Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)
James Nuechterlein

The death notices for my friend and colleague Richard John Neuhaus, who succumbed to cancer on 8 January at age seventy-two, all emphasized the two great transitions in his life: in politics from Left to Right and in religious affiliation from Lutheran to Catholic. Most of what was written about the two moves was more or less accurate, but there is more, I think, to be said about both of them, and also about another, related, move that has drawn little attention.

Like most people, Richard emphasized the continuities in his ideas and beliefs. He spoke often of the personal quadrilateral that, in his mind, had remained steadily in place over the decades: he always regarded himself as theologically orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic. There was some truth in that package, of course, but its terms, the last two in particular, had a certain amount of slippage in them. His liberalism shifted over time from collectivist to classical—Galbraithian to Lockean in intellectual shorthand—and there was in fact not much in common between them but the term itself. Similarly, his pragmatism in economics flirted with socialism early in his career and wound up sympathetic to the free market and suspicious of government intervention.

There was, in other words, considerable discontinuity between the youthful radical and the mature neoconservative. Richard touched on this briefly on occasion, but he never, to my knowledge, addressed in detail the reasons for his drift to the Right. When pressed on the matter, he would emphasize two things.

First, there was the Left’s insistent pro-choice position on abortion, a stance he—rightly, in my view—viewed as radically inconsistent with its self-definition as defender of those in society most vulnerable and in need of protection. For Richard, defense of the unborn was the overriding issue of our time, and from first to last he never wavered or wearied in the pro-life cause. From Roe v. Wade onward, abortion assumed a prominent place in the Left-Right divide in America, and Richard felt himself compelled to reconsider his political allegiances accordingly.

father neuhaus

Second, he was dismayed when many of his former allies in the anti-Vietnam War movement refused to join with him in condemning the tyranny imposed by the Hanoi regime after its victory over the South in 1975. The failure of a good part of the Left to face up to the implications of the war’s outcome led him to a broader rethinking of Cold War issues, and by the 1980s, Richard was a strong anti-Communist committed to the formulation that, “on balance, and considering the alternatives, the United States is a force for good in the world.” That statement may not sound all that controversial today, but at the time it drove many of his erstwhile friends on the Left to distraction, and it hardened the alienation between them.

Abortion and the aftermath of Vietnam: both major issues, and taken together they form a plausible explanation for Richard’s defection from the Left. But that explanation has never entirely satisfied me, and I have always suspected that there was something more involved. Which brings us back to theology, which for Richard always took precedence over politics.

I am not speaking here of his movement from Lutheran to Catholic. That had nothing of politics in it. There were personal issues involved. He was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain within Lutheranism his dual vocation as pastor and as public intellectual. But in the end, his was an ecclesial decision. He had over the years come to accept Rome’s view that it was, as he so often put it, the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.

Acceptance of that claim had theological implications, of course, but it did not require a fundamental reordering of his theological universe. He had always been Catholic in his sensibilities–already in his Lutheran years he was widely known as Father Richard—and for him the upper-casing of his Catholicism was more a fulfillment than a conversion. His more astute Catholic parishioners detected Lutheran accents in his homilies, and, in basic theological inclination, he was always more Augustinian than Thomist.

That is not to suggest that his decision was in any way equivocal or anything less than wholehearted. From the time he became a Catholic, I never heard him utter a single reservation about the teachings of the Catholic Church on any matter whatsoever. He was as a Catholic priest what he had never been as a Lutheran pastor: a fully obedient servant of his church. He found in Rome an authority to which he could happily bend his will and in the priesthood an identity more complete than any he had known.

Becoming Catholic did not change Richard’s politics. His turn to the Right long preceded active consideration of a journey to Rome. But there were, I think theological influences in the evolution of his attitude toward political affairs.

He was always, as he claimed, “theologically orthodox” in the sense that throughout his career he consciously placed himself within the great tradition of catholic Christian belief and affirmation. He never reduced credal claims to social ethics. But the young pastor caught up in the 1960s’ crusades against war and racism supposed a closer integration of history and eschatology than would later be the case. He usually acknowledged the tension between “the now and the not yet,” but as late as the mid-1970s, he conceded that his view of politics “assumes a more unified notion of history and the salvation promised to history” than the classic two kingdoms tradition rooted in St. Augustine. Indeed, he went so far as to argue in Time Toward Home (1975) that “all of history is redemptive history or none of history is redeemed.” His provocative credo in the 1960s insisted that “any gospel that is not social is no gospel at all.”

The moral and political certainty implicit in all this is far removed from the sensibility that would lead him, in his last hurrah as a Lutheran in 1990, to urge the ELCA and the LCMS to close down their political advocacy offices in Washington. Critics to his Left would charge that, writing in First Things and elsewhere as a “theocon,” he simply transferred his theologically-charged moral urgency from one side of the political spectrum to the other. But that is not actually the case. He vigorously contended for his sociopolitical conservatism, and he obviously thought it compatible with his religious beliefs, but he was more cautious as a conservative in drawing direct lines between politics and theology than he had been as an advocate of the Left.

On certain contested moral issues, abortion preeminent among them, the imperatives of the natural law—accessible to all people of good will, religious or not—left little room for political accommodation, but for the most part, Richard was Niebuhrian in his acceptance of the moral ambiguities of politics. (It is true, however, that he took sometimes inordinate pleasure in pointing out to those still on the Left the susceptibility to political idolatry—and general moral fecklessness—that he found characteristic of their ideology. Richard’s politics dropped their transcendent claims but not their combative edge.)

Richard was a complicated man, not least in his attitude toward politics and public life. Intensely competitive by nature, he was forever keeping score and forever working to see his side prevail. Yet another side of him genuinely disparaged political maneuvering and felt that preoccupation with politics tended to coarsen one’s intellectual and moral perceptions.

As he grew older, that latter perspective came to predominate (though he never could stop keeping score). Over the course of his career, he worked to disinvest himself of commitment to politics. He was proud of his achievements as a public intellectual but took his deepest satisfaction in being a Catholic priest. He was pleased when I told him I thought his Lenten devotion, Death on a Friday Afternoon, the best and most important work he had ever done. That was the kind of writing, he said, he wanted most to do. His repeated insistence that the Eucharistic table was the axis mundi expressed his deepest conviction of the truth of things. It was finally there, and not in politics—however construed—that you changed the world.


James Nuechterlein former editor of The Cresset and First Things and former Professor of American Studies and Political Thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.


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