From a Naked to an Illumined Public Square

In 1984, 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 one of the most influential journals on religion and public life, had a deep impact during the following years. [2] I remember reading the book in the late 1980’s and admiring his scholarship. During the 1990s while in seminary, I developed the habit of reading First Things our seminary library. Later for some years, I subscribed until I concluded that the money of a local pastor might be better spent on his family. However, during all those years I was not comfortable with all the conclusions of  The Naked Public Square or the tone of the work in a few 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 recently, it has resided. It is too early to tell whether the Trump Administration and the reaction of some evangelical leaders to his style and perceived immorality have resulted in a permanent change of this alliance in the future. In any case, many prominent evangelical pastors and intellectuals have distanced themselves from the Republican Party. In my view, this is also a positive development.

Perhaps more central to the hope of this book is the fact that at the time the basic contest in the area of public theology among evangelicals, Catholics, and mainline protestants and what was sometimes termed the “Religious Right” concerned the question of which group’s basic theological and social views should Christians adopt. Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square, and the Mainline Protestants came down on the side of themselves. Having spent a good bit of my life in academia (undergraduate, law, and seminary), I was not certain this was the right question. In my mind, the question is whether or not Christianity will have any important voice in political affairs under the current dominant way of thinking. Will the light of Christ in any way impact public life.”

The Short-Sighted Public Square

One weakness of contemporary Christian witness in public life is that it too often focuses on “hot button” issues, such as abortion, or personalities, such as Donald Trump’s or Joe Biden’s moral character. While character is important, and a focus on moral issues certainly has a place in Christian views on public life, single-minded or overly-moralistic approaches inhibit the development of discussion and reason concerning Christian faith and its fundamental message to Christians and others in complex areas of our national political life. This particular feature of Christian participation in public life has many consequences, none of which are positive. First, it often results in the demonization of other sides of the political debate. Second, it diverts attention from issues that are important to human flourishing and the stability of our democracy. Third, it creates a kind of “winner take all” moral enthusiasm related to issues that can prevent the proper functioning of our democracy and its fundamental institutions.

Finally, and most destructively, excessive negative focus on the most dangerous proposals of our opponents creates a demand for a kind of messianic leader who will establish the policies that various supporting groups desire. The results of political messianism are both inevitable disappointment and the creation of a kind of misplaced moral outrage that hinders wise and fair decision-making. Christians of all stripes believe in the doctrine of the fall, one particular result of which is we cannot expect a level of moral purity from our leaders that we regularly admit we do not possess.

Our national elites find it relatively easy to allow public debate to occur on two levels. First, there is the vulgar level of social media, broadcast media, and the like. Anyone who has read the comment sections of any version of social media regularly reads comments that are either inane or violently rude. It is amazing to me how many people when faced with a problem like the Middle East or the Deficit react by posting “Bomb them into oblivion” or “Tax the rich” or “Fire all federal employees.” There is not much light to be gained by reading the comment section in media.

Illumined by Wisdom and Love

I sometimes call my approach to political philosophy and theology “sophia-agapic.” The Greek word “Sophia” is the word for wisdom in the New Testament. The Greek word “Agape” is the word Christians use for the self-giving love of God. In Christ, Christians believe that the love of God became human and “dwelt among us full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Christians also believe that God possesses all wisdom, which wisdom also became human in Christ and its implications revealed for the human race (John 1:4). This has implications in every area of Christian life and activity, two of which are important in any discussion of political theology:

First, God is Love and exists in a loving family-like relationship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Christian faith will seek mutuality and self-giving relationships as a characteristic of its involvement in public life. This includes recognizing the limitations of force, physical, mental, emotional, and otherwise in public affairs.

Second, God is Light, which is to say that God is completely, wise, completely pure, completely rational, completely good, and completely beautiful. This includes the importance of approaching public policy wisely and with and informed discretion.

Most people tend to think of power as a primary quality and important for one to possess. One of my professors in undergraduate school commented that “politics is just about power, getting it, using it, and losing it.” At the time, I agreed. Now, I do not. Political power is both profoundly interpersonal and depends on numerous factors, some of which are moral and psychological.

The philosopher Nietzsche instituted a program of seeing all moral claims, and all truth claims as simple bids for power, a program that finds its current home in deconstructive social theory. Nietzsche effectively “deconstructed” the foundations of Enlightenment liberalism, reducing all truth claims, all moral claims, and all aesthetic claims to bids for power. Nietzsche’s hostility towards Christianity as a “slave religion,” reflecting an attempt by the weak to gain power over the strong, the “Ubermensch” (“overman” or “superman,” who has the vitality to impose his or her will on others) is well known. In practice, the result of Nietzschean thought has inevitably been some kind of totalitarianism. [3] This Nietzschean notion of the will to power embeds in contemporary politics an innate tenancy toward violence. [4] The truth and reality of this observation are seen in the events in major U.S. cities over the past several weeks.

If you are like me, you watch the nightly news with a sense of horror and foreboding. The riots on the streets, the antics of nihilist anarchists, the tactics of the Marxist left seeking the ever illusive “end of history” and institution of a proletarian dictatorship, the complicity of left-wing politicians, and worst of all, the egging-on by the liberal media, without the slightest reflection on where this is all heading. For those who want to know the end game of all this, my suggestion is that the end game will not be pretty—or what its proponents desire.

The Enlightenment, with its hostility to religion, began in France among a group of philosophers who were anti-Catholic, the most famous of whom was Voltaire. They envisioned a perfect, humanistic state. They created a dictatorship in which thousands died in an orgy of madness. The result was not a perfect state, but a perfectly demonic state. What finally emerged was not a paradise of reason, but Napoleon.

If American intellectuals, left-wing politicians, and the plutocrats who control much of our wealth are wise, they will take a break from radical politics, political calculations, and cultural accommodation and study the French Revolution. Those who egged on the French mob were ultimately destroyed by the mob. This same kind of senseless evil was characteristic of the 20th century, from Lenin to Hitler, Mao, Pot Pol, and beyond.

There is a kind of naïve utopianism that discounts human brokenness and our capacity for evil, that believes that a different sort of ruler (me or my group) would mean change for the better, and that impatient for change. In the case of modern revolutions, people seek a secular Messiah who will usher in a golden age of peace and plenty, but most often get Stalin. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must need to be those offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” (Matthew 18:7, KJV).

Will to Healthy Relationality

Over and against the Nietzschean notion of the “Will to Power” as ultimate, Christians posit that the universe is communal, flowing from the communal nature of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians fundamentally disagree with the modern worldview that “All that exists are objects and forces.” While we confess the reality of the objective world outside of us, we also believe that there is a noetic or spiritual world in which words like “Freedom” and “Justice” have a real though not physical existence.


On and off this year, I am going to take a leisurely blogging trip through some fundamental ways  Christian faith  can guide Christians in bringing wisdom and love into American public life. 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 aware that Christian engagement with political life includes the danger of Christian thinking about matters of public life degenerating into a “Church of What Is Happening Now” response. [5] One blessing 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 also 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 of 2024, it would seem to me that his concern was overdone. The Moral Majority has disappeared from public life. What has emerged in its place is a kind of disconnected dislike of the current regime without a philosophical basis or a well-thought-out policy alternative. We do not need more buzzwords.

The cultural changes of the 1960’s were, perhaps, slowed by the Reagan Presidency but they were not by any means without continuing impact. On college campuses, in the media, and in other cultural settings, the forces unleashed by the decay of modernity continue to impact public life in powerful ways. The world of 2024 is almost unrecognizable from the perspective of 1984. America was becoming more secular in the late 20th century. It is secular in the early 21stcentury.

While religious faith is a factor for people of faith in their making of public decisions, faith is not a 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 or actions once in office. 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 the wall should be permitted in a particular lot. Hopefully, my religious faith causes me to be loving, kind, and 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.

Cultural forces are not easily overcome as the massive change in sexual morals among religious and non-religious people in early 21st-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 Christians need to develop.

Copyright 2023, 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

[3] In my view, contemporary Communist China is a national socialist state masquerading as a communist state. Modern Russia under Putin is clearly a kind of national socialist state, in which very wealthy oligarchs and the state control every element of human life. Milbank believes as do I that Nietzschean nihilism always leads to some form of Nazism. Unfortunately, we see elements of this kind of government in American and Western European society.

[4] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK.: Blackwell, 2006), at xiii, and chapter 10, “Ontological Violence or the Postmodern Problematic” pp. 278-326

[5] The Naked Public Square, 3ff.