Richard John Neuhaus
The biography is out. Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square was researched and written by Randy Boyagoda. It was a five-year project, including time spent in New York interviewing Neuhaus’s friends and colleagues, digging into his extensive correspondence and archival material here at First Things. The result is a comprehensive and readable biography. Highly recommended.
The young Neuhaus was a certain type of post-war pastor. He took it for granted that the Church should speak to the social issues of the time. He joined the great movements of the 1960s: first the heroic efforts to advance racial justice, and then to end the war in Vietnam. When he became distressed by the excesses of the New Left, he joined the migration to the right that became known as neoconservatism. Given the kind of man he was, he sought to be a leader. By 1990, he found a lasting way to do just that: First Things.
Neuhaus’s life is a fascinating story of books and essays, movements and meetings, and the many famous personalities who passed through his living room over the decades. Boyagoda tells it well. And as he does, he gets the main theme right. Neuhaus led an activist’s life, a writer’s life, a man-who-knew-important-people’s life. But what mattered most to him was his Christian life. His innermost circle was not made up of Washington political people and New York media people. It consisted of pastors and theologians. He did many different things throughout the 1970th and ’80s, but one constant was his editorial—and editorializing—role in producing the Lutheran Forum Letter, a churchman’s publication for churchmen. He was most at home in the pulpit.
The priority of Christ gave Neuhaus a precious freedom. As he once wrote (and Boyagoda quotes to good effect), “Our Lord said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but he did not accommodate us by spelling out the details. Over two thousand years, Christians have again and again thought they got the mix just right, only to have it blow up in their faces—and, not so incidentally, in the faces of others. We’re always having to go back to the drawing board, which is to say, to first things. Even when, especially when, we are most intensely engaged in the battle, first things must be kept first in mind. It is not easy but it is imperative. It profits us nothing if we win all the political battles while losing our own souls.”
What happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago is far more important for the future of humanity than what happens in the great capitals of today’s nations. Such a faith does not forestall activism—loving our neighbor means getting out into the neighborhood—but it keeps things in perspective. Political questions? They’re important, but not of first importance. Questions of the soul are what finally matter most.
What is the enduring legacy of Richard John Neuhaus? Some early reviewers of Boyagoda’s biography focus on his role as intellectual mentor of the religious right. Fair enough, but I don’t think his particular political views, allegiances, or coalitions were primary over the long run. His youthful revolutionary utopianism blew up in his face—which is why he moved from left to right. No doubt at some point the fusion of neoconservatism with social conservatism and religious orthodoxy that is First Things eventually will blow up in our faces as well. Nobody ever gets the mix just right, at least not for long.
What will endure is Neuhaus’s constant reminder: Man is first and foremost a worshiping animal, not a voting animal. Rendering to God what is God’s matters most. The rest is commentary.
The Gay Movement
The Human Rights Campaign, an influential gay-rights group, recently put out a seventy-page document, Beyond Marriage Equality: A Blueprint for Federal Non-Discrimination Protections. It outlines a legislative agenda that seeks to apply the full scope of current civil-rights law to sexual orientation and gender identity. This means new federal laws in the areas of finance, education, employment, federal funding, housing, and public accommodation.
In the decades since Martin Luther King Jr. led the march from Selma to Montgomery, others striving to change our society have tried to adopt the rhetoric and strategies of the civil-rights movement. The reasons are obvious. Those who successfully position themselves as today’s subjugated minority—I call this the Selma Analogy—gain a tremendous moral advantage in public debate. They can depict their ambitions as a sacred crusade and paint opponents as vicious bigots. Moreover, to frame a cause as a civil-rights issue provides one with access to the extraordinarily powerful body of civil-rights law that’s designed to bulldoze the evils of discrimination.
It hasn’t always worked. The women’s movement did not succeed in staking a claim to the Selma Analogy. Betty Friedan’s domestic captivity as a suburban housewife never quite matched up to Frederick Douglass’s life as a slave. It was hard to see sexism as an evil on par with the racial subjugation that led to the 1955 killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi.
The Selma Analogy was further weakened by the fact that most Americans continue to endorse a certain degree of differentiated treatment based on sex. The idea of a race-blind culture attracts our allegiance. A sex-blind society? That’s not so appealing. Men and women: We relish the difference.
As a result, the women’s movement did not look like the civil-rights movement. The most effective opponent of its greatest legislative aspiration, the Equal Rights Amendment, was Anita Bryant—which was akin to having a black man as Martin Luther King’s most ardent adversary. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single goal of the civil-rights movement not widely endorsed by African Americans. This was never true for women’s liberation. The women’s movement has championed abortion rights, for example. But polling consistently shows that women as a whole are no more likely than men to support abortion on demand. No Selma Analogy there.
There’s a further difference: The women’s movement has succeeded where crusaders for racial equality have failed. All-male colleges and universities had little trouble including women. Today females make up 60 percent of the undergraduate population. That’s not been true for the now decades-long struggle to achieve even proportionate rates of African-American enrollment. In fact, feminism’s decline in popularity among young women over the past two generations in large part stems from its successes. Women who reject the label “feminist” take for granted their full participation in economic and political life, even as they reject the feminist assaults on social and cultural distinctions between men and women.
The economic and political successes stem from an even more fundamental reason why the Selma Analogy does not apply. Before women’s lib got going, there were females named Roosevelt and Rockefeller. The full representation of females at the top of the socioeconomic heap meant that the women’s movement gained almost immediate access to political and cultural power.
It also meant that the women’s movement largely focused on elite issues, as it still does. Some of the most visible feminist voices today fix on the problem of work–life balance for super-high-achieving women in the top 1 percent. This is very different from the civil-rights movement in all its phases. There’s no tradition of anguished essays in The Atlantic about the problems facing young black men who have recently graduated from Ivy League colleges.
As I ponder the sort of future envisioned in Beyond Marriage Equality, I find myself thinking that the homosexual movement falls somewhere between the civil-rights movement and the women’s movement. It has some of the urgency found in the struggle against racism, while it’s largely an elite project and part of the establishment itself, just as women’s lib was.
The elite orientation shouldn’t surprise. Sexual orientation is evenly distributed along the social scale. There have always been and certainly are now very well-educated, rich, influential, and powerful gays and lesbians, which means a powerful network of support for their cause. John F. Kennedy dragged his feet on civil rights because he was reluctant to explode the electoral coalition that kept the Democratic party in power. Had his son or daughter been black, he would not have been so lukewarm.
As a result, the history of the homosexual movement looks a lot like that of the women’s movement. Stonewall has a mythic status, but it was an isolated incident. The gay movement has never posed a grassroots threat to the establishment because it conquered the establishment first. Its political muscle comes from the top down, as did that of the women’s movement.
With establishment power behind change, overt forms of discrimination dropped away rapidly. Resources for empowerment flowed very quickly as well. Black-studies programs at the universities came after a long grassroots struggle and political victories. Gay-studies programs were up and running well before gay rights had any traction in the political realm. Given that elites have gay children, this difference is not surprising.
Which is why, like the women’s movement, the campaign for gay rights tends to focus on elite interests. Wedding announcements reported in the New York Times indicate social status. It’s very telling that gay affiances are featured far more often than the matrimonies of black men and women. Undoubtedly this disproportion reflects an editorial desire to advance the cause of gay marriage. But perhaps the more powerful factor is that gays and lesbians are in fact very well represented in the upper reaches of society. In this respect, today’s campaign for gay rights isn’t at all like Thurgood Marshall’s efforts at the NAACP more than half a century ago.
In other respects, however, the homosexual movement makes a strong claim to the Selma Analogy. There are debates about strategy and tactics today, as there were in the civil-rights movement during the 1950s and ’60s. But homosexual men and women are largely united behind the leadership of the gay-rights movement. Up to this point there has been no gay equivalent to Anita Bryant. (That may be changing. In France, marches against a law allowing gay marriage had among its leaders gay activist Xavier Bonigbault. Here in the United States, self-described bisexual Robert Oscar Lopez, who was raised by his mother and her lesbian partner, has become an outspoken critic of LGBT orthodoxies.)
For the most part, homosexuals have remained unified because, like black Americans, gays and lesbians (and especially people in the “trans” categories) have felt and continue to feel acutely vulnerable. Surely experiences of crude anti-gay sentiment contribute. But this enduring vulnerability also stems from the nature of homosexuality itself. Traditional morality encourages us to think of homosexual desires as perverted and homosexual acts as immoral. In an important sense, these judgments, no matter how politely expressed, pose a powerful existential threat. Even as I write the words “perverted” and “immoral,” I can hear the chorus of outraged reaction: Irrational animus! Homophobia!
The existential threat to gays and lesbians posed by traditional morality may be greater than the harm that racist attitudes cause blacks. Marcus Garvey could encourage people to kick the racist dust of America off their feet and emigrate to Africa. James Baldwin could retreat to Paris. There was something reassuring in knowing that America’s racism was peculiar rather than universal. But there’s no place other than the post-Christian West where gays and lesbians are affirmed as gays and lesbians. The moral law is written on the Gentile’s heart, as St. Paul puts it. As a consequence, all of us—including gays and lesbians themselves—have a sense that there’s something right about traditional sexual morality. It’s very painful when an internal voice whispers assent.
The New York Times recently published an op-ed illustrating the existential vulnerability felt by homosexuals. Jean Mills and Carol Eichelberger of Tuscaloosa allow that their neighbors treat them well. There are no separate water fountains. They don’t have to sit in the back of the bus. They were never threatened, never spat upon. On the contrary, they report living amid kind and courteous neighbors. But the 2006 election in Alabama featured an amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. They felt discriminated against by the fact that a local church publicly encouraged its members to vote for the amendment. “It was a personal, painful reminder that we were not to be thought of or treated as equals.”
Mills and Eichelberger’s experience is typical. I doubt that a fair-minded researcher could find clear statistical evidence of significant discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing, and other areas targeted in Beyond Marriage Equality. A 2012 survey sponsored by Prudential found that gay and lesbian households reported much higher income ($61,500 as compared with the national average of $50,000), lower debt, and higher rates of employment than did the rest of the population. These aren’t exactly signs of systematic discrimination.
And yet we don’t need to be convinced that young people with homosexual desires who grow up in conservative Christian churches can feel an acute existential despair. Or that quite confident homosexual adults with professional careers and high social standing are stung when their sexual lives are described as unnatural and sinful. For this reason, the Selma Analogy resonates.
The relative lack of real discrimination combined with a powerful sense of urgency means that Beyond Marriage Equality is very likely to be followed up by Beyond Nondiscrimination. We will be required to affirm and endorse. We will be obligated to drown out, with a chorus of affirmation, the voice of conscience that makes gays and lesbians so existentially vulnerable. The goal, then, will be to stamp out “homophobia.” This means a campaign against a “culture of homophobia.” Which means a culture war against Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other religion and traditional morality.
The legal mechanism for creating a culture of affirmation is found in civil-rights law. As we move beyond marriage equality and nondiscrimination, most of the gay-rights activism will be geared toward pressing for government-directed social engineering on the basis of civil-rights doctrines of public accommodation and the proscription of hostile environments. In culture more broadly there are sure to be more campaigns to stigmatize and punish “homophobia.” This war will be waged with vigor. And if the recent past is any indication, it will be waged ruthlessly. (There’s little of Martin Luther King’s spirit of Christian love in the homosexual movement.)
But it’s not a war the homosexual movement can win. In the first place, there’s a persistent tendency toward an ideological extremism that weakens the homosexual movement, just as it weakened feminism. It happens whenever a social movement requires us to deny reality, which in this case is the difference between men and women. We see this most clearly in rising calls for transgender rights, something most Americans find perplexing, however sympathetic they may be to the plight of these troubled people.
Like the women’s movement, the homosexual movement has larger ambitions that run counter to the fact that most people affirm rather than obscure the male–female difference. Tolerance and accommodation of homosexuality may be consistent with this enduring desire to live in a culture largely organized to sustain the male–female difference, but a required affirmation isn’t.
Educating for Unity
There are few other countries where public officials would have thought it necessary to introduce an education program as an antiterrorist measure.” So writes Mark Lilla of the French response to the January killings in Paris. But those who know French history will not be surprised. France was the first revolutionary society. Those who had been the king’s subjects were now to become the nation’s citizens. A new man had to be formed out of the old material of French culture. The future needed to be made, not inherited, and that meant a new way of forming the consciousness of children. For this reason, as Lilla observes in “France on Fire,” an essay in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, “the modern French have always treated education as the projection screen for their anxieties and uncertainties.”
In the nineteenth century, the great conflict between Revolution and Reaction “was largely carried out by proxy struggles over lay and Catholic education.” The early years of the twentieth century saw the decisive victory of republicanism. The 1905 law of laïcité prohibited any form of religious instruction, expression, or symbolism in French schools. The Catholicism so closely associated with authoritarian political philosophies was to be denied access to the youth. There was to be no public rival to democratic ideals that serve as the unifying principle of society, inculcated by way of a “common, quasi-sacred education.”
The 1905 law is still on the books, and the principle of laïcité has become a fundamental principle of French identity. It’s now being challenged by Islam, not in the courts or legislatures, but in the neighborhoods.
Lilla reports that the best estimates put the size of the Muslim community in France at 6 to 8 percent of the population. (There are no exact figures, because the principle of laïcité itself prohibits the French government from concerning itself with the religious beliefs of its citizens.) But the percentage of Muslims isn’t the main issue. What poses a threat to the French republican consensus is that Islam is claiming authority over public domains, especially the schools.
Islamic specialist Gilles Kepel has studied Islamic practice in the poor Parisian suburbs. His work shows that, as Lilla puts it, “while older immigrants overwhelmingly practice a pacific Islam and see no contradiction with French citizenship, more and more of their children have been affected by the fundamentalist currents flowing from the Middle East. Different groups—some strictly Salafist, some associated with the Muslim Brotherhood—compete for control of local associations and actively recruit younger members, to the consternation of the more integrated and shrinking establishment.”
These recruits impose strict Islamic standards on their neighborhoods. The 2010 burqa ban reflects a government effort to push back against this “halalization” of public life. (Halal is the equivalent of kosher. It’s what’s permissible according to sharia, the body of traditional Islamic law that regulates all facets of personal and public life.) The same movement toward strict Islamic standards also affects the officially secular French schools. The French were shocked when students in Muslim neighborhoods refused to observe the moment of silence ordered by François Hollande after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. They shouldn’t have been. More than a decade ago, the French government investigated the situation in schools serving Muslim neighborhoods, resulting in the Obin Report.
“The report,” Lilla writes, “recounts stories of girls being under constant surveillance by self-appointed older brothers who mete out corporal punishment with fists and belts if they deem modesty to have been violated. Wearing skirts or dresses is impossible in many places, also for female teachers. There is an obsession with purity, as students and their parents demand separate swimming hours or refuse to let children go on school trips where the sexes might mix. If they go, some refuse to enter cathedrals or churches.
“There are fathers who won’t shake hands with female teachers, or let their wives speak alone to male teachers. There are cases of children refusing to sing, or dance, or learn an instrument, or draw a face, or use a mathematical symbol that resembles a cross. The question of dress and social mixing has led to the abandonment of gym classes in many places. Children also feel emboldened to refuse to read authors or books that they find religiously unacceptable: Rousseau, Molière, Madame Bovary. Certain subjects are taboo: evolution, sex ed, the Shoah. As one father told a teacher, ‘I forbid you to mention Jesus to my son.’”
The French establishment has not known what to do about “halalization.” Lilla emphasizes the debilitating influence of multiculturalism. This mentality says that Muslims are radicalized because they are being stigmatized by the dominant society. The solution is inclusion and more diversity. We should celebrate cultural differences, etc. A nice sentiment, perhaps, but increasingly out of touch with reality. “The current mantra, which President Hollande felt obligated to repeat, is that Islamic terrorism has ‘nothing to do with Islam’ and that the most important thing is not to ‘make an amalgam’ of all Muslims. (The Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, went even further, declaring the terrorists to be ‘without faith’—in other words, infidels.) But this attitude only reinforces an institutional and intellectual omertà that makes it difficult even to discuss what is really going on in the schools.”
Lilla thinks this taboo against saying that radical Islam is Islamic does the most damage. Yes, of course, most Muslims in France are loyal citizens. But as he points out, it’s stultifying if we label as “racist” anyone who wishes to focus on the ways in which specifically Islamic theologies and movements are driving the trend toward radicalism. Whether one is progressive or conservative, an internationalist or a nationalist, secular or religious, one needs to grapple with what’s real about reality.
To a certain degree, America also suffers from the code of silence imposed by multiculturalism. President Obama consistently denies that Islamic terrorists represent Islam. Speaking of the leadership of ISIS and al-Qaeda, he said, “They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists.” There’s something unreal about the notion that the president of the United States can decide who is and is not an authentic Islamic leader. That would seem to be a matter to be decided by Muslims, many of whom certainly do regard them as religious leaders.
The increasingly strained rhetoric of the Obama administration aside, the larger problem, in France as well as in America and elsewhere in the West, concerns our inability to convey a strong vision of national identity. A society with a significant number of immigrants needs to capture their imaginations and win their loyalty. In this regard, multiculturalism is often destructive. It’s yet another ideology of the West—this time a postmodern ideology that on the surface proposes a vision of the peaceful sharing of “difference” but in fact largely functions to legitimate a technocratic control of society by relativizing all forms of cultural authority that might otherwise get in the way.
Most people don’t like being manipulated. We want to be engaged, even challenged. That includes immigrants. Most come for economic opportunity, or even just for a place to live where nobody is trying to kill them. To romance these recent arrivals with a proud patriotism is not an assault. Unlike multiculturalism, which always manages from above, a genuine patriotism seeks to encounter the “Other” face to face. We should be hospitable and culturally sensitive, yes. But in the context of a nation or people, the most powerful words of love are “Join us!”
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?