The Theocons, Damon Linker’s new book about his former boss, First Things editor Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, is a Catholic The Devil Wears Prada, with payback on every page. As those who have read the novel or seen the recent movie starring Meryl Streep will know, The Devil Wears Prada, written by a former assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, describes a Cruella De Vil-type tyrant who forces her underlings to fetch lattes and her fur coats. Unlike novelist Lauren Weisberger, though, Linker does not get into his former mentor’s personal foibles. No, it’s weirder than that. Linker reveals—and I hope you are ready for this—that Neuhaus and his friends (most prominently Michael Novak and George Weigel) are trying to influence public policy based on their deeply held religious beliefs. Worse, they appear to be succeeding. It’s as if Wintour’s assistant at Vogue had written a scorcher blowing the lid off the fact that all those fashionistas ever do is obsess about clothes.

Linker writes at length about how Neuhaus and former Commonweal editor-at-large Michael Novak morphed from ’60s revolutionaries into right-wing puppeteers, but he is mute on the subject of his own...disillusionment? Or something worse? We never find out the details, beyond a single paragraph (the last one) in the acknowledgements section at the end of the book:

Finally, a word about my former colleagues in the theoconservative movement. For all the severity of my criticism of theocon ideology in this book, I harbor no ill will toward the individual theocons, least of all my former boss, Richard John Neuhaus, who was always unfailingly generous to me. My break from the theocons had nothing to do with personal animus. It was about ideas and their practical effects. Once I became convinced that the ideology promulgated by the magazine for which I worked was having a significant negative influence on the country, I reluctantly concluded that I had to do what I could to counteract that influence. Loyalty to the truth and devotion to the good of the nation demanded nothing less.

Loyalty to the truth did not, however, demand a word of explanation to Neuhaus, who when he announced Linker’s departure in First Things in March 2005 wrote that Linker was “resigning to write a book about the people involved with FT and their effort to advance a vibrant religious presence in the public square. Damon has been a conscientious, loyal, and exceedingly competent colleague, and I will miss him.’’

The practical effect of Linker’s decision not to go into how his personal 180 came about is that as you’re reading along about a conversation that went on at an editorial meeting at First Things, for instance, you can’t but wonder how long Linker stayed on at the magazine, scribbling into his diary in the men’s room, after he knew he was at work on an exposé. His failure to explain his own change of heart about First Things is not only a distraction, it seriously undermines his credibility.

There are other problems, including Linker’s near hysterical depiction of Neuhaus as a man so powerful he easily dupes and dictates to the president: “Luckily for Neuhaus and his colleagues, President Bush was not a moral philosopher and in his meeting with the theocons showed no sign of detecting the explicitly Catholic currents flowing just beneath the surface of their discussion of the FMA,’’ or Federal Marriage Amendment. Later, Linker writes, “The president followed their advice and made his support for the amendment a centerpiece of his campaign.’’ And that was just a warm-up, as Neuhaus enlists even a (future) pope in his efforts to swing an American presidential election: “Neuhaus (with the help of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI) encouraged his allies in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to deny the sacrament of Communion to presidential candidate John Kerry and other prochoice Catholic Democrats.’’ As a newspaper reporter in Rome, I myself suspected the theocons (especially papal biographer George Weigel) of being able to bilocate like Padre Pio; they were everywhere, and all at once. But to infer that all roads both in the church and in Washington lead to Neuhaus seems a stretch.

There are some misstatements of fact in The Theocons, as when Linker claims that the U.S. bishops advocated unilateral disarmament, and when he suggests that Neuhaus and his coconspirators have altered Rome’s view of evolution:

Whereas critics of Darwin once advocated biblical literalism—arguing that the theory of evolution could not possibly be true because the Bible clearly states that God created the universe and all of life in a mere six days—they now portray themselves as defenders of skepticism and open-minded inquiry against dogmatic defenders of a fanatical atheistic ideology. This change has helped to convince the Catholic Church to revise its previous stance of relative openness to evolution and to adopt a far more critical position.

Not so.

At least Linker is consistent in his criticism. He is as hard on the religious Left as on the Right: indeed, he seems to think each and every faith-based incursion into the public square not only unacceptable but downright terrifying, which is not a unique point of view. But it is odd—very odd—coming from a former editor at First Things.

There are some unacknowledged contradictions too. For instance, Linker argues that keeping women in their proper place at home is an item high on the theocon agenda, but then he names Harvard Law School’s Mary Ann Glendon as part of Neuhaus’s inner circle. More important, Linker fails to make the case that a tiny band of ultra-orthodox Catholics is secretly running the country; on the contrary, he comes off like a pamphleteer of the ROMANISTS RULE THE WORLD or JEWS CONTROL THE AMERICAN MEDIA variety.

Linker does tell some interesting stories, particularly about the Neuhaus-Bush relationship. But by the time we get to the part about how we have George Weigel to thank for the war in Iraq, I’m taking his anecdotes with such a big grain of salt that I can’t even taste the meat of the argument any more. There are many valid questions, of course, about how far we can go in injecting religion into politics without doing harm to both, but this book doesn’t address any of them.


Related: Intellectual Street Fighter by Paul Lauritzen
The War in Iraq: How Catholic Conservatives Got It Wrong by Peter Dula

From the blog: More on Linker, 'The Theocons' & Baumann

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of
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Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: View Contents
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