God’s Power Broker: Richard John Neuhaus


Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009




Although he spent his entire adult life as a preacher, Richard John Neuhaus was an unusually worldly character. As a young Lutheran minister active in the protest movement against the Viet Nam war, Neuhaus shared a jail cell with Norman Mailer and Murray Kempton. As an old Catholic priest and leading neo-conservative, he whispered in the ear of George W. Bush, warning the American president of the dangers of stem cell research and gay marriage.


His was a life of conversions and transformations. Born in Canada, he became a fierce American nationalist. Raised a Lutheran, he made a spiritual pilgrimage to Rome and worked hard to forge an alliance between evangelicals and Catholics, completing the circle that Luther had broken.


I wrote a long profile of Neuhaus for the National Post in December of 2001. I’ve appended the profile below but want to say a few more critical words about his life and legacy (in my profile I adopted the neutral stance of a reporter).


Neuhaus was a very political Christian. His whole life was spent forging alliances, organizing umbrella groups, and publishing manifestos. He was God’s power broker, a holy fixer, a pious ward boss. Some of his causes were worthy (he was very close to Martin Luther King during the civil rights era and one of the most important clergymen who spoke out against the Viet Nam war); others were dubious (for the last 30 years of his life he pretty much accepted the full Republican agenda of family values, militarism, and corporate capitalism).


While we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, I can’t help but say that Neahaus’s political Christianity made me very uneasy. Neuhaus was a curious and very post-modern mixture of ideological fanaticism and political opportunism. In pursuit of his political agenda he’d be willing to forge alliances with the most unseemly people. I was particularly saddened by the fact that, although he came out of the Civil Rights movement and worked in a predominately African-American parish, he was comfortable around neoconservatives who were trying to revive scientific racism (sleazy folks like Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza).


By the end of his life, he was willing to discard any aspect of Christian teaching that didn’t fit in with conventional Republican politics. Thus, despite the fact that the Vatican and many other religious authorities have been harshly critical of the war in Iraq, Neuhaus gave the Bush administration nearly full support. And while the Catholic church is becoming increasingly hostile to the death penality, Neuhaus’s journal First Thing published a long article arguing for the divine justice of executions.


Neuhaus had a tendency to conflate American nationalism with Christianity. For him, America was a holy nation, and any deviance from godliness was a fall from America’s holy mission. He once argued that atheists couldn’t be good citizens, a position that only makes sense if one is a theocrat.


For all his piety, there was something flat and one-dimensional about his faith. In his many books and articles, you never got a sense of man for whom God was an otherworldly reality, a God who is wholly other (to use the language of theology). Nor do you get a sense of a personal God, a friend you turn to in moments of despair and pain. You can find a much greater feeling of the numinous and divine in any John Updike short story than in the entire corpus of Neuhaus. Neuhaus’s God was not unlike Ronald Reagan: benign, a bit aloof, a firm believer in capitalism and America’s destiny to sway the world.



Here’s my older profile of Neuhaus:


Richard John Neuhaus and Christian politics.

By Jeet Heer

National Post, December 29, 2001


Even before the events of Sept. 11, the role of religion in public life was a festering controversy in North America — especially in the United States, where President George W. Bush was accused of tailoring public policy to suit the demands of his Christian followers.


Now, the religion-inspired terrorism of Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden has made the question of church and state more urgent. Many intellectuals believe political debate in modern liberal democracies should be conducted along secular lines, with religion relegated to the private sphere.


This secular orthodoxy is sharply disputed by Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Canadian Catholic priest and leading religious intellectual who has drawn increasing fire over his belief that politics has much to learn from religion.


Speaking from his vacation home in the Ottawa Valley, Fr. Neuhaus expressed shock at the “overt anti-Christian bigotry in the Canadian public square,” where politicians can openly state “that to be a Christian is to be some kind of fanatic who doesn’t belong in the political process.”


Fr. Neuhaus’s entire life has been an argument against the proposition that religion and politics do not mix. Since the early 1960s he has advised political figures as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, while actively campaigning in many political battles.


His involvement in politics has been controversial. During the 1960s, his acts of civil disobedience on behalf of civil rights and against the Vietnam War occasionally landed him in jail. More recently, some have argued his outspoken opposition to U.S. Supreme Court rulings on abortion is tantamount to support for violent revolution.


Yet in a series of eloquent books, and in First Things, the monthly magazine he edits, Fr. Neuhaus has made a strong argument that religious people can and should participate in public life, thereby challenging secular liberals who believe the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates a “strict wall” separating church and state.


Norman Podhoretz, editor at large of Commentary, a neo- conservative monthly, notes, “Richard Neuhaus has exercised a greater influence than anyone else on the thinking of many people, including me, about the relation of church and state, the meaning of the First Amendment, and the role of religion in the ‘public square.’ “

Writing in the left-liberal weekly The Nation, Ellen Willis described Fr. Neuhaus, along with Yale professor Stephen Carter, as one of the two most influential religious intellectuals in the United States.


Fr. Neuhaus’s pervasive influence on church and state issues can be particularly seen in the current presidency of George W. Bush. The Bush administration’s policy of supporting faith-based community services can be traced back to arguments made in the 1970s by Fr. Neuhaus and Peter Berger, a sociologist, that welfare policies should aim at supporting “mediating institutions” such as churches and neighbourhood groups. To navigate through the difficult waters of the debate over stem-cell research, Mr. Bush named a committee to be headed by Dr. Leon Kass, a physician as much noted for his writings on the Bible and bioethics in First Things as for his medical expertise.


During the election campaign of 2000, Mr. Bush consulted with Fr. Neuhaus on several occasions. More subtly, much of the language whereby the Bush administration justifies its social policies can be traced back to his writings.

Although he is now a politically engaged Catholic priest in the United States, Fr. Neuhaus started off as an apolitical Lutheran in Canada. How he got to his current position is a remarkable story, rich with the drama of bitter disputes and surprising conversions.


Richard John Neuhaus was born in Pembroke, Ont., in 1936 to a family headed by a Lutheran minister. As Fr. Neuhaus now notes, German Lutherans tend to be “quietistic” because of the strong emphasis Martin Luther gave to the Biblical injunction in Romans 13, which enjoins Christians to obey their rulers. “I don’t recall as a child that there was any serious effort to bring a religiously or theologically considered morality to bear on political questions or public policy.”


Leaving home when he was 14, Fr. Neuhaus lived a rambling life for a few years, and at one point was the youthful owner of a gas station in Cisco, Tex. Although growing up in Canada had made Fr. Neuhaus a proud son of the British Empire, his travels in the United States awakened in his soul a life-long attachment to “the American experiment.” As he notes, “Like many Canadians who live in the United States, I discovered it as something very different. Most American-born intellectuals see the American political, cultural and social order as being the normal way in which a society organizes itself. Whereas if one comes to it from the outside, as I did, one is struck by the oddness and audacity of the American experiment.”


For Fr. Neuhaus, the American experiment is pre-eminently an attempt to build a democratic society, one in which the people rule. Since Christians are a part of the people, the traditional understanding of Romans 13 must be re-thought. Rather than a quietistic attitude toward rulers, democracies require that Christians engage in political life or, as Fr. Neuhaus likes to say, “enter into the public square.”

As he noted in the 1960s, Christians must “knock some of the mythology out of Romans 13,” particularly the notion that “the powers that be … know more than we do.” Following in his father’s footsteps, Fr. Neuhaus became a Lutheran pastor. In 1961, he was assigned to work as pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although founded by German immigrants, the church at that point was in a largely black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Fr. Neuhaus was singularly successful in attracting new members to a once dying church.


Working in an inner-city church with a racially mixed congregation, Fr. Neuhaus became concerned about civil rights and was drawn to the circle of advisors surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. “I worked very closely with Dr. King in the last couple of years of his life,” Fr. Neuhaus recalls.


He wrote speeches for Dr. King and served as a liaison between Dr. King’s organization in the South and the militant New Left movement in the North, which was beginning to protest housing discrimination, urban poverty and the Vietnam War.


“I believed then and I believe now that Dr. King was a singularly prophetic figure in the telling of the American story,” says Fr. Neuhaus. “He held out the hope for a moral resolution to what Gunner Myrdal called ‘the American dilemma,’ the problems left over essentially from slavery and the Civil War.”


Even at the height of his career as a left-wing activist, Fr. Neuhaus dissented from his political allies on the issue of abortion, which he has always opposed. The abortion debate, Fr. Neuhaus now claims, was the “single most important factor” in changing his political orientation. “I was then a pastor of a low- income black parish in Brooklyn. I can actually remember quite vividly a moment that was utterly decisive. In 1965, I read an article by Ashley Montagu [an anthropologist] in which he, favouring a radical environmental and population control stance, made an argument for what constituted a life worth living. I realized that by Ashley Montagu’s criteria, there was no one in the membership of St. John the Evangelist who had a life worth living. And I realized this was fundamentally wrong.”


In 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, Fr. Neuhaus started moving to the political right on a host of issues, mainly in social policy. In 1977, Fr. Neuhaus co-wrote, with his friend Peter Berger, the influential study To Empower People, which argued welfare policy should be realized through local volunteer organizations such as churches, rather than through centralized government bureaucracies. In March, 1990, Fr. Neuhaus founded First Things, which has become the leading intellectual journal of religious conservatives in the United States.


Fr. Neuhaus’s political conversion was followed by a religious conversion, perhaps growing out his concern about the abortion issue. In 1990, Fr. Neuhaus resigned as a Lutheran pastor and was received into the Roman Catholic church. He was ordained as a priest in September, 1991.


On the verge of being a senior citizen, Fr. Neuhaus remains as controversial a figure on the right as he once was on the left, particularly because of his adamant opposition to abortion. In November, 1996, First Things published a symposium entitled The End of Democracy, attacking one of Fr. Neuhaus’s favourite targets, the Supreme Court of the United States.


In an editorial introducing the symposium, Fr. Neuhaus argued the usurpation of democratic power by the court, particularly in its decisions on abortion, made it necessary for religious believers to contemplate active resistance to the U.S. constitutional order. Fr. Neuhaus outlined a range of possible responses, going from “non- compliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution.”

This analysis proved too much for some of Fr. Neuhaus’s political allies. Norman Podhoretz, hitherto a warm admirer of his, wrote him an angry letter stating he was “appalled by the language … by the seditious measures you contemplate and all but advocate; and by the aid and comfort you for all practical purposes offer to the bomb throwers among us.”


A long essay by Fr. Neuhaus clarifying and moderating his position helped placate conservative friends such as Mr. Podhoretz. While Fr. Neuhaus remains adamantly opposed to abortion, he is much more careful about using the language of civil disobedience and revolution.


To his many critics, Fr. Neuhaus’s occasional flirtations with the language of revolution illustrate the dangers of mixing religion and politics. Religion, the argument goes, deals in absolutes while politics is based on compromise. The passions of religion are too strong to be allowed into civic discourse.


For confirmed secularists, the arguments on behalf of a strict separation between church and state have been confirmed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which might be seen as the violent intrusion of religion into public life.


Fr. Neuhaus knows the dangers of mixing religion with politics. He admits that both “politicized religion” and “religionized politics” are temptations to be avoided. Yet a lifetime of engagement with the most contentious political issues of our time has also convinced Fr. Neuhaus that religion has a voice that must be heard in democratic debate.


“The deepest convictions in political life are moral in character, having to do with what is just, what is right, and what is fair. For the great majority of Americans, convictions that are moral are inseparably connected to religion.


“Therefore, if someone says that all the convictions can be in play in the political process except those that are religiously grounded, they are in fact advancing a profoundly and radically anti- democratic proposition. They are basically saying that you can bring your participation into the political process but you have to leave behind your deepest convictions.”


4 thoughts on “God’s Power Broker: Richard John Neuhaus

  1. Sans Everything

    The Washington Post obituary noted that Father Richard John Neuhaus dropped out of school and joined the Navy at 14.? So did my father, Mike, although he was 13 but thanks to the, in his case, less accurate (more oppressive now?) records of the time Dad was registered as 14 years of age.

    Both were good Catholics. Dad made his mark in politics, and I think it will be a fine one, if only for his probity.

    Father Neuhaus, operating in a different field, was the best thing (aside from JPII and B16) that happened to some of us Catholics in the last 30 years. The verve! The intelligence!
    The love!!

    Not sure that ‘rest in peace’ in quite the phrase for Father Richard. Or Dad. Be refreshed in/with God seems more apt.

    Doubt I’ll see you on the 22 january march for life — my first go at this sort of thing, I am on the verge of senior citizenship, but the reasons become clearer* — but thank you for your not half bad, indeed, generous, tribute.

    See your reference to “politicized religion ” and “religionized politics”

    Anne Mansfield

  2. [He was God’s power broker, a holy fixer, a pious ward boss. Some of his causes were worthy ……..others were dubious]

    [I realized that by Montagu’s criteria, there was no one in the membership of St. John the Evangelist who had a life worth living. And I realized this was fundamentally wrong.]

    What is so dubious about looking at the people one has served and realizing that they were worthy of life?

  3. It strikes me as ironic that you would reject Father Neuhaus’s call to activism while the entire liberal intelligentsia embraces the ‘in your face’ activism of Saul Alinksy to the degree that his Rules for Radicals has become the play book for the Democratic Party. Defense of one’s beliefs is apparently unacceptable when it runs counter to the common wisdom of the day. Certain truths are self evident, and are not subject to interpretation by political or judicial fiat.

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