Richard John Neuhaus, perhaps the most important and influential religious intellectual in the United States since the passing of Reinhold Niebuhr, died last night. A Canadian by birth, he was a Lutheran pastor who came to the United States and served as the minister of a congregation in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. A liberal in the model of Niebuhr, Neuhaus found himself migrating rightward once the Supreme Court inaugurated the age of abortion on demand with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. In 1984, he wrote the book for which he will be remembered, The Naked Public Square — a concise masterpiece about the role of religion in a democracy and the danger posed to a democratic society in the notion that public life should be effectively atheistic.
He was ever a man of principle. As an official of the Rockford Institute, he could not hold his silence when the magazine published by that institute, Chronicles, began running barely veiled anti-Semitic work (much of it aimed at COMMENTARY and his contributors). His breach with Rockford led to the creation of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and the creation of First Things, the brilliant monthly he edited and then supervised until his passing. At the same time, he completed his own religious journey when he converted to Catholicism and became a priest of the church and an intimate of Pope John Paul II.
His conviction that abortion was the great crime of the age and his disgust with the American system’s failure to expunge the crime led to the most controversial act of his editorship, the publication of a symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?” in which he and other participants flirted with the notion that the United States had lost its legitimacy. COMMENTARY’s editors responded in part with a symposium entitled “On the Future of Conservatism,” in which various contributors argued heatedly against what they perceived to be an unacceptable radicalization of conservative discourse.
The breach was never fully healed, and yet, through it all, there was Richard, a man of great personal good cheer and bonhomie, always in possession of a terrific piece of gossip he always knew exactly when and how to drop in order to cause the biggest commotion, who somehow found the time to crank out thousands of words a month while jetting back and forth from Rome, engaging in plots and subplots and side bets. He was an exemplar of the truism that a righteous man need not be or conduct himself as though he were holier-than-thou. But in the end, his work was his life, and whether he was ministering to fatherless youths in Brooklyn or offering his considered and always highly informed opinion on the matter of stem-cell research, Richard John Neuhaus did what he did and said what he said for the betterment of humankind and for the greater glory of God.