Why Father Neuhaus Went Right
I really enjoyed Alan Jacobs’s review of Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Father Richard John Neuhaus, especially this take on Neuhaus’s embrace of neoconservatism:
With all this in mind, here’s (a simplified version of) my reading of Neuhaus’s political transformation: Over time he came to believe that the American left had effectively abandoned its commitment to “the least of these,” had decided that, in Boyagoda’s clear formulation, “private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.” The moral language that he had learned from his Christian upbringing and pastoral training and experience simply had no purchase in a party dominated by a commitment solely to the “private rights” of self-expression, especially sexual self-expression. He turned to those who showed a willingness to hear commitments expressed in that moral language, who appeared to be open to being convinced. In return he gave them his loyalty, his public support, for the rest of his life.
It may well be that this was a devil’s bargain, one that Neuhaus should never have made. Indeed, I am (most days, anyhow) inclined to think that it was. He who would sup with the Devil must bring a long spoon, and Father Neuhaus’s spoon wasn’t nearly long enough. He did enjoy rather too much the perks and privileges of influence; he did, all too often, turn a blind eye to the immense faults of the institutions to which he had pledged his loyalty.
But I think we have strong documentary evidence that Father Neuhaus made his bargain out of a genuine and deeply compassionate love — a love that pulled him all his life — for those whom the world deems worthless. In trying to realize this love in the medium of politics, that cesspool of vainglory and vanity, he sometimes befouled himself. But we all befoul ourselves; few of us do it in such a noble cause.
Please read the whole thing, and note especially the passage from the amazing 1961 letter Neuhaus, then a Lutheran pastor and man of the Left, wrote to Robert Wilken. Whatever you think you know about Neuhaus, this will probably challenge it.
Geoffrey Kabaservice, writing yesterday in TAC, gave a very strong review to the Boyagoda biography. Excerpt:
Religious neoconservatism, tied as it was to Bush and Benedict, could not avoid being tarnished by Iraqi misadventures and Catholic sex-abuse scandals. By now, most social conservatives would concede that they have lost the public-opinion battle on same-sex marriage and perhaps assisted suicide as well, which has led many to question Neuhaus’s belief that liberal democracy and Catholicism are compatible. The result is that the Neuhaus/First Things position is losing ground both to liberalism and to the “radical Catholicism” that, as described by University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, “is deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism, is deeply suspicious of America’s imperial ambitions, and wary of the basic premises of liberal government.” The value of this biography of Richard John Neuhaus, then, is not just as a work of history and remembrance but as a guide to coming conflict.