Richard John Neuhaus never seemed to lack for pithy, authoritative formulations. Neuhaus' Law provides an obvious example: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. It's memorable, quotable, and it rings true. His saying it does not make it so, but his way of saying it—and saying many other things—often gave my intuitions, suspicions, and halting half-thoughts solid shape.
Fr. Neuhaus also had a witty partisan voice. For many years I enjoyed those wonderful items at the end of the Public Square. He relished referring to the New York Times as his parish newspaper, a nice little jab at parochial American liberalism. He had a great deal of fun with the absurdities of the self-proclaimed progressives that came to dominate and debilitate the old mainline: those who include everybody who includes everybody, which turns out to be almost nobody (and certainly not the progressives who never tire of denouncing the evil conservatives).
And yet, for all his magisterial concision and confidence, for all his piquant rebuttals and sharp observations, a great deal of what Richard John Neuhaus wrote was exploratory, tentative, and carefully weighted with qualification. He was not a cocksure ideologue after the fashion of Noam Chomsky, grinding out conclusions. His convictions anchored him, and they gave him the freedom to think about the strange, complicated, and often opaque world in which we live.
The Naked Public Square, for example, includes another of his famous formulations: Culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture. It is punctuated with biting analysis: “The barbarians are those who in principle refuse to recognize a normative ethic or the reality of public virtue.” One chapter develops a deliberately provocative comparison of Jerry Falwell with Martin Luther King Jr.—they both challenged the status quo with religious truths.
That's all classic, cage-rattling Neuhaus: forceful, bracing, and wickedly fun. But the bulk of The Naked Public Square is actually a careful and finely grained attempt to assess the political ascendancy of the Christian Right. He does not tie things up into a neat bow and present his readers with an action plan. Instead, he warns against the simple-minded denunciations of the Christian Right, but he also warns against the simple-minded assertions of the Christian Right. The overall effect is to orient readers and guide them toward thinking intelligently about the future of religious faith in American political life.
I recall reading The Naked Public Square as a young graduate student. I felt strongly Neuhaus' sharp defense of the political role for faith. “The gospel is of public significance,” he wrote. It cannot be silenced by the then-ascendant Rawlsian deracinating definitions of public reason. The confident assertion stiffened my spine.
At the same time, I was also energized by his dissatisfaction with the ideological options of the day. His message was equally clear. Men and women of faith don't just ally themselves as willing soldiers of this or that party platform. They need to fashion the planks—and refashion them, and then refashion them again.
Years later—as I got to know Richard John Neuhaus, and he became “Fr. Neuhaus,” and then finally “Richard”—I came to see that the balance between confident assertion and careful judgment in The Naked Public Square was true to the man. He knew where he stood. We all knew where he stood. And yet he was always thinking, weighing, reformulating. Yes, of course, religion is at the root of culture. But how should a confident Christian faith leaven a pluralistic and democratic American culture? It's not an easy question to answer.
First Things never provided readers with a regular editorial to convey an official position on the affairs of the day. Richard John Neuhaus the writer and public figure knew that a confident faith did not translate into a political agenda that can be confidently proclaimed month after month. His friends were not a company of the like-minded. He did not ask for or encourage party loyalty. He wanted to hear what others had to say, because he wanted to think his way forward from shared convictions about first things, not backward from the happenstance of agreement about this or that political issue of the day.
I have many fond memories of him, but many important and influential ones, as well. During the fall of 2006, I was in his office, expressing my anxious agitation about the upcoming congressional elections. I worried over the loss of a Republican majority, linking my political concerns to the future of the pro-life cause, the dangers of unfettered bioengineering, and so forth. He sat back in his chair, puffing on his cigar while I prattled on. Then, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed my anxieties with a simple observation: “Relax, Rusty. The Republicans will betray us eventually anyway.”
It was his way of reminding me: Culture shapes politics, and religion is at the root of culture—and don't ever let yourself be sucked into the crazy illusion that the order of importance runs the other way. I hope I never forget.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.