Neuhaus, public intellectual? Yesterday, CBC radio ran a long segment on the legacy of Richard John Neuhaus. Native of Pembroke, Ontario, it's fitting that Canada's public radio would cover the publication of his biography, written by Randy Boyagoda, also a Canadian. RJN's a native son gone south.
The radio show includes an interview with Randy, as well as a discussion with Michael Higgins, a Canadian Catholic liberal, and Molly Worthen. While listening to Worthen's comments I was again reminded of how difficult it is for many, perhaps most, liberals to fathom reasons why someone (Neuhaus, for instance) would think American-style conservatism the best way to promote the common good.
This reflects, perhaps, a progressive conceit. Though no doubt it also reflects the fact that American conservatism is a freedom-emphasizing movement, not one that puts an accent on solidarity. Poor people want to enjoy freedom just as much as anybody. But a liberal rightly recognizes that poverty makes a person and family vulnerable. Our freedoms are more fragile when we don't have either resources or standing in society. And so the poor need advocates.
Which is something Neuhaus knew. First Things has never represented a dismantle-the-welfare-state conservatism. Instead, we've been associated with neo-conservatism, which means criticizing way in which the welfare state creates perverse incentives that harm the poor, too often isolating them from the dynamism of our capitalist economy and subsidizing dysfunctional behavior.
For example, to be in favor of charter schools or vouchers or tax credits for private school scholarship funds—new ideas often resisted by liberals—isn't to be “against government.” On the contrary, these reform ideas reflect serious and sustained thinking about how the taxing power of the state should be used to improve education for the poorest and most vulnerable.
These are policy debates. The more fundamental role of conservatism is moral. Here I find myself thinking that today's liberals almost entirely fail to express moral solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. As I've written on many occasions, the non-judgmental, flexible “make healthy choices” approach to sex, marriage, and family works reasonably well for rich people. It is hell on the poor. But liberals don't seem to care. The sexual liberal Jihad continues.
The first time I saw Neuhaus was in 1988 on Firing Line, Buckley's feisty TV show. He was debating Jack Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark who was an outspoken proponent of sexual liberation in the 1980s. (Spong was the last of a line of Episcopal bishops who made a career out of being faithless.) As Spong rambled on about his vision of “new morality,” Neuhaus spat out lines that made a lasting impression on me. He drew attention to the fact that Newark, New Jersey contained a large poor black population, and those people went unmentioned in Spong's cheery view of the sexual revolution. Not just unmentioned, but harmed. Spong's solicitude for the privileged freedoms of the upper class people whom the sexual revolution suited quite nicely came at the expense of the continued breakdown of the family among the black underclass.
It was an arresting moment, one that made me see for the first time the emptiness of the progressive conceit, which always presumes for itself solidarity with the poor. And yet, it seems to me quite obvious that today's progressivism is a One Percent project through and through.
I suppose I've let myself digress into a rant. There's a great deal more to think about in the CBC segment on Neuhaus.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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