George Weigel was president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center from 1989 to 1996 and is presently a Senior Fellow there, holder of the John M. Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy. The Washington DC based Ethics and Public Policy Center was founded in 1976 to unite the Christian right with neoconservative thought. In his preface to “Against Several Grains” Weigel, the author or editor of fifteen books, accepts the label theoconservative and characterizes his work as “political theology”. Theocons seem to be neocons with religion, and especially the Catholic kind. In his account of his disillusionment with Richard John Neuhaus‘ Institute on Religion and Public Life and its influential theocon journal First Things, Damon Linker (The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (2007)) reports that most neoconservatives are secular, and often Jewish, while all the theocons were deeply religious and mostly Catholic. The height of the influence on the theocons has been in the George W. Bush presidency, as Neuhaus has been an advisor and Weigel contributed the most significant theocon statement on the invasion of Iraq in his fall of 2002 lecture at the Catholic University of American Law School entitled “Moral Clarity in a Time of War”.
The last third of this 12 chapter volume contains speeches and articles dealing with the invasion of Iraq while the first third presents addresses on Catholic social thought that show its sweep and depth and sanity and provide neoconservative economics and foreign policy a grounding in religious tradition and wisdom that gave it a populist appeal. The last part of the book is an unapologetic reassertion of Weigel’s combat against those many Catholic (and non-Catholic) thinkers and activists who find in a development of just war theory a major tension between American policy and an authentic appropriation of the Catholic-Christian tradition. But first a quick look at the chapters that show the roots of the theocon appeal and why the political left missed both the political and the moral boat when they thought that progress and reason relegated religious commitment to home and hearth.
Weigel characterizes his political theology as Anselmian in that he attempts to show how creedally derived Catholic understandings of the human person, human destiny, and human society can shed light on the urgent and controverted issues of public society. Like John Courtney Murray, Weigel describes his political theology as not only fully consonant with the vision of America’s Founders and Framers — whose no establishment of religious cause, he holds, was fashioned to ensure the free exercise of religion — but, especially the catholic kind, as essential for the health of its culture and the prosperity of its enterprises. Murray, Weigel reminds us, found that since Academia had allowed positivism and pragmatism to replace any sense of classical natural law philosophy and that mainline liberal Protestantism had lost its intellectual moorings, only the Catholic retention of natural law cogency — which holds that transcendent moral truths can be known by human reason open to a transcendent horizon — could aid in bringing America to any hope of achieving the public consensus required for a “proposition” country whose on-going legitimacy is rooted in pre-enlightenment, that is, Hebraic-Christian, moral roots. With Murray, the outsider had become the cornerstone, at least philosophically. With the theocons, the outsider has become an insider, at least in message.
While there is an increasing number of ethicians as well as papal statements, from John XXIII to Benedict XVI, holding that a “presumption against war” is now at the very core of just war theory, Weigel insists that these failed custodians have distorted the historically authentic doctrine into a kind of functional pacifism. Weigel teaches that the originators of historic just war doctrine “did not stigmatize first resort to force because their concern was with responding to injustice… and (thus) did not define just cause in terms of self defense” (p. 241). He found and continues to find that the Iraqi war meets just war criteria and, unlike many prominent neocons, such as William Buckley, Jr., George F. Will, Andrew Sullivan, and Francis Fukuyama, who shared his prior approval of preventative war, unilateral action, and benevolent hegemony, Weigel remains adamant that the war was, however mishandled, just.
Several times, but only early in the book, Weigel cites the second century Letter to Diognetus reminding Christians that they must always remain “resident aliens” in the world, which acknowledges both that history is the arena of God’s action in the world and that the Christian’s true home is beyond history, that is, as Hebrews 12:22 puts it, in the eternal city of the living God. I especially thought of Diogentus in the later third of his political theology dealing with national security where, contrary to Diognetus, he seems to become a nonalien resident of his sovereign state. Weigel instructs us that on the topic of war we do best to ignore the bishops and the popes and the liberal theologians and listen to the political leaders whose charisma includes applying just war theory to complex geopolitical data. “The fact of the matter today is that the just war tradition, as a historically confirmed method of rigorous moral reasoning, is far more alive in America’s service academies and armed forces graduate schools than in our divinity schools and on our faculties of theology; the just war tradition ‘lives’ more vigorously in the American officer corps, in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and at the higher levels of the Pentagon than it does at the National Council of Churches, in certain offices at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or on the faculties of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union and the Duke Divinity School ”(p. 204).
In his early sections Weigel makes much of the comprehensiveness of catholic social thought. It’s telling to apply the criteria of comprehensiveness to his Index. The reader finds no mention of some of topics a contemporary Diognetus might include: arms control; consistent ethic of life; conscientious objection; civil disobedience; civil religion; disarmament; empire; extraordinary rendition; Hiroshima; Nagasaki; nonviolence; preferential option for the poor; torture; seamless garment.
A significant critical realization this reviewer gained from reading Against The Grain was that a crucial factor in the failure of two still emerging morally powerful terms in catholic social thought — a consistent ethic of life and the seamless garment — to gain much traction among ordinary Catholics and in the public conversation about matters of justice and principle has been the politically potent theocon linking of abortion opposition with an expansive interpretation of the just war tradition, both of which were central to George Bush’s successful appeal to working and middle class Catholics. With the rapidly escalating decline of the Bush legacy, and the Republican retreat from the theocons, perhaps the radical-conservative wisdom of the consistent ethic will finally become a common reference point in The Public Square. As the theocons become passé, the next generation of political theology gets its chance to heed the Letter to Diognetus. They might well find that the times require more of the alien, less of the resident.