The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America by Richard John Neuhaus was published in 1984. Herewith, twenty years later, reflections on the influence of the book and contemporary problems raised by its argument, with a response by Father Neuhaus.
I should not like The Naked Public Square . After all, the book has little time for sectarians who have allegedly given up on the public square. (Indeed it would seem that I should be in favor of the public square’s nakedness. If the public square is naked, so much the better if you are a sectarian. Sectarians get to say you should have never trusted the world to underwrite your faith in the first place.) Richard John Neuhaus even claims that the possibility should not be dismissed that Constantinianism was a faithful response of the Church at that historical moment. He is right, moreover, that Constantinianism had no place for the dichotomy of politics and Christian truth-claims so characteristic of modernity”but then, we sectarians also have little use for that distinction.
Yet despite what some may expect, I do like this sprawling and diffuse book. I like it first of all because, like most of what Neuhaus does, it is so full of energy. Neuhaus reads everything and uses well what he reads. The book exemplifies its main argument by giving robust theological readings of figures such as Dewey and Rawls. As a sectarian, I think the reassertion of strong theological commentary is exactly what we need. I should like to think that from time to time I have followed Neuhaus’ example by offering a kind of theological narration of the challenges facing Christians today.
Neuhaus, of course, is quite gracious to sectarians. He indicates that we are an honorable alternative, a needed corrective that calls into question the spineless acquiescence of mainline Protestantism. I must say, however, I am not sure it is a good idea to accept this compliment. Reinhold Niebuhr”a Protestant liberal theologian whose hold on Neuhaus’ soul seems permanent”was among the first to compliment those of us committed to Christian nonviolence. We sectarians, however, do not think of ourselves as a corrective. We think what we say about what it means to be a follower of Jesus is true and, therefore, not simply a reminder to those who responsibly get their hands dirty.
Yet as much as I like The Naked Public Square , I continue to be puzzled by people who insist on interpreting Neuhaus as a religious conservative when he is so clearly a Protestant liberal. I quite understand that even though Neuhaus wrote the book as a Lutheran soon to be a Roman Catholic, he admirably left clues throughout the book that his habits of thought are determinatively habits learned at the feet of Protestant liberal theologians. Take, for example, the fundamental claim at the heart of the book, which is that politics is most importantly a function of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion, whether or not it is called by that name.
Ernst Troeltsch could not have said it better. On second thought, that may not be true: Troeltsch probably did say it better. He saw quite clearly that if Christians were to assume the task of forming the ethos of modern societies, the myths once thought constitutive of the Christian faith must be rejected or reinterpreted. Reinhold Niebuhr learned that lesson well. Neuhaus, like Troeltsch and Niebuhr, wants Christianity to be both orthodox and the form of culture. It is nice work if you can get it, but I remain skeptical that even Richard Neuhaus can pull that rabbit out of the hat. Of course, one of the benefits of assuming the mantle of Troeltsch is you get to call anyone who worries about making Christianity a civilizational religion a sectarian.
It may be objected that Neuhaus never mentions Troeltsch in The Naked Public Square . You do not need to mention Troeltsch when you have at your disposal an updated existential version of Troeltsch”that is, Paul Tillich. The claim that politics is a function of culture, that at the heart of culture is religion, and that religion is meant to serve as a public source of transcendent meaning”this is, as Neuhaus acknowledges, pure Tillich (and Hegel and Plato). Indeed, in the course of the book Neuhaus goes all the way with Tillich, whom he identifies as a liberal theologian, and underwrites Tillich’s claim that America has avoided the unhappy choice between heteronomy and autonomy by being a theonomous culture. Therefore America has avoided and can continue to avoid the idolatry called theocracy. This is the basis on which Neuhaus appeals to the religious right to be less combative in the public sphere. The religious right needs to understand that it does not need to use first-order theological language in public when it can appeal to transcendence”though in the process the religious right may fail to notice it has accepted the philosophical presuppositions of Protestant liberalism.
Of course, Neuhaus can respond that simply because he uses the modes of thought sponsored by Protestant liberalism, this does not mean that he accepts the Protestant liberal theological program. That may be the case, but I think Neuhaus needs to show how he avoids making theological claims mean something else than what they say. Neuhaus claims, for example, that theology is the disciplined reflection upon transcendent truth and value that gives significance, perhaps eternal significance, to our lives. But such an account of theology assumes that you know what transcendence means prior to knowing what it means for God to have called Israel from the nations. It is interesting, indeed, how little there is about the Church in The Naked Public Square . If you have transcendence I guess you really do not need the Church. Perhaps that is why Neuhaus claims that without a transcendent or religious point of reference, conflicts of values cannot be resolved. But as far as I can tell he never shows us how transcendence qua transcendence actually works to resolve value conflicts. Surely the problem begins by accepting the language of values.
The Naked Public Square , of course, is not to be judged by what was said in the book itself. Rather, The Naked Public Square is to be judged by the work done by First Things . With The Naked Public Square Richard Neuhaus named a challenge before us and as a result located a community of writers and readers ready to meet that challenge. The theological journalism Neuhaus unleashed I believe to be a great good. Along the way, moreover, I have noticed that he has talked less and less about transcendence and more about the Church. I take that to be a great good, but he must be careful. Someone may think he is a sectarian.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University.
Mary Ann Glendon
In The Naked Public Square Richard John Neuhaus charged that the United States, while calling itself a democratic society, was systematically excluding the values of the majority of its citizens from policy decisions. He contended that to rule out of bounds in public life religiously grounded moral viewpoints not only does injustice to America’s incorrigibly religious citizenry but also saps the very foundations of our democratic experiment. Convinced that the moment had come for men and women of faith to make themselves heard in setting the conditions under which we order our lives together, Neuhaus was heartened by what he saw as the growing political effectiveness of groups that were beginning to do just that. If religious voices in the U.S. today are stronger, more confident, and more adept at translating their values into terms that are persuasive to their fellow citizens, more than a little credit must go to the encouragement and example of Richard John Neuhaus.
Nevertheless, twenty years later, there is limited room in the American public square for conversation, contention, and compromise among a wide variety of moral actors. State-sponsored secularism, legally tightening its control, is ever more openly intolerant of rival belief systems. Despite efforts by some of the country’s best lawyers to promote applications of the First Amendment that are respectful of text and tradition, the courts continue to set the establishment and free exercise provisions at odds with each other, to the detriment of individual and institutional religious freedom. In the 2004 case of Locke v. Davey the Supreme Court actually gave its blessing to official religious discrimination, permitting the state of Washington to single out the study of theology for exclusion from a public scholarship program. The current Court majority has pressed forward with a six-decade-long trend of cabining religion in the private sphere while eroding protections of the associations and institutions where religious beliefs and practices are generated, regenerated, nurtured, and transmitted from one generation to the next.
At the state level, too, the outlook for the first of freedoms is bleak. The freedom of religious institutions to govern themselves is under growing assault, as we saw in the 2004 California Supreme Court decision requiring Catholic Charities to provide prescription contraceptive coverage for its employees. Faith-based institutions are facing ever-bolder efforts aimed at forcing them either to compromise their principles or to cease providing alternatives to government-controlled education, health care, housing, and programs for the poor. Attacks on religious freedom in the name of new sexual liberties are increasing. With the judicial nomination process excluding many men and women whose religious or moral beliefs diverge from the secular magisterium, there is little likelihood of a change of direction any time soon.
If present legal trends continue, it is not fanciful to suppose that the situation of religious believers in secular America will come to resemble dhimmitude ”the status of non-Muslims in a number of Islamic countries. The dhimmi is tolerated so long as his religion is kept private and his public acts do not offend the state religion. Naturally, key positions in society must be reserved to those who adhere to the official creed.
Neuhaus’ diagnosis of the problem remains valid, but events have not borne out his confidence that a supposedly religious majority could help remedy our circumstances. Perhaps he read more into the polling data about American religious opinions than was really there. Certainly he staked a great deal on the notion that most Americans were still attached in important ways to the Judeo-Christian tradition. No doubt he was right that millions of Americans felt a powerful resentment against values that they believe have been imposed on them, but were their numbers really greater than the millions who adopted various forms of indifferentism, going along to get along? After all, it’s so much easier to get into the public square”or anywhere else one wants to go in American society”if one checks one’s religion at the gate, at least those parts of one’s religion that do not conform to the dominant ideology. If a majority of Americans are still religious in some sense, how many, one wonders, adhere to religions that assert strong truth claims and make strong demands on their members? And how many are devotees of what Robert Bellah and his associates dubbed Sheila-ism after the interviewee who described her entirely private religion as a matter of listening to her own inner voice?
Twenty years ago, Neuhaus correctly saw that the chief threat to our republic was not communism (as many thought at the time), but a collapse of the idea of freedom and of the social arrangements necessary to sustaining liberal democracy. But he seemed reluctant to follow his own analysis to its natural conclusion. Though he mentioned in passing the lethal liberationisms that reached their apex in the late 60s and early 70s, he did not explore what that social revolution was doing to the cultural foundations of our republic. Though insisting, as did many of the Founders, that our regime of ordered liberty requires certain moral qualities in its citizens and statespersons, Neuhaus held back from pondering the condition of the principal settings where those qualities are acquired. It is now clear that the years of adult liberation took a dreadful toll on children, and on the nation’s principal seedbeds of character and competence: families and their surrounding communities of memory and mutual aid.
What many Americans now seem to want is for other people to be incorrigibly religious (or at least to behave as if they were). They want other people to cultivate the self-restraint that makes social life possible, other people to hang in there when family life gets tough, other people to be ethical in business dealings, other people to pay taxes, and other people to provide children with attention and discipline. While Neuhaus was urging free citizens to claim their rightful places in public life, we were becoming a nation of free riders, coasting along and spending social capital that is rapidly running out.
It would not have suited the hortatory, upbeat mood of The Naked Public Square to dwell on the state of American culture. The book, after all, was a rallying cry. But on the very last page, Neuhaus observes that the new thing we are looking for may not come at all. The naked public square may be the last phase of a failed experiment. No doubt he meant that warning as a spur to action. Today, it has a more ominous sound. The American agora, now crowded with jealous idols, awaits a new Paul preaching the unknown God.
Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
When The Naked Public Square appeared, it was immediately clear that Richard John Neuhaus and I agreed on a basic premise: that it is wrong to ban religious discourse from the public square just because it is religious. We also agreed, I think, that religious discourse should not be privileged in the public forum. We both wrote and thought (and still do) from our basic religious commitments, but our interpretation of how those commitments should inform our political posture differed considerably, and this made our discussions and debates lively and memorable (at least for me). My religious and theological foundation led me to a somewhat left-of-center politics. I will leave it to Neuhaus to characterize his. I opposed both the Vietnam war and the U.S.-sponsored war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Neuhaus and I agreed on the former, but (as I recall) disagreed on the latter.
That is all water under the bridge, I suppose, although we as a people still bear the scars of both interventions. When one surveys the current state of the public square, many things have changed, but my (our?) insistence that religious voices”even the ones with which we disagree (or maybe especially those)”do belong in the public square has not wavered.
Today, however, it hardly seems necessary to argue that religion must be allowed a voice in public policy discourse. It is more than evident that the voices of conservative Protestants, Roman Catholic bishops, Jewish leaders, and others are neither excluded nor silenced. Of course, many people still believe that those who actually forge policy are not paying sufficient attention. But that is another matter. If anything, I would say that, on balance, religious opinions are more frequently voiced and heard today in America than they were twenty years ago.
During those years, however, I have become more and more interested in Christianity as a world religion, and this has led me to be careful about making generalizations about religion and public life that might make sense in the United States but not in other countries. For example, Christians in India have just lived through a period of Bharatiya Janata Party government in which a policy of Hinduization of the public sphere was an announced aim of the ruling party. True, this objective was greatly watered down after the BJP achieved power and realized both that it had to face elections and that the various religious minorities (including Christians), as well as many Hindus, did not favor their policy. Is it any wonder that Christian leaders in India have been praying for a more secular public square? By secular, of course, they mean not antireligious but rather a position that is genuinely neutral vis- -vis the various religious groups in Indian society. Those who hold secularization to be bad in every situation might be puzzled by this pro-secular position advocated by Christians. But in India it makes quite a bit of sense.
Meanwhile, in some of the Arab states we have seen a wave of demands for a decidedly more religious public square, one that would be governed by a strict enforcement of shari’a. The intellectuals who nurtured this idea (such as Sayyid Qutb of Egypt) and those who support it today use arguments that sound very similar to those of the most conservative Christian advocates of Christian America, like the followers of Rousas Rushdoony and the school of Christian Reconstruction. Many of the advocates of a return to shari’a were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by more secular rulers. Qutb, for example, was murdered on Nasser’s orders in an Egyptian prison, a death that pushed the Muslim Brotherhood from its original reformist and educational agenda toward the employment of violence. Qutb is now (mistakenly, I think) referred to as the father of Islamic terrorism.
The debate about religion in the public square is still raging in the Muslim world. Indeed, the real goal of such groups as al-Qaeda is primarily to rid majority-Muslim countries of secular rule. As Americans we seem to have been drawn into a struggle that was not initially directed against us.
How should the often significant Christian minorities in majority-Muslim lands respond to this challenge? Palestine is a key example. For Christians there to support Hamas, which envisions a Muslim homeland, seems self-defeating (even though there would certainly be a lot of religion in that public square). To side with Israel is out of the question for them, especially when those Israelis advocating a Torah state seem to be gaining ground. This leaves the PLO, which despite its corruption and ineptitude, promises at least a secular alternative in a future Palestinian state. The choice is an anguishing one.
I do not suggest I have any answers to the nettlesome problems sketched above. Yet in a world in which the majority of Christians now live outside the old perimeters of Christendom, they are hardly questions that can safely be ignored.
The Naked Public Square focused mainly on the U.S. Perhaps it is time for Volume Two, which would expand, elaborate, and complicate the thesis for a Christian church that lives in a widening variety of circumstances, and for churches that may be able to learn something from the American model but should hardly be expected to emulate it.
Harvey Cox is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of numerous books, including Religion in the Secular City (1965).
When The Naked Public Square was published, I was working for a venerable Jewish organization and was increasingly frustrated by its doctrinaire approach to church-state issues. The organization stood for the strictest separation of church and state, which it justified with incantatory repetitiveness as the best way to ensure that religion could flourish. There is merit in this line of thought, of course, but there are also problems. For one thing, when religiosity did flourish, many of my colleagues seemed scared and discomfited by it. The nation seemed then”and perhaps still seems”to be in the midst of a religious revival, but my colleagues viewed this as a deviation from a settled consensus as to the normative secularity of our public life. Admittedly, the moral majoritarians were hard to love (as Richard John Neuhaus fully displays in his ambivalence toward them). Nonetheless, they betokened a major transformation in the history of religion and society in America, and my organization was ill-suited to do much other than complain about it.
It was Neuhaus in this book who first began to expose for me the limitations of a strictly jurisprudential approach to a profound problem of politics and culture. If you only have a hammer, the saying goes, every problem will look like a nail. Jewish organizations treated all the questions of religion and democracy as if they were legal ones that could be solved by heightening the wall of separation or advocating for free exercise, so long as that exercise did not undermine the almighty wall. Neuhaus taught me that one needs many tools in one’s toolbox: law, yes, but also history, social and political theory, and, above all, theology.
There have been many books, both popular and scholarly, written on religion and democracy since 1984, books that address our current dilemmas with erudition, methodological sophistication, and political engagement. The work of Stephen Carter comes to mind. Nonetheless, I am not sure that any of them would merit a twenty-year retrospective, as The Naked Public Square surely does. Rereading it, I am struck by the dialectical quality of the author’s judgments. Almost every criticism of a position or movement is accompanied by an affirmation of some truth that that position or movement nonetheless preserves. It is not a partisan book; it is filled with both sympathy and skepticism, as the author writes, toward the persons and phenomena he analyzes. I will leave it to specialists to decide whether this dialectical approach reflects a distinctively Lutheran sensibility. I would say that it reflects Christian moral responsibility”indeed, Christian love. Even at his most disapproving, Neuhaus demonizes no one.
In Neuhaus’ view, a public square shorn of respect for divine transcendence will soon fasten onto the ersatz transcendence of Leviathan. Is this view overly apocalyptic? Now that the contest between European totalitarianisms and liberal democracy has been settled (thank God) in favor of the latter, is the fear of a slide toward totalitarianism passé? Indeed, since a religious movement (radical Islamism) and not secular communism or fascism is the defining threat of our time, should we not have more appreciation for a naked or at least lightly clothed public square? I would also say that the substitution of Islamo-fascism for secular totalitarianisms does not challenge Neuhaus’ thesis. He wants to preserve democracy against all authoritarianisms, religious and secular. Islamist authoritarianism is as much a totalitarian temptation as was Nazism.
This totalitarian temptation stands in vivid contrast to what Neuhaus calls critical patriotism. When I first read the book, Neuhaus’ argument on behalf of loyalty and love for America coupled with moral judgment was persuasive to me. His basic claim is that only biblical faith can keep faith in the nation from becoming idolatrous and dangerous. Patriotism is a virtue, but only in the proper context: biblical faith in the universal purposes of God sets the context and limits of patriotism. Patriotism is critical because it is suspended in tension between moral judgment and political allegiance. Patriotism, although it involves love for what is native to us, is not native to us. Love of self, love of tribe, love of locale are all more proximate than love of nation. The sentiments of patriotism must be nurtured. As Walter Berns suggests, if a nation wishes to survive, it must dedicate itself to making patriots. Neuhaus is aware of this, yet his distancing of the concept of citizen from the concept of patriot is nonetheless disturbing. Following the late Yale constitutional scholar, Alexander Bickel, Neuhaus sees the citizen as a legal abstraction, a sort of Rawlsian contractarian, rather than as a real person. The fatal move, Neuhaus writes, is in the elevation of the concept of citizen. The concept of citizen is then conflated with and finally swallows the reality of persons. For Neuhaus citizen can mean cipher (as, he says, comrade does in some countries), for it suggests that our rights derive from our status in a state rather than being original attributes of our pre-political personhood.
If we are to speak of rights, I would agree that they attach to our being as persons and not as citizens. But if we are speaking of patriotism, I don’t see how we can do so without tying citizenship and patriotism closely together. If we don’t do so, then patriotism may devolve into a haze of nationalistic feeling without civic duties and responsibilities.
Neuhaus’ rejection of the moral potency of citizenship stems from a concern to root our rights and duties in the real rather than the artificial, in nature rather than custom. It is of a piece, I think, with the wholeness or integration he seeks in the project of re-infusing public life with moral legitimacy derived from biblical faith. But biblical faith also tells us that the world is broken and that, despite our duty to fix what we can of it, there is a great deal that we cannot fix. In such a world, the distinction between artificial and real is a real distinction, as is that between sacred and profane. A naked public square is not, in my view, desirable, but neither is a sacred one. A civil public square, where citizens explore their ultimate and proximate agreements and disagreements with a modicum of respect, is desirable. I think that a renewal of confidence in the meaning of citizenship would contribute to that goal rather than detract from it.
Alan Mittleman is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and Director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute on Religion and Social Studies.
The Naked Public Square was an important book when it was published; it remains an important book twenty years later. In it, Richard John Neuhaus articulated the discontent felt by many culturally conservative Christian Americans, and he articulated that discontent without any illusions about its underdeveloped political and theological nature or its sometimes narrow-minded hostility to outsiders. The questions, problems, and paradoxes explored in the pages of The Naked Public Square are not only timeless in large historical terms, but they remain as thorny as ever in this age of faith-based initiatives, welfare reform, sexual politics, and contention over religious language and imagery in courtrooms and classrooms. To my mind, Neuhaus’ book offers the most compelling presentation of its kind, a weighty jeremiad for the late twentieth century. (By way of disclaimer, I write as a liberal Episcopalian who believes strongly that a public square that is somewhat divested of religion serves an important role in fostering for religious and cultural minorities the very religious liberty that Christian Americans have enjoyed for so long.) There are many ways to enter into dialogue with the book; let me draw out just a few points, by reflecting on three concepts that lie at the heart of Neuhaus’ argument.
Democracy . The book captured the sense of exclusion and frustration experienced by large numbers of cultural conservatives, a frustration powered by revulsion at the increasingly radicalized social movements of the 1960s, separationist Supreme Court rulings on church and state, especially after 1963, and the widening distance between the Christian elements present at the nation’s founding and the character of America’s late twentieth-century culture.
Twenty years on, I wonder how developments in American partisan politics have affected these cultural-moral political divisions. The Naked Public Square was written during the first Reagan term, in the wake of evangelical disillusionment with Jimmy Carter’s presidency and Democratic control of Congress. Clearly, cultural politics do not fall neatly along partisan lines. But such developments as the emergence of Republican Party control at the congressional and gubernatorial level, increasingly narrow margins on many Supreme Court decisions, an increasingly prominent evangelical presence at the highest levels of Republican Party leadership, and Republican hold on the executive branch for all but eight of the past twenty-four years must surely diminish the sense of alienation among the cultural conservatives that Father Neuhaus chronicled. Provocative events continue to pop up on both sides of the religio-political divide”the Ninth Circuit’s under God ruling and gay marriage as a stalking-horse for bestiality on the one hand, the latest remarks by Pat Robertson or John Ashcroft or General Boykin on the other. But is it really credible, at this point in the nation’s history and considering not only the current administration but Congress and the Supreme Court, for evangelicals to claim that they are shut out from the halls of political power, that their concerns are marginalized and viewed as politically illegitimate? (This is not to claim that evangelical concerns always carry the day, only that they receive a serious hearing at the highest levels of government.)
Conversely, shouldn’t we remain as concerned as Neuhaus surely was about the antidemocratic nature of the Christian right itself, and note the accounts of mainline Protestant leaders or representatives of the peace churches, who don’t even get their calls returned by the current Republican administration? Has the return, or at least the partial return, of religion to the public square since 1984 contributed to advancing democratic civility in American political discourse? I suspect that it has not.
Morality . Liberal, as opposed to majoritarian, democracy is grounded on the idea that there should be limits on the ability of majorities to enact policy, and that those limits have to do with preserving space for the conscientious beliefs of individuals and minority groups. Neuhaus called for a renewed respect for moral sentiments and their democratic expression in the public arena, especially as it relates to evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives. But such a renewed respect, in real political and legal terms, might well threaten the ability of the adherents of minority religious (or religio-political) groups to achieve a meaningful level of respect for their own moral sentiments in the public arena. Think of Judge Roy Moore’s placement of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama courthouse, for example; or legal issues in workplace proselytization, an intriguing and perplexing emergent field of civil rights law. Although the naked public square, or something like it, might certainly be objectionable on several grounds (its free exercise implications for Christian conservatives, its antidemocratic consequences), it might also serve the very purpose of ensuring a respect for moral sentiments and their democratic expression in the public arena for minority or marginalized perspectives.
Engagement . One of the most inspiring aspects of the book is its consideration of what it means to be engaged with our fellow citizens. Neuhaus rightly criticizes much fundamentalist biblical prophecy as alien to the [Christian tradition] in its refusal to engage the Christian message in conversation with public and universal discourse outside the circle of true believers. Later on, he connects compromise with engaged moral action: To be engaged in a process of compromise is to be engaged as a moral actor. If we have any hope of finding principled, moral compromise regarding the ways in which American citizens draw on their religious values in public debate, something like this notion of engagement and conversation is going to have to reappear in the midst of our increasingly rancorous, increasingly partisan public debate. Twenty-first century American political rancor is a problem for both the left and the right. The rancor of the left, its instinctive repugnance at all things Bush, is matched by the rancor of the right, which too easily equates Bill Clinton and Osama bin Laden.
Choosing engagement over rancor is a tall order, to be sure, but hardly impossible. Considering the vicious personal attacks on such American icons as Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt in their own day, we are surely not in worse shape than we have been at other points of our history. But moving forward will require a healthy dose of humility and charity from all sides. To take the notion of engagement as seriously as Neuhaus’ book demands, we might be required to see the public square as not only reflecting the nation’s diverse faith commitments but also as itself requiring a leap of faith in which we bring our deepest (and divergent) values to a vibrant political debate without any guarantee that our side will win on any particular issue. Perhaps it is not simply a clothed public square for which we should be aiming but a coat of many colors.
Andrew Murphy is assistant professor of humanities and political philosophy at Christ College, Valparaiso University.
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Some critics of Richard John Neuhaus’ discourse-altering book claim that the public square has never been naked. Others say that it is naked and must continue to be, and that it’s a damn good thing, too. The first group insists that Neuhaus wanted to fill the public square with confessional talk”which, of course, is out of bounds in a society whose public square has always worn the decent garments of democratic civility, evidently not the garb that Neuhaus favors. The second group accepts and even celebrates a naked public square because it believes that the comprehensive worldviews of citizens”and religion is nothing if not a comprehensive worldview”have no proper place in a secular constitutional republic. These analysts press arguments often derived from the work of the late, great John Rawls, and insist that, should arguments derived from religious convictions enter the public square, they must be wearing secular garb. This, they say, is the requirement to which Neuhaus objected, and if this makes the public square naked, so be it.
The first criticism is clearly wrong and I shall spend no time on it. The second is more plausible, but it is a radical distortion of what really goes on in American civil society. Our public square has always been filled with arguments of all sorts. What Neuhaus rightly warned us about twenty years ago were trends in jurisprudential thought, Supreme Court decisions, and political philosophy that were combining to strip the public square of religiously derived moral and ethical concerns. Many of these moves could correctly be interpreted as an effort to make invisible to public life the religious faith that animates the majority of American citizens.
As Neuhaus saw, this effort was propelled by what might be called, at best, a mistaken assumption”the assumption that because the United States does indeed have a secular government, it therefore is and always has been a secular civil society. The trends Neuhaus criticized aimed at mapping civil society along the lines of church-state separation, and such mapping could only have the effect of seriously distorting our picture of American civil society. Many of us have written about this at some length over the past fifteen or twenty years but reminders are always in order. One might point to all those great public citizens over the years who spearheaded movements for social reform squarely within a framework of religious belief. Martin Luther King is inevitably cited here, but there are many others. This is an entirely appropriate move to make, although it has become rather predictable. Do we want to silence someone such as King because our academic and legal elites hate Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson? The answer, surely, is No: that would be far too high a price to pay.
There is another, more fruitful way to move, and that is to examine in depth the role that faith has played in shaping American civil society as such. We know from empirical studies of the last decade that regular church attendees are more likely to be involved as good citizens in their communities. No surprise there. What is harder to get at because it is largely invisible to us is the crucial part that faith plays in what Alexis de Tocqueville called shaping and forming the passions and turning them into self-interest rightly understood. Such self-interest aims not only at an individual’s good but also at a common good, because the self that is interested is a moral self. That moral self emerges in large part because of the way that faith tames and shapes moral sensibilities, insofar as faith remains sufficiently robust.
That said, one should never employ Tocqueville in these discussions as if he were an unabashed celebrant of American democracy. He was not. He noted certain unfortunate, even dismal, tendencies that might be played out”trends that isolate us within the entropic vortex of an autonomous self. Tocqueville limned a world of such isolated and isolating selves, and the enhanced control they would demand from the top as civil society faded. He called it democratic despotism. Whether or not we would want to use this term, we must acknowledge the phenomenon and admit that it is worrisome. Many of us have fretted publicly about such trends”I did so myself in a book called Democracy on Trial (1995). I don’t think that American democracy was then or is now best captured within the gloomy scenario Tocqueville sketched”no more than I think that Neuhaus believed the American public square was stripped entirely naked. But Neuhaus’ book sounded a needed alarm that in the past two decades has been echoed in many quarters”an alarm about where we were going and what would happen if certain claims and trends went unchallenged. For this reason and many others, we owe Neuhaus a debt. His book forced many of us to consider afresh our own positions and those of others. The Naked Public Square generated a serious debate about democratic discourse and the role of religion in that discourse, and this debate continues to the present moment. Indeed, so vigorous was that discussion that Rawls himself partially (but only partially) revised his view on where religion might fit in American political debate.
Many still suspect that anytime someone speaks from faith his or her speech is bound to be self-referential and beyond reasoned debate. This is clearly wrong but it is a widespread apprehension”and a peculiar one, too, in a popular culture that celebrates and sells self-referentiality. Religious faith, in fact, has quite a different effect on the public life of citizens. Faith calls people out of themselves and compels them to think of common goods and higher goods. Neuhaus reminded all of us of that inescapable fact.
Jean Bethke Elshtain teaches at the University of Chicago and is the author of Just War Against Terror (Basic Books), named by Publishers Weekly as one of best nonfiction books of 2003.
Ralph C. Wood
Very few of us want to be held accountable for everything”not even for most of the things!”we said or did or believed twenty years ago. In 1984 I was still a naïve Kierkegaardian who had not yet seen the wisdom of Kierkegaard’s warning that he was a corrective rather than an answer. Kierkegaard’s caveat about his own work may also apply to Richard John Neuhaus’ provocative book of two decades past. The Naked Public Square was a splendidly admonitory but insufficiently remedial book.
Like no one else before him, Neuhaus revealed that the rise of the new religious right was an almost perfect mirror-image response to the decline of the old religious left. Both sides wrongly assumed, Neuhaus showed, that there is a core consensus on what is moral, a common set of premises that both believers and nonbelievers can agree on. This shared world of moral discourse had already ceased to exist by 1984. Liberal and conservative Christians alike had denuded the public realm”the open places where the vexing ethical questions are adjudicated”of serious religious argument.
Mainline Protestants had retreated into a civil religion devoid of any distinctively Christian content, as the pronouncements of the National Council of Churches became virtually identical to those of the American Civil Liberties Union. The newly resurgent fundamentalists seemed to be their proper scourge, but they, too, had abandoned the public arena by retreating into a privatized morality and an individualist theology. Preachers are meant to be soul winners, Jerry Falwell had declared, not social reformers. Each camp, Neuhaus demonstrated, had abandoned those large moral sentiments and deep religious traditions that once shaped American life. They had both promoted, albeit unintentionally, the newly regnant equation of public with secular. Abortion provided Neuhaus an apt illustration: religious arguments about the nature of the human person and the origin of human life had been excluded from the American courts. Hence his dire declaration: The result, quite literally, is the outlawing of the basis of law .
In calling for a religious alternative to both fiery fundamentalism and spineless liberalism, Neuhaus was surely right. Yet the two intervening decades have not been kind to his proposed solution. He urged Christians on both the left and the right to provide moral legitimacy for democracy in America. Over and again, he implored believers to devise forms of that interaction which would revive rather than destroy liberal democracy, to offer leadership that would influence the social order, and thus to restore the role of religion in helping to give moral definition and direction to American public life and policy.
For Neuhaus, the values that undergird the American democratic project were clear: a near obsession with civil liberties, a relatively open market economy, the aspiration toward equality of opportunity, a commitment to an institutionalized balancing of powers and countervailing forces, and a readiness to defend this kind of social experiment, if necessary, by military force. So essential are these liberal democratic principles”not only for American life but for human existence itself”that Neuhaus called unabashedly for the reconstruction of a sacred canopy, a holy covering to provide the American experiment its divine legitimacy.
Though already identified as a leading neoconservative thinker, Neuhaus still took his bearings from liberal theologians: from Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, David Tracy and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Thus did we find Neuhaus resorting, like them, to nontheological language in order to demonstrate that religious concerns could be brought to bear on public matters. Repeatedly, therefore, he called for a recovery of ultimacy and transcendence, for the construction of a theonomous society, declaring that even less orthodox Christians can assert some kind of cosmic order”maybe even divine order”to which human affairs ought to be accountable.
To be blunt: the strategy did not work. Neither believers nor unbelievers, whether on the left or the right, agreed to meet on the allegedly common ground of ultimacy and transcendence and cosmic order. A religiously grounded democracy did not develop. Something far more radical was required to answer the crisis that Neuhaus had so acutely identified. His conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1990 was the most obvious evidence of his new ecclesial and confessional response to the calamity at hand. Holy Scripture and papal encyclicals became Neuhaus’ chief points of reference for addressing the broken world. The Church needed to get its own house in order, he rightly saw, if it were to help turn our nihilistic culture from death to life. Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the remarkable 1994 document authored principally by Neuhaus and Charles Colson, offered a joint vision of the ecumenical Church as the people of God called to evangelize the world and to bear the cross.
Yet it was an intramural crisis at First Things that most clearly disclosed how far Neuhaus had traveled from his book of 1984. In a 1996 editorial written to introduce a symposium on the judicial usurpation of politics, Neuhaus decried the federal courts’ invention of previously unrecognized constitutional rights in deciding cases that dealt, for instance, with abortion and euthanasia. Such a judicial foreclosing of legislative debate, including the rejection of all theological claims about these deeply contested moral issues, prompted Neuhaus to ask an apocalyptic question. The question was no longer whether American democratic liberalism could be religiously sustained; it was whether we are now witnessing the end of democracy, and thus whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.
The outraged response was widespread and was not limited to Neuhaus’ enemies. Peter Berger and Gertrude Himmelfarb immediately resigned from the editorial board of First Things . That the former is a neoliberal and the latter a neoconservative validates Neuhaus’ original thesis of 1984”that left and right, for all their apparent opposition, remain essentially akin. Yet a drastic new thing has emerged: the public square is no longer naked, not at least for that large public represented by Berger and Himmelfarb. For them, it is now evident, the emptiness has been filled by the one earthly good that possesses true ultimacy”the American democratic project. For Neuhaus, it has become equally evident, the Body of Christ alone commands our final loyalty.
Obedience to the God who embodies Himself in the worldly community called the Church is especially important when the prime political problem is not judicial usurpation but a far more sinister evil. Now, it has become clear, Christians face a much larger vexation, one that Neuhaus had barely mentioned in 1984”the malign prospect of democratic totalitarianism. When the majority is willing to give political license to abortion and euthanasia, or (I would add) to both militarism and materialism, then democracy itself becomes despotic. Majority rule, as Neuhaus noted in the early pages of his book, is no sure guarantee of freedom. The Church is the one warrant for lasting liberty, Richard John Neuhaus still teaches us, when it forms a people who best serve the nation-state by living according to the virtues that St. Augustine described as ordered love.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.
Allen D. Hertzke
The Naked Public Square appeared at a propitious moment for me. In 1984 I was beginning my third year of doctoral studies, and Richard John Neuhaus’ book provided a theoretical anchor for my exploration of how religious lobbies were attempting to clothe the public square with faith-rooted policies and arguments. Rereading it today, I am struck by how well it has worn. It remains, in fact, all too relevant. On the negative side, Neuhaus’ analysis of how Christian mainline leaders who once anchored public religion in America were sidelining themselves by aligning with forces hostile to faith still illuminates our contemporary scene. More positively, his challenge to evangelical leaders to develop a theologically rooted public witness has begun, if haltingly, to be addressed. Some have taken to heart his warning that the public square abhors a vacuum, and that the American state would tend to fill it up, crowding out religious values and intruding upon the mediating institutions of civil society.
In 1984 Neuhaus criticized a federal judiciary that was increasingly unrestrained by either clear constitutional interpretation or natural law. The results of this lack of restraint are evident today in the way that judicial decisions have short-circuited democracy, fostered polarization, and weakened the system’s legitimacy. On such issues as pornography, abortion, and religious freedom, the courts have rendered sweeping verdicts that effectively disenfranchise the views of millions of citizens and their elected representatives. The Supreme Court claims to have resolved the issue of abortion three decades ago, but society has been roiled by it ever since. Now we see the possibility that the judiciary could redefine marriage without the consent of the citizenry.
Whatever the merits of gay marriage might be, its imposition by the courts would represent a judicially engineered social revolution that would exacerbate divisions in America and imperil our ability to do politics together as citizens. Politics in a democracy is about how we organize our collective life together, through a process of contestation and negotiation in which deeply held popular sentiment is taken into account. Cheap victories granted by judicial fiat short-circuit that process.
My populist reproach of judicial supremacy relates to a wider concern about forces that undermine our capacity to shape a wholesome and just society, and leads me to my principal criticism of The Naked Public Square . Focused as it was on the constellation of law, politics, elite opinion, and education, the book skirted a powerful secularizing and hedonic force: modern capitalism. While social conservatives castigate the overweening state for undermining traditional morality, they have not faced the other profound source of their angst: the way the materialistic values of the marketplace increasingly seep into every nook and cranny of American life. Christian traditionalists have good reason to be unhappy with society today; as every parent knows, popular culture and peer influences, driven by consumerism and entertainment, are among the most powerful forces undermining the transmission of religious faith, traditional sexual ethics, and respect for elders. Capitalist values, given free rein, are not only at odds with a true Christian culture but also undermine even a secular human solidarity.
This note of caution about the atomizing tendencies of liberal capitalism runs through Catholic social teaching, from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus . This is one reason why Neuhaus had good grounds to suggest twenty years ago that the Catholic moment in American democracy had arrived. The Catholicism of Leo XIII and John Paul II, of Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, and John Courtney Murray, of Christian Democracy and Dignitatis Humanae , seems to offer a counterweight to both statist collectivism and atomistic liberalism.
Today there are inklings of this potential, signs of appreciation for what Pope John PaulII has called a Christian anthropology of human persons naturally embedded in families and communities that, under the doctrine of subsidiarity, must be supported, not supplanted, by the state. That has been the rhetoric and to a degree the thrust of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative (which sadly has been undercut by its tax policies). But Catholic social teaching, even as it embraces private property and the market, still carries a radical message about the injustice that flows from purely market rewards based on vastly unequal opportunities and abilities”not problems that we hear a lot about from the Republican Party today.
In their heyday, Christian Democratic parties in Europe, drawing on Catholic social teaching, sought to address this injustice without supplanting subsidiary institutions. They promoted a social capitalism by emphasizing social duties to weaker persons, the need for living wages, and bargaining power for workers. But unlike socialists, they subsidized families, communities, social groups, even religious schools, rather than replacing them with statist institutions.
America lamentably lacks a Christian Democratic tradition, and in the past two or three decades the opportunity to create one may have been missed. Judicial fiat in Roe v. Wade and its progeny, and the failure of church leadership, have combined to dissolve the Catholic moment that might have fostered this tradition. As a result, a number of citizens are politically orphaned. Pro-life voters who feel that President Bush demonstrated dangerous hubris in going to war in Iraq have no easy way to register that sentiment. Do they protest by voting for John Kerry, who resists action even to protect the almost-born? What about those who support school vouchers and faith-based initiatives but genuinely feel that Bush’s economic policies have undermined the social fabric by aggravating inequalities, burdening our children with debt, and imposing hardships on struggling families?
The Christian Democratic tradition offers a home to such voters and an antidote to corrosive polarization. Perhaps the Republican Party under Teddy Roosevelt and the Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt approximated such an ideal, because both exercised democratic power on behalf of the weaker while respecting the institutions of church and family. But as I survey the configuration of the two parties today, I do not see such a prospect on the horizon.
Rereading Neuhaus’ incisive book thus reminds us vividly of what American public life might have been and, we can pray, of what it still might become.
Allen D. Hertzke is Professor of Political Science and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the just published book Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights (Rowman & Littlefield).
The publication of The Naked Public Square provided religious Americans with a thoughtful support in their struggle against the cultural elites in this country, who have been attempting (with growing and alarming success) to remove any religious influence from public life. Since religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are probably the most public phenomena in the world, to deny them public influence is to condemn them to public insignificance, even for the members of their own communities, let alone for the larger society. But Neuhaus showed how religious citizens can make their case”especially on questions of public morality”without succumbing to the type of mainline religion that merely endorses whatever secularism is socially powerful at the time, and without retreating into the type of sectarianism that assumes that religious and political commitments are not only separate but essentially opposed.
Neuhaus’ great book has not only informed many religious individuals, it has launched a thriving interreligious intellectual community, as evidenced by the authors and readers of First Things . That is surely good cause for celebration”and for further reflection. Now we need to consider how The Naked Public Square has launched Richard John Neuhaus in his own subsequent project, a project that has included at various points many like-minded persons. That project is marked by two great transitions in Neuhaus’ life since 1984: the first and most important is his becoming a Roman Catholic (indeed, a Roman Catholic priest); the second is what must be seen as his growing American nationalism.
By becoming a Catholic, Neuhaus has been better able to access the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition, especially its tradition of natural law thinking. That is quite important for Neuhaus since he represents himself in public as a social critic, and the affirmation of natural law is that aspect of the Catholic intellectual tradition which has the most immediate social significance. Thus in 1984, when still a Lutheran, Neuhaus wrote about moral judgments and intuitions [being] inseparable from religious belief. But that still left his readers somewhat unsure as to how he would distinguish religiously inspired moral advocacy in a secular polity from advocacy of a particular revelation and the norms directly commanded through it. By his accession to the tradition of natural law thinking, Neuhaus has been better able to promote moral positions that the Catholic Church recognizes as claiming all humans, and to distinguish them from moral positions the Catholic Church can only require of its own members. (It is the task of Catholic theologians like Neuhaus to show more precisely the logical relation between revelation and more general natural law in their tradition.) On the issue of abortion, especially, Neuhaus’ natural law thinking has made him much more effective in developing a pro-life consensus with Protestants and Jews, and even with some who are not members of any faith or religious community.
I must, however, express some concern with Neuhaus’ growing nationalism, especially his recent tendency to employ the theological concept of election to describe the United States of America as an almost chosen people. The public morality advocated by the American government, and especially by President George W. Bush and his administration, might well put America in the forefront of both the local and international struggle for authentic human rights. Nevertheless, chosenness is the preserve of those peoples, like the Jewish people and the Christian Church, who see themselves as having been elected by God. There is a fundamental difference between a community whose immediate warrant comes from a transcendent source (I am the Lord your God) and a nation whose immediate warrant comes from an interhuman agreement (We the people of the United States). Only the Jewish people and the Christian Church, because of the testimony of the revelations they affirm and transmit, can claim to be chosen. (I am told that Islam has no such concept of covenantal election.) But for any humanly instituted society”even one as noble as the United States”to be seen as chosen seems to require that it be taken as an extension of some historical revelation, indeed the leading extension of some particular faith community. Yet in The Naked Public Square , Neuhaus warned us about national hubris. Unlike a chosen people, even a humanly instituted society as good as the United States cannot make any special claims on God.
I take Neuhaus’ warning about national hubris to mean that our mundane commitment to any humanly invented society need only be consistent with our ultimate commitment to God. That is the God who has revealed to us both our beginning and our end, and how we might humbly do our commanded tasks in between, including the task of conducting our society justly both at home and abroad. But no humanly invented society can claim any direct derivation from that revelation. To do so is to engage in a political triumphalism that most Christians have eschewed even for their own churches, let alone for the polities in which they are the majority. (Surely, Christendom is no longer the project of the Catholic Church. George Weigel has argued this point in First Things ; see Papacy and Power, February 2001.)
Our respective revelations, then, can only permit our participation in what could very well be the best human society to appear so far in history. Those living according to these revelations can even invoke God’s blessing on such a society. But no one ought to claim to be able to deliver God’s specific endorsement to any such society, let alone give it the cosmic significance of being chosen by the Maker of heaven and earth. And only a chosen people can be assured that it will survive even into the world-yet-to-come (see Isaiah 54:10; 60:2). All other societies are as mortal as the humans who have made them. We can certainly hope for God’s favorable judgment on our human society. But that judgment lies ahead of us, not behind us. Thus theologians should call for national humility in place of the hubris of any nationalism. Indeed, such political humility enables theologians to exercise unique social criticism, both positive and negative, of any and all earthly powers.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
Wilfred M. McClay
The Naked Public Square has been an enormously influential work, surely one of the most significant books published in this country during the past quarter-century, and a book whose momentum is far from being spent. One measure of its enduring potency is that so much of it is still worth arguing with, precisely because so little of it has been superseded by events. This is no period piece.
That does not mean that it has always been adequately understood, even though its title has become shorthand in the discourse of educated people. Having a memorably evocative title that becomes a tagline may look like a nice problem to have, but the risk is that such a book may become fixed in the public mind in some stereotypical or capsulized form. Your argument may be passed around far and wide, but sealed inside a membrane of presumed familiarity.