Richard used to put up cartoons in his bathroom. One, which stayed there for some time, showed a Viking ship arriving on a beach where people were dancing and waving in welcome. The caption read: “They think that we are still sailing with Olaf the Good. Little do they know that we are now with Sven, the homicidal maniac.”
I met Richard Neuhaus in New York in 1967, and I moved to Boston in 1979. The intervening years saw our most intensive interaction. We both lived in Brooklyn, about a fifteen-minute drive from each other. My wife Brigitte and our two young sons had just moved into a rather dilapidated brownstone in the Cobble Hill section, while Richard lived in Williamsburg, where he was the pastor of a predominantly black Lutheran church. Brigitte was then, as she is now, a sophisticated conversationalist as well as a superb cook; Richard came over for supper at least once a week. We spent many evenings talking about every subject under the sun, sometimes just the three of us, sometimes with other guests. We were in our thirties, the world seemed wide open, and we were quite sure that we were indeed sailing with Olaf the Good.
Our first meeting took place after Richard had called to ask me to do a book review for a small ecumenical journal, Una Sancta, that he was editing. I was teaching at the New School for Social Research, he picked me up at my office there, and we had lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, Enrico & Paglieri. It was a very long lunch. We discovered that we had both religious and political interests in common, as well as a propensity to tell many jokes. Our subsequent joint ventures spanned both religion and politics, though the latter topic was more salient for a while. The joke-telling remained a constant.
We were both opposed to the Vietnam War, though Richard was much more active in the antiwar movement. Also, we both resided in the Fourteenth Congressional District, where Richard, briefly and unsuccessfully, tried to run for Congress. In 1968 he was a delegate to the Democratic convention in Chicago and was arrested in the ensuing disorders. My family and I were spending the summer in Montauk, and Richard came directly from Chicago to stay with us, shook up by the experience. He already had behind him an impressive history in the civil rights movement (he knew Martin Luther King Jr. and had been to Selma). There was then a certain plausibility to his self-identification as a radical, while I had come to call myself a conservative. In retrospect both designations are quite dubious. But at the time they served to define our respective political stances—both our broad sympathy with some of the aims of what was called “The Movement,” and an increasingly critical distance from it.
Richard had been one of the founders of an antiwar group called Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. He induced me to join its national steering committee. It was in meetings of this committee that both of us (along with Michael Novak, another member) became increasingly appalled by the anti-American and quasi-Marxist direction of the group and of The Movement in general. We stated our position on this in a little book published in 1970, Movement and Revolution, billed as a conversation between a conservative and a radical. The book was not exactly a bestseller, but it defined our distance from the left. This was much more upsetting for Richard than for me. Some of his old friends called him a fascist, and this hurt him. In one conversation about this he characteristically shrugged off the insult with a joke: “Okay. So I’ll be a fascist. But I’ll be a jolly fascist!”
One aspect of the jolliness was the journal Worldview, which we launched at the Council on Religion and World Affairs. I think that, for the few years of its existence, it was a good publication. We had offices on the East Side of Manhattan. The editorial group usually went for lunch at a nearby restaurant, P.J. Moriarty’s, and some of the conversations there were memorable. This was before the pall was cast over social life by the dreary anti-smoking orthodoxy, and I’m convinced that the enveloping smoke had much to do with the liveliness of these conversations.
Brigitte and I did a lot of summer travel in those years, and Richard joined us a number of times, notably in Mexico, where for three summers I was associated with Ivan Illich’s idiosyncratic think tank in Cuernavaca. This time was intellectually important for me, as I first plunged into the whole question of modernization and development. I vividly recall those sun-filled days, with many conversations taking place on the terrace of our rented villa. Richard was a significant interlocutor for me, as I tried to orient myself on what were new topics for me (though he did not get along with Illich).
The most dramatic journey we took together was to Africa. We flew to Dakar, where we were to spend a few days together, after which he was to go on to South Africa while I was to conduct some rather nebulous research in Senegal. We arrived before dawn and were taken at breakneck speed to our hotel. I had just settled down in my room and was shaving when Richard knocked on the door and announced (in a sentence with which I teased him for years): “I have bad news for you.” He had a violent case of swelling in a delicate part of his anatomy.
By then we had been, at most, a couple of hours in Africa, and it seemed unlikely that a tropical disease would manifest itself that rapidly. We spent an anxious time until, some two hours later, the French-speaking manager arrived at the hotel (the night clerk spoke only Wolof, a language in which both Richard and I were lamentably inarticulate). When we finally got to see a doctor at an emergency clinic, it turned out that Richard had a quite common allergic reaction to one of the shots he had taken before the trip, and the condition was almost instantaneously cured by an injection. But our first daytime impression of Africa, early on a Sunday morning, was speeding in a taxi through the empty quasi-Parisian boulevards of Dakar toward what we thought might be a fatal diagnosis.
In 1975 Richard and I convened a remarkably ecumenical group of theologians to issue what we called the Hartford Appeal, which was a strongly worded repudiation of the political misappropriation of the gospel. This aroused considerable controversy and even provoked a counter-manifesto spearheaded by Harvey Cox. Our document (which was published, with some essays by members of the group, in a volume entitled Against the World, for the World) was misinterpreted as simply an attack on the left; it was just as much directed against any politicization of the faith by the right.
But an overtly political publication of ours was To Empower People, the book published in 1977 by the American Enterprise Institute. It is still in print and has become a minor classic. It argued for the importance for public policy of what we called mediating structures—institutions standing between the individual and the large institutions of society. The concept has been influential in policy debates ever since, pretty much across the ideological spectrum.
In recent years both our political and religious paths diverged. Ironically, given our earlier self-identifications, Richard traveled politically farther than I to the right. He became a Roman Catholic, a move in which I could not join him. We remained friends. Most important, for both of us the bedrock of our lives remained the Christian faith we continued to share.
One of Richard’s most characteristic traits was his optimism. He once joked that the inscription on his tombstone should read “We’re gonna turn this around yet!” Come to think of it, this sentence contains the core promise of the gospel: “Christ is risen!”—“This has been turned around!”
Peter L. Berger, a member of the First Things editorial board at the journal’s founding in 1990, is director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture and professor of sociology at Boston University.
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