6. The Danger of the Empty Public Square

There is no question but that certain powerful forces would like to see the voice of religion, and especially the voice of Christians, eliminated from the American public square. When Richard Neuhaus initially wrote The Naked Public Square, the so-called Christian Right was in ascendance. [1]There was a great deal of liberal concern, culminating with Hilary Rodham Clinton making her famous “vast right-wing conspiracy” comment, alleging that the election of conservatives was the result of some kind of conspiracy. (One interesting aspect of contemporary American politics is the constant allegation that,  for example if the Koch brothers make political contributions, it is part of a right-wing conspiracy. If George Soros does, it is a result of a vast left-wing conspiracy. The paranoia of contemporary politics is, perhaps, a reflection of the absence of religious faith in the public square. If there is no God, then we are responsible for everything that happens or does not happen. This alone is enough to drive a person mad.) Today, as I mentioned last week, there is little to be worried about from the Religious Right. This does not seem to prevent the media, and left-wing politicians from alleging that there is and from attempting to expunge religion from American public life. It is Neuhaus’ view that this is a gigantic mistake.

For the past 300 years, intellectuals impacted by the Enlightenment and the revolutionary spirit of the French Revolution, have attempted to create a purely secular state. The goal was and is a “Naked Public Square,” that is the exclusion of religious views from public debate. Because the Enlightenment began in Christian France, the initial and consistent focus of this effort has been Christianity, but it can be easily seen that eventually the logic demands that all merely religious convictions and expressions should be removed from public discourse. Sometimes this demand implies that, since religious views are “private,” and not scientifically verifiable, they should not guide public debate or policy.

This notion is at least partially based on an outdated materialistic world view that sees the world, and therefore human society, as nothing more than matter and material forces. The genesis of Marxism in all of its various forms is the notion that all there is are material forces, and in the realm of political economy, all that exist are economic forces. The result is a kind of “economic determinism.” [2] This same idea also infects Radical Capitalism, with its notion that blind economic forces can lead to the optimal distribution of wealth. Those captured by a materialistic world view are inevitably hostile to spiritual values.

In the Naked Public Square Neuhaus develops an attack on this view that has three main observations: (i) such a truncated view of the world ignores much of what ordinary people value; and (ii) the observation that wherever this has been tried in the past, a totalitarians state has resulted with untold human suffering resulting; and (iii) finally, the naked public square is an impossibility. Where religion is excluded either “eratz religion” by another name will enter the square or a kind of secular religion will be developed to provide a basis for society. [3]

While much of the media focuses attention on the danger of a Nazi-like dictatorship, Neuhaus rightly observes that the 20th century shows that left wing, socialistic dictatorships are both more probable and more dangerous. One need only look to the suffering and slaughter of Communist China, Soviet Russia, and other communist states and the current situation in Venezuela to see that the siren song of “free stuff” and economic equality spun by current proponents of a socialized economy are either misguided or worse. In an American election year in which we hear about the virtues of a socialized economy, perhaps Americans should take not of this danger. there has been but one Nazi Germany. There have been several Marxist disasters, creating totalitarianism and human suffering.

More importantly, at one point in his analysis, Neuhaus makes a comment that has a continuing relevance for thinking people concerning the danger to America of the naked public square: In all likelihood the naked public square in America will look somewhat different than in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It would be a distinctly American, probably technologically driven,totalitarian monism that attempts to create a society without religious foundation, and therefore without meaning. [4] Those who think it cannot happen here might read the daily papers.

It turns out that a liberal democracy can only be sustained if all voices, and especially the voices of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious mediating institutions, can be heard. When these voices are excluded, then some elite will create its own moral and spiritual basis for society, and one in which religious voices are silenced. In contemporary America we see the danger of this happening.

This does not mean that religious people, and Christians in particular, should expect to control or dominate the public square. While religious voices are one voice in a pluralistic public square, they are not the only voice. Tolerance is a public virtue necessary to sustain a liberal democracy. We all have to listen to points of view we dislike or even regard as dangerous. More importantly for

Christians must remember that we are not called to dominate the public square but to serve it in self-giving love, emulating the One who gave himself for us. When his own leaders argued about who should be the greatest and in control, he gave this teaching:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Next week, I am going to continue the analysis of this idea that all mediating institutions are necessary for a proper functioning liberal democracy.

God bless,


Copyright 2020, G Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [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.” This week’s blog is taken from Chapter 5, entitled “The Vulnerability of the Naked Public Square.”

[2] Id, at 79.

[3] Id, at 81.

[4] Id, at 85.

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