In 1937, when Whittaker Chambers left the party that had been his life - his robot existence - for so long, he told his wife and partner, Esther, “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.”
Yet he felt an almost unutterable elation, like that of a man who with his last gasp somehow breaks free of the watery depths and emerges to breathe free again. The same impulse that leads some men to join a parade, or even head it, will lead them at some point to go their own way, no matter what, and take the road less traveled. Or even see the futility of all parades.
Such men are given a kind of double vision, for they are now able to see not just what led them to break with their old comrades, but the fault lines that separate them from their new ones. Such a man was the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, and his own journey through ideas would give almost everything he would write an uncommon interest and authority. Another word for it is wisdom.
The young Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, minister of the social gospel, had been a rising star of the liberal firmament, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. There was no conventional liberal piety of the time, sound or flawed, that he did not embody. But soon enough he would begin drifting away from the winning side, or what appeared to be at the time.
Why did he switch? Maybe it was the appearance of a whole new system of racial and ethnic discrimination called affirmative action. Behind all its euphemisms, he realized, it was just a mirror image of the racial discrimination he had once marched against. Or maybe what turned him was Roe v. Wade, which was delivered in 1973 like a seductive overture to the coming culture of death. Maybe it was just the whole mounting edifice of Babel erected to cover a host of no longer morally sustainable positions. Maybe it was a loss of faith- in social panaceas. Or just the American left’s continuing offenses against both logic and language. For he preferred plain words - first things. And questions gnawed at him.
So he left the liberal ranks. But he remained the public intellectual he was fated to be. In 1984, his critique of the attempt to banish religious ideas from public discourse - indeed, from public view - was published. “The Naked Public Square” would become one of the more influential books of the time.
That same year, Father Neuhaus found a home - started one, actually - called the Center for Religion and Society as part of the Rockford Institute, a once-respected think tank. But his double vision persisted, and he could see where the organization’s publication, Chronicles, was headed even then in its rightward drift over the ideological falls into the dark waters below. He was preparing to leave when he - and his whole staff - were unceremoniously thrown out. To their great jubilation.
So it came to pass that in 1990, he would start his own magazine, with his own bright young group of acolytes and wry older contributors just as dissatisfied with the same thin gruel of perfectly sanitized, anesthetized, secularized ideas. Naturally it would be called First Things. His own indispensable back-of-the-book section, “The Public Square,” a monthly collection of and reflection on of the follies and insights of contemporary thought and the absence of same, would became indispensable reading.
Inevitably he would go from Lutheran minister to Catholic priest ordained by Cardinal John O’Connor in 1991. For him it was a natural development, a return to roots. Eventually he would become a public face of the church and compiler of a pope’s ideas on a subject dear - indeed, essential - to him: reverence for life. But his major contribution to American intellectual life remains his small magazine with no small ideas, whose vision far exceeds its circulation.
His death at 72 is a grievous blow, for the ideas and items in his monthly column of snippets had a way of percolating through the rest of American conservative thought.
In a kind of church-and-state division, First Things would become the spiritual version of William F. Buckley‘s National Review.
What a strange political arc he followed: What other leading American intellectual would be a Eugene McCarthy delegate to the riotous Democratic Convention in 1968 and, 40 years later in 2008, an adviser to George W. Bush?
A friend was saying the other day that what American conservatism needs is another Buckley. Now it will need another Neuhaus, too. Yet both leave behind new voices. One thinks of Joseph Bottom, who took over as editor of First Things as Father Neuhaus grew frail only physically. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus’ influence and saving instinct, particularly for criticizing any kind of crowd mentality, even the one that celebrated him, remains strong, waiting to be strengthened again.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.