Eugene McCarraher on theocons and natural law
I saw an interview with Eugene McCarraher, a left-leaning Catholic who teaches humanities at Villanova University, which touches on the Manhattan Declaration, and mentions Herbert McCabe and socialism (h/t A Thinking Reed). It's very long, so here's just the first question and answer, which actually make up most of the interview (visit the original for links to parts 1 and 2 and for footnotes) .....
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: An Interview with Eugene McCarraher, Part Three of Three
The Other Journal (TOJ): This fall a document called the Manhattan Declaration was drafted and signed by sixty prominent U.S. Christian leaders—Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical—advocating three truths: “the sanctity of human life,” “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife,” and “the rights of conscience and religious liberty.” In the declaration, they claim heritage with the brave Christian heroes William Wilberforce, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King Jr. Additionally, the document appeals to universal reason and natural law, a sign of Catholic scholar and Princeton professor Robert George’s influence on the document.
The Manhattan Declaration’s reiteration of conservative talking points is interesting given that the Christian political vision they are proffering proved anemic for many conservative and liberal Christians alike during the election of President Obama. And although there is brief mention of the work Christians have been doing in the last decade on human rights, it is cursory, and there is little or no mention of poverty in our own country, racism, just war, economic concerns, environmental concerns, access to education, access to health care, access to justice, and on and on. In your view, why the return to these talking points? And can this document offer a critical intervention into its stated concern—a culture of death—with its appeal to universal reason and natural law?
Eugene McCarraher (EM): The Manhattan Declaration is the latest encyclical from those people Damon Linker once dubbed “the theocons”: intellectuals committed to the maintenance of the United States as a “Christian nation,” an imperial hegemon, and a “free-market” capitalist economy. These thecons abhor the remaking of the sexual order that commenced in the 1960s, reject consumer culture without rejecting the political economy of which it’s a part, oppose the expansion of government to regulate business and provide social services for the poor, suspect the greater tolerance for religious pluralism and secularism that now characterizes American religious life, and desire a forceful U.S. presence on the world stage against Islam, radical or not. They aim at a cultural counterrevolution that will reestablish the sexual ancien régime within the parameters of a morally rehabilitated capitalism. (Before publishing his invaluable study of the movement, The Theocons, Linker had been an editor at First Things, so he knows whereof he writes.) Written by a troika of right-wing religious intellectuals—Robert George, Timothy George (no relation), and Charles Colson, the Nixon hatchet-man who found Jesus in prison—the Manhattan Declaration is a short and tiresome document, outlining, as if we didn’t know already, the objections made by evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox conservatives to abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, and what they consider to be assaults on religious liberty in the name of political correctness. Stylistically, it’s pedestrian; intellectually, it’s pretty thin, but then, it’s a manifesto and not a treatise. Though I must say that the best manifestos have displayed both literary flourish and intellectual heft: witness The Rights of Man, The Communist Manifesto, and The Futurist Manifesto, all of which are still exhilarating. If these guys want to ignite or re-ignite a movement, they’d be well-advised to take tips from Paine, Marx, and Marinetti.
At first, it’s hard to understand the appearance of this document—as I said, it’s not like these views aren’t already prominent in our cultural and intellectual life—but I’ll take a stab at interpreting its timing and reflect on the larger phenomenon of the religious right in general.
For one thing, the authors and signatories are freaked out by President Obama. During the election and the early days of Obama’s presidency, I heard all kinds of doomsday scenarios from my conservative colleagues, mostly about abortion and gay marriage. The level of hysteria was quite high; you’d have thought from listening to them that Obama represents the arrival of the Brave New World. So when, for instance, you read the political and cultural hysterics published on a bimonthly basis in First Things, you’re reading the highbrow version of “tea-bagging.” So one way to view this document is as a cri de coeur from a religious right whose political fortunes are at a low point.
That makes this declaration appear all the more odd, because it really does repeat a lot of Republican talking points that clearly didn’t work in November 2008. So why keep at it? One reason is that a lot of people on the religious right can’t distinguish any longer between the gospel and Republican talking points. Another reason—and this speaks to your point about the relative absence of concern about poverty, racism, ecology, health care, et cetera—is that the religious right really doesn’t give a damn about poverty, racism, ecology, health care, et cetera. This is nothing new: American Protestantism in particular has a long tradition of thinking poverty a sign of God’s disfavor, or at the very least, a sign of an individual’s laziness or incompetence. Similarly, racism, for the religious right, is usually considered simply an individual failing, not a structural issue. As the denial of global warming demonstrates, ecology isn’t even an issue with many religious conservatives: their commitment to a capitalist economy mandates indifference to its environmental consequences, and concern about the condition of the planet can be easily dismissed as secular materialism or pagan idolatry. So the religious right quite literally has either nothing to say about these problems, or as Robert George’s remarks in that New York Times Magazine profile clearly indicated, they consider them secondary to sexual and bioethical matters.
But perhaps another reason might well be that the declaration articulates the worldview of many Christians who still long for a restoration of the America before the 1960s. In other words, the culture wars, so breezily declared to have been overshadowed by economic matters, are in fact far from over. Obama’s victory deluded a lot of people into thinking that the religious right had packed up and gone away. The tea-bagging events of last summer should have reminded everyone that the Kulturkampf lives and that the religious right is still a potent force in American life. However ill-informed and delusional, the level and ferocity of opposition to “Obamacare” was fueled, to no small degree, by fears of some secular liberal government takeover of the biological basis of life itself. Thus, I don’t think you can understand the traction of Sarah Palin’s “death panel” delusion unless you comprehend the belief that Obama represents the demise of “the Christian Nation.” I don’t know anything about Timothy George, but Robert George and Charles Colson are certainly smart and savvy, so perhaps they want to capitalize on Obama’s quickly shrinking credibility.
If they want to be the intellectual shock troops of a counterrevolution, they’re going to have to amass a better arsenal than what’s on display in the Manhattan Declaration. David Fitzpatrick’s hagiography in the New York Times Magazine made it appear that Robert George is a real intellectual juggernaut, but this document is really lame. (Having met George once, I can attest that he is indeed a learned and gracious man.) The preamble, for instance, is a farrago of half-truth, untruth, and middlebrow history. We’re told in the very first sentence that Christianity has a two-millennium “tradition” of “resisting tyranny” and “reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed, and suffering.” Not a mention of the two-millennium tradition of sanctifying tyranny—imperial conquest from the Romans to the Americans, monarchical rule from the Dark Ages to the twentieth century, dictatorships from Francisco Franco to Ríos Montt. Not a mention of the many blessings showered on feudal and industrial squalor, the oppression of slaves with the authority of the Bible, the infliction of suffering on Indians and other non-Christians. Later, we’re regaled that Christians “challenged the divine claims of kings,” but nothing about how Christians also, and more forcefully, sustained those claims. We’re reminded that Christians liberated “child laborers chained to machines,” but we’re left unenlightened about Rev. Thomas Malthus, Rev. Thomas Chalmers, and later evangelical apologists for laissez-faire and wage labor, often the very same evangelicals who fought for the abolition of slavery. And that’s not to mention the impact evangelical thinking had on exacerbating the Great Famine in Ireland. (Those interested in early 19th-century evangelical social thought must read Boyd Hilton’s The Age of Atonement.) We’re informed that Christian women “marched in the vanguard of the suffrage movement,” but not that Christians of both sexes also barred the door to the franchise for women, bolstered, I might add, by centuries of tradition. The authors think they’ve covered their backsides by writing that they “fully acknowledge the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages,” but the survey they offer betrays no sign of humility or contrition.
The document’s whitewashing of the Christian endorsement of slavery exemplifies its intellectual dishonesty. The long Christian support for slavery remains a chapter in the history of the faith that has occasioned all manner of disingenuousness, and this declaration only encourages that. It mentions that popes excommunicated slave traders—so what? This had no effect whatsoever on the slave trade. The fear of going to hell was nothing next to the fear of losing money. And besides, doctors like Augustine had put their seal of approval on slavery centuries before. (By the way, Augustine’s remarks on slavery in the City of God demonstrate how Georgian appeals to “natural law” can be utterly irrelevant. Augustine says there that while slavery is contrary to nature, it is or can be a legitimate “punishment for sin.” I’m reminded of Gibbon’s acerbic footnote about Augustine in the Decline and Fall: “His learning is too often borrowed, and his arguments are too often his own.”) As the great historian of antiquity G. E. M. de Ste. Croix once acidly observed, Christianity, far from loosening the shackles of slaves, riveted them on even more tightly. Heroes like Wilberforce and Wesley were necessary because their historical brethren had done little or nothing for two millennia to relieve the burden of servitude. By obscuring the historical record, the declaration both confirms suspicions about Christian obscurantism—this history is well-known or easily accessible—and it perpetuates the historical amnesia that makes so depressing the praise heaped on a film such as Amazing Grace. Yes, many North Atlantic evangelicals were abolitionists; but in the antebellum South, most certainly were not, and as Mark Noll, himself an evangelical, demonstrates in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, the proslavery theologians often had the better of the purely biblical arguments.
Noll also makes an incisive observation in that book that’s pertinent to our time: the controversy over slavery was the culture war of the antebellum period. In other words, our culture wars are not unprecedented, and neither are the kinds of religious arguments deployed in battle. The slavery debate was bound up inextricably with an argument over the meaning of Christianity, and so are the debates over sexuality, marriage, and bioethics. So be careful when the Bible or natural law is trotted out to justify or condemn some practice or idea.
When conservative evangelicals assert, correctly, that homosexual conduct is cursed as an abomination in the Bible, I have to ask why they don’t also advocate debt slavery, the enslavement and forcible marriage of the women of defeated enemies, or the ritual examination of women accused by their husbands of adultery, all of which are clearly permitted or enjoined in the same Bible. If they retort that “times have changed,” then I have to ask why that dispensation doesn’t apply to gays and lesbians.
When the Robert Georges of the world appeal to natural law to condemn homosexual sex, I have to ask why they don’t call for the revocation of the female suffrage in support of which Christians were a vanguard, because it’s a matter of historical record that opponents of votes for women enlisted arguments from “the nature of woman.” It’s worth adding that proslavery ideologues also appealed to natural law, citing either the inherent or the cultural inferiority of blacks. Is it not natural, they asked, for the superior to rule the inferior? And if the Robert Georges of the world retort that their predecessors misinterpreted the natural law, then they are implicitly conceding that what’s considered natural isn’t as evident as right reason thinks it is, and that, therefore, nature depends on historical circumstances.
What’s clear to me is that the Christian worldview or natural law that’s endemic both to the document and to the religious right amounts to the sacralization of a certain form of suburban modernity. In order to understand the cultural politics inscribed in the Manhattan Declaration, it’s useful to think of theocons like Robert George, Charles Colson, and the First Things crowd as an American coterie of “reactionary modernists.” That’s a term invented by the historian Jeffrey Herf to describe an array of intellectuals, who were mostly but not exclusively German, who emerged in the aftermath of World War I. Exemplified by Oswald Spengler, Ernst Junger, and a variety of fascist writers, reactionary modernism represented an attempt to embrace the economic and technological modernity of corporate capitalism while rejecting its Enlightenment rationalism and cultural emancipation. My impression is that Robert George et. al. have very little problem with the commodity cornucopia produced by capitalism nor do they really object to the corporate organization of labor that makes it possible. I don’t really think they’re all that concerned either about what’s labeled consumerism, a term which, as your readers might recall, I don’t like myself, but it’s still a bit odd that it doesn’t often turn up in theocon writing. My impression is that they’re just as enchanted by buzzwords like innovation and creativity as the rest of the country is. What they fear is that the instrumental reason that they laud in the marketplace will jump its supposed boundaries and enter into other realms of life, disrupting, in particular, the sexual and family arrangements they consider natural. Beholden to the Bible or to natural law while spellbound by American market culture, theocons are thoroughly modern, however long and loudly they bewail the prodigal spirit of modernity.
This goes a long way in explaining the theocon obsession with sex to the exclusion of economics, health care, et cetera. As I’ve suggested, the theocons, like other kinds of conservatives, are in the impossible position of wanting capitalism without its inevitable social and cultural turbulence, a large part of which has been the sex and gender trouble provoked by capitalism’s demolition of traditional patriarchy. The greater sexual freedom of women in particular reminds theocons that the self-possession and autonomy they celebrate in the marketplace can be exercised in the bedroom and elsewhere. I mean “sexual freedom of women” here to include, not only what they do in bed and with whom they do it, but a broader range of freedoms in areas of traditional male control and supervision: access to education, employment, housing, et cetera. It’s quite revealing of the level of fear and angst involved here that Leon Kass, another B-lister who gets exalted in some quarters into a sage, once lamented that college-educated women don’t live with their parents until they get married. Rather than ponder the significance of the fact that choice and autonomy are keywords in both economic and sexual libertarianism, and thus rethink their entire conception of the relationship between the sexual and political economies, theocons displace their anxieties about market autonomy onto sex. They make feeble attempts to argue that sexual activity and market activity are in separate spheres, evaluated by different standards, but this ideological obfuscation is becoming more and more apparent. If you really want patriarchy and traditional, “natural” gender roles back, you’ve got to destroy capitalism in the name of some reactionary proprietary vision. Unless they’re absolute loons like the dominionists, the theocons can’t and won’t do that.
Still, having dumped on the theocons, I don’t want to convey the impression that their concerns are misplaced or that their solutions are worthless. One doesn’t have to affirm the ancien régime of sex and gender to consider abortion an evil or to be alarmed at the instrumentalization of the body that’s promoted as liberation in contemporary sexual culture, the complete sundering of sexual pleasure from love, friendship, community, and posterity. (I’ve already shared my views on abortion with The Other Journal, so I won’t dilate on them here.) As lame as it is, the theocons’ attempt to respond to the vilification of Christianity in both popular and intellectual culture is salutary. Most importantly, I support their effort to reintroduce some notion of human nature and teleology back into the moral and political conversation.
Robert George is a self-proclaimed Aristotelian and Thomist, and even if I don’t entirely share his understanding of what that means, I would contend that we should affirm a resolutely teleological conception of human nature. That’s why, even while I’m skeptical about facile appeals to natural law or human nature, I do think that there is such a thing as human nature and that happiness and fulfillment reside in the performance of that nature. What has to be emphasized is that Aristotelian teleology has more than one political meaning. If George represents one (I think quite shoddy) line of Aristotelian-Thomist politics, Alasdair MacIntyre and Herbert McCabe represent another, one that I find more convincing and congenial. (I don’t want to merge MacIntyre and McCabe too closely here. MacIntyre learned a lot from McCabe, but I don’t think he’d quite share McCabe’s lifelong commitment to socialism. Politically, I’d put him somewhere between George and McCabe.) As McCabe often insisted, if human nature finds its fulfillment in a community of friendship, then our arrangements of sexual, economic, and political life should both reflect and foster such a community. I would maintain that, in the current historical circumstances, some kind of socialism is the political economy of friendship and virtue. Obviously, George and the Manhattanites would disagree strongly, but I don’t think they can just dismiss the whole matter by saying that “you can get all the moral principles right, and still not have a right answer” to the question of how to construct economic and social institutions. That’s punting, which means, in effect, that they accept the current system.
That is why theocons like Robert George are, in the end, vying for the role of clerisy in the imperial corporate state. In the mise–en–scène of American corporatism, the theocons play the role of culturally despairing mandarins. Dispossessed by what they consider the leftish remnants of the sixties counterculture—the “cultural elite” or the “liberal media” who they vilify as the root and spawn of all evil—they’re competitors for cultural hegemony in the corporate state, seeking to reestablish an older form of American imperial culture. What’s ironic is that they’re part of the cultural elite. As much as they bray about being beleaguered outsiders kicked to the curb by liberals, they’re employed in an infrastructure of universities, think tanks, and periodicals, many of which are lavishly funded by rich reactionaries and business interests.
Some of them, like the late Richard Neuhaus, were doing penance, in their minds, for their sixties radicalism. One of the many virtues of Linker’s book is that he retrieves some of Neuhaus’s more sanguinary statements from historical oblivion. Neuhaus was writing well of guerrilla warfare, kidnapping, and other forms of terror; he even wrote that Che Guevara’s reluctance to engage in terrorism showed that he lacked sufficient “manhood.” So the notorious 1996 issue of First Things that contemplated “morally justified revolution” had an ancestor in Neuhaus’s venomous and frustrated machismo.
These theocons have direct and frequent access to political elites—if this is outsiderdom, it’s one of the plushest marginalities I’ve ever seen.
Because they want a “Christian nation”—note the absence of Jews, Muslims, and others who I have no doubt share their views—what they want to provide is a covenant theology for the corporate state. I don’t think they’ll succeed in quite the way they hope. They’re useful to the American Empire in so far as they mobilize consent to corporate and imperial policies. But as I’m arguing in the book I’m completing this year, The Enchantments of Mammon, corporate capitalism has its own forms of religiosity or enchantment, and theocon Christianity is, in the final analysis, utterly expendable and even potentially threatening to the corporatist order. However hard they try, theoconservatives can’t suppress for long the incompatibility of the gospel with a system of avarice and brutality ...