Meeting God as an American

“When I meet God,” wrote Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009), “I expect to meet him as an American. Not most importantly as an American, to be sure, but as someone who tried to take seriously, and tried to get others to take seriously, the story of America within the story of the world.”

This statement is from American Babylon, Neuhaus’ last book, which came out the year after his death. The book’s argument was

that God is not indifferent toward the American experiment, and therefore we who are called to think about God and his ways through time dare not be indifferent to the American experiment. America is not uniquely Babylon, but it is our time and our place in Babylon. We seek its peace, in which, as Jeremiah said, we find our peace, as we yearn for and anticipate by faith and sacramental grace the New Jerusalem that is our pilgrim goal. It is time to think again—to think deeply, to think religiously—about the story of America within the story of the world.

Such a take on America and Christianity is controversial for many. And yet it was a view that Neuhaus, Lutheran pastor-cum-Catholic priest, largely held over a career that ran the gamut not merely from Protestant to Catholic, but from Left to Right, antiwar protester to defender of the Iraq invasion, and, not insignificantly, from Canadian to naturalized American citizen.

More liberal and secular Americans, hearing such views, will discern a dog whistle for a throne-and-altar arrangement (which is what former First Things editor Damon Linker said in an earlier book about Neuhaus). On the other hand, more conservative and religious people, particularly traditionalist Catholics, will spy a stalking horse for secularism in the sense of jingoism—an idolatrous worship of the nation. Yet it is the burden of Randy Boyagoda’s Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square that Neuhaus really did mean what he said: America is both Babylon and home, important in the story of the world but certainly not to be treated as a First Thing in the ultimate sense.

The matter of politics and religion is not a question of “whether” but always of “how.” And the power of what Father Neuhaus said on such matters came not simply from the elaborateness or eloquence of his theories, but from his presenting himself as a model for action in the civil public square he so wanted America to be.

Richard, the seventh of eight children of a Lutheran pastor ministering in Pembroke, Canada, was like and yet also unlike his father. One reviewer has found Boyagoda’s early chapters boringly “Freudian” but there’s nothing necessarily Oedipal about the tensions of a stubborn father-son combination, especially when the son exhibits an independent mind and mouth. What the two shared was a disposition to worry about the relation of religion and politics. The elder Pastor Neuhaus concerned himself with the “how” of faith and governance in ways the younger would later acknowledge as uncanny, particularly regarding freedom of religion and the proper role of the state in education.

At the time, however, the tensions in the Neuhaus family were too much; Richard was sent to a boarding school in Nebraska and later to a cousin’s house in Cisco, Texas. The school experience ended in his being “invited” to not return. Once in Texas, he promptly dropped out of high school and became the youngest member of the Texas Chamber of Commerce when, with a small stake from cousin Dorothy, he purchased a gas station.

His cousins, friends, and pastor convinced the wayward but intellectual teen to take a shot at school again, and at 17 the dropout talked his way into Concordia-Austin, a small Lutheran college, where he further developed a penchant for authoritatively talking about anything and everything (nickname: arbiter elegantarium) and resisting authority. He wasn’t expelled this time, however, and he continued his schooling at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he would develop his own increasingly Catholic-tinged interpretation of Lutheranism and explore the worlds of Judaism and civil rights, notably over a summer internship in Detroit that revealed to him the needs of the black community.

After a year of pastoral training in a fairly typical white Chicago Lutheran congregation, in 1961 Neuhaus answered a pastoral call to St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, “a racially integrated congregation in a poor district of New York City.” It was a congregation as Catholic-tinged in Lutheran self-understanding as he was. The 25-year-old launched himself into urban ministry and helped create a community of parishioners eager for his brand of integrated Christian witness to the spiritual, bodily, and social needs of their neighborhood. This community not only provided fellowship for the aspiring celibate, but also provided more time for him to begin what he always thought of as his ministry of intellectual work and advocacy for social change.

Neuhaus’ churchly presence continued unabated, but what took up more of his time was his writing and his work in the burgeoning civil rights movement and later as a founding member of the antiwar Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. Boyagoda’s detective work reveals that Neuhaus’ claims of a close working relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., were exaggerated. Neuhaus really was, however, becoming a national figure. He organized press conferences and rallies for peace with Joan Baez and Paul Newman. At the 1968 Democratic Convention, he helped an inebriated Norman Mailer, fresh from brawling with the police, back to his hotel room. His antiwar speeches began to verge on the Jeremiah Wright-ish—but just as he achieved renown as one of the most prestigious clerics on the American Left, he realized that the Left “was moving away from his clergyman concerns.”

This sensible pulling back in the 1970s did not entail dropping his Democratic Party credentials. Still he began moving steadily toward conservatism, particularly under the influence of new friends and influences like William F. Buckley, Jr., theologian Michael Novak (also moving right), and sociologist Peter Berger, who experienced Neuhaus as a dinner guest who never left. With the last-mentioned, particularly, Neuhaus began to think up projects that would approach problems in a way that the Left, with countercultural wing ascendant, would increasingly find too centrist to be palatable.

The most successful Neuhaus-Berger collaboration was the 1977 book To Empower People, which pushed for the renewing of civil society under fairly traditional terms but with a sense of realism about political possibilities. The pastor and the sociologist argued that the welfare state was here to stay, but that many of the services provided by government could be better provided by what they called “mediating structures”: “neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary association.” Conservatives loved it, and the Carter administration also showed interest.

Part of the reason the book caught on was that it was short (50 pages) and extremely well-written. One assumes this was Berger’s doing. Though the later Neuhaus’ prose sparkled in the pages of First Things, his writing in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the early 1980s managed to combine ostentation and turgidity in a strange fashion. Still To Empower People and Time Toward Home (1976) both succeeded (the former much more) literarily and thematically in making clear what Neuhaus was after: a middle way between theocracy and secular totalitarianism.

It was The Naked Public Square (1984) that really got the word out. Hailed by the Reagan reelection campaign, the book criticized the rising Religious Right but also the secular attempts at coercing improved social outcomes. Neuhaus said the activists of the Religious Right would seal their own doom by promoting a notion of a “Christian America” in which Christians had exclusive authority. The goal was not, he repeated often, a “sacred” but a “civil” public square. Religion did have an important role in American public life, but Neuhaus always worked for a “public philosophy” rather than a “political theology,” tartly observing that the latter, whether originating from Left or Right, usually implied a more direct correspondence between Christian doctrine and public policy than existed.

Neuhaus took heat from all sides during this time. After a brief time running the Center for Religion and Society for the paleoconservative Rockford Institute, he was dramatically fired and evicted from his Manhattan office in 1989. He immediately found support for a new Institute for Religion and Public Life, whose flagship would be a new journal called First Things.

The new venture coincided quite closely with Neuhaus’ decision to enter the Catholic Church, resulting in even more criticism, whether from old Lutheran colleagues or from many traditional and Progressive Catholics who resented his instant notoriety. (One Catholic magazine named him “Catholic of the Year” for converting; and he was ordained a priest a mere year after conversion.) By the administration of the first George Bush, his instant attempts at interpreting the Gulf War and sundry economic matters in a different manner from the American bishops and even his friend Pope John Paul II caused further controversy. Neuhaus was and is still accused of rather selective citation from papal documents like Centesimus Annus, John Paul’s groundbreaking 1991 social encyclical that manifested a distinctively positive view of markets.

Nevertheless, despite this rough start as a Catholic intellectual, Neuhaus’ influence would continue to grow not only within the Catholic Church, but also within the broader conservative community. His unofficial ecumenical endeavor with Charles Colson, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” helped bring two socially conservative groups together around not only common causes in the culture war, but also around the large body of Christian doctrine that they shared.

Even the man’s apparent mistakes tended to cement his influence. A 1996 issue of First Things on the theme of “The End of Democracy?” questioned whether the “judicial usurpation of politics,” evidenced by a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision finding a right to doctor-assisted suicide in the Fourteenth Amendment, had terminated democracy in America. The editorial introduction to that issue of the magazine, written by Neuhaus, made a very loose analogy to the Nazis and questioned “whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.” It read to many like his 1960s denunciations, except the bolts of lighting were being cast from a different political perspective. The ensuing firestorm occasioned not only vociferous denunciations but departures from First Things, including that of Peter Berger from the magazine’s editorial board.

But Neuhaus’ declaration about judicial tyranny also earned cautious praise from many other conservatives, and reached many (including some erstwhile critics) who believed American law was seriously out of whack. Given the recent Supreme Court decisions, one can only think that if Neuhaus’ rhetoric was too much at the time, 19 years on, we can see his worries were prescient.

Neuhaus’ role as unofficial adviser to the younger President Bush was perhaps the apogee of his influence, with the administration embracing wholeheartedly the language and some of the principles of Neuhaus and Berger’s ideas about empowering people, as well as Neuhaus’ Catholic focus on a “culture of life.” The end of his life would see a decline in his political influence as the administration’s failures, especially the Iraq war which Neuhaus cautiously supported despite qualms, began to mount. His broader cultural influence, however, remained right up to the time of his death in early 2009, just as Barack Obama took office.

Boyagoda’s spritely narrative (he is a prize-winning novelist) makes a nice change from the intellectual biographies one usually sees, which leave no dinner menu selection or other irrelevant detail unmentioned. This work attempts to interpret Neuhaus on his own terms but without failing to take note of the man’s lapses and foibles, as well as his legendary ego. It is a first in that regard. (Linker’s 2007 The Theocons was neither exclusively about Neuhaus nor particularly sane, as it conspiratorially attributed to Neuhaus and other thinkers and writers a secret desire for throne-and-altar schemes.) And it is not likely to be the last serious study of this important public intellectual.

Today, many young conservatives of a religious bent seem inclined to view as a mirage Neuhaus’ mediating position between theocracy and secular domination. Most of them are more than ready to damn an America that is simply and without remainder a product of an unadulterated Enlightenment liberalism. They’ve taken to heart Neuhaus’ more radical and despairing laments over Babylon while rejecting his optimism and balanced assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of American institutions and culture. We need more reflection on Neuhaus’ thought, but we also wait for another—doubtless different—Neuhaus, who loves his flawed country enough to fight for it and expects to meet God as an American.