I did not know Richard John Neuhaus intimately, or even well; we met only a couple of times, and corresponded a bit over the years. But I was involved with his magazine, First Things, for a long time, and read almost everything he wrote, and talked often about him with mutual friends. So I was excited when Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Father Neuhaus appeared, last month, and I read it as soon as I could. It’s a superb work, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the varying intersections of religion and politics, especially in America during the second half of the twentieth century and the first years of this one.

The book has been widely reviewed already, and I want to zero in on a couple of those reviews because I think they raise some important issues about Neuhaus and about those “intersections” I just mentioned. The first is by Jeet Heer and the second is by Damon Linker.

For Heer, Neuhaus was a “holy hustler,” a hypocrite: “when religion and politics clashed, Neuhaus chose politics…. Toeing the Republican party line seems to have mattered more to Neuhaus than bearing witness to the life and words of Christ…. Neuhaus tailored his Christianity to match GOP dogma, often wilfully ignoring mainstream Christian theology and even the plain meaning of the gospels.” (For Heer “mainstream Christian theology and even the plain meaning of the gospels” seem to be about “reproductive freedom, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights.” But never mind.)

Linker’s view of Neuhaus is expressed more gently but does not greatly differ: Neuhaus “decided to lend his considerable talents to encouraging the folly” of a political party that thinks and acts “like a church.” The general lesson he draws from Neuhaus’s support for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, and for the Republican party more generally, is this: “When philosophical, theological, or historical ideas are blended with political passions and convictions, the result is very often a species of propaganda.”

Linker focuses on the Neuhaus of the early 21st century, because that’s when the two men worked together; Heer — and this may explain the angrier tone — reads Neuhaus’s later career as a betrayal of his early work as a political radical. (At one point during the Johnson administration Neuhaus said that the Vietnamese people were “God’s instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees.”) But there is a general picture of Neuhaus that both men share: he was a man who, possibly because of a love of power and influence, mixed religion and politics so thoroughly that he sacrificed the integrity of his theological and moral convictions, and lost the ability to bear politically-independent witness to Christian truth.

I don’t agree with this interpretation of Neuhaus, but in this post I’m not going to contest it. Instead, I want to assume, per argumentum, that it’s true. What then? What comes then, I think, is the question of how and why Neuhaus took this route. Linker doesn’t ask the question in his review, though he raises it in his book The Theocons; Heer just assumes that he knows the answer: Neuhaus’s lust for power. But that doesn’t explain why Neuhaus turned right; after all, he could have sought influence with the Carter administration, or later with the Clinton, and climbed the ladder of influence more quickly. So why did he make the political turn he did, when he did?

Some of the answers are in Boyagoda’s biography, for those willing to seek them out.

In 1961 Neuhaus was the pastor of a Lutheran church in Brooklyn with an overwhelmingly black congregation, and he did almost all his pastoral work among poor black people. To supplement his extremely meager pastoral salary he took a job as a hospital chaplain, and one day he came home from that job and wrote a letter to his dear friend Robert Wilken:

I just saw “baby boy Washington” enter life with a cry. He does not yet know how much he will have to cry about. His mother is unmarried and does not want him. He will be turned over to the city for a life of not being wanted. This is true for more than one third of all the hundreds of babies delivered here. I don’t think his prospects are very good for finding love, happiness, joy, purpose…. I am not depressed — only filled with wonder. Wonder at the glory and tragedy of life in this city. In a little while I will drive home and can count on being struck again by the New York skyline — a never failing object of adoration. The city and the potential of the civilization it represents — to this I am religiously committed. And to the ways of the God who brought it into being. “What is man, that you keep him in mind?” Little baby boy Washington — fear not, He has redeemed you. He has called you by the name you do not yet have, you are His! I cannot guarantee you that this is true. It may be a pious illusion. But it is better than what is called the truth by men, but just must be illusion. You are not alone.

Neuhaus believed that God “brings into being” each of those whom Jesus calls “the least of these”; that God calls them to Himself, redeems them — that God loves the unloved and unwanted; that every life, including life in the womb, is immeasurably precious to Him. In the 1960s he was a man of the left because he knew that the left was populated by many religious believers (Jewish as well as Christian) and because he thought that even the irreligious had in their secular way a care for “the least of these” that resembled his own.

Boyagoda shows very clearly that as the Sixties moved into the Seventies Neuhaus found his allies moving farther and farther away from him. The religious left became less and less willing to challenge even the grossest injustices and abuses if they emerged from their own end of the political spectrum. In 1975, “when he and a few others tried — and failed — to win broad support among his leftist colleagues for a public condemnation of the new Communist government in Vietnam because of its broad human rights abuses and specific targeting of religious minorities, he knew it was really over: for his onetime allies, leftist political solidarity trumped concerns over the higher dictates of religious freedom and human dignity.”

Moreover, the left with increasing insistence severed the cause of the poor from the cause of the unborn — something Neuhaus found tragic. Boyagoda again: “By the early 1970s Neuhaus began to understand his commitment to the rights of the poor and the racially oppressed as of a piece with his commitment to the rights of the unborn, which would occupy an ever greater primacy in the coming years. From the beginning, however, this integration of rights for the poor and rights for the unborn placed him at a critical distance from a Left in which private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.”

The point needs emphasis: not just the unborn were at risk from the left’s changing direction. In the 1970s Neuhaus wrote, as quoted by Boyagoda with clarifying brackets,

A distinguished medical proponent of abortion on demand once assured me that no one should be forced to be born who was not guaranteed “the minimal requirements for a decent existence” [essentially, the standard family, education, and economic elements of secure and stable middle-class American life]. When I [Neuhaus] pointed out that, by his criteria, most of the people I work with in Brooklyn should have been aborted in the womb, he responded with utmost sincerity, “But surely many, if not most, of the people who live in our horrible slums would, if they could be objective about it, agree with me that it would have been better for them not to have been born.”

So much for baby boy Washington, beloved of the Lord. Boyagoda rightly notes that this encounter “afforded [Neuhaus] his most visceral sense of why he could no longer be a clergyman of the Left.” Thus his long slow turn towards the right, towards the Republican party, where, Neuhaus came to believe, the moral language he thought essential could still be heard, as it no longer could in the Democratic party. (Thus also, though it’s not my subject here, his eventual move into Catholicism.)

Fast-forward a few years, to Neuhaus’s attempt to influence the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. When Bush professed reluctance to “lead with the abortion question” because of its political volatility, Neuhaus responded,

”The only way of preventing it from becoming the lead question is to settle it securely with your supporters to whom it matters most.” Here Neuhaus turned openly strategic: “Let me urge you as strongly as I can to view the pro-life position not only as a moral imperative but as a big political plus,” which he detailed by citing polling data that pointed to ultimately limited and soft support for hard-line abortion policies, which in turn would provide “a great advantage to any leader firmly and articulately supportive of the goal: ‘Every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life.’” Having underlined this statement in his letter to Bush — who would use it repeatedly in his future presidency to articulate his pro-life policy goal — Neuhaus concluded by offering his prayers, and an offer of further assistance should Bush seek it.

And this, from an endnote:

After recalling their 1998 breakfast meeting, in which Bush assured Neuhaus of the strength and quality of his pro-life commitments, Neuhaus called it a decision that would “define the relationship of your Administration and of the Republican Party to the Catholics of America or at least to the great majority of those who are observant Catholics — and to prolife Americans more generally.” Thereafter, he issued a blunt warning to Bush, that even if “Catholics and prolife Americans have nowhere else to go in national politics” than the Republican Party, as Neuhaus knew some of Bush’s counselors were suggesting, “if you endorse the taking of innocent human lives, these people, and I with them, will lose their enthusiasm for your Administration and the Party.”

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.