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The Theocons: Secular America under Siege

The Theocons: Secular America under Siege

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by Damon Linker

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An essential history of the influential men who have spearheaded the movement to erode the wall separating church and state.Beginning as far-left radicals during the 1960s, the theocons in Damon Linker’s book (including Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel) gradually transitioned to conservatism when they grew frustrated with the failures of


An essential history of the influential men who have spearheaded the movement to erode the wall separating church and state.Beginning as far-left radicals during the 1960s, the theocons in Damon Linker’s book (including Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel) gradually transitioned to conservatism when they grew frustrated with the failures of the decade’s revolutionary goals. Linker shows how, starting during the Reagan administration, they worked to forge a Christian alliance between Evangelical Protestants and Conservative Catholics. By injecting the language of faith into political life, this movement appealed to a wide swath of voters and ultimately played a central role in the election of George W. Bush. The Theocons is an absorbing and revelatory look at an ideological crusade that every American needs to know about.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“For anybody who wants to understand the growing public role of American religion, [The Theocons] is a book to reckon with.”—The New York Times Book Review“Literate and reasonable. . . . One of the most enlightening critiques of the Religious Right to date.” —BooklistThe Theocons constitutes a major step toward reclaiming the liberal heritage that has made America great.”—Alan Wolfe, author of The Transformation of American Religion“Invaluable. . . . Alarming. . . . Devastating as a critique of the theocratic ambitions of those who now control the Republican Party.”—Andrew Sullivan

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.22(w) x 7.87(h) x 0.71(d)

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Red state and blue state, conservative and liberal, pro-Bush and anti-Bush, prolife and prochoice, religious and secular—the culture war that divides America is about many things, but it is in large part about the legacy of the 1960s. Most "blue" Americans feel at peace with the cultural revolution that began roughly four decades ago, believing that for all of its excesses the decade of the 1960s made the country freer and more just than it once was. Others, however, are more troubled. Some of these "red" Americans feel deeply ambivalent about the profound cultural changes wrought by the 1960s, while still others take a more strident view, convinced that the decade inaugurated a period of moral decadence that continues to this day, diminishing the nation, coarsening its culture, corrupting its children. Theoconservative ideology has played a crucial role in legitimizing this last view—the outlook of those who take it as axiomatic that (in the words of founding theocon Richard John Neuhaus) the 1960s were "a slum of a decade."(1)

But this highly tendentious account of the 1960s obscures the historical record, which shows that the theocons themselves were once enthusiastic participants in the very activities they now passionately decry. During the 1960s, Neuhaus was moved by his religious faith to join the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, flanking Martin Luther King Jr. in protest marches, clashing with Mayor Daley's police force on the streets of Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Although a well-known advocate of free-market capitalism and cultural conservatism today, theocon Michael Novak, too, was a member of the far left during the 1960s, advocating a religiously inspired revolution in consciousness that would lead the country toward greater freedom in all areas of life, including sexuality. For both men, participating in leftist political agitation was a means of bringing the country into greater conformity with its own principles of justice and freedom, which they understood in explicitly religious terms.

After the 1960s, these figures of the far left would migrate right, sometimes gradually, sometimes in sudden lurches. This chapter tells the story of how, between the mid-1960s and the publication of Neuhaus's seminal The Naked Public Square in 1984, these two radicals became the authors of the ideology that currently dominates the Republican Party and, increasingly, the nation as a whole. The story is, in many of its details, one of dramatic change—from sweeping criticism of the United States and its policies to a defense of the country in theological terms, from a passion for political violence to an enthusiastic justification of capitalism, from support for the sexual revolution to intense hostility to its cultural effects. Through all these changes, however, Neuhaus and Novak would remain political radicals, patriots to an America they believed to be deeply and pervasively religious, and agitators who delighted in challenging political authority in the name of their faith. In the 1960s, their religious ideals inspired them to fight for greater justice and freedom in the United States. Two decades later, those same ideals convinced them that above all else the country needed to combat the spread of secularism and push for the expansion of public religiosity. Both positions derived from the same theological sources.


Richard John Neuhaus always had a troubled relationship to authority. Born on May 14, 1936, in the agrarian community of Pembroke, Ontario, Richard was the sixth son of a conservative Lutheran pastor, Clemens Neuhaus (there were eight children in all). Nicknamed "The Pope" by his seminary classmates, Clemens was a stern authority figure—one whom, according to Richard, "you did not directly cross . . . without direct repercussions."(2) Pastor Neuhaus's decision to send his son to a Lutheran high school in Nebraska, several hundred miles away from the family, may have been one such repercussion. Continuing his pattern of youthful defiance, Richard managed to get himself expelled from the school by the age of sixteen. Over the next few months, the teenage Neuhaus became a naturalized American citizen and relocated to Cisco, Texas, where he ran a gas station and grocery store, becoming the youngest member of the local chamber of commerce.(3) Eventually resolving to follow in the footsteps of his father by becoming a Lutheran minister, he somehow managed to get around his lack of a secondary school diploma to gain admittance to and graduate from Concordia College in Austin, Texas. He completed his pastoral training at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis; ordination followed in 1960.

From the beginning of his ministry, Neuhaus proved himself to be a highly unusual Lutheran. As the leader of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther had taught that an unbridgeable, infinite chasm exists between human law, which is inevitably flawed, and the gospel's message of perfect, unconditional love. This teaching, which is often called the "two kingdoms" theory, has been criticized for producing complacent citizens who react to political injustice with indifference, in the belief that it would be an act of prideful impiety to expect better from human institutions. At its best, the Lutheran emphasis on human imperfection can encourage political wisdom and humility, as it did, for example, in the case of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose writings and political activity in the middle decades of the twentieth century were models of moderation and responsibility.

Although he clearly admired Niebuhr and at times even liked to think of himself as his successor, the young Reverend Neuhaus very quickly showed himself to be a theological and political radical who planned to treat his preaching as an occasion for political protest—for narrowing and even eliminating the gap between Luther's two kingdoms. Drawing on more volatile, eschatological strands in the Christian tradition and feeding off of his own irrepressible rebelliousness, Neuhaus made a habit of disobeying temporal political authorities in the name of upholding and enforcing a higher, divine authority whose wishes he (along with a few like-minded allies) had somehow managed to discern. It was an explosive mixture—one in which the very longing to obey encouraged acts of disobedience.

Neuhaus fell into this radical pattern very soon after his ordination. After a short stint as a pastor in the small town of Massena, New York, Neuhaus requested and received a difficult inner-city assignment—to take over St. John the Evangelist, a parish straddling the neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. The German immigrants who worshipped at St. John's had long ago begun their flight from the area, and very few of the recent arrivals (most of them black and desperately poor) were Lutherans. When Neuhaus arrived in April 1961, there were two dozen regular parishioners, and the church was on the verge of being shut down for good. Over the next few years, the charismatic and articulate minister revived the church by turning it into a vibrant center for political agitation—in favor of civil rights, and against the Vietnam War.(4)

At first Neuhaus's political activity focused on local issues in New York City, but before long he began to take on the authority of the federal government, at home and abroad. Like many activists of the time, he portrayed his protest as an effort to bring the country into greater conformity with its own democratic ideals—though Neuhaus invariably viewed those ideals through the lens of his piety, as expressions of a moral vision ultimately traceable to God. In the fall of 1965, after President Lyndon Johnson insinuated that all opposition to American military policy in Vietnam bordered on treason, Neuhaus signed a declaration with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Father Daniel Berrigan defending their God-given and patriotic right to engage in prophetic protest. Within weeks the three men founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam (eventually renamed Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, or CALCAV), the most important religiously based antiwar organization of the time.(5) The following summer, Neuhaus led an Independence Day fast in order to draw attention to the injustice of American actions in Vietnam.(6) Soon he began to act as the New York liaison for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in his attempt to bring the civil rights movement, which had begun and flourished in the rural South as a religiously inspired crusade for justice, to the slums of the urban North.(7) But perhaps nothing captures Neuhaus's distinctive combination of religious faith, hostility to political authority, and patriotic reverence for the ideals of his adopted homeland more than his decision to lead his parish in a protest at which young people were invited to turn in their draft cards at the altar—provided they did so while singing "America the Beautiful."(8)

As the decade progressed and the protest movement began to question authority more radically, Neuhaus's own rhetoric and actions grew increasingly extreme. Challenging St. Paul's injunction in his Letter to the Romans to obey lawful political authorities, Neuhaus spoke of the need to build a "vital and virile subculture" that would "knock out some of the mythology of Romans 13, . . . [and] this whole notion that they [the powers that be] know more than we do."(9) He even went so far as to insinuate in his sermons that the Vietnam War might very well be divine punishment for the collective sins of the United States, describing the Vietnamese people as "God's instruments for bringing the American empire to its knees."(10) By the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago—just weeks after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Reverend King—Neuhaus, like so many others in the movement, was primed for direct confrontation with the authorities. That week he would be arrested by Mayor Richard Daley's police in a march down Michigan Avenue.(11) Over the coming months, he would be arrested many more times in cities around the country.

It was in the midst of this radical political activity that Neuhaus began to reflect on whether he should advocate an armed insurrection to overthrow the government of the United States. He and his somewhat less radical friend, sociologist Peter Berger, decided that they would each write an extended essay on the topic and publish them both as a single book, titled Movement and Revolution (1970). In his contribution, Berger discussed why, despite the manifest injustices that marked race relations and the war in Vietnam, the United States was neither ripe for revolution nor likely to become so anytime soon. Neuhaus, by contrast, was much more willing to entertain the prospect of revolutionary violence. Although he agreed with Berger that the country was not quite ready for a coup d'etat, he differed from his friend in being "more willing to consider the revolutionary alternative."(12) Above all, Neuhaus was interested in examining "the problems and possibilities, the rights and the wrongs, of making revolution."(13) While he shared the revolutionary longings and goals of his fellow radicals, he also worried that they had failed to confront the bloody reality of revolution and the moral dilemmas its leaders would inevitably face. In his contribution to the book, "The Thorough Revolutionary," Neuhaus set out to clarify the stakes—to act as a moral tutor to the American left.

The first step in the tutorial involved an examination of why so many members of the movement had concluded that the time for revolution had already arrived. Building on C. Wright Mills's radical concept of a "power elite" that rules American society without democratic accountability, Neuhaus proposed that the country was controlled not by an impersonal "system," as many other radicals claimed, but by a "regime." This regime was not "coextensive with the society" but was rather "the actual power-wielding group in the society, including not only—not even primarily—those who are publicly recognized because they hold office through electoral politics, but also, for example, the leadership of the military-industrial complex." This elite regime had acted so unjustly in recent years that many had understandably concluded that it needed to be overthrown by force in the name of "the people," which was the nation's only legitimate "source of public authority."(14)

Neuhaus clearly sympathized with and even endorsed much of this argument, viewing the prospect of a populist revolution in the United States with considerable enthusiasm. Yet his ultimate aim was not to encourage an immediate political uprising but instead to urge his peers on the left to undertake their radical actions in the light of the Christian "just war" tradition of moral reasoning. Above all, he wanted them to understand that revolution is a bloody business. Disgusted that too many of his fellow leftists treated armed rebellion as if it were a "politicized Woodstock Festival" and no more profound than smoking "pot in Grant Park and skinny-dipping at public beaches," he sought to remind them that the overthrow of political authority begins with "propaganda, disruption, subversion," and that it employs "guerrilla warfare" and "acts of terror," including campaigns "to kill, kidnap, or otherwise intimidate any persons or institutions" that would seek to undermine the revolution by bribing the people with reformist half-measures. This is the reality of revolution—and those who flinched from it (including Che Guevara, whose failure to topple the Bolivian government Neuhaus traced to his "unwillingness to use terrorism")(15) showed that they lacked the "manhood" to determine whether or not decisive action is necessary, and what that action should be.(16)

Having faced the ugly reality of revolution and reflected on its likely moral costs, Neuhaus reluctantly concluded that the time for coordinated political violence had not yet arrived—though he made a point of reaffirming "the right to armed revolution" and asserted that the possibility of successful reform rendering such revolution unnecessary was "improbable."(17) In the end, he sided with Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party in considering fifty to a hundred years a realistic time frame for a morally justified revolution in the United States.(18) Over the next several months, Neuhaus would undertake a failed campaign for Congress on a far-left platform and continue his agitation on the streets and from the pulpit as he awaited the coming conflagration.


While Neuhaus walked a tightrope between political revolution and responsibility in the slums of Brooklyn, his fellow leftist Michael Novak embraced a form of cultural radicalism that aimed above all at a "revolution in consciousness."19 It was a difference with roots in Novak's fervent, if idiosyncratic, Catholic faith. Born on September 9, 1933, to a deeply Catholic Slovak-American family in rural Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Novak spent several years of his youth in seminary with the intention of becoming a priest. Although he eventually concluded that his vocation was as a layman, his writing and study would continue to focus on Catholicism. By the fall of 1963, he had landed a contract with Time magazine to write reports on the Second Vatican Council. Those reports would become Novak's first book of nonfiction, The Open Church (1964).(20) This book, as well as its 1965 successor (Belief and Unbelief), show Novak to have been an enthusiastic advocate of the aggiornamento, or "updating," of the Catholic Church in Vatican II. He was, in other words, a member of the Catholic left who enthusiastically embraced the council's call to foster a vibrant synthesis between modernity and the church.

Meet the Author

Damon Linker is a Senior Writing Fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Policy Review, The Public Interest, The Review of Politics, The Review of Metaphysics, and the American Behavioral Scientist. From May 2001 to February 2005, he worked under Richard John Neuhaus at First Things—first as associate editor of the journal, then as its editor. Prior to joining the magazine, he taught political philosophy at Brigham Young University and served as a speechwriter for New York’s Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Linker studied history, philosophy, and writing at Ithaca College, graduating with a BA in 1991. He went on to earn an MA in European history from New York University and a Ph.D. in political science from Michigan State University. Born in New York City, Linker currently lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

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The Theocons: Secular America under Siege 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Damon Linker exposes the efforts of the Conservative Religious Elite's efforts to transform the US in to a Christian Taliban. Though not couched in those terms, the conclusion is clear. 'The Theocons' is a warning to all Americans of the extreme and real dangers our freedoms face from those who would force Fundamentalist Christian subservience on us all.