last updated: February 22, 2007
- American Enterprise Institute: Director of Social and Political Studies
- Institute on Religion and Democracy: Board Member
- National Review Online: Contributor
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In a February 20, 2007 article for the right-wing National Review Online, Michael Novak, a prominent writer at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and longtime player in the right's so-called culture wars, chided members of the U.S. House of Representatives who had recently voted for a nonbinding resolution disapproving of the troop "surge" in Iraq. While surge opponents "think they are pretty smart," opined Novak, the surge plan was already beginning to show "good signs" of stemming the violence on the ground in Iraq. His assertion might have come as a surprise to civilians and U.S. soldiers in Iraq, where, on the day after Novak's piece was published, 123 people were killed or found dead, 153 wounded, two GIs killed, and a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter shot down (see various press reports compiled by Margaret Griffis at antiwar.com, February 21, 2007).
Acknowledging that there will be "copious bloodshed" before the Iraq conflict ends, Novak expressed hope that "as much as possible of it will be in open clashes between armed units on both sides, rather than in the form of homicidal truck bombings among unsuspecting civilians in tranquil marketplaces, schools, and mosques." He added: "Every homicidal attack on unaware civilians shows the dark side of the anti-democratic extremists. These anti-democratic forces love death. They thirst for blood—and for their red-splattered destruction to get on American television, to make Americans want to depart in shame" (National Review Online, February 20, 2007).
Novak ridiculed "editors in America," whom he accused of abetting the enemy because they seem intent on working "to increase the power of the anti-democratic forces by being cooperators in their propaganda war, whose aim is to make cowards of all Americans." Novak wrote, "What is missing in America is the public conviction that these cowardly bombings reveal far more about the darkness of soul in their perpetrators, than about the character of security forces."
Novak concluded his rant by taking a parting shot at Democrats and Republicans in Congress who opposed President George W. Bush's Iraq plan. "Let historians look back on my words with mockery if they will. I would rather stand at this president's side any day, than among those who for the second time bring dishonor upon this nation." (The first "dishonor," according to Novak, came 39 years ago during the Vietnam War, when "an arrogant Democratic Congress" that was determined to "stop funding a war that had turned into its final lap toward victory" decided to abandon "several million friends of the United States to torture, imprisonment, death.")
The National Review article was standard fare from Novak, who for more than three decades has been a central figure in the neoconservative political faction. He is a also a founding member of what one scholar calls the "theocons," a group of radical leftist religious leaders and thinkers who in the 1960s championed revolutionary change in America and then dramatically shifted to the far right, promoting public religiosity and fighting against the influence of secularism (see Damon Linker, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege). Fellow theocons include George Weigel, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister who once criticized Che Guevara for his unwillingness to use terrorism in his revolutionary endeavors in Latin America (cited in Linker).
In his 1969 book A Theology for Radical Politics, Novak argued that the real enemy in America was the "tyrannical and indifferent majority: the good people, the churchgoers, the typical Americans, the ones who have been taught that to be an American is by that fact to be moral, just, free, generous, and trustworthy. So long as such majority controls the destiny of America, it appears, the nation will remain militarist, racist, and counter-revolutionary" (cited in Neoconservative Vision, p. 154).
By the mid-1970s, however, Novak was singing a very different tune. Such was his conversion that in 1976 William Brock, then chairman of the Republican Party, awarded Novak with the Republicans' "Favorite Democrat Award." Shortly thereafter, Novak switched to the Republican Party and became an ardent supporter of Ronald Reagan (Commonwealth, October 24, 1980). Novak served in a number of government posts during the Reagan presidency. According to his AEI biography, " Novak was appointed and served as: ambassador of the U.S. Delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, 1981-1982; head of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the monitor of the Helsinki Accords), 1986; with Senate approval, member of the Board for International Broadcasting (the private corporation that governs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), 1984-1994; member of the Presidential Task Force on Project Economic Justice, 1985."
The author of some 25 books and a former professor at a number of elite universities—including Notre Dame, Stanford, and Harvard—Novak's most influential role in U.S. politics has perhaps been his effort to bridge the divide between various factions of the American right, including the neoconservatives, the Christian Right, and traditional social conservatives. Together with the likes of Weigel, who like Novak is a Catholic theologian, Novak has helped spearhead a number of campaigns promoting free-market capitalism, rightist social policies, and a greater role for religion in the state. Helping prop up these campaigns have been a string of religious-oriented institutes and advocacy groups founded by neoconservatives and their allies among social conservatives, including the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Empower America.
Since joining AEI in 1978, Novak has been a vociferous proponent of capitalism and has worked to push the Catholic Church and other religious denominations to accept free-market economics. Wrote Mark Gerson in his 1997 book The Neoconservative Vision: "Traditionally a bastion of premodern, anticapitalist, and antisocialist economics, the Catholic Church has come around to an acceptance of capitalism, some say due directly to the work of Michael Novak" (p. 268). (Gerson is a director of the mostly defunct neoconservative group Project for the New American Century.)
One of Novak's niches within the neoconservative faction has been to provide the moral, ethical, and theological underpinnings of American corporatism. He views the corporation as a sacred relic that needs constant polishing. In an article published as part of a Pfizer-sponsored "advertising series" on public policy questions, Novak (who has served on Pfizer's board of directors) traced the origins of the modern corporation to the Benedictine monasteries whose trading networks constituted the "West's first transnational corporations." He wrote: " The private business corporation is an extraordinary institution. The corporation is not a church, not a state, not a welfare agency, not a family. It is an economic association with specific and limited responsibilities, which, simply by being what it is, serves the common good of the community in many ways. It has changed often in history, and by its very self-discipline, inventiveness, and creativity it has surmounted even greater threats than it faces today. Yet in these days of instant communications and easy demagoguery, it is timely for the business corporation to take account of its own identity, its essential role in the future of self-governing nations, and its central position in the building of civil society" (PfizerForum, undated).
In his writings, Novak has frequently extolled the creativity and intellectual capabilities of corporate leaders, arguing once that the "chief executive officers of major corporations have as much claim to high talent as do the top five hundred intellectuals and professors, the top five hundred scientists, or the top five hundred musicians, painters, and sculptors of the land" (cited in Gerson, p. 216). He reiterated this theme in his Pfizer article, adding that the corporate "creative community" has proved to be a salvation for the poor because at its base the corporation is meant "to serve others." He wrote: " The economic and ethical point of a business corporation is to serve others. In this, it can do both good and, sometimes, flagrant evil, and all the varieties in between, for business is a morally serious field of endeavor. In its own way, the business firm represents a partial but important form of human community. This creative community is the greatest transformative power of the condition of the poor on earth; without it (and its dynamism) the hopes of the poor would be bleak indeed. From the bottom up, the business system seeks out persons of talent, initiative, and enterprise who want to better their condition and that of their localities."
As a board member for the National Endowment for Democracy, Novak has advocated that the U.S. government increase its programs to build free-market democracies in the Middle East and Latin America, reasoning that will at the same time spread religion. Houston Catholic Worker writers Mark and Louise Zwick argue that Novak and others, like Weigel and Neuhaus, have twisted the teachings of the Catholic Church to justify policies that have little to do with the social justice tradition of the church: "They use Catholicism as window dressing to promote an economic system based solely on self-interest, a system that has nothing to do with the Gospel or Catholic social teaching" (Houston Catholic Worker, May-June 1999).
Novak has also been a consistent proponent of hawkish defense and foreign policies, using his theological training to challenge standard Christian just-war doctrines. His efforts attracted the attention of the Bush administration during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, inviting him to go to the Vatican and visit the Holy See to campaign on behalf of the administration's arguments for going to war. Because Novak was acting ostensibly as a representative of U.S. Catholics, his trip provoked a storm of complaints within the church that the U.S. government had "selected a theologian to represent the U.S. Catholic community's position on the morality of war without any consultation with recognized Catholic leaders" (National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003).
In an article for the National Review shortly before the invasion of Iraq, Novak argued for moral justification based in part on the idea that Saddam Hussein might use terrorists to attack the United States: "From the point of view of public authorities who must calculate the risks of action or inaction vis-à-vis the regime of Saddam Hussein, two points are salient. Saddam Hussein has the means to wreak devastating destruction upon Paris, London, or Chicago, or any cities of his choosing, if only he can find clandestine undetectable 'foot soldiers' to deliver small amounts of the sarin gas, botulins, anthrax, and other lethal elements to predetermined targets. Secondly, independent terrorist assault cells have already been highly trained for precisely such tasks, and have trumpeted far and wide their intentions to carry out such destruction willingly, with joy. All that is lacking between these two incendiary elements is a spark of contact" (National Review Online, February 10, 2003).
Novak's work has been generously funded by conservative foundations, including the Olin, Bradley, and McKenna foundations. From Olin, which gleaned its fortune in part from arms manufacture, Novak's AEI program on religion and policy has received more than $1 million since 1985 (see MediaTransparency.org).
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Michael Novak Résumé
- American Enterprise Institute: George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy; Director of Social and Political Studies
- National Endowment for Democracy: Member, Board of Directors (2002-current)
- Institute on Religion and Democracy: Member, Board of Directors
- Empower America: Former Member, Board of Directors
- National Review Online: Contributing Editor
- Capital Research Center: Member, Board of Directors
- Center of the American Experiment: Former Member, Board of Advisers
- International Broadcasting: Member of the Board (1984-1994)
- First Things: Cofounder, Member of Editorial Board
- This World: Cofounder, Member of Editorial Board
- Crisis: Cofounder, Publisher/Editor
- University of Notre Dame: Professor of American Studies and Welch Chair (1987, 1988)
- Syracuse University: University Professor and Ledden-Watson Distinguished Professor of Religion (1976)
- Rockefeller Foundation: Director of Humanities Program (1973-1974)
- State University of New York at Old Westbury: Faculty Member (1968-1973)
- Stanford University: Assistant Professor of Humanities (1965-1968)
- Harvard University: Teaching Fellow
- Conference on Security and Operation in Europe: U.S. Ambassador (1986)
- Presidential Task Force on Project Economic Justice: (1985)
- UN Human Rights Commission: U.S. Ambassador (1981-1982)
- White House Office of Ethnic Affairs: Adviser (1974-1980)
- Pfizer Corporation: Member, Board of Directors
- Harvard University: M.A., History and Philosophy of Religion
- Gregorian University (Rome): S.T.B.
- Stonehill College: B.A.
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SourcesMichael Novak, "Gambling on Defeat," National Review Online, February 20, 2007.
Margaret Griffis, "Wednesday: 123 Iraqis, 2 GIs Killed; 153 Iraqis Wounded; U.S. Helicopter Shot Down," AntiWar.com, February 21, 2007, http://www.antiwar.com/updates/?articleid=10561.
Mark Gerson, The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1997).
Damon Linker, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
Michael Novak, "A Switch to Reagan: For a Strong America," Commonwealth, October 24, 1980.
Biography of Michael Novak, American Enterprise Institute, http://www.aei.org/scholars/filter.all,scholarID.44/scholar2.asp.
Michael Novak, "The Future of the Corporation," PzfizerForum.com (undated), http://web.archive.org/web/20050311220639/http://www.pfizerforum.com/english/novak.shtml, (Web Archive).
John L Allen, "American Catholic Leaders Protest Novak Visit to the Vatican," National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003.
Mark and Louise Zwick, "The Economic Religion of Michael Novak: Wealth Creation vs. the Gospel, as in Using Catholicism to Prop up Neoconservatism," Houston Catholic Worker, May-June 1999.
Michael Novak, "'Asymmetrical Warfare' and Just War: A Moral Obligation," National ReviewOnline, February 10, 2003.
MediaTransparency.org, Grants to Michael Novak, http://www.mediatransparency.org/grantsearchresults.php?Message=Michael+Novak.