Richard John Neuhaus the Prophet
Who remembers "The End of Democracy?"?
It was a symposium on judicial tyranny and the end of democracy that was published in First Things magazine in 1996. At the time it caused an internecine war among conservatives. These days, with the government actually telling religious institutions how they may govern themselves, it seems prescient.
If anything, the editors of First Things undersold the degree to which our government and judiciary would subvert our democracy.
The main force behind the First Things symposium was the journal's editor at the time, the remarkable priest Richard John Neuhaus, who died in 2009. The thesis examined in the essays in "The End of Democracy?" was this: "The government of the United States no longer governs by the consent of the governed."
Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, would elaborate. Aristotle, he wrote, noted that politics is free people deliberating the question, "How ought we to order our life together?" In America, the people are supposed to do that through "debate, elections, and representative political institutions."
But is that still the case? Neuhaus didn't think so: "Is it in fact not the case that the judiciary that deliberates and answers the really important questions entailed in the question, How ought we to order our life together? Repeatedly, questions that are properly political are legalized, and even speciously constitutionalized. This symposium is an urgent call for the re-politicizing of the American regime. Some of the authors fear the call may come too late." In fact, Americans need to ask themselves "whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime."
In short, the judiciary was ending our democracy by deciding things that we ought to be deciding ourselves.
Fifteen years after the First Things symposium, one Supreme Court justice, Anthony Kennedy, will decide if the Obama health care plan, which will control one-sixth of the U.S. economy and force the Catholic Church to sell contraceptive and abortifacient drugs, is constitutional. Even more so than in 1996, we live in a culture of speech codes, a culture that banishes religion from the public square (not matter how reasonable the arguments of Christianity), and absurd and elliptical language gymnastics ("the right of a woman to control her body") to defend the killing of unborn children.
And let's not forget the deep-seated enforcement what writer Harry Stein calls the game of "Let's Pretend." Let's pretend that single-parent families are not worse for a child than a husband and wife. Let's pretend that $15 trillion in debt doesn't matter. Let's pretend that there are no difference between men and women. Talk out loud about the crime and illegitimacy problems of blacks in the inner-city, and watch your career disappear. Let's pretend.
For the left (of course) but also for many on the right, the First Things symposium went too far. There was a reference in it to a John Paul II quote about Nazi Germany and the stripping of language from its moral meaning, as well as some support for the idea that the call to reclaim our democracy was coming "too late" to deal with in ways other than civil disobedience. The First Things symposium would also raise the question of civil disobedience of unjust laws, evoking the civil rights era. Some of the authors, wrote Neuhaus, would deal with unjust laws with anything "ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution."
This kind of talk was too much for some conservatives, some of whom severed their ties with First Things or at least called for restraint. William Bennett wrote a piece saying that the First Things tone had reminded him of the 1960s. Midge Decter resigned from the First Things board -- "In your Introduction you warn us of the 'growing alienation of millions of Americans from a government they do not recognize as theirs.' Such a warning smacks of nothing so much as the kind of careless radicalism you and I not all that long ago prayed for our country to put behind us." Decter's was not the only defection from First Things as a result of "The End of Democracy?"
Today, Neuhaus's dystopia is here. Reread the First Things symposium, and then compare it to recent articles about judicial usurpation and the end of democracy and religious freedom from the press. In many cases you could simply re-date "The End of Democracy?" and no one would know the difference.
One of the participants in the First Things debate was Chuck Colson, who recently passed away. In his essay "Kingdoms in Conflict," Colson explored the ways in which moral and transcendent truths about humanity are increasingly crowded out of the public square. He cited Romer v. Evans, which overturned a Colorado law that prohibited local civil rights statues that are based on sexual preference. Colson: "Without any supporting testimony or finding of fact, Justice Kennedy managed to divine that the sponsors of the referendum and the voters who ratified it must have been motivated sole by bias."
A few years ago, National Review offered an apology to Fr. Neuhaus. He had been right about judicial tyranny and the possible end of democracy, the editors concluded.
I would take it one step further. Neuhaus was a prophet.