A Life in the Public Square

Published April 21, 2015


Randy Boyagoda set out to write a “sympathetic yet critical-minded” book and he has done just that.  His new biography, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, takes seriously the Christian faith according to which Fr Neuhaus ordered his life and work. The result is an authentic and compelling portrait of a man who had as much influence as any in the 20th century on the place of religion in American public life.

Boyagoda’s success is no small feat considering the particulars of the life in question. Neuhaus was a prominent public figure for the better part of five decades—from the 1960s until his death in 2009. His writings are voluminous and cover a remarkable breadth of subjects. So wide and varied are the events and controversies in which Neuhaus played a part that it would be easy for an author to lose his subject, or his readers, amidst all the twists and turns.

Through a complicated and wide-ranging biography—a childhood in small-town, depression-era Canada; boarding school in Nebraska (he was “asked not to come back”); “knocking about” in Cisco, Texas (Neuhaus owned and operated a gas station at age 16); back to school; to seminary in St Louis; to a poor parish in Brooklyn; and eventually to a long tenure on the national stage—Richard John Neuhaus comes more clearly in focus, not less. This is a credit to Boyagoda’s sensibilities as a writer and storyteller and to his willingness to take seriously Neuhaus’ own accounting for his life and work.

That life and work played out in the service of many causes and was marked by several important conversions. He was a Lutheran pastor—the son of a Lutheran pastor—who converted to Catholicism in his sixth decade. He first came to national prominence during the civil rights movement as the outspoken pastor of a poor black church in Brooklyn. He agitated, marched, pledged, and protested—for social justice and against the Vietnam War—even getting arrested during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. He saw the pro-life movement as a natural corollary to the civil rights movement and was a fierce defender of the unborn.

As Neuhaus watched liberal Christianity hollow itself out from the inside, he found himself more and more at odds with the movements (and politics) that had brought him to prominence. By the time he published The Naked Public Square in 1984, he was at the forefront of a growing, largely conservative, resistance to what he saw as the theological denuding of American public life. It was his founding and editing of the journal First Things, the goal of which was and is the articulation of an alternative, that stands as his greatest contribution to American public life.

Neuhaus was fond of quoting T.S. Eliot’s line: “If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” The many causes to which Neuhaus joined his efforts were always secondary when considered against the background of “the widest and wisest view”—an unmistakably religious vantage point, he would insist.

All this emerges poignantly in an interview Neuhaus gave in 1975, when he was in mid-shift from political left to right. Neuhaus spoke about the greatest influences on his thinking (as told by Boyagoda):

“Paul, above all Paul, always Paul: I Corinthians 4:5 is the style, Romans 14:8 is the bedrock of confidence.” For style, in other words, it’s Paul’s admission “Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.” For the bedrock, it’s Paul’s assurance that “whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” (p. 187)

Here we find the first (and last) thing about Richard John Neuhaus, and the lens Boyagoda uses to bring the many public facets of Neuhaus into a coherent and focused portrait. As the final chapter of the book movingly attests, Fr Neuhaus died as he lived: as a Christian pastor whose only true solace came in the firm knowledge that “whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”

Readers looking for a thorough evaluation of Neuhaus’ legacy will not find it in this book. The book ends immediately, almost abruptly, with Neuhaus’ death on January 8, 2009.

That the ongoing debates over the role of religion in public life have only intensified in the years since his death serves to underscore and confirm Neuhaus’ insight into the necessary role of religion in public life and the myriad threats to that role. Unless informed by the truth about man—a truth that is distinctively, irreducibly religious—our political, economic, and social institutions will crumble under their own weight.

The faithful Christian, then, is not just a good citizen but the best—acting for both the worldly and ultimate good of his neighbor, and living the virtues necessary for freedom to be lived well. In the last analysis, a Christian who fails to labor for the political good, fails in charity.

The generation now coming into its own is one whose experience of American life consists of costly wars overseas and the unravelling of family and economic life (to say nothing of religious freedom) at home.  This is a generation that stands to learn a great deal from the life of Richard John Neuhaus, and his insistence—in word and deed—that the world cannot afford for us to forget wherein our true hope lies.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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