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Why Novak is completely worthless in every way imaginable

Daniel Larison rightly gives Novak a skewering over his recent tirade of stupidity on the ever-further nauseating First Things blog:

One of my commenters pointed me to this bizarre item* by Michael Novak at one of the blogs at First Things. Novak writes:

We again need such Christian realism. Such tough-mindedness. The most dreadful war of all time is just ahead of us, is already well begun. Many of us want to save the Christian Holy Places, and Israel, too–our best ally in the world, the creator of the most economically creative and democratic society in its region.

Fulfilling this desire will not be easy in the next twelve months, fateful months, clock-ticking months. If the nuclear capacity of Iran is not destroyed before functioning nuclear weapons are in their silos or other weapons platforms, the whole world will experience blackmail.

To make an object lesson, one nation in particular is on notice that it is listed as first for destruction.

How will we live with ourselves if Israel is annihilated with nuclear bombs? How will we survive? How will our understanding of the Word of God survive, if the fleshly, tangible heart of Jewish and Christian faith is obliterated?

He goes on to urge a war of aggression against Iran to “prevent” the absurd fantasy of the Iranian destruction of the Holy Places. It is bad enough that Novak invokes Niebuhr (!) in support of this mad call for unprovoked, unnecessary war, but when he says that the “most dreadful war of all time is just ahead of us, is already well begun” we can safely say that he has lost all touch with reality. WWII remains the most dreadful war of all time, and nothing on the horizon even remotely compares to the loss of life and destruction that occurred in that war. So there is nothing realistic at all about Novak’s “Christian realism,” and neither is there anything Christian about it if that word is to have any connection to the teachings of Our Lord.

Even under very broad interpretations of just war theory, there cannot be a just war when the other party has inflicted no grave, lasting injury on us. By definition, preventive war cannot be just, and yet it is most certainly preventive war that Novak and other advocates of attacking Iran demand. War is sometimes necessary and permitted for the restoration of peace. There is no justification for destroying what peace exists to satisfy our irrational fears of a deterrable and containable threat. There is no conceivable justification for initiating hostilities to attempt to stop the potential future acquisition of a weapon that the other state is very unlikely to use against us or our allies. To start a war for such a reason would be a crime against God and man.

What would make such a war even more unjustifiable is the improbability of success: a war against Iran might delay an Iranian bomb, but it would not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and it would almost certainly make the acquisition of such weapons an even higher priority to deter future attacks. Meanwhile, the consequences of such a war could be very bad for U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf states, as well as for Israel and our Gulf state allies, to say nothing of the potential damage it would do to the global economy and the hardship and suffering it would inflict on the Iranian people. Thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people would die, many more would be injured and displaced, and our government and the governments of any states that helped us would obviously be implicated in yet another illegal war. Beyond the loss of life and resources, the damage to our national reputation would be staggering.

Novak warns against the “blackmail” that will follow if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, but the only one engaged in a sort of blackmail here is Novak. He would exploit the emotional and religious attachment Christians naturally have for the Holy Places to inspire support for massive, unnecessary bloodshed. The message is quite clear: if you treasure the sacred places where God revealed Himself, you will endorse my monstrous proposal, and otherwise you probably don’t really care about these places or the revelation itself. The proposal is horrible, and the manipulation being employed to advance the proposal is simply despicable.

As for the Iranian threat, Novak is simply wrong. The “whole world” will not experence blackmail from Iran. Most likely, no other state will experience anything of the kind. It is possible that Iranian nuclear weapons could push other states towards nuclearization, in which case the danger would be an arms race and not Iranian “blackmail.” That would be undesirable, but it would not be worse than the regional conflagration that an attack on Iran would cause. Israel’s nuclear arsenal will ensure that Iran would never attempt a nuclear first-strike against Israel.

For that matter, Jerusalem is also considered holy in the eyes of Muslims. I have no idea how Westerners can claim to “know” that the Iranian government would be so moved by religious apocalyptic fervor that it would engage in suicidal nuclear warfare, but they also seem remarkably certain that the holy status of Jerusalem in the eyes of Muslims somehow doesn’t really “count” and will be tossed aside at a moment’s notice. We often see this selective reliance on the beliefs and statements of people in other states. When Ahmadinejad or some other figure of authority in Iran makes demagogic, bellicose statements against Israel, these statements are regarded as essential for understanding the thinking of the Iranian government. On the other hand, when their politico-religious authorities say repeatedly that they regard the use of nuclear weapons as abhorrent, we are supposed to dismiss these statements automatically.

* That is, it is genuinely bizarre, but it’s actually sadly predictable and normal for many of the people at First Things.

If you read Novak’s whole post it’s simply too extraordinary for words in terms of its gargantuan absurdity. He evokes all these emotions about how precious and amazing it is to be able to pray and meditate on the same hill where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount . . . precisely for the purpose of urging Christians to utterly and completely violate the content of the Sermon itself. What matters to Novak is us being able to posses the geographic space where the Sermon allegedly happened, but he doesn’t give a fuck about the Sermon itself. After all if some country might potentially pose a threat to a piece of land where Jesus maybe preached “Love your enemies” our true and righteous response should be to launch a war of aggression against such types, right?

This guy is a sub-Christian joke who recommends immoral, illegal, and inhumane actions for the sake of a crude and insipid ideological platform. Fortunately if exponents of this political program are as stupid, clumsy, moronic, and dottering as Novak, I imagine people will be able to more easily just laugh and ignore them.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I almost emailed this to you yesterday. God help us.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of very important people are going to laugh at and ignore them. Novak is merely putting a pseudo-Christian spin on views held by quite a few people inside the Beltway — not all of them neo-cons, I might add.

    Novak really is a mediocrity. He trots out the usual banalities about the Founders and the Marvels of Free Enterprise, and then contends that they represent major breakthroughs in Christian theology. Not only that, but — as I discovered when I debated him a while ago at Notre Dame — he misrepresents his political past, making himself out to have been much more radical in the 60s than he actually was.

    Moreover, Novak’s call for war shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read First Things over the last two decades, or who’s followed the career of Richard Neuhaus. In the 60s, Neuhaus displayed a pronounced taste for revolutionary machismo and violence. (He even thought Che Guevara was too timid.) Later, Neuhaus (along with Novak and George Weigel, the three field marshals of Catholic belligerence) never lost an opportunity to beat the tocsin for war in FT.

    I’m waiting to hear a call for war from Jean Elshtain, the Boadicea of Chicago Divinity School.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  3. This is the most upsettingly absurd thing I’ve read in a while. You’d think First Things would have SOME standards. Apparently not. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Matt A. wrote:

    George Weigel’s blog posts on First Things are really good at generating creepy, wagon-circling indictments of “liberals” and “the media” in the comment section. But I keep reading them for some reason. I think it’s like trying to keep yourself from looking at a car accident while driving. Or maybe some part of my brain wants to understand how people could say things like they do.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  5. I remember using Novak as something of a test case for social Darwinism in his so-called “theology” of free enterprise. He’s a prefect example of a thinker who’s lost himself in the echo-chamber of the think tank world.

    But there is a question – what is the status of the “Holy Land” in theological thinking? It’s absurd to think that somehow Iran would commit nuclear suicide (which is what it would be), but it’s not so absurd to think about violence spinning out until there is a lot more destruction. Our faith begins in a particular locale, and that particularity is important – but how important?

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  6. Auggie Webster wrote:

    I am nominating Novak for the Catholic Asshole of the Year Awards. Unfortunately, that award will probably go to a pedophile or his protector for the 26th year running. If only the FTers were as willing to wield their whip of cords against those in their own temple as they were to advocate war against the evil nation du jour.

    Honestly, which poses the greater threat? The vast Roman Empire to the relatively tiny Judaism/Christianity of 1st Century AD or the tiny Aquavelvajadian Iran to the vast American “Christian” Empire? Yet Jesus nor his followers ever uttered a word of violence toward those who occupied and indeed DESTROYED the city of their fathers and founding city of the Church. God forbid that Aquavelvajad plopped a bomb into Tel Aviv. Novak would immediately advocate turning the Middle East into a sheet of glass and renaming it Texas II. Of course, all along “Christian” lines.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  7. kim fabricius wrote:

    Jesus, I feel like I’ve just passed through the looking glass into a nightmarish wonderland, or logged onto a blog called Inhabitatio Diaboli. Brits look at Yanks on this matter like dogs with tilted heads: “What the fuck?” (Cf. a national health service.)

    Austin, I submit that the Land has the same status in Christian theology as the Temple – zilch. Just as Jesus is the new Temple, so you could say that Jesus is the new Land. As W.D. Davies writes, “To be ‘in Christ’ … has replaced being ‘in the land’.” Or N.T. Wright: “the world … is the new land.” That’s why Paul talks a lot about Israel but says nothing about the land or nation of Israel. As a theological category, the land is otiose (except, like the Temple, metaphorically) – or, in Novak’s case, quite odious.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  8. At what point in Novak’s war-drum pounding does the Catholic hierarchy tell him to shut the hell up?

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  9. Theophilus wrote:

    That would be really fun to watch, given how unfashionable church discipline of any kind is. And totally deserved, too.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  10. John wrote:

    Yes the blogs at First Things are now uniformly horrible or nauseating.
    Even more so because First Things boasts that it is THE leading journal of religious thinking in the USA.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Nathan Smith wrote:

    It’s odd how Ahmadinejad calling for the “Zionist regime” come to an end gets so much air play, but his desired means for that to happen (a peaceful dissolution like the USSR [1]) is never commented on.


    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  12. Rumor has it that Novak was involved in the writing of JPII’s Centesimus Annus. Sadly, the hierarchy will not be an ally in fighting jack asses like Novak.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink
  13. roger flyer wrote:

    What!? Has nobody ever heard about The Crusades?

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 6:10 am | Permalink
  14. mike W wrote:

    Yes, Australians also have these dogs. I find it almost impossible to believe that a Christian mag/site could actually publish such drivel

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 6:24 am | Permalink
  15. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    One thing that’s heartening — slightly — is that some of the comments on Novak’s post at FT are very critical of his position. I know several people here at Villanova who are FT subscribers who are appalled by Novak and especially by his most recent vomit. So maybe the best strategy is to just let him, Weigel, et. al., continue to foul themselves with glee at the prospect of slaughtering thousands of people. The horror of it all may become apparent to even the most diehard conservatives.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink
  16. Andy wrote:

    where was it that I read something about “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you…anyone who says ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fires of hell.”

    Where was it…? The Sermon on the…something….?

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  17. Hill wrote:


    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    I repent in dust and ashes of my implacable meanness. I would like to re-state, in more biblically appropriate form, what I meant to say about Novak:

    Michael Novak, you are a hypocrite! For you take the sacraments and faithfully attend the mass, but have neglected the weightier matters of the faith: justice and mercy and faithfulness. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You are a blind and false teacher! You treasure “holy places” but despise all the call of the Gospel that gives them any significance! You clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind teacher! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. For you are like a whitewashed tomb, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside is full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also present yourself as righteous and scholarly to others, but inside you are full of violence and hypocrisy and lawlessness. For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourself that you are offspring of those who murdered the prophets — and continue to seek blood to this day.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  19. aew wrote:

    Novak, not surprisingly, has nothing to say about the fact that Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are prevented from visiting and worshiping at the Holy Sites he holds so dear. Nor does he have anything to say about how Palestinian Christians (and Palestinian Muslims) inside Israel live as second-class citizens. Talking with Christians in Israel and the Occupied Territories about what they think regarding Israel and the supposed Iranian threat would disrupt the Holy Land fantasy for Novak: for him, the stones are infinitely more important than the people.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  20. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Halden, please stop. You’re giving me the vapors. Who said that nasty stuff? Jerome? Luther? Whoever that guy is, he’s obviously barbecue.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I’m sure he ended up descending into hell over statements like that.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  22. Auggie Webster wrote:

    At least to the 5th or even 7th circle, depending on his politics.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  23. d. stephen long wrote:

    At least when Bernard of Clairvaux preached a crusade he admitted that if God wanted, God could have preserved the Holy Places himself. Instead, God gave us an opportunity to participate in what he would otherwise do through his own strength. Novak doesn’t even rise to the level of one of the worst ever performances of Christian proclamation. His proclamation of a crusade, and it is nothing less than that, makes God seem utterly useless, impotent — to preserve the “Holy Places.” At best this is Pelagianism, at worst — a tacit atheism. Despite its political ineptness, it is also more or less Christian heresy.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  24. rasselas wrote:

    We should all chip-in and buy Novak a ticket to the Occupied Territories – Let’em live the lie (oops i meant life) for a couple of weeks.

    what utter insanity

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  25. Andy wrote:

    well, I am not a theoblogger, nor the son of a theoblogger, so I should have known I was wading into waters wittier and more incisive than I know how to swim in. Still, I think it’s worth pointing out that in (probably rightly but probably outrageously) criticizing Novak for departing from the Sermon on the Mount, you open yourself up to the same criticism. You’re a better rhetorician than I, so I will leave it to you to determine if that is a good rhetorical strategy. But that’s the thing about the Sermon, it knocks all of us off our goddamned high horses.

    I shall now await a punishing riposte.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  26. Hill wrote:

    If Halden wishes to speak for Christ, let him prophesy. Hopefully the faithful commenters of this blog will end up with the sheep rather than the goats. I trust Halden will put in a good word for us.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  27. Halden wrote:

    I’m not “speaking for Christ” any more than Andy was and you know it. You’re so much better than this.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    Andy, I don’t actually disagree with you to a great degree. Sure, I probably could have been nicer. But I think there’s a place, at least in Jesus’s (and Paul’s) own rhetorical examples for harsh words, and even “personal attacks” being used to respond to egregious misrepresentations of God and God’s desires.

    If I am wrong about Novak, I’m happy to be judged accordingly, indeed I want to be wrong. But he’s said this and so many other things that, to my judgment are utterly against everything that Jesus is about, at least in the Gospels. Hence my reaction. Maybe it was too strong a reaction. But I am a little disapointed that people seem so much more interested in my politeness or lack thereof than the actual issue that Novak’s heresy presents.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  29. Hill wrote:

    Wow you broke out the “you’re so much better than this” line. Gadflies need gadflies, too. I still maintain there is an important rhetorical difference in yours and Andy’s deployment of scripture.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  30. Halden wrote:

    And I’m glad to have you as my gadfly. That being said, I think you knew my point was simply that harsh rhetoric can’t just be brushed aside, given that Christ himself found a place for it. You knew I wasn’t fancying myself a prophet or Christ but you chose to lob that at me for whatever reason. Ok.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  31. Hill wrote:

    We basically agree about Novak, by the way. I had already written up a rant about this piece and emailed it to a buddy of mine before this post went up. I think the particular verse Andy quote is an extremely challenging one, however, especially for people of my disposition (and yours too… I say that in solidarity with you as a cantankerous person).

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  32. Hill wrote:

    See post below. I didn’t mean anything by it. The snark/humor ratio was off.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  33. Halden wrote:

    And I do honestly want to think about how that verse in the Sermon relates to the whole “you brood of vipers” business. I’m sure i have stuff to learn about the line between “you fool!” and “you are full of deadly poison!”

    And Novak is definitely full of deadly poison. And really, that is what I wanted to draw attention to and what I was thinking about in response to the Larison piece. I probably could have phrased that better, I guess. I don’t care about being able to just call him an idiot, even though I’m not impressed with his intelligence. What I care about is drawing attention to, well, the evil.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  34. Halden wrote:


    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  35. Auggie Webster wrote:


    Have you been perusing this blog for long? It is not my desire to slag you off, but it seems that you don’t understand that Novak’s writings are, to Halden and most of the readers of this blog, literally INSANE. He is advocating violence in the defense of “the Christian holy places”. He is, theologically speaking, like Charlie Manson at a parole hearing. You know what’s coming out of his mouth is drivel, but you can’t look away because he is so batshit crazy. But the difference between the two is that Novak is really, really dangerous.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  36. Hill wrote:

    The point that I was crudely making is that it may be the case that an identical repetition of Christ’s jeremiad against the pharisees is not possible (save by Christ himself, of course). I’m not sure how far one can push that, but I know it terrifies me to think about the implications, for my own soul, of speaking that sort of indictment. I am certainly a white-washed tomb. I am really offering this up in an open way as one who is cut to the core by our mandate to “judge not, lest ye be judged.”

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  37. Hill wrote:

    To clarify an already belabored point, the insanity of Novak’s blurb isn’t really in question, nor is it relevant to any of the interesting questions raised by this comment thread and its relatives in the blogosphere.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  38. Auggie Webster wrote:

    Au contraire mon frere, the insanity of Novak is precisely what prompted Halden’s characterizing of Novak as “completely worthless in every way imaginable.” Say Milbank says something which Halden disagrees with, however far out of left field it comes, Halden would not characterize him in that way b/c Milbank is on the same team, or at least inside the ballpark. Novak is not even playing the same damn sport. Thus the relevant, pertinent and necessary slagging.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  39. Auggie Webster wrote:

    But I do enjoy you laboring on my behalf. Thank you so much.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  40. roger flyer wrote:

    Rambo must flex his pipes from time to time.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink
  41. roger flyer wrote:

    @ d Stephen-But Bernard is an historical figure of ecclesial weight that Michael Novak can nod to…

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  42. Andy wrote:

    Thanks, Halden, I appreciate this, especially your last line which is very thought-provoking and probably a good corrective to my proof-texting scold.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  43. Andy wrote:

    I for one would be very interest in reading your thoughts on brood of vipers vs. you fool

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  44. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I’m not convinced that Milbank is on the same team or inside the ballpark. In fact, I’m not convinced he plays sports at all.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  45. Andy wrote:

    Yes, I’ve been lurking around for awhile but rarely comment. I definitely understand that Novak seems insane to Halden and commenters. Having read it, I also think it’s pretty bad. But, sometimes the tone here gets a bit obnoxious and over the top…reminds me of they way my high school basketball team used to talk about our crosstown rivals: They were real bastards in every way, completely worthless, you might say. To be honest, I think the kind of rhetoric used here is beneath your intelligence. It is a disservice to the very valid points that you, Halden, et al make. But hey, I’m reading the blog and commenting, so it works for something.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  46. Auggie Webster wrote:

    True. Unless you include the sport of competitive eating. He actually leads the stacked pork rind division.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink
  47. phillip mutchell wrote:

    If Novak causes such concern surely the more urgent question is why does he have the influence credited to him with if not because the USA is soaked in such dreams of violence and apocalypse, the recent outpouring of films springs to mind, that his appeal to the necessity for all out conflict in the cause of whatever idol he conjures up actually seems reasonable. Doesn’t the notion of Election, of the right and the damned fuel violence and isn’t Revelation a glorious picture of consuming destruction preceding the new heavens and earth? Small surprise that the more easily inflamed overlook the emphasis on it being the sword of the spirit of his mouth which actually slays the foul abominable opponents to Christ’s glorious reign. Tolstoy insisted that the constant multiplication of weapons for defence must inevitably result in war and Franz was the opportune tinder, now let’s face it it must be quite frustrating to be American with the most advanced arsenal of destructive weaponry known to humanity and to never really use it, I mean what are all those taxes for, certainly not the amelioration of social inequalities, these are after all ordained of God, so they must be that America might accept her destiny and like Israel waiting for her Messiah now the Nations await her Saviour, the true Republic of believers unfettered and undeceived by notions contrary to scripture, subject to that calling which demands she accept her role as deliverer from the devil’s hordes and that right quickly while she can still afford the fuel bill. Sing it with me ye faithful ‘O land of hope and glory…’ and to think it used to be ‘Britons never never …’ ah same shit different day.

    Friday, April 23, 2010 at 3:12 am | Permalink
  48. rasselas wrote:

    Friday, April 23, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  49. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Only I can speak for Christ.

    Saturday, April 24, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  50. roger flyer wrote:

    @ phillip-
    um…you aren’t an american. are you?

    thanks for the slap.

    Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  51. Bruce Hamill wrote:

    Thanks rasselas… very interesting
    @halden what’s with the ‘regnant’? When was the coronation?

    Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  52. Halden wrote:

    Twas Brad E. who laid the crown upon my fair head:

    Monday, April 26, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  53. roger flyer wrote:

    Thank you Father Ry.

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 5:45 am | Permalink

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