Even Damon Linker likes this book. His online review describes it as “an admirably balanced and carefully researched biography.” That is no small praise from someone who does not come off looking very good in Randy Boygoda’s lengthy biography of Richard John Neuhaus. After serving for five years on the editorial staff of First Things, Linker left the magazine, ostensibly over a disagreement with chief editor Neuhaus’s strong support for the Iraq war. Subsequently Linker wrote a book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Seige, which depicts Neuhaus as leading a movement to reshape American life into a right-wing theocracy. Boyagoda, a Canadian writer and novelist, rightly sees this as a gross misrepresentation.
Not that Boyagoda rejects all criticism of his subject. Even those of us who count ourselves as friends and intellectual compatriots will nod knowingly at Boyagoda’s portrait of a headstrong leader who never quite lost the “cocky, clever preacher’s kid” demeanor of his youth, and who all too frequently engaged in “caustic and clever put-downs.” Some of the book’s most poignant stories are about how these traits sometimes resulted in wounded friendships and strained relationships with family. Boyagoda gives much attention, for example, to lifelong tensions between Neuhaus and his father, a conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor in Ontario, Canada. All too often, his adult life included temporary disruptions in friendships, and in some cases permanent breaks.
This is certainly a “warts and all” biography, but Boyagoda’s Neuhaus still emerges as a brilliant, complex leader of deep principles. And he was a person of fairly consistent ...1