book cover imageRichard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
by Randy Boyagoda.
Image, 2015.
Hardcover, 480 pages, $30.

From the mid-1960s up until his death in 2009, Richard John Neuhaus was one of America’s leading clergymen and public intellectuals. In his new biography, Randy Boyagoda recounts Neuhaus’s remarkable life and career, a career remarkable not only for his tireless insistence that religion had a crucial role to play in the public square, but also for his notable changes of allegiance, both religious and political, over the years: religiously from Lutheran pastor to Catholic priest, and politically from Left-wing activist to staunch neoconservative.

Neuhaus was born in Canada to American parents, his father a Lutheran pastor whom he would follow into the ministry. Yet despite their shared vocation and perhaps even because of it, the two were always somewhat distant. As a teenager, Neuhaus went to the U.S. for schooling. His studies culminated at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis where he came under the influence of Arthur Piepkorn, a Lutheran pastor and scholar from whom he came to see Lutheranism “as a reform movement internal to the Catholic Church that was working toward a healing of the breach of the sixteenth century.” (As Neuhaus would later characterize Piepkorn’s position, “The Reformation was not against the Church catholic but to make the Church more catholic.”)

In 1961, shortly after graduating from Concordia, Neuhaus became the pastor at a poor, predominantly black parish in Brooklyn. He soon became heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement and in protests against the war in Vietnam. Soon he was a prominent religious figure marching shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and William Sloan Coffin in support of civil rights and against the war. At one point, he even made an unsuccessful bid for Congress, losing in the Democratic primary.

In the early and mid-1970s Neuhaus began moving more towards the center and eventually to the Right. He played an instrumental role in the Hartford Appeal (1975), a statement by a group of moderate and conservative theologians that criticized liberalizing trends in Mainline Protestantism. It was during this period that Neuhaus co-wrote with his friend Peter Berger the influential monograph To Empower People which, coining the term “mediating structures,” emphasized the importance of family, neighborhood, religious bodies, and voluntary associations not only as buffers between the individual and the state, but as crucial agents of social services. In the 1980s, influenced by the American Jesuit political theorist John Courtney Murray, Neuhaus wrote his best-known book, The Naked Public Square (1984), in which he criticized secularists who sought to remove religion and religiously grounded values from public life and proposed an American public philosophy inspired in large part by the resources of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Soon thereafter he argued in The Catholic Moment (1987) that by virtue of its numbers and rich tradition of social thought, post-Vatican II American Catholicism was now in a position to play a leading culture-forming role in American society.

In 1990, Neuhaus converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest the following year. It was also in 1990 that he founded First Things, serving as its editor in chief until his death. It would become the most influential conservative journal devoted to religion and public affairs (and even grow in influence after the furor in 1997 over the famous “The End of Democracy?” symposium issue in which an editorial by Neuhaus decrying recent Supreme Court decisions questioned the continuing legitimacy of the U.S. government, with the result that many of his neoconservative allies broke with him, and some of his critics accused him of moving from being a neocon to a “theocon”). In the early 2000s, he became an informal adviser to President George W. Bush and in 2005 The Daily Telegraph of London called him “the most influential clergyman in America.”

Boyagoda has given us a good account of Neuhaus’s life and career. Although clearly sympathetic to Neuhaus, he is quite fair in his presentation. Boyagoda does a very good job of depicting Neuhaus the activist, the man who was always trying to create new movements, organize new coalitions, start new think tanks, found new journals of opinion, and so on, always with a view to what proved to be changing religious and political agendas. At the same time, while this is the biography of a public intellectual, it is not an intellectual biography— that is, it is not an in-depth examination and evaluation of Neuhaus as a thinker. As a result, even after finishing the book, I still found myself uncertain about two things: first, why Neuhaus’s religious and political odyssey took the particular path it did; and second, how he reconciled his Americanism with his Catholicism.

To begin with the first question, Neuhaus’s conversion to Catholicism is understandable given the influence of Piepkorn, his staunch opposition to abortion, his great admiration for Pope John Paul II, and that the comparatively ecumenical character of post-Vatican II Catholicism where someone of his particular type of Lutheran background could feel at home. But it is far less clear why he felt the need to move from the political far Left to the far Right.No doubt the strong movement on the Left in support of legalized abortion and away from traditional sexual morality accounts for some of the shift, but not all of it. His attraction to Catholicism does not fully explain this movement either, not only because there is no shortage of Left-wing as well Right-wing Catholics, but because the main tendency of Catholic social thought, at least when viewed through an American political lens, is to promote a somewhat centrist stance that is leftward in some areas, such as the economy, and right-leaning in others, such as abortion and family values.

This brings us to the second issue. Throughout his career, Neuhaus subscribed to a version of American exceptionalism, and, influenced by Murray, he maintained that the American ethos and Catholicism were in fundamental harmony, ignoring or downplaying important sources of tension between them. For example, in his Catholic/neoconservative incarnation, Neuhaus became an ardent supporter of free market capitalism, a view much at variance with the main orientation of Catholic social teaching. Indeed, in a succinct summary of John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, he went so far as to declare that “Capitalism is the economic corollary of the Christian understanding of man’s nature and destiny.” To his critics, Neuhaus was interpreting (or rather misinterpreting) John Paul’s encyclical through his own neoconservative lens. Unfortunately, although Boyagoda discusses a number of Neuhaus’s intellectual critics, he does not focus attention on the critique directed against Neuhaus (and his fellow Catholic neoconservatives Michael Novak and George Weigel) by David Schindler and others from the Communio movement, which constitutes the most profound and penetrating critique of Neuhaus’s position from the conservative side of the spectrum (Schindler is mentioned only once in a footnote referring to his review of The Catholic Moment).

In short, what we have here is a good, helpful biography of Richard Neuhaus, but a more substantial account and evaluation of his intellectual contribution remains to be written.  

William Gould is an assistant dean at Fordham University.