Magazine April 20, 2009, Issue

By the Waters…

Ross Douthat reviews American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile and other works by the late Richard John Neuhaus.

Richard John Neuhaus, recently departed and greatly missed, enjoyed four overlapping careers in the American public square. Taken on its own, each would have been sufficient to guarantee the fame of a lesser, less prolific figure. And each, remarkably, was in addition to his primary vocation as a Lutheran and then a Catholic priest in New York City, ministering to believers from the lowest and highest levels of a metropolis that he often described, with only a touch of waggishness, as a foretaste of the New Jerusalem.

The least appreciated of these four careers, perhaps, was the one that flowed most directly from his daily labors as a priest. This was Neuhaus the spiritual and pastoral writer, drawing on his experiences as a minister and as a Christian to produce some of the finest religious meditations of our era. His topics — Christ’s passion, mortality, the work of ministry — were scandalous in the way the Christian gospel always is, but they were less immediately controversial than his other work, and received somewhat less attention as a result.

They were overshadowed, in particular, by Neuhaus the intellectual powerhouse — steeped in the great controversies of modernity and postmodernity, engaged with theologians past and present, and sparring happily with the philosophes of this age. This Neuhaus was a political theologian (though he would qualify and contest that term), and above all an American political theologian. The heir to Orestes Brownson and John Courtney Murray, he arguably outstripped them both, working tirelessly to advance a distinctively Christian and Catholic liberalism that would be consonant with the American experiment, and perhaps necessary to its survival.

If the philosophical Neuhaus was a bit too heavy and theoretical for your taste, though, there was also Neuhaus the journalist and culture warrior, stooping to conquer every month in the pages of First Things. And if it was action that you wanted, instead of theory or polemic, there was Neuhaus the activist, harnessing his intellectual gifts to larger projects — civil rights, Jewish-Christian dialogue, Evangelical-Catholic rapprochement, the right to life. Few 20th-century intellectuals distinguished themselves in both the cause of desegregation and the cause of the unborn, and fewer still were a public presence in both movements. But when Martin Luther King was marching, there was Neuhaus beside him, and when the right-to-life movement needed champions, there was Neuhaus once again.

In a sense, the breadth and variation of these overlapping Neuhauses probably made him less celebrated, during his lifetime, than a narrower writer might have been. Certainly this was true of his activism on behalf of the unborn, which tilted him slowly but irrevocably into political conservatism, and cost him a host of bien-pensant admirers in the process. As his great friend Robert George noted recently, “Neuhaus was poised to become the nation’s next great liberal public intellectual — the Reinhold Niebuhr of his generation.” And so he could have been, had he only been somewhat less agitated about abortion — which is to say, had he been something other than the idealist that he was. 

Likewise, had he been willing to set aside his theological and philosophical concerns, he could have been one of the great political pundits of the age, making mincemeat of his rivals on cable news shows and op-ed pages. Alternatively, had he been willing to depoliticize his writings, he might have had a wider audience among the spiritually inclined. (There are doubtless religious leaders, for instance, who have never considered picking up Freedom for Ministry, Neuhaus’s rich theological consideration of the pastor’s vocation, because they’ve known him as the slashing polemicist from the back pages of First Things.)

But in time, all of these Neuhauses will find the audiences that they deserve. His era will pass away, but his words will not pass away. Long after the controversies of the moment have given way to struggles unforeseen, Richard John Neuhaus’s breadth and depths and variations will still be winning admirers to his many ways of thinking about our fallen world — and to the larger cause, Christ and his Church, to which he gave almost every moment in his 72 years.

For the reader coming to him for the first time, his final book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (Basic, 288 pp., $26.95), published posthumously in March, serves primarily as an introduction to Neuhaus the intellectual heavy hitter. The book has its polemical and devotional aspects — it touches on the new atheists and Peter Singer, on the challenge of Islam, and of course on Roe v. Wade, and culminates in an extended meditation on the nature of Christian hope. But American Babylon’s primary concern is the intersection of theology and political philosophy, and its broad theme is the same one that Saint Augustine wrestled with long ago: the proper attitude that would-be inhabitants of the City of God should take toward the City of Man in which they find themselves in exile.

Beneath this broad canopy, the argument does not always flow as smoothly as it could. This is a book compiled largely from previously published material, which has been amended, expanded, and stitched together, and American Babylon’s structure often feels more jury-rigged than organic. The individual chapters are impressive on their own, but the connective tissue is sometimes weak. 

But this is a strength as well as a weakness, since it means that American Babylon, like paradise in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, is larger seen from within than from without. 

Neuhaus’s major intellectual preoccupations are all well represented: the relationships Christianity has with the American experiment, with the Jews, and with postmodernity — and, above all, the tangled relationship, for believers, between political action and eschatological expectation. 

Writing about relationships, inevitably, means writing about problems. A purely descriptive subtitle for the book might have been “Tensions in Christian Thought,” because Neuhaus is often working at the places where a balance must be struck, a fine distinction threaded, or a mystery analyzed without being quite resolved. There are times when he explicitly argues for embracing uncertainty — as with the Christian relationship to Judaism, for instance, where in place of the coherence of a supersessionism in which the advent of Christ makes Judaism obsolete, he proposes a kind of higher diffidence about God’s purposes, and a “shared exploration of what we do not know, and perhaps cannot know until the end time.” 

But embracing a radical uncertainty in some theological specifics does not require embracing it promiscuously. Elsewhere in the book, Neuhaus wrestles at length with Christianity’s ambiguous relationship to both modernity and postmodernity, but ultimately dismisses the seductive idea that religious believers should side with deconstructionists and ironists in their effort to disarm the “hegemonic pretensions” of the Enlightenment. To a Christian tired of being told that rationality alone, unsupported by tradition or revelation, will sustain the political and moral architecture of rights-based liberalism, the postmodernist assault on reason itself can feel like a heady tonic. But “for one tradition of reason (for example, Thomism) to form an alliance,” Neuhaus writes, “or even a temporary coalition, with unreason in order to undo another tradition of reason (for example, value-neutral Enlightenment rationality) is a perilous tactic.” You can use Nietzsche to disarm Voltaire, but then you run the risk of being ruled by Nietzsche — or worse.

Which is to say that Neuhaus remained invested, to the end, in what was always his biggest idea: that Christianity could and ought to help sustain the American version of the Enlightenment project, rather than abandon it, and that liberal regimes could and ought to turn to religion — and specifically to the Judeo-Christian idea of the natural law — for a “morally compelling account” of their own premises and institutions. “This regime of liberal democracy, of republican self-governance, is not self-evidently good and just,” Neuhaus insists. “An account must be given. Reasons must be given. They must be reasons that draw authority from that which is higher than ourselves, from that which transcends us, from that to which we are precedently, ultimately obliged.”

During Neuhaus’s lifetime, this position was assailed by both the secular Left (as a stalking horse for theocracy) and the Catholic Right (for yoking Christianity to the service of an inherently anti-Christian regime). It will continue to be assailed, no doubt, so long as he is read. Those interested in doing so, however, will find in American Babylon a Neuhaus who has anticipated their critiques, and indeed a Neuhaus who accepts them as accurate descriptions of possible worlds, and possible Americas. 

To liberals worried about the perils of a sacralized politics, he concedes that American theology — Protestant theology, in particular, from the Puritans down to contemporary evangelicalism — has too often “suffered from an ecclesiological deficit, leading to an ecclesiological substitution of America for the Church through time.” As a result, American Christians live in constant danger of “forgetting that America, too, is Babylon.” To Christians worried that the American experiment has been tending inevitably toward a secular nihilism, meanwhile, he allows that the “low but solid” principles of the American founding (in Leo Strauss’s famous phrase) may yet prove “too low, and not solid enough.” 

His Christian liberalism is ultimately a balancing act, then — constantly in danger of tipping over into an idolatrous Christianity that confuses America with the Church and vice versa, or into an idolatrous liberalism that acknowledges no authority higher than Hobbes’s Leviathan, or the imperial self. 

Neuhaus lived and died in hope, convinced that this balancing act could guarantee the survival of the American experiment. But he lived and died a realist as well. American Babylon is optimistic that the marriage of Christianity and liberalism can survive its current strains. But this optimism is tempered throughout by the awareness that history has many cunning passages, and many ways of disappointing you.

For a sense of where history has fulfilled Neuhaus’s hopes, and where they have been disappointed, it’s instructive to go back two decades to The Catholic Moment, a long analysis of the Roman Catholic Church’s condition and prospects that Neuhaus penned in 1987, three years before he left Lutheranism for Rome. Less famous than The Naked Public Square (1984), it’s arguably a better blueprint to the work that Neuhaus was engaged in across the last two decades — and a better measuring stick for how that work has fared.

Written in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and amid the intellectual and demographic dead-ending of the Protestant establishment, The Catholic Moment descried an enormous opportunity for the Roman Church. “This is the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church in the world can and should be the lead church in proclaiming the gospel,” Neuhaus wrote. And more, he added, in a passage that his friends and enemies alike would often quote in the years that followed, this ought to be the moment when “the Roman Catholic Church in the United States assumes its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.” 

It was a cumbersome turn of phrase, but a startling suggestion — that Catholicism, long considered an alien force in American life, might hold the key to “renew[ing] the American experiment in liberal democracy.”

The Church’s two intertwined missions — to the world, and to America — could only be accomplished, Neuhaus argued, if Catholicism renewed itself by remaining itself, resisting the temptations to become Protestant on the one hand and Marxist on the other. Much of The Catholic Moment is taken up with a critique of Protestantizing tendencies within the North American Church, which would turn Catholicism into one dull denomination among many, and with the challenge of liberation theology in the Third World, which would transform the Church into a revolutionary movement devoted to the immanentization of the eschaton. Against liberal Catholicism and revolutionary Catholicism, Neuhaus defended (albeit with more qualifications than in later works) the efforts of John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger to revive the sense of authority and particularity in the Church, and to renew Catholicism’s insistence that “the Christian Gospel is not one symbolic expression among others of the universal phenomenon of religion, but is the controlling statement of truth by which all reality . . . is rightly understood.”

The two decades that followed saw the partial vindication of his hopes. Marxism went the way of all flesh, taking much of liberation theology with it. Liberal Catholicism gradually exhausted itself, aging into irrelevance as the hoped-for Protestantization of the Church was delayed and delayed, as Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, and as the intellectual initiative within the Church passed decisively to Neuhaus’s side of the argument about what Catholicism ought to be. 

In American politics, meanwhile, a “religiously informed public philosophy” rooted in Catholic ideas about natural law became the common ground where many believers — Catholic and Protestant, Jewish and Mormon — met to shape an ecumenical religious conservatism. By the turn of the millennium, it was not uncommon to hear liberals complaining about the “Catholic brains” behind the American Right. Richard John Neuhaus’s influence over the Bush administration was no doubt overstated, but if you listened to Bush’s rhetoric on issues ranging from poverty to bioethics, you would be forgiven for thinking that the president was a Catholic neoconservative, rather than a Texas evangelical.

But the last eight years proved to be difficult ones for Neuhaus’s project. The American Catholic Church, which was seemingly poised to move into the space that the Protestant mainline once occupied, instead endured the agony of the sex-abuse scandals, which left its leadership ill-equipped for “culture-forming tasks” of any sort. The rhetoric of George W. Bush suggested the advent of a “Catholic moment” in American politics, but that moment evaporated along with his popularity, sending religious conservatism staggering into political exile with the rest of the Republican party. 

More general trends were discouraging as well. In the 1970s and 1980s, the decline of liberal Christianity, Protestant and Catholic alike, opened the door for the growth of religious bodies that were at once traditional and forward-looking. But by the 21st century, the growth of this “post-liberal” Christianity appeared to be hitting a ceiling. Recent surveys suggest that the American public — whose abiding religiosity Neuhaus often took for granted — is turning in increasing numbers to a militant secularism, a dopey pantheism, or the ersatz Christianity that the sociologist Christian Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

These setbacks may be temporary. But in the age of Obama, it must be said, the prospects for a Catholic-infused renewal of the American experiment look dimmer than they’ve been in years. 

But these are hardly grounds for despair among those Christians who shared in Neuhaus’s hopes. His signal intellectual proposal, like John Courtney Murray’s before him, was that Roman Catholicism offered not merely a refuge from secular society, but a “wisdom for the world,” which “has everything to do with the right ordering of our lives together in ‘the City of Man.’” But he never suggested that offering a “public theology” of this sort, and seeking political transformation along with it, was more than a portion of the Church’s mission. 

Out of H. Richard Niebuhr’s five potential models for Christian engagement with the culture, which Neuhaus was fond of citing — the Church against the world, the Church of the world, the Church above the world, the Church as the transformer of the world, and the Church and world in paradox — Neuhaus’s stated preference was for the final model, since only paradox seemed sufficiently capacious, and capable of holding the first four in tension all at once.

“The Church is at points against the world,” he wrote in The Catholic Moment, “but always for the world. It is above the world by virtue of its participation in the transcendent, and it is ahead of the world by its anticipation of a future time, yet it is always of the world. And it is transformer of the world, not merely by providing a spiritual energy for existing goals of change but, most importantly, by reminding the world of its incompleteness, by preventing prideful or despairing actions of premature closure, by keeping the world open to the promised transformation that is the destiny of Church and world alike.”

In word and deed alike, Neuhaus provided as much “spiritual energy for existing goals of change” as any figure of his era. But it’s a testament to his own capaciousness that we will be able to turn to him for guidance and inspiration even in eras vastly different from his own — eras in which his type of political project seems unnecessary, and eras in which it seems impossible. 

He wrote for our American Babylon, but for all the Babylons to come as well — for good regimes and wicked ones, and for those regimes that are not so bad that Christians cannot work within them, but not so good that we can do so happily. And he will be returned to again and again, for as long as this exile endures, by all of those whose Christian hope enables them — in the final words of his final book — to “hail from afar the New Jerusalem and know that it is all time toward home.”

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