Dispatches from the Academy 3: Neuhaus’ Choice

Again reporting from the Making Men Moral conference at Union University . . .

The evening panel featured Robert George, Jean Bethke-Elshtain, David Novak, and Harry Poe. Their primary subject was the life of Richard John Neuhaus. Lots of great material, but Robert George spoke very movingly of Neuhaus’ career.

In the 1960’s, Neuhaus was a friend and associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. During the next decade, Neuhaus moved into position to become the most prominent religious liberal in the United States, perhaps succeeding Reinhold Niebuhr in the esteem of the media and cultural elites. It was a position that would have been attractive to the talented Rev. Neuhaus.

Then, Roe v. Wade happened. At first, there was such a thing as a pro-life liberal. Teddy Kennedy was one. Jesse Jackson was one. Albert Gore was one. So was Richard John Neuhaus.

But the center failed to hold and the pro-life liberals pronounced fealty to Planned Parenthood in serial fashion. Richard John Neuhaus could have done that, too, had he wished to preserve his chance to succeed Niebuhr as the most prominent mainline Protestant.

Abandoning the unborn child, the defenseless and innocent human being who desperately needed protection, was a step too far for Neuhaus. So, he left “the left” behind.

The tenor of the story fit a persistent theme of this conference with speakers cognizant of the presence of young evangelicals in the room. Hold your ideals more dear than your lust for applause. The temptation to make oneself acceptable to the dominant zeitgeist is terrible in its power. Do as Richard John Neuhaus did. Resist.

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