Priest, Conservative Richard Neuhaus

Richard J. Neuhaus pushed for civil rights and helped unite religious conservatives and evangelicals.
Richard J. Neuhaus pushed for civil rights and helped unite religious conservatives and evangelicals. (Ray Lustig)
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By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, 72, a onetime Lutheran pastor who was a voice of conscience in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and later became a prominent religious conservative and Catholic convert, died Jan. 8 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City of complications from cancer.

Father Neuhaus played a central role in forging an alliance between evangelical Protestants and Catholics and in bringing conservative Christians into the Republican conservative coalition in the 1980s and 1990s. During that same period, he began an institute and published a journal, First Things, that reflected his interests in religion and public policy.

Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said Father Neuhaus was a guiding force in the creation of faith-based initiatives -- private religious groups given government funding to carry out social policy -- that have become identified with President Bush's White House. Father Neuhaus set the groundwork for the idea in two books, "To Empower People," written with Peter Berger, and "Christian Faith and Public Policy" (both 1977).

In 2005, Time magazine named Father Neuhaus one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America and noted that when the president talked to journalists about religion, Father Neuhaus was "the living authority he cited most often."

Of more than 30 books he wrote or edited, his best-known was "The Naked Public Square" (1984), which arrived at a pivotal moment in the rise of religious conservatives as a national political force. Father Neuhaus's book argued that religion and religious values were, wrongly and dangerously, being excluded from American society.

He continued to seek common ground between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants. In 1994, he joined with Charles Colson, a former Nixon aide and convicted Watergate felon who had become a prominent evangelical Christian, to issue the declaration "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," which was signed by 40 people, including the television evangelist Pat Robertson. The statement advocated the uniting of Catholics and evangelicals on a social agenda that included opposition to abortion and support for government funding for religious schools.

"Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed," Father Neuhaus once wrote. It was a stance that was at times too rigid for many conservatives. After President Bill Clinton vetoed in 1996 a ban on a procedure critics call partial-birth abortion, Father Neuhaus said, "We are at a point at which millions of conscientious American citizens are reflecting upon whether this is a legitimate regime."

That same year, he sponsored a symposium on "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics." In an essay he wrote for First Things, he likened the legal right to abortion to state-sponsored murder under the Nazi regime.

"Law, as it is presently made by the judiciary, has declared its independence from morality," he wrote. "America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here."

The polemic rhetoric offended many Jewish conservatives in particular and threatened to shatter the bonds that had united them in earlier struggles, including the civil rights movement.

Richard John Neuhaus was born May 14, 1936, in Pembroke, Ontario. He was the son of an American Lutheran pastor who came to Canada as a missionary. Survivors include four brothers and two sisters.

When he was 14, Richard Neuhaus dropped out of school in Canada and moved to Texas to live with relatives. He borrowed $500 to buy a combination gas station and grocery store but soon was persuaded by a clergyman to pursue the ministry. He sold his gas station and attended Lutheran Concordia College in Austin without completing high school.

He became pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in a heavily black and Puerto Rican section of Brooklyn in 1961 and participated in protests in favor of racial desegregation of public schools. He also traveled to the Deep South and worked on the sidelines in marches organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Around this time, Father Neuhaus co-founded Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan.

His transition to conservative causes was swift and followed his strong opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

In the 1980s, he directed the Center on Religion and Society of the conservative Rockford Institute in Illinois and wrote a religion column in the conservative magazine National Review. Saying that he had always thought the Lutheran Church was destined to reunite with the Catholic Church, he converted to Catholicism in 1990. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1991.

"All my life," he once he told the New York Times, "I have prayed to God that I should remain religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal and economically pragmatic."

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