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RIP Richard John Neuhaus

His was hardly a household name, and he never had a television show or a personal political machine like a lot of the Christian Right figures he inspired. But Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who died this morning, exerted an outsized influence on American conservatives, religious and secular. His 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, profoundly affected the very language of how people talked about church-state issues, and probably did more to undermine Protestant support for separation of church and state than any other corrosive force.

After his conversion to Catholicism in 1990, he became a bulwark of the traditionalist wing of his new church, and one of the leading architects of the evangelical-Catholic alliance on cultural issues like gay rights and abortion.

But the best progressive voice to hear about Neuhaus is Damon Linker, who once edited Neuhaus' flagship magazine, First Things, before becoming one of his most effective critics. In his obituary at The New Republic today, Linker speaks of "the two Richard John Neuhauses," one a kind man, a brilliant mentor, and a dedicated parish priest, and the other a political schemer and destructive force of a high order.

I briefly met the latter Neuhaus in the flesh during a Washington lecture at the height of the furor over his famous "End of Democracy" symposium at First Things, wherein he roiled conservative ranks by suggesting that judicial rulings on abortion and gay rights meant that Christians no longer owed obedience to "the current regime." I'd have to say that during his remarks Neuhaus was the most chilling, even terrifying, speaker I've ever heard, in a sort of erudite Grand Inquisitor manner. And I've heard some scary people over the years.

I'll take Linker's word for it that the more irenic, and even self-restrained "first Richard John Neuhaus" began to reemerge in his later years, spurred perhaps by recognition of the fruits of his alliance with the Bush-Delay
Republican Party. Even as I hope the religio-political storms he conjured up finally subside, I hope he rests in peace.