Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
by randy boyagoda
image, 459 pages, $30
he Richard Neuhaus I knew first appears on page 179 of Randy Boyagoda’s biography of the founder and perpetual genius loci of First Things. It is then, anno Domini 1975, that RJN embarks on that process of political maturation that would bring him from a youthful radicalism to the (neo-)conservatism that became his hallmark.
I always knew that Richard was one of those men who had been (in Irving Kristol’s famous phrase) “mugged by reality”—who had begun on the left and, appalled by what he saw there, moved rightward. Or perhaps it was the left that did the moving. “He had,” Boyagoda writes, “become a leading clergyman of the American Left, only now to discover that the American Left was moving away from his clergyman concerns.” In any event, I had not realized the fervor of those concerns. That he campaigned for the civil rights movement and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I knew. That he was “against the war” in Vietnam, ditto. But I was surprised to find him declaring that the Vietnamese people were “God’s instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees” and announcing that
“We” are for revolution. A revolution of consciousness, no doubt. A cultural revolution, certainly. A non-violent revolution, perhaps. An armed overthrow of the existing order, it may be necessary. Revolution for the hell of it or revolution for a new world, but revolution, Yes.
Gosh. William Blake once observed that an honest man may change his opinions but not his principles. It is part of Boyagoda’s accomplishment in this book to show the deep continuities that coursed through the life of Richard John Neuhaus and bound the young radical to the older conservative. One signal element revolved around patriotism. In 1967, when presiding over a prayer service protesting the unpleasantness in Vietnam, Richard concluded by leading the congregation in a lusty rendition of “America the Beautiful.” It shocked the assembled draft dodgers. Asking them to sing “America the Beautiful,” says Boyagoda, was “like asking Billy Graham and Bob Hope to sing Communist anthems at an honor America rally.”
But Neuhaus’s patriotism was deep and abiding. He was not, when it came down to it, the Berrigan brothers, much less Abbie Hoffman. Later in his life, he wrote that “When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American.” Not, he added, “most importantly” as an American, but “God,” he affirmed, “is not indifferent to the American experiment.”
t’s worth pausing over that formulation. Richard liked the phrase “American experiment.” He used it early and often. And the idea that God is “not indifferent” to America is a deeply traditional hope—indeed, a founding one—of this country. To what extent, circa2015, do you suppose that it is an idea that is still taken seriously?
As late as the 1980s, the notion that God was not indifferent to America was not only widespread; it was an ingredient in the politically vibrant Evangelical movement that helped elect Ronald Reagan and the elder Bush. It was even abroad to give Dubya an electoral nudge. Today? I am not so sure.
There is no question, however, that that conviction played an important role in Richard’s vocation. It was part of his central conviction that the key to politics is culture and that “the heart of culture is religion.” Boyagoda, who teaches American Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, has managed the difficult feat of producing a biography that is respectful, indeed sympathetic, but by no means hagiographic. Unlike Oliver Cromwell, who is said to have instructed Peter Lely to paint him “warts and all,” Richard Neuhaus had few warts. But he also did not, as Boyagoda shows, suffer from a low opinion of his own talents, and he took seriously the injunction (Matt. 5:15) not to hide one’s light under a bushel.
e started young. One anecdote has a five-year-old Richard Neuhaus, the seventh of eight children, preaching to his three-year-old sister. Since his father was a Lutheran pastor, American-born but avid in his missionary work in what Richard would later call the Canadian frontier (Pembroke, west of Ottawa), you might say he came by sermonizing naturally. “From early on,” he recalled many years later, “I assumed people would be, or should be, interested in what I had to say.” By and large, they were—not only members of his congregation but a wider world that eventually included other opinion makers, presidents, archbishops, and popes.
Boyagoda deftly traces the manifold careers of Richard Neuhaus, from the stringencies of a Depression boyhood (in 1936, when Richard was born, his father made do on $81 a month) through a poor inner-city church in Brooklyn to the corridors of, if not power, exactly, at least influence in the world’s omphalos, Manhattan. “He wanted to serve God,” Boyagoda notes, but he also “wanted to lead people, he wanted to change the culture.” A steady stream of cigars and bourbon, both of which run obbligato-like through this book, provided fortification for the task. Along the way, Richard moved from a passionate Lutheranism to an equally engaged Catholicism. In 1990, when he was received into the Church, the Mass was celebrated by Archbishop John O’Connor in a private chapel beside St. Patrick’s, and his confirmation sponsors were Avery Dulles and George Weigel. The crème, that is to say, de la crème.
ichard, who died early in 2009 at seventy-two, was a magnet for talent. He also seemed to know everyone. When there was a controversy about the Church’s stand on capital punishment, for example, Richard was able to quote from what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had written him personally about the subject. It was a bit like Woody Allen in Annie Hall. Waiting in line at a movie theater, Allen gets into an argument with some professorial twit about the work of Marshall McLuhan. “I teach a class at Columbia on TV, media, and culture,” the prof sniffed, “so I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity.” “Oh, do you?” Allen responds, “Well, I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here.” He then produces the sage from behind a placard. “I heard what you were saying,” McLuhan tells the hapless prof. “You know nothing of my work.” Gratifying, that.
Richard’s ticket to success was rhetoric—what Aristotle called “the art of persuasion.” Not only was he a sort of writing machine—book after book flowed from his pen, and anyone who leafed through this magazine during his tenure will know that he did not suffer from writer’s block—but he was also quick on his feet, amusing, passionate, ferociously articulate, where the ferocity was often as important as the clarity. In 1970, in what he later described as a fit of “vocational absentmindedness,” he ran for Congress, but his true vocation was the pulpit and the press, not the hustings.
defining moment came in the late 1970s and early 1980s when what Boyagoda calls the “two-track” nature of Richard’s writing about religion and politics hitched a ride on the zeitgeist. The sudden upsurge of Evangelical Christianity as a force in political life guaranteed that Richard’s efforts to forge a path between “aggrieved fundamentalists” on the one side and “exclusionist secularists” on the other attracted an enthusiastic audience. In 1984, he published his best-known and most influential book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. Building upon the dramatic metaphor that supplied his title, he showed how the phrase “freedom of religion” often came to mean freedom from religion, and how an American self-understanding that excluded religion also excluded the deepest sources of its identity.
“The first thing to note, as typical of the modern tone,” G. K. Chesterton observed, “is a certain effect of toleration which actually results in timidity. Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” I do not recall whether Richard quotes this mot from Chesterton, but in some ways The Naked Public Square is an extended gloss on its implications.
The Naked Public Square catapulted Richard to a new sphere of intellectual celebrity. The Illinois-based Rockford Institute opened a New York office and installed Richard as its head and figurehead. There followed meetings at the White House, cover stories in the glossies, and countless lectures, symposia, conferences, pamphlets, and books. There also followed a once-famous falling-out after Richard, deploring the nativist strain, not to mention the flirtations with anti-Semitism, that was peeking out in some Rockford Institute publications, filed one blistering letter too many to the head of that organization. At about 10:45 a.m. on Friday, May 5, 1989, Richard and his colleagues found themselves standing in the rain on Madison Avenue, clutching plastic garbage bags with their personal effects, plus, sub rosa, the company Rolodex. But Providence is tireless. Had the Rockford Institute not engaged in its fever-swamp dance, you might not now be reading a magazine called First Things. For it was out of the ashes of the Rockford Institute’s New York initiative that the phoenix of the Institute of Religion and Public Life, and thus First Things, was born.
The next nineteen years were a time of notable intellectual and public triumph for Richard Neuhaus. A bad bout with cancer in 1993, compounded by a jittery surgeon who nicked his spleen, which then had to be removed, was a setback, but writ large Richard went from strength to strength. It was a disappointment, no doubt, that one former editor left the magazine to write a book accusing his former boss of being a “theocon” who wished to return society to a medieval theocracy. Some friends suggested that he embrace the rubric “theocon,” but Richard demurred: “The term inevitably implies theocracy, which is the very opposite of what my friends and I have been contending for all these years.” It is a mystery to me how anyone who worked with Richard Neuhaus could have missed that, but perhaps the imputation of malevolent sacerdotal designs, even if they are the product of fantasy, makes for more sellable copy than the pedestrian, ecumenical truth.
write a few days after the Grand Panjandrum of Judicial Overreach, Justice Anthony Kennedy, bestowed upon a grateful world his Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage. “The Constitution,” he wrote for the Court, “promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” Justice Antonin Scalia, in his blistering dissent, contrasted such passages with “disciplined legal reasoning,” describing them instead as “mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”
I cannot improve on that, but what just happened at the Supreme Court recalls one of the most controversial episodes in the history of First Things. In March 1996, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals identified a right to doctor-assisted suicide in the Fourteenth Amendment. (Was it “equal protection” or “due process”? I don’t recall.) Reflecting on this piece of hermeneutical legerdemain, a First Things editorial called “The End of Democracy” wondered “whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.” “America,” the editorial continued, “is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here.”
Richard’s talk of withdrawing “moral assent” from the American “regime” and, especially, his invocation of the Nazis sparked widespread outrage, not least among some of his board members, several of whom resigned. There is a lot to be said for Godwin’s Law, which holds that in any argument, the first party to invoke the Nazis loses. So let’s leave the Nazi analogy alone. Let’s instead follow along with Justice Scalia’s dissent. The real issue is not same-sex marriage—until Friday, June 26, there was a healthy democratic debate about that—but the question, who rules us? “Today’s decree,” Justice Scalia wrote, “says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.”
The opinion [Scalia continues] in these cases is the furthest extension in fact— and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.
I suspect that the next stop on this train to utopia will be, as Chief Justice John Roberts suggested in his dissent, to question the tax status of those institutions—the Catholic Church, for example—which promulgate a contrary understanding of the word “marriage.” Scalia’s overriding point is that “a system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.” Richard worried about “the end of democracy” back in 1996. At the time, many thought his rhetoric overheated. Perhaps it was. Still, I am sorry that he is not with us now to try his hand at this latest assault on religious and political liberty.
Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of the New Criterion.