Consumerism is not simply the state of being well off, it is the spiritual disposition of being controlled by what one consumes, of living in order to consume, of living in order to have things. This, of course, is a great spiritual danger for rich and poor alike.
Father Richard John Neuhaus sought to remind people that they are, at their essence, a child of God. Neuhaus, who was born in Pembroke, Ontario, Canada, was the son of a Lutheran minister. Ordained a Lutheran minister himself in 1960, he was active in the American civil rights movement, counting Martin Luther King, Jr. as a friend. His initial parishes as a Lutheran were in the poor black and Hispanic areas of Brooklyn. He never accepted the Great Society programs or welfare state as a solution to poverty. Because of the ongoing secular drift in America, Neuhaus committed himself to forcefully arguing against efforts to strip America from its moral foundations and voice.
While criticizing the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches for excessive political pronouncements, Neuhaus penned the founding document for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a Washington based think-tank committed to reforming the church's social witness by calling it back to biblical and historic Christian teachings. In 1984, he published his most notable book, The Naked Public Square. Neuhaus argued the interpretation of the separation of church and state by the contemporary courts were deemphasizing America's greatest strength, a vibrant religious tradition that allowed it to be a pillar of virtue, freedom, and economic opportunity.
Neuhaus, a defender of democratic capitalism, was critical of collectivist aims and those who were dismissive of the importance of economic liberty, especially among the clergy. In an interview with Religion & Liberty in 1993, he declared:
Since no society short of the kingdom of God can meet the appropriate criteria of justice, it follows that people want some kind of power, some kind of authority, to rightly order a society that is not rightly ordered by the simple exercise of individual liberty. This creates a circumstance which makes socialism, in one form or another, a very strong temptation for the moral imagination of politically engaged religious leaders. This is an endemic problem in religion and in America that found its most extravagant (some would say admirable) expression in the social gospel movement among Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th-centuries.
Neuhaus converted to Catholicism in 1990 and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest by John Cardinal O'Connor a year later. He remained active in ecumenical circles and was named by Time Magazine as one of the "25 most influential evangelicals in America" in 2005. Neuhaus founded First Things in 1990, an ecumenical journal whose purpose is to "advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." The journal was essential for linking conservative Protestants and Catholics together to share their thoughts and pool their resources in the public square.
Neuhaus was not just a popular figure for advocates of a robust religion in the public square, but he was a giant among orthodox Catholics because of his articulate defense of traditional theology. In all things, he had the heart of a pastor. This was evident in the graciousness with which he treated opponents and how he inspired followers of faith to look beyond this world.
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