Remembering Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus got to the central question facing us: Is it true that postmodern liberal societies are incapable of sustaining the religious values without which they could not have been born, and without which they cannot long function? Neuhaus was unwilling to surrender to that proposition. Neither should we be.

This past Tuesday, January 8, marked ten years since the death of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. A Lutheran pastor turned Catholic priest, Neuhaus transcended a provincial background to become one of the most important American religious leaders and public intellectuals of the postwar era. His absence has left a palpable hole in our national life.

It is hard to imagine any Christian clergyman arising under present circumstances who could command such respect from secular and religious authorities for his reflections on the role of religion in public life. The country has changed a great deal in the past ten years. Among other things, it seems to have migrated in the direction of the “naked public square” against which Neuhaus warned. As a consequence, some of the most influential Christian thinking today seems willing to consider, at least in theory, a strategic disengagement from an increasingly hostile public culture, and is even willing to consider that the whole classical-liberal political and economic project may have been a colossal error.

Such arguments are well worth considering, if for no other reason than that the Christian faith does not prescribe any particular form of polity or economy. It exists in perpetual tension with any and all regimes, since it is the expression of a Kingdom that is not of this world. But such concerns should not get in the way of our full appreciation of the extraordinary life of Richard John Neuhaus, and in particular the gift of his ideas, which are far more subtle, fruitful, and wise than many of his critics are willing to credit. Ten years after his death, it is a good time to remember them and learn from them.

A Man of Many Parts

Possessed of extraordinary intellectual range and quickness, boundless energy and irresistible charm, as well as a graceful and prodigious pen, a gift for aphorism, and the resonant voice of a first-rate preacher, Neuhaus was a man of many parts, every bit as much an activist and organizer as he was a pastor, and a thinker, and an author.

His political involvements began in the 1960s with his support of the movements for civil rights and in opposition to the Vietnam War. They culminated in a passionate commitment to the defense of human life and the moral renewal of American society, expressed through the unprecedented alliance he helped forge between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, and through the important magazines and institutions he brought into being. No Christian intellectual leader did more to encourage comity and understanding between Christians and Jews, including a firm insistence on the Jewish roots of Christianity, and a firm rejection of the doctrine of supersessionism. Through it all, he was a man constantly in motion, but guided by a consistent purpose, acting on behalf of what neither left nor right can claim exclusively as its own: the inalienable dignity of the individual person, made in the image of God.

There was almost no subject that did not attract his interest, and he left a long paper trail of books, articles, reviews, pamphlets, declarations, manifestoes, and other writings in his wake. He was at his best in his shorter, journalistic writings, where he combined relentless rigor with an ingratiating stylishness. He was often merciless, and wickedly funny, in skewering the many fallacies and absurdities of contemporary intellectual, political, and religious life. Far from going easy on his prey out of misplaced Christian piety, Neuhaus took visible pleasure in taking down the phonies and poseurs and other public nuisances that plague our common life, and he did it so fearlessly that he developed a following among strictly secular readers who did not share his religious convictions but admired his journalistic writings for just these qualities. It is well-known that many readers of his magazine First Things read it from the back forwards, starting from Neuhaus’s compulsively readable “public square” jottings, which were a form of blogging avant la lettre, and only later—if ever—getting to the articles.

After his conversion, he became a remarkably winning spokesman for Roman Catholicism, even as he sought to open lines of communication and find theological common ground with Protestant evangelicals, observant Jews, and others who were committed to other denominational identities or theological beliefs, including nontheistic secularity, but who could find common cause in certain issues, such as abortion, where the main currents of the Jewish and Christian traditions all seemed to line up and point in the same direction. Unlike so many other ecumenical enterprises, which seek to downplay particular differences in the name of general consensus and common tactics, the ecumenism that Neuhaus’s many meetings and projects sought was always a search for a highest common denominator. Far from bracketing theology, he always brought it to the fore.

From Left to Right

Where did this prodigy come from? Neuhaus grew up in a tightly swaddled world of provincial isolation, as different as can be imagined from the cosmopolitan New York in which he would end up. His father Clem was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor originally from Texas, whose ministry took him and his large family to postings in remote and isolated communities in rural Canada, where Richard would be born in 1936. In Randy Boyagoda’s 2015 biography of Neuhaus, we see Richard emerging very early in life as a prototypical preacher’s kid, an upstart of high intelligence and supreme, even somewhat insufferable, confidence, who was not afraid even to take on adults, even his formidable father, in argument. Those of us who knew him in later years can only nod and smile in acknowledgment.

It was inevitable that the ambitious upstart would become impatient with the insularity and political quietism of the Missouri Synod Lutherans, and beginning in his seminary days, Neuhaus was drawn to a more “catholic” view of Lutheranism, one that would seek to reconnect his small and isolated sect with the larger Christian church, and would seek a more active role for the church in the world. Eventually, he would be drawn into the political Left as a vehicle for his reform passions, and in time he began to espouse very radical positions, although always with a religious inflection. The Vietnamese people, he declared in one 1969 speech, a representative example of his radical period, were “God’s instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees.”

But Neuhaus did not stay on the Left for very long, because his own activism had always been grounded in and predicated on his Christian convictions, and he saw that this was not true of his fellow leftists, even those who called themselves Christian. Liberal Christianity, he concluded, was betraying itself by uncoupling the gospel’s call to a more just world from the gospel’s revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. He could not accept such an uncoupling. In addition, he noticed that this new liberalism was becoming a tool of the elite classes, mirroring their obsessions with personal autonomy and self-indulgence, while strangely indifferent to, and even hostile toward, the aspirations and sensibilities of the common people that liberalism had always claimed to champion, and indifferent above all to the dignity of the very weakest, the unborn. The just causes that had drawn him to the Left—civil rights, antipoverty, antiwar—were being overwhelmed by an agenda of cultural revolution, epitomized for him by its increasingly unwavering commitment to unrestricted abortion rights. The religious Left had, he concluded, lost sight of first things.

Such insights led Neuhaus to organize the Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation, a 1975 manifesto directed against the mainline’s liberal-activist drift, and led him to gravitate more and more to the political right. His theological disappointments with mainline Protestantism led him toward Roman Catholicism, which he finally embraced as both a convert and a priest by the 1990s. He founded the important journal First Things as the print expression of his vision of a religiously grounded, but not narrowly sectarian, approach to the consideration of issues of public policy and culture. The title was meant to be a constant reminder that, to get politics and culture right, it was necessary to get other things right first.

To Empower People

Neuhaus’s work is hard to summarize. He was a master of short forms, such as the mini-essays in the “Public Square” section of First Things. He also wrote many books, some of which, such as his wonderful gem of a book, Freedom for Ministry, and his memoir of near-death, As I Lay Dying, had few or no political themes. But these are not the books for which he will be remembered, rightly or wrongly. Let me offer three that will be remembered, or at any rate ought to be, as indicative milestones in his intellectual trajectory. All three concern themselves with the intersection of religion and public life, and the ways that the two can enjoy a more fruitful relationship.

The first comes as a surprise to some. Neuhaus’s theological readers are often entirely unaware of his book To Empower People: From State to Civil Society, a short book he coauthored in 1977 with his friend the Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger. But this tightly organized and closely argued brief foreshadowed much of his subsequent work. It envisioned how a more self-conscious pluralism in America could be achieved through the reinvigoration and support of what were called “mediating institutions.” It was a work whose applications to the classic Neuhausian questions of the relation between religion and public life were enormous but indirect: more on the order of protecting necessary conditions than prescribing sufficient ones. Its arguments played an integral supporting role for much of what was to come, laying a foundation that, in retrospect, would be at the core of Neuhaus’s later and better-known works.

The book vividly presents the intellectual currents and challenges in play at the time that it was written. The 1970s were vexed and careworn years, when many of the overblown expectations of the postwar era, and particularly of the 1960s, were in the process of crashing down, in the form of stagflation, swelling welfare rolls, urban crime, a general loss of national confidence in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, indeed a whole laundry list of national woes—economic, diplomatic, cultural, and spiritual.

But they were also a time in which the ideas that would counter and correct this collapse of national morale were taking shape. For one thing, it was a time that saw the emergence of sober second thoughts about the inherent limitations of the liberal-progressive project. Such reconsiderations gave rise, among other things, to the chastened liberalism that was then disparagingly labeled “neoconservatism,” a movement with which Neuhaus was intermittently identified, and more generally to a keen awareness of the limits of national social policy, the failures of consolidated national-scale command economies, the hubris entailed in the progressive movement’s embrace of a rationally engineered national society governed by accredited experts, and the futility of social policies that consistently failed to take account of the needs and flaws of human nature, failed to acknowledge the wisdom of traditional institutions, failed to provide an adequate locus of community, and failed to set forth an adequate structure of punishments and incentives that addressed human nature as it really exists and thereby made ordered liberty possible. It is more than passing strange, a chapter of intellectual history yet to be written, that “neoconservatism” came to mean something closer to the opposite; but if one thinks of the journal The Public Interest in its prime, when it was being brilliantly edited by Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer, one would have the earlier incarnation right.

To Empower People was a key expression of this chastened mood, with its skepticism about the efficacy of large public bureaucracies in improving the lot of the needy and impoverished. But it also sparkled with hope and proposed a better way. Its position was not antigovernment per se, nor was it opposed in any categorical way to the welfare state. On the contrary, the authors explicitly and repeatedly asserted that “the modern welfare state is here to stay,” and they did not propose to dismantle it. But what they believed needed to change were the mechanisms by which welfare services were provided, so that the average citizen would feel empowered rather than diminished by their ­presence.

Above all else, they argued, there needed to be far more attention given, and deference shown, to the crucial role of mediating institutions, those smaller forms of human association that stand “between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.” For Neuhaus and Berger, the chief among these institutions were neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary associations; and it should be the goal of intelligent social policy to strengthen and aid these institutions, rather than seek to countermand or replace them.

The argument was, as they readily acknowledged, an adaptation of the standard critique of mass society, according to which the rise of modernity led to the breakdown of those local and particular institutions within which the individual had in former times found his or her identity. Modernity confronted such deracinated individuals with a terrifying condition in which nothing stood between their puny individuality and the all-powerful state.

The attraction of totalitarian societies was precisely in their promise of collapsing that tension between the public and the private through the creation of one universally applicable order of meaning. But healthy mediating institutions provided a better way, particularly when they were permitted to have a public function. This meant, for example, that a central impulse of modern American liberalism—to accept religious liberty on the condition that religion be relegated to an entirely private sphere—was misguided, contrary to the spirit of genuine pluralism, and antithetical to the genuinely free exercise of ­religion.

In fact, Neuhaus and Berger contended, mediating structures were essential to democratic society and should be actively fostered and drawn on whenever possible for public purposes, because they are “the value-generating and value-maintaining agencies in society,” with­out whose presence the formulation and transmission of values would become the default responsibility of the huge and impersonal state.

Such state control presented a prospect of utter powerlessness, in which individuals find themselves imprisoned in megastructures, their lives dictated by strangers. But mediating institutions embodied the confidence that, in general, “human beings, whoever they are, understand their own needs better than anyone else,” and that such institutions, by standing closer to the intimate particularities of real people in all their kinships and relationships, were far more likely to reflect such self-understandings in accurate and empowering ways.

Undergirding the book is an energetic sense of the promise of American pluralism—indeed, a belief that the American national project is unique in the extent to which it endorses pluralism as a central feature. What cannot be stressed enough is that Neuhaus and Berger did not see pluralism as a mere pragmatic accommodation to demographic force majeure. Instead, it was A Good Thing. “This nation,” the authors say, “is constituted as an exercise in pluralism, as the unum within which myriad plures are sustained.” Our pluralism was not a bug but a feature. Should it ever become the case that these plures are collapsed into unity, if it should ever become national policy “to make the public values of Kokomo or Salt Lake City indistinguishable from those of San Francisco or New Orleans,” then the national project symbolized by the motto E Pluribus Unum will have been abandoned. The persistence of regional, religious, and ethnic differences, so long as they are not invidious in character or dependent on unjust or illegal segregation or restriction, is something to be desired, because it means that the smaller contexts within which consciences are formed remain healthy. Hence, in America, the national purpose, rightly understood, ought to seek not to undermine particular affinities or purposes but to strengthen them.

One sees in this book the beginnings of a particular interpretation of American life, as Neuhaus understood it. America offered a cultural setting in which, ideally, Christian commitments and national commitments were in tension, but not necessarily at odds.

The Naked Public Square

The Naked Public Square appeared seven years later. It probably goes without saying that The Naked Public Square has been one of the most significant books published in this country during the past four decades, and a book whose force is far from being spent. That does not mean, however, that it has always been adequately understood. When a book achieves the influence and visibility of The Naked Public Square, and especially when its marvelously evocative title has become shorthand in the discourse of most educated people, it is likely to face certain problems in this regard. These may look like “nice problems to have,” but that does not mean they aren’t genuine problems. Often such books become fixed in the public mind in their most stereotypical or capsulized form, associated with arguments or perspectives that are but a poor reflection at best of what the books actually argue, and influencing public opinion in ways that their authors never quite intended.

Having a memorably evocative title is an especially mixed blessing, since it can too easily become a way of compressing a complex argument into an oversimplifying sound bite. This is good for notoriety but bad for understanding. The next thing you know, your argument is being passed around far and wide, but sealed inside the potent simplification, like a celebrity who is condemned to live trapped inside the artificial bubble of his fame.

Those who have actually read The Naked Public Square often find it is not the book that we think we “know about.” It is a far richer, subtler, more nuanced work, at once more bold and more tentative than its now-familiar tagline can convey, a book defying easy summation, with no easy party-line reassurances to offer any of the combatants in our culture wars. Its perspective is lofty, and its intellectual reach embraces almost every significant theological or political issue relating to the relationship between church and state over the past 2,000 years. As a consequence, it often operates on a very high level of abstraction. And yet it also crackles with insight into the nitty-gritty particulars of American politics and culture. Its wide scope did not come at the expense of a secure grounding in the specificities of time and place.

It was not, to begin with, a simple critique of secularism per se. Neuhaus’s arc of reconsideration was longer and more complex than that. For him, the task at hand was not the dethronement of science or the overturning of the Enlightenment, let alone the political defeat of garden-variety American liberalism per se. Instead, the goal was and is the decoupling of liberal democracy from the iron logic of secularization, and the recovery of an insight that, he argued, was apparent to most of the Founders of the American republic, but which liberal political philosophers and theologians have tended to bury and secular Europe had lost—that the health of democratic institutions depends as much on the free and vibrant public presence of the biblical religions, and their culture-forming influence, as it does on the constraints placed on that religion’s ability to exercise direct political power.

A right understanding of Neuhaus’s argument needs to balance both sides of this formulation. In other words, he argued, our choices should not be restricted—and in the end cannot be restricted—to either the complete privatization of religion or the complete integration of church and state. The separation of church and state is not, and cannot be, absolute, and it does not—and cannot—require the segregation of religion from public life. This is a complicated argument, and its working-out in public policy is bound to be complicated too. But it is a direct challenge to the idea that a commitment to official secularism as national policy is the logical, nay inevitable, consequence of our commitment to liberal democracy. That, I believe, is the key insight of this book, and it stands as much in need of explanation and articulation today as it did thirty-five years ago.

Which leads to a final observation. The Naked Public Square argued that liberal democracy is inconceivable and unsustainable without a prior commitment to a certain conception of the human person—a belief that men and women are created in the image of God, that their dignity and their rights arise out of this condition, as endowments from their Creator, and therefore are not to be conferred upon them, or taken from them, by the state or by anything or anyone else, including themselves. I don’t think there is any way of getting round the fact that this is a fundamentally religious assertion. But it is an assertion to whose consequences many secularists would readily assent, circa 1984, since it undergirds the notions of universal human rights and human dignity that they, too, cherish. One could agree to disagree about the metaphysics, so long as the physics worked out right.

But much has changed in thirty-five years. We now find ourselves in an era in which the process of manufacturing human beings strictly for medical and quasi-medical uses is no longer a futuristic pipedream but an activity that our major universities are eager to associate themselves with, and in which the concept of “transhumanity” is now being raised as a topic for serious discussion. It may be that the common ground is rapidly eroding.

Why indeed, unless we have some religious reason for doing so, should we accept the notion of inherent human dignity, let alone human rights and human equality? Why should we continue to accept the notion of inherent human limitations, such as the inevitability of death and debility, and forgo the enhancements of strength, agility, intelligence, sexual prowess, and other characteristics that might be entailed in comprehensively remaking ourselves as individuals, or even as a species? And who is to decide when a blob of protoplasm is to be considered a person, and when it is to be deemed a mere blob of protoplasm? Can “public reason” provide a resolution of these matters, without invoking—or negating—specifically religious assertions?

There is real reason to doubt whether it can do that. And this may help explain why, in moving from The Naked Public Square to what would be his final book, American Babylon (2009), Neuhaus moved past the deployment of secular ideas, and began to place the American story in a more Biblical context. The shift of emphasis is striking.

American Babylon

To begin with, we are now talking about Babylon. And the subtitle is Notes of a Christian Exile. But what did these things mean? “Are we in Babylon?” Neuhaus asked. “Are we in exile?” The answer, it turns out, is yes and no. No, America is not the Babylon of the world’s nations. Indeed America still is for him, with all its decadence and disorder, a very great and exceptional nation, the source and bulwark of much that is good in the world, a nation whose story is “part of the story of the world,” a world that is, for all its fallenness, worthy of our love and allegiance. Neuhaus loved Lincoln’s formulation, that America was an “almost-chosen” nation, a formulation that satisfied him far more than it satisfies me. (What after all, can it mean to be “almost chosen”? Is it like being runner up, honorable mention? Is it like a game of horseshoes?) But he liked it because it conveyed how there is much to support the idea that America has a special role to play in history, but that it is not the Biblical Israel, and certainly not the New Jerusalem.

In this sense, Neuhaus would say that yes, America IS Babylon, in the sense that all the world is Babylon. Or in Neuhaus’s own words:

America is Babylon not by comparison with other societies but by comparison with that radically new order sought by all who know love’s grief in refusing to settle for a community of less than truth and justice uncompromised.

To make sense of such a situation, one can no longer look to secular social science, which knows nothing about what it means to dwell in the living reality of the not-yet. It cannot explain what Neuhaus declares to be his fundamental purpose in writing American Babylon: “to depict a way of being in a world that is not yet the world for which we hope . . . exploring the possibilities and temptations one confronts as a citizen of a country that is prone to mistaking itself for the destination.” Instead, he urges that we look to the prophetic counsel that the prophet Jeremiah related to the exiles living in the original Babylon:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (My emphasis)

If we understand it rightly, the promise of what is to be, the world to come, only intensifies our commitment to the earthly city. We are to serve it faithfully and effectively. Yet, as in the story of the Biblical Daniel, himself an exile in Babylon, we can be faithful and effective servants only up to a point: the point where our worship is being corrupted or misdirected and we are commanded to serve false gods. Then a parting of ways, perhaps even eventuating in the fiery furnace, is our only choice. But the story of Daniel just as clearly teaches that one does not declare such things lightly, and one must be willing to go a very long way in patience before making that choice.

For those whose primary allegiance is to the City of God, every foreign country is a homeland, and every homeland is a foreign country. America is our homeland, and, as the prophet Jeremiah says, its welfare is our welfare. America is also—and history testifies that this is too easily forgotten—a foreign country. Like every political configuration of the earthly city, American too is Babylon. And so as Christians we too must learn to live here, and to sing, as in Psalm 137, the songs of Zion in a foreign land.

So what Neuhaus is balancing is an intense love of America with an intense awareness of America’s inadequacies, both general and specific. He expressed the love once in a famous sentence: “When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American.” In so speaking, he was not being a jingo, but instead insisting on the scandal of particularity, that what we are is inseparable from the very particular things that have gone to make up our earthly identities. Indeed, Neuhaus faults the American tendency, which he ultimately traces to Protestantism, toward a Gnostic abstractionism, the presumption that one can escape one’s time and place, the conditions of one’s birth and formation, including one’s identity as an American. But he insisted on the importance of the place of the American experiment, as he liked to call it, in establishing an earthly realm dedicated to the proposition that we are creatures of God, with an imperishable dignity and inalienable rights with which we are endowed by our Creator. Thus is America an exceptional nation in the story of the world.

The general inadequacy of America, however, is the inadequacy shared by all earthly nations: they are Babylon, every one of them, and are not, and cannot be, transformed into the City of God. In this respect, America is no worse and no better.

In addition, there is a specific inadequacy of America, one peculiar to its makeup and history, and related to its prominence in the story of the world. It is akin to what Niebuhr called “the irony of American history,” the tendency to exaggerate America’s very real virtues, and its place within the larger story, and to mistake its provisional goods for real and enduring ones. Such errors would lead America to the very grave error of “mistaking itself for the destination,” for the world for which we hope, rather than the Babylon for whose welfare we strive but in whose ultimate perfectibility we fervently disbelieve.

The general inadequacy of America, however, is the inadequacy shared by all earthly nations: they are Babylon, every one of them, and are not, and cannot be, transformed into the City of God. In this respect, America is no worse and no better.

In the World, Not of It

Whatever else one might say about these statements, or about my brief attempt to summarize one aspect of Neuhaus’s work, it is hard to see in them much support for the view of Neuhaus, offered casually and carelessly by some, that he was a complacent apologist for the American imperium. Instead, one sees a man who was struggling, as we all must, with the difficulty of being a Christian, one who lives in the world but is not of the world. He did make errors of judgment about matters of prudential politics, and like thousands of others, he was stubbornly wrongheaded in his unwillingness to acknowledge the corruption of the Roman Catholic priesthood and hierarchy. These are not small things, but neither should they be decisive in our assessment of him.

He got to the central question facing us: Is it true that postmodern liberal societies are incapable of sustaining the religious values without which they could not have been born, and without which they cannot long function? Neuhaus was unwilling to surrender to that proposition. Neither should we be. But the fear that it might be true is not at all groundless. In this respect, there is no room for fatalism, but even less for complacency.

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