Each spring in April, The King's College as a whole takes off three days to mull over a great theme through debates, lectures, art, a common reading, and a public address by a national figure. In 2007, our theme was "difficulty" and our speaker was Richard John Neuhaus, who died last week at the age of 72.
David Lapp, class of 2009, introduced him that night. In honor of Rev. Neuhaus's now completed life of service to Christ and with Mr. Lapp's permission, I reproduce his fitting tribute here.
The King’s College – Interregnum III
April 4, 2007
David Lapp, Scholar to the House of Lewis
Good evening and welcome to The King’s College Interregnum.
Difficulty. One certain gentleman gravely staring down at us right now knows a good deal about difficulty. If you look to your right, you’ll see a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was president during one of the most trying times for our nation. The civil war that our forefathers went through makes one wonder why, as one of the boys in the Lord of the Flies wondered why “things break up like they do.” Why do we bicker with one another, deceive one another, even kill one another? Why can’t we all just get along? And why don’t things go as we plan? We start life with grand hopes and noble dreams—but somewhere along the way we encounter the grave realization that life is difficult. If we are to live life at all, we come to realize that we live in a broken world; a messed up world. Of course, as Christians, we have the hope of redemption.
But in the meantime we live inescapably in the here and now---now, here, on 37th and Park in the Union League Club in New York City—and New York City is an opportune place for getting one hand’s dirty. Many wise people, including our speaker this evening, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, contend that getting our hands dirty is worth it.
Born in Ontario, Canada, Fr. Neuhaus was one of eight children and the son of a Lutheran minister. He would eventually become a Lutheran minister himself, pastoring a congregation in a poor, mostly black part of Brooklyn for 30 years. In the early 1980’s, he became involved with the Moral Majority, an evangelical movement initi0000000ated by Rev. Jerry Falwell, with the goal of promoting fundamentalist Christian values in government. The Moral Majority answered the need for what many Christians saw as a Christian presence in politics. Christians at that time largely shunned politics, confining themselves to the church. While Fr. Neuhaus appreciated the idea of the Moral Majority, he would come to criticize what he saw as their overt “triumphalist” approach to politics. He insisted, and continues to insist, that Christian political engagement, demands a civil conversation with opponents.
In 1990, Fr. Neuhaus converted to Catholicism, and became a priest soon after. But he certainly hasn’t shied away from discussions with Protestants since then. His commitment to our Lord’s prayer that the church “all may be one” is evident. He was one of the primary architects of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” a document signed by leading Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in America in an effort to identify common ground in the Christian faith.
As founder and editor-in-chief of the influential religion and public policy journal, First Things, Fr. Neuhaus has been advocating for an informed Christian presence in the public square. An interreligious journal, its stated purpose is to “advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”
His 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, was named by Christianity Today as one of the “Top 100” religious books of the 20th century. In it, he argued that secularism is a dangerous political doctrine; we need a public square that’s informed by transcendent values. In 1988, he wrote the influential The Catholic Moment: the Paradox of the Church in the Modern World while still a Lutheran pastor. So while not an evangelical, Time Magazine recently named him one of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.” ...
Those of us that attend college in the “skyscraper to heaven” have fairly lofty goals. We came to The King’s College out of a sense that God calls us “to get our hands dirty”; to redeem, not retreat. Yes, we are a fairly ambitious lot—us young aspiring statesmen, CEO’s, media execs, educators, pastors. We are the culture shakers who will change the world. But lest we’re under the illusion that we can assemble our presidential campaign team now that we’ve mastered Rhetoric, Logic, and have read Plato’s Republic, Fr. Neuhaus reminds us that we need to think very carefully about how we engage the public square. His somber and reflective writings have reminded the Christian community for decades now that Christian political and cultural engagement demands constant prayerful reflection and a circumspect civility.
In our time, the remarkable resurgence of evangelicals’ engagement in politics since the 2000 presidential election is, at least in some respects, akin to the Moral Majority movement that Fr. Neuhaus was a part of in the early 1980’s. Today, as then, there are enormous difficulties we must wrestle with as principled Christians entering the messy public square.
Pres. Lincoln’s portrait, though, reminds of the nobility of engagement. The fact that his portrait occupies such a prominent place in this Club is a testimony to the heroism of his willingness to serve his country, and the nobility of taking on the hard work of his time. But his somber look also reminds us that it came with a great deal of difficulty.
We are honored to have Fr. Neuhaus share with us his reflections on some of the particular difficulties that confront Christians today in the public square. Indeed, as one who’s spent over forty years thinking, living, and talking about what it means to be a Christian in the public square, Fr. Neuhaus has a wealth of wisdom to share with us. And we would do well to listen.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my very great honor to introduce Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.
You may read David Lapp's TKC Student Voice editorial on Neuhaus here. It is a fine reflection on the primacy of being transformed oneself before presuming to transform the world, and on the importance of adding civility to the love for truth when taking one's place in the larger cultural and political conversation.