I first encountered the writing of Richard John Neuhaus when I took a class on Christianity and culture in seminary and I had to choose a book to review from a list. The title of Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America stood out to me. He had written it in 1984, twenty years before, and some of what he wrote about was dated to the time when groups like the Moral Majority (which he was definitely not a part of) was at its most influential. But overall the book provided a memorable metaphor for the relationship between religion and public life in America, and made a solid case for the continued relevance of religion to politics—”a middle way between theocracy and secular totalitarianism,” as Randy Boyagoda puts it in his new biography of Neuhaus (p. 198).
What drew me to reading this biography (Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square) was my desire to understand the two broad movements of Neuhaus’s life: from left-wing activist and commentator in the ’60s to right-wing activist and commentator in the ’80s and beyond, and from Lutheran pastor to Catholic priest.
I found Boyagoda to be helpful, especially with regard to the former. Neuhaus’s ’60s radicalism was birthed by his religious commitment to serving to the poor and oppressed. He began to feel alienated from others on the Left when his commitment to and definition of the poor and the oppressed diverged from theirs:
By the early 1970s Neuhaus began to understand his commitment to the rights of the poor and the racially oppressed as of a piece with his commitment to the rights of the unborn, which would occupy an ever greater primacy in the coming years. From the beginning, however, this integration of rights for the poor and rights for the unborn placed him at a critical distance from a Left in which private rights—made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges—trumped responsibilities for others. (163)
He also began to be alienated from others on the Left when his commitment to moral reasoning based on religion led him to critique leftist orthodoxy. In 1975,
When he and a few others tried—and failed—to win broad support among his leftist colleagues for a public condemnation of the new Communist government in Vietnam because of its broad human rights abuses and specific targeting of religious minorities, he knew it was really over: for his onetime allies, leftist political solidarity trumped concerns over the higher dictates of religious freedom and human dignity. (174)
The period when he cut ties with the Left out of principle was when I had the most admiration for Neuhaus. But in his later years on the Right—especially after he began to have the ear of the Bush White House—I think he would have done well to bring that same commitment to questioning political orthodoxy. In particular, even as a Catholic priest I think he reinterpreted papal statements about war, economics, and capital punishment to make them more in line with American conservatism.
But even though I don’t always agree with some of the political stances he took throughout his life, I think Neuhaus’s central insight that “politics is a function of culture, and … culture is a function of religion” (232) is worth remembering. It’s impossible to completely scrub the public square of religious commitments, so it is best to stop trying and start reflecting on how to act in a public square that contains such diverse commitments. I also think Neuhaus the man is worth getting to know, and Boyagoda’s biography is a wonderful introduction to the man and his thought.
Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.