4. Religious Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Public Square

In this week’s post, I want to focus on an aspect of The Naked Public Square that has long troubled my thinking. [1] Neuhaus, writing in the 1980’s, was concerned to fashion a position in over and against both to secular liberalism and the resurgence of highly conservative thinking represented in his writing by the Moral Majority. The position he was staking out was eventually given the name of “Neo-Conservatism” or New Conservatism. [2] Neuhaus, as a mainline Lutheran and then Roman Catholic thinker was concerned to show how his views were different from those of, say, Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority. Naturally, in so doing, he has critical things to say about the fundamentalist reentry into American politics.

The Reality of Religious and Moral Diversity

The Moral Majority that Neuhaus was so concerned about is no more, however, the problem he recognized is still with us: One difficulty in outlining a Christian political philosophy is the great divergence within Christian groups on matters of faith, morals, and their implications for government. For example, when St. Augustine wrote City of God, there was no diversity of opinion among Christian leaders concerning the ethics of infanticide or abortion. They were universally condemned. Today, this happy situation no longer exists.

More importantly, if America was a diverse society in the 1980’s, it is immeasurably more religiously diverse today. Christianity has declined as the primary religious faith of Americans. Other religious traditions and people of no particular religious tradition have increased. There is no consensus among these traditions about many aspects of public life, and very little hope that a consensus will ever emerge.

Finally, in the 1980’s, Neuhaus did not fear that secular forces might drive Christianity out of the public square entirely. Today, we cannot be so sure. Recently one political candidate for President implied that Christians should not run for public office. Routinely candidates for confirmation to public office are attached for their Christian convictions. The danger of “anti-Christianism” has joined anti-Semitism as a real threat to our free polity.

The challenge to Christian people is to speak into this diversity with faithfulness to their particular tradition, but with wisdom and some level of respect for other competing traditions. Abortion is a case in point. For nearly half a century, different Christian groups have been speaking their views into the public arena, sometimes virulently. The public has become accustomed to conservative Christian groups opposing abortion and mainline denominations supporting it. As a result, both groups are ignored by the great majority of people. There is some evidence that the public believes that the legalization of abortion late in the term of pregnancy has little public support, but efforts to change this law spark heated debate, with charges and counter-charges being levied among the parties. Often these charges and counter-charges are levied in emotional language cut off from rational argument. It is hard to see how the bitterness of the debate helps the witness of Christians to the greater society at large. Thus far, it has also been ineffective.

Identity Politics and Its Consequences

As in so many areas of American politics, there needs to be a step beyond debate to dialogue and reasoned argument. One of the many things that the left and right hold in common is a completely modern view that politics can be reduced to political combat between variousinterest groups. The idea is to motivate various groups to support your bid for power by appealing to their opinions and prejudices, and especially those that give them their identity:  race, religion, economic class, sexual orientation, and similar characteristics. This is given the name “identity politics” and explains so much of what is deeply wrong with American politics today.

A major problems with identity politics is that it enables candidates and parties to focus on a small, emotionally laden group of issues to the exclusion of other important issues. If I can get votes by emphasizing sexual orientation or the evils of carbon based energy and promising some simple, if impossible action, I can avoid complex issues with complicated solutions that will involve compromise between various options.

For example, the national debt is only considered from the viewpoints of “they are trying to take away this or that public benefit” or “they are irresponsibly bankrupting the nation.” This allows the parties to ignore the fact that too much debt will impoverish all of us and our children and we have to compromise to bring about rational spending. The solution, if there is one, is not in the agenda of either party, but in some kind of compromise.

In another recent case, a candidate proposed eliminating the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels in a very short period of time. Lost in this proposal was the fact that such a policy would involve building something like 250 nuclear reactors in five or so years, covering large areas of the nation with solar panels that could not even be built in such a time frame, and other impossible alternatives. Perhaps a more realistic proposal would be better for the nation. This candidate did not have to deal with the reality of the situation. He just wanted to get votes from the environmental lobby.

This leads to the final problem with the political atmosphere identity politics creates: It makes compromise impossible. Once the parties have radicalized and polarized their voting base, they can never compromise on any rational solution to a problem. In the areas of the budget, medical care, entitlements, and the like we have seen the paralyzing results of identity politics at work.

Christians and Identity Politics

In the face of this, it is perhaps the best and most important witness that Christians can give is to be especially careful in how we express our internal disagreements in public. I have always felt that there was a demeaning tone to some of Neuhaus’ argument in The Naked Public Square regarding the new evangelical emergence, a kind of “snarkyness” that is both off putting and demeaning. It is as if he were trying to purchase the respect of the intellectual elite at the price of belittling fellow Christians. This is a strategy that cannot work and needs to be avoided at all costs.

I am pretty sure that a true Christian public theology for the 21st Century will attempt to transcend the polarization of 20th Century public theology. It will attempt to be dialogical as opposed to debate oriented. It is hard to conceive how this might occur, but it is an endeavor that is worth the effort.

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.” The critique Neuhaus gives is so pervasive that I have not given citations.

[2] One problem with this name has to do with the fact that it is also used for a branch of the Republican Party and the defense polities it promotes. This means that religious Neo-conservatives are often mistaken with political Neo-conservatives. While they have certain similarities, they are very different. one can be a religious Neo-conservative and not support the “Neo-con” ideas on what is the best middle Eastern military posture.

One thought on “4. Religious Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Public Square”

  1. Very well thought out and very well stated, Chris. I believe the central cause of all of our divisions is self-centeredness. Until the Enlightenment, society was forced to acknowledge that God was supreme. Now, acknowledging the supremacy of God is an individual choice that competes with our natural tendency to view our individual selves as most important. When a person believes he is the most important entity in existence,then the wisdom, opinions and beliefs of others don’t really matter much. For those who strongly believe in their importance and rectitude, they gravitate toward politics, media or education to straighten out, or offer charity, to those who are lesser than their elevated selves. The interactions in a society of self important people leads to the lack of discourse and understanding that we now live with.

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