Things started with Douthat's obit for Neuhaus in his Atlantic blog:
The Bush years produced many spasms of hysteria: Among the silliest was the notion that Neuhaus and his intellectual circle represented some sort of grave and reactionary threat to liberal democracy. In reality, Neuhaus as an archetypal post-Vatican II figure, whose deepest intellectual interests lay in finding compatibilities and building bridges - between Jews and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, faith and the free market, and above all between Christianity and liberalism. [...] No modern intellectual did so much to make the case for the compatibility between Christian belief and liberal democratic politics - and in the future, when the two have parted ways (as I suspect they will) more completely than at present, both Christians and liberals will look back on the synthesis he argued for with nostalgia, and regret.
The "silly notion" Douthat was referring to was apparently a reference to Damon Linker's book The Theocons. This provoked a response from Linker in his blog at The New Republic:
In his obituary for Richard John Neuhaus, Douthat claims, in response to some nameless silly person (who just happens to be me), that Neuhaus was dedicated to reconciling Christianity with the liberal tradition. I suspect that will sound pretty odd to those familiar with Neuhaus' role in arming the conservative side of the culture war with arguments intended to decimate liberalism. But then everything begins to make sense once you follow the link that Douthat supplies with his statement, which brings you to a Neuhaus article on "The Liberalism of John Paul II." Oh, that liberal tradition. The liberalism that traces American democratic ideas not to the Enlightenment but to medieval Christendom. The liberalism that believes (in Neuhaus' words, written in 1984) that "only a transcendent, a religious, vision can turn this society from a disaster and toward the fulfillment of its destiny" as a "sacred enterprise." The liberalism that holds (in Neuhaus' words, written in 1997) that the American experiment "may well be ending . . . under the iron rule of the 'separation of church and state.'" [...] Rather than maintaining that the religious right should replace liberal politics with some other, religiously grounded form of political association, he insisted that, properly understood, liberal politics is (or once was, or should be--on this he was often unclear) a religiously grounded form of political association. Viewed in this way, the Pope, Neuhaus himself, and their Protestant friends (like Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, and Karl Rove) become America's true liberals, while all those millions of Americans on the right and left who prefer a more mundane form of politics (and who in nearly every other context are considered liberals of the classical or modern variety) become the antagonists the true liberal tradition.
Neuhaus argued that the American constitutional order, and the form of liberalism it embodies, "is premised upon moral truths secured by religion," to quote from his essay on John Paul II and the liberal tradition. Moreover, he believed that the modern left's emphasis on the separation of religion and politics (as opposed to church and state) ran toward illiberalism, and that the left-wing promotion of legalized abortion and euthanasia amounted to a frontal assault on essentially liberal principles - human rights and human dignity and so forth. These are not uncontroversial views, to put it mildly, and they certainly made him a conservative in the modern political landscape. But they are views have deep roots in Anglo-American political history - the notion that liberalism's basic premises depend in some sense upon religion, in particular, is as old as Hobbes and Locke - and as such they properly belong within the big tent of the American liberal tradition, rather than outside it. And a liberal tradition that cannot find, within its many mansions, room for Neuhaus (and, yes, for John Paul II as well), is a liberalism that any Christian worth his salt should think twice for before subscribing to.
It seems to me that Douthat is conflating two hugely different ideas here. He's certainly correct that liberalism's emphasis on human rights, human dignity, etc. is (in many ways) rooted in the traditions of the major monotheisms, but one of liberalism's great achievements (as Mark Lilla has persuasively argued) was the separation of theological concerns from the mechanisms of politics. That is not a repudiation of religious values, nor is it an attempt to wholly separate religion from politics. Liberalism can be rooted in religious values without being guided by religious concerns. Enter Andrew Sullivan:
There is, of course, an enormous distinction between accepting the religious roots of liberalism (Hobbes and Locke are the ur-texts here) and in asserting that fundamentalist Christianity is the founding doctrine of the American polity - and that it can also command political authority in the modern world. And there is an enormous distinction between respecting the role of faith in forming the public views of citizens who nonetheless make public arguments in secular and moral terms - and the kind of crude Christianism that Neuhaus supported. It is the difference between liberalism and illiberalism. Neuhaus was an illiberal - even to the verge of declaring the alleged iniquities of modern American government as a justification for violent resistance.
Exactly. Hobbes may have been happy to acknowledge the influence of Christianity on liberalism, but he was clearly convinced that Christendom was an unstable, untenable political system (hence his attempt to subordinate it to civil authority). Leviathan was perhaps the first major work of political thought to address political problems in a purely secular manner - and that is one of the major parts of Hobbes's legacy. It is at best problematic to assert that Neuhaus and Hobbes belong to the same liberal tradition - even if Neuhaus argued against theonomy in its purest forms (and eloquently so!), he was a major force in a movement that is all the more pernicious because it is more mainstream. And the intellectual difference between Neuhaus and the theonomists is one of degree, not of kind: in his book Catholic Matters, Neuhaus wrote, "I think for myself not to come up with my own teaching, but to make the Church's teaching my own." This is not the theonomist temptation to order society according to Biblical rules, but it is a rather startling surrender of intellectual autonomy to an imperfect and fallible organization. Neuhaus, of course, would argue such a surrender was actually the Enlightenment stance; personal intellectual autonomy to him was simply modern man's inability to accept truth.
This is dangerous ground to inhabit, and it is indeed inhabited by a number of religious men and women. Of course, a practicing Christian must ultimately concede that they have faith in God's truth, and that this truth is ultimate and authoritative. However - and this is a big however! - this truth is rarely as clear-cut as religious conservatives would like it to be, and our allegiance to it does not provide a simple method of behaving in the world. There is no 10-step plan for the believing Christian; there is no blueprint or map for right action. Certainly there are rules, and the broad outlines of behavior are outlined in the Ten Commandments and other texts. Certainly there is the Golden Rule and the command to act with love. Certainly there is charity, hope, generosity, and above all the example of Christ in the world.
But this does not make behavior simple. This does not simplify every action and decision - particularly in politics, where decisions are always difficult - into a black-and-white choice! In so many situations, there is only faith, deliberation, meditation, prayer, and ambiguity - and acting in accordance with what we believe to be God's will is ultimately a decision made within our own minds, with our own powers of deliberation, and with our own intellectual autonomy. We must admit both the sovereignty of God and the powers of our own mind, and the conservative religious tradition in America today claims to recognize the former while totally abandoning the latter. (In fact, it could be argued that many on the Christian right claim to recognize the former by abandoning the latter.)
I would submit that conscious, careful, and reasoned dedication to the will of God is impossible without internal deliberation and behavioral choices that other reasonable believers will disagree with. That is the political and moral condition of human behavior, and its ambiguity is certainly frightening. But it is authentically faithful, authentically Christian, and authentically liberal. The illiberalism of religious fundamentalism is bad politics, but it may be even worse theology.