The Catholic theologian who helped shape Bush’s policies

Richard John Neuhaus

The Catholic theologian who helped shape Bush’s policies

Richard John Neuhaus


Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, who died of cancer last week, was one of the seminal figures of the modern conservative Christian movement. A tireless advocate of family values, he forged ties between evangelical Protestants and Catholics that helped energize the Republican Party under President George W. Bush. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the country’s 25 most influential evangelicals.

A native of Pembroke, Ontario, Neuhaus was originally a liberal Lutheran, said The Wall Street Journal. After attending seminary, he became pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in the gritty Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Though its dwindling congregation inspired him to call it “St. John the Mundane,” he helped revitalize the parish by emphasizing activism. Neuhaus co-founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the civil-rights movement, and supported Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, getting himself arrested in the process. “Yet there were things about the young reverend that didn’t sit well with his allies on the left. He insisted that his draft-card burning parishioners sing ‘America the Beautiful’ during a 1967 protest, displayed the flag prominently, and was vocal in condemning abortion.”

Neuhaus’ growing conservatism accelerated in the wake of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared abortion a constitutional right, said The New York Times. Increasingly he argued for a religious role in civic affairs, while also “criticizing churches for speaking out on secular social issues without sufficient attention to faith and spirituality.” With other clergy he campaigned against the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches for “taking up a leftist approach to international affairs and cozying up to Marxist governments.” Neuhaus also founded the religious journal First Things and wrote or edited nearly 30 books. The most famous was The Naked Public Square (1984), which “argued that American democracy must not be stripped of religious morality.”

Neuhaus’ influence increased when he converted to Catholicism in 1990 and was ordained a priest by New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor the following year, said The Washington Post. In 1994, with Charles Colson, the former Watergate conspirator turned evangelist, he issued the declaration “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which “advocated the uniting of Catholics and evangelicals on a social agenda that included opposition to abortion and support for government funding of religious schools.” During the Clinton presidency, Neuhaus stood against same-sex marriage and likened “the legal right to abortion to state-sponsored murder under the Nazi regime.” His rhetoric won him many opponents and “offended many Jewish conservatives in particular.”

But it also made him “a hero among tradition-minded conservatives and Republican-leaning Christians,” said The Washington Times. Neuhaus soon became an important consultant to President Bush, helping him create the White House’s faith-based initiative policy and advising him on gay unions, abortion, and cloning. Neuhaus was also “among the religious figures credited with helping Bush craft his 2001 speech on embryonic stem-cell research, which said that no federal funds could support the research.” In interviews with religious publications, Bush cited the man he called “Father Richard” more than any other living authority.

Though the arc of Neuhaus’ 72 years was a broad trajectory from left to right, he saw no inconsistency in the totality of his beliefs. “All my life,” he once said, “I have prayed to God that I should remain religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic.” He is survived by a sister and four brothers.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.