Thursday, September 6, 2007

Tuesday Evening at McNally Robinson: Damon Linker & "The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege"

Here is the post from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Thursday, September 6, 2007:
On Tuesday evening at 7 p.m., I was one of about forty people in the audience at the wonderful Manhattan McNally Robinson bookstore to listen to Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege. It was part of their (new?) First Tuesday series, featuring authors of books about contemporary politics, which presumably will run until we vote for a new President on the first Tuesday of November 2008.

The crowd was considerably older than at many of the readings I've attended at McNally Robinson, most recently a really nice evening celebrating the second issue of the literary magazine The New York Tyrant a few weeks ago. (Unfortunately, I had to leave early, after watching a lot of young people eat cheese and wine and and listening to a haunting story, "The Ex-Father," read by the amazing fiction writer Brian Evenson.)

On Tuesday night, from where I sat in the back of the crowd, I could actually see a lot of gray heads. Anyway, Damon was fascinating as he discussed the thrust of his book, a study of the mostly Catholic theologians and ideologues who have provided much of the intellectual ammunition for the dominant religious right wing of the Republican party, who seemed to reach their zenith with the re-election of President Bush in 2004. (Recall how all the post-victory pundits mentioned "moral values.")

Damon began his talk with anecdote mentioning President Kennedy's address to the nation in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, a time when nuclear war seemed possible and those of us in seventh grade at Meyer Levin Junior High in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, would say to each other at the end of every school day, "See you tomorrow -- if there is one." Even in that moment, JFK ended his speech simply: "Thank you and good night."

Damon contrasted that with President Bush's first address on the Friday after 9/11 during similar time of national crisis. Bush spoke not from the Oval Office as Kennedy did, but from the National Cathedral, and frequently invoked God, quoted St. Paul and other sections of the Bible and of course ended his speech with now seemingly obligatory closing line of Presidential TV talk: "God bless America."

Damon's book traces the changes as America went from a largely secular political culture to one infused with religion, though his work focuses on the ideas rather than the pure politics mastered by people like Karl Rove, who used the evangelical vote to win elections.

In particular, Damon looks at four conservative Catholic intellectuals, including his boss at the magazine First Things, where Damon worked for a number of years following a stint as a speechwriter for Mayor Giuliani. (He was forced to leave following an outcry caused by an article in which he spoke of wanting to be an active father to his newborn son, a position which the magazine's readers and staff felt went against the "Christian" notions of the rigid patriarchy of the "traditional" family.)

Damon's boss at the magazine was Father Richard John Neuhaus, who along with Michael Novak and other Catholic intellectuals, have largely provided the intellectual firepower behind the mostly Protestant evangelical right.

Interestingly, back in the early 1970s -- either 1970 or 1972 -- I worked for the very same guy. Back then he was Dick Neuhaus, a liberal Democrat, not a Roman Catholic priest but a Protestant minister to a mostly poor congregation here in Brooklyn near the neighborhood where I now live.

Neuhaus ran as a peace candidate against the longtime incumbent Congressman, John Rooney, a hawkish supporter of the Vietnam war. From his campaign headquarters in Brooklyn Heights, I'd fan out with other volunteers -- mostly college kids, old New York socialist types and liberal West Side young mothers -- to leaflet and canvas voters at the projects here in Williamsburg and in Bushwick. Neuhaus lost the primary.

Damon says that Neuhaus always wanted to change politics through religion, and when he failed to turn it more liberal -- like a number of those hungry for power -- he turned authoritarian, right-wing and ultra-conservative. Neuhaus has had many secret meetings with President Bush at the White House and apparently loves his grip on power.

I remember him as a slim, almost shy, idealistic young pastor with a passion for social justice. It's scary how some people can change.

Anyway, I can't wait to read The Theocons. Damon's answers to questions from the audience on Tuesday night were as interesting as his talk. He said the man we really have to be afraid of, one who could best continue and extend the religious right's hold on the White House is the affable former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who hasn't yet been able to get to the first tier of GOP presidential candidates.

Future talks in McNally Robinson's First Tuesday series look similarly interesting. Stay tuned.

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