Saturday, May 16, 2015

Richard John Neuhaus, Warts and All

A new biography captures the life and times of a brilliant, headstrong champion of faith in the public square.

By Richard Mouw
May 15, 2015

Richard John Neuhaus

Even Damon Linker likes this book. His online review describes it as “an admirably balanced and carefully researched biography.” That is no small praise from someone who does not come off looking very good in Randy Boygoda’s lengthy biography of Richard John Neuhaus. After serving for five years on the editorial staff of First Things, Linker left the magazine, ostensibly over a disagreement with chief editor Neuhaus’s strong support for the Iraq war. Subsequently Linker wrote a book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Seige, which depicts Neuhaus as leading a movement to reshape American life into a right-wing theocracy. Boyagoda, a Canadian writer and novelist, rightly sees this as a gross misrepresentation.
Not that Boyagoda rejects all criticism of his subject. Even those of us who count ourselves as friends and intellectual compatriots will nod knowingly at Boyagoda’s portrait of a headstrong leader who never quite lost the “cocky, clever preacher’s kid” demeanor of his youth, and who all too frequently engaged in “caustic and clever put-downs.” Some of the book’s most poignant stories are about how these traits sometimes resulted in wounded friendships and strained relationships with family. Boyagoda gives much attention, for example, to lifelong tensions between Neuhaus and his father, a conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor in Ontario, Canada. All too often, his adult life included temporary disruptions in friendships, and in some cases permanent breaks.
This is certainly a “warts and all” biography, but Boyagoda’s Neuhaus still emerges as a brilliant, complex leader of deep principles. And he was a person of fairly consistent principles—a pattern that may not seem obvious from the surface facts. Having started as a leftist founder-leader of the anti-war Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam and an active participant in the civil rights movement, Neuhaus gradually evolved into a “neo-conservative” who enjoyed direct access to political leaders like George W. Bush. Ecclesiastically, he departed from the Missouri Synod Lutherans and then after a stopover in mainline Lutheranism, entered the Catholic priesthood.
But there was an underlying continuity in all of this. During his leftist years, Neuhaus was vocal in his opposition to abortion and openly critical of the ideological excesses of many of his fellow travelers. In his more conservative later years, he was equally critical of excesses on the Religious Right. And when, as a churchman he finally crossed the Tiber, he provided a decidedly Lutheran rationale for his move into Catholicism. Martin Luther’s single concern in leaving the Roman church, Neuhaus argued, was its refusal to let him preach justification by grace through faith alone. Now that Rome once again allows that message, Neuhaus insisted, separation is no longer legitimate.
Read the rest of the review by clicking on the link below:

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