Book Review: Richard John Neuhaus: A Life In The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life In The Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Image Press, in exchange for an honest review.]

It seems at times that I have an alarming gift for finding books about people with whom I share startling similarities [1]. This book is another of that kind, a somewhat lengthy (400 pages or so of core material) and friendly but critical account of a man with a startlingly prolific life. Raised in Ontario by German-American Lutherans, he was early on a very serious young man about faith, a bookish young man with a willingness to criticize his teachers when he was better informed than they were, a bit of a troublemaker whose exploits included a love for plays and panty raids on visiting coeds, which led him to be expelled from his first preparatory school. Throughout his life he was a fierce public intellectual with deeply nuanced political views that were frequently misunderstood from his days as a young radical opponent to Vietnam and proponent of Civil Rights to his decades of being caricatured as a theocracy-supporting neoconservative, and one of America’s most famous converts to Catholicism, all the while being a prolific writer with a difficulty in finding a secure place to pursue his diverse interests in writing and political action, which he eventually found as the editor-in-chief for First Things.

This book covers the entire span of a dramatic life, written from a favorable but by no means uncritical perspective. In reading this story of a life, I shudder at the ways that a similar biographer would handle my own life given his commentary of the subject’s penchant for namedropping, monopolizing conversations with witty and incisive and often long-winded monologues, tendency to be involved in trouble with authority and continual debates and fights provoked by a misunderstanding of his somewhat overheated and exuberant rhetoric. The book takes a chronological view that looks at the whole span of the author’s life, including a great deal of interview material and a close understanding of the author’s own staggeringly prolific writing output. What the book shows about the worthy and intriguing life of Mr. Neuhaus is that despite the twists and turns of his religious belief and political ideology, he had some very consistent and long-held views about the importance of human dignity, whether that was for blacks oppressed in Jim Crow days or unborn children subject to legal murder by their mothers. It is an interesting account of a man who served as a node for urban conservatism with a strong interest in political and religious ecumenical efforts, as well as witty and pointed putdowns of his opponents and rivals.

Besides offering an expansive view of an influential and complicated life, this book offers some very intriguing points about religion itself. For one, the book echoes the subject in appealing for an honest acceptance of the role of religion in American political life, pointing out that religion cannot help but be involved in political matters, and so it must be best determined, with a firm awareness of the delicacy involved, how religion is to be involved in informing political behavior. For another, the book demonstrates the tension between a public intellectual as a participant in matters of cultural, religious, and political importance as well as a detached critic of those same matters, as well as the goal of Catholicism in leading to a healing of the breech between Rome and its wayward daughters of the Protestant Reformation through a return to roots and an acceptance of the primacy of Rome. Neuhaus was a prominent intellectual in those efforts, which are ongoing today. Whether one is to cheer or feel concern about these efforts depends largely on where one stands. At any rate, while there is much I disagree about the Catholicism of Richard Neuhaus, I concur with the author of this book that it is a life well worth studying and examining, if critically.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: Richard John Neuhaus: A Life In The Public Square

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Great Men Bow Down | Edge Induced Cohesion

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