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In the Arena

Parting thoughts from the priest of the public square.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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American Babylon

Notes of a Christian Exile

by Richard John Neuhaus

Basic Books, 288 pp., $26.95

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus expected to meet God as an American, and on January 8 of this year, presumably he did. The claim wasn't meant as a boast on his part, though: All had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If he was boasting, it was a boast in the Lord. But boasting in America, too? No, his expectation to meet God as an American was simply a statement of identity: While nationality isn't paramount, it is a constitutive part of one's self. The work done for one's nation and the allegiances upheld in civic life would all be there at the time of judgment, and beyond.

Just before his death, Father Neuhaus offered, in American Babylon, a final, uniquely Christian reflection on making one's way in America. He certainly had the experience: A young Lutheran pastor of a poor black church in Brooklyn, a civil rights activist marching with Martin Luther King, a Vietnam war protester, a pro-life pathbreaker, an adviser to popes and presidents, a public intellectual, and, for his last 20 years, a Roman Catholic priest serving Filipino immigrants in Manhattan while editing his journal, First Things.

American Babylon was sent to the printers shortly before Neuhaus's cancer took its turn for the worse, and can be read as the culmination of a life of study, activism, and devotion.

Each chapter could stand alone as an essay; many were originally published in First Things and expanded for this volume. Truth be told, it doesn't fully work as a book: The connections between chapters feel strained, grafted on to turn a collection of essays into something more. Nevertheless, unifying themes can be detected. Neuhaus's main concern is that America has lost its story, its citizens retaining no shared understanding of their common commitments. Merely getting along and surviving are not enough; how we get along and the type of survival we pursue are crucial.

The nation's Christians, meanwhile, tend toward dangerous extremes, either identifying America with the Kingdom of God or disengaging from political life altogether. What they need, Neuhaus argues, is a middle path. Only if they get their story right can the nation get its story right, "because they are the bearers of the true story of the world, whether the world wants to know it or not."

America isn't equated with Babylon by comparison to other temporal polities. America fares quite well compared with the presently available alternatives. But Babylon it is when compared with that elusive eschatological city, the New Jerusalem. This, Neuhaus insists, is what makes him a "Christian exile." The church, therefore, and not the state, offers a glimpse of our ultimate destiny. It serves as the prolepsis--"an act in which a hoped-for future is already present"--of the Kingdom; indeed, the "supreme act of prolepsis is the Eucharist .  .  . a supremely political action in which the heavenly polis is made present in time."

Neuhaus offers sound advice, based on years of experience and reflection, on how Christians should live between the "now" and the "not yet," pulled at once by "this-worldly" and "other-worldly" obligations.

American Babylon exudes an Augustinian sensibility--which shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Neuhaus's theological loyalties. One recurring theme is how to temper the demands of political life, even the high aspirations Aristotle held, with an awareness of the libido dominandi (the lust of domination) that Augustine finds at the heart of every earthly power. Neuhaus returns repeatedly to Augustine's claim that "the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes" are subject to God's providential care, just like all of creation.

How citizens understand this providence proves crucial. Neuhaus suggests that the mainstream of American thought--from James Madison to Fr. John Courtney Murray--has understood America as a nation under God, particularly under God's judgment. This prior allegiance to God placed constraints on state prerogatives and the loyalty that citizens owe. Neuhaus then argues that the laws of God's providence are to be grasped on the basis of a shared conception of human reason.

Reason is the book's motif. With Aristotle, Neuhaus understands politics as "free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together?" This is a moral "ought," which gives rise to the inescapably moral character of politics. Like Father Murray, Neuhaus thinks that true political society involves men "locked in civil argument" about this very "ought." So it is no surprise that Neuhaus spends his middle chapters doing battle with the agents of unreason who would render this civil argument impossible.

In a chapter on moral progress, for example, he suggests that we are actually witnessing "a dramatic moral regression." From Nietzsche's will-to-power nihilism to Peter Singer's baby-killing utilitarianism, Neuhaus sees what Alasdair MacIntyre described as rule by the new barbarians. Against the materialists who insist that reasoning is merely "the product of neurosynapses in the pound of meat that is the brain," Neuhaus points out that "we cannot agree without denying the existence of the intellect that is the agent of our agreement."

Neuhaus concludes a chapter titled "Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?" with a resounding "No." While readily granting that atheists pay their taxes and follow laws, he argues that a good citizen must be able to give "a morally compelling account of the regime of which he is part"--which, he thinks, the atheist cannot do. Democratic self-government must be defended by reasons, which in turn must "draw authority from what is higher than ourselves, from that which transcends us, from that to which we are precedently, ultimately, obliged."

Or so he argues.

In a chapter on Richard Rorty's postmodern pragmatism, Neuhaus focuses on this issue of defending our political order's foundations. Faced with a Hitler or Stalin, Rorty admits that all he can do is ask that they "privatize their projects" and "avoid cruelty and pain." Rorty adds that "in my view, there is nothing to back up such a request, nor need there be." Responds Neuhaus: "We might well wish him luck."

Leaving luck aside, Neuhaus wants us to cultivate the traditions of rationality within which we could back up such a request with reasons. Morality can play its role in politics only if reason can grasp moral truths. Paradoxically, it is Christian faith, Neuhaus argues, that sustains our confidence in reason by grounding man's reason in God's reason. Human reason "participates in the Mind of the Maker, and all that is truly real is love in response to the love by which all that is exists."

Neuhaus appeals to the natural law tradition--according to which men can know moral truth without divine revelation--and argues that the natural law is not the property of any particular religious community. Anticipating some contemporary Christians' resistance to natural law, Neuhaus cites the second-century St. Irenaeus that "from the beginning God implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he reminded him of them by giving the Decalogue." He repeats his plea that the alternative to the naked public square is not the sacred public square but the civil public square.

The arguments culminate in abortion. Decrying Roe's raw act of judicial power, Neuhaus insists that abortion is a preeminently political question: If politics is deliberation about how we ought to order our life together, then no issue is more foundational for deliberation than "who belongs to the we." True moral progress expands the scope of "who belongs to the community for which we as a community accept responsibility." This motivated Neuhaus when he marched with Martin Luther King, and it motivated him when he marched against abortion. He contends that a robust understanding of human dignity moves most Americans, if inchoately:

A human being is a person possessed of a dignity we are obliged to respect at every point of development, debilitation, or decline by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God. Endowed with the spiritual principle of the soul .  .  . the destiny of the person who acts in accord with moral conscience .  .  . is nothing less than eternal union with God. This is the dignity of the human person that is to be respected, defended, and indeed revered.

Yet, for all his defenses of reason, Neuhaus seems at times to pay mere lip service to the natural law tradition. Never does he discuss any natural law theories or consider the work of any academic natural law philosopher. Glosses on C. S. Lewis are all we're offered. Repeatedly Neuhaus decries the "practical or methodological atheism" of acting as if God's existence were a myth, irrelevant to public life. He thinks practical theism more reasonable--and more democratic, given popular views. But he fails to tell us what theology's discussion of ultimate matters adds to discussions of political penultimates if reason is (as he insists) capable of discerning how we ought to order our lives.

Consider Neuhaus's canticle to human dignity. What is gained, politically, by grounding human dignity in the image of God? Modern bioethics requires us to determine what is made in the image of God (a body, a soul, a composite?); how we know (for the Bible doesn't tell us so); and when human persons begin (at conception, when the first rational thought or free choice is made, or sometime in between?). The biblical injunction against killing won't help here, for what we need to know is precisely when this commandment applies.

Most Americans accept Neuhaus's basic conviction about human dignity; what they need are reasons why this applies "even" to embryos and cases like Terri Schiavo's.

Several times Neuhaus describes the conclusions of natural law philosophy as "common sense," but what might have been common sense for his generation is not for mine. And on radically new ethical issues, common sense is running out. Reasons must be given, and they will come from moral philosophy before being incorporated into a theological framework. We need an evaluation of a biotechnology's relationship to our humanity before any discussion of biotech and theology is even possible. Sadly, Neuhaus showed little concern in this volume for thinking through these questions, and he hasn't provided the reasons we really need.

Still, American Babylon remains an important book at a critical moment in history. Admirers of Barack Obama would do well to consider Neuhaus's final arguments, especially his concluding chapter, "Hope and Hopelessness." To be human is to live in hope, he argues; hopelessness is existentially unsustainable. But where we place our hope makes all the difference. In his last passionate apologetic, Neuhaus insists that the most reasonable and hopeful choice is the act of faith in Jesus Christ, which assures us that life here and now really matters because it is the prolepsis of the life that is to come, the life of final tranquility in the City of God.

Ryan T. Anderson, editor of Public
Discourse at the Witherspoon Institute,
was assistant editor of First Things
during 2006-08.