The raging debate about the religious underpinning of Islamic State, and the president’s divisive habit of invoking Christianity in other misdeeds along the way, reminds us that Catholic thinker Richard John Neuhaus was basically right when he said in 2000 that the U.S. is “an incorrigibly and confusedly religious nation.” Through decades of preaching, writing and marching, he had explored religion’s permanently controversial place in American life.
Neuhaus is best remembered as a prominent Catholic priest, neoconservative intellectual, personal counselor to George W. Bush and influential ally of Pope John Paul II. In 1990 he converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism amid Cold War-era changes in American Christianity, U.S. party politics and society, including differing stances on the value of religious liberty and the role of churches in domestic and international affairs. He took up these matters in the pages of First Things, the magazine he founded the year he converted, for which he wrote a 10,000-word monthly column until his death in 2009.
Rev. Richard John NeuhausPHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/MEET THE PRESS
His life and work are relevant today because he offered a series of arguments for supporting the role of religion in public life. He drew on “the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief.”
Neuhaus never shied from advancing sectarian arguments, often in a swaggering style that suggested an overweening confidence in the higher rightness of his positions. His opposition thought him a Republican apologist in a Roman collar, as when he robustly articulated Just War criteria in support of the Bush administration’s War on Terror, or provided the administration with the phrasing for its pro-life position—that “every unborn child is protected by law and welcomed in life.” In First Things, Neuhaus attacked antiwar critics of the administration and pro-choice Catholic politicians.
Yet he was more than a brainy hero for the Red State rosary crowd. This is evident in the book that first made Neuhaus famous, “The Naked Public Square,” published during the 1984 presidential campaign. The effort was inspired by what he regarded as the dangerous and unwelcome efforts of fundamentalist Christians to impose their terms on American public life by exercising political influence through organizations like the Moral Majority.
Their rise, Neuhaus wrote, “kicked a tripwire alerting us to a pervasive contradiction in our culture and our politics. We insist that we are a democratic society, yet we have in recent decades systematically excluded from policy consideration” positions and proposals informed by closely held Christian beliefs.
Neuhaus sympathized with their grievances—over abortion and gay rights, challenges to school prayer and to Christian displays in public, and the coarsening of American culture. But he rejected their solution because the groups, he wrote, saw no reason “to engage the Christian message in conversation with public and universal discourse outside the circle of true believers.” Neuhaus instead affirmed the core premise of Enlightenment political thought: the differentiation of public authority into separate, autonomous spheres that valued individual rights.
He argued that the strongest support for these rights came from the Judeo-Christian tradition’s foundational conviction: We are made in the image of God. Demanding absolute obedience to political dictates, whether in the name of God or something else, would undo centuries of political progress, and goes against God’s own gift of free will to every human person.
And so he rejected the Christian right’s political project of establishing an explicitly Christian America. He further reasoned that if the right’s only argument for how Christians could contribute to American public life was through exclusively religious dictates, then it made sense that secular elites were pushing back so strongly.
He proposed another possibility, one that drew on the Judeo-Christian tradition about the Divine sources and safeguards of human dignity and flourishing. He invoked St. Augustine’s “City of God” and Psalm 146, warning his Republican audiences to “put not your trust in princes.” In his final book, “American Babylon,” Neuhaus cited the Prophet Jeremiah to argue that every Christian has a public responsibility to “seek its peace, in which, as Jeremiah said, we find our peace, as we yearn for and anticipate by faith and sacramental grace the New Jerusalem that is our pilgrim goal.”
With religion figuring in fresh controversies in global affairs, Neuhaus’s writing offers a timely example. Religious belief and democracy, he wrote, could best offer mutual benefits, provided “Christians believably propose that there is greater safety [for democracy] under a sacred canopy that brings all institutions and belief systems, and most particularly religion, under judgment. The canopy is that to which Judeo-Christian religion points.”
Mr. Boyagoda, a professor of American Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, is the author of “Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square” (Image Books, 2015).