7. Losing Who We Are (or At Least Have Been)

Last week, we discussed the importance of a transcendent foundation for liberal democracy. Faith, Neuhaus believes, is an essential foundation for freedom. In a chapter in The Naked Public Square entitled, “Denying Who We Are” Richard John Neuhaus defends the idea that, despite the hostility of the media and elites, America remains a fundamentally religious and overwhelmingly Christian nation and that religious belief has an important place in public life. [1] Perhaps there was a public consensus on this in 1984. It is pretty clearly less so in 2020.

In my view,  the limitations on Neuhaus’ analysis involves not foreseeing the implications of the passing of the “Greatest Generation,” which fought World War II and built many of the business and social organs of Modern America, and the passing of leadership into the hands of the Viet Nam War Generation (or “Boomers”), which is morally, spiritually and emotionally scarred by the upheavals of the 1960’s. In forty short years, what Neuhaus thought unlikely has become a reality: An educational system, media and entertainment industry dominated by persons hostile to American values and traditions, has substantially eroded the cultural foundations of our democracy. We have seen evidence of this every day during the last two or three political seasons.

The Founders Consensus

This situation would have puzzled the Founders of our nation, most of whom, whatever their religious beliefs, thought of religion as fundamental to a well-ordered democracy.[2] Washington, in his Farewell address put it this way,

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. [3]

Thomas Jefferson put it this way:

The practice of morality being necessary for the well-being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses.[4]

Perhaps John Adams put it most succinctly when he said, “… [It is] religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”  [5]

The Situation Today

The question remains, “Is Neuhaus correct when he assumes that America is still a religious nation, and if not, what does that mean for our republican form of government?” According to a recent Gallup Poll, In 2019, American religious convictions were something like the following: About 70% of Americans gave their religious preference as Christian. About 1.9 % are Jewish, .9% Muslim, .7% Buddhist, and .7 % Hindu. Other world religious were at .3%, and other faiths, 1.5%. In 2019, about 22% listed themselves as “Unaffiliated,” with about 3% being atheists, 4% agnostic, and 15% of the unaffiliated listing their religion as “nothing in particular”. [6] A Gallup study shows that as recently as 1967, only 2% of Americans listed themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That number has grown consistently in recent years and is now 22%. [7]

The figures indicate that, while America remains a religious nation, and Christianity remains the dominant religious force, the real change has not been to “other religions” but to no religious affiliation at all. This may explain the difficulties in maintaining the public consensus that the Founders felt important. The drift in America has not been away from “Judeo-Christian Values” to some other religious view, such as Hinduism, but from Judeo-Christian values to no definite religious belief whatsoever. It is this trend that Americans should view as most concerning, especially since those who are religiously unaffiliated probably are disproportionately represented in the media, entertainment and higher education, which probably accounts for the trend more than any other single factor.

The Secular Society and Religious Proclamation

In The Naked Public Square Neuhaus makes the following important observation:

As in the media, then, so also in the courts and centers of higher learning it is more or less taken for granted that ours is a secular society. When religion insists on intruding itself into the public square with an aggressive force that cannot be denied it is either grudgingly acknowledged or alarums are raised about the impending return of the Middle Ages. Then the proposition becomes more explicit: if ours is not a secular society, then it ought to be. [8]

The media, entertainment industry and higher education, as well as a number of elites in government and industry take it as an article of faith that religion and public life should be divorced. This is faulty on at least two accounts: First, secularism of the type espoused by these groups is, in fact, a substitute religion, a truth felt by those who hold it to be the ultimate truth about reality. It is my view that the growth of the religiously unaffiliated from 25 to 20% explains the way in which anti-religious voices have come to dominate public life.

Second, religious views should continue to be important in concerning policy alternatives. A very significant number of Americans subscribe to the view that there is a creator God, that the universe displays something of the wisdom of that God, and that compassion (self-giving love) is a kind of ultimate virtue. [9] If religion is necessary for the stability of the society, then hardly anything could be more relevant to policy decisions than the impact of a decision on this crucial element of public life. They key is that all participants remain faithful to their fundamental views while acting with compassion for everyone, even those with whom they disagree.

The danger that secularists are concerned about, and it is a danger, is that of a return to the kind of religious strife that characterized the Thirty Years War. [10] In the Middle East, in Africa and other places we see evidence that there continues to be a danger of religious violence. This is where religious groups can be helpful by assuring everyone that believers do not view force as an appropriate way to achieve either political or religious objectives, but instead view the rational choice of people as the only sound method for making religious decisions. This involves a commitment to the First Amendment and the avoidance of any action that would indicate a purely sectarian interest in a piece of legislation or policy choice.

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.” This week’s blog reflects upon Chapter 6.

[2] There are varying views about the depth of religious conviction of the founders. It is apparent, however, that all the major figures, even the deist Jefferson, felt that religion and morality were fundamental to a functioning democracy.

[3] George Washington, Farewell Address 1796, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldmand Law Library: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp (downloaded February 25, 2020).

[4]  Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Alberty Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XII, p. 315, to James Fishback, September 27, 1809.

[5]  John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 401, to Zabdiel Adams on June 21, 1776.)

[6] Pew Research Center “Pew Research Religious Landscape Study, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ (Downloaded February 27, 2020).

[7] Gallup News “Religion” https://news.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx (Downloaded February 27, 2020).

[8] Naked Public Square, at 103.

[9] I have used the term compassion deliberately. Christians and Jews share with Buddhists, Hindu’s, Taoists and others that the compassion is a virtue. For Christians, that compassion is revealed as an ultimate attribute of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In this common view, I think that we have a ground for political and social action and harmony among groups that differ on the ultimate nature of God and of reality.

[10] The Thirty Years’ War engulfed Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. Although initially a war between Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmented Holy Roman Empire, it ultimately involved most of the great European powers and resulted in millions of causalities. It was ended by the Peace of Westphalia. This conflict is credited with alienating many intellectuals from both religion and the interconnection of religious institutions and the state.


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