last updated: February 27, 2008
- Ethics and Public Policy Center: DistinguishedSenior Scholar
- Project for the New American Century: Founding Signatory
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Called by some critics a “Catholic neocon” or a “theocon,” George Weigel is a Catholic theologian based at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) and a charter signatory of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC). He has been an important member of the neoconservative political faction for decades and part of a small group of rightist religious scholars, many of them conservative Catholics (including the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Novak and the Institute on Religion and Public Life’s Richard John Neuhaus) who have worked to turn back the secular tradition in U.S. politics.
An outspoken proponent of the George W. Bush administration's “war on terror,” including the campaign to push for war in Iraq, Weigel has endeavored to frame current global crises in apocalyptic language. In his 2007 book Faith, Reason, and War against Jihadism: A Call to Action, Weigel outlines several lessons that he says need to be learned in the confrontation with “jihadism.” In a February 2008 book talk at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Weigel clarified his terms while explaining his “Lesson 3,” which states, “Jihadism is the enemy in the multi-front war that has been declared upon us.” Weigel told his audience, “There are many forms of Islam. Some of them, often called ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘Islamism,’ stress the need for a deep religious and moral reform within the House of Islam and for the reestablishment of Islamic political power. The specific form of Islamism which threatens the West is best described as jihadism.”
Other “lessons” according to Weigel include the need to eliminate consideration of Islam as one of the “three religions of the Book” (the other two being Judaism and Christianity); the idea that “cultural self-confidence is indispensable to victory in the long-term struggle against jihadism”; and the recognition that “great human questions, including the great questions of public life, are ultimately theological.”
Pointing to failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what he sees as the West’s failure to stand up to Iran, Weigel claims that Western civilization is facing an existential crisis, one that is made more acute by growing atheism. In Faith, Reason, and War against Jihadism, he writes, “It is, perhaps, ironic that, at precisely the moment when a religiously grounded, existential threat to the civilization of the West has manifested itself with real power, a new atheism, dripping with disdain for traditional religious conviction, has risen up in the form of broadsides by bestselling polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Yet contrary to the claims of these new atheists and their call to the ‘maturity’ of unbelief, a West that has lost the ability to think in terms of ‘God’ and ‘Satan,’ and that has forgotten the drama contained in the idea of ‘redemption,’ is a West that will be at a loss to recognize what inspires and empowers those enemies of the West who showed their bloody hand on September 11, 2001. A West that does not take religious ideas seriously as a dynamic force in the world's unfolding history is a West that will have disarmed itself, conceptually and imaginatively, in the midst of war.” (Excerpts from Random House online.)
In a USA Today opinion piece adapted from his book, Weigel argued that the war on terror was really a war “against jihadism: the religiously inspired ideology that teaches that all Muslims are morally obliged to use whatever means necessary to compel the world's submission to Islam” (USA Today, January 22, 2008).
In a review of the book for the libertarian-run Antiwar.com, Michael Scheuer writes, “The main goal of Mr. Weigel's book… is to harangue, condemn, and damn Americans because they do not see the world as do the neoconservatives, and because they find nothing consistent with America's history, interests, character, or ideals in the type of country and foreign policy Mr. Weigel advocates. And there is no room for debate in Mr. Weigel's new world order, which is to be dominated by something he calls the U.S.-led ‘freedom project,’ apparently to be patterned on current Iraq War. [p. 117] Americans who disagree with him … are not real Americans, they are rather members of the ‘Unhinged Left and the Unhinged Right’ [p. 137], men and women who do not now ‘deserve’ victory in the war against the Islamists [p. 109-10]” (January 11, 2008).
Long before 9/11 and the Iraq War, Weigel had been calling for a more aggressive post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. In a 1995 special issue of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, Weigel argued that the United States "has not had a foreign policy since January 20, 1993. Before then, with the exception of the Gulf War, the foreign and defense policies of the [George H.W. Bush] administration were geared not to shaping the post-Cold War future, but to managing the Cold War's endgame. The Republican president inaugurated on January 20, 1997, will thus have an immense responsibility: creating the first post-Cold War foreign policy worthy of the name" (Policy Review, Fall 1995). According to Weigel, such a policy must include the aggressive expansion of NATO; the development of a policy of "preemptive military action [to] be used to counter weapons proliferation against rogue states or terrorist organizations"; developing and sharing with friends missile defense systems as an "essential technological complement to an assertive policy of nonproliferation and counterterrorism"; aiding the "democratic opposition" in countries across the globe, including in China and Cuba; and reforming the United Nations, which "has become a hotbed of internationalized libertinism, as demonstrated by the 1994 (anti-) population conference in Cairo and the 1995 Beijing conference on women."
In 1997, Weigel and host of prominent neoconservatives and hardline foreign policy wonks added their names to the founding statement of principles of PNAC, a group that helped champion a new post-Cold War agenda guided by a "Reaganite" foreign policy and served as a key rallying point for supporters of an Iraq war in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Weigel endeavored to develop a Christian justification for the invasion of Iraq and for the use of preemptive military force. In opposition to the arguments of many leading Catholics, Weigel stated that the Catholic just-war tradition "lives more vigorously ... at the higher levels of the Pentagon than ... in certain offices at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops." In response, the National Catholic Reporter editorialized, "It's an interesting argument, but to employ a military euphemism, Weigel seems guilty of faulty targeting. The U.S. bishops have put out one well-reasoned, cautious statement expressing reservations about a possible attack in Iraq, but there has been no antiwar campaign from their headquarters in Washington. The real outcry in the Catholic world is coming from across the Atlantic Ocean, and more precisely from the subject of Weigel's 1999 biography Witness to Hope—Pope John Paul II. If Weigel should be picking on anyone, it's the pope" (National Catholic Reporter, January 2003).
Weigel was also on message in early 2007, as a Democratic-led Congress began criticizing the Bush administration's decisions on Iraq and the Middle East, including the decision to "surge" troop levels in Iraq. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Weigel argued that while Congress was "a necessary and useful check on executive arrogance ... in the midst of a global war on jihadism ... it's disheartening to see senators grandstanding when genuine inquiry is required." He concluded, "This Congress must do better, given the magnitude and complexity of the issues involved in the multi-front contest with global jihadism that has non-military as well as military dimensions" (Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2007).
Weigel's views on the Iraq War and preemptive military force fall squarely within the neoconservative policy framework. In his 1997 hagiography of the neocons, The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars, Mark Gerson (a PNAC director) writes that "the term 'neoconservative' ... has been applied broadly to a prominent group of largely Jewish intellectuals who, once considered to be on the left, are now on the right." Gerson lists some 40 individuals as being at the core of the early movement, including Weigel; Irving Kristol ("the central figure of neoconservatism"); Gertrude Himmelfarb, the noted historian of Victorian England to whom Kristol is married; the husband-wife team of Norman Podhoretz (editor at large of Commentary magazine) and writer Midge Decter; and a ragtag assortment of well-known political figures, writers, and scholars, such as Michael Novak, William Bennett, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, Joshua Muravchik, Walter Lacquer, Peter Berger, Elliott Abrams, Ben Wattenberg, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Penn Kemble, Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer, Saul Bellow, Daniel Bell, Leon Kass, Carl Gershman, and Martin Peretz (see Neoconservative Vision, p. 4).
Commenting on his vision of neoconservatism and the relationships between its adherents, Weigel once famously remarked that, "There is a kind of Henry V quality about all this. 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.' I mean, that really is true. [We are] people who have been together in a great moral cause" (cited in Gerson, p. 13).
Along with Novak of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Neuhaus, editor of the Institute on Religion and Public Life's journal First Things, Weigel is one of a sizable minority of Christians and Catholics associated with neoconservatism who are sometimes referred to as "theocons" (see Damon Linker, The Theocons: Secular America under Siege). This fact is often acknowledged by observers of neoconservatism, yet it often seems neglected by neocons, who tend not to distinguish between antisemitic and legitimate criticism of their ideas. For instance, Danielle Pletka, an AEI scholar, once told a Washington Post reporter that "I think the phrase 'neocon' is much more popular among people who think it shields their anti-Semitism. But it doesn't" (Washington Post, May 13, 2004).
Weigel and other neoconservatives often argue that the United States must be always willing to wage a moral war that pits good against evil. Often couching their arguments in existential and Manichean language, neoconservatives have urged "the children of light" to take on "the children of darkness," in the phraseology of Ronald Niebuhr, an important early influence on figures like Irving Kristol and Novak. As Gerson describes it, the neoconservatives believe that "the children of light must do more than just identify their enemies; they must sometimes be willing to confront them with the only language understood by the children of darkness—physical force" (Neoconservative Vision, p. 17). Moynihan, the late, influential Democratic senator from New York who was an important neoconservative standard-bearer before eventually distancing himself from the group, offered a slightly different take on this tendency in his 1993 book Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics: "They wished for a military posture approaching mobilization; they would create or invent whatever crises were required to bring this about" (p. 36).
Facing the reality of the natural order in which evildoers still roam free, U.S. foreign policy should be guided not by naïve moral notions about how nations should behave, but by moral reasoning, Weigel argues. In some cases, he adds, moral reasoning may require that the United States support authoritarian regimes to fend off the greater evils of moral decay and threats to the security of the United States, which is the champion of all that is good and right (see, for example, George Weigel, American Interests, American Purpose: Moral Reasoning and U.S. Foreign Policy).
In Weigel's view, the tendency for Christians—especially progressives, who he sees as befuddled by Catholic liberation theology and the national bureaucracies of the Protestant churches—to view the morality of the Sermon on the Mount as a guide to foreign policy is not only bad theology but also dangerous politics. During the Reagan administration, Weigel was associated with several institutions that gave him the opportunity to put into practice his political theology. He was president of the right-wing James Madison Foundation, which received funding from the U.S. Institute of Peace to monitor what it called "peace groups."
Weigel was also a principal at the Puebla Institute and an associate of the anticommunist World Without War Council, which promoted aggressive U.S. military action in Cold War hotspots like Central America. There he worked with Nina Shea, whose investigation of alleged Sandinista government religious persecution was carried out in coordination with the CIA and Contra figures. The Puebla Institute received U.S. government funding channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy to the front group PRODEMCA.
Weigel is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II (1997), Building the Free Society (EPPC, 1993), Changing Witness (Eerdmans/EPPC, 1995), Idealism Without Illusions (Eerdmans/EPPC, 1994), Soul of the World (Eerdmans/EPPC, 1996), and The Final Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1992). He also writes a syndicated column called “The Catholic Difference” that is published online by the EPPC.
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George Weigel Résumé
- Ethics and Public Policy Center: Distinguished Senior Fellow, Senior Fellow (1996-2007); President (1989-1996)
- Project for the New American Century: Signatory, Founding Statement of Principles (1997)
- Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture: Board of Advisors
- The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity: Signatory, Open Letter to President George W. Bush on Human Cloning (2002)
- Institute on Religion and Democracy: Member Emeritus, Board of Directors
- Discovery Institute: Religion, Liberty, & Public Life Program, Adjunct Fellow
- James Madison Foundation: Founding President (1986-1989)
- Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Scholar-in-Residence (1984-1985)
- World Without War Council: Scholar-in-Residence (1977-1984)
- St. Thomas Seminary School of Theology: Former Assistant Professor of Theology; Former Assistant Dean of Studies; Former Acting Dean of Studies
- First Things: Member, Editorial Board
- Orbis: Member, Editorial Board
- St. Mary's Seminary and University: B.A.
- University of St. Michael's College: M.A. Additional Resources
Frank L. Cocozzelli, “How Roman Catholic Neocons Peddle Natural Law into Debates about Life and Death,” Public Eye, Summer 2008.
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Right Web tracks militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy.
SourcesGeorge Weigel, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, excerpt from Random House online catalog, http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780385523783&view=excerpt.
Michael Scheuer, “George Weigel’s Anti-American Jeremiad,” Antiwar.com, January 11, 2008.
“Biography: George Weigel," Ethics and Public Policy Center, http://www.eppc.org/scholars/scholarID.14/scholar.asp.
George Weigel, "Beyond the Water's Edge," Policy Review, Fall 1995.
"Conservatives Dissent, But with a Spin," National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003.
George Weigel, “Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism,” Book Talk at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 4, 2008, http://www.fpri.org/transcripts/20080204.weigel.faithreasonjihadism.pdf.
George Weigel, “One Party Can’t Defeat Jihadism,” USA Today, January 22, 2008.
Mark Gerson, The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1997).
Philip Kennicott, "The Knowledge that Doesn't Equal Power," Washington Post, May 13, 2004.
Damon Linker, The Theocons: Secular America under Siege, (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
George Weigel, American Interests, American Purpose: Moral Reasoning and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Praeger, 1989).
George Weigel, "Wanted from Congress: Serious Debate, Not Sound Bites," Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2007.
George Weigel, http://georgeweigel.blogspot.com/.
The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Open Letter to President George W. Bush on Human Cloning, http://www.cbhd.org/resources/cloning/kilner_2002-01-01.htm.
Discovery Institute, Religion and Public Life Program Staff, http://www.discovery.org/religion/.
First Things, Editorial Board, http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=10.
Notre Dame University, Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, Board of Advisors, http://ethicscenter.nd.edu/about/advisors.shtml.