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The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America

by Richard John Neuhaus

Eerdmans, 292 pages, $28

When you revisit an important book after the passage of years, you can’t be sure what you will find. The book may be even better than you remembered. Or it may not quite live up to recollections. But that may be because it turns out to have been a different kind of book than the collective memory has taken it to be. All of these possibilities are realized, I think, in the case of Richard John Neuhaus’ best-known book, The Naked Public Square .

It is natural, indeed almost inevitable, that the 1984 book is remembered by reference to the ongoing debate for which the book’s title supplied what came to be the almost mandatory description. What is the proper role of religion in the public square? Do the spirit and logic of liberal democracy permit citizens or officials to rely on religious convictions in political debate and decision-making? In the years since Neuhaus’ work appeared, countless books, articles, and editorials have mooted and sometimes mauled these questions. The Naked Public Square was principally significant”or so we remember”because it helped get the “religion in the public square” debate jump-started in the mid-1980s and because it offered a powerful protest against the reflexive exclusion of religion from public discourse.

If you take up the book with this debate in mind, however, you may find the text frustrating. It does indeed criticize, vigorously, the enforcement of a secular public square.

But its actual argument seems elusive. The Naked Public Square is not expeditious; it does not move deliberately from Corollary A to Claim B to Conclusion C. Judged on a ­purely analytical level, Neuhaus’ presen­tation may seem to have been super­ceded by the more methodical, dispassionate performances of theorists such as Kent Greenawalt, Robert Audi, and Christopher Eberle.

But that judgment would be off the mark, misconceiving the book’s essential character and purpose. We understand Neuhaus’ book more faithfully, I think, if we start where the book itself does”pondering the “signs of the times.” Neuhaus was convinced that his era, our era, was unprecedented, puzzling, and fraught with possibility and peril. The combination of public secularism countered by an emerging “religious new right” signaled, he thought, a new and paradoxical chapter in the providential story of the world.

More than a theoretical argument, The Naked Public Square was Neuhaus’ attempt to interpret a distinctive episode in the saga of God’s loving struggle with a wayward humanity. The book represents an earnest, deeply learned, sometimes meandering meditation on the meaning of modern secularism .

How on earth, Neuhaus wondered, had the nation come to its current embrace of public secularism? The Constitution does not dictate any such position; it was not until recently that judges and others thought to construe the Constitution in this way. And contrary to the predictions of the countless eager prophets of secularization, the American people stubbornly persist in being as devout as they have ever been. So the adoption of secularism as our official orthodoxy seems passing strange. How did it happen?

Neuhaus had little use for those who see our condition as the product of a conspiracy. Understood on the human level, our secularism is the product more of drift than design. It is not so much the work of cunning collaborators as a “habit of mind” that is mostly “quite ­unconscious” and that has become insinuated “into our thinking and acting.” Secularism has “become part of the conceptual air we breathe.”

Our condition is also the consequence of the defaults and delinquencies of religious believers. Much of Neuhaus’ critical scrutiny was directed not against secularists but rather against Christians. In particular, would-be purists who wistfully hearken back to the “church of the catacombs” and, at the other extreme, “moral majoritarians” and “fundamentalists” who would force sectarian truths into the public square come in for severe treatment in The Naked Public Square . Christians who counsel withdrawal from a corrupted public sphere, Neuhaus thought, are “like a ragtag band of the disillusioned slinking off to lick their wounds.” Their attempt to retreat from the world is in fact just “another side of letting the world set the agenda for the church.” And he commented caustically that “the church headquarters of Nashville, Indianapolis, and Riverside Drive make very improbable catacombs.”

Of the more politically aggressive Christians, conversely, Neuhaus found it “supremely and disastrously ironic that those fundamentalist forces which are most insistent that religiously grounded values should have a stronger bearing upon public life are also most insistent that those values are not subject to public discourse and debate.” In this way, they “make all but inevitable the religiously sterilized public life that they then so vigorously protest.”

Whatever its sources, though, public secularism is the situation we live in now. But the situation is also unsustainable. John Rawls not­withstanding, law and public discourse must be able to”and hence will ”appeal to deep normative commitments, to truths and realities regarded as ultimate and authoritative. Neuhaus insists on the point, over and over, but he did not offer any sustained argument for it; he seems to have regarded it as self-evident or, at least, as following closely and inexorably from the essential nature of human beings and their political communities.

Historically, and particularly in America, religion has been the principal source of normative authority. And if secularism pushes religion out of that role, the public square will not long remain empty, as some secular liberals have hoped. Inevitably, some other creed or ideology will move in to fill the space.

That new orthodoxy, Neuhaus thought, will likely be far less benign than traditional American religion was. It threatens to be totalitarian. The new orthodoxy might be a distinctly American form of Marxism. It might be an oppressive, state-imposed individualism”or, conversely, a sectarian, authoritarian religion: Neuhaus suggested that the rabbi who, on hearing talk of “Christian America,” saw an image of barbed wire was not being merely paranoid. All such outcomes were to be fiercely resisted: “The ‘victory’ either of the forces of secularism or of the forces promoting an uncomplicated view of Christian America would be disastrous.”

Fortunately, there were also more hopeful possibilities. Politics might come to be directed by a public philosophy that, although religiously grounded, would be committed to a politics not of enforced private revelation but rather of engaged public reason. This, of course, was Neuhaus’ own ideal and commitment; he accordingly invoked and commended, repeatedly, the wisdom of John Courtney Murray. The sort of public religion that could guide and illuminate without being authoritarian would need to be ecumenical, Neuhaus maintained; it would need to encompass”and in a genuine and not merely cosmetic way”“Mainline, Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, evangelicals, ­fundamentalists.”

In the prevailing secular climate, critics are quick to suspect authors who take a theological perspective. But in The Naked Public Square , Neuhaus’ providence-oriented ap­proach to his era issued not in dogmatism but in a sober humility. We can be confident that there is a providential design, he thought, but we can at best catch glimpses of what it is. So we are left to practice “that faith-filled modesty by which Christians seek to apprehend, however tentatively, the meaning of the penultimate present in relation to the ultimate future.” God may well have “surprises in store.”

And so it is just possible that “these despised moral majoritarians may turn out to be the first wave of the democratic renewal of the twenty-first century.”

Given what Neuhaus perceived as the authoritarian tendencies of that movement, such a development would be “an irony of the first class.” But “a robust belief in the sovereignty of God” recognizes that providence “is prone to work ironies beyond human imagining.”

Alas, there were also grimmer possibilities: “The naked public square may be the last phase of a failed experiment, a mistaken proposition. We have no divine promise that a nation so conceived and so dedicated will endure any longer than it has. Afterward, there will still be laws, of that we can be sure.

And the history books, if history books are allowed then, will record this strange moment in which a society was in turmoil over the connections between laws and the law, between law and life. Then the turmoil will seem very distant, for then no dissent will be permitted from the claim that the law is the law is the law.”

The question would not be settled, or the providential plan made plain, in the space of a presidential administration or two. Neuhaus was reflecting on issues that he expected to play out over “the longer term”say, the next thirty to one hundred years.” A quarter century later, his ruminations on “the signs of the times” have lost none of their ­relevance.

On the contrary. The mostly good-hearted, somewhat insouciant secularism of the 1970s and 1980s to which he was responding has become, in some neighborhoods, more self-conscious and insistent. And the movement has been abetted by the American judiciary. Neuhaus worried that “there is nothing in store but a continuing and deepening crisis of legitimacy if courts persist in systematically ruling out of order the moral traditions in which Western law has developed and which bear, for the overwhelming majority of the American people, a living sense of right and wrong.”

Despite such warnings, the courts have persisted. For example, the same year in which Neuhaus’ book appeared also saw the introduction into constitutional law of a prohibition on governmental actions or expressions that send a message endorsing religion.

To be sure, the new doctrine’s leading sponsor, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, seems to have only dimly understood what she was doing. A few years after announcing the “no endorsement of religion” doctrine, she caused a minor ruckus by writing that ours is a “Christian nation””her recantation hastily followed”and years later she would offer an elaborate if utterly implausible explanation of how the words “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance would not currently be understood by a “reasonable observer” to have religious content. But devotees like Michael Newdow grasp the doctrine more fully and faithfully than O’Connor herself did, and they actively employ it in a campaign to cleanse government of any vestiges of religion.

At the same time, the religious countermovement that gave Neuhaus cause for both hope and concern continues to assert itself in varying forms. The recent battle over Proposition 8 in California has been the occasion for full-scale efforts on both sides. Now, as when Neuhaus wrote his book, the ultimate outcome of the larger struggle remains in the balance.

Neuhaus’ hope was that a civil public square could be restored”and that totalitarian intruders, whether secular or sectarian, could be civilized or else repulsed”through the cultivation of an ecumenical public philosophy genuinely committed to reason and mutual deliberation. Probably no one in his generation strove more energetically than he did to promote that ideal”as author but also as organizer, editor, commentator, and friend (and, sometimes, provocateur).

Still, his sober assessment remains valid. For us mortals, in our time, “the question is whether we can devise forms . . . which can revive rather than destroy the liberal democracy that is required by a society that would be pluralistic and free.” Whether and how this might happen remains very much in doubt: No triumphalist, Neuhaus himself thought that “the prospect of our achieving this is not encouraging.”

Even so, “it may be that God’s grace is such that what has been done by human beings can be undone by human beings.” And so the possibility and hence the hope persist that we may be able to muster “the imagination to move beyond present polarizations” and thereby to “become partners in rearticulating the religious base of the democratic experiment.”

Steven D. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego and the author of Law’s Quandary.