The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 19, 2018

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In Memoriam: Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)
George Weigel - 01/08/09
Fr. Neuhaus

Theologian, author, editor, and activist, Richard John Neuhaus has been a central figure in debates about religion and American public life for more than a generation. Neuhaus’s 1984 study, The Naked Public Square, recast the argument about the proper relationship of church and state, warned against the advance of a judicially imposed secularism in America, and assessed the new activism of evangelicals and fundamentalists in national politics. In The Catholic Moment (1987), Neuhaus proposed that this ought to be the time in which “the Roman Catholic Church in the United States assumes its rightful [leading] role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.” Neuhaus has also made important contributions to the dialogue between Jews and Christians in America.

A native of Pembroke, Ontario, Neuhaus was educated at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis and ordained to the Lutheran ministry in 1960. From 1961 through 1978, he served as senior pastor of St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a predominantly black and Hispanic low- income congregation. During that period he was politically active in the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and Democratic Party affairs. With James Forrest, he led a 1975 appeal for human rights to the government of Vietnam that split the American Left. An appointee to federal advisory bodies in both the Carter and Reagan administrations, Neuhaus combined his pastoral work at St. John’s with a senior editorship at Worldview, the monthly journal of the Council on Religion and International Affairs. He was also a leader, with Peter L. Berger, in the 1975 “Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” an ecumenical challenge to the modernist orthodoxies then regnant in American Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theological circles. The Hartford Appeal and commentaries on it were later published in a volume Neuhaus coedited with Berger, Against the World for the World (1976). In the early 1980s Neuhaus was one of the founders of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based agency instrumental in alerting the country to the radical politics of the National and World Councils of Churches.

In 1984, Neuhaus became director of the Rockford Institute Center on Religion and Society in New York, which rapidly became an influential voice in the debate about religion and American public life through its newsletter (The Religion & Society Report), its quarterly journal (This World), and a series of scholarly conferences which were the source of the Encounter Series of books published by Eerdmans. In 1989, Neuhaus and his colleagues were summarily dismissed from their responsibilities and locked out of their offices by representatives of the Rockford Institute. Neuhaus then founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York, which, in addition to its conferences and seminars, publishes First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, which has quickly established itself as the premier publication in its field.

In 1990, Neuhaus was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church; in 1991 he was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal John O’Connor.

Often identified (by both friends and adversaries) with fellow neoconservatives Michael Novak and George Weigel, Neuhaus has had a major formative impact on American public theology through his many books, articles, and essays, and as the personal and intellectual center of an increasingly influential network of evangelical Protestant, ecumenical Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish scholars.

—George Weigel, from American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia

Further Reading

  1. Neuhaus, Richard John. Appointment in Rome: The Church in America Awakening. New York: Crossroad, 1999.
  2. ———, ed. The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2002.
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