Magazine article The American Conservative

How Father Neuhaus Found GOP

Magazine article The American Conservative

How Father Neuhaus Found GOP

Article excerpt

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, Randy Boyagoda, Image, 480 pages

High up on the domed ceiling of Vienna's Karlskirche is an exuberant early 18th-century Baroque fresco called "Defeat of the Lutheran Heresy." It depicts an annoyed Martin Luther, quill pen in hand, scowling as a po-faced Catholic angel puts his books to the torch while Luther's co-author--Satan--recoils from the divine presence. The painting serves as a reminder that bitter antipathies between Protestants and Catholics continued after the European wars of religion ended. Protestants, for their part, long persisted in viewing the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon and the pope as Antichrist.

But the cleric, activist, and intellectual Richard John Neuhaus, according to Randy Boyagoda's excellent new biography, saw the Catholic-Lutheran split as only a misunderstanding. Luther, in his view, was trying to reform the Catholic Church rather than break it apart. Neuhaus saw his own mission, as a Lutheran pastor for 30 years, as "the healing of the breach of the sixteenth century between Rome and the Reformation." When he decided that reconciliation was impossible, he converted to Catholicism in 1990 and was ordained as a priest a year later; some called it the most prominent conversion since John Henry Newman's.

While Neuhaus preached harmony and cooperation between Christian denominations, he became increasingly bellicose toward liberalism, modernism, and secularism. Though he had been a leftist in the '60s, from the 1980s until his death in 2009 he emerged as a leader of the religiously oriented and mostly Catholic neoconservatives sometimes referred to as the "theocons." Neuhaus was an important figure in Republican politics and the culture wars, infusing intellectual conservatism with distinctively Catholic elements and bringing not peace but a sword.

Most Americans, even most Catholics, have probably never heard of Neuhaus. He didn't have the visibility of prelates like Cardinal John O'Connor and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the fame of public intellectuals like William F. Buckley Jr. and Garry Wills, or the reputation of theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray. Many of his three dozen books were too dense or prolix to command wide audiences, although his 1984 work The Naked Public Square received considerable attention and has continued to influence the debate over what role religion should play in American public life. He was a beguiling essayist, but most of his long, discursive, and bitingly amusing editorials appeared in First Things, the magazine he founded and edited, which continues to be an estimable publication but has never had a very large circulation. And his influence was mainly exercised behind the scenes and directed toward elites, particularly in the Vatican and the White House.

But Boyagoda persuasively argues that Neuhaus was a charismatic leader and original thinker whose contributions to American culture and politics make him someone worth knowing about. Neuhaus grew up in a small town in rural Canada, the sixth of eight children. He dropped out of his Nebraska high school and, after an interlude running a gas station in West Texas, graduated from seminary and followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a Lutheran pastor, serving first in upstate New York and then in a poor and mostly minority parish in Brooklyn. Exposure to the hardships of urban life made him an early and energetic participant in the civil rights movement, which segued into antiwar activism. Neuhaus helped to found Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) and for a while was a budding figure in the late '60s political left, spouting glib pronouncements about the coming revolution. The Vietnamese people, he declared at the height of his radicalism, were "God's instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees"


By the early 1970s, however, a variety of factors conspired to distance Neuhaus from the left. …

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