The Neuhaus Legacy and Lutherans

[1] Richard John Neuhaus was a Lutheran for most of his 72 years. He was a Lutheran pastor longer than he was a Roman Catholic priest. He wrote his most widely discussed book while he was a Lutheran. After becoming a Roman Catholic in 1990, the piety and theology he absorbed as a Lutheran continued to be a living and lively presence in his life and writings. Neuhaus represents, among other things, a remarkable Lutheran contribution to church and society. He is arguably the most significant and most interesting public theologian who has come out of Lutheranism in America.


[2] The hundreds of obituaries, tributes, and commentaries in newspapers, magazines, and blogs testify to Neuhaus’s influence in and beyond the church.[1] A common story line in the obituaries speaks of changes in his life, from being a Canadian to an American citizen, from liberalism to neo-conservatism, and from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism. He is described as a Roman Catholic priest, a scholar activist, and editor of First Things, who has written (or edited) 30 books, countless articles and the popular monthly “The Public Square” in First Things. He is remembered for introducing the term “the naked public square” into public discourse with his 1984 book with that title as well as for giving intellectual depth and power to the pro-life movement.


[3] His friends and admirers, and even those who were not, write of Neuhaus’ lucidity, eloquence, wit, wisdom, coherence and brilliance. They are amazed how much he read and how much he wrote and the breadth of his interests. He is recognized as one who was a superb communicator—in writings, lectures, sermons, as a seminar leader and in conversation. No one doubts that he was polemical, “a happy warrior,” as one person described him, whose sharper edges perhaps soften a bit in later years. A close friend and coworker (Joseph Bottum) could tease him about his “ostentatious humility,” and an ethicist (Max Stackhouse) remarked that “he was not poverty-stricken when it came to confidence.”[2] When those who have worked with and learned from him place him in historical perspective, the company they name is impressive: Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, S.J., Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Cardinal John Newman, and G. K. Chesterton. Yet for many who knew him personally, he was more than a public intellectual; he was above all a disciple of Christ, or a preacher or a pastor of souls or a friend or a wonderful conversationalist or “a wise and kind man, whose social and political activism was not a ‘substitute for religion’" (Michael Cromartie).[3]


[4] In sports jargon, Neuhaus came to play. Bold, energetic and creative, he did not fit the Lutheran stereotype of laid-backness. Neuhaus was always in the thick of things. For more than forty years, beginning as a young pastor at St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, he spoke out clearly and thoughtfully on major issues of the day, assumed leadership in organizations and movements and created new vehicles (institutes, journals, seminars, declarations and statements) to influence church and society. He believed faith-based convictions should be heard in the public square, and he contributed his fair share of such convictions on issues—to name a very few—such as civil rights, the Vietnam war, revolution, the environment, democratic capitalism and socialisms, religious freedom, secularization, Christianity and the American experiment, Christians and Jews, Muslims, poverty, euthanasia, genetics, and Evangelicals and Catholics. Although he never received a Ph.D., he did not shy away from taking on intellectual stars, including philosophers such as John Rawls, Richard Rorty and Peter Singer, or for arguing that Dostoyevsky is the world’s greatest novelist. He came to play—often with humor, satire, and playfulness. Give thanks to God for Richard John Neuhaus.


[5] Neuhaus’ relationship with Lutheranism was certainly complex and controversial. He was formed in and gave voice to a particular strain—evangelical catholic—of Lutheranism, which other confessional Lutherans and Lutheran liberal Protestants did not much appreciate. He was dropped from or left two Lutheran bodies and throughout his life he remained a forceful critic of Lutheran church leadership and tendencies. His criticisms were not always fair or gentle. His leaving the ELCA was not for all a time of remorse. Also, some felt disappointed and also anger in what they felt was his betrayal of his early liberalism for a conservative cultural and political posture. While some Lutherans eagerly read his books and articles, others shunned or disregarded him and his work, apparently finding them beyond the pale of acceptable Christian theology and ethics.


[6] I doubt whether Lutheran theologians, ethicists, pastors and others who have to a certain degree followed Neuhaus’ career will drastically change their view of him. My hope is that a younger generation of Lutherans will be given opportunity to take a fresh look at the Neuhaus legacy. My fear is that it will be ignored by (not all) Lutherans. His legacy will be studied, appraised and valued by Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, historians of American religion and others. Let me mention four reasons why I think that Lutherans should also participate in this process both for what we can contribute and for our own edification.


[7] Neuhaus was an original in the Lutheran tradition in the United States. No one before him (or since) combined the roles of pastor, activist and public intellectual in such a provocative and influential way. How, Lutherans need ask, did such a person emerge from a supposedly quietist tradition? Why did Lutheranism not provide a lasting home for him? In a recent article, Neuhaus described the goal of much of his work this way: “A renewal of Christian confidence in providing a morally informed philosophy for a more just and virtuous society in the tradition of liberal democracy.”[4] This ambitious project goes well beyond what earlier Lutheran generations imagined their social responsibility to be. His many-sided explorations in this project incorporated key Lutheran elements, along with influences from other Christian traditions. A convincing public theology arising out of American Lutheranism’s future will need to take Neuhaus’ legacy into account.


[8] Neuhaus’ legacy also provides an excellent window for viewing the changing religious scene in the United States since the mid 1960s. With the quantity of his writings and their contextual nature, one might want to sympathize with his biographer, if there be one that dares take on the task, but his life and work offer a rich source for understanding the last forty plus years. Neuhaus offered ongoing commentary on ideas, tendencies and events during these turbulent years, recalled personal encounters with important figures and reflected on the books and lives of others who shaped religious life. As editor he attracted highly gifted persons to write on religion in society for his journals. His is not of course the only window, but it is an essential one that illumines vital aspects on how American life got to be what it is in the beginning of the twenty-first century.


[9] Neuhaus deserves attention from Lutherans because his public theology was shaped by and deftly illustrated Paul’s two ages, Augustine’s two cities and Luther’s two kingdoms. He was not always an advocate of the “teaching of the two.” In an article for The Christian Century in 1990 on “How My Mind Has Changed,” Neuhaus wrote. “Twenty-five years ago I criticized the Lutheran ‘two kingdoms’ concept because it denied redemptive significance to politics. Now I embrace it as one of the best ways, if not the best way, of avoiding the perilous confusion and fatal conflation of the City of God and the City of Man.”[5] This change was a significant one, and it is one he continued to affirm in his Roman Catholic period, including in his final book to be published later this year. Eschatology, the promise of the kingdom of God, consistently molded his theology. “Here we have no abiding city” (Hebrews 13:14) he was fond of quoting, for our destiny is the City of God. In the mean time, Neuhaus taught, Christians, as pilgrims or perhaps as exiles, are called to work with others to seek justice in Augustine’s earthly city. Until the kingdom comes, Christians will struggle with what it means to live in two ages, in two cities, under God’s two-fold rule. Lutherans will do well to learn positive and negative lessons from Neuhaus’ arguments for the two kingdoms as well as from his use of the teaching in the changing circumstances he faced.


[10] Finally, the Neuhaus legacy should be valued by Lutherans because it is so strongly Christocentric. It is Christocentric because it is Theocentric and Theocentric because it is Christocentric, as Trinitarians confess, but hardly to be taken for granted in our day. Lutherans for some time to come—who may or may not agree with many of his political judgments—can appreciate and be instructed by one who proclaimed so well the good news of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. Even as a Roman Catholic Neuhaus affirmed justification by faith alone, saying as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, that we are saved by faith alone but faith is never alone but always accompanied by love.[6] A passage in Death on a Friday Afternoon,[7] cited in more than one tribute to him, speaks of his confidence in Jesus Christ:

When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of “justification by faith alone,” although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways—these and all other gifts received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry into that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone.

Then I hope to hear him say, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” as I hope with all my being—because, although looking to him alone, I am not alone—and he will say to all.


[11] May it so be.


[1] has links to a number of obituaries and tributes. A Google news search of “Neuhaus death” will also bring up obituaries about and tributes to him.


[2] Bottum’s remark comes from a television interview and can be found at The Stackhouse quote comes from the New York Times’ obituary, January 9, 2009 ( Stackhouse’s full quote is: “He was not poverty-stricken when it came to confidence, and he did a lot of his homework and made judgments and felt very secure in them. He did enjoy controversy.”


[3] Cromartie’s comments are found in a tribute in Time magazine ( He is also the source for the “happy warrior” comment above. The fuller context for that comment is: “He always insisted that the true meaning of politics could not be grasped apart from the understanding that there are more important things. That is how he was able to be such a happy warrior, and a generous and loving one at that.”


[4] “Attending to the Business that Is Ours,” A Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology. A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Benne, ed. by Michael Shahan (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans), 47.


[5] “Religion and Public Life: The Continuing Conversation,” Christian Century (July 11-18, 1990), 671.


[6] Neuhaus writes on the relationship of faith and love in his last “The Public Square” under the title “On Loving the Law of God.” First Things, 190 (February 2009), 61-64. Bonhoeffer writes on the relationship in “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 147-148.


[7] Death on a Friday Afternoon: Mediations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 70.


© February 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 2