Randy Boyagoda. Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. New York: Image (an imprint of Crown, a division of Random House), 2015. See here to purchase the book.
Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was a Catholic priest and a
conservative intellectual. He edited and wrote for the conservative
journal First Things, wrote a number of books, and advised
George W. Bush on ways to appeal to conservative religious voters.
During the 1984 Presidential election, as candidates debated the
influence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Neuhaus’ bestselling book The Naked Public Square
offered a balanced perspective on religion and public life, one that
affirmed religion’s role while criticizing aspects of the religious
Yet, Neuhaus was not always a Catholic, and he was not always a
conservative. During the 1960’s and the 1970’s, he was a prominent
Lutheran clergyman who was active in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam
War movements. Neuhaus had also ministered in the inner-city. Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda, tells the story of this figure.
The book goes into Neuhaus’ public life through a number of events:
the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, divisions within
conservatism, the Clinton impeachment, the abuse scandals within the
Catholic Church, 9/11, the Iraq War, and the candidacy of Barack Obama.
But the book is also about Neuhaus as a person: his struggles with
school, his long love for debate and pontificating, and his relationship
with his family.
Overall, the book effectively describes the conversions that Neuhaus
made in his life. It presents Neuhaus’ rationales for his conservatism:
his belief that the U.S. was better than the Soviet Union, his support
for democracy around the world, his commitment to Christian orthodoxy,
his opposition to abortion, his dislike for the New Left’s libertinism,
and his view that localities could handle welfare better, even though he
did not propose dismantling the welfare state. Regarding his
conversion to Catholicism, long-standing features of his Lutheran
commitment would contribute to that: his support for the Lutherans who
advocated unity with the Catholic church and sacramentalism.
If there is one weakness to the book, it is that I wish that Boyagoda
had explained more fully what made Neuhaus tick when he was a liberal.
What drew Neuhaus to liberalism, and what were his rationales for his
positions at that time? In reading the book, I could understand
Neuhaus’ rationales for his conservative positions, but not entirely
what made him tick as a liberal. That being the case, I wondered how he
could have gone from one who decried capitalism and what he considered
to be American aggression, to one who was more open to those things.
Neuhaus’ conservative older brother said that Neuhaus was rebelling
against his father by being a liberal, and that may have been unfair,
but why exactly was Neuhaus a liberal?
My favorite part of the book was the Preface, where Boyagoda tells
two stories about Neuhaus’ unconventional stances in the Left and the
Right. As a Lutheran liberal pastor, Neuhaus led his audience in
singing “America the Beautiful,” which disturbed several leftists.
Neuhaus said, however, that they were singing about America as it should
be, not as it was. Years later, when Neuhaus was a conservative, he
addressed the Christian Coalition’s Road to Victory conference, and he
warned Christian conservatives not to confuse political success or
political policy with their Christian hope. A significant point that
Boyagoda continually makes is that Neuhaus was more nuanced than his
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.
Searching hearts and minds
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