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Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Rev. Richard John Neuhaus shows how the preacher went from a liberal Lutheran to a neo-conservative Catholic over his life time.

Alex Wong

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
Randy Boyagoda
459 pages

On March 23, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a country on the precipice of a ferocious civil war, preached a sermon calling on soldiers to remember their duty to God and not violate the human rights of civilians, even if ordered to by the authorities. The next day, while celebrating mass at a small hospital chapel, the gentle, bespectacled 62-year-old cleric was shot dead by an assassin hired by a right-wing death squad. By some accounts, Romero's blood splattered on the consecrated host.

Romero, who championed the poor and spoke out against torture, is one model of a politically committed Christian. Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, whose dramatic life is amply chronicled in a spirited and rewarding new biography by Canadian novelist Randy Boyagoda, cries out for comparisons with his Salvadoran counterpart. When he was young, as a vocal advocate for civil rights and anti-war politics, Neuhaus was on the path to becoming an American Romero. But Neuhaus's pilgrim's progress was rich in political and religious conversions and his ultimate fate was to be the anti-Romero.

Neuhaus was born in Pembroke, Ont., in 1936, the seventh of eight children in a devoutly Lutheran household. Clemens Neuhaus, the patriarch of this rambunctious clan, was a Lutheran pastor and young Richard found a way to both follow his father's footsteps and rebel at the same time. Historically, Lutherans, such as Clemens Neuhaus, were apolitical verging on conservative, giving their wholehearted obedience to the state unless ordered to go against God's law.

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Studying for the ministry in the 1950s, Richard John Neuhaus embraced more modern ideas: In a democracy, he believed, Christians should not just obey Caesar but bring their beliefs to bear on policy. He was also eager to move outside the Lutheran cultural ghetto and ecumenically work with Jews and Catholics (his particular brand of Lutheranism was very high-church in any case, as close as possible to Catholicism). As a Lutheran cleric he could marry but he took a voluntary vow of chastity so he could devote his life to the people of God.

In 1961, Neuhaus became the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, a poverty-stricken church in prehipster Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Most of his congregation were black or Hispanic. Charismatic, handsome, eloquent, full of zeal to preach but also able to listen, Neuhaus revitalized the church, which served as his home base as he emerged as an outspoken voice for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.

From the start, Neuhaus was a politically ambitious padre, a holy hustler, a man of God who always had a keen eye for self-promotion. He was a shameless name-dropper, who made it sound like he and Martin Luther King Jr. were bosom buddies (as Boyagoda makes clear, the two men were more acquaintances than friends). He went on chaste but dreamy coffee dates with protest singer Joan Baez and shared a jail cell with novelist Norman Mailer.

Amid the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, Neuhaus flirted with the rhetoric of revolution. But after the end of the Vietnam War, he started to move sharply to the right, developing a special hatred for the "liberation theology" preached by Romero and other Latin American Catholics. After Romero's assassination, both the government of El Salvador and its allies in Washington had a huge public-relations problem; murdering an archbishop does raise eyebrows.

In 1981, Neuhaus offered his aid to the powers-that-be by helping found the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which organized a rally to support the Reagan administration's policy of arming the Salvadoran military. In trying to crush liberation theology, Neuhaus worked hand in hand with some of the most sinister figures in American public life at the time, notably UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and State Department bureaucrat Elliott Abrams.

In 1980, three Maryknoll nuns and a lay missionary were raped and shot by members of the National Guard of El Salvador. Kirkpatrick chose that moment to blame the victims, saying that the raped and murdered women "were not just nuns, they were political activists." Testifying before Congress in 1982, Abrams declared that Roberto D'Aubuisson, the death-squad leader who almost certainly ordered Romero's assassination, was not an extremist and deserved to participate in Salvadoran politics. Abrams also worked overtime to help cover up the 1981 El Mozote Massacre, when U.S.-armed and trained Salvadoran soldiers killed more than 800 civilians. Neuhaus would later praise Abrams for his "deep, almost quasi-religious devotion to democracy."

In 1989, Neuhaus condemned a church-sponsored movie honouring Romero, saying "I think it is a grievous error to identify the Christian message, the gospel, with any ideological, political or economic program." This complaint is especially hypocritical because, as Boyagoda shows, from 1984 onward Neuhaus pushed a highly partisan version of Christianity, one that lined up with the right-wing of the Republican Party.

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Neuhaus formally converted to Catholicism in 1990 and soon thereafter was ordained a priest. But when religion and politics clashed, Neuhaus chose politics. His true devotion was to the U.S. right, not to the Vatican. As Boyagoda reveals, Neuhaus had grave private misgivings about the prudence of the U.S. war in Iraq launched in 2003. But publicly, he was a cheerleader for President George W. Bush's foreign policy. Toeing the Republican party line seems to have mattered more to Neuhaus than bearing witness to the life and words of Christ.

In the pages of the journal First Things, which he founded in 1990, Neuhaus tailored his Christianity to match GOP dogma, often wilfully ignoring mainstream Christian theology and even the plain meaning of the gospels. His was a faith focused on criticizing reproductive freedom, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights while also arguing for the merits of two-fisted capitalism and U.S. global hegemony. "Capitalism is the economic corollary of the Christian understanding of man's nature and destiny," he grandly declared.

Neuhaus's embrace of big business was perhaps connected to the fact that he gave up doing pastoral work among the poor in the early 1970s, and in the last decades of his life received the vast majority of his financial support from right-wing billionaires, who lavishly endowed Neuhaus's career as a public intellectual. Neuhaus was personally ascetic – needing only $300 a month to keep stocked in bourbon and cigars – but his various think tanks and journals required plutocratic patronage.

Boyagoda is perhaps the ideal biographer for Neuhaus. Boyagoda shares many, although not all, of Neuhaus's conservative Catholic ideas, but is honest enough to give space to critics. Neuhaus was a hugely influential figure, and Boyagoda tells his story with novelistic empathy and narrative panache. To be sure, Boyagoda occasionally flinches from retelling some of the more unsavoury aspects of Neuhaus's career. A full understanding of Neuhaus's alignment with Ronald Reagan's foreign policy in Central America requires supplemental texts.

Strangely, some of the book's most fascinating details are relegated to the endnotes. It's only there, for instance, that readers are told that Neuhaus offered a "robust defense" of the pedeophile Rev. Marcial Maciel. Neuhaus stated that "for a moral certainty" he knew the charges against Maciel were false. (Maciel was later removed from public ministry by the Vatican, which resulted in Neuhaus writing a retraction that Boyagoda describes as containing "far too much convoluted self-justification for his earlier claim and rhetorical qualifications about the [Holy Office's] decision." There's also a fairly horrifying story about Neuhaus's parents. "When a black pastor from Chicago came through Pembroke earlier in the 1950s, Clem and Ella had no choice but to put him up but took certain measures: Ella chose to eat in the kitchen the night he came to dinner, and after the pastor left the next morning, Clem ordered the bedsheets washed – immediately." Finally, most of the substantial discussion about Neuhaus's private doubts about the war in Iraq are found only in the endnotes. This is all material Boyagoda should have included in the proper text.

As a Catholic neo-conservative, Neuhaus found powerful friends in the Vatican and the White House, with both popes and presidents attending to his word. Given his lust for power, Neuhaus revelled in his ability to sway the powerful. "The United States is the dominant power – economic, cultural, and perhaps military – in the world today," Neuhaus chortled in 1987. "Rome and the United States are the central influences in the global church today." If Rome and Washington embodied power in this world, Neuhaus was uniquely positioned to serve as an unofficial liaison agent between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar.

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Even though both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were interested in Neuhaus's ideas, they blanched at his crass celebrations of unbridled capitalism and raw military force. With the election of Pope Francis in 2013, just four years after Neuhaus's death in 2009, the dream of a neo-conservative Church has suffered a mortal wound. Francis has worked hard to restore those aspects of the Catholic message that are impossible to square with complacent celebrations of capitalism, notably a concern for the environment and global poverty.

Earlier this month, Francis declared Oscar Romero to be "a martyr," thus setting the path for the murdered archbishop's beatification. Sooner or later, Romero will be recognized as an official Catholic saint. The inevitable question arises: If Romero deserves canonization, then doesn't Richard John Neuhaus deserve condemnation?

Jeet Heer's most recent book is Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles.

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