Friday, January 09, 2009

A Brief Reflection on Neuhaus: "On Balance, and Considering the Alternatives . . ."

I spent about a month with Neuhaus in Liechtenstein at the first Centisimus Annus workshop, and then, later, a few weeks in Poland and the Czech Republic. We corresponded a bit after that, but not much.

Neuhaus was a public intellectual on "our" side -- I still fondly remember his appearance with Bishop Spong on WFB's "Firing Line." He completely laid out Spong. I always thought his biggest contribution was along the lines of institution building -- First Things, the Eerdmann's "encounter" seminars in the 90s, the Centisimus Annus seminars (although that may have been more Novak or Weigel than Neuhaus), the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Beyond those very real contributions -- and his contributions as a witty controversialist -- I'm unsure what intellectual contribution it is that Neuhaus has made, at least in the realm of religion and politics. His signature book -- The Naked Public Square -- always reminded me of the quip about Oakland, and about whether there as really a "there, there."

When reading the book (a long time ago), I remember that I kept waiting for the bottom line. At the end of the book, the only thing I came away with for sure, was that Neuhaus thought that religion should "somehow" inform politics -- i.e., that the "public square" should not be "naked." But it was never clear to me what mechanism Neuhaus thought should or could serve as the link, or exactly what effect he thought religion should have on politics. The whole thing was so amorphous the book seemed to invite only adoption of a sensibility, and wasn't much help beyond that.

I remember at the CA workshops, it was like pulling teeth to nail him down on any specific aspect of a policy program.

In this he always reminded me of the "communitarians" (we don't here too much about them these days) -- those academics who waxed rhapsodic in the abstract about "community," but always returned to liberal individualism when any concrete policy was discussed.

I always hoped that First Things would turn into a sort of Christian version of Commentary. But the magazine has always seemed uneven to me. Usually I flip first to the book reviews, then skim Neuhaus's musings. As often as not, I found the front half of the magazine predictable and a bit more long-winded in making a modest point than my preferences allow. I'd renew for a year or two, then let my subscription lapse for a year or two, then renew again. (I just sent my two-year subscription renewal in a week ago. I guess I'll still have the book reviews . . .)

Like the neoconservatives associated with Commentary (which I mean in the 1980s sense of former liberals who became conservatives reconciled to the welfare state), I don't see a strong second generation of Christian neo-conservatives in the manner of Neuhaus.

Of course, I'm entirely open to neo-conservatism being a generationally limited movement: one the generation moves from left to right, the kids are on the right, and so does not share the movement's defining experience. So it can't be replicated.

I do fear whether First Things can continue at anywhere close to its current subscription base without Nehaus. But I guess we'll see.

In any event, I am sorry to lose Neuhaus. I remember one phrase he repeated regarding the United States and world affairs. He'd say, "On balance, and considering the alternatives, the United States is a force for good in the world."

Maybe that would be my epithet for him: "On balance, and considering the alternatives, he was a force for good in the world."

May I accomplish as much.


Blogger Joel said...

Very well put. I love First Things mostly, but maybe that's because Leithart writes there.

January 10, 2009 7:55 AM  

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