The Naked Public Square Reconsidered

Religion and Politics in the Twenty-First Century

Edited by Christopher Wolfe

ISI Books, 2009

227 pages, hardbound, $28

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(800) 526-7022

It has been claimed that every change in the culture is preceded by a change in language. On those terms, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus’ publication 25 years ago of The Naked Public Square, his seminal critique of efforts to exorcise religion from American public life, initiated a cultural volte-face. In the ensuing quarter century, the “naked public square” has become the intellectual rallying point for those opposed to the establishment of secularism as America’s ersatz constitutional religion.

But Father Neuhaus was not only concerned with the explicit place of religion in American public life. Those who deemed “faith … more volatile than nitroglycerin” wanted to eliminate any aspect of public life whose inspiration or continued existence might be attributable even in part to a Judeo-Christian worldview or its moral principles. In the 1970s, this was manifest in the legalization of abortion; today it underlies campaigns to assert legal rights for homosexual impersonations of marriage.

Twelve authors contributed to this look at the effects of Father Neuhaus’ book. Four ask whether the situation has improved since the original tome. Gerry Bradley is optimistic, arguing that, since 1984, the Supreme Court has shown some signs of retreat in its secularizing juggernaut. Mary Ann Glendon is less sanguine, suggesting that “it is not fanciful to imagine a Supreme Court majority following a course that could well end by reducing followers of many religions to something like dhimmitude — the status of non-Muslims in a number of Islamic countries. The dhimmi is tolerated as long as his religion is kept private and his public acts do not offend the state religion. Key positions in society are of course reserved for those who adhere to the official creed.”

I share Glendon’s pessimism because of the next two essays (by J.H.H. Weiler and Michael Pakulak) discussing the ultimately unsuccessful effort to include any mention of Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage in the preamble of the failed European Constitution. Secularism is a hardy, trans-Atlantic phenomenon. Six years ago, it was suggested in Ireland that a European Union ban on smoke in public places could be used to ban incense in churches. Although I usually concur with Bradley, he is too positive in thinking that “aversion to a whiff of incense near the public square has gone away.”

I also join in Glendon’s pessimism because, if the aping of marriage represented by the same-sex “marriage” movement ever prevails widely, its social implications will be pervasive. As Hadley Arkes observes: “The right proclaimed at the top of the state by the courts works its way out then from the public to the private. It begins with the things that public agencies may not … legislate. It moves to the things that public agencies may indeed legislate, in spreading this new right through the public domain. And then this new conviction of rights is allied to the levers of the law in spreading its regulations into private settings — to the corporations, the college, the small business. In ways subtle and unsubtle, definite and firm, the people who form the regime establish their rule most emphatically by establishing the things that it is no longer respectable or safe to say in public. As this trend [reaches] its fullest expression, the public square [becomes] even more naked and hostile than the public square portrayed by Richard Neuhaus …”

Two and a half decades since The Naked Public Square is a decent interval to take stock of Neuhaus’ fundamental transformation of the church-state paradigm, and this book deserves wide readership.

 John M. Grondelski writes

from Bern, Switzerland.