The Christian Phenomenon of a Giuliani Presidency

I knew something was absent from Rachel Morris' excellent exposure of the trespasses and constitutional encroachments of the Giuliani mayoralty. Now I know what it was. It was Rudy's political philosophy. John Judis at TNR goes farther back into the … Read More

By / October 29, 2007

I knew something was absent from Rachel Morris' excellent exposure of the trespasses and constitutional encroachments of the Giuliani mayoralty. Now I know what it was. It was Rudy's political philosophy. John Judis at TNR goes farther back into the biography to cull this telling episode:

Of course, Giuliani made his career as a prosecutor rather than a philosopher, and there are certainly Catholic teachings he has repudiated or ignored. In 1989, wanting the New York Liberal Party's endorsement for his GOP mayoral bid, Giuliani renounced his past opposition to abortion and Roe v. Wade. But his exposure to Catholic and classical political thought clearly had a lasting impact on him. At a forum on crime in March 1994, sponsored by the New York Post, Giuliani voiced views on liberty and authority that seemed to flow from these teachings. He criticized liberals for seeing only "the oppressive side of authority." "What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be," he said. "Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do." Asked in the question period to explain what he meant, Giuliani said, "Authority protects freedom. Freedom can become anarchy." Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said afterward that he was "floored" by Giuliani's definition of liberty and authority. But anyone who studied philosophy at a Catholic college would not have been surprised by Giuliani's words.

Nor would Mark Lilla be, as his well-received new book, The Stillborn God, defines American exceptionalism — or why our democracy is so different from European or Asian democracies — as a "post-Christian phenomenon." It was Thomas Hobbes who first sought to examine revelation from the bottom-up, asking why it is we believe what we do, rather than from the top-down, simply applying assumed revelation to the various levers of state power. Transported to these shores by persecuted Protestant fundamentalists, the bricks and mortar of the wall that separates church and state were easily assembled, ab initio.

Here is Lilla in a fascinating discussion he started at Cato Unbound:

What we seem to have forgotten is how unique the circumstances were that made possible the establishment of the American compact on religion and politics. Perhaps now is the time to restore the much needed concept of American exceptionalism and remind ourselves of some basic facts. The most important one that set our experience apart from that of Europe was the absence of a strong Roman Catholic Church as a redoubt of intellectual and political opposition to the liberal-democratic ideas hatched by the Enlightenment – and thus also, the absence of a radical, atheist Enlightenment convinced that l’infâme must be écrasé. For over two centuries France, Italy, and Spain were rent by what can only be called existential struggles over the legitimacy of Catholic political theology and the revolutionary heritage of 1789. (Though the term “liberalism” is of Spanish coinage, as a political force it was weak in the whole of Catholic Europe until after the Second World War.) Neither side in this epic struggle was remotely interested in “toleration”; they wanted victory.

For a politician like Giuliani, raised (forgive the alliteration) in a tight ethnic and ecumenical enclave, Catholic political theology is still paramount. What accounts for his vaunted liberal tendencies — his approval of gay marriage, abortion rights, etc. — is the head-on collision that such theology has had with another breed of exceptionalism: the New York one. The strict law-and-order mayor of the city was also one of its most cosmopolitan mayors. (The man who tried to shut down a museum over a dung-slathered Christ painting also dressed up as Marilyn Monroe.) Glib talk of Il Duce of Gotham, then, misses the larger point about Giuliani's true character, which was, after all, once attracted to the muscular, theodicy-based liberalism of the Kennedys. The Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis, the tensest moments of the Cold War, were really fought between an American Roman Catholic dynasty and the Russian Communist clerisy.

This is why neoconservatism, although pioneered by Jewish ex-radicals, has proved so enticing to political Catholics like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigl. They have recognized in it the germ of a deeply Christian phenomenon — the Manichean worldview that binds recovering City College Trotskyists and their children to Thomas Aquinas. (Not for nothing did the French philosopher-historian Raymond Aron once term Marxism a "Christian heresy.") In other words, they are the exceptions American exceptionalism. There's no question that an international purview will only strengthen the core Catholic doctrine in Giuliani. For one thing, the Manichean rumble will now be properly situated between two open faiths, one amenable to Western democracy, and one violently opposed to it. The popular refrain among progressive alarmists today is, "If you liked Bush, you'll love Giuliani." But this isn't quite right because Giuliani would be staggeringly competent as president, regardless of whether or not you liked the results he produced, or how he set about producing them. Indeed, the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention is, as I've been banging on about for months, the closest analog to what constitutes the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. So rather it should be said that if you didn't like him as mayor, you'll downright hate Rudy as president.

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