Is “First Things” Preist Neuhaus Really That Disingenuous?

Given how anti-climatically predictable Romney’s big religion speech turned out to be, I’m getting a little sick of talking about it. Maybe I can ween myself off the subject by talking about the people still talking about it instead.

For instance, founder of the popular ecumenical journal “First Things,” Richard John Neuhaus wasn’t floored by Mitt’s speech, yet he can’t quite help but try to get a few kicks in on anyone that might wonder if exploiting religious fervor against atheist boogeymen is maybe a cynical sort of thing to do. Here’s Neuhaus responding to David Brooks’ Op-Ed:

Mr. Brooks says that Romney “asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.” That’s not quite right. He was making a bid for the support of people who find themselves on one side of a culture war that they did not declare. (emphasis added)

That’s last bit is really quite amazing. It would be quite silly for me to argue in response that the religious right solely started the culture wars. Any half-sane student of American history should know that our nation has been defined by neverending yet endlessly evolving culture clashes from even before its founding.

But playing the hurt and naive “he hit me first!” card is simply preposterous coming from Neuhaus, who has built a career as an ultra-conservative political activist and sometimes rabble rousing culture kvetcher. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but he and his have picked as many fights as anyone else. And frankly, when you look out at culture wars now, the folks who really rake in cash hyping it, promoting it, reveling in it are overwhelmingly people on Neuhaus’ side of the fence. In many cases, it seems like only Neuhaus’ side even thinks of it as a war in the first place. You only have to look at the difference in subject and tone between the Democratic and Republican primaries to see this: Republicans are fighting over who is a more profoundly militant servant of Jesus while Democrats are bickering over minute differences in wonkish health plans.

So, yeah: playing the ambushed martyr here does involve some pretty disingenuous posturing on Neuhaus’ part. But he isn’t done naming names yet:

If you wonder who did declare the war, you need go no further than the facing page of the Times on the same day, with its typically strident editorial attacking Mr. Romney and his argument about religion in American public life.

Problem is, it’s actually possible to read the Times editorial slightly more observantly than a quick skim to confirm that religion is mentioned and that the tone is critical. In fact, what the article really does is DEFLATE the culture war hype that Neuhaus and Romney both thrive off of; pointing out how disingenuous it is for Romney to paint secularism as trying to drive religion out of the culture when in fact its goals are a lot more modest. Here’s the Times:

The other myth permeating the debate over religion is that it is a dispute between those who believe religion has a place in public life and those who advocate, as Mr. Romney put it, “the elimination of religion from the public square.” That same nonsense is trotted out every time a court rules that the Ten Commandments may not be displayed in a government building.

Given that Neuhaus is an avid peddler of this very sort of nonsense, you can see how getting called out on it might irritate him, or seem like an attack on his beliefs, rather than the attack on his brand of rhetorical excess and exaggeration. But the Times isn’t done trying to destroy religion yet:

We believe democracy cannot exist without separation of church and state, not that public displays of faith are anathema. We believe, as did the founding fathers, that no specific religion should be elevated above all others by the government. (emphasis added)

Ooooooo! How dare they hold a more nuanced and tolerant opinion about civics than Romney. It’s WAR ON RELIGION, right!?

Well, I’m unconvinced. When you have to fabricate your opponents “fightin’ words” in order to promote the throw-down, the whole thing starts to look a lot more like a game than a war.

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