A new biography, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square by Randy Boyagoda, does quadruple duty. It provides a well-researched and documented critical look at the life and work of Neuhaus, in the context of US history, including sociological trends, from the 1960’s through the early 2000’s, societal pressures on and changes in the role of the Church in public life, and the continuing struggle over unresolved Reformation issues among and within Catholic and Protestant bodies. It is a great read.
Neuhaus (1936-2009) was raised the son of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor in Canada, received the Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and served as pastor of Brooklyn’s low income, mostly minority, St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church in the 1960’s. He preached and spoke in favor of social justice and civil rights and against the Vietnam War, and became well known as a liberal activist. As his liberal friends and associates moved leftward and more secular in the 1970’s, Neuhaus moved right and became a strong spokesman for conservative Judeo-Christian ethics and positions on public issues.
One of a diminishing minority of Lutherans who saw Lutheranism as a reform movement within the universal Catholic Church, Neuhaus gave up on Lutheran reform, was received into the Catholic Church in September, 1990, and was ordained a Catholic Priest a year later. Included in the biography are his eloquent explanations of the reasons for this change and for his shift to conservatism.
A prolific and powerful writer, Neuhaus is perhaps best known for The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, published in the mid 1980’s, and comprising a direct challenge to the emerging Political Correctness movement. Neuhaus later assured his own access to the Public Square through founding of First Things: America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life. The journal achieved a paid circulation of more than 30,000 and has continued after his passing.
The image of Neuhaus based on the biography and on his quotes therein is of a bigger-than-life, somewhat rude, impatient, and outspoken man who loved bourbon and cigars and didn’t hesitate to consume even the cigars in a friend’s living room. However, watching him speak on one of the many YouTube videos available (example), he comes across as a loving pastor serving God and neighbor. Well, I suppose that too is a bigger-than-life image. You can download the book to your Kindle or iPad here.