Richard John Neuhaus, cont’d

Damon Linker has blog posts up at New Republic here and here, drawing a reply from Ross Douthat (earlier from Bradlaugh).

I find this paragraph from National Catholic Reporter very puzzling:

From the early 1970s forward, Neuhaus was a key architect of two alliances with profound consequences for American politics, both of which overcame histories of mutual antagonism: one between conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, and the other between free market neo-conservatives and “faith and values” social conservatives.

The first half of this pair of ideas is obviously well-founded: Neuhaus’s cooperation with figures like Charles Colson was indeed instrumental in getting conservative Catholics and evangelicals to overlook some of their differences in the greater interest of a united front against secularism, cultural modernity, and other enemies. But it would never have occurred to me to call him (as opposed to, say, the late William F. Buckley, Jr.) “a key architect of [the alliance] between free market neo-conservatives and ‘faith and values’ social conservatives”. Leaving aside what is meant by the overpacked portmanteau “free market neo-conservatives”, the general alliance being referred to predated Neuhaus’s conversion to conservatism and grew weaker, rather than stronger, during his period of maximum influence. I can see making an argument that he was a central figure in undermining that alliance, in that he devoted unceasing effort to shifting the focus of conservatism from causes that provided obvious common ground with free-market advocates (like, say, limiting the scope of government) to that of culture war, where the common ground is, let’s face it, a lot more limited. But maybe there’s some case — perhaps relating to his work in Eastern Europe? — for why conservatives of a free-market secular stripe should also be grateful for his career.

National Review’s editorial treatment, by the way, pays tribute to Neuhaus’s facility for Chesterton-style aphorism, giving as an example:

“Whenever orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.”

I’d say that ranks with top-drawer Chesterton. It is pithy and funny; it is obviously, flagrantly wrong as applied to the world most of us live in; it is, nonetheless, fruitful to think about as an aphorism; and most of the readers who smile at its wit will not take the time to consider where its logical implications lead.

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
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