The Naked Public Square, Revisited



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by Steven P. Miller

Research for my next book has led me to read or view several evangelical classics “again, for the first time.” To be honest, despite my modest panel cred as a scholar of modern evangelical history, in some cases it’s just been for the first time. Perhaps there is no shame in confessing to never before having watched Whatever Happened to the Human Race? or the documentary version of The Late Great Planet Earth (the latter of which is less Orwellian than Orwellesian, Orson Welles being the host for this extended shuttle run between Jesus Movement apocalypticism and Seventies anti-growth liberalism). I’m a little more sheepish, though, about waiting until last week to read Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America cover to cover.

The significance of The Naked Public Square perhaps goes without saying, and I had heard the gist of its thesis a thousand times: The artificial divorce of religion from American public life imperils American democracy, not to mention millions of American believers. Conservative columnist George Will called it “the book from which further debate about church-state relations should begin.” Will seems to have received his wish.

My research interests lie in the major impetus for Neuhaus’ jeremiad—the arrival of what he called “the religious new right.” For Neuhaus, that phenomenon had “kicked a tripwire alerting us to a pervasive contradiction in our culture and politics. We insist that we are a democratic society, yet we have in recent decades systematically excluded from policy consideration the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief” (37). Note the use of “us” and “we,” an interesting slip since elsewhere in the book Neuhaus chides mainline Protestants for their reflexive use of the royal (that is, the custodial) “we” when denouncing the rest of American society. Neuhaus clearly wanted to tame what he, in the mid-1980s at least, saw as the potential for excess among those “evangelicals and fundamentalists who have lately come in from the cold of their sixty-year exile” (260).

Neuhaus thus positioned himself as a hostile critic of the new class left and a friendly critic of the religious right. In retrospect, his was an impossible balancing act. Even in the book, friendly criticism often morphs into legitimization (albeit somewhat condescendingly so). This is why I feel comfortable calling this book an evangelical classic. This also might be why Time magazine included the Lutheran-turned-Catholic on its 2005 list of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.” Charles Colson, who also made the cut, once likened The Naked Public Square to Augustine’s The City of God. A more sober comparison might be with Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center.

As I read his book, Neuhaus wanted to create a kind of vital religious center, even though he criticized Schlesinger-style liberalism for presuming a secularized brand of American democracy. As I read the remainder of Neuhaus’ career, though, what he helped to create was a more vital religious right, which during the next two decades set the tone for how Americans discussed religion and society. One reason, no doubt, was that mainline Protestants either did not heed Neuhaus’ call or did not offer a salable alternative to it. But surely another reason was, quite simply, that Neuhaus positioned himself as a political conservative. Neuhaus could still paint himself as an unaffiliated soul in the mid-1980s, yet he made several moves pointing toward an enduring home on the right: downplaying economic justice issues (as if to leave that sector of the public square to the economists’ decidedly secular curves), suggesting that “pluralism” really was just a synonym for “secularism,” and likening opposition to abortion to support for civil rights.

Nowhere was Neuhaus’ reach more evident than in the subtitle R. Marie Griffith and Melani McAlister chose for their introduction to the American Quarterly’s powerhouse September 2007 issue on religion: “Is the Public Square Still Naked?” Griffith and McAlister note how Neuhaus’ thesis eventually resonated even in liberal political circles (most influentially, within the Obama campaign). “We will not be rescued by religion,” Neuhaus warned toward the end of his book, yet the watered down version of the other 263 pages often has amounted to an assumption that religious-folks-are-good-and-therefore-good-for-public-life (260). This formulation resembles Martin Marty’s famous (and pithier) “religion-in-general.” Neuhaus’ book, however, suggests why generic “religion” arguably now has a more evangelical feel that it did in postwar America. “How strange is this historical moment,” Neuhaus declared, “in which talk about the public role of religion is thought to be conservative” (156). As it were, he helped to make the strange seem normal.

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