A.C. Kleinheider makes an argument that the term theocon is “appropriate and necessary,” and he makes several points that are worth addressing with a new post. First, he is right to go back to Jacob Heilbrunn’s original distinction between neocon and theocon, which is here:

And this war is fundamental. It is rooted in a battle over the identity of the American nation. The neoconservatives believe that America is special because it was founded on an idea–a commitment to the rights of man embodied in the Declaration of Independence–not in ethnic or religious affiliations. The theocons, too, argue that America is rooted in an idea, but they believe that idea is Christianity. In their view, the United States is first and foremost a Christian nation, governed ultimately by natural law. When moral law–moral law as defined by Thomas Aquinas and enunciated by John Paul II–conflicts with the laws of man, they say, the choice is clear: God’s law transcends the arbitrary and tyrannical decrees of what the theocons increasingly refer to as an American judicial “regime.”

In my original post, I had neglected to use Heilbrunn’s definition, which would have clarified things a little, not least his own misunderstanding of the people at First Things. As my readers will have guessed by now, I don’t agree with many of the things the editors there write and I found their more or less open shilling for the invasion of Iraq to be a tremendously ugly and deviant thing for a supposed journal of Christian religious and cultural intellectuals to do, so I don’t intend any of what I have to say about them to be a compliment. But I can say with confidence that they are not the “theocrats” of Mr. Heilbrunn’s fevered imagination, nor are they the wild-eyed revolutionaries the secular neocons tried to make them out to be. They are not Theonomists, nor are they even all that convinced of the “Christian nation” thesis imputed to them by Heilbrunn, except insofar as they accept the notion that the “universal values” that America purportedly embodies are the same “universal values” of natural law.

Unless I am much mistaken, or they have significantly changed positions in the last few years, First Things‘ focus on natural law is, in part, as the bridge between Christianity and the Enlightenment project. This is part of what they regard as the genius of America, namely that it can embrace both traditions and reconcile them. No Catholic Counter-Enlightenment for them.

They do not invoke natural law as a theocratic device designed to reorder American society along traditionalist Christian lines, but they use it (in my admittedly hostile reading) as a way to reconcile serious Christians to a fundamentally secular moral order in which they can still perceive some trace of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. They do read foundational American political thought with a peculiar kind of Catholic lens, and they imbue the “rights” language of Enlightenment thought with theological significance, which is an old Catholic assimilationist move to create harmony between Catholicism and Americanism.

Their position towards the culture around us is reformatory after a fashion but also what some would call “accommodationist”–there is nothing they find more repugnant than those who would use Christianity to infringe upon a very broad and wide secular sphere. First Things is not especially well known for embracing the particularities of a national or ethnic tradition, and so its editors are as equally disdainful of the historic America that does not embody their Idea as their secular counterparts, which is why they used to fit so well with the universalists among the secular neocons. Their limited objections to the legitimacy of the “regime” (which is, except in neocon-speak, a neutral word and not an insult) were obviously informed by Christianity but justified in terms of a general moral universalism that they regard as being fundamental to the American “project.” The difference between most of the secular neocons and their Catholic fellow-travellers is that the latter actually think that moral universalism has real, edifying meaning for all people, while for the former it is something to use to justify foreign wars and the expansion of the state.

The editors of First Things are Catholic neoconservatives, and they have often called themselves by this hybrid name, and if the supposed neocon-theocon split shows anything it is just how intolerant neoconservatism is of serious Christians espousing Christianity and taking its traditions to be something other than icing on the American cake. Support for the State of Israel may find some theological encouragement at First Things, but the sort of full-throated Christian Zionism in Protestant America that very directly links the fulfillment of prophecy to American policy is fortunately absent from their pages. They are really surprisingly conformist to the neoconservative line (and it is from this source, not the Faith, that their political support for Israel-as-democracy springs), which is why it is so amusing that they have been regarded as either subversive or dissident by other neocons.

Heilbrunn’s article only convinces me more that the term doesn’t mean very much, in part because it has been created to define a subset of neocons that made the mistake of taking the idea of a “culture war” seriously and made an even bigger mistake when they took the neocons at their word that morality and religion were vital in public life. There might be a need for a catch-all term for evangelical conservatives and Christian Zionists, but I don’t see why it should be theocon, especially when that term was coined to describe the results of what was basically an in-house ruckus among neoconservatives over abortion and judicial activism. The term theocon as Kleinheider is using it makes little sense, at least when applied to Bottum, Neuhaus, Novak and Weigel. What Mr. Kleinheider seems to mean by theocon (i.e., Christian “fundamentalist”) has little directly to do with the First Things crowd to whom the label was applied on account of a very specific rupture with their secular (former?) allies.

This discussion has made me think about the possible reasons for the genuinely odd position First Things took on the Iraq war. Could it be that the Catholic neocons believed they had to support the war, no matter how absurdly and unreasonably they did so, to get back into the good graces of their former friends? But we don’t need to imagine anything so involved. Catholic neocons are still neocons, and will endorse the same kinds of foolish and dangerous policies.