Joe Sobran, Recovered From the Ashes
I was in Washington not long ago meeting with a Catholic journalist whose work I have admired for years. We met in his office, which was really more a cocoon of books. His is one of those eclectic libraries—everything from leather-bound, gild-edged tomes of canon law to cheap paperbacks of Waugh and Bernarnos—where one knows each volume has been read and cherished by its owner. Yet my eyes were drawn to three volumes standing side by side, their spines unmistakable to any teenaged Republican who opposed both the Iraq War and abortion, and felt politically homeless because of it.
Single Issues. Subtracting Christianity. The National Review Years.
“Joe Sobran,” I muttered. He looked at me side-eyed. “It’s dangerous to have his stuff lying around,” I joked. My host smiled. “He was a good friend, and the best writer of his generation.”
My friend’s opinion is one he shares with Ann Coulter, of all people, as well as yours truly. That’s no small praise, given he was of the same generation as William F. Buckley, Christopher Hitchens, and Gay Talese. But why would any sane person still read Sobran after all these years? Given his defiant “Holocaust skepticism,” keeping his books seems offensive to common decency, let alone common sense. Even if you are not of the opinion that art should be condemned with the artist’s prejudices, surely it’s a different matter if the medium is opinion journalism.
Yet the answer is the same as it would be for (say) T.S. Eliot: no one ever has done, or ever could do, what he did. There will only ever be one Joseph Sobran. When he was excommunicated from the conservative movement, we lost our best hope for intellectual credibility. His was a latae sententiae excommunication, of course, which is why there can be no posthumous rehabilitation for the man himself. It is only a question of whether his books should remain on the Index.
That question is painfully relevant in the wake of the 2016 election, not least because of the so-called “Crisis of Evangelicalism.” When the Jerry Falwell Juniors began shamelessly pandering to then-candidate Trump, it appeared to spell death for social conservatism. That now-president Trump has kept his promise to fight against abortion is a pleasant surprise, but only that. The Moral Majority is now a minority and is struggling to remain politically relevant. Simply marshaling votes for the GOP frontrunner is not a viable long-term strategy for upholding public virtue, as Sobran well understood.
Sobran’s philosophy was no crude majoritarianism. He did not outsource his pro-life activism to the megachurches, as did so many in right-wing media at the time, Catholics included. Instead, he spent his career forging a social policy grounded in natural law—a tradition of conservatism he traced back through Johnson, Burke, Chesterton, Lewis, Oakeshott, and Orwell.
Take an example from his most important theme: abortion. Sobran was quick to point out that the Catholic Church’s opposition to the practice is grounded, not in revelation or dogma, but from observing Creation. Therefore, in politics, this opposition should not be argued from authority because it was not deduced from authority.
One of the observable problems with abortion, Sobran continues, is that it abolishes the “automatic coincidence of interest between parent and child.” Even parents who choose to keep the baby will be unable to forget that their child was, at least at one point, disposable:
Pro-choice rhetoric sends out a message that can only be translated as the right of parents to resent their children. If a child has no simple right to live before birth, will an infantile parent really feel it has a right not to be abused afterward? Not if life itself is so cheap as that. The man or woman who regrettably waved the right to abort is not necessarily likely to regard the small child as a sacred trust.
What social conservative today can attack abortion on terms that even an atheist might understand? The American right badly needs to reclaim this approach, and to do so without first revisiting Sobran’s corpus would mean reinventing the wheel.
Curiously, there was also no one better suited than Sobran to address the rise of neo-integralism. While Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is the best-known response to liberal democracy’s anti-Christian tendencies, there are those who instead reach for a political solution—namely, the foundation of a Catholic confessional state. Dreher has given an Orthodox take on the question of religious liberty, which lies at the heart of the integralist debate, but few Catholics liberals have engaged with integralism on dogmatic grounds.
Sobran did just that roughly 15 years ago in “The Reluctant Anarchist,” his Thomistic case for limited government. “It was really this Aristotelian sense of ‘rational limits,’ rather than any particular doctrine, that made me a conservative,” he wrote. Here and elsewhere, he quoted Buckley’s mayoral stump speech where Buckley promised the people of New York “the internal composure that comes of knowing there are rational limits to politics.” Small government, a thoughtful Catholic might argue, is necessary for man’s emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
I’m certain the leaders of the integralist movement could easily muster some response. But this organic, small-c catholicism was the conservative movement’s best defense against L. Brent Bozell and the Triumph crowd, who also called for a confessional state during the 1970s and 1980s. Those of you who still believe in the American experiment, or remain undecided in the integralist debate, or simply enjoy a thoughtful exchange of ideas—don’t you feel cheated for not having a Sobranite voice?
It should also be said that Sobran was probably the first modern troll. In 2002, he addressed the Institute of Historical Review, a group of Holocaust deniers. When he came under fire from the New York Times, he shot back: “I’m not sure why this should matter. Even positing that I was speaking to a disreputable audience, I expect to be judged by what I say, not whom I say it to.” You can almost see him striking a Pepe the Frog pose.
Sobran had been slated to write a column for this magazine, an offer that was withdrawn after he refused to cancel his speech to the IHR. Yet he still disavowed the label “Holocaust denier,” and confessed to having no “consuming interest” in the Holocaust at all. He simply admired the IHS’s “calm virtue of critical rationality,” the same language used by the alt-right to defend studies on race and IQ. Like Sobran, they cast themselves as champions of cold scientific inquiry. Yet we know why they choose to inquire about the Holocaust or race, and not Assyriology or lepidoptera. It’s edgy. It’s taboo. It offends the sorts of people who, in their estimation, deserve to be offended.
Sobran tied himself to the same stake and lit the same match, all for a cause he would not even publicly own. I can’t muster any pity for such a ridiculous bit of showmanship. I do, however, regret that he brought his entire oeuvre into the fire with him.
Trump embroiled his followers in scandal after he paid lip service to these race baiters during his response to Charlottesville. Wiser nationalists like Julius Krein promptly divorced their Trumpism from Trump himself. I hope the Sobranistas (or what’s left of them) will do the same. It’s time to rake his books out of the ashes before they’re completely forgotten.
Michael Warren Davis is U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald. He tweets @MichaelDavisCH.