Commentary Magazine


The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, by Richard John Neuhaus

A Sacred Canopy?

The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.
by Richard John Neuhaus.
Eerdmans. 280 pp. $16.95.

Most Americans were taken by surprise when the 1984 presidential election threatened for a time to degenerate into a war of religion. The majority of them have come to think of America as a secular society (no matter how religious they might themselves be), and they were not prepared for the conflicts that erupted over specific issues such as abortion and school prayer or over the larger question of the role of religion in American public life. A combination of fear and prudence led both presidential candidates to back off from the problem shortly after it arose, and in the end the election did not hinge on religious issues (although many analysts have attributed the heavy Jewish vote for Mondale to fears associated with the rise of the religious New Right).

The election is now behind us, but there is every indication that the religious question will be around to bedevil us for some time to come. It has been sidestepped rather than settled. Richard John Neuhaus’s book offers a useful introduction to the extraordinary complexities and ambiguities that surround the issue, and if it leaves the essential problems unresolved, it nonetheless establishes a subtle and nuanced base for further debate.

Neuhaus has the right credentials to presume to instruct us on “religion and democracy in America.” Before assuming his present position as director of the Center on Religion and Society in New York, he was a Lutheran parish pastor in Brooklyn, an antiwar activist and participant in Democratic-party politics during the Vietnam era, an editor of Worldview and Lutheran Forum (he retains the latter association), and the author of an extensive list of books and articles on religion and public affairs. His political associations have been as varied as his experience: he began his involvement in public life on the Left, but over the years he has come to occupy a place on the political spectrum somewhere in the neoliberal/neoconservative vicinity. Whatever his ideological preferences, Neuhaus has always subordinated them to his religious beliefs and commitments. He defines himself as a pastor and theologian first, and his politics derives from his theology, not the other way around.

Neuhaus begins his analysis in The Naked Public Square with the same phenomenon that has brought the religious issue to general public attention and concern—the emergence of the religious New Right. He is no partisan of the politicized Christian conservatives, but he is sympathetic to some of their concerns. (He is also careful to point out that not all or even most Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists have become political activists; most of them continue to view politics as having only marginal significance in their own lives or in the larger scheme of things.) The moral majoritarians are wrong, Neuhaus suggests, to dream of a Christian America, but they are right to object to the ideology of the naked public square, the secularist dogma that would exclude religion and religiously grounded values from the public arena.

America is not a secular society, Neuhaus insists, and only in relatively recent times has it come to be thought of that way. Most Americans explicitly identify themselves as believers, and 90 percent of them claim that the Judeo-Christian tradition is “somehow morally normative” for public and private life alike. Politics, Neuhaus says, is largely a function of culture, and religion is at the heart of culture. One thing that the American religious Left and Right have come to agree on is that religion cannot be restricted to purely personal concerns; it has public—and therefore political—implications. It is neither reasonable nor legitimate, Neuhaus concludes, for Americans to be told they can only enter the public arena if they agree to check their deepest beliefs at the door.

Neuhaus is not unaware of the dangers of intermixing religion and politics. Fanaticism and triumphalism must be resisted, he emphasizes, and in a pluralist society like ours people of minority religions—or no religion at all—need to have ironclad assurances that their views and values will be respected by the religious majority. (Neuhaus expresses particular concern for Jewish sensitivities on this point; he understands fully the fear and indignation that talk of a Christian America arouses.) “Democratic diversity,” he says, has to be carefully protected. The sense of transcendent purpose that Neuhaus wants to reestablish at the heart of the American experiment must never become, he tells us, an instrument of closure or coercion. One can believe in moral ultimacies, in his view, and still insist on tolerance and compromise as the heart of pluralist democracy. Transcendent purpose can at best be only imperfectly discerned, and all apprehensions of ultimate reality should be marked by provisionality and modesty. The “sacred canopy” of Judeo-Christian biblical religion Neuhaus would erect over American society can serve, he argues, to check the pretensions of the churches as well as the state.

Neuhaus also insists that expressions of religious conviction in the public arena must be accessible to nonreligious perspectives and accountable to public reason. It is not legitimate, he suggests, for those who are religious to expect to have their views accepted in the public sphere on the ground of special revelation or private understanding. Religious certainties must be translatable into public arguments.

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But whatever the qualifications, Neuhaus remains convinced that the construction of a workable public philosophy requires grounding in religious values. The public square, emptied of religious faith, will not remain naked. Transcendence abhors a vacuum, Neuhaus argues; man is a meaning-seeking animal, and in the absence of religious meaning other absolutisms will flood in. Ersatz political substitutes will take the place of religion, and those substitutes—exemplified in our century by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—might make us think twice about the presumed evils of religious conviction. Transcendent judgment relativizes all political presumptions, and democratic principles of limited government and inviolable human rights perhaps find their safest anchor in the acknowledgment of the divine perspective and divine sanctions. In any case, politics must be related to morality, and in America, Neuhaus insists, “religion and morality are conjoined.”

A religious perspective sufficient for our present needs, Neuhaus concedes, will not be easy to find. The moral majoritarians lack civility and restraint, while the mainstream Protestants often seem to have abdicated their theological responsibilities in favor of fashionable radicalisms and secularized (and fanciful) versions of liberation. The Protestant mainstream has further cut itself off from the culture-forming revitalization of democracy Neuhaus has in mind by its reflexive anti-Americanism. It has not, he argues, found the right balance of “prophecy and patriotism, love and criticism.” The groups between the mainstream and the evangelicals—Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox—may lack the vitality or the influence to legitimate America’s democratic experiment. Whichever of these varied groups presumes to take the leadership in doing so, Neuhaus says, will have to accomplish its tasks on an ecumenical basis, one that includes “the secure establishment of Christianity’s bond with living Judaism.” On that indeterminate point (how, one wonders, will this good thing be achieved?), Neuhaus concludes his argument.

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It is an argument worthy of sympathetic attention and, in many respects, admiration. This is a large-minded book, and its sophistication and intelligence advance our understanding of the religion/politics issue far beyond the confusions and incomprehensions that dominate most discussions of the subject. Neuhaus understands, as most of our politicians and editorialists apparently do not, that the topic is not exhausted once one has invoked the First Amendment and come out in favor of toleration. But his analyses and prescriptions, plausible as they are, are not without problems of their own.

What, to begin with, does it mean to say that America is a religious society? Most Americans, it is true, hold to at least some minimal religious conviction and many of them go considerably beyond that. But it remains to be shown that their religious beliefs make serious substantive differences in their attitudes or behavior in the public arena. On certain specific issues, of course—abortion, school prayer, public aid to religious schools—we can see direct patterns of influence. But Neuhaus has more general configurations of belief in mind when he speaks of establishing religious legitimation for America’s democratic proposition. Yet one suspects that most Americans most of the time keep their religious and political views in separate compartments. They require of their political beliefs only that they not be directly contradicted by their religious and moral values. That for them is legitimation enough, and their conduct in the public world is otherwise unaffected by their religious convictions. For most people, religion’s effects are seen directly in their beliefs about transcendent meaning and in certain ways that they go about living their daily lives. Politics is kept at a further remove, and its legitimacy does not depend on its being clothed with sacred symbols or understandings.

Some of the most helpful analyses of American society in recent years have emphasized the tripartite division of the society into political, economic, and moral-cultural realms. The distinctions among those realms are not absolute, of course, but they remain useful for both analytic and normative reasons. Neuhaus objects to the exclusion of “religion and religiously grounded values” from the public square. But if Americans’ religiously grounded political beliefs are as generalized and attenuated as suggested above, then perhaps they are not excluded after all, except among a relatively insignificant group of militant secularists. And in a pluralistic society there is good reason to resist the direct importation of religion itself into public life. Thus there can be no legitimate opposition to Catholics opposing abortion because it conflicts with their religious/moral beliefs, but we would rightly object if they expected non-Catholics to accept their arguments on the basis of Church dogma. As Neuhaus himself would insist, they must make their arguments in the public square accessible to public discourse.

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There are other problems with Neuhaus’s Judeo-Christian sacred canopy. Michael Novak, in an argument Neuhaus notes but rejects, has said that a genuinely pluralistic society by intention keeps at its spiritual core an empty shrine. Its emptiness, Novak suggests, represents the virtually infinite number of directions from which free people approach transcendence. Novak’s formulation suggests the possibility of many canopies for many persuasions: “Believer and unbeliever, selfless and selfish, frightened and bold, naive and jaded, all participate in an order whose center is not socially imposed.” If there is an overarching canopy, it is the commitment to a spirit of cooperation and mutuality, within which we can achieve not unitary vision but “unity in practice, diversity in belief.”

Novak’s approach helps us avoid certain difficulties in Neuhaus’s more restrictive formulation. If America’s sacred canopy must be Judeo-Christian in content, what does this suggest for those outside that category? Are they not then excluded by definition from the social consensus binding society together? And Neuhaus’s formulation is problematic even within its own terms: Jews and Christians, as Neuhaus well knows, have quite different conceptions of history’s meaning and destiny, and the term “Judeo-Christian” is a convention that implies far more in the way of a common world view than is in fact the case. Neuhaus understands that, but in the interests of his larger argument he tends to obscure it.

One offers these reservations hesitantly. Anyone who has given any thought at all to the problem of religion and society in America knows how hopelessly tangled and complex the issues embedded there are, and Neuhaus has done us all an invaluable service by starting to sort them out and arrange them in coherent order. Even where we do not finally agree with him, we will have to build on him.

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About the Author

James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.




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