WASHINGTON -- There was a time in America when the footsteps of theologians shook the land. Following World War II, people cared what Reinhold Niebuhr, Bishop Fulton Sheen and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had to say on public matters. These large figures provided the intellectual and moral ballast for a rough national crossing through the Cold War and the civil rights movement.
Today, this cultural role seems to be filled by some mix of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra -- which is to say, it is not filled at all.
In a saner, more serious time, Father Richard John Neuhaus would have been a broadly familiar name. He was a civil rights organizer, a friend and associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a co-founder of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam with the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, a founding theorist of the pro-life movement and a singularly important interpreter of the teachings of Pope John Paul II. Neuhaus' collected writings are voluminous, learned, sometimes controversial and often definitive. He sought out "genuine argument within the bond of civility" -- and with his passing last week at the age of 72 there will be less of both.
Neuhaus defined the modern church-state argument. In recent decades some legal theorists and judges have contended that a constitutional pluralism requires that the public sphere be scrubbed of religious influence. In his landmark book "The Naked Public Square," Neuhaus countered that American democracy depends on a robust religious life, including the sort of religiously informed public argument found in the civil rights movement. Americans must be allowed to bring their most deeply held values into the public square.
The book's publication in 1984 coincided with the growth of political evangelicalism, which was influential, vigorous and intellectually shallow. Lacking their own developed tradition of public engagement, activist evangelicals learned one from Neuhaus -- a long tradition that reflected on the relationship of faith and democracy. Father Neuhaus was perfectly suited to this role, having had a "born again" experience in high school, spending his early life as a Lutheran pastor, and eventually finding his commitments most fully expressed in Catholicism. Neuhaus was a consistent Catholic friend of evangelicals. Even so, it must have been a dubious honor for this Catholic priest to be named one of Time's 25 most influential evangelicals in 2005.