Richard John Neuhaus and the perils of theologically motivated hyper-partisanship

The late conservative thinker was once one of the country's leading intellectuals — until he lost his way

Richard John Neuhaus.
(Image credit: (Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press))

I knocked on Richard John Neuhaus' office door in late 2002 to tell him I wanted to write an essay for the next issue of First Things making a conservative case against invading Iraq. Neuhaus was the editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine, and I was his associate editor. I ran the book review section at the back of the book, helped editor James Nuechterlein line-edit the journal, and sometimes wrote essays and columns for its pages.

Neuhaus responded to my proposal in a tone of grave seriousness. "Oh Damon, that's really not a good idea. You don't want to get a reputation for being unreliable."

At the time, neither Neuhaus nor I were aware of how unreliable I would become. Just over two years later, I would quit the magazine to write what would be a harshly critical, polemical book about Neuhaus' magazine, his friends, and their influence in forging an intellectually formidable interdenominational and inter-religious ideology for the ascendant religious right — an ideology that, in retrospect, reached its pinnacle of power and influence at the very moment I began writing the book.

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But in late 2002, Neuhaus was obviously talking about something else. Maybe part of him really cared about my reputation on the right. A couple of months earlier, I'd penned a column in defense of egalitarian parenting, and it had caused a firestorm among our readers and on our editorial board. To take a stand against the coming war to depose Saddam Hussein so soon after that column risked making me look suspiciously like a liberal outlier in the relatively tiny world of the conservative intelligentsia.

Far more important, I think, were Neuhaus' concerns about his own reputation. As Randy Boyagoda recounts in great detail in Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, an admirably balanced and carefully researched biography, Neuhaus (who died of cancer in 2009) spent a lifetime seeking influence and forging alliances — first, in the 1960s and early '70s, on the left; then, beginning in the late '70s, on the right — with powerful political and religious leaders. The goal of these connections was to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the United States.

At the time of our 2002 conversation about Iraq, Neuhaus enjoyed very close ties to none other than the president of the United States. Karl Rove had invited Neuhaus to meet George W. Bush in Texas in 1998 as he was preparing to run for president, and meetings and regular communication continued after Bush made it to the White House. Neuhaus did not want his contacts in the West Wing to read a dissenting voice in the pages of his own magazine. Because that would make the magazine — and thus himself — appear unreliable.

But Neuhaus' reaction to my proposal was not just a function of inside-the-beltway ambitions. It was also personal, an outgrowth of some of his deepest and longest-lasting intellectual convictions. Back in the late 1960s, when he was a self-described left-wing revolutionary, Neuhaus had suggested that the North Vietnamese were "God's instruments for bringing the American empire to its knees." He had migrated to a polar-opposite ideological position long before the time of the Iraq War, but he remained certain that America's actions in the world were somehow central to God's plans.

That's why Neuhaus turned to the like-minded George Weigel (his closest friend) when it came time to state the magazine's position on the looming war in Iraq. In "Moral Clarity in a Time of War," a lengthy essay published in the January 2003 issue, Weigel laid out an elaborate case for the justice of invading Iraq, and also took on the soon-to-be-started war's critics. In Weigel's view, the wisdom of waging war was something that could only be determined by the political powers-that-be, since they had access to privileged information and intelligence not possessed by private citizens.

Going further, Weigel suggested that statesmen reached their final decision for war through the exercise of a "charism of political discernment" enjoyed by all "duly constituted public authorities." This charism — or gift of the holy spirit — is "not shared by bishops, stated clerks, rabbis, imams, or ecumenical and interreligious agencies" — all of whom should exercise "a measure of political modesty" in addressing questions of war and peace. (Nowhere did Weigel indicate that modesty was a quality required of politicians and their foreign policy advisors.)

It was difficult to read these words without concluding that First Things' message to critics of the administration's foreign policy was to keep their mouths shut and put their faith in the divinely inspired wisdom of the president of the United States.

After the fall of Baghdad, Neuhaus built on his friend's arguments in favor of political deference while also proclaiming that critics of the war had been "abysmally wrong on almost every point" — a fact that needed to be "clearly established on the public record" so that their concerns could be easily dismissed in the run-up to whatever military campaign might follow the liberation of Iraq. In future conflicts, Neuhaus suggested, it might become possible to conceive of "military action in terms not of the last resort but of the best resort."

The triumphalism continued through the rest of 2003 and on into 2004, even as Hussein's supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, Iraq spiraled into civil war, and news broke of the torture and abuse of detainees at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. Bush was heading into an election, and criticism of the president or members of his administration was unthinkable. And besides, a May 2004 meeting at the White House buoyed Neuhaus' spirits, as did regular faxes from Karl Rove's deputy, Peter Wehner, who invariably presented administration spin on progress in the war as simple fact. All of which reassured Neuhaus that everything would work out well in the end — for the Iraqi people, for President Bush and the Republican Party, and for America and the world.

It was a matter of faith.

Reading Boyagoda's book — a largely sympathetic biography that nonetheless delicately criticizes these and many other examples of theologically motivated hyper-partisanship, and not so delicately criticizes me — has done nothing to soften my harsh judgment of Neuhaus' political interventions. But reading it has inspired genuine sadness and regret that our professional relationship ended in the way it did.

I had no business working at First Things. I was never as religious as Neuhaus, and I never shared his views about the essential role of religion in American history and public life. Those are important differences. But the most intractable one — the one that eventually turned me from a dissenting friend into a publicly declared enemy — was our deeply antithetical views of the proper relationship of politics to the life of the mind.

I have a genuine respect for politics, recognize its importance and dignity, and think that it reveals certain aspects of human nature more vividly than any other activity or pursuit. But I also believe very strongly that its loyalties and commitments, its partisanship and partiality, stand in permanent, irresolvable tension, even fundamental contradiction, with the pursuit of truth, whether through reason or revelation. When philosophical, theological, or historical ideas are blended with political passions and convictions, the result is very often a species of propaganda.

Reliability may well be a political virtue. It's also a pretty serious intellectual vice.

Perhaps that's why of all the millions of words Richard John Neuhaus wrote in more than four decades as a leading intellectual, the ones I still cherish and that I think most deserve to be remembered are the least political — his reflections on life, death, sin, and God in Death on a Friday Afternoon and As I Lay Dying. The first was a series of theological reflections on Jesus Christ's last statements as he confronted death on the cross; the second was a memoir inspired by Neuhaus' own near-death experience during an earlier bout with cancer in the 1990s. Both are beautifully written meditations on the deepest human questions, and both transcend the tawdry simplifications of politics.

Read Randy Boyagoda's biography of an important man. Then read that man's real and enduring contributions to human self-understanding.

And leave the rest for future historians to sort through as they try to understand why for a time around the turn of the 21st century, one of America's two major parties began to think and act like a church — and one of its leading intellectuals decided to lend his considerable talents to encouraging the folly.

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