In early January, America lost one of its wisest public intellectuals with the passing of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the founder and longtime editor in chief of that essential journal, First Things. Among the magazine’s many friends and contributors is Robert P. George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and director of its James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez sat down with Professor George to discuss the late Father Neuhaus’s contributions to American intellectual life and his enduring impact in the public square.KJL:
What do you miss the most about your friend, Father Richard John Neuhaus?
RG: Like all who enjoyed the extraordinary blessing of his friendship, I already miss him terribly. A great hole has been created in our lives, and nothing can fill it. I miss his sparkling conversation, his amusing stories, his witty ripostes, his volcanic, booming laugh. I miss his words of encouragement and his inspiring and sometimes even exhilarating calls to arms on behalf of the great moral causes of our day. I miss jousting with him about ideas and being reprimanded by him for exaggerating (as he wrongly saw it) the power and authority of reason. (You see, even after becoming a Catholic he remained a Lutheran in some important ways.) Like all of his spiritual children, I am feeling orphaned.
KJL: How will the public square be left especially naked without him?
RG: Well, thanks in no small measure to his writings and witness, the public square will not be left naked. More than anyone, Father Neuhaus is responsible for sinking the misguided and dangerous notion that democracy is best served by scrubbing religion and religiously inspired moral witness from our public discourse and public life. And make no mistake about it: That notion is sunk. While, to be sure, it continues to hold some professors, jurists, and ACLU-type liberal activists in thrall, it has been utterly discredited intellectually, and it has been repudiated by every major political leader from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to George Bush to Barack Obama. There is no future in it.
KJL: What was special about First Things?
RG: What was, and is–and, God willing, will remain–special about First Things is that it publishes the best writings by the best thinkers on religion, morality, and public life, and it brings these thinkers into fruitful conversation with each other. It is non-sectarian and ecumenical in the very best sense. One finds in its pages outstanding writings by Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, and Jewish Scholars. What Rabbi David Novak calls “the First Things family” includes theologians, philosophers, historians, sociologists, literary and cultural critics, legal scholars, economists, and policy specialists. Father Neuhaus was the greatest impresario of the intellectual life God ever created. He knew exactly who should be talking to whom, and he got them talking.
KJL: Which was your favorite Neuhaus book and why?
RG: That is like asking: Which of your grandparents is your favorite? But, if pushed to the wall, I would say The Naked Public Square . . . um, wait, no, I would say Death on a Friday Afternoon . . . no, no, wait . . . it has to be The Catholic Moment . . . oh, wait, no, I have to change that, it is To Empower People (with Peter Berger) . . . no, wait, um . . . oh, I can’t decide. They are all wonderful.