Wisdom of an exile

Several years ago, a book appeared accusing Father Richard John Neuhaus and some of his associates of being "theocons" bent on imposing a Christian polity on the United States.

Since several of the theocons were Jews, the charge was questionable on its face. Now, as Father Neuhaus' invigorating, posthumously published book "American Babylon" (Basic Books, $26.95) makes clear, the religious worldview of this remarkable Catholic priest, who died in January at the age of 72, settles it.

The fundamental premise of his Augustinian convictions was that although the kingdom of God is present and active in the world, the world itself most certainly is not the kingdom. Christians should be an active force for good there, but the world, flawed by sin, is and will remain a place of provisional solutions and interim answers -- a place of "politics for the time being."

Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism in 1990, was editor of the journal of opinion First Things, author of influential books, informal adviser to President George W. Bush and a feisty intellectual polemicist of the culture war. One reason to mourn his loss is that he isn't here to analyze the Obamania that now afflicts so many susceptible Christians.

In keeping with the author's Christian-Augustinian worldview, "American Babylon" is subtitled "Notes of a Christian Exile." He explains:

"For the writers of the early Christian centuries, such as Augustine and Jerome, Babylon represented the power, arrogance, idolatry and general wickedness of the Roman Empire. ... It would seem that Babylon has not definitively fallen, and will not definitively fall, until it is finally displaced by the New Jerusalem of biblical promise. For the Christian, the warfare has not ended; we are still far from our promised home."

And lest there be any doubt: "America is our homeland ... America is also ... a foreign country. Like every political configuration of the earthly city, America, too, is Babylon."

As might be expected of a writer who appeared to read everything and think seriously about it all, the eight chapters of this highly readable book range broadly in subject. The common thread, one might say, is religion in public life -- except that this prosaic expression fails to suggest the richness and variety of the treatment.

The intellectual heart of "American Babylon" is a long essay on the thought of the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who died in 2007 after a long and distinguished career in academia. Many people have never heard of Rorty, but Father Neuhaus makes a persuasive case that the baleful influence of this pragmatist-relativist-nihilist requires exposure.

Father Neuhaus is nothing if not provocative. In a chapter called "Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?" he concludes that the answer is no -- in a country like the United States, grounded at its founding in religious values, an atheist "can be a citizen, but he cannot be a good citizen" precisely because atheism itself can't explain what the country is all about.

By contrast, "those who adhere to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus turn out to be the best citizens." No doubt this is deliberate table-turning at the expense of secularists who seek to exclude religious believers from public life -- by sneering at them as "theocons," for example -- but Father Neuhaus means what he says.

Evidently written as he was dying, the book's closing words are moving. In the end, he writes, the present moment is "a time for happy surrender to brother death -- but not before, through our laughter and tears, we see and hail from afar the New Jerusalem and know that it is all time toward home."

Fitting last words from a man of faith.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.