The Naked Public Square Revisited

In 1984, the author and social commentator, Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book that had a profound impact on American public life, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. [1] This book, and Neuhaus’ work editing First Things, widely regarded as on the most influential journals on religion and public life had a great impact during the years that followed. [2] I remember reading the book in the 1990’s, and admiring its scholarship. However, even then, I was not comfortable with all of its conclusions or the tone of the work in many places.

The book was written during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, to some people a kind of golden age of evangelical witness in the political arena. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, evangelical Christians emerged as a force in American politics. The emerging alliance of evangelicals with a Democratic administration was ultimately not successful. The deep feelings of many evangelicals on the subject of abortion, and the perceived ineptitude of the administration in handling the Iranian Crisis, resulted in a massive shift of evangelical support to the Republican Party in the 1980 election, where, until most recently, it has since resided. It is too early to tell whether the Trump Administration and the reaction of some evangelical leaders to his personal style and perceived immorality will result in a change of this alliance in the future.

In any case, one of the weaknesses of Evangelical witness in public life is that it has too often focused on “hot button” issues, such as abortion or more recently President Trump’s moral character. While this kind of focus certainly has a place in Christian discussion of public life, such a focus inhibits the development of discussion and reason concerning Christian faith and its fundamental message to Christians and others in the area of our national political life.

For the next few weeks, I am going to take a leisurely blogging journey through The Naked Public Square highlighting ways in which the book continues to have something to say to Christians as they consider how to impact the public culture of our nation. This is an important undertaking because our public culture is without question experiencing an unprecedented decay into a kind of nihilistic “winner take all” game in which the Christian virtues of reason, compassion, justice and love are inevitably lost. The propensity impacts Christians and non-Christians alike. The result is an impoverishment of our public discourse on important issues.

Neuhaus was very aware that Christian engagement with political life includes the danger that Christian thinking about matters of public life will degenerate into a “Church of What Is Happening Now” response. [3] One of the blessings of religious faith is that it involves internalizing an eternal perspective on current events that allows a kind of disengagement with the pressure of the currently urgent and allows focus on important things. Hopefully, the result is that Christians can engage others in the public arena with the wisdom and love that God has asked all his disciples to demonstrate.

Neuhaus believed that the emergence of the Evangelical Right was an event that required examination. He was concerned to illuminate the errors of the Moral Majority and similar movements. From the perspective on 2020, it would seem to me that his concern was overdone. The Moral Majority has disappeared from public life. The serial elections of Barack Obama without more than a small smattering of evangelical and Catholic support showed that, while religious faith is important to Americans, people remain more than willing to punish politicians who allow financial mismanagement and foreign misadventure to characterize their party and leadership.

More importantly, the cultural changes of the 1960’s were perhaps slowed by the Reagan Presidency but they were not by any means without continuing impact. In the Clinton and Obama administrations they were dominant. On college campuses and in the media and other cultural settings, the power forces of late modernity continued to impact public life in powerful ways. Although Republican candidates continued to speak about abortion, once in office they normally did very little to see that Roe vs. Wade was overturned. [4]

There is a lesson to be learned in all this. While religious faith is an important factor for people of faith in their making of public decisions, faith is not an important factor for non-religious people. In addition, while religion is important to people of faith, it is by no means the only or often primary consideration in their political views. About many matters of public life, it may not even be arguably the most important matter. For example, I am a member of a local neighborhood association that deals with issues like, where should boundary signs be located and what height of wall should be permitted in a particular lot. Hopefully, my religious faith causes me to be loving, kind, concerned with the people involved and just, but Christian faith does not determine my vote on the height of privacy fences. Finally, religious and other factors will impact a Christian response to any public policy issue, and as to some issues, Christians may well have to weigh their faith with other factors.

Furthermore, cultural forces are not easily changed, as the massive change in sexual morals among religious and non-religious people in early 2st century America clearly shows. Cultural change involves creating cultural artifacts (art, literature, movies, music, and institutions) that capture the imagination of people and hold their loyalty beyond the passing emotion of a political movement or reaction. Christians, and especially more conservative Christians have not been particularly good at the creation of a cultural response to late modernity that is both compelling and energizing to contemporary Americans. A deep and deeply rational public policy is one of those artifacts that it is important for Christians to develop.

More on the Naked Public Square next week!

Chris

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), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square”

[2] First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a bipartisan non-profit corporation headquartered in New York, NY. On its cover on the internet it describes itself as “América’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life.” See https://www.firstthings.com/current-edition.

[3] The Naked Public Square, 3ff.

[4] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Roe v. Wade is the initial case in a series of abortion cases and it initiated a continuing debate about the legality and morality of abortion in American public life.

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