America Comment

‘George W Bush is a very smart guy’: An interview with Fr Richard Neuhaus

Fr Neuhaus

In this archive interview from November 11, 2005, Damian Thompson speaks to Fr Neuhaus about his friendship with the president, the Iraq War, and a brush with death

The most influential clergyman in America, the man President Bush calls “Father Richard”, looks up at a tapestry of the life of Jesus hanging behind the desk of his Fifth Avenue office.

“It was made by a friend of mine. I like it – but, as you can see, she’s a Leftie,” he sighs. “Our Lord is in worker’s overalls – and which of the 12 apostles is Judas? Why, the pinstriped capitalist, of course.’’

The Rev Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who was once a prominent Lutheran pastor, is a friend of both George W Bush and Pope Benedict. This is not a comfortable thing to be in New York City. So he keeps a low profile. I did not even know what he looked like until The New York Review of Books ran a photo of him on its cover, next to the headline “Bush’s fringe government”.

In an article inside, the Left-wing historian Garry Wills described a cabal of Right-wing Catholics who acted as “contact points between the similar ruling systems of the Vatican and the White House’’. Chief of these was Fr Neuhaus.

“He has an air of quiet reasonableness that just makes his extremism more effective,’’ wrote Wills.

Time magazine agrees that Neuhaus has the ear of the President. “When Bush met with journalists from religious publications last year,’’ it reported, “the living authority he cited most often was not a fellow evangelical, but ‘Father Richard’, who, he explained, ‘helps me articulate these religious things.’”

I ask Fr Neuhaus whether that is true. “He exaggerates,’’ he says (meaning the President). “But we do talk things through. And they’re good conversations. Bush isn’t an intellectual, but he’s very quick and bright.’’ (Neuhaus often refers to the President as “Bush’’and to the Pope as “Ratzinger’’, which is unusual for someone who knows them.)

“If you were to meet Bush in the corporate world or even in the episcopate, you would say, ‘This is a very smart guy’.’’

It is not hard to see why the US President warms to Neuhaus, who was born in Canada. His personal style is part Grandpa Walton, part hard-nosed CEO. At one stage in our conversation, he walks across his office – not a particularly short journey – to unwrap a cigar.

When he takes off his jacket, he exposes a crisply ironed businessman’s shirt; but over it he is wearing a jet-black stock with a high Roman collar – a near-infallible indicator of conservative sympathies. In the 1990s, he had a terrifying brush with cancer, but he has now been told that he could live for another 20 years – not a prospect to thrill the Islamists and other “kooks” he attacks with such relish.

Neuhaus, 69, is the founder of a journal, First Things, in which conservative Catholics, Protestants and Jews debate the reintroduction of Judaeo-Christian values into public life. His editorials are erudite and combative, tinged with the sarcasm of a talk-show host.

American bishops flinch at the mention of his name. He argues that they have grossly mishandled the sex-abuse crisis, producing “self-exculpating press releases” and behaving like “frightened franchise managers in a time of corporate meltdown’’.

For half a century, Neuhaus was a Lutheran; and his roots show themselves in the unembarrassed way in which he speaks of Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. It was one of the things that endeared him to Pope John Paul II. No doubt, it also appeals to President Bush.

But his real value to the White House, one suspects, is as a conservative Christian scholar who can anatomise difficult concepts: the morality of stem cell research, or the application of classical Just War theory to postindustrial warfare.

And no, he insists, it is not hard explaining these ideas to the 43rd President. “If you put an argument to him that he hasn’t heard before, he’ll immediately come back with very incisive questions,’’says Neuhaus.

It is widely thought that, at a time when the Vatican was hinting that the Iraq war was indefensible, he reassured Bush that intervention met the traditional Christian criteria for taking up arms.

So what does he say now, with 2,000 soldiers dead?

“Arguing that, under the criteria of a just war, the action taken by the US, the UK and others was morally justifiable is not the same thing as saying that it was prudent or wise,’’ he replies.

That’s less than a wholehearted endorsement. “Well, I’m less of a neo-con than people think,’’ he says, examining his cigar.

“The thinking about the aftermath of invasion was not as thorough and clear as it should have been. But the direction of foreign policy is tilted toward the advance of democracy, which is solidly in the American tradition.

“The consequences of Iraq have been good in many ways – Gaddafi divesting himself of weapons of mass destruction, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

“Are these ripple effects due to the actions of the US? The answer is clearly yes.’’

Neuhaus dismisses the report that Bush let slip to Palestinian negotiators that he was “told by God” to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Absolute nonsense! Not only have I never heard the President say such a thing, but he knows very well that you cannot say such things.

“Bush is not, and never has been, a fundamentalist. He doesn’t believe in the literal inerrancy of the Bible. And he is totally immunised against apocalyptic stuff. He is a typical evangelical whose faith is intensely personal – not private – and centred on his own conversion.’’

Would that conversion have happened if Bush had not previously been a heavy drinker? “His drinking triggered off his realisation that his life was in deep trouble,’’ agrees Neuhaus. “In many ways, it’s the story of the prodigal son who, in that lovely phrase of the Bible, suddenly ‘came to himself’. And, in coming to himself, he came to Christ.’’

George W Bush is the first born-again Christian in the White House since Jimmy Carter. The President’s faith may not involve direct divine instructions – but doesn’t it give him a buzz of confidence that makes his critics nervous? “Confidence, yes,’’ says Neuhaus, “but also a sense of his own fallibility, of good and evil in the world – including the evil of his opponents, who use any cudgel with which to bash him.’’

As a young pastor opposed to the Vietnam war, Neuhaus was close to the Democrats. He is appalled by the way the party now treats “abortion rights” as a litmus test, and reserves his full sardonic disgust for politicians – such as John Forbes Kerry – who express “personal opposition” to abortion while voting for it. Just like Tony Blair.

“I know,” says Neuhaus sadly. “It’s disappointing that someone who is impressive in many ways exhibits this glaring inconsistency.”

Cardinal Winning used to berate Blair for his “nauseating hypocrisy” on abortion. The bishops of England and Wales, by contrast, are often accused of sucking up to Labour, kicking up a fuss only over subjects such as immigration.

“Our bishops are the same,” says Neuhaus. “They seem to want to abolish national boundaries altogether – a policy not unconnected with the fact that our new immigrants are Catholics.”

Not like Britain’s. “No, and you are right to be concerned about radical Islam. The concept of a people, a culture and a language has moral legitimacy, and if that faces an imminent threat, then a moral case can be made for saying we have to stop immigration for a time.”

It is inconceivable that an English bishop would say such a thing. But Fr Neuhaus, unlike any of them, has spent years debating faith and public policy with the new Pope. “I’ve met Ratzinger in Rome on many occasions,’’he says. “He’s self-effacing and gentle, intensely curious. I know for a fact that he tried to resign from his previous post at least three times in order to return to academic life.’’

This will be a “transformative pontificate’’, he believes – not on the world-historical stage, but in its implementation of the reforms of John Paul II. “The liberals who believe the Second Vatican Council mandated a revolution now know that it is not to be,’’ he says. “Certain issues are dead – such as women’s ordination.’’

“Progressive’’ Catholics caricature Neuhaus as reactionary. Yet his books reveal a nuanced conservative – he opposes an automatic ban on gay seminarians, for example – and a theologian who writes with great originality about “the work of dying’’.

In the mid-1990s, a friend in New York told me about “my wonderful priest, such a kind man, who has had terrible cancer’’. The priest was Fr Neuhaus. A tumour had ruptured his intestine; the operation was an “unspeakable mess’’, he says.

In his exquisitely written book As I Lay Dying, he describes the strangest experience of his life. Lying in hospital after the operation, surrounded by machines “pumping and sucking and bleeping’’, he was visited by two “presences’’ who told him: “Everything is ready now.’’ He is not sure who the visitors were, though he suspects they were angels. Their message? One of consolation: Fr Neuhaus was being assured that “the maggots will not have the last word’’.

However immersed he becomes in debates about public policy, he will never doubt the reality of this one experience. “I think of 1993 as the year that I died,’’ he says, stubbing out his cigar. “By which I mean that, when I die, as I certainly will, I expect and hope to hear the words: ‘Oh, you again’.’’

This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph