In the early 1970s, Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus was poised to become the nation’s next great liberal public intellectual—the Reinhold Niebuhr of his generation. He had going for him everything he needed to be not merely accepted but lionized by the liberal establishment. First, of course, there were his natural gifts as a thinker, writer, and speaker. Then there was a set of left-liberal credentials that were second to none. He had been an outspoken and prominent civil rights campaigner, indeed, someone who had marched literally arm-in-arm with his friend Martin Luther King. He had founded one of the most visible anti-Vietnam war organizations. He moved easily in elite circles and was regarded by everyone as a “right-thinking” (i.e., left-thinking) intellectual-activist operating within the world of mainline Protestant religion.
Then something happened: Abortion. It became something it had never been before, namely, a contentious issue in American culture and politics. Neuhaus opposed abortion for the same reasons he had fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. At the root of his thinking was the conviction that human beings, as creatures fashioned in the image and likeness of God, possess a profound, inherent, and equal dignity. This dignity must be respected by all and protected by law. That, so far as Neuhaus was concerned, was not only a biblical mandate but also the bedrock principle of the American constitutional order. Respect for the dignity of human beings meant, among other things, not subjecting them to a system of racial oppression; not wasting their lives in futile wars; not slaughtering them in the womb.
It is important to remember that in those days it was not yet clear whether support for “abortion rights” would be a litmus test for standing as a “liberal.” After all, the early movement for abortion included many conservatives, such as James J. Kilpatrick, who viewed abortion not only as a solution for the private difficulties of a “girl in trouble,” but also as a way of dealing with the public problem of impoverished (and often unmarried) women giving birth to children who would increase welfare costs to taxpayers.
At the same time, more than a few notable liberals were outspokenly pro-life. In the early 1970s, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, for example, replied to constituents’ inquiries about his position on abortion by saying that it was a form of “violence” incompatible with his vision of an America generous enough to care for and protect all its children, born and unborn. Some of the most eloquent and passionate pro-life speeches of the time were given by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In condemning abortion, Jackson never failed to note that he himself was born to an unwed mother who would likely have been tempted to abort him had abortion been legal and easily available at the time.
The liberal argument against abortion was straightforward and powerful. “We liberals believe in the inherent and equal dignity of every member of the human family. We believe that the role of government is to protect all members of the community against brutality and oppression, especially the weakest and most vulnerable. We do not believe in solving personal or social problems by means of violence. We seek a fairer, nobler, more humane way. The personal and social problems created by unwanted pregnancy should not be solved by offering women the ‘choice’ of destroying their children in utero; rather, as a society we should reach out in love and compassion to mother and child alike.”
So it was that Pastor Neuhaus and many like him saw no contradiction between their commitment to liberalism and their devotion to the pro-life cause. On the contrary, they understood their pro-life convictions to be part and parcel of what it meant to be a liberal. They were “for the little guy” and the unborn child was “the littlest guy of all.”
In the period from 1972 to 1980, however, the liberal movement steadily embraced the cause of abortion on demand, at any point in gestation, funded with taxpayer dollars. The conservative movement went in precisely the opposite direction. In 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its decisions in Roe v. Wade and its companion case of Doe v. Bolton, effectively wiping out state laws forbidding the killing of unborn children by abortion. Ironically, several of the justices responsible for these decisions were regarded (and regarded themselves) as conservatives. Evidently, they were conservatives in the mold of James J. Kilpatrick. But the larger conservative movement did not accept Roe and Doe. The movement rejected these decisions for two reasons: first, they represented an unconstitutional (and, indeed, anti-constitutional) usurpation by the judiciary of the powers placed or left by the Constitution in the hands of legislatures; second, they constituted a grave injustice against abortion’s tiny victims. By contrast, the liberal movement circled the wagons around Roe and Doe, celebrating these decisions as victories for women’s rights and individual liberties.
By 1980, when Ronald Reagan (who as governor of California in the 1960s had signed an abortion liberalization bill) sought the presidency as a staunchly pro-life conservative and Edward Kennedy, having switched sides on abortion, challenged the wishy-washy President Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries as a doctrinaire “abortion rights” liberal, things had pretty much sorted themselves out. “Pro-choice” conservatives were gradually becoming rarer, and “pro-life” liberals were nearly an endangered species. (Jesse Jackson was still hanging on to his pro-life convictions, but he too yielded to the liberal movement’s pro-abortion orthodoxy when he decided to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 1984.)
Richard Neuhaus, however, stood by his convictions and refused to yield. If the pro-life position is to be counted as the “conservative” position on the question of abortion, then fidelity to the cause of the unborn is how Neuhaus became the conservative that he was. He didn’t change. His principles didn’t change. He believed in 1984 and beyond what he had believed in 1974 and 1964. For him, justice, love, and compassion all pointed to protecting every member of the human family, however young, small, and dependent. What society owed to pregnant women in need was not the ghoulish compassion of the abortionist’s knife, but the love, moral and spiritual support, and practical assistance they needed to take care of themselves and their children. As Fr. Neuhaus’s great friend, and fellow Lutheran convert to Catholicism, Fr. Leonard Klein, put it in a beautiful tribute, “Richard’s politics changed precisely because his principles did not change.”
On some issues, Neuhaus’s political views shifted because he came to doubt the wisdom and efficacy of programs and policies he had once believed in. The liberal movement’s capitulation to the abortion license and the conservative movement’s resolution to fight it opened him up to a reconsideration of where he should be which for him meant a reconsideration of where the truth was to be found on a variety of questions. He grew more skeptical of the bureaucratized big-government programs by which liberals sought to fight poverty and other social ills. He began to see that most of these programs were not only ineffective, but counterproductive. For a variety of reasons, statist solutions to poverty tended to increase and entrench rather than diminish it. And not unrelatedly, governmental expansion tended to weaken the institutions of civil society, above all the family and the church, on which we rely for the formation of decent, honest, responsible, civic-minded, law-abiding citizens citizens capable of caring for themselves, their families, and people in need.
Of course, Neuhaus famously fought the liberal movement as it increasingly associated itself with the cause of driving religion and religiously-informed moral witness out of the public square and into the merely private domain. His book The Naked Public Square did far more than introduce a catchy phrase; it revolutionized the debate. Neuhaus easily saw through the dubious (and sometimes laughable) “interpretations” of the religion clause of the First Amendment by which ACLU lawyers and judges in their ideological thrall attempted to privatize religion and marginalize people of faith. What motivated him most strongly, however, was the perception of the indispensable roles played by religious institutions and other mediating structures in preserving a regime of ordered liberty against unjustified encroachments by the administrative apparatus of the state. The real danger, as Neuhaus rightly saw it, was not that religious groups would seize control of the state and establish a theocracy; it was that the state would undermine the autonomy and standing of those structures that provide credible sources of authority in people’s lives beyond the authority of the state structures that could, when necessary, prophetically challenge unjust or overweening state power.
For Neuhaus, the liberal movement had gone wrong not only on the sanctity of human life, but on the range of issues on which it had succumbed to the ideology of the post-1960s cultural left. While celebrating “personal liberation,” “diverse lifestyles,” “self-expression,” and “if it feels good, do it,” all in the name of respecting “the individual,” liberalism had gone hook, line, and sinker for a set of doctrines and social policies that would only increase the size and enhance the control of the state mainly by enervating the only institutions available to provide counterweights to state power.
The post-1960s liberal establishment from the New York Times to NBC, from Harvard to Stanford, from the American Bar Association to Americans for Democratic Action, having embraced the combination of statism and lifestyle individualism that defines what it means to be a “liberal” (or “progressive”) today, could not understand Richard Neuhaus or, in truth, abide him. Far from being lionized, he was loathed by them, albeit with a grudging respect for the intellectual gifts they once hoped he would place in the service of liberal causes. Those gifts were deployed relentlessly—and to powerful effect—against them and all their works and ways.
And so Fr. Richard John Neuhaus did not go through life, as it once seemed he would, collecting honorary degrees from the most prestigious universities, giving warmly received speeches before major professional associations and at international congresses of the great and the good, being a celebrated guest at social and political gatherings on the Upper West Side, or appearing on the Sunday network news shows as spiritual guarantor of the moral validity of liberalism’s favored policies and practices.
His profound commitment to the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions placed him on a different path, one that led him out of the liberal fold and into intense opposition. As a kind of artifact of his youth, he remained to the end a registered member of the Democratic Party. But he stood defiantly against many of the doctrines and policies that came to define that Party in his lifetime. He was, in fact, their most forceful and effective critic—the scourge of the post-1960s liberals. He was not, as things turned out, their Niebuhr, but their nemesis.
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and Distinguished Visiting Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.