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A Spiritual Force

by John O'Sullivan

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the reinvigoration of religious conservatism

If you type “the naked public square” into Google, 0.41 seconds later you get access to 252,000 entries. My guess is that this greatly underestimates the number of times that this phrase has been quoted and the number of people it has influenced. Even so it confers immortality of a kind on whoever happened to coin it. According to Wikipedia, that person was Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who, while still a Lutheran pastor, wrote a 1984 book of that name arguing that the extreme secularist interpretation of the First Amendment had already led to the effective exclusion of religious argument from political debate and would in time foster an official hostility to religion that the First Amendment was written to prevent. In fact there are uses of the phrase earlier, some from Neuhaus himself, others by friends of his such as Irving Kristol. So it is likely that he coined it, but certain that he gave it common currency.

To achieve immortality as the author of a telling phrase might have mildly pleased Neuhaus, who was not without a justified pride in his writing, but it was not the sort of immortality in which he was really interested. Two of his most important books, Death on a Friday Afternoon and As I Lay Dying, deal both intimately and powerfully with the certainty that we will all die and hopefully with the promise that we will all enjoy a literal immortality thereafter.

Neuhaus felt that he had been given a special insight into that promise. Recovering from an illness that nearly killed him, he had something like an “out of body” experience in which messengers from God told him, “Everything is ready now.” He took this to be not a summons but an assurance that, whether he lived or died in his illness, his essential work had been done.

When he did recover, determining never to doubt the reality of his experience, he became far more conscious of the ubiquitous presence of death in our lives. Children playing in the street, models walking to their next audition, neighbors saying hello as they left their homes — all were dying by degrees and had been since birth. Hobbling about New York as a convalescent, he had to stop himself from rushing up and warning them. Instead he wrote his books to do so, meditating on the meaning of death or, more precisely, on God’s promise to overcome it.

We at National Review played a very modest walk-on role in this story. While still a Lutheran pastor, as Rick Brookhiser has recounted online, Richard became our religion correspondent. His Lutheranism was a qualification here. We had an informal rule that since NR was frequently mistaken for a Catholic magazine owing to our founder-editor’s very public Catholicism, our religion editor should normally be a non-Catholic. Pastor Neuhaus performed superbly in that role until he became Father Neuhaus. His conversion was not a total surprise, of course, because he had long regarded Lutheranism as a reformist branch of the universal Catholic church. Deciding that Rome under John Paul II was steadily adopting the right kind of reforms, Richard became first a Catholic and then a Catholic priest. He had hoped, I think, to lead a larger contingent of Lutherans into the church. That didn’t happen, but he did form a bridge between Catholics and all other Christians both before and after his conversion.

Richard also remained until much later NR’s religion correspondent, and a friend and counselor to all of us on the magazine. During this time — and before his illness — I commissioned an article by him to contrast Hollywood’s treatment of the next world in contemporary films such as Ghost with how it handled the same subject in the 1930s and 1940s. We dropped off several such videos at his apartment and waited confidently for a learned and witty article. That weekend he collapsed and almost died.

Meeting him months after his near-death experience, I said that we really hadn’t intended him to do such extensive research. He gave a wan smile in reply. Maybe he felt I was dancing on a precipice without due care and attention. For Richard, as a good friend, would not shrink from telling his friends the spiritual truths he felt they needed to hear. That gave his friendship a bracing as well as an affectionate quality.

But then a friend of Richard Neuhaus was getting the benefits of several friendships. He was a Catholic theologian of great depth and sophistication, an energetic pastor in a poor urban parish, a fertile and immensely readable writer, a fearless (and feared) controversialist, and a wit who coined countless epigrams. He also — and this is where his secondary sort of immortality comes in — did more than any other person to create the Christian Right as a serious and important force in American politics.

That would have surprised his early associates. As several obituaries have noted, Neuhaus began his adult life as a Canadian, a left-winger, and a devout Lutheran. He first attracted public attention as a left-wing civil rights activist who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King. He admired the Berrigan brothers for the genuine Christian origins of their revolutionary fervor. And, as Jody Bottum, editor of First Things — the magazine Neuhaus founded and edited — has noted, Neuhaus could be teased in later life for the excessive rhetoric in favor of “revolution.” (It was, he would explain, the way even quite sane people talked at the time.)

But as the actual revolutions of the 1960s evolved, transforming both liberalism and conservatism, he underwent a series of conversions. Neuhaus never lost his affection for Canada; still, he became an American — and a deeply patriotic one — because he admired the universalist openness and generosity of America. For a while that led him into disagreements with NR (and with me personally) over immigration policy. After some lively debates, however, he accepted the Christian legitimacy of the restrictionist case as a defense of national rights and identity — and came down about 70 percent on NR’s side of the argument.

He became a conservative, in large part because his old allies on the left became strong supporters of “abortion rights.” As this commitment of liberals became more entrenched, Neuhaus concluded that the life of the innocent unborn was the last great civil-rights cause. It occupied him more than any other issue for the rest of his life. Indeed, the future of the pro-life movement following President Obama’s election was the subject of his last major essay in First Things.

His conversion to Catholicism (or, again more precisely, his continued commitment to Christian truth) was, of course, the most important to him of the three. If ever these three loyalties clashed, there was no question which would win out in Neuhaus’s soul. Indeed, when he thought they were likely to clash, in the apparently unshakeable commitment of the Supreme Court to protecting abortion, he caused immense controversy by producing a special issue of First Things agonizing over the possibility that the U.S. regime would render itself illegitimate thereby. He did not recommend “revolution,” however, and in his final prophetic essay on the topic he advised: “All of us would do well to ponder the wisdom in the observation that there are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes.” My own interpretation of that judgment is: prayer first, commitment to Christian political action second, and Gandhian-style civil disobedience last.

Thrice converted then, Richard Neuhaus went on to achieve three remarkable things.

First he established a truly great magazine, First Things, which anyone seriously interested in the clashing issues of religion and politics felt an absolute obligation to read. Fortunately, as Wilde more or less said, reading it was more than an obligation; it was a pleasure. As editor, Neuhaus hunted down every intelligent theologian and good writer in America to discuss all the important religio-political topics about a year before others did. His writers formed a High Table of orthodoxy for a large and eagerly questioning public. And they were the necessary intellectual underpinning of any religious movement that aspired to influence modern American politics.

Foremost among them as a writer was Neuhaus himself, in his column titled “On the Square” — a monthly feast of journalistic criticism. (Some of his more acerbic asides are quoted in the editorial about him in this issue of NR.) Neuhaus’s last service to First Things was to discover Jody Bottum and to leave the magazine in his wise and capable hands.

Second, using his editorship of First Things as an intellectual base, Neuhaus set out to unite conservative Christians, Jews, and members of other denominations to fight for political causes on which they agreed without surrendering theological positions where they differed. Together with prominent evangelicals such as Richard Land and Charles Colson he inspired and helped to organize ECT — Evangelicals and Catholics Together — which has been the basis of what has not quite accurately been called “the Religious Right” ever since.

Third, with his friends and allies such as Michael Novak and George Weigel — and through the agency of his friendships with Pope John Paul II and later Pope Benedict XVI — Neuhaus persuaded the Catholic church to look more seriously at the wellsprings of wealth creation in a free society. Centesimus Annus — John Paul’s great social encyclical — was the first flower of that influence. There may be others to come.

National Review’s verdict on his life is a just one: “Without Richard John Neuhaus the Christian conservatives in America would have been politically much weaker and intellectually far less formidable.” It’s a worthy epitaph. But Richard never forgot that the only immortality worth bothering about is the literal kind.

 

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