The Theocon Menace
Damon Linker is beating the same drum he’s been beating for some time now, warning against a perceived theocon menace that threatens to overthrow everything Americans have worked toward in fashioning a modern, liberal State. One thing Linker seems to constantly muck up is the distinction between the cultural critics of the so-called “paleoconservative” right and the members of the much less conservative, but far more political religious right. That this distinction is so hard to grasp for Linker belies the overreaching tendency to lump basically any conservative who also happens to be religious into one easily categorized, if totally inaccurate, group: the theocons, which one might consider Linker’s version of the Christianist.
One of the reasons I backtracked from the argument I made last week is that, thanks in part to Ross Douthat’s tough response, I came to see that I had been unfair to Andrew Bacevich in assimilating him to a theocon-like project of radical constitutional, regime-level revisionism. Still, I wonder: What about Patrick Deneen, Daniel Larison, and the other writers listed by Rod Dreher here: Do they merely wish (as Ross suggests) to engage in an extra-political project of cultural renewal? Alternately, do they hope to lead a political movement within the liberal political system? Or do they instead view their searching critique of contemporary American life as necessitating a break with the liberal regime itself? That is, are they seeking to work within the system or to overthrow the system? And if it’s the latter, what alternative regime do they propose? In a word, what precisely — concretely, politically — does a cultural critic like Patrick Deneen want?
Well, first and foremost to offer up commentary and criticism on cultural matters.
One thing that unifies all these writers and thinkers is their rather obvious removal from direct politics, as Ross pointed out already. I’m a little baffled that Linker brings this up, and in such overtly dramatic tones. Perhaps this is simply symptomatic of Linker’s overall theory of a dangerous, theocratic takeover of the American Republic–an inherently dramatic notion in and of itself.
Certainly there are those within the American religious right who wish to see Christian laws and ethics woven into the American legal system. Similarly, there are secularists who wish to utterly do away with any semblance of God or religion in the public sphere. Most Americans, however, fall somewhere in the middle. Few people worry terribly that our pledge of allegiance includes the words “under God” or that a reference to said Deity is found on our money. Wanting to use the word “Christmas” in public schools when referring to that Holiday is hardly an attempt to overthrow the American secular regime. I would say, to the contrary, doing away with any religious references at all actually does a great deal more harm to the public system than it does good, and that if anything it enflames the culture wars unneccessarily.
In other words, the theocons seek to turn a normal partisan political dispute into a theological conflict about the nature of the American liberal regime itself. In the eyes of the theocons, the American Constitution and the principles upon which it is based derive from Catholic-Christian sources — and our failure to acknowledge these sources is likely to lead to national disaster.
Again, I think Linker refers to a rather marginal population within the United States. Most people are content in the knowledge that indeed, whether or not our particular Constitution or rights were founded upon Christian ideals, that our civilization itself has grown up out of a tradition of both Reason and Christianity, and that together the evolution of these two aspects of culture have shaped the world as we see it today. Linker’s hitlist above includes a number of deeply faithful, and extremely bright thinkers, none of whom, so far as I can tell, have ever advocated anything more than a critique of our modern, materialistic culture. The shots Deneen has taken, at modernity have not been against liberals or liberalism in its progressivist sense, but against a shallow culture where our goods, and the aquisition of such goods, defines us and where simplicity and virtue are forgotten in our pursuit of material gain. This is hardly the cultural tones of someone seeking to “overthrow the system.” This is a revelation of capitalism gone awry.
What do cultural critics concretely want? Regardless of what side of the culture war they may find themselves on, or even outside the culture war – or in embattled positions somewhere in between, as I often find myself, cultural critics want only to offer up their observations and hope others will listen, expound upon them, perhaps make them stick. What I concretely want is a nation less disjointed, less consumed by greed and individualism, that has not forgotten its traditions or its roots in history. I want a virtuous society grounded not in the American reactionary moralism often referred to as Puritanism but in the age old moralistic tradition that has informed western civilization from its inception. This does not require a Christian Government, but it does require taking moral questions into account, and holding ourselves accountable to history as well.
By this I mean I would like to see a country not so consumed by the need to strive forward ever on into the perils of our own destiny, or intent upon subduing and harvesting all the world’s resources, but rather content to exist in a simpler state of being. But like any utopian vision, this sort of America cannot merely come about through political pressure, and cannot in fact come about politically at all. I think the Larisons, Deneens, and Drehers of the world understand this, and so have stepped away from politics, further disproving Linker’s assertions or implications that they are somehow part of a theocratic underground intent on overhauling or overthrowing the current system. Culturally, perhaps, many of us have become disillusioned with a nation so fraught with social ills, so obsessed with growth andconsumerism and war. In my eyes, even the vast bulk of our religious organizations have fallen prey to the American Dream of easy money and individualism, as have our politicians, our artists, our philosophers.
This is hardly the outlook of a theoconservative, but rather the measured critique of a group of thinkers who look upon the world as having strayed from its tradition of care and purpose and commonality, and into the uncharted waters of rampant capitalism and expansion. Linker is far more on target when he offers up reasoned compromises in order to put some stop to the culture wars, than when his secularist project takes him once again into the realm of evil theocon coups and conspiratorial paleoconservative plots.
UPDATE: I think I’ve over-dramatized myself a bit in this post. On second reading, I see I read too much into Linker’s post. Where I saw insinuations of menace, I think I see now what is justifiable concern or confusion on Linker’s part…in any case, I hope this does not muddy up the better points I hoped to make…