Hankering for a Civil Religion
The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America
By Richard John Neuhaus
Review Author: Richard V. Pierard
In an eloquent and impassioned manner, Lutheran theologian Richard John Neuhaus lashes out against the de facto elimination of religious values from public discourse and warns against the ominous threat of secularism to liberal democracy in America.
His underlying argument is that today religion and religiously grounded values are excluded from the conduct of public business. This is a product of the false doctrine that America is a secular nation and the accompanying ideology of secularism. He insists that a transcendent reference point is necessary to resolve conflicts of values and to provide the general principles and moral standards needed to shape community life. This is precisely what secular society lacks. In the “naked public square” there is no agreed-upon authority that is higher than the community itself.
But transcendence abhors a vacuum and when recognizable religion is excluded from the public square, it will be smuggled in in some other form, like secular humanism, which is an ersatz religion. The secular state, without the transcendent norms provided by genuine religion, is said to be the prelude to totalitarianism where the state itself becomes transcendent. Then liberal democracy and biblical religion are extinguished.
The New Christian Right — or “moral majoritarians” as he prefers to call it — is not content to confine itself to the privatized sphere of religion. It has gone public with Christianity’s truth claims and focuses attention on the outrage and alienation millions of Americans feel about the secular society the cultural elite is promoting. In spite of all its faults, and Neuhaus readily concedes there are many, the Christian Right served as a “tripwire” that alerted people to the crisis of moral decadence facing the nation. According to the author, Jerry Falwell, like Martin Luther King Jr. two decades earlier, disrupted the business of secular America by appealing to religiously based public values.
Neuhaus’s plea for the restoration of religious values in the public sphere and for the believing community to act there on the basis of its beliefs is proper and necessary. And he recognizes that this must be accompanied by tolerance and compromise because transcendent purposes can at best only be imperfectly discerned. He sees the “sacred canopy” of Judeo-Christian religion as adequate to check the pretensions of both church and state and concedes that the privatized and authoritarian faith of the fundamentalist New Right is grossly inadequate for its task. Genuine liberal democracy is worth maintaining and struggling for, and those of us in the community of faith must participate in the enterprise. We should not let the secularists banish religion from public discourse.
This is an important book, one that challenges popularly held assumptions of liberals and moderates alike, and it demonstrates erudition and familiarity with the writings of classical and contemporary theologians and philosophers. This together with Neuhaus’s dialectical style does not make for light reading, and in places he doubles back on himself. There is also a sense of discomfort just beneath the surface, because Neuhaus really does not want to turn his back on those great causes of the 1960s in which he himself was deeply involved: the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam war movements.
However, by continuing to identify closely with the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a group which in its early stages rendered an important service to the church by revealing the political agendas of some denominational bureaucrats and calling them to account for misleading their constituencies but nowadays is little more than a mouthpiece for the Reagan Administration, Neuhaus has lost much credibility in mainline circles. I think he is uneasy with his neoconservative allies and this probably lies behind his trenchant criticisms, certainly some of the best I have seen, of the “moral majoritarians.”
As one who believes in the separation of church and state and that religious values should have “equal access” with all others to the public square, I want to embrace his stance. However, there are enough weaknesses in his presentation that I am compelled to back off. He has not convinced me that a prophetic civil religion, or at least the variety contained in the book, is the answer to the dilemma of American national purpose. To be sure, he denies that he is setting forth a civil religion, but a rose by any other name is still a rose.
This is evident in his “litmus test” for those who wish to play a part in redefining the American experiment: “On balance and considering the alternatives, the influence of the United States is a force for good in the world.” One of the most important reviews of the book, by Ronald Wells in The Reformed Journal, suggests that the litmus test asks too much, since it makes Christian politics an American Christian politics. It does not really encompass the transnational, trans-historical character of Christian belief. (The nation-state is not the starting point for my involvement in the political process.)
Neuhaus flatly declares that “patriotism is a species of piety.” Fortunately, and paradoxically, he does not attribute ultimacy to patriotism, and insists it is not to be affirmed in isolation from other virtues and communities of commitment. Christians must give priority to their membership in the community of believers, the church, because it is the bearer of the universal promise that is for all humankind. But, what if a state-sanctioning religion exists? Could it not unite patriotism and religion?
He correctly rejects the slogan “my country, right or wrong,” but the civil faith explicitly taught by many evangelicals, especially on the Religious Right, sidesteps this by transforming America into Christian America. Consider the civil religion of Jerry Falwell and other evangelical conservatives, as well as that of the greatest of all high priests of American civil religion, President Reagan. I would urge Neuhaus to read carefully the recent presidential speeches to evangelical bodies like the National Association of Evangelicals and National Religious Broadcasters. For example, in the NRB speech of February 4, 1985, he asked for continued support for his economic program and declared he was not sent to the White House “to turn back to the policies of the past” and the audience responded with “Amen.” Then he invoked the words of Jesus in Luke 14:31 as a justification for increased defense spending. Come on, Pastor Neuhaus, is this what you and your neoconservative friends in groups like the IRD regard as “critical patriotism” and right and wrong “determined by a context of higher reference” (page 74)?
Neuhaus’s attack on the church-state separation is one of the most exasperating aspects of the book. For him separation is the enemy that has provided the legal rationale for the sanitizing of the public square. It sounds like he has spent too much time listening to such critics of separation as Pat Robertson and John Whitehead. One almost gets the picture of malevolent secularists circling around the American body politic like a pack of wolves, pouncing upon every indication of religious expression as if it were a helpless little rabbit. He does not fully comprehend that religious exercises like public school prayer or reciting the Ten Commandments or a Bible passage do far more to vitiate genuine religion than to shore it up.
From his Lutheran perspective he fails to grasp the importance that the belief in separation of church and state holds for Baptists. As a group which in earlier times was a persecuted minority in lands where an established religion existed, they developed a deep commitment to separation. The action of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1982 in adopting a resolution favoring voluntary prayer in “government schools” (a term he picked up from his rightist allies and one I personally find offensive) was not, as he suggests, the action of a religious community that no longer was embattled and was thinking more about influence than tolerance. Rather it was a carefully orchestrated power play by the New Christian Right as part of its campaign to seize control of the denomination. The critics of the action were upholding the group’s traditional belief in separation, one which I firmly believe is the cornerstone of religious freedom in America.
Neuhaus’s discussion of abortion is also inadequate in that, like most rightist treatments of this terrible human tragedy, it does not incorporate the whole range of life issues like nuclear war, capital punishment, and world hunger. Then, too, his use of concepts like “totalitarian” and the “new class” are questionable. Still, in spite of its deficiencies, I regard the book as a landmark work and one that will stimulate discussion for a long time.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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