….Neuhaus had an extraordinary talent for bringing people together””to discuss, debate, and strategize. He regularly convened intellectually and theologically diverse groups to spend a couple of days discussing topics of interest. (In my own case the topics included, civil religion, multinational corporations, ecumenism, faith and politics, and “culture wars,” among others.)
But the most important of these projects was the 1990 founding of First Things. While Neuhaus had previously edited two similar journals, Worldview and This World, they had each been sponsored by larger foundations, the Carnegie and Rockford Institutes respectively. This time around the journal was Neuhaus’s own, to shape as he wished. And shaped it he did, with great talent and flair, bringing together like-minded writers representing Catholicism, evangelicalism, Orthodoxy and Lutheranism, along with fellow travelers from Judaism and Islam.
First Things was the flagship publication of Neuhaus’s Institute on Religion and Public Life, and the concept of “public life” was foundational to his efforts. Neuhaus always insisted that politics is only one aspect of a larger “public square”””one that makes room, as best it can, for a variety of religious, moral, and communal traditions. Boyagoda reminds us that Neuhaus and Berger actually coined the term “mediating structures,” now commonly used in social science, in their 1977 book To Empower People. That short book (just over 50 pages) showed how a wide range of smaller institutions””families, churches, professional associations, teams, guilds, neighborhood organizations, book clubs, schools””can offer a protective, nurturing space between individual and the power-hungry state.