Friday, January 09, 2009

richard john neuhaus 1936-2009

Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine and a prominent intellectual conservative, died yesterday at age 72. I initially came across First Things passing time in a bookstore waiting for our new car to be ready and I haven't stopped reading it since. Neuhaus, a former left-wing Lutheran who evolved into a right-wing Catholic (but not necessarily in that order) had an opinion on almost everything and was not shy about expressing it. Probably he is most famous for his book, "The Naked Public Square," which argued forcefully for the inclusion of a religious perspective in public policy debates. His obituaries also emphasized his work in Catholic-Evangelical dialogue (he believed these two movements constituted the future of Western Christianity and had a relatively low opinion of the liberal mainstream churches). But he could, and did, dabble in everything from abortion (which he opposed) to Jewish-Christian dialogue (which he favored) to Presidential politics and everything else in between: an intellectual and a spiritual leader in the best sense of both terms, someone who made you approach any subject in a manner different than you did before.

One of the most interesting things about Neuhaus--and Catholic intellectuals in general--is the way that he (they) challenge our existing political categories. In Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland," Neuhaus shows up as a Eugene McCarthy delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention, arguing for a forceful position against the Vietnam War and in favor of social justice. Later he became a powerful voice in the anti-abortion movement and a strong critic of political correctness, with regard to both personal and political mores. A similar, although not identical path, was trod by Eugene Genovese, whom conservatives wanted fired from Rutgers for supporting the Vietcong and later became a prominent neocon himself. But did Neuhaus or Genovese really change, or did the world change around them? For that matter are Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who take an all but pacifist position on foreign policy and support radical action on behalf of the world's poor, really "conservatives" because they oppose abortion, gay rights, or other contemporary lifestyle choices? Who decides what is liberal or conservative in the first place, and how helpful, if at all, are these categories in our political discourse?


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