Using an upturned chair as a makeshift pulpit on the front porch of his house, Richard John Neuhaus, age 5, early established himself as a preacher, instructing his 3-year-old sister, Johanna, in the articles faith. Through the rest of a long career as a Lutheran pastor, Catholic priest, author, editor and public intellectual, he never left the pulpit. His message, however, took some surprising turns: from left-wing crusader with Daniel Berrigan, S.J., in the anti-war movement, to apologist for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq; from Missouri Synod Lutheranism to Catholic priest. His final pulpit as founder and editor of First Things established him as an influential spokesman for what can properly be called “conservative” positions in church and politics. Randy Boyagoda, professor of American studies at Ryerson University, Toronto, has written a thorough chronicle of Neuhaus’s life and work, relying on Neuhaus’s own autobiographical writings and extensive interviews with family, friends and colleagues.
Richard John Neuhaus, the seventh child and sixth son of Clemens and Ella Neuhaus, was born May 14, 1936, in Pembroke, Canada, where his American-born father was a Lutheran pastor. His educational history was spotty. His first teacher regarded him as “uneducable.” He earned a reputation as a prankster at Pembroke High. When sent to a Lutheran boarding school in Nebraska, he was asked not to return. A year in Cisco, Tex., with distant relatives followed, where he avoided school altogether and spent the year reading and shooting jack rabbits. When Neuhaus applied to Concordia-Austin, facing two registration lines, high school or college, he chose college. In 1955 he entered Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, the premiere school of Missouri Synod Lutheranism. After graduation and several apprentice appointments, he received assignment to St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a dominantly black congregation. Neuhaus served as a successful and much valued pastor for 17 years.
New York, if nothing else, is an ideological hotbed, the home of major publishing houses, journals of opinion and “the paper of record,” The New York Times. For a pastor who loved argument, it was an ideal environment. And the times were right: the civil rights movement was shaking social assumptions and the law; the Vietnam War brought protest even to sedate establishment colleges. Richard Neuhaus marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and he joined Abraham Heschel and Daniel Berrigan in a peace fast as “a call for repentance” for the “madness” of the war. In 1969, Neuhaus and Peter Berger published Movement and Revolution. Neuhaus wrote, “The Movement is the cluster of persons, organizations, world views and activities located on what is conventionally called the Left and acting in radical judgment upon the prevailing patterns, political, economic, social and moral of American life.” The statement could serve as a manifesto for the rest of Richard John Neuhaus’s life as political actor and commentator, with one minor change: substitute “Right” for “Left.”
Neuhaus’s rightward drift contains several significant markers. In 1975 he and Berger organized the Hartford Appeal, a meeting of prominent theologians and religious leaders from across denominational lines. Participants included the Jesuit Avery Dulles and the pacifist Stanley Hauerwas. The appeal offered a 13-point criticism of liberal Christianity’s capitulation to secular fashion. It rejected the mistaken notion that “[m]odern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.” Time called the Hartford Appeal document “bone-rattling.” Neuhaus kept up a steady stream of critical comments about main-line churches in articles and books, culminating in his most well known and influential publication, The Naked Public Square (1984). In 1989, Neuhaus’s then primary financial supporter, the conservative Rockford Institute, literally threw him out in the street after he had sharply criticized anti-Semitism in the institute’s publications. Fortunately, his secretary escaped with the office Rolodex. A few phone calls to old supporters provided the funding for First Things, the venture that was to occupy Neuhaus until his death in 2009.
In 1990, Richard John Neuhaus, in his own words, was “received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.” Two years later, he was ordained as a Catholic priest. This conversion was not as surprising as his political change. At Concordia Seminary, he was deeply influenced by Professor Arthur Carl Piepkorn. Piepkorn held strongly to the view that Luther was truly a reformer and had no intention of breaking with the Catholic tradition. Known affectionately as Father Piepkorn, he not only encouraged students to study Catholic theology; he led them to participate in traditional liturgies. Much later, Neuhaus created his own “monastic” community complete with evening prayer in a communal residence at 338 East 19th Street in Manhattan.
Boyagoda’s biography is an invaluable account of the political and ecclesiastical controversies in which Neuhaus played a central, influential and controversial role. For all the care and detail of the biography, Neuhaus’s transition from liberal activist to conservative commentator remains puzzling. Boyagoda suggests the problem when he notes “there is no single event that comprehensively accounts for and solidifies Neuhaus’s intellectual and political migration from Left to Right.”
What was it about “liberal” views that dismayed Neuhaus? The disruptions at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago were an initial turning point in his migration to the right. He was appalled by the anarchic behavior of supposed allies. They were on the right side, but their reasons—or lack thereof—were destructive. I recently asked a long-time “liberal” sparring partner of Neuhaus about the rightward shift. He commented that Neuhaus often seemed to look behind an issue to its advocates. Good or bad as the issue might be, the ideology of the advocate could be even more telling.
Neuhaus’s opposition to abortion is a case in point. Anti-abortion was a premiere and persistent issue for Neuhaus; it helps explain the attraction of Catholicism and his deep admiration for John Paul II. The single specific quotation about abortion in Boyagoda’s biography suggests, however, that disdain for a prochoice advocacy enhanced his opposition. Neuhaus described a conversation with “a distinguished medical proponent of abortion,” stating the doctor claimed that “many...of the people who live in our horrible slums would...agree with me that it would have been better for them not to have been born.” Neuhaus countered that by that policy most of his Brooklyn parishioners would have been aborted. To Neuhaus, the “liberal” doctor was advocating an abstract utilitarian utopia utterly detached from the reality of love, care and heartache he experienced as a pastor.
The best part of Richard John Neuhaus’s conservative allegiance was this concern for the reality of our everyday communities of family, neighborhood and church. It is the heart of his distinction between liberal and conservative in The Naked Public Square. The temptation of conservatism is that of wandering off into outmoded historical formulae that are as distant from living reality as the liberal’s utopian projects. Neuhaus in the Hartford Appeal properly chastised “liberals” for thinking that “modern thought is superior to all past forms.” He might also have remembered the value of the movement “acting in radical judgment upon prevailing patterns”—including some “conservative” dogmas.