Interview with Damon Linker: Secular America Under Siege





Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Damon Linker is the author of the recently published book, Theocons: Secular America Under Seige (Doubleday), HNN's November Book of the Month. He earned an MA in European history from New York University and a Ph.D. in political science from Michigan State University.

Let's start with the basics. What is a theocon?

A "theocon" (or "theoconservative") is someone who believes that the United States needs a governing philosophy or civil religion rooted in orthodox Christianity, and especially in orthodox Catholicism. They believe that the United States is a Christian nation, and that only a narrow band of secularist elites believes otherwise.

You distinguish in the book between theocons, neocons and paleocons. Who's who? (Please name names.)

The leading theocons are all deeply religious. The key figures are Richard John Neuhaus (a priest), Michael Novak (Catholic theologian and author), George Weigel (biographer of Pope John Paul II), and Princeton University's Robert P. George (co-author of the Federal Marriage Amendment outlawing gay marriage).

Most of the original neocons were secular and Jewish: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer. The current generation (William Kristol, David Brooks, Max Boot, Charles Krauthammer) is somewhat less culturally homogeneous, though the ideology remains less theologically oriented than theocon ideology. The neocons, for example, favor an aggressive foreign policy that aims to spread democracy around the globe. The theocons agree, but they defend it in terms of Catholic just war reasoning and frequently speak of the United States fulfilling a providential role in enforcing divinely sanctioned order in the world.

The paleocons tend to be much more skeptical about the use of American military might (as well as much more critical of capitalism and immigration). The leading paleocon is Patrick Buchanan and the group of writers surrounding his magazine The American Conservative. This ideology's other home base is a small journal called Chronicles.

How Catholic is the theocon group? Can you be a theocon if you're not Catholic?

The movement is very Catholic, but one doesn't have to be a Catholic in order to be a theocon. The only requirement is that you believe that America needs an orthodox Christian governing philosophy. This philosophy is typically articulated in Catholic terms (using concepts derived from natural law, for example), but it is deliberately interdenominational in character -- a form of "mere orthodoxy," if you will. It is designed to appeal to conservative Protestants as well as Catholics (and perhaps even a handful of Orthodox Jews). Basically anyone deeply troubled by the secular drift of American culture and politics since the 1960s can be a theocon.

Just how influential have the theocons been? Can you point to any concrete achievements? Have they proven decisive in any elections?

They've been very influential in teaching evangelicals how to be more effective in pressing their agenda in the nation's public life. George W. Bush's line about how "every unborn child must be welcomed in life and protected by law" comes straight from Neuhaus. Anytime you hear a politician talk about the importance of building a "culture of life," and combatting a "culture of death," that's a sign of theocon influence. The theocons also authored the Federal Marriage Amendment and then personally persuaded the president to endorse it, which he did in the winter of 2004. Then there was the decision of the Catholic bishops' conference to threaten to withhold the sacrament of Communion from pro-choice Catholic politicians (mostly Democrats), which Neuhaus strongly endorsed and lobbied for. In this effort, he was aided by powerful allies in the Vatican, including then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).

Do theocons have a foreign policy? Or are they mainly focused on domestic politics?

Their foreign policy is very similar to that of the neocons, though the theocons talk about war and peace in terms of the "Catholic just war tradition." In one of the most radical statements of their views, theocon George Weigel wrote in January 2003 (just a few months before the start of the Iraq war) that all rightly constituted public authorities (including the president) enjoys a "charism of political discernment" -- a gift of the holy spirit that aids him in his decision making. The point seemed to be that critics of the administration -- including religious critics -- ought to keep quiet and put their faith in the divinely inspired wisdom of the President of the United States.

What accounts for the birth of the theocon movement?

Back in the late 1960s, founding theocons Neuhaus and Novak were on the far left, toying with revolution in the name of civil rights and ending the Vietnam War. But unlike most of the protesters at the time, both men saw their political commitments as flowing from deep piety. They both wanted religion to play a much greater role in American life. But with the decline of the protest movement and growing secularization of the left, both men became convinced that a religious revival in the United States would likely come from elsewhere on the political spectrum. This began a rapid ideological shift to the right, which was largely completed by 1980. At first, Neuhaus placed his hopes for a populist religious revival in Jimmy Carter, but Carter soon disappointed him. The emergence of the Moral Majority in the late 70s, and its decision to abandon Carter and embrace Reagan, persuaded Neuhaus and Novak that the Republican Party was the natural home for devout religious believers.

In 1960, as you note in the book, JFK as a Catholic candidate had to promise not to take marching orders from the Vatican. That is, he promised to maintain a high wall between church and state. Today the wall seems a lot lower. How did Catholics come to reverse course on this vital principle?

JFK took that position largely to neutralize anti-Catholic sentiment in the country; it was an unorthodox position then, and it remains one today. Since then, and especially since the start of John Paul II's pontificate in 1978, the Church has re-affirmed its historic insistence that Catholic public figures must uphold the teachings of the Church -- that they ought not bracket their faith and its moral requirements. So, for example, the Church teaches that abortion is murder; it is therefore just as unacceptable for a Catholic politician to call abortion merely a matter of private "choice" as it would be for him to say that the murder of eight-year-old girls is a private matter of choice. Murder is murder -- in all cases it is a public matter and a grave evil. The state should do what it can to prevent the murder of innocents. Conscience should lead all people to this view, but Catholics have a special obligation to abide by it. That is the Church's position. It was JFK's privatization of faith that was the anomaly in Catholic history.

Many conservatives often say that in modern America they often feel under siege. But your subtitle indicates that you believe it is secularists who are under siege. How so?

My subtitle is meant primarily to grab people's attention. The fact is that there is a small group of very smart, very influential, but not very well known Catholic intellectuals in this country who wish to define the United States as a Christian nation -- in its history, in its principles, and in its actions in the world, at home and abroad. If that's not an example of placing secular America under siege, I don't know what would be.

You refer toward the end of the book to "A Historical Fantasy." What is it?

The "fantasy" is theocon revisionist history about the country's founders, whom they portray as deeply pious men who set out to create a Christian nation. As conservative columnist George F. Will recent wrote, this is the most audacious "intellectual hijacking" since the medieval church baptized Aristotle. In reality, most of the founders were deistic Episcopalians who worried about the dangers of public religiosity. At the same time, they also thought that the country would be well served by a civic religion of liberal Protestantism. So, a mild, watery piety would prevail in public life, while devout faith would be privatized. But the theocons take a very different view, attempting to channel devout faith directly into public life. That is something that the founders would have considered profoundly ill-advised. To deny this is to believe in a fantasy version of American history.

The book flap notes that you served as the editor of First Things, the "flagship journal" of the theoconservative movement. I hate to be flip, but how did somebody like you wind up in a place like that? From the book it sounds as if you are uncomfortable with much of the theocon agenda.

I was more conservative when I landed the job at First Things back in 2001. (At the time I was working as a speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani and thought of myself as a Giuliani Republican.) I supported what I thought was the main goal of the magazine: to oppose restrictions on serious believers participating in politics. As a pluralist, such restrictions seemed arbitrary and unfair to me; there was no reason why pious citizens should be forbidden from having a seat at the table of public debate and discussion. But after a year or so at the journal, I began to see that the magazine didn't so much want these citizens to be granted a seat at the table as it want them to take over the table. At the same time, the policies of President Bush, which the journal supported wholeheartedly, drove me to the left in protest. So the magazine and I were moving in opposite directions. Before long, it was obvious that I'd have to resign.



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Jason Blake Keuter - 12/9/2006

All good points, but the idea that quasi-religious secularism represents a deviation from a more rational path is not historically accurate. I recommend reading "Earthly Powers" by Michael Burleigh. In it he documents how quickly the state absorbed church functions and how it immediately adopted processions and ceremonies and other public rituals that were virtually identical to religious rituals in order to sanctify its new found power. It is really a fascinating story.

http://www.amazon.com/Earthly-Powers-Religion-Politics-Revolution/dp/0060580933/sr=8-3/qid=1165648076/ref=sr_1_3/103-9581866-7095039?ie=UTF8&;s=books


Jason Blake Keuter - 12/9/2006

Actually, attendance in school is mandatory.

In order to graduate from college, one has to take required courses. Many of these required courses are much like the "conversion relations" the Puritans forced those steeped in the sin of commerce to undergo: i.e. race, class and gender blather. Students sit through these like bored church goers, more interested in boys and girls in attendance than the earnest pieties of the drip up front. Once through the required sermons, they proceed immediately to Business school in order to make loads of cash and refuse to give a penny of it to their alumni association.

Universities are very much like the Medieval church, but of course, not exactly. They seek to make themselves imperative to economic success (hence the scare stories about needing degrees to have a middle class standard of living) but the bulk of people who work within them are contemptuous of materialism and wish their students appreciated the transcendent values of academia (they also wish the tax payers would express their appreciation of trancendent values with a regular supply of cold hard cash). They splinter into warring sects over split hairs. They set themselves in opposition to government power while at the same time being part of the government itself. And, again, they operate in a decidedly medieval apprentice system that makes a pretense of being meritocratic to tip its hat to the democratic spirit so many of its professors pretend to love. They form alliances with enemies of the secular government in service to their religion..I mean ideology...I mean truth gleaned from rigorous scholarship. And they scream bloody murder should that government decide to investigate, say the local branch of Students for Hezbollah or Students for the Liberation of Antisemites. This isn't much different than medieval clerics looking to the pope and foreign kings and princes for allies against their overweening monarchs.

Last, they do almost nothing in support of the public school system, the modern equivalent of the local parishes, other than bemoan the quality of students the local parishes send their way. As a matter of fact, universities compete with public schools for state government funds. And they bemoan the ignorance of the state legislatures and the public for its refusal to subsidize their largely self-serving institution. Listen carefully to the rhetoric and you will hear in it visions of impending apocalypse when what's really at stake is a few academic careers.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/8/2006

I am not religious, but I'm not blind, either, and have watched with growing concern as the liberals have attempted to stamp out Christianity in this country for the past several decades. Just suppose they succeeded in stamping out religion. (So far I'd call the fight a draw.) Would that make planet earth a secular world, as they believe, and a great time for the advancement of science, (rah rah stem cells!), because Europeans and others quit believing years ago, and only America now stands in the way?
Of course not. Look at the murderous Muslim masses marching through the Middle East capitals every day, bombing trains in London and Madrid, and willing to slit the throat of any infidel as soon as look at him. They are not going away soon. Secular Valhalla is nowhere in sight. Remove their natural antagonists--the virile Christians of the West--and our prospects for survival do not improve, they worsen dramatically. All those guys who marched into the cannonfire at Chicamauga or Antietam had Bibles in their pockets. The Founders had the right idea: They said we shall leave the Believers alone in peace to practice whatever faith they wish, regardless how inane, without Government interference. 200 years later Janet Reno said, "No! Go forth and launch the greatest armed assault in North America since 1865, and wipe out all those superstitous fools once and for all, filling the vacuum they leave behind with right thinking people, tree-lovers, vegetarians, same-sex hobbyists, Earned Income Credit bait, and other generally effete riff-raff, who will be no match for the Saracen hordes...


Peter Kovachev - 12/3/2006

I should mention that secularism operates in ways which are similar to religion. Ideas such as Progress, Universal Education, Nationalism, Democracy, Egalitarianism, Human Rights, etc., (the caps are intentional) are just as metaphysical as any religious notion.


Peter Kovachev - 12/3/2006

Science, or scientific methodology to be more precise, is the only universally accessible way of knowing. Of course, it applies only to measurable phenomena. Hence, it's a powetrful tool for certain things, but a very limited one ones, as it does not and cannot address such things as ethics and esthetics, for example. Also, being a secularist does not necessarily make one more of an adherent to science and its methodology. It doesn't even make one more logical or rational, nor more ethical. Witness the explosion of cooky pseudo-scientific fads among people who call themselves secular; some have been harmless stupidies, others have let to the horrible deaths of millions.


Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 12/2/2006

"If that's all that the "theocons" can accomplish, there is little to fear. What difference does it make (i.e., to "secular America") if Neuhaus writes one more Public Square column with a line or two about "Christian America"? A few thousand subscribers will read Neuhaus's words, possibly agreeing with him or possibly not, and then they will put the magazine on the shelf or in the trash can. That amounts to a "siege"? Try reversing the last statement: If what Linker is talking about is a "siege," then everything is a "siege." "

Well, the problem is that people like Neuahaus aren`t just writing pieces in magazines read only by a few intelectuals. The problem is people like Nuehaus have acted -and not from know- as counselors and as the inteligensia of many american goverments, including this one (Bush himself has ackowledged that Nuehaus has helped him design his strategy against abortion. And among many of the signers of the manifest "Project for the new american century" you find people from the First Things staff: Midge Decter and George Weigel)


Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 12/2/2006

The fact that secular ideologies end up being many times emulating religious ones, hardly implies that that is an inherent characteristic of it. I will say the main difference concerning secular speech in comparison to religious one, is that secular demands reliance only to reason -for whatever area you want to apply it, from science to ethics- while religious one depends on faith and on, yes, magical, supernatural explanations of the world at least in some degree. Secular ideologies become critizable exactly when they start operating as religions.


Nancy Alane Butterfield - 12/1/2006

Go back to people living in caves, gathering food and parsing it out through the winter. The men begin to demand that they receive more of the food, while women and children receive less. One woman stands up to this injustice and the dominant male group says that they are entitled to more of the food (resources) than others. Why? Because they hunt, and need the energy. But, the woman points out, they don't all hunt - most of the men just sit on their buts and do nothing. So the dominant male group says that they get more of the food because God says so - there is a Hunting God, and he decides whether the men will be able to find deer or whatever, so everyone must obey the Hunting God. But only the men can see and hear the Hunting God, so the top men "interpret" what this Hunting God says, and he says that the women should receive less food, and should be servants to the men.

That's it. In a nutshell. Religion evolves in all societies to allow one dominant group to justify taking more than their fair share of the resources. And that dominant group is always male, and their "god" always insists that women must receive less, and must be the servants of the men.

That doesn't mean that there is no God, or more than one God. It just means that most religious institutions are corrupted by the desire to get power, money, more members, more influence and control. Just look at the idiots, the liars, cheats, perverts who are the heads of most churches and it is apparent that there is nothing holy or religious about any of them. Elmer Gantry to a one.

We hire government employees to do a civil government job: fix the potholes in our streets; build and fund the schools; train and equip a military to defend the country; pool our national resources to provide for the best possible society. But everyone - the Senators, the Representatives, the President, the Judges - are civil servants with civil responsibilities. Their religious views should be kept just as private and separate from their job as are their sexual views and practices. What is personal should be kept out of the work place. No politician or civil servants should ever meet with or communicate with any religious leader about any subject except in their personal life, and not during working hours.

The worst part of electing that senile old brain-deed idiot Ronald Reagan is that he made it acceptable for the President to publicly say stupid irrational things and justify them by his "religious" views.

I have stood in line in a department store. The old lady at the cash register checked me out and when she handed me my package she said "Have a blessed day." I almost leapt across the counter to strangle her. I don't expect the cashier/clerk to give me religious advice and I find it highly offensive. I feel exactly the same about any government employee having any relationship in their employment capacity with any religious group or ideology. Do your job, do what you're paid to do, and keep your religion to yourself.


John Chapman - 12/1/2006

Mr. Kovachev, in ref to your PS (#101956)

“The joke is that secularists, and I count myself as one, are even more prone to magical thinking than are theists of today”

Shifting the subject a bit. Of course I understand that secularists, or atheists, or scientists or both are ultimately unable to be completely neutral. This is nothing new, about knowing we don’t really know if we know (and maybe traditional science may no longer be needed if a life-form becomes highly evolved), but for now, does science and evidence provide a better understanding of the universe than religion? In this life, you bet it does.

No one, unless we’re still dependent on witch doctors, relies on magical thinking when it comes to neurosurgery or even maybe buying a tube of toothpaste. We rely on science and evidence and in this case Christians and atheists are just as discerning as the other when it comes to scientific evidence. I think most of the magical thinking appears more in churches and political ads than in science.


john crocker - 12/1/2006

Where did you go to school?

1. Attendance is not generally mandatory, so audiences are not captive.
2. Most classes do not touch in any meaningful way on politics.
3. Who are these tyranical professors and how did they tyranize you?
4. Who are these conservatives that are the real liberals?
5. "The liberal intellectual establishment calls them heretics and devils pretending to promise freedom (heaven) but insidiously working to tempt us into the depths of hell."
This is among the most ridiculous statements I have seen.


Peter Kovachev - 12/1/2006

Right in the bull's eye, Mr. Keuter!


Jason Blake Keuter - 11/30/2006

I think the untold story in American political life is not the religious right but a pseudo-secular left that replicates the worst aspects of religion : righteousness and intolerance. Moreover, having failed to enlighten people and turn them towards the inherently logical and correct mind-set (i.e. missionary work), the left has ensconsed itself in universities - Byzantine Bureaucracies for a secular high clergy. Here they use the tithes gathered for them by the secular state in order to preach their message to captive audiences. Most don't really get the message very well; those who think they do are generally shrill and distasteful but tolerated by avuncular professors because of ideological affinity; and those who really get the message are welcomed to move up the ranks of the cloistered and become church officials themselves. In keeping with the medieval spirit of the institution, they future career depends entirely on the personal whims of professors and most shudder in disgust thinking they spent years under the tutelage of an exacting tyrant only to find themselves confined to a parish university in the intellectual backwater of a red-state like Oklahoma.

Liberalism long ago became grossly illiberal. It ossified into an orthodoxy and once it did that, it became a quais-religion. Many of those derided as conservatives are in fact true liberals. The liberal intellectual establishment calls them heretics and devils pretending to promise freedom (heaven) but insidiously working to tempt us into the depths of hell.


Stuart Buck - 11/29/2006

Sorry, I accidentally put this comment in an irrelevant thread above. Here it is again:

Linker says:

"In one of the most radical statements of their views, theocon George Weigel wrote in January 2003 (just a few months before the start of the Iraq war) that all rightly constituted public authorities (including the president) enjoys a "charism of political discernment" -- a gift of the holy spirit that aids him in his decision making."

Is Linker unaware of the exchange of letters that followed Weigel's article, in which Weigel explained the following? www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0403/articles/williamsweigel.html
"I gladly accept Dr. Williams’ proposal that “virtue” (with specific reference to the virtue of prudence) is the apt word for getting at the distinctive habitus to be desired in public authorities, while assuring him that, in using “charism,” I was not suggesting that the presidential oath of office (or its British parliamentary equivalent) involves an infusion of any particular gift of the Holy Spirit."


Given Weigel's clarification, why does Linker specifically claim that Weigel meant "a gift of the holy spirit"?


Linker also says:

"The fact is that there is a small group of very smart, very influential, but not very well known Catholic intellectuals in this country who wish to define the United States as a Christian nation -- in its history, in its principles, and in its actions in the world, at home and abroad. If that's not an example of placing secular America under siege, I don't know what would be."

If that's all that the "theocons" can accomplish, there is little to fear. What difference does it make (i.e., to "secular America") if Neuhaus writes one more Public Square column with a line or two about "Christian America"? A few thousand subscribers will read Neuhaus's words, possibly agreeing with him or possibly not, and then they will put the magazine on the shelf or in the trash can. That amounts to a "siege"? Try reversing the last statement: If what Linker is talking about is a "siege," then everything is a "siege."


Stuart Buck - 11/29/2006

Linker says:

"In one of the most radical statements of their views, theocon George Weigel wrote in January 2003 (just a few months before the start of the Iraq war) that all rightly constituted public authorities (including the president) enjoys a "charism of political discernment" -- a gift of the holy spirit that aids him in his decision making."

Is Linker unaware of the exchange of letters that followed Weigel's article, in which Weigel explained the following? www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0403/articles/williamsweigel.html
"I gladly accept Dr. Williams’ proposal that “virtue” (with specific reference to the virtue of prudence) is the apt word for getting at the distinctive habitus to be desired in public authorities, while assuring him that, in using “charism,” I was not suggesting that the presidential oath of office (or its British parliamentary equivalent) involves an infusion of any particular gift of the Holy Spirit."


Linker also says:

"The fact is that there is a small group of very smart, very influential, but not very well known Catholic intellectuals in this country who wish to define the United States as a Christian nation -- in its history, in its principles, and in its actions in the world, at home and abroad. If that's not an example of placing secular America under siege, I don't know what would be."

If that's all that the "theocons" can accomplish, there is little to fear. What difference does it make (i.e., to "secular America") if Neuhaus writes one more Public Square column with a line or two about "Christian America"? A few thousand subscribers will read Neuhaus's words, possibly agreeing with him or possibly not, and then they will put the magazine on the shelf or in the trash can. That amounts to a "siege"? Try reversing the last statement: If what Linker is talking about is a "siege," then everything is a "siege."


john crocker - 11/29/2006

Do you believe that you have "attained the 'grace' of absolute, final and total understanding of what makes all work"?


Peter Kovachev - 11/28/2006

I didn't really address the first part of question.

By "secular ideology" I mean any ideology which, well, calls itself secular. In real terms this means that its founders and proponents operate outside of or against the prevailing or once-prevailing faith system. The joke is that secularists, and I count myself as one, are even more prone to magical thinking than are theists of today, because most believe that they have attained the "grace" of absolute, final and total understanding of what makes all work. As examples consider how we treat Progress, Humanitarianism, Environment, Education, Egalitarianism, Democracy, etc...the caps are intentional, btw.


Peter Kovachev - 11/28/2006

Well, take communism and nazism for example. But even in less extreme forms, the so-called "secular" systems are invariably dominated by metaphysical notions such as values, goals, morals, ideals and taboos. Just as "religious" ones do.

The problem is in the terms; we've come to accept the modern notion (taken on faith) that "religious" implies magical thinking, and "secular" means some kind of a neutral, value-free and totally empirical kind of thought. Science, or more exactly, the scientific method may come closest to what we may mean by secular, but the scientific methology is hardly part of our general world-view.


john crocker - 11/28/2006

What exactly do you mean by secular ideology and how is it just as authoritarian and absolutist as any religion?


Peter Kovachev - 11/27/2006

Don't worry, Mr Chapman, Ms Kazmier is not sure either, which is why you're unlikely to hear from her on this issue again.

My disagreement with you is partial. Indeed pre-modern Christianity, another supposed "Religion of Peace," did spread by the sword, but current scenario even where even the most extreme "theo-cons" are concerned, does not approximate that of Mohammed and his merry men, nor the current versions thereof. The "theo-cons" have a definite disadvantage, I think. Thanks to the way we secularists have narrowed down the definition of religion, secular ideology...which is just as authoritarian and absolutist as that of any religion... can barrel ahead under the the pretence of being pragmatic and universal. And let's not forget that when we once drew the line between Church and State, we didn't do so in a spirit of wise reason, but as an emerging order of the bourgeoisie which wanted its piece of pie as well.


Peter Kovachev - 11/27/2006

Evidently, Ms. Kazmier, those "stringent standards" don't include such trifles like coherence, logic or spelling. On the bright side, there is 0.1 of a person out there who must be your soul-mate.


Charles S Young - 11/27/2006

We've heard more about the influence of the evangelical protestant right, but Linker seems to argue that Catholics are much more influential.

Since that challenges common impressions, I wish the interview had addressed it more.


John Chapman - 11/27/2006

I'm not sure which part of my comment you disagree with.


Lisa Kazmier - 11/27/2006

I disagree and am living proof of "secular spiritualism." The founders got it right. I have much more stringent standards than 99.9% of people I know and think organized religion is overrelated because of its flaws.


John Chapman - 11/26/2006

There is such a thing (secular spiritualism) but according to what I’ve heard Christian fundamentalists say about secularists I get the feeling these nice people would love to see them burn in hell.

“The neocons, for example, favor an aggressive foreign policy that aims to spread democracy around the globe.”

Islam after 632 AD had a single-minded goal too; to conquer and convert the world beginning with the conquests by the first three caliphs, defenders of the faith. The expansion of American democracy has seems to have vaguely followed similar lines by our own defenders of the faith, of course with much less violence, ignoring the blood-baths that have plagued America’s war with Iraq. Perhaps the West’s power will wane again and the Muslims will return for awhile just as they did after the gradual recession of the Roman Empire’s influence in around the Mediterranean. The theocons also seem to have a lot in common with the inhabitants of Medina in 622 when religious and civil authority were fused as the sacred community of state and church.

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