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Research & Innovation Spotlight


Randy Boyagoda

Title:

English

Office:

English

Email Address:

boyagoda@ryerson.ca

Specialization:

English

Biography:

Richard John Neuhaus was one of the most influential figures in American public life from the Civil Rights era to the War on Terror. His writing, activism, and connections to people of power in religion, politics, and culture secured a place for himself and his ideas at the centre of recent American history. William F. Buckley, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith are comparable — prodigious writers and willing controversialists adept at cultivating or castigating the powerful while advancing lively arguments for the virtues and vices of the ongoing American experiment. But unlike Buckley and Galbraith, who have always been identified with singular political positions on the right, and left, respectively, Neuhaus’ life and ideas placed him at the vanguard of events and debates across the political and cultural spectrum. For instance, alongside Abraham Heschel and Daniel Berrigan, Neuhaus co-founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, in 1965. Forty years later, Neuhaus was the subject of a New York Review of Booksarticle by Garry Wills, which cast him as a Rasputin of the far right, exerting dangerous influence in both the Vatican and the Bush White House.

Neuhaus’ impressive reach, across decades of dramatic change in the American political landscape, reflects his relentless energy and ambition, whether as as a writer, an activist, or a counselor to the powerful. More crucially, his reach came of his sense of vocation and mission: whether as a man of ideas, a man on the march, or a man in conversation with Presidents and Popes, Neuhaus was first, last, and always a man of God, a Lutheran minister who later converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. His life story and life’s work — to construct a religiously-informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty — proceeded from here, from his sense of himself as foremost a man of God. Whether he was being arrested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, or giving the keynote address at the 2008 National Right to Life Convention in Washington, Richard John Neuhaus’ aims and achievements, for himself, for his tens of thousands of readers, for his impressive array of friends and allies, and likewise for his many vehement opponents, turned upon the relationship that he forged, over four decades, between his priestly vocation and his passionate involvements in the leading causes and concerns of American culture and politics.

The biography I am working on, the idea for which originated in a 2009 article about Neuhaus’ writing that I published in The Walrus magazine, proposes to tell Richard John Neuhaus’ story in just these terms, as a remarkable American life in the public square.          

My research involves drawing on the recollections of Neuhaus’ family, friends, colleagues, and collaborators, in addition to canvassing the opinions of the public figures he advised, and also the opinions of his opponents. It will draw as well on Neuhaus’ personal papers, which are housed at the Archdiocese of New York’s seminary. The book will likewise engage with his voluminous published work. My ambition is to write a biography comparable to Sam Tanenhaus’ life of Whittaker Chambers, a book that attests to the drama, indeed the great adventure, of a politically-engaged intellectual’s life in the American public square.

Department:

The biography I am working on, the idea for which originated in a 2009 article about Neuhaus’ writing that I published in The Walrus magazine, proposes to tell Richard John Neuhaus’ story in just these terms, as a remarkable American life in the public square.