Richard John Neuhaus never seemed to lack for pithy, authoritative formulations. Neuhaus Law provides an obvious example: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. It's memorable, quotable, and it rings true. His saying it does not make it so, but his way of saying it--and saying many other things--often gave my intuitions, suspicions, and halting half-thoughts solid shape.
Fr. Neuhaus also had a witty partisan voice. For many years I enjoyed those wonderful items at the end of the Public Square. He relished referring to the New York Times as his parish newspaper, a nice little jab at parochial American liberalism. He had a great deal of fun with the absurdities of the self-proclaimed progressives that came to dominate and debilitate the old mainline: those who include everybody who includes everybody, which turns out to be almost nobody (and certainly not the progressives who never tire of denouncing the evil conservatives).
And yet, for all his magisterial concision and confidence, for all his piquant rebuttals and sharp observations, a great deal of what Richard John Neuhaus wrote was exploratory, tentative, and carefully weighted with qualification. He was not a cocksure ideologue after the fashion of Noam Chomsky, grinding out conclusions. His convictions anchored him, and they gave him the freedom to think about the strange, complicated, and often opaque world in which we live.
The Naked Public Square, for example, includes another of his famous formulations: Culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture. It is punctuated with biting analysis: "The barbarians are those who in principle refuse to recognize a normative ethic or the reality of public virtue." One chapter develops a deliberately provocative comparison of Jerry Falwell with Martin Luther King Jr.--they both challenged the status quo with religious truths.
That's all classic, cage-rattling Neuhaus: forceful, bracing, and wickedly fun. But the bulk of The Naked Public Square is actually a careful and finely grained attempt to assess the political ascendancy of the Christian Right. He does not fie things up into a neat bow and present his readers with an action plan. Instead, he warns against the simple-minded denunciations of the Christian Right, but he also warns against the simpleminded assertions of the Christian Right. The overall effect is to orient readers and guide them toward thinking intelligently about the future of religious faith in American political life.
I recall reading The Naked Public Square as a young graduate student. I felt strongly Neuhaus' sharp …