Richard John Neuhaus has passed away at 72, a great loss for the church, for America, and for the cause of freedom. The obits covered his storied career, his work with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., his influential books such as The Naked Public Square, his editorship of First Things, and his conversion to Catholicism. These may not give many readers a full sense of the man, whom I knew just a little.
He reviewed favorably my book, The Generation That Knew Not Josef, about the American evangelical left and its infatuation with communist regimes and their militant rulers. I compared the evangelical left to an earlier generation of political pilgrims, people such as Anna Louise Strong, who had been infatuated with the Soviet regime in general and Josef Stalin in particular. Some Stalinist acolytes, Arthur Koestler, Louis Fischer and others, saw the light and wrote about it in The God that Failed, but the evangelical left seemed woefully unaware of them.
They framed their activism as support for the poor, but this turned out to be the “interesting poor,” only those through whose plight the United States and capitalism could be denounced. Chinese suffering through state-imposed famine, impoverished Cubans fleeing a communist regime, or the Vietnamese boat people, were not very interesting to the evangelical left. In fact, Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine charged that the boat people had been inoculated with a taste for a Western lifestyle and were only fleeing to support their consumer habit in other lands.
This was during the 1980s when the “religious right” got most of the press. Richard John Neuhaus, still a Lutheran pastor at that point, approved of my distinction between the interesting and uninteresting poor. He also disapproved of communism, Fidel Castro, the Sandinistas, and said that Ronald Reagan’s description of the USSR as an “evil empire” was fully accurate. Like Michael Novak, Neuhaus backed democratic capitalism not as the kingdom of heaven on earth, but as a system in which human rights, prosperity and freedom could thrive. For being less than worshipful of the evangelical left, and critical of Marxist juntas such as the FSLN in Nicaragua, Jim Wallis charged Neuhaus with being an intellectual assassin on behalf of wealth and power.
Then-pastor Neuhaus came to southern California and I went to meet him for the first time. By way of introduction I typed “intellectual assassin of wealth and power,” on a business card and handed it to him. His laugh shook the walls. He never let the raging issues of our time detract from his humanity or his humor.
When asked why he called his book The Naked Public Square, he explained that he had considered The Naked Catholic Bishops but Andrew Greeley had already taken that one. The public square, the church, and the world are emptier places without Richard John Neuhaus. May he rest in peace.