Richard Neuhaus faces Babylon

By  Joe Gunn, Catholic Register Special
  • April 27, 2009
American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, by Richard John Neuhaus (Basic Books, hardcover, 288 pages, $31).

You won’t enjoy American Babylon if (a) you’re not loyal American, (b) you didn’t support the Bush administration agenda, or (c) you can get through your day without a pressing need to disparage the philosophy of Richard Rorty and other “liberal ironists.”

The book’s title is provocative in itself — as was its author, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. The historic Babylon is located just outside Baghdad, where there is nothing more than a series of mounds and ruins, the place having been destroyed by the armies of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Babylon is mentioned many times and in several symbolic ways in the Bible. About 600 years before Christ, the Babylonian dynasty attacked the kingdom of Judah, captured Jerusalem and exiled the Israelites.

Primarily, Babylon (which is also mentioned in connection with the confused language of the Tower of Babel in Genesis) came to signify exile in Christian thought. Psalm 137 laments, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” Early Christian writers also referred to the wickedness of Rome’s Empire as a new Babylon. And in the post-Second World War era, the American Empire has also been referred to in the same way.

Now, Neuhaus has a very hard time spitting that criticism out. He presumably titled the book to indicate his own struggle. He felt he was “in, but not of, this world” — living a life in the City of Man, while striving to enter the City of God. But don’t turn to Neuhaus for a critique of the capitalist economic meltdown, American foreign policy, the war on terror or the debacle in Iraq. These things never merit a single mention.

Rather, this unofficial advisor to former U.S. President George W. Bush echoes Abraham Lincoln’s paean that America is “the last, best hope of mankind.” I found it extraordinary that this 2009 book on American politics does not  give even one word of mention to the phenomenon of Barack Obama.

But why be surprised at an author who unabashedly compares Bush’s sacerdotal role to that of George Washington, Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and even Ronald Reagan. He quotes Bush’s second inaugural address to confirm that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

After 50 pages, Neuhaus finally warns conservatives that “the great danger is in forgetting that America, too, is Babylon.” This is a real contradiction for Neuhaus, who sees America as both beloved homeland and, with more difficulty, as a foreign country.

For those with smaller difficulties with critical thought, Neuhaus has biting words. American philosopher Rorty is dissected in a chapter that even Neuhaus admits might make readers’ eyes glaze over. The leadership of the American Catholic Church, he says, “oscillates between a touching desire to be accepted by the now faded old-line Protestant establishment (whom Neuhaus dismisses as leaning to the political left)… and co-belligerency with evangelicalism on great moral and cultural questions.”

For those who open The Catholic Register to struggle with the tough issues of bioethics, expect no quarter from Neuhaus who rants, “Bioethics as an intellectual institution is, in significant part, an industry for the production of rationalized — sometimes elegantly rationalized — permission slips in the service of the technological imperative joined to the pursuit of fame and wealth.” Ouch!

What remains as Neuhaus’ abiding contribution is his articulate anger with the 1973 Roe vs. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning abortion. Neuhaus felt this decision to be of ultimate importance, a “judicial usurpation of politics,” and he employed his substantial intellect to make abortion politics the major issue for all people of faith. What a shame that his last book only dedicated a thin chapter to illuminating his abiding mission — advocating the denial of Communion to Catholic politicians who oppose church teaching on life issues.

In the end, perhaps the best way to understand Neuhaus (and this last of his books) is to try to comprehend a convert’s thinking. After all, the man was born here in the Ottawa Valley but decided to become a fervent American citizen. This son of a Lutheran pastor became a Lutheran minister himself, only to convert to Catholicism in 1990 and then be ordained a priest. This political progressive who joined Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Heschel in the late 1960s to form “Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam” later became a proponent of neo-conservatism. Finally, in 2005 (the Bush years), he was named by Time magazine as one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”

Had Neuhaus not passed away in January of 2009, who knows how many more conversions his thinking might have undergone?

(Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice.)

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