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Death of a Theocon: Richard John Neuhaus
The neoconservative movement loses its primary theological spokesperson.

By Ed Knudson

It came as a shock, as news of death usually does, to hear that Richard John Neuhaus died of cancer on January 8, 2009, having lived and worked for 72 years. It came as a shock too because he was a very huge presence in the world of those who think about theology, culture and politics. I can't think of anyone who has written more and had more influence on these topics than Neuhaus. He leaves a very big void and it is unlikely that anyone will be coming along who can do what he did so effectively. At least, I hope it is unlikely because I mostly completely disagreed with what he did with his life. I hope the neoconservative movement to which he gave theological justification continues to flounder and experience itself as a discredited intellectual project.

I did admire some things about him. He did take seriously the project of thinking about both theology and politics. He dared to engage directly in politics, he took positions, this always takes courage. And he became a spokesperson for the importance of civil society. I will talk about these three aspects of my admiration for him but in the context of where I believe he was completely wrong.

Let me begin with what I believe is his largest negative contribution, a very serious and total blunder, given his claim to be concerned with the contribution of religious faith to the moral context of the nation. This is something which is probably mostly unfamiliar to most people who will remember Neuhaus. And it is something I am not able to here document historically in an adequate manner because it comes out of my own conscious experience since my years in seminary in the 1960s. It was then in Chicago when with others I helped organize a rally against the war in Vietnam to which we invited Neuhaus to speak. He had worked to found the group Clergy and Laity Against the the Vietnam War. This personal involvement began my consciousness of Neuhaus and led me to be interested in what he has done and said over the years.

And what he did was deeply troubling to me. He turned from a critic of war to a Cold War warrior. He began to attack the Protestant churches. He set up a group called the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), received funding from various conservative foundations, and began to use the money to accuse the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches of being, in the language of the time, "Communist sympathizers." Neuhaus became the Joe McCarthy of the church. The IRD was a publicity organization, like the many, many organizations funded by economic conservatives over these years to influence the media. It's prime job was to get its views out in the media. And, it was largely successful in the climate of the day in discrediting the faith and witness of the major Protestant denominations. In fact, now that more years have gone by, it seems the mainline denominations have been nearly silenced in the public media. I would say from my own observation and experience that Richard John Neuhaus is the single person most responsible for the decline of moral influence of Protestantism in this country. He allowed himself to be used as a tool by forces of economic ideology to attack the church, a church otherwise concerned with social and economic justice for all. The IRD continues today to hire organizers to cause mischief and trouble within Protestant congregations on issues of abortion and gay rights, still funded by those foundations which support so many of the think tanks which promote rigidly narrow business ideology and which have become known as "neoconservative," an ideology which has now broken the entire economy and will cause great suffering for the American people.

You see, if you get politicians elected on the basis of emotional issues like abortion and gay rights, those very politicians will implement policies especially helpful to business interests to the detriment of social equality and care for the environment. This is the political game which has been played in this country, especially since Reagan in 1980. It is a game now over, hopefully, but Neuhaus has died before he could see how completely wrong he had been in his thinking over the years. What turned him in the wrong direction was his political calculation on abortion.

In my early brief encounter with Neuhaus I was struck even then with the intensity with which he engaged in political calculation. In the last article he wrote for his magazine First Things this aspect of his character is displayed as he tries to claim that the abortion movement is a continuation of the civil rights movement of the 60s (I have written a whole article on how this is wrong.) Neuhaus wanted to be a serious "political player." And he believed that the Supreme Court's decision on abortion in 1973 could trigger a strong oppositional political movement. So he dedicated himself to that task. He says in the article that liberals should have taken up the anti-abortion crusade so they could have been more successful in politics over the years, as if a political issue is a matter not of moral deliberation but of simple power politics. He berates liberals for not being able to establish a clear point in the reproductive process when "life begins" as if such a point can be determined, as if anti-abortionists are not engaging in an irrational intellectual exercize by trying to establish such a point at the moment of conception. It is precisely the so-called conservative claim that "life" begins which makes them unable to engage in conversation leading to a legal compromise on the question. Conservatives don't want to really resolve this issue, abortion works too well for them, at least in the past. Voters are now expressing disapproval of hysterical conservatives. But abortion did function over the past decades to lead to conservative victories and Neuhaus was riding that reactionary wave due to his political calculation.

Also, to really engage in politics you need money. And money is in short support on the left. The real money comes from conservative, business-oriented foundations. If you want a lot of money to publish your political views and be a serious political player you have to adjust your views to what the leaders of these foundations want to be heard in the public sphere. That's what Neuhaus, and lots of other neoconservatives, have done over these last decades. They started as socialists or otherwise on the more "liberal" side of things, such as even writers like David Brooks, and then shifted for various reasons to the right. But one of those reasons has got to be that the money was available on the right, not the left. Intellectuals have to eat too. I was amazed at the degree to which intellectuals, after the Reagan election, came out of the woodwork to support his reactionary policies in both the foreign and domestic realms.

Neuhaus received lots of money from conservative foundations. They paid for his cigars and bourbon and put him into the limelight of neoconservative thinking. "From 1996 to 2005, the IRPL [the parent organization to his magazine] received close to $9 million in grants (see MediaTransparency.org). Right-wing foundations the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation, and Carthage Foundation were among the contributors." (source)

One wonders, then, whether it took much courage for Neuhaus to turn his thinking to conservatism. He did not buck the trends, he did not speak up for that which was unpopular, he pretty much went with what he politically calculated was the trend of the time, Reagan conservatism.

Then in 1991 Heuhaus changed his religious identification. He stopped being a Lutheran pastor and was re-ordained a Roman Catholic priest. At the time this did not seem so unusual to me. Since Vatican II there was a whole movement within Lutheranism as many pastors began calling themselves "Evangelical Catholics." Lutheranism had considered itself a reform movment within the universal (catholic) faith. But as I look back on things now I wonder whether this move was less from authentic religious commitment than another political calculation. There is much political calculation within the structures of the church too. Neuhaus was able to experience a sharp rise of reputation within these structures, even enjoying a close relation with the current Pope. Damen Linker, former editor of First Things and author of the book Theocons says that Neuhaus became Catholic because that church uses a strong concept of natural law within its social teachings. Neuhaus wanted to be able to speak with the authority of natural law and a church structure which claims to be the final interpreter of what makes for natural law. Martin Luther questioned Aristotle and natural law thinking and broke with the Catholic church, so Neuhaus returned to be able to preach the law to others. But the Catholic Church had better think again about whether it is happy to have received such a one as Richard John Neuhaus who helped turn the Roman Church more in the direction of a political philosophy the American people are now completely rejecting.

Finally I want to say a word about civil society. Neuhaus along with the sociologist Peter Berger wrote a book on mediating institutions, those institutions of society that stand between the individual and the state, such as families and friendship networks, clubs and associations, and religious organizations. This important concept has been co-opted by neoconservatives and others. They claim to support and encourage such institutions. But that theme has been reduced in their over-all rhetoric. They have been more focused on belligerant foreign policy and free market economics. On the social side of things these conservatives have been fixated on abortion and gay rights. At this website I have raised a concept of "society" to one of central signficance for good political thinking today. Both government and economy have come to dominate society to the degree that these mediating institutions have been severely compromised. In conservative rhetoric, all must serve the economy, to the degree that the word should be capitalized, Economy, as if it has become a kind of God to these folks. Neuhaus has not been as vigorous a champion for the Economy than his friend, Michael Novak, but he has gone in that direction. His last book may address the theme.

The New York Times Obituary for Neuhaus says: "Father Neuhaus’s last book was “American Babylon,” to be published in March by Basic Books. In it, he depicts America as a nation defined by consumerism and decadence and argues that Christians must learn to live there as if they are in exile from the promised land."

If this is the theme it will be interesting to see what forces Neuhaus identifies as causing the American Babylon. He has spent his life taking money from business institutions who have created the rampant consumerism of current society. He has blamed women for having abortions and called on the state to regulate reproductive life while not regulating business, the very business that sells everything by sexual images and associations and convinces American young people that having sex solves everything. Neuhaus has not been very good at identifying the real causes of current problems. His mind was clouded by his own ambition. So hopefully he will be treated as the American people are treating George W. Bush. They are sending him away with strong disapproval.

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The following notes are from other websites:

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http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v23n2/how_roman_catholic_neocons.html Frank L. Cocozzelli (outstanding article!)

But perhaps the most influential of this group is Father Richard John Neuhaus, whose ideological and religious transformation is one of the more remarkable journeys in modern religious and political life. The one-time anti-Vietnam war Lutheran minister left behind radical left politics (as well as his Lutheranism) to become in 1990 a Roman Catholic priest and icon of the neoconservative movement. He promotes the civic power of religion as president of the Institute of Religion and Public Life, a neoconservative institute “whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public policy for the ordering of society."

Neuhaus has had the ear of President George W. Bush throughout his administration, as well as enjoying a direct line of communication with Pope Benedict XVI. Neuhaus, acting on directives from Rome, in 2004 pushed for the denial of the Sacrament of Communion to then-Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry for his prochoice, pro-embryonic stem cell research positions. But unlike Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who both opposed the 2003 Iraq War, Neuhaus (along with Novak and Weigel) openly argued for preemptive invasion.

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http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/3068 Damon Linker, author of Theocons and former editor of First Things

(this not on the First Things website)

"But there was also another Neuhaus—the one familiar to his political opponents. This is the Neuhaus who aimed to be a “thorough revolutionary” during the 1960s and who later brokered a political alliance between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in order more effectively to wage a cultural war against the social changes that flowed from that same decade. This Neuhaus uncharitably savaged his ideological enemies in his monthly column for First Things and walked a fine line between predicting that the culture war was on the verge of erupting into violence and actively inciting such violence. This Neuhaus sometimes spoke as if faithful Catholics had a positive duty to vote for the Republican Party, and he strongly encouraged the American bishops to deny the sacrament of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. This Neuhaus was proudly authoritarian, bullying in temperament, and staunchly traditionalist."

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David Brooks

his great theme was the way death has a backward influence back onto life: “We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already under way.”

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http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/991hhmaf.asp by Joseph Bottum

when he was the Lutheran pastor of a large, mostly black congregation in Brooklyn and, together with Rabbi Heschel and Fr. Daniel Berrigan, had founded one of the largest antiwar groups, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. He was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., a McCarthy delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention, and a radical candidate for Congress in 1974. He was also, in those days, the author of an essay called "The Thorough Revolutionary," which proclaimed: "A revolution of consciousness, no doubt. A cultural revolution, certainly. A non-violent revolution, perhaps. An armed overthrow of the existing order, it may be necessary. Revolution for the hell of it or revolution for a new world, but revolution, Yes."

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http://www.newsweek.com/id/178875 George Weigel, Newsweek

"the most consequential public theologian in America since the days of Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray, S.J."

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http://www.standardnewswire.com/news/255513781.html Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas

"He wrote more persuasively than perhaps anyone today of the need for democracy and free markets to always be sustained by a vibrant moral culture."

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http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=Y2EzZDMzNzYwNTgwN2M5ODI4ZjgzYzUwMzBkYmQ3MGI= Editors of the National Review

"Without Richard John Neuhaus, the Christian conservatives in America would have been politically much weaker and intellectually far less formidable."

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http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/3067 Michael Novak

"He bore with grace the charge of having become “neo-conservative,” when the term was intended as an insult, and even turned that charge into a positive advantage, carving out a new blend of Christian orthodoxy and political realism."

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Excerpts from a C-SPAN interview http://www.booknotes.org/Transcript/? ProgramID=1677:

....what I always wanted to be, all my life long, is religiously orthodox and culturally conservative, and politically liberal, and economically pragmatic. That was my quadrilateral.

Religiously orthodox - That you're entrenched and faithfully observant in a real tradition to which you are obedient. You're not making it up as you go along. You're not in some kind of spiritual self-construction project.

Culturally conservative - a great respect for the possibility that your grandparents were as intelligent as you are, and a great respect for the achievements of Western civilization, intellectual, literary, artistic. I think I had to tell myself that because I was a very rebellious and radical and iconoclastic person by inclination, so I knew that I had to discipline myself to respect that which is deserving of respect, and to be formed by it, and to become a better person as a consequence.

Politically liberal, for me, at that time, meant -- was exemplified, above all, by Martin Luther King, Jr., who I knew fairly well. I got to know him personally through a number of odd connections. Politically liberal meant a sense of the excitement of the American experiment, of democracy, of its unrealized possibilities, but realizable -- at least, more realizable than they had been to that date. It meant ever-expanding the definition of the human community, for which we accept responsibility, and whose dignity we respect. And, of course, that has everything to do with desegregation and race.

Later in my life, the same political liberalism led me to take a very, very strong position with respect to protection of the unborn and the whole issue of abortion. ... one of the most decisive and, in my judgment, tragic things that has happened in American life is that the liberal flag got planted on the wrong side of the abortion debate.

Economically pragmatic - That is, in those days, being a person on the left, as I was, involved in the civil rights movement and then, later, I was the co-founder with Father Dan Berrigan and the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we were the first co-chairmen of Clergy Concerned about Vietnam, which became, then, the main religiously based anti-Vietnam War issue organization. In that world, and that's why economically pragmatic was important, it was almost de rigueur to be a Socialist of one sort or another. And I was never persuaded of Socialism, whether in theory or in practice, whether in its hardcore Marxist form or in its Democratic Socialist forms.

So, those were the four. That was my quadrilateral, and that is my quadrilateral. And the main thing that's changed, and the reason I'm called a neo-conservative, is in the definition of liberalism. And the main thing -- there are many, many other facets -- but if there is any one thing that changed the definition of liberalism in America, it was designating the pro-abortion position as the liberal position.

It could have gone the other way. We saw that, for example, in Dr. King, to some extent, although he never addressed it in a full way. But then later, with Jesse Jackson, in the first few years after Dr. King's death. He was an eloquent pro-life spokesman, and persistently said, in protection of the unborn, that we have replaced the war on poverty with the war against poor people, and especially the most defenseless. And I think that was the right intuition. It could have gone that way.

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Date Added: 1/13/2009 Date Revised: 1/18/2009

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