Attacking Secular America

Attacking Secular America

The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege by Damon Linker

The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege
by Damon Linker
Doubleday, 2006, 272 pp., $26.00

American conservatism has always differed from the European conservatism of Edmund Burke. Bereft of rooted traditions, organic hierarchy, or state-based religion—all those things that built the European scaffolding for intellectual reaction—American conservatives have had to reconcile themselves to an alarmingly individualistic and populist society. That’s not to say that America was born and will remain a liberal country, the way political scientists like Louis Hartz once confidently prognosticated during the 1950s. Rather, it means that to be conservative demands picking up on some not-so-native-born traditions (Catholicism) or turning populist in style—making for strange alliances and belief systems that don’t necessarily hinge together too well.

To get a sense of this, meet the “theocons.” At the center is Richard John Neuhaus, a strident convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism. Neuhaus experienced an intellectual odyssey somewhat akin to the neoconservatives (except he was too young to “get” the 1930s). He began on the left during the 1960s in the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements and then moved rightward during the 1980s. He was joined by Michael Novak, George Weigel, Hadley Arkes, and others. But Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine and leading theocon strategist, remains at the center of Linker’s story, much like William Buckley was once the linchpin of the Old Right’s intellectual movement during the 1950s.

Theoconservatism is an intellectual movement, so it’s not surprising to find its controversies in the pages of its magazine, First Things. In this case, its biggest was a 1996 symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” Linker documents how theocons grew angrier and angrier with Clinton’s impending reelection and with the American courts’ unwillingness to overturn abortion rights. And so the theocons lashed out, not only at the courts but also at a profligate country deserving retribution. There was open talk of “civil disobedience.” Charles Colson—of Watergate break-in fame but now an evangelical Protestant—believed “the only political action believers can take is some kind of direct, extrapolitical confrontation of the judicially controlled regime.” Neuhaus himself warned that America might have reached a stage where “conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”

Here was talk of sedition, of grassroots and extralegal action backed up by moral certitude. The philosophy and tactics of the 1950s civil rights movement—break the written law for the sake of a higher moral law—now wedded itself to a populist right-wing movement. It’s a telling moment in conserv...