Lutheran-to-Catholic Thinker Neuhaus Helped Shape Religious Right

The Christian Century, February 10, 2009 | Go to article overview

Lutheran-to-Catholic Thinker Neuhaus Helped Shape Religious Right


Richard John Neuhaus, an activist Lutheran minister who became a prominent Roman Catholic priest, is being remembered for his influential role in the rise of religious conservatism.

"From the early 1970s forward, Neuhaus was a key architect of two alliances with profound consequences for American politics, both of which overcame histories of mutual antagonism: one between conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals, and the other between free market neo-conservatives and 'faith and values' social conservatives," wrote John L. Allen Jr., a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

Neuhaus, 72, died January 8 of complications of cancer. He was best known in recent years as the editor of First Things, a journal published by the New York-based Institute on Religion and Public Life.

A Canadian who later became a U.S. citizen, Neuhaus was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1960. He became an activist cleric in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn.

During a period of tumult in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Neuhaus was allied with activist figures such as Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, like Neuhaus, strongly opposed the Vietnam War. In that period Neuhaus frequently wrote for the CHRISTIAN CENTURY.

However, Neuhaus, who served in the theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, later broke with the religious and secular left on a number of issues, including abortion, and converted in 1990 to Catholicism, becoming a priest a year later.

"I was 30 years a Lutheran pastor, and after 30 years of asking myself why I was not a Roman Catholic, I finally ran out of answers that were convincing either to me or to others," Neuhaus once said about his conversion and planned ordination as a priest.

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Neuhaus became a critic of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches and served on the board of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, an advocacy group critical of those councils' "liberal activism. …

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