2. Mediating Institutions and Politics as War

In Chapter Two of The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus confronts the need for churches, public and private charities, and other ‘mediating institutions” to participate in public affairs. As to religious institutions, secular thinkers worry about the potential for religious warfare, reminiscent of the religious wars of Europe that followed the Reformation. It turns out, however, that the kind of secular religion created by, for example, radical communism, can also create such a situation—and has in the 20th Century. Neuhaus quotes the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre for the proposition that politics without a moral ground can become “civil war carried on by other means.” [1] We see many symptoms of this problem in contemporary America.

The solution to the propensity of politics to degenerate into “war by other means” is not the exclusion of groups from the public square, but a strong public ethic that provides a peaceful and rational way of conducting politics involving differing groups. Michael Polanyi points out a paradoxical feature of modern society: it combines a cynical disregard for truth and for justice with kind fanatical devotion to certain moral ideals of an ideology, right or left. The Russian Communists and German Nazi’s were inspired to violence by an ideological moral fervor cut off from any moral grounding in a history or tradition. The search for a just society, cut off from a deep public philosophy of justice can generate in the practitioners of modern ideological politics a fanaticism that permits gross immorality in the search for a better or perfect society. [2]

Western democracies, most of which have some basic cultural history in the Judeo-Christian tradition, need to recover a connection with historic moral traditions in the conduct of its political affairs. In particular, the West must recover its faith in justice as real quality progressively uncovered though a disciplined search for fairness in the political arena. In his book Logic of Liberty, Polanyi puts the matter in this way:

The general foundations of coherence and freedom in society may be regarded as secure to the extent to which men uphold their belief in the reality of truth, justice, charity, and tolerance, and accept dedication to the service of these realities; while society may be expected to fall into servitude when men deny, explain away or simply disregard these realities and transcendent obligations.

We may be faced with the fact that only by resuming the great tradition which embodies faith in these realities can the continuance of the human race on earth, equipped with the powers of modern science be made both possible and desirable. [3]

If there are no transcendental values, if politicians are not constrained in their political behavior by a transcendent obligation to seek truth and justice in political life with tolerance for other views, then the state can and must dictate these matters—and society will have entered a road to tyranny. If, however, a society and its politicians believe in the transcendent, moral and ethical realities of truth, justice, tolerance, charity, and serve them, not just when they find it convenient, and if citizens and their representatives believe that society will eventually discern these realities and be guided by them, then the foundation of a free society can be maintained in the fact of conflict and uncertainty.

The frenetic dishonesty of contemporary politics results from an underlying assumption of both the right and left that there nothing involved in debate but the contention of special interest groups for advantage. In the absence of a moral foundation for the political process, and upon what means may be used to seek a political result, a free and just society cannot endure. We see evidence of decline in American politics, as the recent Kavanaugh hearings clearly revealed.

If, however, citizens and their public representatives believe in something called the “Public Interest” as an invisible reality which can and will be disclosed to us as we seek a progressively attainable more just society, then a free society can be maintained in the face of the differences of opinion and the trials and tests of history. In such a society, the voice of religious leaders can and should be heard in the public arena.

Modern advocates of a purely secular state suspect that any attempt to subject government to religious opinions and moral rules involves an attempt to set up a theocracy or “moralocracy”. In fact, any attempt by religious or moral leaders to acquire political power as such would be contrary to the vision of Polanyi and others. A society in which moral values guide leaders is a society in which leaders have been trained in wisdom and in the principles of moral leadership and instinctively bring them to bear upon the problems of the day. The fundamental role of morality and religion is to create a kind of character in leaders, not to mandate a particular moral or political position. This is not to say that religious groups will not have specific policy preferences. They will and should.

Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other sorts of other mediating institutions are important participants in the public arena. The views of religious people are not determinative of matters of public policy—but they are certainly relevant. Each participant in public life must be able to peacefully assert their views without fear of legal restraint. In contemporary America, there has developed a tendency to restrain political and moral speech on the basis of the “hearer’s feelings.” This cannot be the test. We all have to hear and evaluate positions and views we find troubling, held together by confidence that the best policy will in the end prevail.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), 21, hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946). This section of this blog is taken from my book, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wift & Stock Press, 2014), 159-162.

[3] Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1951), 57.

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