The American Spectator: Capitalism’s Theologian

American-SpectatorThe renowned Michael Novak, on his journey to conservatism.

 Published by Mark Tooley in The American Spectator November 2013 issue



MICHAEL NOVAK IS one of the great public theologians of the last half-century, and his new memoir, Writing From Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative, illustrates why. Born in 1933 to a Slovak family in flood-famous Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Novak witnessed the last century’s great political disasters. His earliest such memory is of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland.  

As an Eastern European and a Catholic, Novak viscerally felt the totalitarian horrors that brutalized his ancestral land. And he would deeply identify with, and come to know, his fellow Slav, Pope John Paul II. Novak ideologically pivoted right when the mainstream Left lost interest in robustly defending democratic order. In the 1980s he pioneered a spiritual defense of democratic capitalism that morally explained the resurgent success of America and Britain under Reagan and Thatcher, both of whom credited Novak’s insights.

 In earlier years Novak worked for Robert Kennedy, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Sargent Shriver, and he writes fondly of them all. He also briefly served Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, about whom he’s less appreciative. At first he felt drawn to the priesthood, but, after much anxiety, he realized his calling was to be a philosopher and writer. As a Harvard student, Novak was deeply influenced by Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, whose focus on irony, realism, and unintended consequences further equipped Novak against Utopianism.

 “There were always wars in human history—new ones, generation after generation—because wars spring from the human heart itself,” Novak writes, citing St. Augustine. “Peace never lasts.” He eventually turned against “progressivism” because it “overrates human innocence and goodness and underrates human weakness and preference for getting things for free rather than as a result of arduous work.”

After his rightward turn, Novak recalls that former colleagues and friends shunned him as a heretic to the Left’s faith in unstoppable progress. He writes that these wayward friends like to cite his more appealing early work, such as his favorable coverage of Vatican II in his book The Open Church, in which he dissected the “nonhistorical orthodoxy” of those who understood the Church “in the idiom of the sixteenth and the highly defensive subsequent centuries.” But he states that their opponents, then called progressives, were the true “probing traditionalists”—future Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI among them, he sardonically notes. The Catholic Church humbly moves “along a sinewy path in the jungle, where patches of light only occasionally break through the darkness.”

 His first conservative impulse came from religion, as Vatican II was reinterpreted to align with the secular “thinking of the age” instead of the actual texts and the “counter-cultural voice of ancient truths.” Novak was horrified by the assassination of America’s first Catholic president, and then two months later, his brother, a priest in Bangladesh, was beheaded during Muslim riots against Hindus. (See “The Day My Brother Was Murdered,” TAS, December 2008-January 2009.)

 Vietnam momentarily derailed Novak’s conservative shift, as he demonstrated against the war while teaching at Stanford. He was especially horrified by a disingenuous speech there by Vice President Hubert Humphrey that provoked student riots. He also toured Vietnam as a reporter. The later horrors of communist conquest in Indochina persuaded Novak his thinking had not been “steady,” and he noticed the Left’s “double standards” toward communist brutality.

In 1968, Novak praised Robert Kennedy in a Methodist student magazine as “The Secular Saint,” which led Kennedy to seek him out, although Novak was already supporting McCarthy’s presidential bid. He declined Kennedy’s invitation to join him primary election night in Los Angeles, when Robert was assassinated.

Increasingly repelled by campus radicalism, Novak agreed to work for Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, a fellow Catholic intellectual, in 1970 on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates. He again helped in Shriver’s 1972 vice-presidential campaign, noticing the radicalization of the Democratic Party. That year his obituary for Reinhold Niebuhr in Commentary waxed nostalgic for political realism. 

Novak’s 1972 book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics foreshadowed the surge of Reagan Democrats and emphasized social issues like defense of the family. The New York Times Book Review trashed it for spreading hate. Its theme of ethnic patriotic traditionalism contrasted with the new fad of multiculturalism that relied on the “logic of relativism” and denied national cohesion. Even as the New Left captured the Democratic Party, Novak worked loyally for George McGovern, an unpretentious Midwesterner with whom he retained lifelong friendship. It was among his last liberal exertions. 

BY 1976, NOVAK was ready to come out as a free marketeer in a Washington Post op-ed headlined “A Closet Capitalist Confesses.” He wrote: “Socialism is the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, without religion.… Capitalism, accepting human sinfulness, rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace.” But his new views left him intellectually homeless, without a base. 

Novak met but declined to support a still-obscure Jimmy Carter, whose views on international relations were evasive. He feared that the personalizing of policy, fueled by Carter’s Baptist faith, would inhibit the shrewd detachment necessary for a president. Novak had helped found the Coalition for a Democratic Majority for a forceful U.S. foreign and military policy, as championed by Scoop Jackson, whom Novak supported for the White House instead. In 1977 he joined the American Enterprise Institute as resident theologian.

At a 1980 poolside party for hawkish Democrats, Senator Daniel Moynihan asked how many were considering voting for Reagan. Every hand reluctantly went up, including presumably Novak’s. He served Reagan as ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights. “I loved the Reagan presidency,” he recalls. Reagan gave him direct instructions for his UN post: “Condone no human rights abuses.” 

Margaret Thatcher excitedly greeted Novak in a D.C. reception line, exclaiming she relished his work, and later invited him to 10 Downing Street. His most important book of that era, perhaps ever, was The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which made the moral case for markets, and which underground movements in Eastern Europe translated and read in secret.

Novak has kind words for Presidents Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, with the exception of Clinton’s abortion zealotry, and he especially salutes Bush II’s commitment to universal human rights. He hopes democracy will yet sprout in the Arab world ,while admitting the prospect is long-term. He warns against the collapse of political conversation, imploding birth rates, the redefinition of marriage, and aggressively intolerant secularism. He inveighs against government debts, which he sees as stealing from our kids and grandkids. “I am glad that I am in my eightieth year and will not live to see the suffering, and perhaps bitterness, of these grandchildren. How they will despise us!” 

The memoir concludes with Novak’s inventory of his deep admiration for Pope John Paul II. In particular, he explains the conflict he felt in the run-up to the Iraq war, which Novak thought necessary and the pope attempted to avert. He worried about losing John Paul’s friendship, but he found solace in the Catechism’s teaching on just war. In the last paragraph, Novak describes attending John Paul’s funeral with President Bush: 

At one point a sudden breeze turned the pages of the open book of the Gospel highly visible on the central lectern. Then, as the varnished wood casket was slowly being lifted to be carried into St. Peter’s, the breeze nudged the clouds away from the sun, and for the first time that day a beam of sunlight fell directly upon the casket and the pallbearers.…I am not saying an act of God occurred; natural causes could explain it. But these signs expressed what we felt when we shouted into the great roar of the throng, “Santo Subito! Saint Soon! Declare him saint soon!”

Novak dedicates his book to his late wife, Karen, an accomplished artist who famously served Dove bars at a dinner for Clare Booth Luce. And he ruefully laments that he outlived her.  

Conservatism’s support for free markets always threatens to implode into sterile materialism. Novak has, across decades, helped to construct a spiritual framework for a winsome capitalism premised on liberty and human creativity, sustained by biblical tradition. His old friends on the Left resented him for it. But all who cherish freedom and authentic human progress should be grateful.


About the Author Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century. You can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.




With a Firm Reliance on Divine Providence

Remarks upon receiving the Barbara Olson Award at the 45th Annual American Spectator Bartley Gala, Delivered by Michael Novak on November 14, 2012


It is such an honor to receive an award named for an American heroine, and here, at a gala named for Robert Bartley – whose editorial pages taught this poor theologian his first lessons in job-creating economics.

It is an especially precious honor to receive this high Award in the name of Barbara Olson. Most of us here loved Barbara Olson. How could we not? Brave, bold, enterprising, beautiful, lively, smart, courageous to a fault, Barbara was the best of Americans.

She started life humbly, began a professional career performing in ballet – on stage in Houston, and in Los Angeles. Then she attacked the law and mastered it, moved to Washington and conquered it, and after regular appearances on cable television, she was on her way to crack the Maginot Line of leftish comedians – that morning she was flying out to California to do the Bill Maher show.

Tonight I remember Barbara’s courage when she learned her plane had been hijacked, for the purposes of mass murder. She immediately set to thinking how to attack that enemy too. Barbara fought back, and made this country – once more, in one more woman – “the land of the free … and the home of the brave.”

In Barbara’s honor, I would like to tell a brief story about Dr. Joseph Warren. I first heard it in Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural. Joseph Warren was the doctor who delivered the babies of Abigail and John Adams. He was a leader of the Minutemen at Lexington. He told his men, Our country is in peril now, but not to be despaired of. At Lexington a British bullet clipped off some hair right behind his ear. It did not fell him. His few men, abetted by their fellows hidden in the trees, sent the large British force back toward Boston carrying their wounded and their dead.

Not long after, Joseph Warren was commissioned a Major General in the Massachusetts militia. When he heard that a small band of Patriots had sneaked up Bunker Hill in the dark, and were silently fortifying the flank toward Boston, Warren rode as fast as he could to take a place in their ranks. Below, the British marched out toward Bunker Hill with 2200 men. Behind them burned the brown smoke and orange flames of Charlestown, where the British had already torched 500 homes. On a hillside to the South, Abigail Adams, hearing the booming guns, watched breathless as the awful battle lasted five long hours.

The American irregulars carried but limited shot per soldier, and that day they proved their discipline. With the accuracy of lifetime huntsmen they fired with individual aim, in concentrated bursts. Twice they broke the forward march of the British Regulars with fire so withering they blew away as many as 70 to 90 percent of the closest companies. The Redcoats lost that day more than a thousand dead and wounded. Then the ammunition of the Americans ran out.

While the bulk of the Massachusetts militia retreated Indian-like, the last units stayed in the trenches to delay the British hand-to-hand. That is where Major General Warren was last seen standing as a close-range bullet felled him.

Think about the next two years of fighting. Put yourself in the place of these badly equipped Americans. Perhaps fewer than a third in the colonies supported them, or were willing actually to fight for Independence. These few, these valorous few, faced scores of thousands well-trained Redcoats, supported by the guns of more than 350 British warships – the most disciplined army and most powerful navy in the world.

No wonder the framers of the Declaration of Independence placed their “firm Reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” If you have no army, and have no navy, you had better rely on Providence.

But why? What shred of reason had they for such trust? Did not the British pray to the same Providence? What right had the Americans to think the Lord Almighty favored their cause, favored them?

Here is how they reasoned. Many in our midst do not reason so today. But hear them out. At least hear them out. For our Founders, the logic was easy.

The reason that God created the universe, they believed, is so that somewhere in its vastness there would be at least one creature to whom God could offer his friendship. But if the good and gracious Lord meant us for His friendship, then He had to make us free. Friendship coerced is not friendship. If friendship, then liberty, William Penn wrote. That was the logic of placing America’s “firm Reliance in the protection of Divine Providence.” If the whole universe has been made for liberty, then at least in one place it must in time prevail. But liberty was made for all human beings, and thus the shots fired for liberty at Concord and Bunker Hill have been heard around the world. Our Founders often warned us: Freedom is the most precarious regime. Even a single generation can refuse to bear its costs and – just throw it away. Every generation must decide.

The American Spectator today is the Paul Revere of the Party of Liberty. We Americans do not want to be another European welfare state. Our appetite is not for security, or commandments from coercive czars. We want to live as free women, and free men. For that, there are costs.

So now it is plain why Dr. Joseph Warren – seeing the masses of British soldiers – could tell the Minutemen with whom he served in Massachusetts: Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and the liberty of millions not yet born. Act worthy of yourselves.

Joseph Warren, Barbara Olson, Divine Providence protect you still.

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: A Book That Changed Reality

Thirty years ago saw the publication of Michael Novak's "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism" — which couldn't be timelier

By Samuel Gregg in The American Spectator, August 15, 2012


Nineteen eighty-two was not a happy year for freedom. A severe and protracted recession gripped America. Many were beginning to wonder if Ronald Reagan was going to be a one-termer. Unemployment in Britain hit a postwar high. Across the Channel, François Mitterrand was busy nationalizing banks and raising taxes. Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas were firmly in control in Nicaragua. The Soviet grip on Eastern Europe seemed tighter than ever. Solidarity appeared finished in the wake of General Jaruzelski's declaration of a "state of war" against his own country. In the Middle East, Lebanon was descending into anarchy. And just to the north-east, Syria's president Hafez al-Assad -- father of Bashar al-Assad -- was ordering his security-forces to level the town of Hama. Thousands subsequently died. Some things never change.

Of course there was the occasional bright spot amidst the gloom. Against all odds, Britain liberated the Falklands, thereby precipitating the collapse of Argentina's corrupt military junta. Thirty years ago, however, another event occurred that would make a profound long-term contribution to the struggle for freedom: the 1982 publication of Michael Novak's magnum opus, wThe SPirit of Democratic Capitalism .

From a 2012 vantage point, it's easy to forget just how radical this book was. In penning the Spirit, Novak was the first theologian to really make an in-depth moral, cultural, and political case for the market economy in a systematic way. Needless to say, Novak's book generated fierce reactions from the religious left. The opprobrium was probably heightened by the fact that the Spirit confirmed what had become evident from the mid-'70s onwards: that Novak was well on his way to abandoning his previously left-wing positions.

Thirty years ago, however, many Christians -- Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, clerical, and lay -- were marching in precisely the opposite direction to Novak. Theologians in the Americas and Western Europe were still waxing lyrical about "dialogue" with Marxism. The fight-back led by Blessed John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger against the doctrinal heresies and Marxist analysis underlying liberation theology had only just begun.

At home, America's Catholic bishops conference was issuing what seemed to be an endless stream of commentaries about economic subjects that invariably reflected a monotonously soft-left line. Then in 1986, the bishops conference published Economic Justice for All -- a document whose 25th anniversary passed almost unnoticed in 2011, and which bore all the hallmarks of the influence of people who thought the "two Johns" (Rawls and Maynard Keynes) had said all that ever needed to be said about justice and the economy respectively. Unlike Economic Justice, Novak's Spirit continues to provide inspiration today -- something that hasn't been limited to Americans. Its samizdat translation and publication by dissidents in Communist Poland in 1986 reflected the fact that those who actually experienced real socialism in all its deadening grayness not only knew that collectivism had failed; they also understood there was no "third way." At the same time, Central-East Europeans weren't impressed with merely utilitarian or efficiency arguments for markets. They wanted to root free economies in a wider and richer vision of the human person. Many of them found what they were looking for in the Spirit.

Naturally some of Novak's book has been superseded by events, such as Communism's defeat in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, liberation theology's virtual collapse throughout the Catholic world, and the rise of new generations of bishops and priests who know that economic policy is largely a matter of prudential judgment for the laity. And yet the Spirit's strengths endure. These include a Catholic mind that takes seriously Adam Smith's economic and philosophical insights; the affirmation that markets must be grounded upon particular moral, political, and legal habits and institutions; the attention to how awareness of the reality of sin should incubate us against economic utopianism; and, perhaps above all, the sustained effort to locate democratic capitalism within a vision of God and man, thereby giving it genuine theological meaning.

All of these intellectual forays helped facilitate a serious reconsideration of the moral merits of market economies by not only Catholics but also other Christians. Many hitherto-prevailing visions of capitalism, such as the thoroughly inadequate and misleading conceptions promoted by Weber and Marx, suddenly seemed very open to question. Across the world, books and articles began appearing that engaged the ideas which Novak had articulated. In retrospect, it's difficult to dispute the trajectory between particular themes contained within the Spirit and some of the positive statements about the market economy found in John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. In fact the left were the first to point this out!

But perhaps the Spirit's most significant and underestimated effect was upon thousands of business leaders and entrepreneurs throughout the world. Novak had managed to put into words something they instinctively knew: that their daily labor was neither a mere necessary evil nor something intrinsically immoral. Instead business could be understood as a vocans ab Deus -- a calling from God that allowed people engaged in literally transforming the world to simultaneously transform themselves in the direction of the good. In short, it wasn't just that, given the right settings, business and free markets are the fastest ways to diminish poverty. It was also possible to find a spark of the Divine in the very activity of business itself.

Not surprisingly, Novak's Spirit still attracts critics today. Some on the left castigate it as an insidious effort to sanctify an essentially immoral system. It also draws heat from those inclined to romanticize a lost world of guilds or who persist in promoting corporatist economic models in the mistaken belief that these are the only economic visions which may be advocated by faithful Christians.

If anything, however, the current trajectory of economic policy in America and much of Western Europe tells us just how much we need the insights of the Spirit and similar books today. Even after the 2008 Great Recession, it isn't hard to make the economic case for markets. But by now, conservatives and free marketers should have learned (but in many cases apparently haven't) that they must make stronger, more persuasive moral arguments in debates about political economy instead of treating such matters as "subjective," "relative," or "unscientific."

And this isn't simply a matter of clever tactics in what will surely be a ceaseless battle with those who put their faith in top-down planning, social democracy, the welfare state, or "hope-and-change" emotivism and wishful thinking. Morality is as much part of the truth about reality as supply and demand. The most insightful economists, ranging from Adam Smith to Wilhelm Röpke, have always understood this.

And herein may lay The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism's long-term significance. It continues to ask anyone who cares about liberty to look up and see that the truth about man — economic, cultural, political, moral, and theological — is by its very nature indivisible. We consequently neglect any part of that truth at our peril.