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Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square

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Russell E. Saltzman - published on 02/18/15


We learn – and many of his friends had pieced this together – of the tensions between himself and his father. I did not know his two brothers were Green Berets serving in Vietnam while he was speaking sharply against the war, standing incidentally next to Joan Baez while doing it. I did know, looking back on it, that he had mixed feelings about the military, knowing the good influence military discipline might have on inner-city kids with disordered lives, all the while watching them drafted into a war he did not support.

More importantly, Boyagoda traces Neuhaus’ intellectual rise and leadership and gives readers a synopsis of his thinking, first from the “radical progressive” movement where Neuhaus found a voice, and next in “neoconservative” circles where he became a full-throated public intellectual. But in either case, Neuhaus fought to keep the symbols of Judeo-Christian civic life in the public square, a nation founded in those civil virtues that arise from religious faith. The Naked Public Square, 1984, may be his lasting legacy. It remains still the starting point for any serious discussion of merit on the subject of state and church in America and America’s religious foundation.

Today, the square is increasingly barren of welcomed religious-based speech. Yet I doubt Richard would concede even an inch of the square to militant secularism. He would reassert that the public square is openly public and constitutionally available to everyone, and he’d write an article explaining why.

Russell E. Saltzman was an interim associate editor of First Things after Neuhaus’ death. He is a former dean of the North American Lutheran Church and a web columnist for First Things magazine. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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