Richard Neuhaus, the founder of First Things magazine, a Lutheran pastor-turned-Catholic priest, a writer, thinker, and provocateur of extraordinary range, chief ideologist of the theoconservative movement in America, one of the primary architects of the Catholic-Evangelical rapprochement which has given conceptual shape and electoral strength to the Christian right (and, by extension, has provided the basic intellectual architecture of almost every public political move which institutional Mormonism has made in regards to homosexuality and same-sex marriage over the past fifteen years), passed away early yesterday morning after a long battle with cancer. He was 72.
My own (warning: lengthy) ruminations on his theoretical, philosophical, and moral legacy and mistakes, as well as his powerful witness of Christ, can be found here. Below the fold, a few BYU and Mormon-centric thoughts.
There were some magazines that were stocked in the Honors Lounge, downstairs in the Maeser Building at BYU, that I could never figure out why they were there. (People?) Then there were magazines that they should have carried, but didn’t, obviously because the leftist presence of such journals would have tainted the whole Honors Program. (I’m thinking Dissent here.) And then there was First Things.
First Things, with its smart, often snarkily unfair, often deeply learned, always brilliantly edited attacks on modern liberal culture and defenses of traditional Christian values…it was required reading, especially Neuhaus’s lengthy back-of-the-magazine commentary. None of us freshman and returned missionaries, circa 1991 or so, had ever seen anything like it before. A religious belief that could be applied to modern political, economic, international, cultural, and social concerns? And by, “religious belief,” we didn’t mean a bunch of scriptural proof-texts trotted off with smarmy confidence (“…and so you see, Captain Moroni clearly would have supported the construction of a space-based missile system to defend us from the Soviets”), we meant complicated yet consistent arguments which took a tradition of ideas as a given, but then struggled and contented over the best way to be true to it while also respecting the reality of the situation at hand. That’s what Neuhaus provided. It was bold, it was challenging, it was demanding, it was important, and we Mormons didn’t have anything like it.
Well, of course, actually we did–they were called Dialogue or Sunstone. But neither of those (mostly liberal) publications were regular reviews of current events, neither specialized in addressing contemporary matters, and frankly, neither were nearly as funny or succinct or smart as Neuhaus’s First Things. (Why did we always have to be so serious about figuring out Our Place In The Church/The World/Utah, or go on belaboring the same old concerns about it again and again? Or so we itchy too-smart-for-our-own-good undergraduates thought.) Plus, we were assured by The Powers That Be (some of them, anyway) that everyone who wrote for those “apostate” publications had lice. And so we kept looking.
FARMS came along–well, actually it’d been around for a while, but suddenly it was doing some different and exciting things, with Daniel Peterson’s awesome, witty, and often vicious intellect leading the way, through the FARMS Review of Books and other publications. If I had a dollar for every time I heard Dan, or Louis Midgley, or Ralph Hancock, or Noel Reynolds, or Bill Hamblin, or any of the rest of that early FARMS crew from the early 1990s, say that they wanted to produce a body of work that intersected the culture at large and defended the truth the same way Neuhaus’s First Things was doing, I’d have…well, I don’t know really, maybe fifteen or twenty bucks, but the point is, the model they were following was very clear. Catholicism was entering its “moment” as an intellectual force within American life, with Neuhaus leading the way, setting a model for us Mormons to follow. Before we knew it, Bruce Hafen (not a general authority by then) and Dallin Oaks (definitely a general authority by then) were quoting from the magazine with some regularity, or even showing up on its masthead on occasion.
Then, of course, came the time when someone actually got around to asking Neuhaus what he personally thought of all these Mormons hanging around, and he told us. Angst, frustration, despair, angry letters written. The prevailing reaction seemed to be: hey, it’s one thing for all these redneck evangelical Protestants to say Mormons aren’t Christian; they’re ignorant, and we don’t like them anyway. But Neuhaus is Catholic, and the Catholics are smart and cool and they’re teaching us all about natural law and they let us write for their magazines! How can they do this to us?
And that, in my judgment, is pretty much where things have remained standing, for most of the past ten years or so. Intellectual Mormonism–or at least, that portion of it which strives to engage the world from within the bounds of a self-consciously orthodox belief–continues to follow Neuhaus’s lead, borrowing from the Catholics and evangelicals that he helped bring together a theoconservative language and a set of cultural priorities in regards to interacting with America’s ever-changing moral norms that–perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not–has turned out to be a not particularly inadequate fit with Mormon history, scripture, and doctrine. (We’ve had to pretty much bury polygamy, of course, and re-emphasize ideas of a definite scriptural canon and the need for grace, but we were doing that already anyway, and it’s probably for the best.) At the same time, all through Mitt Romney’s candidacy and beyond, Neuhaus’s assessment of Mormonism’s relationship to the Christian tradition–and hence its, in his view, limited ability to be a full participant in America’s civil religion as he wished to revive it–remained basically unchanged, despite his magazine’s occasionally accommodating our best efforts to change some minds.
Neuhaus’s impact on the Christian life, thought, and politics in America will be much discussed in the coming days; his influence on Mormon life, thought, and politics, by contrast, will probably not be much of a story, because, obviously, the great bulk of Mormons and Mormon leaders (once again, we see the blessings of the lay ministry) have no familiarity with his arguments and no reason to be familiar with them. I would insist, however, that is a small but extremely influential way, Richard Neuhaus stamped his image onto Mormonism. He provided a template and a perspective which gave the inchoate but nonetheless very real move by various actors within the church (general authorities, intellectuals, seminary teachers, popular authors, and the like) to shore up our Christian bona fides, to bring us into alignment with similarly inclined social conservatives in other Christian churches, to discipline our often wild theology (this was the “neo-orthodoxy” movement, as some called it, though others preferred to call it “retrenchment”) some conceptual integrity and intellectual heft. This is not to say that Mormon intellectuals have pulled off something that wasn’t ultimately, however directly or indirectly, being led by the prophets in Salt Lake; President Benson, after all, was taking us back to the actual text of the Book of Mormon–with its not-so-hidden Trinitarianism and other elements of Christian orthodoxy–long before any of these other developments took off. But, still, ideas matter, and ideas that find a ready-made style and structure available to them are going to be able to go farther and do that much more work. And, finally, if that available style and structure happens to be by turns clever, scholarly, persuasive, and wise…well, so much the better.
Brothers and sisters, for better or worse (my opinion? mostly the former, I think), I give you Richard J. Neuhaus, Catholic priest and unnoticed stagehand behind more than a little of the deep intellectual choreography of Mormonism over the past two decades. RIP.