Richard J. Neuhaus, RIP

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.


  1. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you for this post Russell. It is a fitting tribute to a decent man who lived well.

    I don’t know. Natural law as understood by Roman Catholics has always seemed like at odd fit for Mormons. What do you think?

    And this passage from one of your links is fascinating:

    In my limited experience with, for instance, people associated with the publication Sunstone, these are devout Mormons who are seized by the correct intuition that truth that must be protected within the circle of true believers, that cannot intelligently engage critical examination by outsiders, is in some fundamental sense doubtfully true. Some of the “dissenters and exiles” may be dismissable as troublemakers-a species all too familiar in other religious communities as well. I expect, however, that what most of these people are trying to do is much more important to the possible futures of the LDS than all the billions in assets, massive building programs, and ambitiously organized missionary campaigns combined.

    Mormons who embrace Neuhaus most enthusiastically tend to be strong traditionalists. I’m interested to know how they respond to his thoughts in that quote.

  2. Russell, thanks for this. I, too, found First Things revelatory. There aren’t all that many publications that I’ve yelled at, at least not out loud. Neuhaus, by precept and example, reminded us that ideas were worth being passionate about, delighted by, and ferociously (sarcastically) loyal to. In a world and a culture that tends relentlessly towards the practical, the technological, Neuhaus’ work made a bulwark around the project of thinking deeply about issues instead of focus-grouping positions.

    I really hope he and H.L. Mencken are arguing somewhere today, and that angels are “silent notes taking” so that we can read the transcript someday!

  3. Thanks for introducing me to a new gadfly.

  4. X (Adam Greenwood, his mark) says:

    I deliberately avoided reading this until I’d finished my own post. We reached surprisingly similar conclusions.

  5. Is there a provision in Canon Law that anyone Adam and I both appreciate should be immediately sainted? If not, we should invent some Mormon approximation. :)

  6. Adam, that was a wonderful piece; thanks for sharing the link.

    Randall, I’m glad I was able to point out to you someone worth reading and thinking about.

    Kristine, the image of Mencken and Neuhaus going at it is a wonderful one. Since I want heaven to be a place of discussion and ideas and argument, I sure hope you’re right!

    Mark, I’ve long felt that natural law reasoning was an odd thing to graft onto Mormonism, but I would argue that–while the terminology we use may be very different–key Mormon leaders and thinkers have been doing it for years now, and I don’t see it anything slowing it down. Our commonly settled, CES-employed, Church Public Relations-endoresed theological language simply isn’t what it was when Joseph Smith, or Heber J. Grant, or even David O. McKay was president; we’ve come to feel ourselves as obliged to find a way to address the world as participants in and defenders of a Christian moral tradition, and the Catholic natural law concepts which Neuhaus helped make palatable for evangelicals have provided a great many of us with that way. Which I hasten to add is not, from my point of view, necessarily something to regret.

    As for Neuhaus’s thoughts about the Sunstone crowd, it’s interesting. His quick investigation into the world of Mormonism convinced him that the Mormons which might be casually labeled “conservatives”–those most serious about defending prophetic authority–were those with the most determined to defend heterodox (from the point of view of the Christian tradition) ideas and most paranoid about church history, whereas it was the “liberals” who he thought were most open to what Mormonism gets wrong, theologically speaking. Odd how our own internal debates appear to outsiders.

  7. What Kristine said in #5. I also want to read those silent notes.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks Russell for this look at Neuhaus. The man was a catalyst in many circles; I wonder how many non-Mormons appreciate the man’s influence on us.

  9. I’ve only had the vaguest familiarity with Neuhaus, but now my interest is piqued. Thanks for writing this.

  10. Blackwood says:

    With friends like Neuhaus, who needs the protestant religious Right to make us feel special?

    “[Mormonism is] a new religion and, by the lights of historic Christianity, a false religion. It is true that there are Mormon scholars who are working mightily to reconcile the LDS with Christianity, and one wishes them well, but they have their work cut out for them.

    It is not an unreasonable prejudice for people who, unlike Alan Wolfe et al., care about true religion to take their concern about Mormonism into account in considering the candidacy of Mr. Romney. The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.”

    “A Mormon in the White House,” ( )
    Richard John Neuhaus, 6/29/07

  11. When did a man who feels that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a false religion become a good judge of the religious loyalty of the people at Sunstone?
    The fact that the Sunstone defenders have to quote from a man who describes Mormonism as a “false religion” to defend their claimed loyalty to the faith is the best indication that it is weak at best.
    On the other hand, I think what Gordon B. Hinckley tried to teach us over and over again is that we can build alliances with people who think the church is a false religion if it advances causes we care about.
    I also think anyone who thinks the Church’s support of things like Prop 8 has to do with some right wing Christian coalition goal has failed to understand The Family: A Procalmation to the World and the unique role of the family in Latter-day Saint doctrine.
    Until you admit that Latter-day Saints have a unique and deeply religious loyalty to the family as the most important thing there is you will come to false assumptions.
    The reason the Latter-day Saints were such a large part of the Yes on 8 movement is not because the Church of Jesus Christ pushed it more than the Catholic Church or than many Evangeical Churches, but because we hold the family in more esteem than anyone else does and see it as an eternal and not just an earthly unit.

  12. Mark Brown says:

    When did a man who feels that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a false religion become a good judge of the religious loyalty of the people at Sunstone?


    What really interests me about Neuhaus’s statement is that he didn’t apply it just to LDS people. He seemed to be saying that most religions need to find a way to defend themselves from some of their most ardent believers, or at least from those who are unable to engage with outsiders.

  13. Thank you for your post on this (and Adam for yours over at Times and Seasons). I’m sad to hear of his passing.

    I remember listening to an interview with Cardinal Neuhaus near Easter time several years ago. He was discussing his then recently published Death of a Friday Afternoon I bought it within the week. It’s probably among the top ten or so of my favorite works in theology.

  14. My Oh My! I need to pay closer attention. At first glance I thought that Dave Niehaus had died.

  15. I enjoyed the commentary of Richard Neuhaus in First Things a great deal, and am sad to hear of his passing.

    I agree that Mormonism and Protestantism have benefited greatly from the intellectual hand-me-downs of Catholic thinking on many topics. However, there are also some serious obstacles. Mormons and Protestants both tend to think of philosophical theology (and theological philosophy) as intrinsically untrustworthy. That makes it difficult to have a constructive intellectual tradition about anything.

    In my experience, LDS members are never taught how to think about theological or philosophical questions, never presented with multiple possible interpretations of anything that might be ambiguous, and generally suffer from theological reductionism of the first magnitude. Those traits never come in handy when dealing with outsiders on political or social issues.

    I do think Natural Law in a sufficiently flexible formulation (such as Ockham’s) would be a promising foundation for starting such a tradition, one that is uniquely well suited to the LDS approach to theology.

  16. #10 Okay, we can all agree that this was
    not his best work… The idea that one
    should vote for co-religionists to avoid
    Increasing the “prestige” of competing
    religions leads to tribalism, hatred, and
    much worse…

  17. “Neuhaus was central to redefining Republicanism as Christianism, to seeing religion as indistinguishable from politics, and to cementing the marginalization and disdain of gay people as a pillar of the Christianist movement.” -Andrew Sullivan

    Good riddens to Mr. Neuhaus.

  18. “You can’t win Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”

  19. Sandra, you are taking Andrew Sullivan’s word for anything having anything to do with religion? If you think that is an ad hominem, in this case he is wrong.

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