David R. Henderson  

Michael Novak RIP

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Michael Novak, the well-known Catholic theologian at the American Enterprise Institute, died today.

I didn't know him well and I didn't know his work well. My late friend Roy Childs, Jr., was somewhat of a fan, if I recall correctly. When I read various people talking about how generous and classy a man he was, I agree. I had one interaction with him in which he implicitly gave me advice about my speaking style.

Novak, David Friedman, a couple of other speakers, and I were speaking at a day-long event held in the Silicon Valley and sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. There were a few hundred college students, mainly conservatives, in the audience. I can't remember my topic but it was likely about how free markets are great and solve a lot of problems. That was a standard talk I gave in the late 1990s.

I normally do well with such topics in front of such audiences. But this time, the applause was only slightly above the level of "polite" and well over half the questions were hostile. I think I did a good job of fielding them because I adjusted quickly to the tone. When I sat down, I asked Michael, who I knew had to have given over 20 times, if not 100 times, the number of talks I had given, whether he noticed the audience's hostility. He said that he had.

"I don't understand it," I said, "I usually do so well with such audiences."

"They don't like the fact that you don't believe in God," he said.

"How do they know that? I didn't say a thing about belief in God."

"Exactly," he said, his eyes twinkling.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
TMC writes:

I wouldn't have thought of that either. Especially in Silicon Valley. As a practicing Catholic, I wouldn't have thought twice about the fact that you didn't mention God, unless the talk was about God.

David R. Henderson writes:

@TMC,
My guess is that there was something in my talk where a believer in God would have inserted a comment that I, a nonbeliever, would never have thought of.
Re Silicon Valley, remember that the Michael Novak was speaking. He was certainly the big draw. So there was self-selection in the audience. Remember also that in an area that has a few million people, it’s not hard to find 200 college students who are generally religious.

Jesse C writes:

The Michael Novak draw aside, I would have found it strange for you to talk about God unless the event had a specific religious theme. If you were at an event with a largely evangelical audience, I could see them being cool toward you. A conservative Catholic is quite another thing, in my experience - they are far less proselytizing, and the other side that coin is they're generally more tolerant of secularism.

Yet it happened, so I'm just surprised, not doubtful.

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