By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
The New York Times
January 9, 2009
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a theologian who transformed himself from a liberal Lutheran leader of the civil rights and antiwar struggles in the 1960s to a Roman Catholic beacon of the neoconservative movement of today, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 72 and lived in Manhattan.
Paul Hosefros/The New York Times
Father Neuhaus, right, at a 1997 Congressional hearing on religious persecution. To his right were Trent Lott, the Senate Republican leader, center, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
He learned that he had cancer in November and recently developed a systemic infection that doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center say led to his death, said Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life. Father Neuhaus founded the journal and served as editor in chief.
Father Neuhaus’s best-known book, “The Naked Public Square,” argued that American democracy must not be stripped of religious morality. Published in 1984, it provoked a debate about the role of religion in affairs of state and was embraced by the growing Christian conservative movement.
In the last 20 years, Father Neuhaus helped give evangelical Protestants and Catholics a theological framework for joining forces in the nation’s culture wars.
With Charles Colson, the former Watergate felon who became a born-again leader of American evangelicals, Father Neuhaus convened a group that in 1994 produced “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” It was a widely distributed manifesto that initially came under fire by critics, who accused the two men of diluting theological differences for political expediency. But the document was ultimately credited with helping to cement the alliance, which has reshaped American politics.
“Richard’s Protestant background gave him a unique brokerage position,” George Weigel, a Catholic commentator and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Mr. Weigel likened Father Neuhaus to the Rev. John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit theologian who was often called on to navigate the relationship between religion and American government in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Mr. Weigel said of Father Neuhaus, “He was a philosopher and theologian of American democracy, and that is the bright line that links all” the stages of his life.
Father Neuhaus underwent several conversions in his life. He was born in Pembroke, Ontario, and emigrated to the United States, which he came to love fervently. He was a Lutheran minister, like his father, but at the age of 54 was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Politically, he evolved from a liberal Democrat and admirer of Senator Eugene J. McCarthy to a conservative and occasional adviser to President Bush.
No matter which side he was on, Father Neuhaus was always a leader. The Rev. Max L. Stackhouse, a professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, said he first glimpsed Pastor Neuhaus marching in Selma, Ala., in a row of clergy members flanking the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He thought that somebody ought to be out front carrying the ball, and he designated himself, and he was pretty good at it,” Dr. Stackhouse said. “He was not poverty-stricken when it came to confidence, and he did a lot of his homework and made judgments and felt very secure in them. He did enjoy controversy.”
In the 1960s, he was pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, a predominantly black and Hispanic Lutheran congregation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was arrested at a sit-in at the New York City Board of Education headquarters, demanding integration of the public schools.
With the war in Vietnam raging, he and other prominent members of the clergy, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, founded Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, an advocacy group. This contact with Jewish and Catholic leaders seeded his passion for interfaith dialogue.
In 1968, Pastor Neuhaus was a delegate for Senator McCarthy to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When the Chicago police clashed with demonstrators, he was among those arrested and tried for disorderly conduct.
Two years later, he made an unsuccessful bid to become the Democratic candidate for the Congressional seat representing the 14th District, in Brooklyn.
By the mid-1970s his ideas about the relationship between religion and politics were evolving. He helped write a theological statement criticizing churches for speaking out on secular social issues without sufficient attention to faith and spirituality.
He joined conservative clergy members in a campaign against the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, accusing the organizations of a taking a leftist approach to international affairs and cozying up to Marxist governments. He wrote the founding manifesto for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a group that challenges mainline Protestant denominations it considers too liberal.
In 1990, after years of uneasiness in the Lutheran church, Father Neuhaus was accepted into the Catholic Church by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York in the chapel of the cardinal’s residence on Madison Avenue. A year later the cardinal ordained him a priest. Father Neuhaus insisted that his conversion was not so much political as theological. He said the goal of Martin Luther’s Reformation had always been a united Christian church.
“I have long believed that the Roman Catholic Church is the fullest expression of the church of Christ through time,” he said in an interview then.
His survivors include his sisters, Mildred Schwich of East Wenatchee, Wash., and Johanna Speckhard of Valparaiso, Ind.; and his brothers, Clemens, of Redlands, Calif.; George, of Seeshaupt, Germany; Joseph, of Stone Mountain, Ga.; and Thomas, of St. Hippolyte, Quebec.
Father Neuhaus wrote and edited nearly 30 books, among them “The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World,” “Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross,” and “As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning,” about his near-death experience during an early bout with colon cancer.
He advised President Bush and the White House on issues like stem cell research and gay marriage. On Thursday, President and Mrs. Bush issued a statement praising “his wise counsel and guidance.” When Time magazine published a list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America in 2005, Father Neuhaus, despite his Roman Catholic affiliation, was on it.
In First Things, the journal he founded, he maintained a column of caustic commentary on political, social and religious developments until he fell ill last year.
Father Neuhaus’s last book was “American Babylon,” to be published in March by Basic Books. In it, he depicts America as a nation defined by consumerism and decadence and argues that Christians must learn to live there as if they are in exile from the promised land.