Over three decades ago, the phone rang in my office at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where I was then teaching in the department of political science. A powerful, resonant baritone voice introduced the caller as Richard Neuhaus. He was calling, he said, to invite me to a meeting in New York City. He had read some of my work, and he thought that the general topic of the event he had organized, on an aspect of religion and public life, might interest me. He ran over the list of confirmed participants. Many well-known names leapt out. Did I really belong with this distinguished crew? I accepted the invitation and the rest, as they say, is history.
Although many years ago now, I recall the sparring between Richard and Stanley Hauerwas, the authoritative pronouncements of Peter Berger, and on and on. I was hooked. This fellow Neuhaus knew how to run a meeting—that's for sure. What especially struck me was that Richard, by then a controversial figure who had criticized the World Council of Churches and who had denounced the abortion right created by Roe v. Wade, loved debate and encouraged thinkers with diverse points of view to gather together. This was so different from the orthodox conformism of meetings I had attended, organized by feminists or the left, that I was elated. I had entered the academy in part because I thought it would be a world in which reasonable people with contrary positions could debate these positions openly. Boy, was I wrong. What I frequently encountered was what one wag called “the herd of independent minds.” Richard was not interested in a herd mentality. He wanted people to come around to the truth as he saw it, of course. We all want that. But he knew that debate and dialogue were necessary to that end.
Richard was brilliant in engaging thinkers who would never take the time to engage him. This is an imbalance that any thinker outside the generalized consensus faces: You feel obliged to read their stuff but they consider themselves under no similar obligation. But never did I detect in Richard any resentment. He was a happy warrior.
I discovered early on Richard's great capacity for conversation and for cocktails. I think I tried to keep up once on the cocktail end and the results were not pretty. His capacities were extraordinary and, as he smoked his cigar and drank his drinks, one and then another, he became more Richard: funny, incisive, sometimes a bit rough but always from love, never from petty hatred. I looked forward with great anticipation to all those Ramsey Colloquia—seminars at the Union League Club—were I met so many extraordinary people, including Leon Kass, the Augustine scholar Robert Markus, Henry Kissinger, George Weigel, Gil Meilaender, and more. I was grateful that Richard included me and that, within First Things, I had a place to publish essays and musings that would never have found a home elsewhere. I still get emails from people who have discovered my Newtape Letters published in First Things, pieces that played off C.S. Lewis' famous Screwtape Letters, asking me when I will write more. Where else would such work appear? Where indeed?
Richard read everything. He wrote an astonishing amount. Yet he set aside time to take a personal interest in his friends, always inquiring about my family (“All those children: How many, a dozen or so?” he would joke) and always chiding me about too much travel, not sifting the more from the less important engagements. He told me he worried about me. I never worried about him because he seemed so robust until, of course, that dreadful moment when he was first felled by cancer. I was lecturing at Calvin College at the time and I recall making frantic phone calls, finally reaching George Weigel, in order to get an update on Richard's condition. Once the initial shock had passed, it seemed Richard had dodged the bullet and that he would be with us for years to come.
He was with us for a good number of years, but these were cut short much too soon. My biggest regret is that my crazy schedule, the one Richard chided me about, cut the opportunities to see him and to spend time with him over the past few years. I found myself dealing with health issues of my own, and we commiserated via email on that unhappy ground. I hope he knew how much I loved him and how grateful I was for all the doors he had opened for me.
Years ago, when our son, Eric, was a student at Oberlin College, he rang up to tell me that “your friend, Neuhaus, will be speaking on campus.” I told Eric he had to attend, that he would not forget the experience. He did attend, and he later described Richard's reducing the campus hardcore lefties to sputtering impotence. As I had instructed him to do, Eric went up after Richard's talk to introduce himself. Richard said, “Your mother is one of my favorite people. I trust she's one of yours as well.” This was vintage Richard: warm, droll, memorable. Eric has never forgotten this moment.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things, is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.