A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 65 (August/September 1996): 64-80.

Farewell to the Overclass

Egalitarian protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, every functional society has a class composed of those who wield concentrated political and economic power and who set its manners, or lack thereof. Within that class, different people do different things, and the most important thing that is done is the minting and marketing of the ideas by which people try to make sense of their lives.

Ruling class is the old-fashioned term, and happy the society in which the members of the ruling class wrap their preeminence in the language of equality and the goal of universal self-governance. In his last book, the late Christopher Lasch depicted the unhappy circumstance of our last several decades as a "betrayal of the elites." The elites, he said, have come to define democracy not in terms of self-governance but of upward mobility. In this view, the promise of democracy is the prospect of rising above the people to join the elites concentrated in government, the university, and the media.

We now have a quite new phenomenon in the history of the republic: two radically isolated sectors of the population, the underclass and the overclass. Both are in an adversarial posture toward the great majority of Americans, the overclass by virtue of ambition and unbounded self- esteem, the underclass by virtue of social incompetence and anomie. Between the two there is a fearful symmetry on many scores, but their service to each other is far from equal.

Although it goes back before the 1960s, the pattern then became more overt by which the overclass exploited the disadvantaged of the underclass to greatly expand their own rule. To be fair, they did not think they were exploiting the poor. And, in fact, the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956 through the rise of the black power movement in the early sixties was a rare instance in which elite advocacy on behalf of the disenfranchised and against entrenched custom enhanced the measure of justice in American life. That civil rights movement was, with considerable right, portrayed as a moment of moral luminosity, and the overclass has been basking in its afterglow for almost forty years. The principle seemed established for a time that the elites possessed their power, and were justly ambitious for more power, by virtue of their moral status as champions of the oppressed. The luminosity of that moment, however, was not sufficient to cast the light of moral legitimacy on all the causes that subsequently would be included in the great cause of all causes called Social Justice.

Upon consideration, most Americans declined the proposal that we should make permanent peace with communism (a.k.a. coexistence), were decidedly cool to the idea that marriage and motherhood are forms of slavery, deemed the drug culture a pathetic addiction, did not agree that religion in the classroom violated sacred rights, and persisted in viewing homosexuality as a perversion both pitiable and repugnant. They were unattracted by a cultural liberation that brought us crack houses, glory holes, and needle parks; and found themselves unable to follow the logic of replacing, by means of quotas, racial and sexual discrimination with racial and sexual discrimination. Most important, and despite the sustained barrage of decades of propaganda, Americans stubbornly refused to believe that the unlimited license to kill unborn children constituted a great leap forward in our understanding of human dignity. As if that were not enough, it had become evident by the 1970s that the social programs issuing from the civil rights movement had turned in very nasty ways upon the very people they were intended to help, resulting in an urban and chiefly black underclass of pathologies unbounded.

Clearly the moral mandate claimed from that now distant moment of luminosity had run out. The political notice that its date of expiration had passed was decisively given in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, although the notice was evident enough in the rejection of George McGovern eight years earlier. Mr. Clinton captured the White House, albeit with a minority of voters, because, like all successful presidential candidates after l964, he ran as a conservative, and because George Bush apparently stopped running when apprised of the probability that he was not to be reelected by acclamation. But let us not be distracted by politics.

Isolated Enclaves

The fact is that we now find ourselves with two alienated classes. It is alienation that distinguishes today's overclass from the ruling classes of the past. A ruling class that discreetly disguised its role in deference to democratic sensibilities was by most Americans thought to be bearable and even admirable, especially as its privileges were thought to be derived from breeding and achievement. The overclass is something else. As the word suggests, it is marked by an overbearing quality; it presents itself as being over and against the American people but is quite unable to give any good reasons for its pretensions to superiority.

The encouraging thing is that an overclass cannot sustain itself as a ruling class because it offers no argument for its right to rule. Assumed superiority is not an argument. The overclass that emerged from the 1960s deconstructed the moral foundations of its current privilege by its relentless attack on all traditional justifications of privilege. Proponents of permanent revolution are hard put to call for a pause in the revolution in order to allow them to savor their triumph. They cannot recall from the political culture the passions and prejudices which they employed in overthrowing the establishment, and by which they are now being overthrown. Today's moment of populist insurrection is commonly called traditionalist, but it is in large part a continuation of the revolution of the sixties, now directed against the revolutionaries of the overclass who seized the commanding heights of culture.

Their perch on the heights is most precarious. In ways beyond numbering, Americans are railing at the governmental, media, and university elites, declaring that they have had enough and are not going to take it anymore. Rather than perching on the heights, it may be more accurate to say that these elites have retreated to protective enclaves in search of refuge against an angry and ungrateful populace. There they find solace among their own kind. In undisturbed caucus they propound the true socialism that has been betrayed by every socialism tried; their network anchorpersons sound nightly alarums against the ascendant fascism of Christian conservatives; and they churn out unreadable academic deconstructions of elitism, turning a blind eye to the elite that they are. Or the elite that for one shining moment-a Camelot, so to speak- they thought themselves to be. But now the enclaves are shadowed by the suspicion that they are only talking to themselves. Outside, the barbarians are taking over.

Why America Hates Harvard

The antielitist elite of the overclass finds itself in a galling quandary. It was no big news that Harvard hated America; the best and the brightest have always been prone to indulging a measure of contempt for the generality of mankind. The new twist is that America hates Harvard because Harvard despises what Harvard is supposed to represent- scholarship, honesty, and manners worthy of emulation. America is in rebellion against an overclass that has systematically trashed the values by which a ruling class can justly claim the right to rule. (Which, of course, does not stop many young Americans from wanting to join the overclass, also by way of Harvard.)

In addition to the inherent incoherence of anti-elitist elitism, the overclass attempted something quite new that has not worked and almost certainly cannot work. Looking back on the ruins of the glory that was Rome (his Camelot, so to speak), Gibbon, with a grandiloquence equal to his prodigious bigotry, blamed "the barbarians and religion." The same combination of barbarians and religion is blamed by today's overclass for its decline and impending fall. Both history and common sense suggest that there is no sustainable rule without religion. Not necessarily this religion or that, but religion in the sense of religare, of ideas and traditions that bind people together, that evoke the communal adherence we call loyalty. Being itself loyal to nothing, the overclass cannot evoke loyalty.

One cannot hold the commanding heights without commanding truths, and it was by the rejection of commanding truths that the overclass seized the heights in the first place. In the absence of truths, or even of the possibility of truth, the overclass, led by such as Richard Rorty, wanly sings the praises of "ironic liberalism," and tries not to notice that the choir gets smaller and smaller. They mint and try to market ideas that no sensible person would want to live by; their cultural coinage is rejected as being backed by nothing-literally nothing, as the debonair nihilists who issue it readily confess, indeed, as they incessantly boast.

So this is the new thing about the overclass: it does not so much want to rule as to be admired for having exposed the fraudulence of rule. At the same time, of course, it does want to rule. At least, if somebody must rule-and in the nature of things, somebody must-the members of the overclass, while denying in principle anything that might be called the nature of things, has a decided preference for ruling rather than being ruled. Especially if the alternative is the rule of barbarians and religion, meaning the American people.

Rulers of the past produced various warrants for their rule. There was, for instance, the divine right of kings. Gibbon and his philosophe friends contended that the religion of the Enlightenment provided a rationalist access to truth that superseded the dark ages before their arrival. More recently, Marxist masters were legitimated by putatively scientific appeal to the dialectic of history. Here in America, a ruling class that bore some similarities to the current overclass located its right to rule in its calling to reeducate the commoners. John Dewey and his acolytes recognized that Americans could not be weaned from religion except by a more attractive religion, and so Dewey proposed his Common Faith of Democracy, frankly presented as the religion of humanism, only to discover that Americans were incorrigibly attached to the antique truths of Sinai and Calvary. In bitter disillusionment, the heirs of Dewey resolved that, if they could not impose their religion, they would expunge religion altogether from our public life, and especially from the schools.

Whether called the knowledge class, the new class, or the overclass, today it is tottering, and it knows it. The campaign of liberation from the traditional meanings that give life meaning met with such popular hostility that some of the overclass had second thoughts. From out of one defensive enclave rode a paladin of high spiritual purpose proposing nothing less than a "politics of meaning." A puzzled populace, not knowing what was meant by meaning but recognizing the politics, politely declined the proposal. The politics may be disguised for the nonce, and there may be another election or two to be won, but the rule of the overclass is drawing to a close.

A generation that was born, nursed, and reared by the overclass, that never knew anything but the overclass, must finally fall back upon sounding a final trumpet for the nostrum that first roused it to political consciousness: The American people want change! The American people warmly agree. And so it was, future historians will note, that the overclass rode off into the sunset astride the weary old charger named Change, the very horse on which it had arrived.

Undoing Voluntarism

This year's John Courtney Murray Lecture was delivered by John A. Coleman, S.J., of Berkeley. I have a fondness for that lectureship, since it provided the occasion for my first setting forth the thesis of "the naked public square." Father Coleman impressively builds on that argument with his examination of religiously based activism in the public square. He looks at groups as diverse as Habitat for Humanity, Bread for the World, and Focus on the Family, noting that even secular analysts acknowledge that the preponderance of citizen action in this country is rooted in communities of religious faith.

Coleman's reflection is somewhat weakened by a failure to note all the ways in which voluntary groups can undermine their own genius. He does mention the problem of business executives in Habitat for Humanity who urge that home building might be done more efficiently by depending less on volunteers. Neglected, however, is the way in which other activist groups become instruments of governmental expansion. Many years ago, Arthur Simon and I-both Lutheran pastors at the time-planned the launching of Bread for the World. During the years that Art was president and I was on the executive committee, I believe Bread did great good in alerting Christians to the problems of world hunger. Eventually, however, the organization became less an instrument of citizen action in response to human need than yet another liberal pressure group lobbying for increased government spending. While continuing to respect Art Simon and many others involved, I was reluctantly forced to the conclusion that, on both domestic and international policies, Bread had become a part of the problem. Fr. Coleman rightly notes the ways in which voluntarism can be undone by corporate entanglements, but his analysis would be strengthened by attention to the equal or even greater threat of entanglement with government.

The burden of Coleman's lecture, however, is to underscore the continuing problems of the naked public square. He sharply criticizes theorists such as Harvard's John Rawls who contend that religious discourse can have no legitimate place in public debate. Philosopher Robert Audi of the University of Nebraska has urged that religiously motivated citizens should practice "epistemic abstinence." Respect for nonbelievers, he contends, requires that believers who address public policy questions should refrain from appealing to identifiably religious arguments. Coleman strongly objects to this "gag rule" on religion in public. He cites Sanford Levinson, law professor at the University of Texas: "Why doesn't liberal philosophy give everyone an equal right, without engaging in any version of epistemic abstinence, to make his or her arguments, subject to the prerogative of listeners to reject the arguments, should they be unpersuasive-which will be the case, almost by definition, with arguments that are not widely accessible or are otherwise marginal."

A critic who attended this year's John Courtney Murray lecture complained that it offered no theoretical advance on arguments that are now familiar, but that strikes me as unfair. As Dr. Johnson observed, we have a greater need to be reminded than to be instructed. John A. Coleman renders an important service by reminding us of the perduring power of the bigotries that would exclude religion from public discourse, and by lifting up once again the importance of voluntarism and mediating institutions to the vitality of American democracy. It is not a valid complaint to say that it was said before, even in the forum of the John Courtney Murray lecture. One might as well complain that Tocqueville said most of it 160 years ago. The point is that it needs to be said again and again, and we should be grateful to Fr. Coleman for taking on that necessary, and necessarily modest, task.

What To Do in a Dangerous world

Fifty years after Winston Churchill gave his famous "iron curtain" speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Lady Thatcher addressed the state of the world on the same spot. (She noted that the earlier speech was not well received at the time. "To judge by the critics you would have imagined that it was not Stalin but Churchill who had drawn down the iron curtain.") Curiously, the Thatcher speech received almost no attention in the national press, so here are some important pieces of it.

She compares 1946 and 1996: "Today we are at what could be a similar watershed. The long twilight struggle of the Cold War ended five years ago with complete victory for the West and for the subject peoples of the Communist empire-and I very much include the Russian people in that description. It ended amid high hopes of a New World Order. But those hopes have been grievously disappointed. Somalia, Bosnia, and the rise of Islamic militancy all point to instability and conflict rather than cooperation and harmony."

The aftermath of communism's collapse is, to put it gently, problematic: "Like a giant refrigerator that had finally broken down after years of poor maintenance, the Soviet empire in its collapse released all the ills of ethnic, social, and political backwardness which it had frozen in suspended animation for so long. . . . The moral vacuum created by communism in everyday life was filled for some by a revived Orthodox Church, but for others by the rise in crime, corruption, gambling, and drug addiction-all contributing to a spreading ethic of luck, a belief that economic life is a zero-sum game, and an irrational nostalgia for a totalitarian order without totalitarian methods."

Much of Lady Thatcher's concern was aimed at nuclear proliferation: "The Soviet collapse has also aggravated the single most awesome threat of modern times: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These weapons-and the ability to develop and deliver them-are today acquired by middle-income countries with modest populations such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria-acquired sometimes from other powers like China and North Korea, but most ominously from former Soviet arsenals, or unemployed scientists, or from organized criminal rings, all via a growing international black market." She held up the prospect that, by the end of this decade, we may see twenty countries with ballistic missiles, nine with nuclear weapons, ten with biological weapons, and up to thirty with chemical weapons of mass destruction.

Her view of the Islamic insurgency is grim: "Within the Islamic world the Soviet collapse undermined the legitimacy of radical secular regimes and gave an impetus to the rise of radical Islam. Radical Islamist movements now constitute a major revolutionary threat not only to the Saddams and Assads but also to conservative Arab regimes, who are allies of the West. Indeed they challenge the very idea of a Western economic presence. Hence, the random acts of violence designed to drive American companies and tourists out of the Islamic world."

With the end of the automatic Soviet veto, some thought the UN ("multilateralism") would be the way to order the world. "Of course, there was always a fair amount of hypocrisy embedded in multilateralist doctrine. The Haiti intervention by U.S. forces acting under a United Nations mandate, for instance, was defended as an exercise in restoring a Haitian democracy that had never existed; but it might be better described in the language of Clausewitz as the continuation of American immigration control by other means. But honest multilateralism without the spur of national interest has led to intervention without clear aims."

Star Wars Redux

One reasonable response to the new world disorder, she suggests, is an effective ballistic missile defense (Reagan's much scorned "star wars"), which is receiving more respectful attention these days. The contribution of such a defense is at least five-fold: "First and most obviously it promises the possibility of protection if deterrence fails; or if there is a limited and unauthorized use of nuclear missiles. Second, it would also preserve the capability of the West to project its power overseas. Third, it would diminish the dangers of one country overturning the regional balance of power by acquiring these weapons. Fourth, it would strengthen our existing deterrent against a hostile nuclear superpower by preserving the West's powers of retaliation. And fifth, it would enhance diplomacy's power to restrain proliferation by diminishing the utility of offensive systems." Without that and other constructive measures, the next century may see a repeat of "1914 played on a somewhat larger stage."

"That need not come to pass if the Atlantic Alliance remains as it is today: in essence, America as the dominant power surrounded by allies which generally follow its lead. Such are the realities of population, resources, technology, and capital that if America remains the dominant partner in a united West, and militarily engaged in Europe, then the West can continue to be the dominant power in the world as a whole." NATO, she believes, should be expanded to include Poland, Hungary, and other Central European countries, and a new "Atlantic initiative" should bind Europe and the U.S. diplomatically, militarily, and economically.

On transatlantic economics she says: "I realize that this may not seem the most propitious moment in American politics to advocate a new trade agreement. But the arguments against free trade between advanced industrial countries and poor Third World ones-even if I accepted them, which I do not-certainly do not apply to a transatlantic free trade deal. Such a trade bloc would unite countries with similar incomes and levels of regulation. It would therefore involve much less disruption and temporary job loss-while still bringing significant gains in efficiency and prosperity. . . . And it would create a trade bloc of unparalleled wealth (and therefore influence) in world trade negotiations." Harking back to the days when people spoke more easily about a "special relationship" between Britain and the U.S., Lady Thatcher declared: "But it is the West-above all perhaps, the English- speaking peoples of the West-that has formed that system of liberal democracy which is politically dominant and which we all know offers the best hope of global peace and prosperity. In order to uphold these things, the Atlantic political relationship must be constantly nurtured and renewed."

Of course not everyone will be persuaded by Lady Thatcher's diagnosis and prescription for world affairs, but she is one of the most lucid and cant-free political figures on the world stage today, and what she said at Fulton deserves much more attention than it received. Particularly refreshing is her unabashed belief that the cause of freedom is, above all, a moral enterprise.

The Extremity of the Mainstream

In politics it matters a lot who gets described as "mainstream" and who as "extreme." And, of course, the media do the describing. Politicians who "defend a woman's right to choose" are mainstream. Those who would "ban abortion" are extreme. A new national survey by the Tarrance Group shows that only 13 percent of Americans favor unrestricted access to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. That is the "mainstream" position. Fifty-two percent of Americans favor the outlawing of all abortions, or all abortions except the 1 percent (according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute) performed for rape/incest/life of mother. That is the "extreme" position. Go figure.

Almost any Republican who is "pro-choice" is described as a "moderate." The new thing is that it is now very widely recognized that, on abortion and much else, the mainstream media are far from the mainstream. "Moderate" and "mainstream" have become synonyms for the L-word that very few practicing politicians dare to use these days. In the last couple of months a number of books by academics have announced the revival of liberalism, but these volumes have about them a sweated tone of desperation. Of course such a revival will almost certainly happen at some point, but not for some years, I expect, and then liberalism redux may bear slight resemblance to the liberalism we have known.

Meanwhile, the increasingly marginal mainstream media will continue to depict as marginal the positions embraced by a majority of Americans. The consoling thing in all this is that the establishment media are not anywhere near so powerful as they, and their critics, claim. The next time you come across inflated claims about the omnipotence of communications in this "media age," prick the balloon with one word: Abortion. Twenty-three years ago, the establishment media, joined by almost every major institution in the country, unanimously declared that Roe had "settled" the abortion question. In fact, when the history of this period is rightly written, it will tell that Roe, more than any other single factor, radically destabilized our politics, with the result that a surprised and uncomprehending establishment frantically insists that the views of a small and declining minority really do, all appearances and election returns to the contrary, represent "the mainstream."

Maybe, they think, saying it often enough will make it so. That, combined with vesting their hopes in politicians of the left who campaign as conservatives, may restore the world that was before the "extremists" took over. What choice do such people have, except to admit that, just maybe, they got things wrong. Before doing that, the oracles who anchor the establishment networks and newsrooms will solemnly announce to the world that the American people have simply gone crazy. Not surprisingly, we are already getting books and articles reviving the contention that our constitutional order is in need of a major overhaul. The present system is simply ungovernable. And of course they're right: It is ungovernable, by them.

While We're At It