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Book Review

How do we navigate conflicting values in the public square?

Understanding the public nature of faith in a secular society

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June 28, 2021

Beneath many—if not all—of the pressing social and cultural questions that our nation faces today sits a fundamental question about the nature and role of religion in the public square. From the often-fraught debates over abortion and sexuality issues like transgenderism to the increased discussions over online governance and the role of the technology industry in moderating public discourse, there lies a deep tension among ethical worldviews and disparate visions for the pursuit of the common good. 

Although it was published in 1984, The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus offers a deep critique of these contrasting visions and models an understanding of the public square that reveals the constant interplay of religion and politics. Ultimately, they cannot be kept separate, regardless of what some proponents of a “naked” or purely secular public square want to claim. Neuhaus defines the vision of a naked public square as the desire to “exclude religion and religiously grounded values from the conduct of public business” (ix).

Neuhaus was a prominent public theologian who served in a variety of clerical positions in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, later serving as a Roman Catholic Priest until his death in 2009. He was the founder and editor of the ecumenical and conservative monthly journal First Things, the director of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City, and the author of over 36 works. 

In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus offers a constructive critique of both the moral majoritarian movement of his day — as seen in the “religious right” led by so-called fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — and what some have deemed “the rainbow coalition” of the religious or secular left who seek to shift the conversation of public morality away from any transcendent reality toward radical concepts of “naked” pluralism based in an expressive individualism. Neuhaus concludes that the concept of a “naked public square” is simply untenable and fails to account for the public nature of religion itself. He forcefully argues that religion cannot simply be relegated to a private matter as seen in the language of freedom of worship or belief. And this concept of religion as purely a private matter of the individual is even more prominent today than it was in the 1980s when Neuhaus penned this monumental work.

Dangers of the “naked” public square

In this second edition, released in 1986, Neuhaus seeks to build upon his original cultural critique and begins to flesh out a constructive proposal for bridging “the connections between biblical faith and democratic governance” (xi). He opens the work by exposing the rise of civil religion in his day and critiques the constant debate over the proper role of religion in public life. Much of this debate has devolved into caricaturing opponents’ views, all the while defending the moral purity for our own tribe through comparison. He wisely points out that “in principle, we should be suspicious of explanations for other people’s beliefs and behavior when those explanations imply that they would believe and behave as we do, if only they were as mature and enlightened as we are” (16). This honest and humble posture is evident throughout Neuhaus’ work.

In this book, Neuhaus traces the history of public theology and shows that many critics of religion in the public square express fear that if allowed, politics may again degenerate into the religious wars of the past. Quoting Alastair MacIntyre, he states that “in the absence of a public ethic, politics becomes a civil war carried on by other means” (99). This is a prescient critique of today’s public square based on how many of Neuhaus’ predictions have become reality in recent years with the warring factions of political tribalism — fueled by the rise of the social internet — and the almost religious-like devotion to secularism of our day. Both of these political and inherently religious tribes are at odds over what should constitute a serviceable public ethic, which Neuhaus believes is “not somewhere in our past, just waiting to be found and reinstalled” (37). It will take hard work on behalf of all parties in order to navigate the challenges ahead.

Like a skilled surgeon, Neuhaus dissects the political moment of his day and shows the fundamental issue with religion in the public square is not an issue of Christian truth “going public,” which he points out is an essential element of Christian faith (19). Rather, he critiques the substance of the claims made by both the politicized fundamentalism and the utopian dreams of the naked public square of secularism. He argues that both pose a grave threat to human flourishing and the preservation of democracy as a whole. Whereas fundamentalism can lead to a paving over of conscience and may even devolve into forms of totalitarianism (99), secularism removes the “agreed-upon authority that is higher than the community itself” (76). The naked public square then becomes a place where “there is no publicly recognizable source for such criticism, no check upon such patriotism . . . therefore criticism becomes impossible and patriotism unsafe” (76). 

Neuhaus later proposes a new way in this debate that seeks to reorient the public square as one based on a transcendent reality, one that seeks to honor the real differences in worldview and groundings of morality through the framework of democratic values and a robust public square of reinvigorated discourse.

The morality of compromise

Neuhaus’ vision for the public square draws criticisms from both sides of the debate. To the ire of secularism, he refuses to grant that religion is simply a private matter that shouldn’t be allowed in the public square. Instead, he argues that it is also at odds with the religious right by stating that religion dogma cannot go unchecked in this democratic experiment. He articulates a vision of compromise and tolerance in the public square that seeks to understand both religion and democracy in their proper forms — a vision that is much more robust than critics often ascribe to him. For Neuhaus, compromise doesn’t equate with weakness or giving up on deeply held beliefs but rather engaging in a robust dialogue over important issues and seeking a workable solution for all parties. He states, “Compromise and forgiveness arise from the acknowledgment 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” (114).

Neuhaus goes on to argue that compromise “is not an immoral act, nor is it an amoral act” because the person who makes a compromise is making a moral judgement about what is to be done when moral judgements are in conflict.” He rightfully critiques the terminology of “two-kingdoms” in popular public theology and proposes a “twofold rule of God” that “underscores that it is the one God who rules over all reality, and his will is not divided” (115). This ensures that the public square is not devoid of a transcendent grounding for morality. Though, some on both sides of the divide will argue that Neuhaus gives away too much in the debate to the other side and that his middle ground approach is ultimately untenable in the increasingly hostile public square.

Neuhaus’ vision of compromise picks up on the idea of true toleration that has been popularized by some today as a path forward in these divisive times of polarization and tribalism. In his view, compromise is not about giving up truth or abandoning principle but recognizing that there are multiple moral actors present in any given decision and the need for humility in a workable vision of democracy. It means that “having set aside the sectarian and triumphalist alternatives, one acts with moral responsibility in an arena that requires compromise” (124). He later describes this project as one true democracy that understands that there “will always be another inning, another election, another appeal, another case to be tested” (181). It is understandable why this particular vision would be unsettling to both sides of these public debates because it means seeing the humanity of your supposed “enemies” and working toward a common future.

In seeking to lay out this vision for religion and democracy in America, Neuhaus describes a “very large number of Americans who feel they have for a long time been on the losing end have come to believe that the winners are trying to deny them their innings” (181). This is also one of the prevailing issues of today and bears acknowledging that particular communities — especially those of color — have actually been historically disenfranchised. But given Neuhaus’ context and intention of this volume, he does not particularly highlight the plight of these communities in his vision for the public square and discourse. While this is a weakness of the argument presented, it does not invalidate the principles that he lays out for his constructive proposal for the public square. He simply shows that those who hold a “pragmatic and provisional view of the democratic process” would understandably be alarmed by his proposal. Neuhaus rejects this pragmatic vision of the democratic process and argues for a more robust public theology.

Overall, Neuhaus offers a credible and healthy alternative to the warring factions of society and the outright secular rejection of religion in the public square by showing that these disparate visions of religion and democracy are simply untenable by their very nature. In the preface to the second edition of The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus writes that many critiqued the first edition of this work because it lacked a substantive proposal for applying the vision he articulates. While this second edition does move toward that type of proposal, it still lacks a detailed outworking of his vision for the public square. But Neuhaus believed others would be able to develop that type of proposal as they built upon the foundation that he laid out for an alternative understanding of the relationship of religion and democracy in the public square.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and leads the ERLC Research Institute. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, public theology, technology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with … Read More