Thursday, October 12, 2006
I consider myself to be friendly with both Damon Linker and Ross Douthat; I've been impressed with Ross's blogging for some time, and I've been eager to read Damon's book (actually, I'm kind of embarrassed not to have read it yet); so I was obviously pleased to hear that they would be debating each other over at TNR.
Unfortunately, I don't think TNR gave them enough rounds to really get going. The opening statements are promising, but there's no time to develop arguments; they have to move directly to closing flourishes. Or, perhaps, it's not TNR's fault. Perhaps neither Douthat nor Linker really wants to concede what kind of argument they are having, and so wind up dancing around each other more than truly engaging.
As I say, I haven't read Linker's book. But the more I read about it, the more convinced I am that it is, at bottom, an anti-Catholic argument. That's not intended as an insult or a conversation-closer. It sounds like an intelligent, thought-out anti-Catholic argument. It doesn't strike me as a bigoted argument, and anyhow, right-wing PC of the sort that rules criticism of particular religious traditions out of bounds cuts no ice with me. I just think that, honestly, that's the kind of argument he's making.
The closest he comes to approaching the question of whether that's the kind of argument he's making is to answer Douthat's question - is there a place for me? - with his own question - am I making an anti-Catholic argument? - when what we really want to know is whether *he* thinks he's making an anti-Catholic argument. And this also lets Douthat get away with something of a retreat into identity politics: he doesn't *argue* that orthodox Catholic Christianity is perfectly compatible with the American Republic, he just warns that if you say it isn't, then Catholics may not choose the allegiance that Linker would prefer them to make primary.
But then, it's not surprising that identity politics reared its ugly head in this debate, because this is what the culture war at bottom is about, or at least I am increasingly convinced that it is.
As one of his arguments against Linker, Douthat trots out the history of American religious-inspired political activism: abolition, social gospel, temperance, Bryan's crusade against evolution, etc. Linker responds by saying that some of these movements he also is troubled by, but that generally he's less troubled by them than by the theocons because their objectives could be defended in secular terms, and because they didn't advance a religious *ideology* in the way that the theocons do. I question whether temperance or opposition to teaching evolution could be so grounded; frankly, I question whether abolition and the social gospel can be *entirely* divorced from the profound religious motivations that lie behind even the secular formulations of these causes. But what both he and Douthat neglect to focus on is the fact that all of these movements were *Protestant* movements. (Temperance wasn't just a Protestant crusade - it was an *anti-Catholic* crusade.)
Which is, of course, only logical: America was, from its founding until roughly 1950, a Protestant country, both in fact and in self-conception. Stating that fact doesn't change or undermine the equally true fact that freedom of religion, anti-establishment and equality for citizens of all faiths were fundamental American principles from the beginning. American Jews still rightly prize Washington's letter. But the notion that the Jewish *religion* was in some sense part of the American *identity* is a 195os-era innovation, a product of the era when the Jews and the Catholic ethnics of America "became white" and America, still a "nation with the soul of a church" tried to think of itself no longer as Protestant but as a country founded on the "Judeo-Christian tradition."
Except that there is no such tradition, not in any meaningful sense. There's a Christian tradition, but Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Christians approach that tradition very differently. And Judaism is outside that tradition; Jews and Christians can, one hopes, have fruitful religious dialogue (I once said that because we cannot choose to be strangers, we must endeavor to be friends lest we revert to being enemies), but that dialogue takes place across a substantial chasm. And America was not founded upon a chasm.
The 1950s, and not the 1970s: this is the period from which Linker's "liberal bargain" dates, the bargain that let JFK assume the Presidency in exchange for his commitment not to take his Catholicism too seriously (i.e., seriously enough to impact his policymaking). The rise of a distinctive secular (as oppose to merely irreligious) subculture in the 1970s was merely the follow-on to the deconstruction of America's traditional Protestant identity that took place twenty years earlier.
This context explains why Linker is right that the theocons are different from previous religious/political movements in American history. First, and most simply, because the theocons are transparently Catholic in inspiration, where all previous notable movements were Protestant. But second, relatedly but more importantly, because all previous movements took place against the backdrop of an assumed Protestant religious identity of the nation as a whole, and spoke to the nation in terms of that identity. The abolitionists, the temperance crusaders, the preachers of the social gospel: they were not trying to restore America's religious identity; they were trying to restore America's virtue, to get her to live up to that identity. The theocons, by contrast, are trying to *determine* America's religious identity; they are engaged in identity politics. Which is why, even though their policy goals are decidedly modest, they appear so threatening to so many. Identity politics is *always* threatening, because it is hard to compromise one's identity without feeling one has compromised one's integrity.
(As an aside, there have certainly been Catholic social movements in the United States, but these tended to be identity-politics movements of the parochial kind - movements that did not so much speak to the *American* identity as attempt to defend a special *Catholic* identity against the larger culture, or to change the larger culture to make *room* for that identity. That's somewhat analogous to the mode of Muslim organizations today, in America and in Europe, and is very different from the kind of identity politics that the theocons are up to.)
Linker rightly bemoans that state of affairs, but I don't see how he's doing anything more than engaging in combat on the same field. I can tentatively agree with Linker that there's an asymmetry between his ideology and that of the theocons: that theirs is a kind of total vision while Linker's, good liberal that he is, appears to be more modest. But it's still an ideology. And it's still an ideology in the service of identity: a dispute about what *being an American* means.
Which brings me to what I think is the largest unspoken problem with Linker's position. Whether or not the theocon position *is* covertly illiberal (I'm going to reserve judgement on my feelings about that until I've read Linker's book, but I'm going in inclined to disagree), it's certainly *perceived* as such by liberals, and I think the reason is that they *correctly* read it as a species of identity politics, and that it advances an American identity with which they don't . . . identify. But the "liberal bargain" that Linker advocates fails, I think, in either one of two ways. On the one hand, Linker's liberalism may be a "thick" liberalism, a real substantive liberal identity that Linker believes in - in which case the theocon critique of liberalism as a "secular religion" has teeth. Or, on the other hand, it may be a "thin" liberalism that tries not to articulate much in the way of a substantive identity for the citizenry to unite around - in which case it is unlikely to be terribly satisfying, and will encourage the formation of strong identities that are sub- or supra-national as the primary identities of the citizenry. This is what Douthat is talking about, effectively, when he warns that Damon may not like the choices people make if you force them to choose between *identifying* with Christ or with the Republic. It may well be that such an outcome is, on balance, good for religion - or, anyhow, good for religious organizations. I'm not convinced it's good for America, though - not because we'll become decadent and immoral, but because we'll become increasingly divided as a nation.
The rubber meets the road on things like public education. Are we to have it? If we live in a libertarian utopia where we don't, then the rubber doesn't meet the road much, and we have a "thin" liberalism that shouldn't cause conservative Christians much pain. But we substantially rely on public education not only to teach reading, writing and 'rithmetic (assuming they still teach these things) but also to bind us together as a nation (something I know we don't teach much anymore). Our modus operandi for decades has been that a liberal society needs to teach the next generation to be good liberals, for its own continuity's sake. *This* is what lies behind the conviction of the actual citizens who support the theocon position that Linker's liberal bargain is not nearly as neutral, nor his liberalism as "thin", as he might claim.
Sam Huntington in his book, Who Are We?, closes with a half-hedged prediction that as America has become more racially and ethnically diverse, we will turn increasingly to Christianity as the source of our common national identity, revitalizing what is in fact the oldest strain in our identity (going back to Plymouth). I suspect he is right; indeed, I'd be inclined to hedge less than he does. What remains to be seen is whether America will make Catholicism into (pragmatically) a Protestant denomination, or whether the Catholic church will transform American Protestantism and make America, pragmatically, a Catholic country. Neuhaus's critics on the right think he's an agent of the former type of change; Linker is, effectively, charging him with trying to effect the latter type of change. I don't know who's right about that, or if either of them are, and it seems to me that, as a Jew, I probably don't have a dog in that particular fight. But that question, it seems to me, is what's really at issue in considering the ideology of the theocons, and what they mean for America.