Editor’s Note: Today we are reposting an old Thermidor essay. It is dated a little as First Things has changed in three years, but it seems timely considering the current debate on the right.
A vaguely right-leaning, pseudo-religious magazine publishes something plausibly associated with dread words like “Christendom” and “Tradition.” In synchronised horror, cocktails are spilt across tables in Georgetown, Cambridge and Manhattan. The warning beacons are lit by the good folk of Commentary; the reactionary fleet, captained by R.R Reno, is in sight! Sir William Kristol pauses in his game of cluster bombing the Syrians to assure the terrified peasants of the Weekly Standard that there is more than enough time to level Damascus and smite the Papists. And so on.
There was something curiously familiar about the recent brouhaha when First Things published Fr. Romanus Cessario’s defence of the Catholic Church in the case of Edgardo Mortaro 1. Attentive and longstanding readers of that magazine will know why. It uncannily resembles what happened more than 20 years ago, when Fr. Richard Neuhaus, the editor-in-chief of First Things and chaplain general of Catholic neoconservatism, briefly strayed on to reactionary ground before he was ordered back on to the straight and narrowing path of Movement Conservatism. Those events were like a firework tossed into the Plato’s Cave of the Anglophone Right; a dazzling burst of light revealed the true nature of things for those with the wit to see them. It continues to illuminate the position of social conservatives and neo-reactionaries alike. It ought not to be forgotten, for it is a lesson indeed.
The symposium that appeared in the November 1996 edition of First Things bore the title “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics” 2. The specific issue was obviously legal activism; the wider context was the growing recognition of how much the American elite had turned against whatever attenuated Christianity still informed national life. A plausible and arguably better title for the symposium would have been that of Christopher Lasch’s last book, published two years earlier: The Revolt of the Elites. As liberals cheered Clinton’s re-election, Neuhaus readied a fusillade of essays from some leading figures of the respectable Right, among them Robert P. George, Robert Bork, and Charles Colson. In turn, each reviewed the most vexed judicial rulings of recent decades and their implications: Roe v. Wade, Romer v. Evans, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, et al. Their conclusions were similar; an activist Supreme Court was a grave threat to the American constitutional order and religious conscience, and only radical measures would do as an answer.
The flaws in these essays should first be acknowledged, and they were not small. For example, the participants railed furiously against the undercutting of popular sovereignty by judicial fiat but generally drew back from the obvious questions this begged. For example, if the sovereign people were to vote in legislators that approved abortion or sodomite matrimony, then surely democratic requirements would all be met. In that scenario, what further objections could they have, as American citizens? Which legal order were the authors actually trying to uphold, that of the American Republic or that of God? The possibility that these were not the same thing was not something they were keen to address.
Furthermore, arguments that set the wickedness of nefarious liberal justices against the righteousness of the common folk seemed quite risible at the time, given the abundantly evident rot within American family life and popular culture. Above all, the contributors chose to diagnose symptoms but not the malady, for they mostly avoided the questions of why the Supreme Court behaved this way and what its actions revealed about the American system. Essentially, this was a group of religiously minded classical liberals who denounced the actions of a secularist Whig order while studiously not asking whether this was the nature of the beast. In other words, it was a distillation of First Things: well-meaning, sanctimonious and conveniently blind to reality.
Nonetheless, much was written that was truthful and candid, indeed shockingly so. Three important points were made. First, the authors eschewed bromides about “government by the people”. Instead, Colson, George, Hadley Arkes and Russell Hittinger chose to describe reality when they called the American order a “regime”, an independent entity with a mind of its own and the will to impose itself on those who would gainsay it. The tone was set by Neuhaus in his introduction:
The traditions of democratic self-governance are powerful in our civics textbooks and in popular consciousness. This symposium asks whether we may be deceiving ourselves and, if we are, what are the implications of that self-deception…America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here.
Second, the authors stated something that was also very obvious. This judicial regime was degenerate. It was apostate. Its loathsome nature was shown in its targeted assault on the unborn, the infirm and those who simply refused to applaud buggery:
Charles Colson: “It would be hard to imagine that a Christian in good conscience could swear to uphold the Constitution or laws of a nation that practices the horrendous offense against God of taking the defenseless lives of the weakest among us: babies, the elderly, and the sick.”
Hadley Arkes: “Gay activists seem to understand that their interests will not be secured as long as there persists in the public a residual moral sense that there is something about homosexuality that is not quite right. Hence, the need to seek more and more occasions for inducing the public first to tolerate, and then, in small steps, to endorse or approve. And now, with Romer v. Evans, the Court has handed the activists a powerful new device for advancing the movement ever further.”
The third point was the most incendiary. If a regime was this defiant of natural limits and implicitly contemptuous of divine law, then what rightful obedience was due to it? Their conclusions were, well, rather novel:
Russell Hittinger: “The option remaining to right reason is the one traditionally used against despotic rule: civil disobedience.”
Colson: “If the terms of our contract have in fact been broken, Christian citizens may be compelled to force the government to return to its original understanding …The writings of Thomas Jefferson, who spoke openly of the necessity of revolution, could also be called upon for support.”
Robert P. George: “People of good will—of whatever religious faith—who are prepared to consider seriously the Pope’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae cannot now avoid asking themselves, soberly and unblinkingly, whether our regime is becoming the democratic “tyrant state” about which he warns.”
It is hard to convey the spasm these statements induced across a swathe of the so-called Right. The USA, an incipient Fourth Reich? Democracy, the enemy? If George Weigel had started picketing soldiers’ funerals with the Westboro Baptist Church, it could hardly have caused more alarm. This was First Things, the high-minded voice of natural law reasoning! And who was Fr. Neuhaus but that avuncular, reassuring advocate for the superiority of the American order? Publishing essays that discussed the Christian overthrow of the ‘regime’ must have seemed like a psychotic break to his mainly Jewish neoconservative allies.
It was not long before they took action. Norman Podhoretz mustered his best impression of Edmund Burke: “I did not become a conservative in order to be a radical, let alone to support the preaching of revolution against this country” 3. Midge Decter (Mrs. Norman Podhoretz) took the Jane Austen approach to Neuhaus: “I presume in the name of friendship, then, to accuse you of growing impatient with your labors, and in your impatience, reckless” 4. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Mrs. Irving Kirstol) declared Neuhaus’ actions “absurd and irresponsible” and resigned from the board of First Things 5. Given the calamitous course of both the West and the Middle East over the last twenty years, one cannot ignore the black irony of her parting shot: “If abortion is the litmus test of a moral law that cannot be violated by positive law, then all of the Western democracies that legalize abortion and do so by the legislative rather than judicial process” are illegitimate. (Indeed, the only legitimate governments would be Iraq, Iran, and the like).” She was followed out of the door of First Things by the Lutheran sociologist John Berger, who concluded that “to explore whether the American government is legitimate is a slippery slope, and the most distasteful portion involves the mention of Nazi Germany” 6. Commentary staged its own countering symposium, “On the Future of Conservatism”, in February 1997, which was effectively a howitzer shell fired across Manhattan into Neuhaus’ apartment.
What followed was the acme of Movement Conservatism’s mental and moral failure; I really don’t think that is an exaggeration. Neuhaus never apologized, but never went near this forbidden territory again. This was a man on parole and he knew it. Instead, First Things shuffled through the ensuing Bush Presidency in an odd state of bellicose schizophrenia, somehow unaware that the country was crumbling but painfully insistent that Arabs be enlightened at gunpoint in the joys of democracy. For the better part of the Obama years, its condition was simply one of bemused senility, just as the feverish visions of 1996 became more than just imaginings. Only in the last few years has Reno shown the courage to rock the boat, but only slightly and it remains to be seen whether he will persist. Neuhaus had had a chance to make the magazine a genuinely prophetic voice, one that would not say “peace, peace” when there was no peace. Perhaps it would have suffered financially or maybe even have folded, but the chief reward of a prophet is not commercial. Jeremiah was not in it for kudos and remuneration.
So where does this leave us? The First Things symposium of 1996 was not a matter of lofty insight, but rather of basic honesty. The authors simply said what they saw; the American elite was seeking to obliterate the sacred. If the contributors missed anything, it was how dynamic that hatred of the sacred had become. Once the liberal class crosses one Rubicon, it must purposefully seek out another. It must simply because it must. Transgenderism did not get a single mention in those essays of 1996, and it would not have had many more if the symposium had been held in 2010. Contrast that with our current situation, where efforts to keep cross-dressing men out of women’s toilets resemble the defense of the Alamo. That is how quickly things move these days. I leave the reader to imagine where progressives would go next if they could.
We are also left with a clapped out pseudo-Right covered with scars, the most shameful of which is the mark of its craven, self-delivered gelding. Neuhaus did not begin this, of course. His own case merely illustrates the choice forced on conservatives by the decay of the liberal order. Do they resist it or do they compromise as the price of keeping things together? Do they cry havoc or do they extend a hand? They have flirted with the former but generally chosen the latter. Either way, the progressive machine has ground on remorselessly. In the last needs, therefore, conservatives will face only two options: total surrender or varying degrees of disgrace.
Neuhaus was not my cup of tea. I am not against smugness per se. But I am against it if there is no good reason for it, and Neuhaus never could show much cause for his air of glad satisfaction with America. His refusal to make the connection between the country’s obvious decay and its classical liberal creed was more than vexing. His eager beating of the warpath for George W. Bush was simply deplorable. Nor am I inclined to forget his part in blackballing Joe Sobran from polite circles for the sin of being a real man of the Right. Nonetheless, Neuhaus was neither a bad man nor a fool, and there was something wretched about his being neutered by the likes of the Podhoretzs. It is not enough for the liberal order merely to be dominant; it must suck the integrity out of those with the wits and morals to oppose it, leaving them little better than toothless court eunuchs.
The recent output by Michael Brendan Dougherty is a dismal case in point. When I heard that he had moved to National Review, I began to count the days until he made his act of public obeisance to the kingless throne. Sure enough, we were presented with the following eulogy to Senior Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy a few weeks ago 7:
I’ve started to think that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy may be the one man preventing the United States from political breakdown…. The Supreme Court’s role in this scene, with Kennedy as the swing justice, has been to moderate and restrain the ambitions of each party. Kennedy deals out victories and defeats to each side — giving slightly more defeats to social conservatives.
This is the same Senior Associate Justice Kennedy who defined liberty as the right “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, an execrable piece of mental onanism that pulled off the neat trick of simultaneously mandating mass infanticide and of providing lyrics for Celine Dion. And this man is the last bulwark of the Republic? Really? Of course, Dougherty condemned Kennedy’s flights of fancy, but this was only rhetorical throat-clearing, no more. It did nothing to change the grotesque spectacle actually given to us: acclamation from a traditionalist Catholic for one of history’s most loquacious defenders of baby-killing. It apparently has not crossed Dougherty’s mind that a political order is utterly unworthy of rescue if Justice Kennedy is its last hope, or that efforts to save it are not only futile but render the would-be rescuer unclean.
However, it would be quite wrong to single out only the younger man. Robert P. George was part of the 1996 symposium and issued dire warnings about the progressive tomorrow we now inhabit, but two decades later he forced his way into the leading ranks of the Never-Trump cohort. Obviously, one cannot compel him to like Trump or to vote for him, but George could at least have acknowledged the consequence of his stance, that a vote not cast for Trump was effectively one cast for Hilary Clinton, the platonic ideal of everything he once denounced. Amidst all its moral ruination, liberalism has so enslaved the respectable conservative mind that real opposition is quite genuinely unthinkable; it is simply not contemplated. Such is the breadth of its pernicious victory.
This still leaves unanswered the question of what to do. A proper response must start with what that abortive symposium edged towards, namely a clear description of what confronts us. I called First Things pseudo-religious because it has tried to advance a tepid-Christendom through Whig rhetoric and reasoning. One consequence of that has been a reluctance to explain Western decline in anything other than the terms permitted by liberalism. Well, Christians do not contend chiefly against political forces but spiritual ones, against the powers and principalities that stand behind worldly agencies. Robert Bork, one of the contributors to Neuhaus’ symposium, wrote a jeremiad against liberalism that same year. The title represents a better starting point: Slouching Towards Gomorrah.
So let us be plain. The renewal of creation is the work of God alone, not man. Any political order which thinks of itself as the fashioner of new heavens and a new earth is intrinsically diabolical. If this is not immediately apparent, it will become so in time. As such, there is and has always been something idolatrous about a regime, the American regime, whose currency bills acclaim it as ‘the New Order of the Ages’ and whose apostles declare it the last, best hope for mankind. Now that its Marxist rival is dead, the Novus homo incubated in this chrysalis has finally been free to hatch out.
And what a sight it is! I do not think a single label adequately conveys its nature. It may be best simply to describe its composite monstrosities: the conscience of Julian the Apostate; the megalomania of Cecil Rhodes; the lust of Harvey Weinstein, and the gnostic self-loathing of Caitlyn Jenner. I am not surprised that the respectable Right has refused to look this Lovecraftian horror squarely in the face. What sane person would want to gaze at Cthulhu in drag? However, the burden of knowledge is that it removes excuses and demands a response, and there is far too much at stake for the respectable Right to choose between counter-revolution and collaboration, between the Vendee and Vichy. For one thing, there is the money and social status that comes from membership of the ‘in’ crowd, but there is also the spiritual anguish of false faith exposed. The creedal Whig order is one that requires believers in order to work, and nobody gladly faces the possibility that they have given their faith, indeed their life, to an untruth. Sooner than confront any of that, the respectable Right consistently chooses denial and shouts down anyone who dares to see the beast and name it. The tethering of Neuhaus is but one instance of this.
Resistance to this creature, whether negative withdrawal of co-operation or positive acts of challenge, must arise from the unblinking recognition of its demonic nature. Robert P. George was right about that, no matter whether he would stand by his words now. Fighting it is a matter of salvation, not political tribalism. Do not think with its mind, do not act on its behalf and do not speak in its defense. Cultivate the skill of noticing, so that you do not fall into these traps. Whatever follows must start from this. I am the first to admit that I do not have many answers; these are injunctions to myself more than they are to any reader. We have to work these questions out for ourselves, with God’s help. However, the burden of Neo-Reaction is also why it is liberating, because something known can never be unknown. We know the hollow men of the professional Right for what they are, and we know what they are too scared to face. Never more shall we kowtow to them. All things considered, I’d sooner have our folly than theirs.
 All five essays and Neuhaus’ introduction can be found at https://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/11/the-end-of-democracy-the-judicial-usurpation-of-politics
 Podhoretz, N. (2000). My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative. New York: The Free Press, p.205
2 Comments Add yours
The third worst mistake America ever made was to allow Catholics to immigrate in large numbers.
The author would clearly be happier going back to a Catholic country, one free of Whiggish ideas like freedom of speech, press, and religion.