by Randy Boyagoda
Image, New York. 480 pages
Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) defies easy characterization. A high school dropout, he was early recognized as an intellectual. A Missouri Synod Lutheran minister, he ended as a Roman Catholic priest. A 1960s radical, he became a 1980s Reagan Republican. He is best remembered today as the founder and editor of First Things, a neoconservative journal that sought to inject informed religious perspectives into the public discourse.
Randy Boyagoda, who describes himself as “a Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist and English professor,” has written a critical biography of Neuhaus that is based on careful reading and numerous interviews. It is gracefully written and generally positive, but pulls no punches in its portrait of this controversial figure.
Though never graduating from high school, Neuhaus managed to talk his way into Concordia Lutheran College of Texas where he graduated in 1955. He then attended Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, earning his M.Div. in 1960. After a year pastoring an upstate New York congregation, he became the pastor of a largely black congregation in Brooklyn, where he remained until 1978. During the 1960s he joined the antiwar and Civil Rights movements. He was ejected from the 1968 Democratic Convention for participation in a melee over a credentials dispute and, later that day, led a peace march for which he spent a night in jail. In his first book, “Movement and Revolution,” he observed, “Evil is inherent in, and not accidental to, the American Way.” More dramatically, he declared, “I affirm the right to armed revolution.”
Neuhaus experienced a change of heart in the 1970s. Disconcerted by the growing radicalism of the counterculture and issues such as abortion, he wrote of viewing “the American experiment with religious seriousness.” He now saw the need for a strong religious voice in American public life. In 1975 he told Time magazine, “When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American.” Though later dismissed as a “Theocon,” one advocating an American theocracy, this is a caricature of his position. He favored a via media between a theocratic and secular state. In his most famous book, “The Naked Public Square,” he dismissed the likes of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority for having no “convincing and coherent theory of democratic governance.” Instead, he called for the reconstruction of “a public philosophy, one that is responsible to, and in conversation with, the religious based values of the American people.”
He established First Things in 1990 and later that year was received into the Catholic Church. In 1994 he cofounded Evangelicals and Catholics Together with Charles Colson. Its founding declaration, printed in First Things in the spring of 1994, was boilerplate neoconservatism. It denounced abortion, euthanasia, eugenics and population control; it supported school choice, Western culture, the market economy and an interventionist U.S. foreign policy in support of democracy and human rights. Neuhaus reached the height of his influence in the following decade when he became one of George W. Bush’s most valued advisors.
Boyagoda has written a splendid biography of Neuhaus, revealing a principled but predictably flawed human being who sought nothing less than to have his conservative interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition resound in the American public square.
Michael Parker is Presbyterian World Mission’s interim coordinator for Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.