Book Review: American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile

The death of Father Richard John Neuhaus on January 8th coincided with the posthumous publication of his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, a short, dense meditation on what it means to live “our awkward duality of citizenship,” as both Christians and Americans with integrity.

Father Neuhaus spent a lifetime passionately debating issues of politics and culture as both a patriot and a faithful Christian.  He tirelessly sustained his arguments through books, articles, speeches, media appearances, and, most remarkably, his monthly column “The Public Square,” reliably 12,000 words in length, which appeared at the back of his journal of opinion, First Things.

First Things is an ecumenical, nonpartisan publication of intelligent, faithful, orthodox opinion, featuring the writings of Catholics, Protestants and Jews. It is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, another Neuhaus enterprise, which served as a forum and incubator of ideas “to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.

Father Neuhaus’s “The Public Square” offered in-depth commentary on the passing cultural, religious and political scene as well as reviews of whatever stimulating books, magazines or journal articles he was reading at the time-it was always an impressive tour de force.  He would debate issues, settle scores and engage intellectual adversaries, many of whom were friends, with vigor and civility.  He displayed a breadth and depth of opinion and conversation to rival that of Boswell’s Dr. Johnson.

American Babylon can be read as a kind of valedictory or summation of many of the intellectual arguments which have preoccupied Father Neuhaus in his previous writings. In The Naked Public Square (1984), he expressed the view that, at the very founding of America, religion was viewed as an integral part of the American political system and not its antithesis.  Church and state are separate and distinct spheres, but the latter does not work to the exclusion of the former in shaping public policy.  No religion or denomination is given a privileged place in America, but neither is religion to be banished from the public square in which citizens debate how a democratic society ought to govern itself.

There is a strong emphasis on eschatology-the ultimate, last or final things-in American Babylon, no doubt reflecting the author’s heightened sense of mortality at this late stage of his life.  Its title, which makes Neuhaus “somewhat uneasy,” is not meant to convey a salacious image of a decadent America.  Rather, America is a Babylon “by comparison with that radically new order sought by all who know love’s grief in refusing to settle for a community of less than truth and justice uncompromised.”  In other words, America is our beloved home but not a utopia on earth.  It is not the Kingdom of God, and as Christians we are always in exile in this and every other country on earth.

Neuhaus cites the prophet Jeremiah, writing in the sixth century, B.C. Given that the God of Israel had sent his people into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, Jeremiah counseled the Jews to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  He also cites the First Letter of Peter, in which ancient Rome is viewed as the functional equivalent of Babylon, and Christians are described as “exiles of the Dispersion” and “aliens and exiles.”

The Letter to the Hebrews also notes the tension between exile and citizenship: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

Neuhaus embraces the tension or dialectic since, for Christians and other believers, “All time is time toward home, the time toward our true home in the New Jerusalem.”  This places upon them “the burden of pilgrimage,” which also brings with it the grace to bear it.

While embracing Abraham Lincoln’s observation that America is “the last, best, hope of mankind,” Father Neuhaus is quick to recognize the error in a certain “strong current of Christian patriotism” in which “God and country are sometimes conflated in a single allegiance that permits no tension, never mind conflict, between the two.”

Neuhaus writes, “To say that we are a nation under God is to say, first and most importantly, that we are a nation under transcendent judgment.”  “Judgment and promise are inseparable…America is, too, a Babylon.”

And again, “Exaggerated patriotism is checked and tempered by the awareness that, while this is a homeland, it is, at the same time, a foreign country.”

Father Neuhaus explores the fault lines of American religious and political thought, introducing the reader to the Puritans, Transcendentalists, “American Gnosticism” (Harold Bloom’s term), and relatively recent Supreme Court decisions which built a wall of separation between, not just church and state, but the public square and religion generally.  He describes this as “the enforced privatization of religion and religiously informed morality,” a concept totally foreign to the likes of John Locke, James Madison, George Washington and the Founders.

American Babylon includes several chapters of vintage Neuhaus writing:  One critiques of the idea of moral, as opposed to technological, progress; one expounds Jesus’s teaching that salvation is from the Jews; and another demolishes the thought of the late American philosopher, Richard Rorty, academic purveyor of “liberal irony,” relativism and post-modernism.  While some of these chapters depart somewhat from the theme of the book, all our well worth reading as free-standing essays, excellent contributions to the canon of American letters.

A most illuminating chapter bears the provocative title, “Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?”  There are atheists and then there are atheists.  Father Neuhaus distinguishes between those who are “without God” (per the Greek, a-theos), i.e., those intellectually honest people who simply cannot prove or come to apprehend the existence of the Deity, and the “new atheists, who exult in publicly assaulting the religiously grounded foundations and aspirations” of the American political order.

This question of atheism is not without political ramifications.  John Locke, the philosopher revered by the Founders, certainly argued for religious toleration but not for irreligion.  “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist,” said Locke in A Letter concerning Toleration (1689).  “The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.”

James Madison, in his Memorial and Remonstrance of 1785, opined that “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.  This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

In a passage guaranteed to drive the ACLU over the edge, Madison pushes this point even further:

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe; And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.

Neuhaus believes that “an atheist can be a citizen, but he cannot be a good citizen” since citizenship is more than simply abiding by the laws.

A good citizen is able to give an account, a morally compelling account, of the regime of which he is a part-and to do so in continuity with the constituting moment and subsequent history of that regime.  He is able to justify its defense against its enemies, and to convincingly recommend its virtues to citizens of the next generation so that they, in turn, can transmit the order of government to citizens yet unborn.  This regime of liberal democracy, of republican self-governance, is not self-evidently good and just.  An account must be given.  Reasons must be given.  They must be reasons that draw authority from that which is higher than ourselves, from that which transcends us, from that to which we are precedently [sic], ultimately, obliged.

Believers “are now the most persuasive defenders…of the good reasons for this regime of ordered liberty” because “it makes a sharply limited claim upon the loyalty of its citizens,” argues Father Neuhaus.  “The ultimate allegiance of the faithful is not to the regime or to its constituting texts, but to the City of God and the sacred texts that guide our path toward that destination.  We are dual citizens in a regime that, as Madison and others underscored, was designed for such duality.”

The paramount political question of our day, the one that illustrates, most vividly, the tension of being a Christian, citizen and exile in American Babylon, relates to “what it means to be a human being.”  These “life questions” raise the matter of who is “a bearer of rights that we, as a society, are obliged to respect.”  It is “the dignity of the human person,” the individual human person, in a society that claims to be a community, which vexes Americans today.

Says Neuhaus: “…the dignity of the human person is affirmed not in the assertion of autonomy but in attending to our duties to protect those who lack autonomy, or whose autonomy is gravely limited.”  Viewed from this perspective, the 1973 Supreme Court decisions, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, are “the most consequential political event of the past half-century in the United States.”  The key question is not about when human life begins.  On that there is no dispute.  “The crucial question is: At what point in its existence ought we, and for what reasons ought we, to recognize that a human life should be protected in law?”

Father Neuhaus believes the moral question of abortion and other life issues are unavoidably a political question: “If politics is deliberating how we ought to order our life together, there can hardly be a more basic question than this: Who belongs to the we?”

If a principle is established by which some indisputably human lives do not warrant the protections traditionally associated with the dignity of the human person-because of their size, location, dependency, level of development, or burdensomeness to others-it would seem that there are numerous candidates for the application of the principle, beginning with the radically handicapped, both physically and mentally, not to mention millions of aged and severely debilitated in our nation’s nursing homes.

People of faith must continue to heed Jeremiah and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  Father Neuhaus reminds us, consoles us,  that we will only return from our exile in “the personal encounter and eternal dwelling with one who is no stranger, for we knew him in his humility and will then see him in his triumph.”

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[This article was published in the December issue of The American Spectator ( and is used by permission.]

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