THE PLANK JANUARY 8, 2009
In the three-and-a-half years I worked at First Things magazine, I came to know two Richard John Neuhauses. The first is the one I worked with in the journal's offices every day: personally generous and jovial, intellectually and theologically curious, alert to political and cultural complications, overflowing with energy and ideas. This is the Neuhaus readers encountered in his lengthy, erudite essays on philosophy, theology, and history, which frequently graced the pages of the magazine. It is also the Neuhaus who produced beautiful theological meditations such as Death on a Friday Afternoon and As I Lay Dying--and who selflessly served as a parish priest at Immaculate Conception Church on 14th Street in Manhattan.
But there was also another Neuhaus--the one familiar to his political opponents. This is the Neuhaus who aimed to be a "thorough revolutionary" during the 1960s and who later brokered a political alliance between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in order more effectively to wage a cultural war against the social changes that flowed from that same decade. This Neuhaus uncharitably savaged his ideological enemies in his monthly column for First Things and walked a fine line between predicting that the culture war was on the verge of erupting into violence and actively inciting such violence. This Neuhaus sometimes spoke as if faithful Catholics had a positive duty to vote for the Republican Party, and he strongly encouraged the American bishops to deny the sacrament of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. This Neuhaus was proudly authoritarian, bullying in temperament, and staunchly traditionalist in his attitudes toward women and homosexuality.
During my last two years at the journal--the years of the Iraq war and its immediate aftermath--the second Neuhaus dominated, enthusiastically seeking to provide a theological defense of George W. Bush's polices at home and abroad and sharply rebuking anyone who dared to dissent from those policies. If I'm not mistaken, the first, more thoughtful Neuhaus has reasserted himself in the past two years, as he worked to come to terms with the myriad failures and disappointments of the Bush administration. In these years the tone of his writing was somewhat less stridently political, more concerned with exploring the tensions between politics and theological truth than with covering them over. That his final book project was a nuanced study of St. Augustine's political theology is perhaps a further indication that his views on the proper relation between religion and public life were undergoing a subtle revision in light of recent sobering events.
The most sobering event of all must have been the election of Barack Obama, whom Neuhaus considered the most culturally liberal candidate for president in American history. Worse, Obama employed the rhetoric of religion to conceal his liberalism, portraying himself as beyond the stark oppositions of the culture war when, according to Neuhaus, his true aim was to consolidate and expand on the liberal gains of the past four decades. Neuhaus' populist commitments nearly always persuaded him that the American people would do the right thing in the end. This faith buoyed his spirits during every presidential election since 1980. Sometimes his hopes were dashed; other years they were fulfilled. But I suspect the blow from 2008--victory for a liberal Democrat with 53 percent of the vote, a greater margin than any non-incumbent candidate for president since the war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower triumphed in 1952--must have been particularly painful.
Which Neuhaus would have dominated through the Obama administration? Would the first Neuhaus have remained in control, following the lead of Reinhold Niebuhr to offer an ironic commentary on the disorienting dynamics of political life in a pluralist democracy? Or would the second Neuhaus have come roaring back, hurling theological invective at the new president, fretting about the end of democracy in America, rallying the religious right for the next round in the culture war-the battle to wrest the White House from the clutches of the culture of death? Unfortunately, now we will never know which Neuhaus would have prevailed.
May both Richard John Neuhauses rest in peace.
(This is cross-posted at the National Catholic Reporter, as well as on Damon's personal blog on the TNR website, where he'll be providing additional thoughts on Neuhaus's life and legacy over the coming days.)