Neuhaus' Times

Richard Neuhaus and Wm. Buckley TV

From the late 1960s on, Richard Neuhaus appeared on television to discuss his political and theological views.  Here he appears on Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. in the mid-1980s.

Amid all of this activity, Neuhaus met Michael Novak, another public intellectual whose work would become associated with his own in the future.  He also became involved with the Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) a group of Protestants, Catholics and Jews opposing the war.  He attended the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago on behalf of CALCAV and as a delegate for Eugene McCarthy and against the eventual nominee, Hubert Humphrey, who had Lyndon Johnson’s stamp of approval.  The convention ended up being a critical moment for Neuhaus.  Neuhaus, who replaced the ailing theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in addressing the party’s national committee on behalf of conscientious draft resisters and army deserters.  He argued that the Democratic Party should adopt amnesty for these dissenters in its platform.  The requested was declined.  Reflecting the general atmosphere of tension and anger at the convention, Neuhaus found himself shepherding the author Norman Mailer to his hotel room after Mailer had tried to punch a police officer.  He himself was physically removed from the convention floor during an argument over a delegate’s credentials.  When he led a peace march across a line he’d been warned by police not to cross, he was arrested and spent a night in jail.  He was charged with disorderly conduct as a result.[1]              

The combination of events in Chicago that summer demoralized Neuhaus.  At the close of the summer, he went to visit his friend, the Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger, with whom he would later co-author or co-edit several books.   At this time, Neuhaus’ lifelong friend, the scholar Robert Wilken, introduced him to Avery Dulles, the son of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.  Dulles, himself a convert to Catholicism, a member of the Jesuits, and later, a Cardinal, became good friends with Neuhaus and eventually served as Neuhaus’ seminary instructor when Neuhaus prepared for ordination as a Catholic priest in 1991.  Neuhaus continued his antiwar and civil rights activities, but his views were changing.   At an antiwar rally with Norman Thomas, the Presbyterian minister and six-time candidate for the Socialist Party of America, the two watched antiwar protesters burn an American flag.  Thomas commented that the object was not to “burn” the flag, but to “cleanse” it.[2]  He viewed his protest of the Vietnam War as patriotic. Flag burning came to seem to him less patriotic than anti-American.  In fact, Neuhaus was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the American political left’s activities by the late 1960s and early 1970s.              

Berger and Neuhaus published their book Movement and Revolution in 1970. Though Neuhaus was on his way to becoming a political conservative, he took the position of the radical in the book, while Berger took the position of the conservative.   Neuhaus unsuccessfully ran for a house Congressional seat representing Brooklyn in 1970.  He ran as an anti-Vietnam War/pro-peace radical Democrat.  He later claimed the run was “a fit of vocational absentmindedness.”[3]  

Both Movement and Revolution and his run for Congress established Neuhaus as a radical liberal Democrat, but this was soon to change.   With the January 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, Neuhaus began to see his belief in the rights of the unborn on par with his commitment to the poor and racially oppressed, as biographer Randy Boyagoda notes.[4]  Indeed, this would eventually become a point on which he criticized Catholics whom he felt were not strenuous enough in their opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision. 

By the early 1970s, Neuhaus became increasingly engaged in public intellectual life, becoming associate editor of Worldview magazine, a monthly of the Carnegie-endowed Council on Religion and International Affairs.  He had traveled to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, and had formed opinions on global affairs that would find their way into his voluminous writings.  Between 1970 and his death in 2009, Neuhaus authored, co-authored and edited more than two dozen books and published hundreds if not thousands of articles.

Neuhaus fully broke with Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam in 1974 over many of his fellow clergy’s refusal to condemn the new Communist government in Vietnam due to its human rights abuses. He had been heavily involved with the group’s activities and when he abandoned the group he began to recast his political views. 

[1] Boyagoda, Richard Neuhaus, 128-130.

[2] Boyagoda, Richard Neuhaus, 134.

[3] Boyagoda, Richard Neuhaus, 154.

[4] Boyagoda, Richard Neuhaus, 163.

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