Randy BOYAGODA. Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. New York: Image, 2015. pp. 459 + xix. $30.00 hb; $14.99 eb. ISBN 978-0-307-95396-4. Reviewed by Reid B. LOCKLIN, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, 81 St. Mary St., Toronto, ON CANADA M5S1J4.
The present work vividly illustrates what an odd and elusive genre is the biography. The nearly annual studies of Augustine or Abraham Lincoln unfold the depth, complexity and ultimate unreachability of figures who loom powerfully over the traditions that followed them. Biographies of lesser-known figures often bring out the social tapestries of particular places and times—such as late nineteenth-century Bengal, in the case of Julius Lipner’s portrait of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (OUP, 2002), or Canada in the period of Confederation, in the case of David Wilson’s two volumes on Thomas D’Arcy McGee (McGill-Queens UP, 2008, 2011). Richard John Neuhaus, it would seem, fits neither of these models. It reveals, instead, a novelist’s fascination with a larger than life, yet all too human religious and political personality.
Those looking for a hagiography or a sustained diatribe will be disappointed, which is good news for the rest of us. Boyagoda subdivides Neuhaus’s narrative sequentially, chronicling his childhood and education in Part I (1936-1990), his years as a Lutheran pastor and leader in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s in Part II (1961-74), his political shift to the right and foundation of First Things in Part III (1975-1990), and his conversion to Catholicism and emergence as a “Theocon,” a confidant to Pope John Paul II, and an advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush in Part IV (1990-2009). Relating an early conversion experience in boarding school, Boyagoda insists that it is important “to accept and understand the event as Neuhaus himself did” (47), and this works well as a hermeneutic principle for the book as a whole. Boyagoda keeps psychoanalysis to a minimum, and he refrains from rendering Neuhaus as emblematic of one or another aspect of American social or religious life. Instead, he offers a sympathetic account of the fundamental coherence of Neuhaus’s life story, understood more or less as Neuhaus understood it.
Importantly, though he grants and indeed intensifies the complexity of many aspects this story, Boyagoda does view it as a coherent narrative. He spends a good deal of space illustrating how Neuhaus’s pastoral sensibilities and engagement with Catholic and Jewish thought in his seminary days, which placed him on the theological left at Concordia-St. Louis, paved the way for his conversion to a right-leaning Catholicism some thirty years later. Boyagoda readily concedes the contingent character of Neuhaus’s political sympathies: certainly, Neuhaus was not the only public intellectual to drift from left to right in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, he also argues persuasively that each stage in this development was motivated by a consistent commitment to the public relevance of “Judeo-Christian religion” and critique of a privatized notion of secularism, articulated most clearly in Neuhaus’s 1984 work, The Naked Public Sphere (233). Finally, the biography does not neglect to bring out at least one further point of continuity in Neuhaus’s life story: his egoism, opportunism and insatiable self-promotion. Neuhaus’s vocation, Boyagoda wryly observes, emerged as an effort “to make a case for religion’s importance to American public life, which was just as often making a case for his own” (122).
If there is a flaw in the work, it may be its author’s mild infection by Neuhaus’s sense of his own importance. Neuhaus was at great pains to associate himself with truly great figures like John Courtney Murray, SJ, John Paul II and, earlier in life, Martin Luther King, Jr. Boyagoda notes that most of these claims were inflated; the association with King he describes as “overdetermined” (138). Yet, Boyagoda appears to adopt as his own flattering comparisons of Neuhaus not only to Murray, but also to John Henry Newman, Reinhold Niebuhr and Ralph Waldo Emerson (xviii). Such comparisons are, in my judgement, overdetermined. It is telling that, in a footnote, Boyagoda demonstrates the importance of The Naked Public Sphere by recourse to Google and JSTOR searches on the book and its title phrase (429). A comparable search reveals that, by these measures, Neuhaus barely keeps up with a Harvey Cox or a Talal Asad, and his influence pales by an order of magnitude in comparison with his sometimes collaborator Peter Berger or his fellow Canadian Charles Taylor. Time will tell, of course, but if Neuhaus’s thought is destined to transcend his own, highly partisan and polarized moment in U.S. history, there is little evidence to suggest this in Boyagoda’s account.
Such an observation, if correct, nevertheless speaks well of Boyagoda himself as a storyteller: despite his own ambitions for his subject, he remains true to his data and the deeply impressive, deeply flawed character of its main protagonist. The work belongs on the bookshelf of students of Catholic Studies or U.S. political history, as well as anyone who ever aspired to be a politically engaged Catholic in the waning years of the 20th century.