We were out in the middle of nowhere on the way to drop my Dad off at the train station. It was outside of the little Texas town called Cisco. We stopped at a country Humble Oil gas station owned and operated by a sixteen year old named Richard J. Neuhaus. That was the first time we met.
Or rather, I was quite young and still standing quite short so I saw his belt buckle, a flash of his shirt, distant face and a shadow. I heard, “Okay, done.” That was the extent of my first conversation with this future esteemed public intellectual and magazine editor in New York City.
Neuhaus was born in Canada, about ninety minutes from Ottawa where some of my family lives. He was a preacher kid giving trouble to his Dad with stubborn, harsh questions. He caused a row in the household by publishing excerpts from his sister’s diary in a hyperlocal newspaper which he launched called “News of Miller Street.” He was also a bit of a troublemaker at school. His first teacher called him “uneducable.” This slur still stung Neuhaus decades later in New York City. His parents sent him to Lutheran boarding school in Nebraska.
There, he walked the plank out of the school by exposing in the student newspaper “the bread-making practices of the cafeteria.” Then, he led a panty raid on the girls in the school choir. The boarding school put him under “room arrest” and, subsequently, shoved him out the door. His parents decided a little bit of tough-love in Texas might do the trick. So, Neuhaus ended up in the little town of Cisco, Texas where some of his relatives lived.
Cisco was “The Last Picture Show” type of town. It was a dusty, restless town that lays dry and isolated as if waiting for the apocalypse. Reflecting the faded glory from its oil boom days, the train still stopped there with a whistle. Shooting, jumping into the watering holes, and killing ants passed the time of day for younger residents. Neuhaus was one of the locals restless to get away.
The teenager promptly dropped out of high school and convinced his distant cousin to start him in the gas station business at age sixteen. That’s where I met him. It would be decades before we would meet again. In between, our paths faintly crossed geographically and intellectually.
Neuhaus’ Texas experience confirmed his inclination to care for ordinary people, particularly when they are downtrodden by circumstance or evil manipulations. He admired the deep faith and fearlessness of one of his buddies who was “thought to be a bit slow.” The young boy, named Tyler, told Neuhaus that he did not fear danger because “I’m under the shadow.” He meant Psalm 91 which promises “He that dwells in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty … He shall cover you with his feathers, and under His wings you shall trust Him.”
In Texas Neuhaus was learning to mix tenderness and toughness. After skipping the last two years of high school, he got some more education at college and seminary. Then, at age 24, he ended up as a Lutheran pastor in a tough part of New York City called “Williamsburg.” That’s right, tough: it was a far cry from the trust-fund settlement it is today.
From April 9, 1961 to 1978, Neuhaus served as pastor at St. John the Evangelist, an aging Lutheran church squatting next door to a housing project called Williamsburg Houses. After the German Lutherans had mostly fled to Glendale, Queens and elsewhere, the congregation barely survived until it figured out how to connect with its mostly African American neighbors.
The current interim pastor Kelly-Ray Meritt, who was inspired to go into the ministry after a talk by Neuhaus at his university, notes that St. John’s was successful in using a high liturgical worship service to transcend racial and ethnic differences, a practice that continues today.
There wasn’t any money for a pastor’s salary, so Neuhaus took an additional job as chaplain at King’s County Hospital in another danger zone, East Flatbush. This job exposed him to the blood and char of the city when it was tumbling down into the nadir.
“I remember the smell,” Neuhaus wrote in his autobiographical As I Lay Dying. “…the smell of blood, which smells only like blood.”
In a break from wrestling with the aftermath of the mayhem, Neuhaus wrote a reflective letter to a friend about a newborn “baby boy Washington” who was going to be turned over the state by the mother who didn’t want him.
“In a little while I will drive home and can count on being struck again by the New York skyline – a never failing object adoration,” he wrote. “The city and the potential of the civilization it represents – to this I am religiously committed. And what will happen to the unwanted child?”
Neuhaus had a hopefulness that God was noticing the young child. “Little baby boy Washington –fear not," he wrote. "He has redeemed you. He has called you by the name you do not yet have, you are His!”
No matter how famous he became, the pastor never lost the sense of his place among the people who needed ministry. Later, as a Catholic and a priest, he cherished his duty of serving mass at a church on 14th Street to immigrant Filipino medical workers. Truth be told, he needed the tangible touch of people in need. It gave him strength and a sense of the reality of his own faith.
In New York City he spent a lot of time in leftist movements before its violence and anti-Americanism disaffected him. With his friends the sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger, Neuhaus started shifting toward right of center. He co-authored Movement and Revolution with Peter. The sociologist looked at how “the motive of compassion” might order a political movement while Neuhaus piled up his questions on the modern revolutionary. Berger observed that Neuhaus "put on the table the most extreme positions against Israel, the United States, and others, then takes them back with dozens of qualifications. He appears revolutionary but ties himself down from acting too radical."
Neuhaus made a brief run for congress on behalf of his Williamsburg Reform Democrat Club. It came to nothing, and he spent a few years searching for a public platform from which to speak. In 1975 he wrote for the Christian Century, a liberal Protestant magazine, that the radical movement was dead. Neuhaus had become a conservative.
1984 brought Ronald Reagan and Neuhaus’ distinctive theory of how the religious of various sorts and secularists could work together. His approach as limned in The Naked Public Square was a less raucous, and seemingly a more forgiving religious presence in politics than Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
The pastor became a Catholic and was formally accepted into the Roman Catholic Church on September 8, 1990 at a mass celebrated with Cardinal John O’Connor in his private chapel at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A year later, he became a priest. In 1994, Neuhaus’s background as a Protestant pastor allowed him to broker a coalition of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” at a meeting held at the Union League Club in midtown Manhattan. Baptist theologian Timothy George called it an “ecumenism of the trenches.” At this point the “naked public square” continued as a battleground in the culture wars.
Neuhaus’ core formulation was that the public square is a function of culture and at the heart of culture is religion. The problem with public life in the late Twentieth Century was that the secularists had claimed the public square for themselves, making religion an unmentionable. The secularists justified a wide-ranging secularization of public life with an appeal to the U.S. Constitution’s disestablishment of religion from any official role in the federal government.
He challenged such a secularist view of public society as a perversion of the constitution which had in fact prohibited the establishment of an official religion so that faiths could robustly participate in the public square. In an earlier work with Berger, he wrote, “As long as public space is open to the full range of symbols cherished in [a] community, there is no question of one religion being ‘established’ over another. [But] public policy is presently biased toward what might be called the symbolic nakedness of the town square.”
Neuhaus picked up Alexis de Tocqueville’s early 19th Century observation about the central role that Christian faith had in the sustenance of American democracy. The Twentieth Century writer wrote that American democracy “could not be sustained on narrow secular grounds.” The secularists’ relentless push of the religious voices, particularly theologically conservative ones, out of the universities, government funded research institutes and agencies, and political discourse was, Neuhaus feared, actually destroying the basis for democracy in America. The religious right was so incensed that it wanted to ordain “a Christian America.” Secularism was breeding militant sectarianism, much like the French secularism has today caused tremendous social tensions by pushing religious folk out of any authentic role in the public square.
Neuhaus also upbraided Christian conservatives. He asked if anyone could believe that their “Christian America” would give “greater safety” for the public. How can they show the falsity of the secularist claim that public religion is dangerous to democracy and toleration?
The author of The Naked Public Square then went back to de Tocqueville’s observation that the toleration and democracy of early America was established and sustained because Christians believed that they were Christian values. The idea of the Christian origins of democracy is based on a recognition of the fact that all people – religious or not – have an innate human dignity, which means a free conscience and consciousness. The covenant-like structure of the constitution supports this interpretation of the origins of American democracy as a way of keeping Christians humble before the rule of law and their neighbors’ interests. The national covenant also keeps secularists humble because the freedom of religion, religious conscience and speech are the matters that dominate the preeminent human rights amendment to the Constitution.
Neuhaus warned that a city or state that excluded the religious voices from the public square in favor of a secularist monotone could lead to a civil war: “our definition of civil discourse cannot exclude what they want to talk about. They want to talk about God in public.” The priest hoped to broker a lasting peace to the culture wars that were overflowing out of New York City and Washington, DC.
He loved the city and its people even as he moved up the social ladder, serving as a sergeant in the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr’s civil rights army, becoming a counselor to presidents, then eventually in 1990 founding the high toned magazine of faith and life First Things and advising popes. He passed onto another life on January 8, 2009.
For the book New York Glory. Religions in the city (2001) Neuhaus wrote that his zeal for life in the city prepared him for heaven:
“When you're tired of London, the great Dr. Johnson observed, you're tired of life. More than two hundred years later, the same might be said of New York City. In fact, people have, in various ways, been saying essentially that about New York for more than two hundred years…. I have sometimes suggested, less than half-jokingly, that over the heavenly gates will be a sign: “From the Wonderful People Who Brought You New York City, the New Jerusalem!” I add that those who in this life did not like New York City will have another place to go. I say that less than half-jokingly, but not very much less.”
We owe a thanks to Randy Boyagoda that he has given us such a clear, insightful, and nicely flowing biography of this Canadian-Texan New Yorker.
The naked public square died in New York City with the 2013 election of postsecular political leader Bill De Blasio as mayor. Hopefully, the postsecular New York City will come to exemplify a peaceful, if raucous, public square in which both the religious and the seculars of various types learn to appreciate each other’s accomplishments while disagreeing about other matters. Toleration and purely transactional relationships are not enough to sustain democracy in a world of multiple realities and structures of authority. Recognition and love for each other’s contributions to America are needed to overcome the interminable war of all against all that has sneaked into our public square. It is also necessary for our friendships and personal sanity.
Unless otherwise specified, images are from Boyagoda book.