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Against the Grain

George Weigel
Crossroad, 120pp, ISBN: 9780824524487

Against the GrainAfter eight months away, we recently got back to our house to find a mountain of accumulated mail and magazines. And it was a signal lesson to observe just how ephemeral is much of what passes for analysis of current affairs: 'a wide portfolio of investments into an expanding global economy' (advert in Atlantic Monthly); 'How McCain can beat Obama' (The Spectator). Ho, hum. Following the failure of that last prediction "" not unrelated to the failure of the former "" the writings of George Weigel might seem less pressing than before recent events, economic and electoral.

That is because Weigel, one of the most influential Catholic writers in the US, is a self-proclaimed neoconservative. Whether one likes or loathes that political brand, it is all washed up, not just for now, but for the foreseeable future. Does that mean that Weigel's writing career is over? Probably not: he never was a one-trick pony. His writings have always shown that he knows "" and, more importantly, understands "" too much history to assume that liberal democracy is the default position of human society, or to drag the answer to every economic problem back to free markets. His interests in global Christianity generally, and Catholicism in particular, give him interesting, sparky things to say about various matters for which his fellow neocons have (let's put it kindly) not always been noted.

So Against The Grain might run rather more against the grain than if it had been published during Bush's heyday in 2005, but it is certainly not passé. In the first place, it is a collection of essays and lectures (all updated) produced over more than 15 years, so have survived the test of at least some time, including the Clinton years and Bush's blunders in Iraq. Topics include 'The Sovereignty of Christ and the Public Church, 'Is Political Theology Safe for Democracy?', two lectures on 'Just War and the Iraq Wars' and 'Is Europe Dying? Secularist shibboleths and the future of the West'. Oh, and a very nice meditation on the implications of the second-century Christian classic, Epistle to Diognetus.

Weigel's analysis can often be let down by taking 'Christian' and 'Catholic' as synonyms (a complaint it's difficult for an evangelical to make without blushing). To be sure, he quotes Niebuhr and CS Lewis, and is clear that Vatican II's decision on religious freedom and relations with non-Catholics were unambiguously good things: 'the end of Christendom gets the Church out of the coercion business, which was one of the great blots on the Church's record of which Pope John Paul called Christians to repent publicly in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000'. But his argument that Christianity has historically created the conditions for an open society and democracy, though clever, could easily be countered by pointing to all of those predecessors who saw the faith as a support for feudalism, absolute monarchy or slavery. Without extreme care, the Christian tradition is, to borrow a metaphor, a mirror in which each sees their own reflection.

Even then, Weigel's inclusion of the 11th-century showdown between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in the list of links between Catholicism and the story of freedom is a bit of a stretch. The episode has no meaning outside of the very church-state connections Weigel decries; in it, the pope sought, not just independence from secular control, but temporal supremacy over the emperor.

All that said, there is so much wisdom in these pages one can see why Weigel is so highly respected. With reference to Matthew 22 ('Render unto Caesar...'), he says 'Because God is God, Caesar is not God', and so 'politics, while important, is never ultimate, but only penultimate'. This 'desacralizes politics' and clears 'the social space on which a politics of persuasion can form'.

He insists that the US separation of church and state is not mere pragmatism: 'religious tolerance is religiously warranted'. 'Tens of millions of Americans believe it to be the will of God that we not kill each other over our differences as to what constitutes the will of God.' (That's a great sentence, but you can see the crack where the secularist would want to drive a coach and horses.) Still, he adds 'That conviction is strongest among those whose Christian conviction is most robust'. As a description of present attitudes it's faultless, but it wouldn't survive a close look at how the Puritans stopped persecuting Baptists and Quakers in 17th-century Massachusetts.

On the growing intolerance of the secularist establishment, especially in Europe, Weigel is a wise voice, pinpointing the 2006 European Parliament resolution that criticised religious freedom as 'a source of discrimination', and the massive EU political pressure that brought down the government of Slovakia (in 2006) when they tried to give doctors a conscience clause against participating in abortions. And so on.

As an introduction to the thought of a Christian thinker who, despite the vagaries of political life, will remain an important voice in the years ahead, this selection of writings could hardly be bettered.

Meic Pearse