Evangelicals have never forgotten, and for good reason they have never forgotten, that Washington Post story of a few years ago that described them as “poor, uneducated, and easily led.” The Post apologized for it, sort of, but the sentiment lives on in large sectors of the commenting class.
The New Republic , for instance, is fond of the line that Jewish neoconservatives support Catholic theocons who manipulate evangelical Protestants¯who are, as we all know, poor, uneducated and easily led¯into serving as the foot soldiers in their wars. TNR literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, is particularly fond of the line. It is played yet again by Alan Wolfe in his TNR review of David Kuo’s Tempting Faith. There is this:
Unlike people from religious traditions with long histories of involvement with politics, evangelicals have no firm foundation in history, theology, or experience against which they can judge the words that so easily come out of the mouths of politicians. Sincerity, for them, is everything, which is another way of saying that facts are nothing. The proof of their faith is its credulity. After he went to work for Ashcroft¯yes, he got the job¯Kuo, like many young evangelicals recruited by Republican conservatives, began to hear about that governor down in Texas with the famous first and last names. Bush, these enthusiastic idealists told each other, was born-again just like they were . . . .
In his review, Wolfe now downplays the claim that Catholic theocons pose a threat of theocracy in America, a claim to which he previously gave enthusiastic support. His point in the review is to contrast the savvy Catholics, who have centuries of experience in dealing with the world’s Caesars, with the raw naivete of evangelicals.
Expecting too much, they [evangelicals] settle for too little. We need leaders who can level with voters, offering good news when there is good news, but not afraid to share bad news when necessary. Religion may or may not help in cultivating such leaders, but evangelical religion offers precisely the wrong ingredients to make such leadership possible. Testimonialism simply does not make for serious politics (or serious religion). It is not enough for us to absolve presidents for today’s mistakes because they have confessed to yesterday’s sins. The one skill that policy-makers ought to possess is the willingness to look beyond personal feelings in order to enact sensible programs. David Kuo’s religious sensibility never allowed him to do that. His book offers an acute warning of the dangers that evangelicals pose to democracy, not because they are too Machiavellian, but because they are not Machiavellian enough.
Wolfe runs the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College, a Jesuit institution. As I have from time to time had occasion to remark in First Things , the very prolific Mr. Wolfe has sometimes said pleasant things about evangelicals. They are, for instance, very sincere and generally nice people. His contempt for evangelicals, however, is manifest in his studied ignorance of what they most importantly believe.
I note in the December issue of FT , which will be out in ten days or so, an interview Mr. Wolfe gave to a Boston paper. He is making the point that the influence of evangelicals in our public life may well have peaked and will, in any case, certainly decline because of how they understand what it means to be “born again.” Mr. Wolfe, who says he does not have a religious bone in his body, asks, What do they mean by being born again? He answers that being born again means that you break away from the religion of your parents. It therefore follows that, as evangelical young people reject their parents’ religion, there will be fewer and fewer evangelicals.
This bizarre misunderstanding of what it means to be born again¯an experience central to evangelical identity¯is, I’m afraid, representative of Mr. Wolfe’s understanding of religion in America. In his writing, religion is epiphenomenal to what really matters, which is politics, and most particularly the liberal politics of the thoroughly secularized sector of the political class that he associates with authentic Americanism.
The pathetic book by David Kuo is simply another occasion for Wolfe to indulge at length his familiar caricature of poor, uneducated, and easily led evangelicals being manipulated by smart Catholics who are supported by Jewish neocons. Kuo’s Tempting Faith is the story of a credulous young man who was enthralled by his brush with the powerful in the Bush administration and then used his discovery that politics involves compromises and even betrayals to write an expose of the obvious that serves as fodder for the angry left’s relentless attacks on what they view as the threatening religious right. I know nothing of Mr. Kuo’s motives. He may well be entirely sincere. More the pity. Whatever his intentions, he got his fifteen minutes by turning on those to whom, only yesterday it seems, he profusely pledged allegiance.
Mr. Wolfe’s use of the Kuo book to continue TNR ‘s line about Jews, Catholics, evangelicals, neocons, and theocons is hardly surprising. TNR seems to be obsessed with the subject, returning to it again and again. The line was developed at great length by Jacob Heilbrunn in “Neocon v. Theocon” in response to the brouhaha surrounding the famous (some say infamous) First Things symposium on the judicial usurpation of politics in 1996. Heilbrunn discerned “the new fault line on the right.”
This war is deeply personal. On one side are the mostly Jewish neoconservatives, a fairly small group of ex¯New York leftists who have wielded influence greatly beyond their numbers through sheer intellectual energy. Since the conservative renascence began in the late 1970s, the neocons have given it much of its form and heft; building on the earlier work of William F. Buckley Jr., they provided most of the ideas and arguments that allowed conservatism to compete with (and in many areas triumph over) liberalism. As conservatism benefited from the neocons, so did the neocons benefit from conservatism. They made conservatism intellectually respectable, and conservatism made them intellectually important. Now challenging the neocons is an equally small (and equally ambitious, and equally disputatious) group of what might be called theocons¯mostly Catholic intellectuals who are attempting to construct a Christian theory of politics that directly threatens the entire neoconservative philosophy. This attempt, in the eyes of at least some of the neocons, also directly threatens Jews. What makes the matter all the more painful for both sides is that, until recently, the neocons and the theocons were, for the best of political reasons, the best of friends . . . . What was new about the First Things symposium was the attempt to fashion a cogent, serious and popular intellectual framework for these ideas¯to render respectable ideas that intellectuals had come to regard as the province of the radical right and the booboisie. Pat Buchanan and Bob Dornan and Phyllis Schlafly had never threatened the neoconservatives because they didn’t compete on the same plane. This, though, was an attempt to do just that.
Heilbrunn noted the importance of the project “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” He observed that “the alliance has grown ever since.” “As the neocons provided the intellectual muscle for Reagan conservatism, so now the Catholic Thomists are providing the brainpower for the Christian Coalition.” Heilbrunn blamed “the rise of the theocons” on the Jewish neocons. He cites Irving Kristol, who argued that the danger to the republic was not Christian fundamentalism, but the secular humanism of the new class. “American Jews, alert to Christian anti-Semitism,” Kristol wrote, “are in danger of forgetting that it was the pagans¯the Babylonians and the Romans¯who destroyed the temples and twice imposed exile on the Jewish people.” Heilbrunn, Wolfe, and other writers in the New Republic have figured out how the conspiracy works. On the surface of things, it might appear that the threat is the religious right, composed of the great unwashed of vulgar evangelicalism. But they are only the foot soldiers manipulated by clever Catholics. And at the very center of these developments are those Jewish neoconservatives. At stake in these sinister goings on is, according to TNR , nothing less than the identity of America. And it is true that there is a long and darkly shadowed history of people who view America in terms of naïve Protestants being manipulated by devious Catholics and even more devious Jews. In the past, however, those who propounded such views did not usually go by names such as Wieseltier, Wolfe, and Heilbrunn.