If ideas have consequences, Father Richard John Neuhaus will be remembered as the most serious Christian thinker and the most consequential public theologian in America since Reinhold Niebuhr. As the editor-in-chief of First Things, a journal he founded in 1990, and as director of the Institute for Religion and Public Life, an influential think-tank that addresses issues of moral and social concern, Neuhaus placed his considerable gifts as writer, thinker, and networker in the service of reasoned discourse and the common good.
T. S. Eliot described the art of writing as a “raid on the inarticulate.” Neuhaus was a brilliant raider, and never wrote a boring sentence. His many books and essays, like those of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, will be studied for generations to come. His death in New York City at age 72 early this year marks the end of an era in America far more tellingly than the defeat of John McCain.
Born Again and Again
But none of this was evident as “little Dickie Neuhaus,” as he referred to his younger self, grew up in the Ottawa Valley of Ontario, Canada. His father was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor and he was duly baptized and catechized in that Reformation tradition. Though his life would take many turns and twists, he never lost the ecclesial identity he received as a young boy. Many years later, when he returned home to tell his mother about his decision to convert to Catholicism, she replied, “that’s alright, but do you have to leave ‘the’ church?”
In his mid-teens Neuhaus was sent to a church-related school in Nebraska where he got into all kinds of trouble organizing beer parties and leading panty raids. After he was confined to his room for several weeks, one of his teachers stopped by to check on his spiritual well-being. The teacher said to him: “God is very disappointed with what you did, for he thinks so highly of you. But, because he loves you so much, he forgives you and will help you to be better.” Neuhaus repented with tears and gave his life to Christ in what he would later describe as a “born-again experience.”
Actually, this was only one of several conversions Neuhaus would undergo in what Anne Sexton called “the awful rowing toward God.” More shenanigans got him expelled from another school in Texas and he never finished high school. But, through sheer bravura and brilliance, he made it through college and ended up at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Here he came under the influence of a remarkable teacher, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, who taught his students to value the evangelical catholic heritage of Lutheranism. Piepkorn remained a Lutheran but some of his most able students—Robert Wilken and Jaroslav Pelikan as well as Neuhaus—would eventually find their way to Rome or the East.
Fresh out of seminary, Neuhaus moved to New York City where he became the pastor of a robust, largely African American congregation in Brooklyn. From his base at St. John the Evangelist Church, which he jokingly called “St. John the Mundane” as opposed to St. John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral in Morningside Heights, Neuhaus became deeply involved in the life of the city and the issues of the day.
While not giving up his churchly concerns, Neuhaus became a leader in the movements for social reform and political change that convulsed America during the sixties. Deeply committed to civil rights, he marched in Selma with his friend Martin Luther King, Jr. A peace activist, he co-founded Clergy and Laity Concern About Vietnam with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Father Daniel Berrigan. A Eugene McCarthy delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he was arrested in the tumult of that event.
How did the radical Neuhaus of the 1960’s become the conservative icon of the 1990’s and beyond? While there were important breaks along the way, Neuhaus never conceded any major upheaval in his own thinking. Rather, he argued, the rise of a militant secularism among cultured elites and the evacuation of religious belief from public life and civil debate had conspired to create a “naked public square,” the title of his 1984 bestseller.
While never accepting the premise of a “Christian America,” Neuhaus argued that the constitutional separation of church and state was meant to enhance not prohibit the “free exercise” of religion in public life as well as private practice. The gravest moral and legal issues in American history, he maintained, from slavery to abortion required the kind of conscientious engagement sanctioned by the church’s understanding of itself as a community of witness. Moreover, our most cherished political principles, including the irreducible value of persons, free speech and religious liberty, resistance to tyranny and respect for the rule of law—are all grounded in religiously informed beliefs. He came to see that the “moratorium on God” pushed by the secular left would undermine, and eventually destroy, the American experiment in democracy. At the same time, Neuhaus believed in a public church, not a partisan church. As Abraham Lincoln often said, the question is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on his.
In 2005 Time
magazine included Neuhaus in its list of America’s twenty-five most influential evangelicals. By that time, Neuhaus had become a confidant and advisor to President George W. Bush and he was widely recognized as one of the most respected conservative voices in the country. This year, 2009, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Naked Public Square
. Though it has become a classic, it still remains a kind of manifesto for evangelical engagement in the culture. Without Neuhaus and the movement that coalesced around him, it would be difficult to explain the activism of Chuck Colson and Rick Warren, the journalism of Michael Gerson, the networking of Michael Cromartie, the advocacy of James Dobson, or the social ethics of Richard Mouw (whose connection with Neuhaus goes back to “the Hartford Appeal” of 1975).
Neuhaus’s “turn to the right” was accelerated by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, a benchmark in the gathering culture of death that was coming to dominate aspects of modern life in Western Europe and North America. He became a major strategist for the pro-life movement and suggested its goal ought to be “every child welcomed to life and protected by law.” But he always considered his advocacy for the unborn as part and parcel of the same ethic of human respect that had led him to work with King in the sixties. The common thread through all of his ups and downs was this: a profound respect for the dignity and worth of the person, every person made in the image of God.
I first came to know Neuhaus in the early 1990’s when he and Colson gathered a team of theologians to form the project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Just as Neuhaus never considered his transition from radicalism to conservatism to be anything more than the outworking of basic principles of human rights, civil liberty and moral concern, so, too, he did not consider his embrace of Catholicism a major leap in his journey of faith. He once wrote an essay titled “How I Became the Catholic I Was” (First Things, April 2002).
Though Richard would not like my putting it this way, he could just as well have written an essay with the title, “How I Remain the Lutheran I Used to Be.” I do not mean to question his devotion to the Catholic Church and the Pope, which was unbounded. If he ever had second thoughts about becoming a Catholic, he hid them very well. But only a thinker so well grounded in the Reformation traditions could be an honest broker in bringing faithful evangelicals and believing Catholics to recognize the common source of their life together in Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and the Great Tradition of living faith through the centuries.
Through many hours of discussion, debate, Bible study, and prayer, we were able to forge together common statements on some of the most controvertible issues that still divide Christians today. This was not an easygoing ecumenism that papered over serious differences, but the earnest seeking of a new beginning, a new reformation of unity in truth. The two things Neuhaus most wanted to be continued after his death were First Things and ECT. Those of us who labored with him in these endeavors have vowed that, with God’s help, we will march forward, “with a faith disposed toward the future that we call hope,” as Richard put it.
On one of my last visits to New York before he died, Richard invited me to stay with him and the ecumenical Community of Christ in the City, with whom he lived. When our work was finished for that day, we joined with others in the community for vespers followed by a common meal at which Richard regaled us late into the evening with stories and laughter, and serious reflections on birth and death and the mystery in between that we call life. The next morning I got up at the crack of dawn and we walked together to the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a multi-ethnic, inner-city parish where Richard often preached and led in mass. Though he was a savant and interlocutor without peer, I remember him best at prayer.
Some years ago Richard had a serious bout with cancer and nearly died. Out of this experience, he wrote what may be his most enduring book, As I Lay Dying, a little masterpiece of great spiritual power. “We are born to die,” he wrote. “Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born towards death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well.” Richard John Neuhaus lived well, and toward eternity, and he was laid to rest in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.
In this book, he tells a story from his early ministry in Brooklyn. He had been called to visit a man named Albert who was at the point of death.
“That hot summer morning I had prayed with him and read the Twenty-third Psalm. Toward evening, I went up again to the death ward—or so everybody called it—to see him again. Clearly the end was near. Although he had been given a sedative, he was entirely lucid. I put my arm around his shoulder and together, face almost touching face, we prayed the Our Father. Then Albert’s eyes opened wider, as though he had seen something in my expression. “Oh,” he said, “oh, don’t be afraid.” His body sagged back and he was dead. Stunned, I realized that, while I thought I was ministering to him, his last moment of life was expended in ministering to me.”
If Richard could speak to us now from that land of light where he dwells in the Father’s presence, I think he would say exactly what Albert said to him that hot summer day, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus is victor. We travel together still.”
Nothing better expresses the faith Richard John Neuhaus had in Jesus Christ, the one and only Savior, than this personal confession of faith from his work, Death on a Friday Afternoon:
“When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers through my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of ‘justification by faith alone,’ although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that misunderstood doctrine would intend to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways . . . these and all other gifts I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone.”
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior editor of
Christianity Today. You may contact George at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published as "The Radical Conservative" in Christianity Today Vol. 53., No. 3 (March 2009).