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 Neuhans 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 Neuhans' 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 religions 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 frost 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...