The Radical Conservative
T. S. Eliot described the art of writing as a "raid on the inarticulate." Neuhaus was a brilliant raider, and never wrote a boring sentence. His many books and essays, like those of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, will be studied for generations to come. His death in New York City at age 72 early this year marks the end of an era in America far more tellingly than the defeat of John McCain. And despite his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he remained one of the most influential "evangelicals" of the past 50 years.
Born Again and Again
But none of this was evident as "little Dickie Neuhaus," as he referred to his younger self, grew up in the Ottawa Valley of Ontario, Canada. His father was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, and he was duly baptized and catechized in that Reformation tradition. Though his life would take many turns and twists, he never lost the ecclesial identity he received as a young boy.
In his mid-teens, Neuhaus was sent to a church-related school in Nebraska, where he got into all kinds of trouble organizing beer parties and leading panty raids. After he was confined to his room for several weeks, one of his teachers stopped by to check on his spiritual well-being. The teacher said, "God is very disappointed with what you did, for he thinks so highly of you. But, because he loves you so much, he forgives you and will help you to be better." Neuhaus repented with tears and gave his life to Christ in what he would later describe as a "born-again experience."
Actually, this was only one of several conversions Neuhaus would undergo in what poet Anne Sexton called "the awful rowing toward God." More shenanigans got him expelled from another school in Texas, and he never finished high school. But, through sheer bravura and brilliance, he made it through college and ended up at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis.
There he came under the influence of a remarkable teacher, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, who taught his students to value the evangelical catholic heritage of Lutheranism. Piepkorn remained a Lutheran, but some of his most able students—Robert Wilken and Jaroslav Pelikan as well as Neuhaus—would eventually find their way to Rome or the East.
Fresh out of seminary, Neuhaus moved to New York City, where he became the pastor of a robust, largely African American congregation in Brooklyn. From his base at St. John the Evangelist Church (which he jokingly called "St. John the Mundane" as opposed to St. John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral in Morningside Heights), Neuhaus became deeply involved in the life of the city and the issues of the day.
Neuhaus became a leader in the movements for social reform and political change that convulsed America during the sixties. Deeply committed to civil rights, he marched in Selma with his friend Martin Luther King Jr. A peace activist, he cofounded Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Father Daniel Berrigan. A Eugene McCarthy delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he was arrested in the tumult of that infamous event.