The Radical Conservative
How did the radical Neuhaus of the 1960s become the conservative icon of the 1990s and beyond? While there were important breaks along the way, Neuhaus never conceded any major upheaval in his own thinking. Rather, he argued, the rise of a militant secularism among cultural elite, and the evacuation of religious belief from public life and civic debate, had conspired to create a "naked public square," the title of his 1984 bestseller.
While never accepting the premise of a "Christian America," Neuhaus argued that the constitutional separation of church and state was meant to protect private practice but also enhance—not prohibit—the "free exercise" of religion in public life. The gravest moral and legal issues in American history, he maintained, from slavery to abortion, required the kind of conscientious engagement sanctioned by the church's understanding of itself as a community of witness. Moreover, our most cherished political principles—including the irreducible value of persons, free speech and religious liberty, resistance to tyranny, and respect for the rule of law—are all grounded in religiously informed beliefs. He came to see that the "moratorium on God" pushed by the secular Left would undermine, and eventually destroy, the American experiment in democracy. At the same time, Neuhaus believed in a public church, not a partisan church. As Abraham Lincoln often said, the question is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on his.
In 2005, Time magazine included Neuhaus in its list of America's 25 most influential evangelicals. By that time, Neuhaus had become a confidant and adviser to President George W. Bush, and was widely recognized as one of the most respected conservative voices in the country. This year, 2009, marks the 25th anniversary of The Naked Public Square. Though it has become a classic, it still remains a kind of manifesto for evangelical engagement with culture. Without Neuhaus and the movement that coalesced around him, it would be difficult to explain the activism of Chuck Colson and Rick Warren, the journalism of Michael Gerson, the networking of Michael Cromartie, the advocacy of James Dobson, or the social ethics of Richard Mouw (whose connection to Neuhaus goes back to "the Hartford Appeal" of 1975).
I first came to know Neuhaus in the early 1990s, when he and Colson gathered a team of theologians to form the project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Just as Neuhaus never considered his transition from radicalism to conservatism to be anything more than the outworking of basic principles of human rights, civil liberty, and moral concern, so, too, did he not consider his embrace of Catholicism a major leap in his journey of faith. He once wrote an essay titled "How I Became the Catholic I Was" (First Things, April 2002).
Though Richard would not like my putting it this way, he could just as well have written an essay on "How I Remain the Lutheran I Used to Be." I do not mean to question his devotion to the Catholic Church and the Pope, a devotion that was unbounded. But only a thinker so well grounded in the Reformation traditions could be an honest broker in bringing faithful evangelicals and believing Catholics to recognize the common source of their life together in Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and the great tradition of living faith through the centuries.