Father Richard John Neuhaus

Remembering the theologian.

Richard John Neuhaus

As the title of his journal First Things suggests, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, who died Thursday, wrestled with the intellectual questions that a fast-paced, consumer-driven, polymorphous culture like ours tends to ignore—at its peril. Neuhaus’ career was dedicated to the twin propositions that the moral vigor of a democracy is essential for it to flourish, and that Christian churches play a unique role in that flourishing.

Neuhaus converted twice, once in his politics and once in his faith. Both conversions involved the most genuinely original contributions of his life. One failed and shouldn’t have; the other succeeded and shouldn’t have. His switch from left to right was prompted largely by the left’s failure to acknowledge what he perceived as the racial aspect of the effort to liberalize abortion laws. After converting to Catholicism, he tried to forge an alliance between Catholics and evangelicals, an alliance that served only to feed the impression that religion could be reduced to ethics.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Neuhaus was a pastor at St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church and a leading figure in the civil rights and anti-war movements. His church served a mostly black community, and he realized that those who claimed to be their champions often did not share their views or values. In a November 1972 article in Commonweal, written before Roe v. Wade was decided, he analyzed polling data that showed blacks were disproportionately opposed to legalized abortion. Neuhaus’ argument, though, was not merely about representing African-Americans’ views. He knew his black congregants were largely poor and that it was the poor who would face pressure to have abortions. If a family could not afford a child, he thought, our society needed to address the family’s poverty, not encourage them to have fewer children. In his largely overlooked 1971 book In Defense of People, he highlighted what he saw as the moral absurdities of some of his liberal confreres: “[O]ne frequently encounters in the same person an awesome veneration for apparently marginal forms of plant and animal life and an almost fanatical determination to belittle any sense of mystery about human gestation.”

Neuhaus was convinced that the movement to liberalize abortion laws had not shed its eugenicist and racist roots. The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, had warned about “the rapid increase of the feebleminded, of criminal types and of the pathetic victims of toil in the child labor factories” and praised the writings of those who advocated forced sterilization. A photograph of her addressing a Ku Klux Klan rally in the early 1920s only confirmed Neuhaus’ suspicions that there was a racist element to her agenda.

The relationship of poverty to abortion remains vexing, as does that of poverty and race. If you want to guess how a woman will respond to an unplanned pregnancy, the most determinative piece of information is how much money her family makes. And while white women account for 34 percent of abortions in America, black women account for an astounding 37 percent. It will be interesting to see how President-elect Obama grapples with the racial dimension of the abortion debate when, and if, he seeks to follow through on his repeated pledge to try to reduce the abortion rate.

After his conversion to Catholicism in 1990, Neuhaus tried to forge an alliance with evangelicals to address shared areas of moral concern. The effort caught the attention of, among others, Karl Rove, and the GOP improved its share of the Catholic vote in both 2000 and 2004. That effort was misguided from the start, and Neuhaus should have known better. He once wrote, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” But to Catholics, evangelicals are not orthodox and vice-versa, and the differences are not small. Catholic social doctrine, including opposition to abortion, is rooted in a dogmatic belief in human dignity. Evangelical political theology is rooted in Calvin’s belief in human depravity. Both groups may oppose abortion, but their approaches to the role of religion in society are vastly different.

When religion is reduced to ethics, the church is permitted to enter the public square under the guise of a moral authority. But once you sever the link between the central animating dogmas of faith and the moral teachings that flow from there, you invite a cheap moralism, a religion of external conformity to prescribed norms rather than an internal assent of faith. You are a Christian if you believe certain things about events on a hillside in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It is that belief that has inspired believers and generated culture. Just last September, Pope Benedict XVI said that Christianity “is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality. We are only Christians if we encounter Christ.” Neuhaus knew this, but he never found a way to translate it politically.

Neuhaus was a man of great faith. He argued correctly that the church should have a place in the public square of American culture, but he did not realize the dangers of accepting the terms of entry to that square offered by his political friends. President Bush called Neuhaus his “favorite evangelical,” but that sobriquet should not be permitted to follow him into the grave. Richard John Neuhaus was possessed of a fine mind and a prolific pen. He perceived intellectual difficulties where others did not. He was not afraid to leave his ideological and denominational homes when he felt conscience required it. For all of my disagreements with him, I cannot help but think that the intellectual life of American Catholicism has suffered a great loss.