The Naked Public Square Revisited, Part II

This posting is the second part of a discussion that began with an earlier posting and is related to two previous postings about liberal fundamentalism and the American Founding.
Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book entitled The Naked Public Square: Religion & Democracy in America. First published in 1984, it addressed societal trends and the philosophical issues underlying the religion/democracy debate in America. Here are some excerpts where he describes the problem:

Politics and religion are different enterprises…But they are constantly coupling and getting quite mixed up with one another. There is nothing new about this. What is relatively new is the naked public square. The naked public square is the result of political doctrine and practice that would exclude religion and religiously grounded values from the conduct of public business…
When religion in any traditional or recognizable form is excluded from the public square, it does not mean that the public square is in fact naked…
The truly naked public square is at best a transitional phenomenon. It is a vacuum begging to be filled. When the democratically affirmed institutions that generate and transmit values are excluded, the vacuum will be filled by the agent left in control of the public square, the state. In this manner, a perverse notion of the disestablishment of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church…
Our problems, then, stem in large part from the philosophical and legal effort to isolate and exclude the religious dimension of culture…only the state can…”lay claim to compulsive authority.”…of all the institutions in societies, only religion can invoke against the state a transcendent authority and have its invocation seconded by “the people” to whom a democratic state is presumably accountable. For the state to be secured from such challenge, religion must be redefined as a private, emphatically not public, phenomenon. In addition, because truly value-less existence is impossible for persons or societies, the state must displace religion as the generator and bearer of values…
[T]he notion of the secular state can become the prelude to totalitarianism. That is, once religion is reduced to nothing more than privatized conscience, the public square has only two actors in it – the state and the individual. Religion as a mediating structure…is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state…
If law and polity are divorced from moral judgment…all things are permitted and…all things will be done…When in our public life no legal prohibition can be articulated with the force of transcendent authority, then there are no rules rooted in ultimacies that can protect the poor, the powerless and the marginal…
Politics is an inescapably moral enterprise. Those who participate in it are…moral actors. The word “moral” here…means only that the questions engaged [in politics] are questions that have to do with what is right or wrong, good or evil. Whatever moral dignity politics may possess depends upon its being a process of contention and compromise among moral actors, not simply a process of accomodation among individuals in pursuit of their interests. The conflict in American public life today, then, is not a conflict between morality and secularism. It is a conflict of moralities in which one moral system calls itself secular and insists that the other do likewise as the price of admission to the public arena. That insistence is in fact a demand that the other side capitulate…
The founding fathers of the American experiment declared certain truths to be self-evident and moved on from that premise. It is a measure of our decline into what may be the new dark ages that today we are compelled to produce evidence for the self-evident.

It is sobering to consider how rapid the decline in America has been, happening during our lifetime. For example, contrast today’s status quo with this 1952 opinion by William O. Douglas who, as a not particularly religious man, wrote the following in a U.S. Supreme Court case entitled Zorach v. Clauson:

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows in the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accomodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.

Finally, here are some additional thoughts from Neuhaus where he offers some guidance on how to understand and fix the problem:

One enters the public square, then, not as an anonymous citizen but as a person shaped by “other sources” that are neither defined by nor subservient to the public square. The public square is not a secular and morally sterilized space but a space for conversation, contention, and compromise among moral actors…compromise is an exercise of moral responsibility by persons who accept responsibility for sustaining the exercise that is called democracy…
One enters the democratic arena, then, as a moral actor. This must be insisted upon against those who view compromise as the antithesis of moral behavior. It must also be insisted upon against those who claim that moral judgment must be set aside before entering the public square…In this [latter] view, the assertion that a moral claim is an intrusion…an “imposition” upon a presumably value-free process. Morally serious people, however, cannot divide themselves so neatly…We do not have here an instance of moral judgment versus value-free secular reason. We have rather an instance of moralities in conflict. The notion of moralities in conflict is utterly essential to remedying the problems posed by the naked public square. Those who want to bring religiously based value to bear in public discourse have an obligation to “translate” those values into terms that are as accessible as possible to those who do not share the same religious grounding. They also have the obligation, however, to expose the myth of value-neutrality…

Neuhaus is now a Roman Catholic priest, a man known for publicly stating his deeply held religious beliefs. Yet, it is instructive to note how, through the use of reason that reaches out to all Americans, he carefully describes the issues we face here. In that way, he is being true to the principles of our Founding.
Americans who believe in liberty and self-government need to take responsibility for changing the course of our country’s debate on this important issue. We need to approach this issue with greater clarity.
As we prepare for another new year, it is a worthy endeavor to contemplate how each of us can make our own individual contribution in 2005 to helping the land we love.

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