Author of Naked Public Square Led an Extraordinary Life
• Randy Boyagoda, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, Image, 2015, 459 pages, $30.00.
Richard John Neuhaus was variously a theologian, intellectual, activist, ecumenist, writer, editor, commentator, pundit, and pastor. Or, as he put it, “a Canadian-reared, Texas-educated, Missouri Synod Lutheran writing from black Brooklyn where I have lived almost the whole of my adult life.” To write the definitive book on such a man is no easy task, but for the most part Randy Boyagoda pulls it off in Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. The author describes himself as a “Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist and English professor living in Toronto,” and his section on Neuhaus’ early life shows great attention to detail, supplemented with photos.
Boyagoda’s subject was the seventh child of Ella and Clemens Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor in Pembroke, Ontario, who raised eight children on a salary of $81 a month. In the early going Richard showed interest in the ministry, performing a dog wedding but also revealed a mischievous side. Some of his early life also emerges in Neuhaus’ 2002 As I Lay Dying: A Meditation Upon Returning, which readers will want to consult, and the subject of a C-SPAN interview with Brian Lamb. The book bears “Proustian intensity,” says Boyagoda, but it was not the work that made Neuhaus a national figure.
After an education in Nebraska and Texas, here thoroughly and theologically documented, Neuhaus wound up at Zion Evangelical Lutheran in Detroit. By the early 1960s, he was pastor of St. John the Evangelist church in Brooklyn, a congregation of blacks and whites. He also ministered in death wards and kept his eye on escalating conflicts in Southeast Asia.
A key player with the group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, Neuhaus became a “fast-rising activist on the American Left.” He made national news on Oct. 25, 1965, for sharp criticism of President Lyndon Johnson, and his emergence as a national religious leader in a growing antiwar movement dovetailed neatly with the civil rights cause. Neuhaus drew inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and in February 1968 joined King, Ralph Abernathy, and others in the march on Washington.
As Boyagoda sees it, Neuhaus had become a leading clergyman of the American Left, “only to discover that the American Left was moving away from his clergyman concerns.” Opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam did not mean that Communist forces were the vanguard of peace and social justice, as some in the movement contended.
Neuhaus duly became a vocal anticommunist and natural adversary to what the author calls “liberal Christian groups like the Sojourners.” In reality, these were not liberals but strident anti-American leftists who smeared Neuhaus as an “intellectual assassin on behalf of wealth and power.”
Full disclosure: I knew Richard John Neuhaus a bit and when he was visiting nearby I printed up a business card for him reading, “Intellectual Assassin.” We enjoyed some laughs at the notion of the cigar-chomping captains of industry assigning a minister and Luca Brasi to attack the evangelists of “liberation theology.”
As Boyagoda notes, in keeping with his faith, Neuhaus believed the poor should be liberated. As a founding member of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, he argued that democratic pluralism was a better liberator than any Marxist dogma. He also believed that a public square shorn of religious values was a barren place. Without those values, as he was fond of saying, there would have been no anti-slavery movement, no women’s suffrage movement, and no civil rights movement. He delighted to note that Martin Luther King Jr. was in fact a minister.
Neuhaus joked about calling his signature book The Naked Catholic Bishops, but Andrew Greeley had already used that one. So he called it The Naked Public Square, and the rest is history. As Boyagoda notes, the book got a boost from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign and Neuhaus became a staple on television. In a famous “Firing Line” episode with William F. Buckley, he debated the relative merits of Mother Teresa and Sister Boom Boom, a San Francisco transvestite.
The New Republic grouped Neuhaus with the menacing “theocons” and paleoconservative Joe Sobran slammed him as a “one-man magisterium of the neoconservative crowd.” In “The Raid” chapter, Boyagoda recounts how Neuhaus and some groups on the right parted company in rather abrupt fashion. Neuhaus then launched the journal First Things, which maintained his influence.
In his editorial after the 9/11 attacks, he recognized a real war, not some metaphorical conflict, as some had it. “Metaphorical airplanes flown by metaphorical hijackers,” he wrote, “did not crash into metaphorical buildings leaving thousands of metaphorical corpses.” A Roman Catholic since 1990, Neuhaus faulted Barack Obama for not disowning the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and found in the president “boilerplate leftisms of class warfare and what he depicts as a nation of black and white, of seething resentments.”
As a pastor in Brooklyn, Neuhaus had married a black-and-white couple, and every year called them on their anniversary. One year no call came and the couple knew something was wrong. So in early 2009 they showed up in the hospital room where Neuhaus lay dying. He was unable to speak but when the woman addressed him, “he opened his eyes and smiled. Soon thereafter he fell into a deep and final sleep.” Six years later, this great man remains someone all readers need to know. Richard John Neuhaus is a good place to start.
Lloyd Billingsley is a contributor to Carolina Journal.