's political and theological commitments (and here I think Damon would agree), his writings ought to be required reading for anyone concerned with religion, politics, and the first principles (or "first things") that undergird the two - and he deserves as wide an audience, if not a wider one, in death as he enjoyed in life.