The Magazine

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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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.