“These monstrous views, . . .
these venemous teachings.”
—Pope Leo XIII on socialism
According to the jacket copy of Doing Well and Doing Good, Richard John Neuhaus is “one of the most prominent religious intellectuals” of our time (which helps explain our time). Neuhaus argues that while “Christianity has had nothing to say” to businessmen, now “the spirit” is calling on them “to make a buck.” That is why he—a Lutheran minister who became a Catholic priest—decided to write about the “spirituality of economic enterprise” in a book based on John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. The idea might have made an interesting work, but, despite the breezy blasphemy, this isn’t it. Much of Doing Well and Doing Good consists of a truncated version of the widely available encyclical and a pedestrian, if largely unobjectionable, commentary on it. In the introductory and concluding chapters, however, Neuhaus proclaims the good news of the democratic welfare state and of its avatar, Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It was a grace of my life,” says Neuhaus, “to work personally with Dr. King for several years as a liaison between his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other social movements of the time.” What social movements those were, Neuhaus haying been an open leftist in those days, or why King keeps his ill-gotten doctorate in death, Neuhaus doesn’t say. Instead, we are asked to believe that King was “above all a Christian minister” whose “I Have a Dream Speech” was “a powerful and almost perfect articulation of the Puritan-Lockean Synthesis.”
This is nonsense, Neuhaus counting on his readers being unfamiliar with the literature which demonstrates that King: one, stole virtually every word he “wrote,” from high school to his last sermon; two, rejected the central claims of Christianity in graduate school and never returned to them; three, had a sex life worthy of Magic Johnson; four, advocated racial redistributionism; five, called himself a Marxist in private; and six, coordinated his schedule, finances, speeches, publications, and strategy with members of the American Communist Party. Far from right-wing revisionism, this is standard history as found, for example, in David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. (The expert on King’s plagiarism is, of course, Theodore Pappas of Chronicles.)
As to the “Puritan-Lockean Synthesis.” King’s dream (when it wasn’t of other men’s wives or of socialism) was of cash. At the welfare rally in Washington, D.C. where he gave his famous speech, King said that America had “given the Negro people a bad check,” returned “marked ‘insufficient funds.'” But in our country’s “great vaults,” there was plenty of money to recompense blacks for slavery and discrimination, and he was there to claim it. So when King talked about justice rolling down like a “mighty stream,” he meant a stream of income. Yet he represented something more pernicious than redistributionism. His cultural impact was to help secularize, and finally to supplant, Christianity, so that today King’s birthday gets more attention in the public square than Christ’s. Neuhaus knows all this, and yet he writes: “Like Martin Luther King, Jr., John Paul has a dream”: “democratic capitalism.” But democratic capitalism—neoconese for social democracy—is never mentioned by the Pope.
Just how capitalistic, by the way, is democratic capitalism? The “business economy,” Neuhaus writes, does not “appeal to the moral imagination” in the way socialism does. “Profit seeking” is “neither pretty nor edifying.” But Trotskyite communism? Now there was a great vision: “Irving Howe spoke also for many Christians,” says Neuhaus, “when he declared, ‘Socialism is the name of our dream.’ No one in his right mind dreams about capitalism.” Oh? Many Americans dream about having their own businesses, while few of us long for the liquidation of the kulaks.
More broadly, the capitalist dream is of secure private property, free capital and labor markets, minimal taxes, small government, and sound money. This is a just economic system, without the thievery of special interests or the tyranny of the state. But to Neuhaus, four “eminent Americans” have “in this century” helped us think through “the ideas that can sustain a free society”: John Dewey, Walter Lippmann, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty. So our guides are supposed to be: a social engineer who wrecked American education, a progressivist pamphleteer who got us into World War I, an egalitarian who measures all societies by the happiness of their bums, and a popularizer of anti-Western deconstructionism.
It is just not respectable, says Neuhaus, to be against “big government,” and he denounces “libertarians” who advocate a “free and unfettered market,” equating them with the “radical capitalists” the Pope criticizes. Neuhaus seems to have no knowledge of the Late Scholastic theologians, whose vision inspired the economic core of this papal document. (Not that the Pope’s “radical capitalists” are strawmen; left-libertarians like federal appeals judge Richard Posner vainly seek to link free markets and free sex.)
Neuhaus reserves special derision for paleolibertarianism, a “confused mingling of market economics and what is today called ‘paleoconservatism.'” Confused? This was the hallmark of the pre-neocon modern right, the prewar Old Right, 19th-century conservatives like Tocqueville, and most of the Founding Fathers, all of whom advocated economic freedom and traditional social institutions.
Unlike the author of the encyclical he claims to endorse, Neuhaus offers no fundamental critique of Washington’s planning and redistributionist schemes. He thinks it just fine that ever since Lincoln, American politics has exalted an antisubsidiarity principle: state aggression against every institution of society. These days, not even the smallest mom-and-pop grocery store in rural Wyoming is immune from the dictates of a dozen federal agencies. The Pope, on the other hand, insists on subsidiarity: the idea that the state may not interfere with the authority of community, family, business, and church. And he criticizes the neocons’ beloved welfare state for causing a “loss of human energies,” an “inordinate increase of public agencies,” “bureaucratic ways of thinking,” and “an enormous increase in spending.”
The Pope does not suggest, as Neuhaus says he does, “that the democratic idea is integral to a theologically and historically informed understanding of human nature.” Democracy has its uses for the Pope, but it is not in itself a high moral principle. In fact, says John Paul II: “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority.” The Pope is indicting those who elevate democracy over religion. But Neuhaus claims the Pope is “here throwing down the gauntlet to those who claim that religion poses a danger to democracy,” as if the latter were more important than the former.
Neuhaus says he believes in the “Social Gospel,” identifying it with “the Christian project in history.” In “the Christian scheme of things,” he claims, “we enter the Kingdom of God by the permission of the poor.” Ridiculous: we enter the Kingdom of God through grace, and because we have kept the faith and lived it. We have duties to the poor, of course, but they are hardly the sum and substance of Christianity. For Neuhaus, however, “our most elementary duty of love” is “for our neighbor.” So much for the Gospel and its injunction that we are first to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength.
Neuhaus pays little attention to the fact that the encyclical, although it treats political economy, is a religious document. As such, it is full of pastoral advice for the businessman in the pew. The Pope defends the free market against socialist attacks, but he warns businessmen that they arc responsible to more than the price system. Consumers may demand abortions, rap records, or sex books by Madonna, but no decent entrepreneur may seek to fill that demand. Capitalism flourishes only within a moral order. That docs not mean, pace Neuhaus, that we need the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but rather that businessmen should keep an eve on eternity while meeting their earthly needs. That is the challenge to the Christian capitalist—not making MLK a cultural icon.
Neuhaus misses most of this, yet he never passes up a chance to denounce anyone to his right, including those who sympathize with the Church of the time before Vatican II. He defines “modernity” as a virtue and “holding out against modernity” (which he ascribes to the Council of Trent) as an evil. This is a most un-Catholic position. Perhaps he adopts it because neoconservatism is a modern phenomenon. It is understandable that he should want to assure neoconservatives that their well-paid missionary, Richard John Neuhaus, is doing well. Whether he is doing good is another matter.
[Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist, by Richard John Neuhaus (New York: Doubleday) 312 pp., $22.00]