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Why Catholics Should Be Wary of “One Nation Under God”: Richard Neuhaus in a Time of War


“I know you’re all going to think this is crazy, but I always thought Jesus was an American.” This statement was uttered by a young woman in a seminar at the University of California at San Diego on the first century of Rome and the dawn of the Christian era. The seminar was taught by Mark Slouka who reported the incident in an article entitled “A Year Later: Notes on America’s Intimations of Mortality.”1 The main point of the article is that Americans think of themselves as separate from the rest of the world, that they imagine themselves living in a strange physical and metaphysical isolation so that even after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they had yet to come to grips with death. Americans only manage to absorb what Slouka called (in a variation on the poem by Wordsworth) “intimations of mortality,” subtle hints that history is not, as they suppose, of their own making, under their own control. But such intimations are fleeting; they pass, allowing them to remove themselves from the filth, the rotted flesh, and the smoldering bones of the world beyond these shores. Thus in the year following September 11, 2001, Americans dealt with the reality of death in their usual way: by denying it. “We erased it,” he observed, “carted it off in trucks. It had nothing to do with us. There was nothing to learn. We were still innocent, apart.”2

What makes Americans so resilient in their denial of death? This is where Slouka’s article is most insightful. It is, in a phrase, American exceptiona-ism, the myth of “America as an elect nation, the world-redeeming ark of Christ, chosen, above all the nations of the world, for a special dispensation.”3 It is this myth of exceptionalism that the young woman articulated in the seminar that day. And this same myth, Slouka observes, has been articulated by a host of better known actors in American history: from John Winthrop, who in 1630 sermonized that the people sailing aboard the Arbella had been chosen for a special covenant with God to be “as a City upon a hill”; to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the nineteenth-century best-selling author who in 1854 wrote that “the whole world has been looking towards America with hope, as a nation specially raised up by god to advance a cause of liberty and justice”; to the evangelists of the Third Great Awakening, who envisioned an America “bounded to the north by Canada, to the south by Mexico, to the East by Eden, and to the West by the Millennium”; and to President Ronald Reagan who drew on Winthrop’s city-on-a-hill image for his first inaugural address in 1981. Slouka argues that “although the specifically Chris-tian foundation of American exceptionalism had been largely buried by the years, the self-conception built upon it-however secularized and given over to Mammon-remained intact.4 America’s national myth of exceptionalism is, so to speak, still Christian after all these years.

An incident exhibiting the persistence of this Christian national myth arose in the summer of 2002, just in time for Slouka to be able to slip in a footnote reference to it. “Is all this talk of covenants and destiny,” he asks, “merely a vestigial limb, a speechwriter’s rhetorical trope?” he asks. “Hardly. We need only recall the recent reaction to the attempt by those godless liberals in the U.S. Court of Appeals to deprive us of our divine patrimony by excising the words ‘under God’ from the pledge of allegiance to understand the power of myth in America today.”5 The incident to which he refers had to do with the ruling from the Ninth Circuit Federal Court that the phrase “under God” in the pledge is unconstitutional on grounds of the First Amendment’s establishment clause in that it compels some citizens to acknowledge a reality contrary to their belief, namely God. The connection Slouka made is an appropriate one. Given the state of the national psyche after 9/11, this ruling touched a raw nerve, and in light of the hue and cry that rose up in its wake, it reminded us how widespread is the notion that the United States of America was founded on religious principles, that it is “one nation under God.”

But this and similar expressions of America’s national myth came into public prominence well before the pledge-of-allegiance controversy in the summer of 2002. Claims that the United States is a Christian nation could be seen and heard everywhere in the wake of 9/11, on billboards and business signs, on talk shows and TV programs, on email chains and internet websites. One of the most controversial claim along these lines came from Jerry Falwell, a leading spokesman for the so-called religious right who, in a discussion with Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcast Network, suggested that the September-11 attacks were a divine judgment visited upon this nation for what is being done by gays, lesbians, femi-nists, abortionists, the ACLU, the People for the American Way, and others who “have attempted to secularize America, have removed our nation from its relationship with Christ on which it was founded.”6 The problem with such statements is that they are so outlandish that many moderates, including moderate Christians, dismiss them as the talk of a few wacked out religious fanatics from some backwater town in the Deep South who want to bring back the Scopes Monkey Trial. But the basic claim, albeit in more sophisticated terms, also comes from quarters that seem far removed from the regions of religious fanaticism.


Take, for example, the editorial published in the December 2001 issue of First Things, a “mainstream” publication edited by Richard John Neuhaus and published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City. Entitled “In a Time of War,” the editorial begins with a bald descriptive statement: “This is war. Call it a sustained battle or campaign, if you will, but the relevant moral term is war.”7 With the passion of one who witnessed the effects of September 11 first-hand, Neuhaus insists that “it is not, as some claim, a metaphorical war. Metaphorical airplanes flown by metaphorical hijackers did not crash into metaphorical buildings leaving thousands of metaphorical corpses. This is not virtual reality; this is reality. This [war on terrorism] is, for America and those who are on our side, a defensive war.”8

In this last sentence, Neuhaus makes the further descriptive statement that this is a just war. Writing in the middle of October 2001, he invokes the traditional just-war doctrine to argue that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan meets the criteria for determining the justice of going to war (ius ad bellum). His one reservation pertains to the criterion of reasonable chance of success, but it is nothing more than a cautionary note: “not immediately,” he writes, “but in due course, we need a clear statement on how we will know that the war is over and a just peace is reasonably secured.”9 He also argues that one can reasonably hope that the United States will prosecute the war in keeping with the traditional criteria for just conduct within a war (ius in bello). Here too he allows a caveat: “It seems likely that unjust acts will be committed, also by our side, and when they are known they must be condemned. Known or unknown, they are wrong.”10 But for Neuhaus, this does not make waging the war prohibi-tive, only risky because, a “just war is undertaken in the awareness that its conduct and costs cannot always be anticipated or controlled.”11 So Neuhaus employs the ad bellum and in bello criteria of just-war theory to arrive at the judgment that the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan is just.

This judgment itself did not spark much interest. Given how the preponderance of commen-tators across a wide spectrum rushed to support this initial campaign in the War on Terrorism, it is not very startling that Neuhaus and the neo-conservative crowd at First Things came out strongly in support of war. What is interesting, however, is Neuhaus’s portrayal of the role of God in this War on Terrorism. This portrayal comes to the fore in his account of President Bush’s televised speech to the nation on September 20. “In the coda of that historic speech,” Neuhaus suggests, “boldness is touched by humility,” and to illustrate he quotes from the President’s speech itself: “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war. And we know that God is not neutral between them. We will meet violence with patient justice, assured of the rightness of our cause and confident of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom and may He watch over the United States of America.”12 Then, in the next section of the editorial, with the subheading “A Nation Under God,” Neuhaus offers a defense of the president’s speech.

In President Bush’s words, Neuhaus writes, “some claim to detect not humility but hubris, an uncritical identification of our purposes with the purposes of God.” To these critics, he delivers a blunt challenge. “Let them make the case,” he writes, “that between freedom and fear, between justice and cruelty, God is neutral. Let them make the case that those who have declared war against us do not intend to instill fear by inflicting cruelty. Assured as we are and must be of the rightness of our cause, the President submits that cause in prayer to a higher authority. In a time of grave testing, America has once again given public expression to the belief that we are “one nation under God”-meaning that we are under both His protection and His judgment. This is not national hubris. Confidence that we are under his protection is faith; awareness that we are under His judgment is humility. This relationship with God is not established by virtue of our being Americans, but by the fact that He is the Father of the common humanity of which we are part. Most Americans are Christians who understand the mercy and justice of God as revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Recognizing the danger that the motto ‘For God and country’ can express an idolatrous identity of alle-giances, most Americans act in the hope that it represents a convergence of duties. All Americans, whatever their ultimate beliefs, have reason to hope that reality is not neutral in this war against the evil of terrorism.”13

Neuhaus’s argument here is problematic in several respects. For one thing, it casts the war on terrorism in the exaggerated terms of a struggle of freedom and justice against cruelty and fear. While it would be a dreadful mistake to treat the United States and al-Qaeda as moral equivalents, it is also a mistake to overlook the possibility, as Neuhaus seems to do, that neither the United States nor al-Qaeda may be on the side of freedom and justice (properly understood) or that both may be given to spreading cruelty and fear. Possibilities such as these do not appear when the world is viewed through the simplistic lens of Neuhaus and President Bush. For another thing, after identifying the cause of the United States with the cause of freedom and justice, Neuhaus employs a flawed argument to align both of these causes to the purposes of God. The argument is flawed because while it is true, as Neuhaus argues, that God is not neutral when it comes to freedom and justice, it is also true that God’s purposes may well be aligned with a form of freedom and justice that is represented neither by the United States nor by al-Qaeda, but rather by some other political body or by the church itself.

And then, in addition to these two problems, there is the related problem of the vague, unspecified identity of the deity to which Neuhaus refers when he states that “America has once again given public expression to the belief that we are ‘one nation under God.'” This vagueness is reflected in his wizened concept of faith as “confidence that we are under His protection,” which falls far short of a more traditional definition of faith as the virtue or habit whereby the person gives intellectual assent to revealed truths regarding the identity and nature of God, including, for example, the truths about the Trinity.14 This vagueness is also evident in his truncated definition of humility as “awareness that we are under His judgment,” which is true, but which must be further defined as the virtue whereby the person is restrained in his pursuit of great goods by subjecting himself to God for Whose sake he also humbles himself to others.15 Now, both faith and humility are understood in Christian tradition to be theological or infused virtues, that is, virtues given by grace, and as such they are not normally realized apart from life in Christ and in the church. Therefore any definition of faith and humility must include an account of the concrete practices, specific virtues, and forms of life entailed in being Christian. But Neuhaus fails to include such an account, probably because this would render his argument too ecclesially specific to qualify as public discourse in a pluralistic setting such as the United States. So instead he ventures the claim that “most Americans are Christians who understand the mercy and justice of God as revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”16 This is a deeply questionable claim and, without further explanation as to the criteria and method used to arrive at such a conclusion, it is an unwarranted one. But for Neuhaus it is nevertheless a very useful claim, inasmuch as it fortifies the notion of a “convergence of duties” to God and country, all the while never acknowledging that Americans worship strikingly different gods, whether it be the god of New Age crystal users in Seattle, Buddhists in the Bay Area, Black Bumper Men-nonites in Ohio, Mormons in Utah, and so on. As for those who do not believe in god at all, Neuhaus provides the assurance that “reality is not neutral in this war on terrorism” either, thereby offering a variation on the for-God-and-Country theme: for Reality and Country.17 In either case, Americans can rest assured that as their nation goes to war, it does so under this all-purpose higher power that Neuhaus calls “God.”

All of which is to say that the god Neuhaus invokes is the god of American civil religion, a god of and for the United States. Thus is it not surprising that he goes on from the above passage to describe the United States as “an overwhelmingly Christian nation rooted, albeit sometimes tenuously, in the Judeo-Chris-tian tradition,”18 a description that, for him, is verified by the remarkable display of patriotism in the wake of September 11. Specifically, Neuhaus notes “that following the attack, the first gathering of national leadership and the first extended, and eloquent, address by the President was in a cathedral; that Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ is getting equal time, at least, with the less religiously explicit national anthem; that children in public schools gather in the classroom for prayer; and that the fallen beams of the World Trade Center, forming a cross, are blessed as the semi-official memorial to the victims.” In light of these hopeful developments, Neuhaus remarks that “that intellectuals are forever in search of ‘the real America,'” and he goes on to announce proudly that “the weeks following the attack of September 11 provided one answer to that search. It is an America that Tocqueville would recognize, even if it surprised, and no doubt offended, many intellectuals.”19

The claims Neuhaus makes here are again problematic on several scores. First, he cites the national prayer service and prayers being said in schools as evidence that the United States is “an overwhelmingly Christian nation,” but the national prayer service, although it was held in a cathedral, included prayers recited by a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim Imam. Would they agree that they live in “an overwhelmingly Christian nation?” Would this be the view of Irving Berlin, the Jewish composer of “God Bless America”? And as for those who died in the attacks, is it true that the fallen beams arranged in the form of a cross is a fitting, semi-official memorial for them? Including those who were Muslim? Those who lived across the river in Williamsburg? What about the notion that America is a pluralist society?

Moreover, Neuhaus suggests that the America that emerged in the weeks after the attacks is “an America that Tocqueville would recognize,” but what he does not mention is that the “god” that emerged during those weeks is likewise one that Tocqueville would recognize. This is because Tocqueville’s god, as scholars of his work have pointed out, is a peculiarly modern god, one that serves to keep society and the state intact in this disenchanted, post-Christian world. This god is not the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Who is named and praised in traditional Christian belief and practice.20 Driven by his enthusiasm for “the new patriotism,” which he judges to be “all in all, a very good thing,” Neuhaus does not address the complex and contested aspects of Tocqueville’s “America” and “god.”

But the most obvious problem in Neuhaus’ claim that America is a Christian nation is that it does not account for the fact that Americans in large numbers engage in practices that run clearly counter to the Christian way of life, practices related to marrying and having children. If the United States is a Christian nation, what are we to make of the fact that roughly fifty percent of all marriages in America end in divorce? Further, if the United States is a Christian nation, what are we to do with the fact that each year in America there occur more than one million abortions? This is not to say that Neuhaus is unaware that of these problems in the United States. He certainly is, as he has amply evidenced in his editorials of these and similar moral challenges facing the nation. Thus he attempts to clarify his position to commend the upsurge in patriotism following September 11. But he also attempts to clarify his position by drawing a distinction between rendering to God and rendering to Caesar, based on the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees, “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17). After admitting that Christians will probably never get the relationship between God and Caesar exactly right, he notes that nevertheless “it is agreed by all that the emphasis falls on the second injunction-do not render to Caesar what is God’s. Whether with respect to patriotism, wealth, family, or anything else, it is always a matter of the right ordering of our loves and loyalties.”21 To elaborate on this point, Neuhaus directs our attention to The Letter to Diognetus, a second-century, anonymously-authored text. But as it turns out, his reading of this letter is most significant for what it leaves out.


The passage from the Letter to Diognetus that Neuhaus presents to his readers runs as follows:

“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by either country, speech, or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they use no peculiar language, they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.* They reside in their own countries, but only as alien citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their homeland, and every homeland a foreign country.** They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go beyond the law.*** In a word: what the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body; just so Christians live in the world, but are not of the world.”22

According to Neuhaus, this passage shows that “these ‘alien citizens,’ still far from their true home in the New Jerusalem that is history’s consummation, have followed the course of Christian fidelity in accepting responsibility for the well-being of what is their home in time before the End Time.” In other words, Christians have an ultimate love and loyalty toward God, yet a penultimate love and loyalty to their homeland; they have an ordered love both for God and country. On the basis of this quotation and his interpretation of it, Neuhaus then introduces “the doctrine of just war associated with St. Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries and further developed in what is aptly called the Great Tradition of Christian thought down to our own day.”23

But what is noteworthy, and troubling, about this quotation is that in several instances it deletes significant portions with no acknowledgement of having done so, not even ellipses. In this important and admittedly delicate matter, only a display of the deleted portions of the text will suffice. There are three such deletions from the original text, each of which I want to present and then comment on.

The first deleted section (located in the original text at the single asterisk) reads as follows:

Their teaching is not the kind of thing that could be discovered by the wisdom or reflection of mere active-minded men; indeed, they are not outstanding in human learning as others are. Whether fortune has given them a home in a Greek or foreign city, they follow local custom in the matter of dress, food, and way of life; yet the character of the culture they reveal is marvelous and, it must be admitted, unusual.”24

In this passage, Christian teaching is described as distinct from conventional wisdom and as not based on outstanding human learning. And Christians themselves are portrayed as both similar and different than others, similar in respect to their dress, food, and way of life, different in respect to “the culture they reveal” which is described as “marvelous” and “unusual.” It is not clear what their being simultaneously similar and different means concretely in this passage, but some hints can be found in the two other deleted passages.

The second deleted passage (located in the original text at the double asterisk) reads this way:

“They marry like the rest of men and beget children, but they do not abandon their babies that are born. They share a common board but not a common bed. In the flesh as they are, they do not live according to the flesh. They dwell on earth but are citizens of heaven.”25

Here we see that Christians, unlike others of their day, do not “abandon”-that is to say, abort-abort children (or as another translation has it, they do not “expose” their children). And while they share a common board, they do not share a “common bed” (or as it is put in another translation, “they share their meals, but not their wives”). Avoiding these prac-tices is seen as part of “not liv[ing] according to the flesh,” part of their being “citizens of heaven.” Thus, in light of this passage, Christians do not accommodate themselves into whatever country in which they live. They are different from others in important ways, such as in the way they marry and have children. There is a tension, in other words, between Christians and others and it is a sharp and costly tension, as can be seen in yet another deleted passage.

The third deleted passage (located in the original text at the triple asterisk) reads as follows:

“They love all men, but are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet are more alive than ever. They are paupers, but they make many rich. They lack all things, and yet in all things they abound. They are dishonored, yet glory in their dishonor. They are maligned, and yet are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless. They suffer insult, yet they pay respect. They do good, yet are punished with the wicked. When they are punished, they rejoice, as though they were getting more of life. They are attacked by the Jews as Gentiles, and are persecuted by the Greeks, yet those who hate them can give no reason for their hatred.”26

In this passage, the identity of Christians as “alien citizens” involves being condemned, put to death, impoverished, dishon-ored, maligned, reviled, insulted, punished, attacked, and persecuted. This is not their fault, the author makes clear, using a rhetorical pattern taken from the Apostle Paul (2 Cor 6:9-10; 4:12), in that they respond to persecution by loving, enriching, blessing, and paying respect to others. And yet mistreatment is often their lot.

Each of these three passages quoted above, then, reveals that for the second-century author of The Letter of Diognetus, Christians are significantly different from others in both their beliefs, which derive not from human wisdom or learning, and their practices, such as marrying and having children. So much are Christians different that they are often at odds with people around them to the point of being regularly hated and sometimes killed.

But when these passages are omitted, as they are in the quotation presented by Neuhaus, a different impression is created, the impression that ancient Christian teaching calls for the kind of love of God and country that is commended in the editorial. And this impression is put to the service of Neuhaus’s more specific message that love of God and country is entirely fitting for Christians in the United States because it is, as he suggests in his subheading, “a nation under God,” or as he puts it elsewhere in the editorial, it is “an overwhelmingly Christian nation rooted, albeit sometimes tenuously, in the Judeo-Chris-tian moral tradition.”27 To his credit, Neuhaus is aware of the potential problems with this claim; hence the qualification in the subordinate clause: “albeit sometimes tenuously.” To un-derstand his equivocation here, it is illuminating to grasp the broad storyline that shapes his thought, to which we now turn.


This notion of the United States as “an overwhelmingly Christian nation” is an overriding theme in Neuhaus’ thought, one that is best expli-cated by means of a broad storyline that shapes his thought. The storyline can be summed up as follows: Once upon a time in America, British colonists band-ed together to throw off the tyrannical rule of their king and founded a form of government designed to protect the rights of its citizens with respect to freedom of speech, assembly, the press, and religion. This last freedom listed was in fact “the first freedom,” the all important one, for it prohibited the establishment of any one parti-cular religion as the official religion of the land and instead guaranteed the free exercise of religion for all, thereby warding off the possibility that the nation would plunge itself into a New-World version of the Wars of Religion while at the same time ensuring that its public life would be guided by the moral and intellectual principles to which its Christian citizens (or the vast majority of them at any rate) subscribed. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, this ingenious combination of “ordered liber-ty,” unprecedented in world his-tory, proved to be a formula that brought the nation through the crisis of civil war, enabled it to welcome waves of European and other immigrants to its shores, and allowed it to afford greater measures of freedom to its citizens, particularly women and African-Americans. It also provided the nation with the fortitude needed to fight political tyranny abroad in the First World War, the Second World War, and the subsequent Cold War, all of which were waged on the strength of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition, a moral and intellectual consensus that now included greater numbers of Catholics, Jews, and (some) secularists.

But at some point in this more recent phase of the nation’s history, another moral and intellectual perspective emerged, one that regarded any public profession of religious belief or a religiously-based morality as constituting a threat to the rights of individuals whose religious or moral beliefs stand outside this supposed nation-wide consensus. The emergence of this new perspective can be traced back to any number of cultural trends earlier in the twentieth century, but it gained political and cultural ascendancy in the sixties, when it became anathema to invoke religious and moral principles in public discourse. This constituted a threat to the very foundations on which the nation was founded. The main culprits were left-leaning politicians, journalists, intellectuals, church leaders, and other members of the so-called cultural elite, who also have been derisively labeled (in a recent book that Neuhaus has touted)28 “Bobos in paradise,” that is, baby-boomers who sported a bohemian lifestyle and radical politics when coming of age in the sixties and then, in the ensuing decades, made their way into the higher echelons of U.S. society where they exercise an alarming degree of influence over the central institutions of the nation: the government, the press, universities, and the mainstream churches. This created what Neuhaus called “the naked public square,” and in book with this title (published in 1984), he called for a re-infusion of religious and moral principles into American public discourse, a re-clothing, so to speak, of this naked public square.29 This project had become possible thanks to the resurgence of conservative-minded Christians as a political force in the early eighties. Then, a few years later, it had become clear that the group most capable of making a difference in this effort was the Catholics, thus signaling what Neuhaus called “the Catholic Moment.” In a book published under this title in 1987, he observed that history had taken a remarkable twist: Catholics, emboldened by the religious and moral vision of Pope John Paul II, were now the ones to embolden Evangelical Christians and others to bring America back from the precipice and restore it to its founding religious and moral principles.30

In light of this storyline, the significance of Neuhaus’ claim that America is a Christian nation comes into fuller view. It is a claim that harks back to the founding of the nation and decries the recent betrayal of that founding by those who deny the nation’s religious and moral roots. At the same time, it calls for a religious and moral renewal of America that can rescue the nation from its present malaise, a renewal to be led by the Catholics. Since the arrival of “the Catholic Moment,” this has been a key theme in Neuhaus’ writings, talks, and editorials in First Things.

What is crucial to note is that this agenda can have a critical edge to it. This was most clearly demonstrated with “the end-of-democracy” controversy that erupted on the pages ofFirst Things in late 1996. The controversy was over a string of judicial decisions ruling that the Constitution protects a range of asserted practices on the basis of an individual’s right to privacy. In the background, of course, was Roe v Wade (1973), but the immediate focus was on more recent decisions, especially the Casey decision (1992) with its notorious “mystery clause,” consigning religious beliefs and moral principles to a private realm into which state and federal government may not intrude.31 Another ruling along similar lines came in May 1996, when the ninth Circuit found that the Constitution does not permit states to prohibit physician-assisted suicide.32 It was shortly after this second ruling that the editors of First Things charged the Federal Courts with arrogating for themselves the power to decide matters that, in the design of the framers of the Constitution, are to be decided by the people through legislative processes. This trend created what the editors called “the judicial usurpation of politics” wherein genuine democratic government was being thwarted by a lethal blurring of the separation of powers, signaling the possible “end of democracy” and the imposition on the people of an alien “regime.”33

The symposium brought to the fore some striking arguments. One contributor to the symposium, Robert George of Princeton, identified the workings of “the tyrant state,” a phrase taken from the recently promulgated encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995) in which John Paul II argued that democratic government is not good in itself but is only as good as the virtues of its citizens in enabling them to adhere to the natural law34 Another con-tributor, Russell Hittinger, a philosopher from the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa, con-tended that if this trend of judicial usurpation continued, Catholics and other people of conscience would have only one recourse left to them: “civil disobedience.”35 The issue sparked a vociferous controver-sy among conservative commen-tators, leading some on the editorial board to resign in protest and generating a rift between what came to be known “Neocon v. Theocon.36

Neuhaus defended the editorial stance for raising crucial and unavoidable issues, the kinds of issues, he insisted (quite rightly) that should be raised in a journal such as First Things.37 Commentators of a more radical Christian stripe (Scott Moore, for example38 ) viewed the controversy as a sign that politics within the context of the modern liberal state had become morally incoherent and politically untenable, and took hope in the prospect of such a mainstream, quasi-establishment journal declaring that the Enlightenment assumptions (on which the United States was founding had come into fundamental conflict with a genuinely Christian conception of political community.

But for Neuhaus himself, as it turned out, the end-of-demo-cracy controversy signified little more than yet another occasion to call for the religious and moral recovery of America. In subsequent years, particularly during and after the election of George Bush as president in 2000, editorials and articles published in First Things continued to express hope in a nation-wide renewal. Most important among these was a twelve-part series of columns on the idea of “Christian America,” the last of which came out in May 2001, coyly entitled “Something Like, Just Maybe, A Catholic Moment.”39

All of which brings us up to Neuhaus’ post-9/11 editorial in the December 2001 issue ofFirst Things, and his statement that America is “rooted, albeit sometimes tenuously, in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.” The statement’s subordinate clause-“albeit sometimes tenuously”- ack-nowledges that the nation’s Judeo-Christian tradition at times has been obscured or attacked. But this is clearly outweighed by the overriding claim that it is “overwhelmingly Christian.” But if this is the case, whatever happened to the end-of-democracy crisis? What about the courts? What about marriage in the United States? What about abortion?

These questions are placed on the back burner by Neuhaus. With the help of his broad storyline, he can avoid looking at America in the present by focusing instead on an America of the past and of the future; of a glorious past, when America was founded and developed as a Christian nation, and of a promising future, when America will reclaim its legacy and return to its founding religious and moral principles. When it comes to the present, his argument only refers us to the struggle to bring the nation out of its current crisis. Rather than meet head on any challenge to his charac-terization of America as a Christian nation, it calls us to join traditional Christians and other religiously and morally conservative Americans in engaging in this current struggle. And a monumental struggle it is, for in the final section of the editorial, we learn that America is engaged in a “war of centuries,” indeed “a war of religion.”


Neuhaus is careful to insist that America does not wish to engage in war. “We of the West,” Neuhaus assures us, “defini-tively put wars of religion behind us with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. But that was a piece of the story of the West of which Islam was not part and for which Islam has no counterpart.”40 As a result, a war of religion has been thrust upon America by the adherents of Islam who have stored up for decades, if not centuries, a burning hatred for the West and who have not integrated into their world view the values of Western democracy. To those who insist that Americans should embrace the otherness of Islam in the name of diversity, Neuhaus gives this rejoinder: “With respect to freedom, human rights, and the dignity of the person, their difference is not a diversity to be celebrated but a threat to be opposed. The terrorists have now unmistak-ably underscored their other-ness, and with it the otherness of Islam.”41 To those who insist that Islam is not antithetical to democratic values, he declares that it is up to Muslims to demonstrate this themselves. For the time being, however, what the 9/11 attacks indicates is that, as he puts it with remarkable bluntness, “They [Muslims] are other.”42 And to back up this claim, he cites an article by Bernard Lewis in the Atlantic that underscores what is at stake in this two-sided struggle. “When Muslims speak of the West,” he then explains,

“They mean the Christian West. They mean Christendom. Many in the West want to believe that ours is a secularized culture, but Lewis reminds us that most Muslims view secularization itself as a form of specifically Christian decadence. Today many in the West are asking, Who are they? We cannot ask Who are they? without also asking Who are we? More and more, as this war continues, we may come to recognize that we are, however ambiguously, who they think we are, namely, the Christian West.43

As Neuhaus tells the story, then, America has been drawn into a monumental “struggle between Islam and the Christian West, a struggle that is spurring Americans to reclaim their identity as citizens of a Christian nation. In this sense, the post-September display of patriotism can be taken as a hopeful development. The flags, the patriotic songs on the radio, the teachers and students praying at school, the upsurge in church attendance-all these are signs of America undergoing its restoration as a Christian nation. But what is significant in Neuhaus’ depiction of the nation is that only five years after the stormy end-of-democracy controversy, there is no reference to a “regime” in America, no mention of “the tyrant state,” no talk of “civil disobedience.” Whereas in the fall of 1996 Neuhaus & Company were raising fundamental questions about the tenuous state of American democracy, in the fall of 2001 democracy in America is the beacon of freedom, human rights, and human dignity for the rest of the world. There is nothing said about the sad condition of marriage in the United States, nor about the annual rate of abortion, nor any number of disturbing trends-not by Neuhaus at any rate, not now.

How are we to explain this contradictory shift in thematics? Surely it has something to do with the election of President Bush in the intervening years which, in the world view of the neoconservatives, bolstered the condition of the nation. But this points to a deeper reason that strikes to the heart of the issue. The reason is that Neuhaus links the destiny of Christianity to the future of liberal democratic nations in the Christian West, in particular to the future of what he considers to be the leader of these nations, the United States of America. As a result, the struggle to reclaim America as a Christian nation gets transmuted into a struggle over the terres-trial future of Christianity itself, a struggle, so to speak, of almost ultimate significance, and in this context, reservations about America quickly move into the background for the sake of prevailing in the broader struggle for the survival of America and the Christian West. To be fair, we should note that Neuhaus reminds us that Christians place their ultimate loyalty in no earthly city but in the city that is their final destination, the heavenly Jerusalem-an eschatological proviso, so to speak, meant to safeguard against an idolatrous allegiance to country. But no safeguard is effective without an accompanying ecclesiological proviso, without a positive and substantive account of the church.

Interestingly, there is no such account in Neuhaus’ editorial. There are plenty of references to God, to Christians, to the Judeo-Christian tradition, to America-as-a-Christian-nation, but no clear references to the church. This is not surprising, of course, for to focus on ecclesiology would bring up a host of theological issues over which Christians in the United States have deep differences. It could generate division when what is needed in a time of national crisis, “in a time of war” as he describes it, is unity. Neuhaus would object to this charac-terization, of course, by pointing out that time and again he has not hesitated to tackle important ecclesiological issues in First Things and in his other published writings. Nevertheless, he does not do so when it comes to the nation going to war. This is because he conceives of political com-munity in terms of the politics of nation-states, one nation-state in particular, the United States. In doing so, his terms must be tailored to the exigencies of a religiously pluralistic nation-state, the primary exigency being that ecclesially specific terms must be separated from politics. As a result, when he moves into the political sphere to take up political issues such as going to war, his references to God are cast in the general terms of civil theology, such as “religion, “Christianity,” and the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” In spite of his insistence that America is “under God,” any and all references to the church–that is, the community of those baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit-recede to the background. And without any substantive reference to the church, he lacks the resources to provide an account of the one social body that is a sign of unity and peace in the world.


To sum up my argument to this point: in his post-9/11 editorial, Neuhaus depicts the United States as “one nation under God,” but it is the god of civil religion, whose function is to serve the aims and purposes of the nation. These aims and purpose are identified with “the Christian West” which, as Neuhaus sees it, is under attack from the forces of Islam. The United States has the obligation of countering this attack, both for reasons of self-defense, but also because it stands as the leading protector of Christian values throughout the world. In this vision, the nation is political body through which the God’s will is carried out. The church has no real role in this political sphere, just as it has no real part to play in the world-historical drama depicted in Neuhaus’ editorial.

This is a dangerous vision, as I see it, for without an account of the church in this drama, the power and pretensions of the nation can all too easily go unchecked. And this danger is only compounded by the fact that we live, as Neuhaus entitles his editorial, “in a time of war.” True, the editorial does list the traditional criteria for a just war and then applies them to the current situation. But given the way Neuhaus describes the United States as “a nation under God” with such a crucial role to play on the world stage today, it is difficult to see how its intentions, cause, authority, and so on, could be construed so as to render its going to war as anything but justifiable. The one issue about which Neuhaus raises a critical question has to do with establishing a terminal point for the war. “Not immediately,” he writes, “but in due course, we need a clear statement on how we will know that the war is over and a just peace is reasonably secured.”44 But have we received such a clear statement from the White House? Do we know when the war will be over?

Questions such as these have not been prominent in subsequent editorials or in “The Public Square” section of First Things. To the contrary, the United States took its “War on Terrorism” to Iraq and Neuhaus gave overriding approval of it. Moreover, he delivered a lengthy critique of religious leaders who opposed the U.S. invasion, including some offi-cials of the Holy See. Regarding this last group, Neuhaus criticized them for coming “unconscionably close to suggesting that Catholic Americans must choose between loyalty to their country and fidelity to the Church. If, as one curial archbishop has declared, the coalition led by the U.S. is engaged in a ‘crime against peace’ it would seem to follow that our soldiers are engaged in criminal activity.”45 On this point, Neuhaus is right; this is precisely what follows. But Neuhaus is unwilling to acknowledge that “our soldiers” may be engaging in a “crime against peace,” or better yet, he is unable to do so. This is because it would belie his claim that the United States is “a nation under God” whose purposes coincide with divine purposes. It would disrupt his vision of God and country working in fundamental har-mony with each other. It would contradict his picture of Christians as living peaceably in the various cities of this world.

To explain what I mean, it will be helpful to return to Neuhaus’ selective reading of the Letter to Diognetus. In his citation of the Letter, the passage reads: “In a word: what the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body; just so Christians live in the world, but are not of the world.”46 The impression created with this quotation is that the relation between body and soul is peaceful and harmonious. Just as the soul is an incorporeal reality that gives unity and coherence to the body, so the church is an incorporeal reality that gives unity and coherence to the world. But here again, Neuhaus’ citation of the Letter to Diognetus is misleading, for as we read on in the text itself, we learn that the relationship between body and soul is neither peaceful nor harmonious. From where the quotation leaves off, the Letter continues by observing that “Christians who are in the world are known, but their worship remains unseen,” an allusion to the clandestine character of Christian liturgy and cult in the second century. Then it goes on to draw a parallel between the conflict of the soul and the flesh and the conflict between Christians and the world. The actual Letter reads:

“The flesh hates the soul and acts like an unjust aggressor, because it is forbidden to indulge in pleasures. The world hates Christians-not that they have done it wrong, but because they oppose its pleasures. The soul loves the body and its members in spite of the hatred. So Christians love those who hate them. The soul is locked up in the body, yet it holds the body together. And so Christians are held in the world as in a prison, yet it is they who hold the world together. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle. So Christians so-journ among perishable things, but their souls are set on immortality in heaven. When the soul is ill-treated in the matter of food and drink, it is improved. So, when Christians are persecuted, their numbers daily increase. Such is the assignment to which God has called them, and they have no right to shirk from it.47

This passage depicts Christians, as often as not, coming into conflict with the world, with whatever “city” in which they reside. As the soul orders the unruly, pleasure-seeking passions of the body by revealing to it the love that ema-nates from God, so Christians order the unruly, pleasure-seeking cities of the world by revealing to them the peace that likewise emanates from God.

On this (properly contextualized) reading of the Letter to Diognetus, the church is the one community in which the obligations of Christians to the cities of this world are properly ordered to the love of God. For this reason, the cities of this world are never “under God” in such a way that Christians may pledge their allegiance to them. Such an allegiance is proper only to Christ and the church. Indeed, in view of the entire Letter to Diognetus, it becomes apparent that the primary concern of its second-century author is to enjoin Christians to avoid worshipping the false gods of the world’s cities, gods whose patronage are presented in the city’s mythoi as essential to their security and flourishing. But this is always accomplished by shedding blood, the blood of those who protect the city from its enemies. Beyond the danger of worshipping the gods of various cities, there was also the danger of worshipping the gods of Rome, a particular concern in the Letter to Diognetus. These gods plausibly promised a peace that would reign throughout for the entire empire, the Pax Romana, and yet, like the many forms of civil peace in the ancient world, it was a “peace” founded on imperial violence that was, as the Christians saw it, not true peace at all, not the peace of Christ.

All this talk of Christians worshipping the false gods of the Roman Empire would be quaintly irrelevant were it not for the fact that Roman civil religion, or what Augustine called “civil theology,”48 has its counterparts in modern con-ceptions of civil religion, such as the one articulated by Neuhaus, which promises, in effect, a Pax Americana. But unlike the Christians living under pagan Rome, Christians in the United States face the more challenging temptation of living in an imperium that claims to be Christian. This is why the warnings of “some officials of the Holy See” about our nation’s preemptive war making are so important to heed.49 The fact that these warnings are voiced from a perspective lying beyond the narrow vision of a particular nation makes them all the more important. And it makes Neuhaus’ dismissal of them all the more telling.

What is lacking in Neuhaus’ vision is an ecclesiology that relativizes the notion of “one nation under God” with the principle, so to speak, of “one church under God.” Such an ecclesiology is evident in the Letter to Diognetus in the analogy of the church as a soul that gives the world with a unity it would otherwise not have. Like all analogies, this body/soul analogy must be carefully interpreted so as to underscore that the soul can never be detached from the body, but rather is the form of the body. In this sense, the church is a soul that gives form to a body whose members are united to Christ and to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit and whose communal life is marked by a bond of charity that extends throughout the world. This is why the apostle Paul describes baptism as being engrafted into Christ’s body. This is why he stressed the intrinsic link between the Lord’s Supper and the unity that is a mark of the Christian community (I Cor 11:17-34). This is also why he exhorted the members of the church to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God and not to conform to the world (Rom 12:1-2). The image here is of the priesthood of the Levites, the tribe designated by God to make animal or cereal offerings for the sake of the reconciliation of all Israel; but now Christians unite themselves with the offering of the Son to the Father, so that through the power of the Holy Spirit they become “a chosen race, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, a people set apart” (1 Peter 2:10). But if Christians themselves are “a holy nation,” then at times they will not conform to the aims and purpose of the modern nations, particularly when they claim to be objects of Christian allegiance in a time of war.

There are morally serious choices to be made between competing versions of just war, especially between the version of preemptive just war put forth by Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel, and others, and the version of just war subscribed to by “some officials of the Holy See.” There is an increasing number of U.S. soldiers who stand ready to defend their nation but not in an unjust war and not by unjust means. They too provide a powerful reminder of our call to be in the world but not of it. And third, proponents of just war can also live in an unreal world of utopian fantasy that has no basis in the Christian faith. Indeed, in a nation such as the United States, they can even rise to high office, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense, and from there orchestrate a disastrous policy based on the fantastic notion of an America that can pursue its interests and wield its power throughout the Middle East with impunity.

In conclusion, let me offer a non-resistant Christian pacifist recommendation for how United States policy might be released from such a fantasy. We should consult with Christians in the Middle East, starting with the leaders of the churches there, in particular, with leaders of the Chaldean and Orthodox churches of Iraq. It would also behoove us to consult with the Latin Patriarchate of Jesusalem, a Palestinian whose appointment by the Vatican in 1987 was opposed by the Israeli govern-ment. Such consultations would give Christians in the United States a perspective on this war on terrorism that we do not often find articulated in press statements by the Bush Administration or in the pages of First Things. It would be a genuinely catholic perspective. And it would provide an important reminder that the most important contribution Christians can make while living in “one nation under God” is for them to be one church under God.

1Mark Slouka, “A Year Later: Notes on America’s Intimations of Mortality” Harper’s 305 (September 2002): 35-43.

2Slouka, “A Year Later,” 43.
3Slouka, “A Year Later,” 36.
4Slouka, “A Year Later,” 36, 39.
5Slouka, “A Year Later,” 37, n. 1.
6This quotation is taken from http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/14/Falwell.apology. For a partial transcript of the broadcast in question, see http://www.beliefnet.com/story/87/story_8770_1.html. For an attempt to clarify the facts involved in the controversy, see http://www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/falwell-robertson-wtc.htm.
7First Things 118 (December 2001): 11-17. In my summary and critique, I attribute this editorial to Richard John Neuhaus himself rather than “the editors,” for the sake of convenience and also because it bears his distinctive prose and thought patterns.
8Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 11.
9Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 13.
10Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 13.
11Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 13.
12Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 11-12.
13Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 12.

14Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II/2, qq. 1-6; trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Vol 1 (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947).
15Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II/2, q. 161.
16Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 12.
17Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 12.
18Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,”
19Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 15.
20See for example Sanford Kessler, Tocqueville’s Civil Religion (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994).
21Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 12.

22Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 12.
23Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 12.

24Letter to Diognetus, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, S.J., and Gerald Walsh, S.J., (New York: Cima Publishing Company, 1947), 359. This is not the same translation as Neuhaus uses, but the differences are of no matter to the criticism I am making.
25Letter to Diognetus, 359.
26Letter to Diognetus, 359-60.
27Neuhaus, “In A Time of War,”
28David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).
29Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).
30Richard John Neuhaus, The Catholic Moment (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).
31For the reaction of the editors (especially Neuhaus) to this decision see “Abortion and a Nation at War,” First Things, 26 (October 1992): 9-13. The citation of the case is: Planned Parenthood of South-eastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (91-744), 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
32For the reaction of the editors to this decision, see “The Ninth Circuit’s Fatal Overreach,” First Things 63 (May 1996): 12-13.
33See “The End of Demo-cracy?: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics,” First Things 67 (November 1996): 18-20.
34Robert P. George, “The Tyrant State,” First Things 67 (November 1996): 39-42. The phrase “the tyrant state” can be found in an encyclical by Pope John Paul II entitled Evangelium Vitae, n. 20.
35Russell Hittinger, “A Crisis of Legitimacy,” First Things 67 (November 1996): 25-29.
36See Jacob Heilbrunn, “Neo-con v. Theocon,” The New Republic, December 30, 1996, 20-24.
37Much of the writing generated by this controversy has been published in Richard John Nuehaus, The End of Democracy? (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1997). For Neuhaus’ analysis, see his essay in this volume, entitled “The Anatomy of A Controversy,” 173-267.
38Scott Moore, “The Inauguration of Extraordinary Politics,” in The End of Demo-racy? II, ed. Mitchell S. Muncy (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999), 183-228.
39First Things 113 (May 2001): 70-73.
40Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 16.
41Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 16.
42Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 16.
43Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 16.
44Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,”
45Richard John Neuhaus, “The Sounds of Religion in a Time of War,” First Things 133 (May 2003):76-92
46Neuhaus, “In a Time of War,” 12.
47Letter to Diognetus, 360.
48Augustine, City of God, bk. 6 (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 234-53. (book 6) .
49It is not clear who Neuhaus was referring to here, but the critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the Holy See included the following: Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Martino, Cardinal Sodano, and Cardinal Stafford.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 2005