Richard John Neuhaus – Boyagoda

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square is a new biography written by Randy Boyagoda chronicling the life of one of the most influential figures in American politics, public life, and religion. Neuhaus’ sphere of influence ranged from the Civil Rights era to the war on terrorism. His was a very interesting life. He impacted major figures in western leadership as he was often consulted by presidents, popes, and other public leaders. This book is an engaging and attention-keeping tome that delivers on every promise. The volume carries some prestigious reviews; The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, as well as American Conservative have all said very positive things regarding this author’s work.

Neuhaus was a Lutheran pastor, Catholic priest, and conservative intellectual. One reviewer explained it well: “Yet, Neuhaus was not always a Catholic, and he was not always a conservative.” If Neuhaus was one thing, it was an intellectual and that should be kept in mind when reading this book. Many will remember his being interviewed on news programs such as “Nightline with Ted Koppel.”

After growing up as the son of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor in Canada, Neuhaus received the Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and served as pastor of Brooklyn’s low income St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church in the 1960’s. He taught in favor of social justice and civil rights and took a controversial position against the Vietnam War. At times he was a liberal, but at other times he was a conservative. Neuhaus became a strong spokesman for conservative Judeo-Christian ethics and public policy. Without a doubt, there was a strong connection between Neuhaus and the Moral Majority and were time periods that intersected strongly with the religious right. This book documents those time periods as well as some parlance into Christian Reconstructionism with figures such as John Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North. His highly intellectualized views made him very difficult to figure out. To the conservative he often seemed liberal, but to the liberal he often seemed too conservative. Yet, he was quite popular and his natural charisma always came across clearly.

Neuhaus’s ability to change was an admirable trait. As the times changed and his thoughts evolved, so did the man. How many people can be just as successful within Protestantism and Catholicism? Between church life and political life? Among education, writing, and public speaking? This is not to paint a picture of a chameleon; he did not change to blend in, but out of devout convictions.

One issue looms as a monumental platform: opposition to abortion. This is an area that unites protestant and catholic. Thus, we can see being a Lutheran prepared him while being a Catholic gave him the voice to shape opinions. In 1996, he angered many neo-conservative types by liking abortion to Nazi war atrocities. Such comparison also served to illustrate his ability to merge intellectualism and passion. He unified mind and emotion as one. If there was an issue that could be argued intellectually, then that issue deserved the full backing of his emotion; there was nothing cold or lifeless about his work. Neuhaus was a man of passion.

This book gives a clear but honest look at who the man really was. Authenticity is among its most endearing values. Boyagoda gives weight to claims that Neuhaus at times creatively reinterpreted papal statements on such topics as war, economics and capital punishment to fit the typical conservative mind. It was almost as if he were contextualizing the Vatican. This book shows something that we feel is needed in today’s day and age: a perfect marriage between religious life and public life or politics. He refused to separate the two because they were part of each other. What’s more, he showed how they could intermingle in good taste. When some people think of the Moral Majority, the first thing to jump into their mind is the image of a fire-breathing fundamentalist Baptist preacher, an image that is off-putting to many. However, with Neuhaus we have the same issues presented in a cogent and winsome manner, something that we all could learn from him. We do not agree on every issue, we do not agree on many doctrinal issues, but we can say that he presented himself in such a manner as to gain a hearing. Major victories are fought and won with personal charm backed by thoroughly researched facts. Making friends on all sides of an issue (and sometime enemies, too) is needed.

This book of 480 pages is well researched and referenced. It is particularly interesting for those of us who have lived during one of these key periods of history. It is a memorable experience to have gone through the Cold War and remember Neuhaus speaking to the issues at hand. This volume represents well the literacy legacy brought forth from the career of Richard John Neuhaus.

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