In the early 1970s, Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus was poised to become the nation’s next great liberal public intellectual—the Reinhold Niebuhr of his generation. He had going for him everything he needed to be not merely accepted but lionized by the liberal establishment. First, of course, there were his natural gifts as a thinker, writer, and speaker. Then there was a set of left-liberal credentials that were second to none. He had been an outspoken and prominent civil rights campaigner, indeed, someone who had marched literally arm-in-arm with his friend Martin Luther King. He had founded one of the most visible anti-Vietnam war organizations. He moved easily in elite circles and was regarded by everyone as a “right-thinking” (i.e., left-thinking) intellectual-activist operating within the world of mainline Protestant religion.
Then something happened: Abortion. It became something it had never been before, namely, a contentious issue in American culture and politics. Neuhaus opposed abortion for the same reasons he had fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. At the root of his thinking was the conviction that human beings, as creatures fashioned in the image and likeness of God, possess a profound, inherent, and equal dignity. This dignity must be respected by all and protected by law. That, so far as Neuhaus was concerned, was not only a Biblical mandate but also the bedrock principle of the American constitutional order. Respect for the dignity of human beings meant, among other things, not subjecting them to a system of racial oppression; not wasting their lives in futile wars; not slaughtering them in the womb.
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