Biographies are intensely personal affairs, filled with the often mundane details purporting to tell the life story of some person of alleged importance. Occasionally, however, a figure of true influence will come along and change the world. In the American context, such figures have often been religious or political leaders, those two realms of discourse which seem to influence all others. Indeed, few can deny that Washington, Lincoln, King, and Graham do not continue to play important roles in shaping our context. Yet few characters of history have simultaneously transformed both religion and politics. One such person was the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, whose public advocacy—for both political left and right and for Christian faith in the public square—continues to influence our world.
Neuhaus has long been recognized as an important influence on the religio-cultural climate of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as even Time Magazine noted on occasion. It was thus with great anticipation that Randy Boyagoda produced the only substantive biography on Neuhaus to this point, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square (New York: Image, 2015). A detailed account of his life and times, Boyagoda argues throughout this work that the central driving force behind Neuhaus’s various pursuits and interests was the desire to be an influential voice on matters of importance for pastors, leaders, intellectuals, policymakers, and politicians alike. An intriguing and insightful volume, this biography stands as a delightful and compelling examination of the life of America’s greatest public intellectuals.
Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square is divided into four parts. “Part I: From Small-Town Canada to Concordia Seminary, 1936-1960” outlines Neuhaus’s early life as the seventh child of a pastor growing up in the Canadian portion of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Boyagoda does a fine job summarizing Neuhaus’s formative years “on the frontier” and his penchant for dominating discourse from an early age. “Part II: From Brooklyn to Africa, and Many Points In Between, 1961-1974” traces Neuhaus’s rise to popularity as a member of the religious Left, his Vietnam protests, and his work as an urban Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn. By the end of this period, however, readers find Neuhaus gradually shifting away from what he would come to call radical leftism.
In “Part III: From Hartford to Rome, Via the Naked Public Square, 1975-1990,” Boyagoda captures Neuhaus’s “conversion” to political conservatism and his meteoric public rise following the publication of The Naked Public Square amidst the presidential campaign of 1984. By the end of this period, Neuhaus was not only a prominent national conservative voice, but he had also launched what would arguably become his most influential legacy: the Institute on Religion and Public Life and their flagship publication, First Things. Part four, “First Things First: A Catholic Priest in the Public Square, 1990-2009,” recounts Neuhaus’s conversion to Catholicism, his brush with death in 1993, continued political and public influence during the Bush presidency, and final encounter with cancer in 2009.
Throughout this biography, Boyagoda thoroughly investigates Neuhaus’s life and thought, placing him in conversation not only with the history and culture of the moment, but also drawing out Father Richard’s lasting legacy as well. Neuhaus speaks throughout this account, as this biography is filled with nuggets of Neuhausian wisdom, polemic, and grit. Boyagoda’s emphasis on Neuhaus’s own account of his life—though not without occasional correction—does seem to be the impetus for the relative silence on the key “conversion” moments in Neuhaus’s life: from political left to right and (later) from Lutheranism to Catholicism. This is not to say that Boyagoda does not discuss these important transition periods, for he does a fine job outlining the general context and historical moment of each, and even lets Neuhaus’s own public letter on his conversion to Roman Catholicism run for a couple of pages. Yet there might have been additional clarity offered through consideration of how the why behind each conversion occurred. Of course, this impulse should lead us to reflect on how we can ever know about such an intensely internal and personal action as conversion. In spite of this caveat, it would have been helpful to engage these highly public conversions at greater length.
This biography serves as a great background for First Things-esque faithful ecumenical approach to faith and the Public Square, as well as informative introduction to many of the movers and shakers in today’s Catholic and Evangelical Right. This volume will be especially helpful for younger members of these movements, whose lives or intellectual pursuits might not have explicitly overlapped with Neuhaus’s own work. On a personal note, my own critical engagement with theology and public life began just after Neuhaus passed away in 2009 and has been largely shaped by the peers and heirs of Neuhaus named in this biography. But despite having a tacit knowledge of Neuhaus and his work, I was unaware of the scope and influence of his work until working through his volume. Thus, I speak with first-hand experience in recommending this for younger thinkers who stand (perhaps unaware) in Neuhaus’s legacy.
Overall, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square comes highly recommended for readers of all types. Boyagoda’s attempt to write a “sympathetic, critical-minded effort to explore the life and work of someone who spent decades praying, preaching, speaking, organizing, and writing about American democracy and Western Christianity” is nothing other than unparalleled success, a stirring account which simultaneously informs and encourages its readers to learn from Father Neuhaus and faithfully advocate Christianity’s continuing place in the Public Square of ideas. This volume should be read by anyone interested in learning more about Neuhaus, the Catholic and Evangelical Right, and the relationship of faith and the Public Square, as well as those interested in American religious history more generally. May this biography continue to encourage us, as Neuhaus argued, to “think again—to think deeply, to think religiously—about the story of America within the story of the world.”
I received this book from Image Books in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.