On Alan Jacobs’s Christian intellectuals

At Harper’s Magazine, Alan Jacobs has a lengthy essay, “The Watchmen,” more or less bewailing the disappearance, as Jacobs has it, of Christian intellectuals from the American scene. The problem with Jacobs’s piece, as we see it, is remarkably simple: when it isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, it’s pointless. He sets for himself a big project and then, apparently, decides that he’d rather not make a go of it. (He also has some weird ideas, at least from a Catholic perspective, as we’ll see, about Catholicism.) Political liberals, Jacobs explains, are living an increasingly reactionary world, and they are without the means of understanding the reaction that befuddles and terrifies them. Christian intellectuals, Jacobs says, who were most prominent in the middle of the 20th century, could explain the reactionaries to the liberals. What?

No, really. What?

We have not seen any desire among political liberals—and Jacobs never clarifies what he means by that term until it’s too late—to have Donald Trump, for example, explained to them in Christian terms. Political liberals already know what they think of Trump and the voters that have propelled him to the Republican nomination. They don’t need Christian intellectuals to explain these trends. And that’s assuming that Christians could explain the broader trends. Even conservative Christians seem to be divided on Trump, with many Christians adopting an exhausted, “think of the Supreme Court” approach to Trump. Which is not exactly a robust approach to a new political movement, for what it’s worth. (And recalling Scalia’s Obergefell dissent, about which we have changed our mind in recent months, it is strange to imagine Christians voting for Trump in the hope that he’ll find another proceduralist to replace Scalia.) So, we wonder why Jacobs thinks that Christian intellectuals are necessary to interpret the Trump trend—or any of a whole host of trends—to centrists or leftists.

And Jacobs never really answers that question. Indeed, he quickly abandons the idea of the intellectual-as-interpreter. Instead, he seems to conceive of the Christian intellectual as someone who gives political liberals a religious explanation for things they were predisposed to believe. (Though why he thinks political liberals want a religious justification for things they already believe is, again, beyond us.) Jacobs explains:

Oldham’s Moot and Finkelstein’s Conference shared a pair of beliefs: that the West was suffering a kind of moral crisis, and that a religious interpretation of that crisis was required. The nature of the problem, the believing intellectuals agreed, was a kind of waffling uncertainty about core principles and foundational belief. Faced with ideological challenges from the totalitarian Axis powers and from the communist Soviet Union, democracy did not seem to know why it should be preferred to alternatives whose advocates celebrated them so passionately and reverently. What democracy needed was a metaphysical justification — or, at least, a set of metaphysically grounded reasons for preferring democracy to those great and terrifying rivals.

In was in this context — a democratic West seeking to understand why it was fighting and what it was fighting for — that the Christian intellectual arose. Before World War II there had been Christians who were also intellectuals, but not a whole class of people who understood themselves, and were often understood by others, to be watchmen observing the democratic social order and offering a distinctive interpretation of it. Mannheim, who was born Jewish but professed no religious belief, joined with these people because he saw them pursuing the genuine calling of the intellectual. Perhaps Mortimer Adler felt the same way: it would otherwise be difficult to explain why he, also a Jew by birth and also (at that time) without any explicit religious commitments, would think that the West could be saved only through careful attention to the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

(Emphasis supplied.) Whatever this process is, it is not explaining to political liberals the forces of reaction. Instead, it seems like a process of explaining to political liberals why the forces of reaction are not just wrong in the hic et nunc, but wrong in the only analysis that matters, the religious analysis. One doubts—we doubt, at any rate—whether such they need the help.

But who are these voices? W.H. Auden, Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and a few others. In other words, for the most part, sort of high-church protestants from the middle of the 20th century. Auden died in 1973, Niebuhr in 1971, Lewis in 1963, and Eliot in 1965. On Twitter, Matthew Sitman, associate editor at Commonweal, makes the point that these men did most of their most important work in a short time, mostly in the context of actual war. We draw very different conclusions than Sitman, but his series of tweets is well worth reading. His most cogent point is that, by the 1950s, the men Jacobs discusses had moved on to more personal, perhaps less compelling, projects. (By way of example: Little Gidding appeared in 1942 and the collected Four Quartets appeared the United States in 1943. [They would appear in England in 1944.]) And he’s right. If you consider the Christian intellectual project as winning the peace by finding a religious justification for western liberal democracy—and that seems to be Jacobs’s definition—it lasted about 25 years in the middle of the 20th century (1945–1970). And by returning to this brief period—which is probably briefer than we say, since, as Sitman notes, Niebuhr’s last great book was published in the 1950s—Jacobs lays himself open to the charge of sentimentalism and nostalgia. And, we suppose, to high-church liberal protestants, there is much to lament with the passing of that moment in the public discourse.

Catholics might feel otherwise, since from October 1978 to April 2005, the Church was led by John Paul II, who was very much a Christian intellectual of a very different stripe than the ones Jacobs wants to talk about—recall Wojtyla’s corpus from Love and Responsibility to the Theology of the Body discourses to his major encyclicals as pope, whatever one makes of any particular contribution in that vein. The point is clear: the intellectual discourse in the Church, both about Christianity and how Christianity relates to a world hostile to it in many respects, especially moral, remained at a high level. But, Jacobs, for some reason, makes clear that the Christian intellectuals he admires so much did not necessarily include Catholic voices:

To be sure, in America the Fifties were a time of public emergence for many Catholic intellectuals, especially writers of fiction: J. F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy. But these figures were almost assertively apolitical, and when Catholics did write politically, it was largely in order to emphasize the fundamental compatibility of Catholicism with what John Courtney Murray — a Jesuit theologian who was the most prominent Catholic public intellectual of that time — called “the American Proposition.” Murray was not wholly uncritical of the American social order, but his criticisms were framed with great delicacy: in a time of worldwide conflict, he wrote, “there is no element” of that proposition that escapes being “menaced by active negation, and no thrust of the project that does not meet powerful opposition.” Therefore, “America must be more clearly conscious of what it proposes, more articulate in proposing, more purposeful in the realization of the project proposed.” The American idea is in no sense mistaken, though Americans might need to be “more articulate” in stating and defending that idea. This Murray was willing to help us do, by explaining that the Catholic tradition of natural law was the very same principle that the Founding Fathers appealed to when they declared “that all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” It is wholly unaccidental that Murray’s book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition was published in 1960, when a Roman Catholic named John F. Kennedy was standing as the Democratic Party’s nominee for president of the United States.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is a strange point to make, though fundamentally correct: the Catholic intellectuals of the immediate postwar period spent a lot of energy trying to make American-style liberal democracy compatible with Catholicism. Yet, Jacobs seems to miss the deeper connections between that project and the sort of Christian intellectualism he would like to see restored to the public sphere.

Beginning with Pius IX, whose great Quanta cura and Syllabus Errorum condemned propositions that many red-blooded protestant Americans would have considered essential to American democracy—and continuing through Leo XIII’s great encyclicals on social affairs, including Testem benevolentiae nostrae, a warning about Americanism (narrowly defined) and Pius XI’s own, towering contributions to the social teaching of the Church—the good and holy popes of the modern age critiqued aspects of American-style democracy, while on the whole encouraging the American experiment. (Cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical on Catholicism in the United States Longinqua oceani, Jan. 6, 1895.) The upshot of all of this is that, for a Catholic adhering to these teachings, as a Catholic must, there are aspects of American-style democracy that were (and remain) questionable propositions at best. And this is where Jacobs misses his own professed point when discussing the Catholic intellectuals of the postwar period.

We said that Jacobs abandons his original thesis pretty early on, and this a good example of that. He says that Christian intellectuals are necessary to relate reactionary trends to liberal democrats. From an American perspective, few things are as reactionary as the Church’s pre-conciliar teaching on the proper relationship of Church and state, as well as religious freedom and toleration. (From a traditional Catholic perspective, they are far from reactionary and instead represent a deeper liberty, but that is a debate for another time.) Seen in that light, Murray represents a better example of the sort of intellectual that Jacobs wants: showing Catholics that American-style democracy was ultimately compatible with Catholic principles. And Murray was ultimately successful, since the Council’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, represents a partial victory for his thinking. (For an example of what he thought, see his 1964–65 article, “The Problem of Religious Freedom”, or this article from America.) Perhaps the direction is reversed—certainly Murray didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the Church’s historic position on indifferentism to liberal democrats—but the basic idea is the same, and it cannot be denied that Murray’s project was more concretely successful than simply giving liberal democrats a theological dimension for their preexisting belief in liberal democracy.

Jacobs’s weirdness on Catholicism doesn’t stop there, either. Jacobs turns to the life of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the tremendously influential publisher of First Things, to illustrate a point about the Christian intellectual’s reaction to the trends of the 1960s and 1970s. But again Jacobs draws a weird point. Jacobs’s point is this: Neuhaus, previously known for socially progressive politics, was shocked, as any thinking person was, by the horror of abortion loosed after Roe v. Wade in 1973. He hoped that the antiwar and civil-rights tendencies within American Christianity would join him in opposing abortion. That did not happen, and, in fact, Neuhaus lost his access to the mainstream media. So he went and started First Things, which Jacobs calls a “subaltern counterpublic,” which began arguing for mutual toleration through separatism. Maybe Jacobs’s narrative is right, but his perspective is one sided. To many traditionally minded Catholics, however, Neuhaus’s project is essentially a fusion of Catholics, evangelicals, and Jews to articulate, essentially, basic conservative politics. This project may have had its roots in the prolife movement—since horror at abortion was by no means confirmed to Catholics—but its scope is broader than that. It encompasses most of the major goals of the American political right. In other words, no less than John Courtney Murray, Richard John Neuhaus represents an attempt to make American politics compatible with Catholicism. Thus, it is not surprising that Jacobs misses Neuhaus’s greater significance.

How, then, does Jacobs fail to understand that, more than the liberal protestants he focuses on, Catholics have been performing, though perhaps in different ways, the role of the Christian intellectual? Indeed, even after the death of the men he mentions, there have been prominent Catholic intellectual figures, like Neuhaus, or Robert George or George Weigel or Rusty Reno or whoever,  who have performed the basic thing Jacobs wants to see. So why doesn’t he see it? The key to all of this, really, is this paragraph:

It was the Sixties that changed everything, and not primarily because of the Vietnam War or the cause of civil rights. There were many Christians on both sides of those divides. The primary conflict was over the sexual revolution and the changes in the American legal system that accompanied it: changes in divorce law, for instance, but especially in abortion law. (Many Christians supported and continue to support abortion rights, of course; but abortion is rarely if ever the central, faith-defining issue for them that it often is for those in the pro-life camp.) By the time these changes happened and Christian intellectuals found themselves suddenly outside the circles of power, no longer at the head table of liberalism, Christians had built up sufficient institutional stability and financial resourcefulness to be able to create their own subaltern counterpublics. And this temptation proved irresistible. As Marilynne Robinson has rightly said in reflecting on the agitation she can create by calling herself a Christian, “This is a gauge of the degree to which the right has colonized the word and also of the degree to which the center and left have capitulated, have surrendered the word and also the identity.”

(Emphasis supplied.) Ah. There it is. Jacobs is only interested in liberalism in the American political sense, not in the sense we more regularly see it used in Catholic circles. (Not as in, for example, liberalism is a heresy.)

And this is, we think, explains everything. On one hand, it explains the nostalgic tone. The Christian left in the United States is not an especially powerful force. Part of this has been the collapse of the mainline protestant denominations, and part of it has been the remarkably durable coalition of Catholics, evangelical protestants, and Jews on pro-life issues, which has translated into the substantial alignment of that coalition with the Republican Party. There has also been, at least from 1964 to the present, the rise of the organized political right in the United States, which has long included a strong religious element. One could probably plot all the trends on the same graph—presuming one could find statistics to represent the trends—and they’d line up pretty neatly. Jacobs, then, is nostalgic for a time when Christians on the political left had popular prestige and widespread influence, neither of which do they have in any quantity today.

On the other hand, it explains the weirdness about Catholicism, which has never lined up neatly on either side of the American political spectrum, though in recent years Christ’s Church has found herself on the right more often than the left. Certainly some of that shift can be attributed to John Paul’s general direction, especially on moral questions. But even during the Cold War years—which are, it seems, Jacobs’s preoccupation—the Church was engaged in various projects, such as the Second Vatican Council and the major reforms following the Council, that only incidentally lined up with the interests of the American political left. (One wonders, and we suppose that a historian would have the answer, what effect “Seamless Garment” ideology propounded by John Cardinal Dearden and others had on the American left more broadly; it always seemed like an attempt to import conventional leftism into the Church, not the other way around.) It makes sense, therefore, that Jacobs has strange notions about what was happening in American Catholicism, to say nothing of an apparent desire to minimize its importance, since what was happening was, as we say, only incidentally related to what Jacobs is talking about.

In all of this, Jacobs never answers the question we started with: why do political liberals want or, indeed, need Christian intellectuals to explain these trends to them? Especially since Jacobs’s idea of the Christian intellectual does not include voices—mostly Catholic—who might be able to explain the sense of loss and alienation from the culture that Trump voters allegedly feel. Jacobs seems to want liberal protestants around to comment on these trends. But he does not consider that the insights—or lack thereof—of liberal protestants might explain in part why there aren’t too many liberal protestants around any more.

EDIT: After publishing this piece, we noted a few mistakes that we did not want to leave in this piece. We have gone back and cleaned them up, but we have not changed the substance of this essay. – pjs