Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Naked Public Square

In The Naked Public Square Richard John Neuhaus charged that the United States, while calling itself a democratic society, was systematically excluding the values of the majority of its citizens from policy decisions. He contended that to rule out of bounds in public life religiously grounded moral viewpoints not only does injustice to America’s “incorrigibly religious” citizenry but also saps the very foundations of our democratic experiment. Convinced that the moment had come for men and women of faith to make themselves heard in setting the conditions under which we order our lives together, Neuhaus was heartened by what he saw as the growing political effectiveness of groups that were beginning to do just that. If religious voices in the U.S. today are stronger, more confident, and more adept at translating their values into terms that are persuasive to their fellow citizens, more than a little credit must go to the encouragement and example of Richard John Neuhaus.

Nevertheless, twenty years later, there is limited room in the American public square for conversation, contention, and compromise among a wide variety of moral actors. State-sponsored secularism, legally tightening its control, is ever more openly intolerant of rival belief systems. Despite efforts by some of the country’s best lawyers to promote applications of the First Amendment that are respectful of text and tradition, the courts continue to set the establishment and free exercise provisions at odds with each other, to the detriment of individual and institutional religious freedom. In the 2004 case of Locke v. Davey the Supreme Court actually gave its blessing to official religious discrimination, permitting the state of Washington to single out the study of theology for exclusion from a public scholarship program. The current Court majority has pressed forward with a six-decade-long trend of cabining religion in the private sphere while eroding protections of the associations and institutions where religious beliefs and practices are generated, regenerated, nurtured, and transmitted from one generation to the next.

At the state level, too, the outlook for the first of freedoms is bleak. The freedom of religious institutions to govern themselves is under growing assault, as we saw in the 2004 California Supreme Court decision requiring Catholic Charities to provide prescription contraceptive coverage for its employees. Faith-based institutions are facing ever-bolder efforts aimed at forcing them either to compromise their principles or to cease providing alternatives to government-controlled education, health care, housing, and programs for the poor. Attacks on religious freedom in the name of new sexual liberties are increasing. With the judicial nomination process excluding many men and women whose religious or moral beliefs diverge from the secular magisterium, there is little likelihood of a change of direction any time soon.

If present legal trends continue, it is not fanciful to suppose that the situation of religious believers in secular America will come to resemble dhimmitude—the status of non-Muslims in a number of Islamic countries. The dhimmi is tolerated so long as his religion is kept private and his public acts do not offend the state religion. Naturally, key positions in society must be reserved to those who adhere to the official creed.

Neuhaus’ diagnosis of the problem remains valid, but events have not borne out his confidence that a supposedly religious majority could help remedy our circumstances. Perhaps he read more into the polling data about American religious opinions than was really there. Certainly he staked a great deal on the notion that most Americans were still attached in important ways to the Judeo-Christian tradition. No doubt he was right that millions of Americans felt “a powerful resentment against values that they believe have been imposed on them,” but were their numbers really greater than the millions who adopted various forms of indifferentism, going along to get along? After all, it’s so much easier to get into the public square—or anywhere else one wants to go in American society—if one checks one’s religion at the gate, at least those parts of one’s religion that do not conform to the dominant ideology. If a majority of Americans are still religious in some sense, how many, one wonders, adhere to religions that assert strong truth claims and make strong demands on their members? And how many are devotees of what Robert Bellah and his associates dubbed “Sheila-ism” after the interviewee who described her entirely private religion as a matter of “listening to her own inner voice”?

Twenty years ago, Neuhaus correctly saw that the chief threat to our republic was not communism (as many thought at the time), but “a collapse of the idea of freedom and of the social arrangements necessary to sustaining liberal democracy.” But he seemed reluctant to follow his own analysis to its natural conclusion. Though he mentioned in passing the “lethal liberationisms that reached their apex in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he did not explore what that social revolution was doing to the cultural foundations of our republic. Though insisting, as did many of the Founders, that our regime of ordered liberty requires certain moral qualities in its citizens and statespersons, Neuhaus held back from pondering the condition of the principal settings where those qualities are acquired. It is now clear that the years of adult “liberation” took a dreadful toll on children, and on the nation’s principal seedbeds of character and competence: families and their surrounding communities of memory and mutual aid.

What many Americans now seem to want is for other people to be “incorrigibly religious” (or at least to behave as if they were). They want other people to cultivate the self-restraint that makes social life possible, other people to hang in there when family life gets tough, other people to be ethical in business dealings, other people to pay taxes, and other people to provide children with attention and discipline. While Neuhaus was urging free citizens to claim their rightful places in public life, we were becoming a nation of free riders, coasting along and spending social capital that is rapidly running out.

It would not have suited the hortatory, upbeat mood of The Naked Public Square to dwell on the state of American culture. The book, after all, was a rallying cry. But on the very last page, Neuhaus observes that the “new thing we are looking for may not come at all. The naked public square may be the last phase of a failed experiment.” No doubt he meant that warning as a spur to action. Today, it has a more ominous sound. The American agora, now crowded with jealous idols, awaits a new Paul preaching the unknown God.

- Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

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