Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: Richard John Neuhaus, by Randy Boyagoda

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 right’s approach.

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 critics thought.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

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