Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Here He Stood

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Here He Stood

Article excerpt

A year after Richard John Neuhaus left Martin Luther's Wittenberg for St. Peter's Rome, he was interviewed for an Australian publication. He noted the Roman turbulence into which he was plunging, and he remarked, "Cardinal Newman wrote that when he was received into the Catholic Church it was like coming into safe harbor after years on the stormy sea. My experience is the opposite. I was in safe harbor in the Ludieran Church and, in entering the Catholic Church, have embarked on very stormy seas."

Safe harbor in Lutheran waters? No, not at that point in his life. I knew him well over the course of thirty years. His sofa was my crash site of choice in my frequent visits to New York. I'm surprised he could say it. Catholics treated Richard far better than Lutherans ever did. Of course, he generally was nicer to the Catholics, even as a Lutheran. The sbort of it is, Richard did not leave Lutheranism. It was a case of the Lutherans leaving him.

Likely it started with the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod's 1969 slide into fundamentalism and biblical literalism. The Missouri Synod was Richard's original Lutheran home. The rather sensible cultural and confessional restraint that the Missouri Synod once informally exercised on other Lutheran bodies was over. The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1987, and together they began a swift tumble into the mainline liberalism of generic American Protestants. Throughout most of that period, Neuhaus was editor of the Lutheran Forum Letter, published with a companion quarterly journal, Lutheran Forum, by the American Ludieran Publicity Bureau. He marked Lutheranism's course with wit, eloquence, and caustic comment, but saved his better salvos for the Lutherans who became the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Among Missouri Synod reactionaries, Nehuaus was regarded as far too liberal. By the early 1980s, liberal Lutherans regarded him as far too conservative.

Real hostility from liberal Lutherans erupted when he examined the distribution of funds for the worldhunger appeal. Money for hunger had became a very successful annual financial appeal. It was Richard's suggestion in Forum Letter that perhaps as little as 25 percent of the several millions collected yearly were in fact being spent on helping people who were hungry. Instead, most of it was being spent on programmatic advocacy projects, all "hunger related," to be sure. Richard put forth the not unreasonable notion that money for hunger ought to be used in alleviating actual hunger. Though the percentages have changed, the fact is most of the ELCA's nineteen state advocacy offices, inherited from the LCA in the merger, would have to close, along with the Washington, D.C., Lutheran Office of Governmental Affairs, were it not for hunger-appeal funds underwriting the lobbying budgets of those agencies.

And then there was his support for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, that 60 Minutes interview where he took note of "bishops consorting with the enemies of Christ," and always the pages of Forum Letter. The board of the publication went through extensive personnel changes between 1982 and 1985, as one board member after another broke with Neuhaus. …

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