Even Damon Linker likes this book. His online review describes it as “an admirably balanced and carefully researched biography.” That is no small praise from someone who does not come off looking very good in Randy Boygoda’s lengthy biography of Richard John Neuhaus. After serving for five years on the editorial staff of First Things, Linker left the magazine, ostensibly over a disagreement with chief editor Neuhaus’s strong support for the Iraq war. Subsequently Linker wrote a book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Seige, which depicts Neuhaus as leading a movement to reshape American life into a right-wing theocracy. Boyagoda, a Canadian writer and novelist, rightly sees this as a gross misrepresentation.

Not that Boyagoda rejects all criticism of his subject. Even those of us who count ourselves as friends and intellectual compatriots will nod knowingly at Boyagoda’s portrait of a headstrong leader who never quite lost the “cocky, clever preacher’s kid” demeanor of his youth, and who all too frequently engaged in “caustic and clever put-downs.” Some of the book’s most poignant stories are about how these traits sometimes resulted in wounded friendships and strained relationships with family. Boyagoda gives much attention, for example, to lifelong tensions between Neuhaus and his father, a conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor in Ontario, Canada. All too often, his adult life included temporary disruptions in friendships, and in some cases permanent breaks.

This is certainly a “warts and all” biography, but Boyagoda’s Neuhaus still emerges as a brilliant, complex leader of deep principles. And he was a person of fairly consistent principles—a pattern that may not seem obvious from the surface facts. Having started as a leftist founder-leader of the anti-war Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam and an active participant in the civil rights movement, Neuhaus gradually evolved into a “neo-conservative” who enjoyed direct access to political leaders like George W. Bush. Ecclesiastically, he departed from the Missouri Synod Lutherans and then after a stopover in mainline Lutheranism, entered the Catholic priesthood.

But there was an underlying continuity in all of this. During his leftist years, Neuhaus was vocal in his opposition to abortion and openly critical of the ideological excesses of many of his fellow travelers. In his more conservative later years, he was equally critical of excesses on the Religious Right. And when, as a churchman he finally crossed the Tiber, he provided a decidedly Lutheran rationale for his move into Catholicism. Martin Luther’s single concern in leaving the Roman church, Neuhaus argued, was its refusal to let him preach justification by grace through faith alone. Now that Rome once again allows that message, Neuhaus insisted, separation is no longer legitimate.

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Bringing People Together

This is not just a book for readers interested in the highlights of Richard John Neuhaus’s life and thought. It is also a remarkably instructive look at a lively half-century in American public life. For example, we gain insight into tensions within the recent conservative movement from Boyagoda’s accounts of two controversial events in which Neuhaus was directly involved: the “Rockford Raid,” which saw Neuhaus and his Rockford Institute staff summarily evicted from their offices; and First Things’s “End of Democracy” symposium, which carried a lead editorial openly wondering whether American believers should stop pledging allegiance to a secularizing constitutional order. (The symposium provoked a passionate response, and a few prominent conservatives resigned from the magazine’s editorial board.)

Neuhaus also played a central role in movements involving evangelicals. In 1975, he and a close friend, the sociologist Peter Berger, convened a group of two dozen theologians (Lewis Smedes and I were the evangelical participants) to refine a statement the two of them had drafted. Issued as the “Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” it received much publicity (Time magazine ran a feature). The statement generated considerable controversy for its condemnation of fashionable themes in ecumenical thought, such as “The world must set the agenda for the Church,”—our Hartford group responded that God sets the agenda for followers of Christ.

In describing the makeup of the Hartford group, Neuhaus explained that he looked “especially to the Roman Catholics, the evangelicals, and the Lutherans,” due to their “theological vitality and earnestness of mission.” His appreciation for evangelicalism loomed large in the 1994 founding, alongside Charles Colson, of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” a dialogue movement that continues to explore commonalities in both theology and cultural engagement.

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As these examples demonstrate, Neuhaus had an extraordinary talent for bringing people together—to discuss, debate, and strategize. He regularly convened intellectually and theologically diverse groups to spend a couple of days discussing topics of interest. (In my own case the topics included, civil religion, multinational corporations, ecumenism, faith and politics, and “culture wars,” among others.)

But the most important of these projects was the 1990 founding of First Things. While Neuhaus had previously edited two similar journals, Worldview and This World, they had each been sponsored by larger foundations, the Carnegie and Rockford Institutes respectively. This time around the journal was Neuhaus’s own, to shape as he wished. And shaped it he did, with great talent and flair, bringing together like-minded writers representing Catholicism, evangelicalism, Orthodoxy and Lutheranism, along with fellow travelers from Judaism and Islam.

First Things was the flagship publication of Neuhaus’s Institute on Religion and Public Life, and the concept of “public life” was foundational to his efforts. Neuhaus always insisted that politics is only one aspect of a larger “public square”—one that makes room, as best it can, for a variety of religious, moral, and communal traditions. Boyagoda reminds us that Neuhaus and Berger actually coined the term “mediating structures,” now commonly used in social science, in their 1977 book To Empower People. That short book (just over 50 pages) showed how a wide range of smaller institutions—families, churches, professional associations, teams, guilds, neighborhood organizations, book clubs, schools—can offer a protective, nurturing space between individual and the power-hungry state.

Worth the Effort

Boyagoda’s biography is readable and reliable (well, except for the author’s reference to “Methodist theologian Richard Mouw,” for which I offered an immediate Calvinist absolution). He shows that the key to understanding Neuhaus’s complex journey is his deep interest in building a public culture that promotes human flourishing. And in the end, Neuhaus’s writing focused more and more on what he had always seen as the truest, fullest source of human flourishing: the power of the Crucified and Resurrected One.

An ethicist friend once told me he had a hard time reading Neuhaus. “I know there is stuff to learn from him,” he said, “but given the things that I find so irritating, I have decided not to make the effort.” This fine biography makes it clear why so many of us, while certainly not denying the irritating factors, have found that effort more than worth our while. And we continue to benefit from “Father Richard’s” profound contributions to our understanding of God’s will for the public square.

Richard Mouw is the former president of Fuller Seminary.

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
Release Date
February 10, 2015
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