David is right: Father Neuhaus was indeed one of a kind, and also a deeply admirable man. He was the happy warrior of the culture wars: eager to mix it up with those with whom he disagreed, but always with respect. There seems to have been no anger or spite in him—a rare thing among those engaged in hot-button cultural debates.
Neuhaus embodied one of the most important developments of our time, and also one of the most surprising: the hold conservative Catholics have on the political and legal views of conservative Protestants. Though he converted in middle age (he was a Lutheran minister when he became a public figure), Neuhaus was every inch a Catholic. Yet his work—both in his books and in First Things, the magazine he ran—attracted a wide and attentive audience among Protestants. I feel confident saying that Neuhaus was far more influential in evangelical Protestant circles than figures like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, or James Dobson.
Great as his influence was, the trend was the work of more than this one man. The most admired legal intellectual in evangelical circles is Antonin Scalia, a conservative Catholic. Catholic academics have spawned large and sophisticated bodies of work on the role Christian faith does and should play in law, politics, and culture. Of course, Protestant academics work in these areas too, and some of them—Mark Noll, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff come to mind—are every bit as smart and knowledgeable as their Catholic counterparts. Just as Michael McConnell, longtime law professor and judge on the 10th Circuit, can match wits with anyone in wide world of legal thought. But the Nolls and McConnells are few; their Catholic equivalents are many. Much as Father Neuhaus will be missed, his death does not alter that state of affairs.
At one level, the Catholic influence in Protestant circles has been a source of great good: there is more unity across denominational lines than perhaps at any time in American history. But there is a downside. Today’s American Protestants are optimistic about the potential for politics and law to move the culture in positive directions. That has led to the too-casual embrace of Republican party orthodoxy by many believers. (I say this as a registered Republican: I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution.) Likewise, American Protestants of my generation have placed more weight on cultural symbols—crosses and crèches in public spaces, prayers at public school graduations and sporting events, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance—than our predecessors in generations past. Battles over those symbols have absorbed too much of Christians’ political attention, and a host of other problems too little.
Father Neuhaus was a large part of the reason for those intellectual tilts—his thought was shaped by a religious tradition that found the exercise of government power more comfortable and Christian symbols more important than most Protestant traditions would suggest. Maybe Neuhaus and the tradition that shaped his legal and political views got these issues right. If so, the increasingly blurred line between Catholicism and Protestantism we see today is an unmitigated blessing. If not—well, suffice it say that some of us often find ourselves wishing that a more distinctively Protestant voice might emerge in the ongoing conversation about the role of Christian faith in American life.