Father Richard John Neuhaus, Politics, Books and Nakedness

I suspect that the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, who died of cancer on Thursday, will be remembered primarily for helping to forge evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics into a potent alliance on conservative social issues such as abortion and embryonic stemcell research. But there was much more to him than that.

When I covered religion and politics for the Post (from 2002 to 2007), I spoke often to Fr. Neuhaus, and he was always gracious, eloquent and (reasonably) open; he balanced the fierceness of his convictions with a certain softness and elegance of delivery. This is true of his writing, too, both in the journal he edited, First Things, and in his many books. Without endorsing his politics, but with admiration for his personal qualities, I mourn his death.

Rev. Richard John Neuhaus in 1996 (Ray Lustig/TWP)

Neuhaus was more important in U.S. politics, over a longer period of time, than many people realize. Through my interviews with him and others, I came to believe that he played a crucial, though largely behind-the-scenes role in helping George W. Bush reach out to Catholic voters, deepening the president's understanding of Catholic theology and providing practical advice on how to appeal to tradition-minded Catholics with phrases such as "the culture of life." He also defended the president against charges of being swept up, after 9/11, in apocalyptic visions and millenarian dreams about the Middle East. Neuhaus adamantly denied that Bush's foreign policy had anything to do with premillenial dispensationalism or other theories about the End Times.

As a former Lutheran who converted to Catholicism, and as a pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protester who came to embrace a neo-conservative political outlook, Neuhaus was adept at looking beyond theological divides. One of the most interesting conversations we had was about Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body," a view (as he described it) that sexuality should raise, not lower, human dignity -- a view he believed could be countercultural and yet hold widespread appeal. Liberals are often perplexed by Neuhaus's evolution from a founding role, in the 1960s, in Clergy and Laity Concerned About the War to a founding role, in the 1990s, in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. One constant in his thinking, I believe, concerned sexuality and dignity. Note the title of his most famous book: The Naked Public Square. In his view, if the public square -- meaning, political life in America -- were stripped of religious impulses and arguments, it would be naked, unseemly, unbridled.

I haven't yet seen the galleys of Neuhaus's last book, American Babylon, which is scheduled for publication in March, but it reportedly urges Christians to think of themselves as living in exile amid the sexual license and moral decay of contemporary America.

Of course, there are other ways of looking at sexuality (not to mention politics) that are equally religious. In his new book The Jewish Body, published this month by Nextbook / Schocken as part of its "Jewish Encounters" series, anthropologist Melvin Konner takes an ambitious, no doubt controversial stab at explaining how Jewish and Christian approaches to the body fundamentally differ.

Konner begins with Greek culture, the background against which both Judaism and Christianity emerged. "To really grasp the difference between Jewish and Greco-Roman (read: European) views of the body," he writes, "we have to distinguish two very different Greek traditions, the Apollonian and the Dionysian." Apollo was an athlete, beautiful in a pure, non-sexual way; he represents, as Camille Paglia said, "law, history, tradition, the dignity and safety of custom." Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of wine and drunkenness; he symbolizes (again in Paglia's words) "energy unbound, mad, callous, destructive, wasteful."

Konner argues that this division -- two gods, not one; two separate, compartmented human impulses -- is inherently not Jewish. The Jewish God, he says, "contains within one being the entire range of inclinations in the pantheon." To Jews, a sexual bacchanalia would have been sacrilege, but sex was "not just for procreation"; its "other purpose was to create and, again and again, renew the bond between a loving husband and wife."

"Although Christianity (in theory) set the Dionysian aside, the Apollonian became and remains the ideal of the ruling classes of Europe," Konner writes. "As the Jews were an extension of ancient Rabbinic Judaism, the Christians became the heirs of Apollonian Greece and Rome."

I wonder what Fr. Neuhaus would have made of that. Certainly, Pope John Paul II did argue that sex was an important way of deepening the marital bond; any implication that Christians view sex as only procreative is false. On the other hand, would the Jewish analogy for public discourse without overtly religious arguments be nakedness? Is there an "Apollonian" element in social conservatism today?

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  January 9, 2009; 1:38 PM ET Alan Cooperman
Previous: Most Wanted Out-of-Print Books in 2008 | Next: Who Reads New Yorker Fiction?


Please email us to report offensive comments.

You quote Konner as saying that sex was "not just for procreation"; its "other purpose was to create and, again and again, renew the bond between a loving husband and wife." Konner believes this to be a strictly Jewish outlook.

While it started with the Jews, it did not remain with them. Consider this: "As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives." To translate, in the act of marital intercourse, the husband and wife both unite themselves to one another and also generate new life. That comes from none other than Pope Paul VI at number 8 in that most controversial of all encyclicals, Humanae Vitae.

It is in the separation of those two meanings that problems arise, which is why Paul denounced contraception. (It also works the other way -- if contraception is wrong because it splits those meanings, then artificial insemination and IVF are also wrong since they do the same thing.)

That, I believe, is what Father Neuhaus would have made of what Konner states.

Posted by: pinecone | January 9, 2009 10:22 PM

Neuhaus was a pivotal figure on the Religious Right in that he alone was able to bring conservative Catholics together with conservative Evangelicals over shared enemies despite the historic enmity between these two camps. It is far from clear that anyone will be able to fill his shoes.

Posted by: scasey3 | January 11, 2009 5:04 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company