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Godfather Knows Best: Pundits and journalists lately have had a field day with the word “neoconservative.” A quick Nexis search reveals that the word pops up in press accounts five times more often than it did just two years ago.

Nevertheless, there seems to be little agreement about the term’s meaning or exactly who these neocons are and what it is that they believe. Observers have variously pigeonholed them as a gaggle of disillusioned Trotskyites, worshipful disciples of the late University of Chicago classicist Leo Strauss and a cabal of pro-Likud hawks who have hijacked America’s foreign policy. (All of which begs the question: If Leon Trotsky, Leo Strauss and Vladimir Jabotinsky were locked in a room together, would they have come up with neoconservatism?)

To complicate matters further, some of those most strongly identified with neoconservatism have questioned the term’s usefulness, including the man sometimes referred to as the neocons’ “godfather,” the intellectual Irving Kristol, who has previously argued that neoconservatism has been swallowed up by mainstream American conservatism.

Now, however, Kristol admits he was wrong — neoconservatism is still distinct, and is now “enjoying a second life.”

Writing in the August 25 issue of The Weekly Standard — a magazine edited by his son William — Kristol traces neoconservatism’s origins to “disillusioned liberal intellectuals in the 1970s” and calls it “the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the ‘American grain.’ It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic.” He credits neoconservatism with having “helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters.”

He insists that it is “not a ‘movement,’ as the conspiratorial critics would have it” but rather “a ‘persuasion,’ one that manifests itself over time, but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect.”

While neocons differ from many of their fellow conservatives on some domestic issues — including, as Kristol notes, a greater willingness to tolerate budget deficits as a cost of pursuing economic growth and an acceptance of growing state power as “natural, indeed inevitable” — it is in the realm of foreign policy where their influence has been most discussed of late. This Kristol calls “surprising since there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience.”

These attitudes, according to Kristol, can be distilled into a set of “theses”: “First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions…. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny…. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies,” and “Finally, for a great power, the ‘national interest’ is not a geographical term.”

In particular, “large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.” As such, the United States feels obliged to defend democracy wherever it is under attack. “That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II,” he writes. “That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.”

And these ideas, Kristol writes, are now playing out against the backdrop of unprecedented American military might, which comes with new responsibilities, “whether sought or not, whether welcome or not.”

“The older, traditional elements in the Republican Party have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs, just as they cannot reconcile economic conservatism with social and cultural conservatism. But by one of those accidents historians ponder, our current president and his administration turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment, although it is clear they did not anticipate this role any more than their party as a whole did. As a result, neoconservatism began enjoying a second life, at a time when its obituaries were still being published.”

* * *|

Persecution Complex: Fears that Mel Gibson’s forthcoming movie on the last hours of Jesus’ life will fuel antisemitism by placing the onus for the crucifixion on the Jews have reached a fever pitch. Critics of “The Passion” point to elements of the film — including some reportedly not found in the Gospel accounts — that heighten the appearance of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion, while minimizing Roman culpability.

Such fears, however, are misguided, argues Gene Edward Veith in the August 16 issue of the conservative Christian magazine World, because “according to Christianity, Christ’s crucifixion is one of the best things to ever happen.”

Veith acknowledges that Jewish nervousness is “understandable” given that “Jews have been persecuted in the past as ‘Christ-killers.’” But in response to such fears, he asserts, “groups seeking to improve the relationship between Christians and Jews have shifted the blame to the Romans, specifically to Pontius Pilate.”

“The blame game, though, completely misses the point,” he writes, since “the importance of the cross is that with His sufferings, Jesus atoned for the sins of sinners from ‘all tribes and peoples and languages,’ pulling onto Himself all of the punishment that they deserve so that they can have free forgiveness and everlasting life.”

“The whole point of the cross is that blame of every kind is removed,” Veith writes.

He calls the controversy over the film “testimony to the failure of Christians to communicate effectively what they believe.”

“Maybe a movie on the centrality of the cross can set the record straight,” he concludes.

And if Veith is mistaken about the movie’s impact, and the most dire predictions of the film’s critics prove to be true, Jews will at least be able to take solace in the knowledge that their persecutors are ignorant of the fundamental tenets of Christian theology.

“The anti-Semites who murdered Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ clearly knew nothing of the gospel of the cross,” Veith writes, “and so can hardly be described as Christians.”

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