I was not entirely satisfied with my review of Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Richard John Neuhaus, and I was thinking of rewriting one of the sections. I have decided not to do so, however. I have submitted the review, and I do not want to revise it on my blogs, on Amazon, and on the Blogging for Books site. Instead, I’ll just ramble about it here on my blog.
The part of my review that does not satisfy me is this paragraph: “If there is one weakness to the book, it is that I wish that Boyagoda had explained more fully what made Neuhaus tick when he was a liberal. What drew Neuhaus to liberalism, and what were his rationales for his positions at that time? In reading the book, I could understand Neuhaus’ rationales for his conservative positions, but not entirely what made him tick as a liberal. That being the case, I wondered how he could have gone from one who decried capitalism and what he considered to be American aggression, to one who was more open to those things. Neuhaus’ conservative older brother said that Neuhaus was rebelling against his father by being a liberal, and that may have been unfair, but why exactly was Neuhaus a liberal?”
I was afraid that I may have been a bit unclear there. One could interpret me to be saying that I can understand conservatism because I agree with it, whereas I cannot understand how anyone could be a liberal. That’s not what I’m saying, though. Rather, I’m puzzling over how exactly Neuhaus made the transition. How did he conclude that his previous way of seeing the world was inadequate, and that his new way of seeing the world was correct? And did his new worldview address problems that motivated him to have his old worldview back when he had it?
As I said in my review, there were a variety of factors that led Neuhaus from the liberal camp to the conservative one. I listed his belief that the U.S. was better than the Soviet Union, his support for democracy around the world, his commitment to Christian orthodoxy, his opposition to abortion, his dislike for the New Left’s libertinism, and his view that localities could handle welfare better, even though he did not propose dismantling the welfare state. Some of these ideas he held (or may have held) even when he was a liberal. He was a committed Christian even then, and he may have even opposed moral or sexual libertinism and abortion at that time.
An important factor in Neuhaus’ conversion to conservatism that I forgot to list was Vietnam’s persecution of Christians. Not only did that contribute to his robust anti-Communism, but it also alienated him a bit from the Left, which did not seem to him to be overly concerned about that issue.
I would also say that perhaps there were traces of the old liberal Neuhaus in the new conservative Neuhaus. The old liberal Neuhaus was against the Vietnam War and felt that America was being an imperialistic bully that was taking many lives unnecessarily. The new conservative Neuhaus, by contrast, was critical of pacifism as an unrealistic option and considered the War on Terror to be a just war. And yet, as Boyagoda argues, Neuhaus was far from trigger-happy, contrary to what some of his critics believed. Neuhaus did not publicly give George W. Bush a blank check on the War on Terror, and, along with William F. Buckley, Jr., he had some private reservations about the Iraq War.
One consideration that was motivating Neuhaus when he was a liberal was a concern for the poor. I cannot remember where exactly Boyagoda said this, but I do recall one place in the biography in which Neuhaus criticizes capitalism as exploitative and acknowledges that injustice is systemic, which means that just giving money to charity is insufficient to help the poor. As a conservative, Neuhaus still thought about poverty: he was against dismantling the national welfare system, but he also believed that poverty was better addressed locally, and he stressed the importance of the family (even gay and lesbian families, though he would oppose gay marriage) as a way to help ameliorate the poverty problem.
On the one hand, this is precisely the sort of thing I’m looking for: how did Neuhaus as a conservative address the issues that troubled him back when he was a liberal? That would make the conversion more real, more thoughtful. On the other hand, I am a bit dissatisfied. As a conservative, did he no longer acknowledge that capitalism was exploitative, or that injustice was systemic? How, as a conservative, did he account for the facts that motivated his liberal position back when he was a liberal? Well, I am speaking from my incomplete knowledge, for Neuhaus did write a book about capitalism, and perhaps I should read that if I am curious! It’s called Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge of the Christian Capitalist. Maybe he came to believe that capitalism was not all bad, that it had some positive effects, and that is was better than socialism and communism.
What about the Vietnam War and the Cold War? As a conservative, Neuhaus believed that Vietnam was an oppressive dictatorship that persecuted Christians, and that the U.S. was better than the Soviet Union. Could he not as a liberal see some of that? I mean, Neuhaus was an intelligent guy. He was not like me when I was a conservative and had not yet become a liberal: one who was blissfully unaware of certain harsh realities of life. He had to have been familiar with the arguments of the other side, for he argued with people who made those arguments (i.e., his father, his brothers who were serving in Vietnam, and perhaps others). Wouldn’t he have heard that North Vietnam was Communist and could be brutal to people, as could the Viet Cong? Wouldn’t he, as a liberal, have heard the view that the Vietnam War was about stopping Communist expansion, an issue that would concern him when he was a conservative? How could those arguments have had little or no affect on him as a liberal, only to form a key aspect of his ideology when he was a conservative?
Well, part of the reason could have been that he saw North Vietnam and the Viet Cong as the lesser of two evils. But he may have also regarded Ho Chi Minh as a patriot and a freedom fighter against colonialism, as well as disputed the idea that Ho Chi Minh’s work was part of some plot of Communist expansion. M. Scott Peck held similar views (see here). I also recall something that Richard Nixon said in Monica Crowley’s book, Nixon Off the Record (see my post here). Nixon was puzzled by candidate Bill Clinton’s apparent disagreement with the Vietnam War, for Nixon truly felt that he himself had been vindicated in his view that the war was a just cause. Why? I think it was because Vietnam after the U.S. left ended up being a brutal Communist dictatorship. There may have been people in the New Left who did not anticipate that.
I may be trying to make Neuhaus’ conversion too neat, though. I know that, as a liberal now, I have not fully accounted for the things that concerned me when I was a conservative, nor have I come up with ways to address those concerns as a liberal. Unfortunately, life can be more complex than that, and we often try to choose the lesser of two evils. Yes, it was bad that Vietnam became Communist, but the massive loss of civilian lives in the Vietnam War was horrible, too. Maybe President Obama made some bad foreign policy decisions, but George W. Bush’s belligerence had drawbacks. All I can do is pray that my leaders have wisdom so they can make better decisions in this complex world.