March 17, 2009
LET'S ROLL...DOWN LIKE WATER:
Until his death on January 8, Father Neuhaus was America's pre-eminent Christian intellectual, and his posthumous book reminds us what a gap in public discourse is left by his absence. Starting in 1990, Neuhaus edited (and wrote a good deal of) the monthly journal First Things. It is hard for this writer to imagine intellectual life in America without First Things.
I have missed very few issues in the past 15 years, and could not have found my own journalistic vocation had Neuhaus not blazed such a broad trail. In 2007, I had the honor to contribute an essay on Franz Rosenzweig to his journal. Neuhaus was the rare sort of writer from whom one learned especially in disagreement, for his formulation of the issues was so lucid as to force those who did not share his views to rethink their own.
"There is in America," he wrote, "a strong current of Christian patriotism in which 'God and country' falls trippingly from the tongue. Indeed, God and country are sometimes conflated in a single allegiance that permits no tension, never mind conflict, between the two." Neuhaus added that "this book is animated by a deeply and lively patriotism", adding, "I have considerable sympathy for Abraham Lincoln's observation that, among the political orders of the earthly city, America is 'the last, best hope of mankind'."
On the left, utopian efforts to create a heaven on Earth expressed American idolatry, for example, in the Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenberg, "Christianizing America and Americanizing Christianity." The liberal philosopher John Dewey embodied the drift of mainline Protestantism into a social reform movement. The heir of this left-wing current is Rauschenberg's grandson, the late philosopher Richard Rorty, whose career was dedicated to proving the proposition that no proposition can be proven.
It is even sillier than it sounds, in Neuhaus' amusing account. As Neuhaus says,
Rorty writes that [John] Dewey and his soulmate Walt Whitman "wanted [their] utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country's animating principle, the nation's soul". He quotes favorably the lines of Whitman:
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God.
"Whitman and Dewey," Rorty writes, "gave us all the romance, and all the spiritual uplift we Americans need to go about our public business."
That is the left-wing version of American self-worship. American nationalism harbors a civic religion as well. There is, Neuhaus explains,
a line of devotion that runs from the [Puritans'] "errand in the wilderness" to John F Kennedy's inaugural ... It is the American story, the American promise, that is invoked in Martin Luther King Jr's dream of the "beloved community" and in Ronald Reagan's vision of the "city on a hill".
Some readers will be surprised and others scandalized by the suggestion that George W Bush was in the tradition of Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, Kennedy, King and Reagan in sounding the characteristic notes of the American story, but so it is.
This is painfully clear, observes Neuhaus, in George W Bush's second inaugural address:
We are led [Bush said in his address] by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America's vital interest and our deepest beliefs are now one ... We go forward with complete confidence in the even triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills.
"Both the power and the danger of the story is in the sincerity with which it is told," Neuhaus commented. "Good intentions go awry; we blind ourselves to our own capacity for self-deception when we cast ourselves in the role of God's agents in history's battle between The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness, to cite the title of [a] book by [Reinhold] Niebuhr."
Bush's second inaugural was an exercise in American self-worship, in its assumption that the free institutions of the United States were an earthly manifestation of the divine, such that the American government should become a Bureau of Missions for the cult of democracy. But it is manifestly false that America's security depends upon the success of freedom elsewhere. China's political system is not free by Western standards, yet China poses no strategic threat to the United States. Dictatorships that support terrorism well may constitute a strategic threat to the United States, especially if they are able to employ nuclear weapons. But the United States could just as well wipe all of them off the face of the Earth through pre-emptive nuclear bombardment, or let them fight each other to exhaustion, as try to foster democracy in their midst. America had no strategic imperative to promote democracy, only a narcissistic one.
Tut-tut...Spengler knows better than to confuse the sales pitch W is using to get the wahoos to support liberating brown peoples with the actual motives for the crusade. Note that one of the excised lines says: "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." It is the appeal to narrow nationalist interest that depends on narcissism. The belief that precedes that bogus appeal--because Spengler is obviously right that we have no, and never have had any, strategic need to defeat illiberal regimes. We fight for others to live under just government because justice matters to us, as a Judeo-Christian people, not because our security matters to us.
Posted by Orrin Judd at March 17, 2009 7:15 AM