Boyagoda, Randy. Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. New York: Image, 2015. 480 pp. $30.00. Purchase at Amazon and on Kindle for less.
Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was one of the most influential figures in American public life from the Civil Rights era to the War on Terror. His writing, activism, and connections to people of power in religion, politics, and culture secured a place for himself and his ideas at the center of recent American history.
William F. Buckley, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith are comparable — willing controversialists and prodigious writers adept at cultivating or castigating the powerful, while advancing lively arguments for the virtues and vices of the ongoing American experiment. But unlike Buckley and Galbraith, who have always been identified with singular political positions on the right and left, respectively, Neuhaus’ life and ideas placed him at the vanguard of events and debates across the political and cultural spectrum.
For instance, alongside Abraham Heschel and Daniel Berrigan, Neuhaus co-founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, in 1965. Forty years later, Neuhaus was the subject of a New York Review of Books article by Garry Wills, which cast him as a Rasputin of the far right, exerting dangerous influence in both the Vatican and the Bush White House. This book looks to examine Neuhaus’s multi-faceted life and reveal to the public what made him tick and why.
Having come to faith in 2001 and then joining the Southern Baptist Convention by conviction in 2003, I was not familiar with the life of Richard John Neuhaus. While I obviously would not have agreed with him much theologically, I found his political views and stances extremely thought provoking.
His transition from Lutheran to Roman Catholic made sense to me as I watched it unfold through the lens of Boyagoda. His transition from liberal to conservative, however, was not as evident to me. His propensity for social justice would have seemed to keep him a life-long liberal given his political leanings. In the end, it was obvious his theology drove his politics and not vice-versa.
I though Boyagoda did a masterful job of telling the life of this lightning rod of a theologian. He was sympathetic to the subject, Neuhaus, and allowed him to speak for himself wherever possible. In most other cases, he would let close friends speak when they could. With over forty pages of end notes, this biography is well researched in addition to being well-written.
If you are looking for an interesting biography to read on an influential theologian in the public square in the 20th century, then you will thoroughly enjoy this biography. It is lengthy, but a good story of a thought-provoking life takes time to tell. I recommend this biography to all.