10. Interlocking Spheres of Public Life

A good bit of analysis in The Naked Public Square [1] flows out of Neuhaus’ understanding of the work of Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt, who saw the state, religion, and “culture” as the three great spheres or powers of a civilization. Perhaps out of a reaction against medieval Catholicism, he saw religion and the state as spheres of authority but culture as a sphere of freedom. For Burkhardt, social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature and the sciences were places of freedom. There was a natural tendency for the state and religion to impinge upon this area of freedom and upon each other.

Right at the beginning, it is important to take a look at this analysis. A culture is a bigger and more complex thing than Burkhardt believes. The “area of freedom” is much different in, say a society like Stalinist Russia or modern China where the state dominates everything, including religion, and various parts of the presumably free culture, such as the media are state run than in the modern democratic West. The culture of the East is profoundly different where the toots of religion are Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, or Shinto than in the West where Christianity is dominant. The cultures and politics of the Middle East, where Islam are different than that if the West or the East.

Furthermore, putting together the arts, literature and science with technologies is a suspect division, and in modern society it ignores the enormous power and power seeking of technologically driven media outlets. The “Fifth Estate” has become its own sphere that profoundly impacts and seeks to control the spheres of religion and the state.

Nevertheless, there is a fundamentally profound insight in the view that society ought to both have many differing spheres of influence and the relative autonomy of those spheres ought to be protected.  The state the media, arts, science, commerce and other spheres of cultural life are separate, yet interlocking spheres of life which require for their highest operation a degree of freedom. This is particularly true of religion, science, and the arts. The monstrous corruption of science and arts under Stalin are a reminder of this fact. [2]

A Christian understanding of culture and politics begins with the notion that religion is an important sphere of life for many, many people. Freedom of worship and practice one’s religious faith is central to a free society, as is freedom of the press, of science, of the arts, etc. If the danger in the Middle Ages was that religion might overshadow and control the state, commerce, the press, the arts, and other organs of culture, the danger in the modern world has been that the State would do so.

The key to the proper functioning of a free society is recognize that these and all spheres of culture should have a kind of “relational independence,” by which each sphere respects the relative freedom of the other spheres, but at the same time exists in a kind of relationship with the other spheres that protects not just their independence, but the relational freedom of all the spheres. There can be no absolute freedom or absolute power in any of the spheres, for absolute freedom of any one would mean that it had absolute power and therefore could dominate and distort the others. The working out of this relational independence is the day to day business of all the spheres in their relationship to the other.

In this “dance of interdependence,” the state is the most to be feared, for it is the modern state that has at its disposal heretofore unknown means of legal, bureaucratic and physical compulsion. [3] It is the state, whether controlled by the right (Nazism) or the left (Stalinism or modern Chinese statism), that poses the greatest danger to freedom. It is also important that the state and other combinations of independent spheres not combine to distort freedom, as can be the case with the media and the state.

Neuhaus believes, and I think rightly so, that in this “dance of interdependence” religious groups have a unique role. Theirs is the role of relativizing the other spheres against a transcendent ideal. It is religion that brings the other spheres under the judgement of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, directing each sphere to a perfection greater than its own. It is religion that draws each sphere beyond its purely instrumental goals to a greater goal of, in the Christian tradition, the Kingdom of God, where there is complete peace and where Truth, Beauty, and Love rule. This goal is not achievable inside of human history, but it is the goal towards which Christianity in particularly draws the other spheres of culture.

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), referred to herein as, “The Naked Public Square.” This blog is a discussion of Chapter 9, entitled, “Private Morality; Public Virtue” found on pages 129 to 143 and Chapter 10, entitled “The Purloined Authority of the State” found on pages 144-155.

[2] See, Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983), Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962) and especially Science, Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946). Polanyi’s work is a response to the corruption of science under Russian Communism and is a reminder to free societies today of the dangers of absolute governmental control over all the organs of society.

[3] The phrase “dance of interdependence” is mine not Neuhaus’. In a later blog, I will further outline the reasons for and importance of this dance.

9. Private Morality/Public Virtue

One persistent area of controversy in political theology is the extent to which private moral decisions can and should be enacted into law. A strictly Utilitarian view of law holds that the purposes of law are purely secular, and that personal morality should not be publicly enforced. This is an invention of the modern world, for in the ancient and medieval world, law was seen as the enforcing agent of community norms. In some respects, Christianity is the reason the modern secular position evolved, for it was among the early Christians that it was first perceive that the law, in this case Roman law, could be used to persecute the truth in the guise of enforcing a pagan morality and the legitimate rights of the state. [1]

In recent years in America, we have seen a change in the views of many people concerning the state and the enforcement of morality. The emergence of a purely secular society and the sexual revolution brought about a vast change in public morality and in the actions of the state related to moral issues. In 1965 in the case of case Griswold v. Connecticut the Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited the sale of birth control products. [2] The Supreme Court found that the law violated the right to marital privacy. Seven years later, in 1972 in the Case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting abortion as the taking of a human life. [3] While the nation accepted the Griswold decision, Catholics, Evangelical Christians and others found Roe an intolerable decision. As one author put it: “Prior to the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, in 1972, however, no one had supposed that even marriage would also entitle one to destroy third-party life that one’s own acts albeit acts of marital intimacy-had brought about.” [4] This decision appeared to be a secular state enforcing a pagan morality upon the nation. Christians who had almost unquestioningly supported the United States Government and its policies found themselves at one with the writer of Revelation for the first time since the founding of the nation.

In The Naked Public Square, Richard John Neuhaus squarely faces this new social reality and tries to build a middle ground between those who feel that Christianity has moved into the situation of persecution in America and those who support the general direction of our society.  [5] In addition, he helpfully notes the limitations on moral enforcement inherent in a free society. Most particularly, Neuhaus analyzes the restraint required when there is no consensus on what aspects of common morality are most vital to the society’s proper functioning. The fact of religious pluralism means that there is not even a clear consensus among religious leaders as to what might be the fundamental moral requirements for the society. This does not, however mean that there should be no public dialogue, discussion and debate about this important issue.

A “bottom up social thinker” is almost required to have two somewhat different guiding principles in mind as respects this matter. First, the family, as the fundamental social unit, is that part of society that most needs both freedom and protection to function. Second, because of this first commitment, so far is possible families ought to be free to follow their own notions so far as is possible. Buddhists, Christians, Hindu’s, Muslims, Secular Humanists, Taoists, and the like need to remain free to raise their children and conduct their family affairs so far as is possible as they see fit.

There are, of course, limitations. No one is entitled to engage in domestic violence, child abuse, or the like. Not even the freest society can allow any and everything. Violence is never permissible. These limitations are not the rule; they are the exceptions to the rule. One of the likely aspects of a truly postmodern polity is a deep pragmatism as opposed to an ideological orientation. This leads to the base notion that freedom and a free society are to be maintained precisely because such a society is the best way to promote human flourishing.  The difference may seem subtle, but it is important: the first commitment of a free. society is to freedom itself, and especially to the freedom of fundamehtal social units to develop healthily without unnecessary interference from the state.

Along the way, we may find that we have more in common with those with which we disagree than we think. I know very few secular people who believe that the alienation and atomization of modern American society is healthy. Very few believe that their children do not need some moral education—and while we may not completely agree with what that entails, we do agree that children need to be raised to respect others, to make sacrifices for the common good, to reject violent solutions to complicated and divisive problems, and the like. Even among those who fear moral discussion in politics, there may be a dawning understanding that to embrace differences and differences of opinion can create a better and more tolerant society, even if in the midst of the public debate we all must hear and ponder opinions with which we fundamentally disagree.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In Romans Paul could urge Christians to respect the emperor and see the Emperor as a God-ordained enforcers of morality (Romans 13-1-3). However, by the time of Revelation, the Roman government had turned to the persecution of Christians, and so had become the embodiment of evil in the eyes of its writer, and evil that Christ would eventually overcome (Romans 17:14). Christian thinking has, depending upon societal realities historically fluctuated between these two views.

[2] Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479 (1965).

[3] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[4] William Van Alstyne, Closing the Circle of Constitutional Review from Griswold v. Connecticut to Roe v Wade, 1989 Duke University Law Review 1679 (1989).

[5] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), referred to herein as, “The Naked Public Square.” This blog is a discussion of Chapter 9, entitled, “Private Morality; Public Virtue” found on pages 129 to 143 of the book.


A Break and a Prayer

I decided to take a break this week from The Naked Public Square and to reflect upon the Covid 19 outbreak and what it reveals about the need for Christians in public life and a Christian response to public life. In addition, though I think that this series of posts will last a long, long time, and involve a look at many approaches, I did not begin this without some idea of where it might end.

I begin with an observation that I have explored in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers and in Crisis of Discipleship: The Way of Light and Love for 21st Century Disciple-Makers. [1] The Modern World is dying and something new is emerging. It is my view that what we call “Post-Modernism” is only the beginning of the change and might better be called “Hyper-modernism” or “End-stage Modernism.” The decent of modern thought into “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “deconstruction” is fundamentally critical reason taken to its absurd end. (This does not mean their insights are not valuable.)

Under the influence of a mechanical vision of the universe, modern thinkers were predisposed to see the world as composed of small units of matter held together or acted upon by forces. In politics that resulted in an extreme individualism and a materialism that saw the fundamental forces of government as power subject only to natural and economic forces, all of which explainable by scientific analysis. Thus, the 20th Centuries most powerful political/economic theories, Capitalism and Marxism.

By the middle of the 20th Century, wise scientists knew that this vision of the universe was false. At a macro-level (the level of Newtonian mechanics) chaos theory and relativity theory reveal a world that is deeply relational. At its most fundamental level (the level of quantum theory), today most scientists believe that the world is composed of disturbances in a universal wave field, with the result that every aspect of reality is deeply connected with every other aspect of reality. [2] Some scientists even believe that the world is fundamentally composed of information. Whichever view turns out to be correct, the fact is that matter and forces are not fundamental. In the area of theology, a powerful analysis has emerged that the world is deeply interconnected, and relationship is more fundamental than matter or energy. [3]

The inevitable result of all this is that reason, relationships, spiritual values, moral imperatives, and the like will reemerge as important factors in a wise polity. The vision of the purely secular, materially driven and scientifically managed state will wither away until it finds its proper place in a more comprehensive and human polity. We are only at the beginning of a vast and important change in the way ordinary people and governments view reality and the presuppositions of everyday life.

Just as the world is made up of an intricately intertwined web of reality, governments will recognize that human politics must begin with smaller units, like the family and move organically in more comprehensive organizational units with important but limited powers. The vision of the all-powerful nation state that controls a territory through legal, administrative and bureaucratic power will be proved inadequate. A more relational view of government will supplant the modern view with which we have all grown up.

Whether this happens as a result of a great crisis and collapse of the current nation-state, world-state visions or organically through the decisions of wise leaders, depends on the decisions we all make. One thing for sure: a wise and truly post-modern political order will value reason, dialogue and compromise as much as debate and decision.

So, how does all this relate to our current crisis? Nothing more clearly demonstrates the relationality of the world’s political economy than the pandemic we are experiencing . It is interesting that, while national and international agencies have performed an important role, at the level or ordinary folks like you and me, it has involved shopping for groceries, helping neighbors, cancelling activities with large numbers of persons, personal hygiene and a host of other small actions. Churches, neighborhood organizations, volunteers groups, non-profit agencies and the like have all responded to the crisis, and mostly in a positive way.

The virus has exposed the fragility of the supply chain and the necessity of governments retaining certain manufacturing facilities related to medicine at the local level so as to eliminate a supply chain vulnerability. Interestingly, the virus emerged from a large socialist economy the political leadership of which was slow to react to the crisis and vastly underestimated risk. Free societies and those with more robust local and regional leadership, public and private, have done better than centralized states. This should give Americans hope for the future.

Both political liberals and conservatives agree that there are fundamental problems in our society. It may be a shared fundamental world view that is at the root of the decay of our public institutions. If the world is fundamentally rational and relational than all solutions that flow from a purely materialistic view of society, a view shared by extreme capitalist and socialistic theories of government, lie at the root of the problems we face. What is needed is a new, more relational and rational ontology of government (theory of the fundamental “being” of government).  I apologize to my readers for using the word “ontology,”, but there is no other word I can use that expresses my meaning more clearly.

Today, I am going to close with a prayer I posted yesterday on Facebook, a prayer for the Covid 19 Crisis and all those who are impacted by it, which means all of us.

Almighty God of Healing and Grace: 

On this National Day of Prayer, I lift up our nation and especially those with the Covid 19 virus and those seeking a vaccine and to contain the spread of the virus. Have mercy upon them and us God of Mercy so that this virus can be contained. 

Please be with the President, Vice President, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Head of the Center of Disease Control, the Congress and all national, state, and local officials who have responsibilities with respect to this epidemic. Give them wisdom, energy and love. 

Please be with all doctors, nurses, and other health workers who are ministering your healing grace to those with this disease. Be with our soon to be strained hospitals and clinics and all those who minister healing in these places of healing. 

Have mercy, O God, upon all the businesses and workers impacted by Covid 19, and especially upon the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Protect and restore our economy and the economies of the world impacted by this disease. 

We in America have been far less impacted than many nations, and, therefore, we pray for China, Iran, Italy, the Philippines, and other seriously impacted nations. 

Hear our prayers, O Lord. Hear our prayers, O Lord. Incline Your Ear to Us, and Grant us Your Shalom. 

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Amen.


God bless you all.


[1] Crisis of Discipleship is the last of the series of posts found on this blog site. Path of Life was published by Wipf & Stock in 2014, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[2] See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge, 1995), 19: “What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains and immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, “quantized” wavelike excitation on top of the background, rather like a ripple on a vast sea.” See Also, Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York Free Press, 1953), 129-137, where he refers to the fundamental reality as “vibratory” in nature. Id at 133-4

[3] See for example, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s University Press, 1985) and John Polkinghorne, ed, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

8. The Morality of Compromise

One problem with our overly-partisan politics controlled by the ideological extremes is that it makes compromise difficult if not impossible. It is difficult for zealots of any kind to compromise. This is true of religious zealots, Marxist zealots, National Socialist zealots, and secular humanist zealots. When you know you are right and either God or inevitable historical forces are on your side, it is hard to compromise.

The Meaning of Compromise

The word “compromise comes from a Middle English term connoting a mutual promise to abide by an arbiter’s decision. The Middle English term derives from the Latin compromissum, which means to mutually promise, from com (with) and promittere (to promise). The art of compromise is the art of reaching a middle ground with an adversary and promising to abide for the time being with that proposed solution to the dispute.

The word compromise has at least two different meanings;

  • A set of meanings in which something is exposed or made liable to danger, suspicion or disrepute; and
  • An accommodation in which each party makes concessions.

The problem with compromise in political discourse is the fact that statesmen and stateswomen must have the ability to discern when a fundamental principle is being compromised in such a way that there will be long term hard to the polity and when the compromise is a pragmatic way of moving a problem towards solution. Ideologues of the left and right, by definition, lack this ability.

Political Zealots and Compromise

Humility is a requirement for compromise. Zealots left and right, religious and secular, are without the ability to compromise because they lack a fundamental requirement of wise public decision-making: the humility to recognize that the best of us are sometimes misguided and mistaken in their moral decisions, and the worst of us are sometimes correct and act with moral common sense. Zealots left and right, religious and secular, lack the sense of their own finitude and moral and intellectual weakness, necessary to effective compromise.

The second defect of zealotry in public decision-making is that it refuses to take small intermediate steps towards the solution to large and complex problems. I have already in a prior post reflected on how a kind of ideological perfectionism caused the Affordable Care Act debacle. The problems with the budget deficit are equally a symptom of the left and right refusing to take small steps to resolve (or at least begin resolving) a national problem. Some years ago, a bi-partisan group recommended a path towards a balance budget. President Obama refused to compromise as did the leaders of the opposite party, with the result that nothing was accomplished. The preference for ideologically pure policy solutions to the detriment of effective action is a barrier to wise compromise.

Democracy and Compromise

At the time Richard John Neuhaus wrote, The Naked Public Square, [1]  the religious right was at the peak of its power. At the very beginning of the chapter, he notes that some religious groups have difficulty with the give and take of democratic politics because of the assumption that they are in possession of a revealed truth that makes compromise equivalent to cooperation with evil or falsehood. [2] In what I think is one of his best observations, he puts the case for compromise as follows:

People who compromise know in accordance with the democratic process know that they are compromising. That is, they do not tell themselves or others that it does not matter, that there was no principle at stake, that there was not a reasoning that had been stopped short of its logical end. In a similar way, to forgive someone is not the same thing as saying that it did not matter, that there was no offense, if there was no offence, there can be no forgiveness. Compromise and forgiveness arise from the acknowledgement that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world, Democracy is the product not of a vision of perfection but of the knowledge of imperfection. [3]

Neuhaus is absolutely correct in his analysis of the necessity of compromise to a functioning democracy. Compromise is the art of seeking the common good where there is violent disagreement as to what is in the common good and what is the best course of seeking it. The more divergent the policy views of the participants, the more necessary compromise is to a functioning democracy. Hopefully with the passing of the modern world with its “isms” and the preference for large, radical, bureaucratic solutions, the problem of compromise will lessen. But, it will not lessen until and unless the current participants walk away from our currently excessive ideological and combative style of politics.

Complex problems by their very nature have complex and divisive solutions. It is the job of leaders to pick the most viable solution and implement it. One fundamental quality of a leader is the ability to address problems in an organization successfully. By this definition, our political system has been lacking in leadership for a long, long time. Some years ago, I was visiting with a religious leader about a problem that was tearing our organization apart. I was attempting to sell him on taking a small compromising step to keep that problem from damaging our organization. His response was the response of the anti-leader: “Yes, Chris it is probably going to happen, but not until after I retire.” He was correct, but the organization has sustained the loss of thousands of members in the past few years. Unfortunately zealotry triumphed because leaders would not compromise.

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 7, entitled, “The Morality of Compromise”.

[2] Id, at 114.

[3] Id.