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Neuhaus in His Time

by George W. Rutler

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda (Image, 480 pp., $30)

Dickens could not have called the iconoclastic years of the late 1960s and early 1970s the best of times and the worst of times, for in terms of moral discourse they were only the worst, and by any standard of civility and aesthetics they were also the ugliest of times, with their rampant naïveté and galloping self-righteousness. Richard John Neuhaus cut his teeth in those years, actually exulting in them, surrounded by a waxworks of philosophical malcontents including William Sloane Coffin, Harvey Cox, Joan Baez, and Tom Hayden. He joined, and sometimes led, their chorus, as when he said that the Vietnamese people were nothing less than “God’s instruments for bringing the American empire to its knees.” But he had the integrity to rebel against the rebellion, with sufficient balance to avoid the extremes of reaction. This would set him up for criticism as a “theocon” by cynics on right and left, the former still licking the wounds of the Age of Aquarius, and the latter applying the conceits of those muddled years as they now control the switching points of government and education. Neuhaus went on to become a leading spokesman for the role of religion in what he designated the Naked Public Square.

Novelist Randy Boyagoda, in this new biography, traces Neuhaus’s intellectual and spiritual journey with admiration and sometimes bemusement, always sympathetic to his subject’s earnestness and not blind to his flaws. Most of the latter were minor consequences of impatience with self-examination. There was, for instance, little temperance in the relentless activism of the heady civil-rights and Vietnam years, replete with an almost manic pursuit of conferences, workshops, demonstrations, symposia, speeches, writing, protocols, declarations, and affirmations, the sum of which was symptomatic of a national nervous breakdown. The pace of his schedule and the itch for publicity were moderated, but still compulsive, in his shift from Lutheranism to Catholicism. Boyagoda is of the opinion that, in the preparation of the Hartford Appeal, a joint statement of Evangelicals and Catholics, Neuhaus displayed a “tendency to grow impatient with particularly abstract conversation, and also with conversations that he wasn’t personally, exclusively dominating.”

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