When Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus died last week from cancer, the tributes flowed in.
Obituary writers duly noted that he had moved, over the course of four decades, from radical civil rights and peace activism to radically conservative politics, aligning himself over the past 18 years with the Roman Catholic Church and even becoming a Catholic priest very shortly after his reception into the Church.
Synopses of his career also mentioned his two biggest books, with respect to their public impact: The Naked Public Square in 1985, and Evangelicals and Protestants Together ten years later. And, of course, his personal soapbox: a journal called First Things.
“Father Neuhaus was an inspirational leader, admired theologian, and accomplished author who devoted his life to the service of the Almighty and the betterment of our world,” gushed the 43rd president in a statement. “He was also a dear friend, and I have treasured his wise counsel and guidance.” I guess that is what you get when you wear a collar and pat the president on the head for standing firm against the baby killers.
The through-line in most of the hagiographic remembrances goes like this: Neuhaus, and—by extension, others like him—remained constant in their ethics and outlook; it was the times that changed for the worse. Sixties values grown rancid in the Seventies meant that clear-sighted moral leaders necessarily found themselves on the conservative side of those sorry-ass times. It was the Sixties-identified heroes who did not move Right—the Tom Haydens and the Dan Berrigans and the William Sloane Coffins—who missed the pivotal moment and lost their way.
By this logic, Martin Luther King would by 1978 have become a Shelby Steele-type figure had he stuck to his clear-sighted ethical bearings. He would have been pushing back against affirmative action and possibly even going off on an anti-abortion tangent like Neuhaus himself.
Always, in this narrative, it is in the 1970s when courageous new conservatives are hatched out of legitimate revulsion at the excesses of the New Left or the godless Secular Left or the Warren Court or thuggish Black Nationalists (pick your own Seventies bogeyman). By the 1980s, according to this same narrative, these titans of integrity and consistency have already begun to get us back on the right track (literally), and their man Reagan is sweeping away the regulatory state, cutting taxes, beating up on welfare queens, busting unions, crushing commies in Grenada and Central America, and bankrupting the Soviets by ramping up the arms race to unheard-of levels. A Godly time, in other words. The restoration of solid mainstream values. Morning in America.
The only problem with this narrative is that it is tendentious in the extreme. The end of the Vietnam disaster was not quite the “peace with honor” that Kissinger represented it to be, but can anyone doubt that it was a good thing for the country to begin to learn the limits of military power in a faraway place whose history we hadn’t bothered to learn? Can anyone doubt that it was a good thing for the Pentagon Papers and the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon to begin to expose the depths of chicanery and self-deception that were driving national policy? Can anyone doubt that the civil rights revolution, the feminist revolution, and the early gay rights revolution were basically following the trajectory we would want and expect within a functioning democracy? Yeah, we had gas lines then—and crappy cars and wide lapels and lousy haircuts (we also had great movies and great music and a higher real income for ordinary workers than ever before or since). But were George Carlin and Patty Hearst and Saturday Night Live sufficient justification for the rising conservative ideologues (turncoat variety) to declare that the nation had lost its way and that only a conservative resurgence could save it?
We need to view Neuhaus in the context of the other public intellectuals of that time, many of them also New Yorkers: the Scoop Jackson/“Democrats for Nixon” types (the last Democratic presidential candidate they supported was Hubert Humphrey). This is also the crowd clustered around Commentary and The Public Interest. As he began to turn, Richard Neuhaus didn’t gravitate to them immediately; his was a gradual conversion.
I confess that I worked briefly for Al Shanker in the late 1970s as a staffer with the national Teachers Federation. I remember well the rise (and rise) of the right-wing social democrats (a.k.a. Schachtmanites to those who really know their tendencies within the fractious inner currents of the US Left). In my view, no one has sufficiently chronicled their exploits and achievements. No one has catalogued what the seminal group (and here I will mention just some of the marquee names: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Albert Shanker, Linda Chavez, and—very sadly—Bayard Rustin in his older age) were able to unleash upon the Republic and the world.
Neuhaus himself became centrally involved in the formation of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a kind of infernal machine that was programmed to tamp down or stamp out liberationist voices within mainline Protestantism. As a progressive mainline Protestant myself, I know firsthand how hugely successful this operation has been. Neuhaus also seized upon the transformative potential of hooking hardcore conservative Protestants up with the Catholic hierarchs in order to turn back the lavender tide and also put reproductive rights advocates on the defensive.
This was big, and it has had big consequences right down to the present. Witness, for example, the religious coalition that propelled Prop. 8 to victory just now in California.
But to back to the right-wing social democrats’ still-unheralded achievements as advance guard of the neoconservatives’ march to dominance. They, in fact, cooked up the Dominance Doctrine that eventually became encapsulated in the famous report of The Project for a New American Century. Back in the day, they gave us Iran-Contra (they all lionized Ollie North, and one of their number—the execrable Elliott Abrams—is still running our disastrous Middle East policy as Assistant Secretary of State). They also tried, unsuccessfully in this case, to discredit the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa and their allies here in the United States.
They orchestrated a pretty effective pushback against affirmative action programs at every level and against ESL programs in the schools. Lots of them were involved in leading us into the Iraq catastrophe. They can never get enough military adventurism.
Not bad, for what remains even now a quite tiny and fairly secretive network. Ferociously anti-Stalinist in their declared ideology, these folks will not hesitate to deploy Stalinoid tactics to achieve their ends. You gotta admire that in them—that steely resolve.
Still, the question remains: Were they in fact enlightened in a way that the rest of us who remained peace and justice advocates just plain missed?
I know what I am about to say will produce howls, indeed gales, of outrage and disbelief, but here it goes.
I think a lot of the proto-neocons like Neuhaus suffered from acute status anxiety during this era. There they were, some really brilliant but mostly deracinated people, observing at close range the first stirrings of popular ressentiment in the wake of the urban uprisings and the antiwar demonstrations. And for the most part, old-line conservatives were still acting like deer caught in the headlights. Culturally conservative Catholics (recall that this was also the era of the Boston busing brouhaha) and much-mocked Southern whites (whether located in the actual South or in places like Michigan’s Warren County) were ripe for mobilization; they just needed a conceptual framework that would make sense of what they were feeling. A super-strident Wallace-type platform would no longer do.
So along come the New Yorkers to give respectable articulation and an intellectual patina to the kind of anti-elitism so thoroughly explicated by Tom Frank: an anti-elitism that is, in reality, completely orchestrated by certain elites in the interest of other elites. And for this service in helping to forge an emerging popular conservatism, a bunch of insecure ex-Trotskyites finally get welcomed into the country club of real power and privilege.
Convincing corporate media types that manipulating mass impressions in this way was somehow a “courageous” thing for these folks to do ended up being no difficulty at all. By this time celebrity journalism—with journalists identifying with the powerful, even aspiring to power and wealth themselves instead of reporting from below—was already well advanced.
Richard Neuhaus was a man of his times in every respect. Back when we were allowed to use language like this, the defining word would have been sellout or possibly suckup. How nice to be able to withdraw from the turmoil of the Left, from the stress of too many questions, and from the high personal cost of resisting powers and principalities.
So warm and cozy, crawling right up into the lap of an unjust empire to the point of having the sitting president salute your passing. But not the mark of a courageous and independent spirit. Not by a long shot.