In 1984, Richard John Neuhaus wrote The Naked Public Square. This book remains relevant in conversations regarding the relationship between faith and public life even today, and its title has become shorthand for a description of a secular political system in which religious claims are neither welcome nor valid.
Usually twenty years isn’t that long of a time as far as political history is concerned, but much has changed since this book first appeared. It was written in the nadir of late twentieth century secularism. Those who spent their teens and twenties in the anti-authoritarian social movements of the sixties were beginning to assume leadership positions in society. Church attendance was on the way down. Cultural conservatives felt beaten up as it seemed that every court decision that mattered went against them.
To listen to the debate that followed the recent presidential election in the United States, it would appear all of this is ancient history. The victory of George Bush and the defeat of gay marriage referendums in eleven states were widely cited as proof positive that religious zealots had taken over. As columnist Gary Wills opined in the New York Times, it was “the day the enlightenment went out.” The events of September 11, 2001 had forced the grudging acknowledgement that religion does have public consequences and can’t be sealed into privatized boxes of individual lives, no matter how hard we try. Now sophisticated secularists were confronted by the realization that this was not only applied to foreigners whose ethnicity and cultures seemed incomprehensible, but it was also true for many white middle-class Americans whom the sophisticates had previously thought had outgrown this religious stuff.
So the climate of the present discussion is a very different one, regardless of the “side” which one takes. Secular sophisticates had assumed that their rational assumptions, which seemed in 1984 to be in beginnings of an exponential acceptance curve, were indisputable. Cultural conservatives, while appreciative of these developments, still haven’t figured out what the post-modern framework within which these changes have taken place really means for them. Besides, they haven’t tasted many fruits of their new-found influence positions on issues that really matter to them for them to feel themselves victorious.
The issues raised by these developments are too complex to even try to describe in a single column. We are in just the beginnings of a new era of debate in which the relevance of faith for public life will be examined under a different set of analytical lenses. However, as people of faith prepare themselves to enter into this dialogue, it seems worthwhile to ask a simple question. Is the acceptance of the naked public square argument at least in part a failure to defend the beauty of religious clothes?
Before defending the beauty of clothing, we need to spend a moment or two discussing the place of clothes in the public square. In a First Things symposium on the impact of Naked Public Square, Jean Bethke Elshtain summarizes the context for this debate effectively:
Some critics of Richard John Neuhaus’ discourse-altering book claim that the public square has never been naked. Others say that it is naked and must continue to be, and that it’s a d*** good thing, too. The first group insists that Neuhaus wanted to fill the public square with confessional talk—which, of course, is out of bounds in a society whose public square has always worn the decent garments of democratic civility, evidently not the garb that Neuhaus favors. The second group accepts and even celebrates a naked public square because it believes that the comprehensive worldviews of citizens—and religion is nothing if not a comprehensive worldview—have no proper place in a secular constitutional republic. These analysts press arguments often derived from the work of the late, great John Rawls, and insist that, should arguments derived from religious convictions enter the public square, they must be wearing secular garb. This, they say, is the requirement to which Neuhaus objected, and if this makes the public square naked, so be it.”
Without aligning herself with the first group (whom she dismisses as being “clearly wrong”), Elshtain notes the mistaken assumption that a secular government presupposes a secular civil society. She drives her point home with an effective question: “Do we want to silence someone such as (Martin Luther) King because our academic and legal elites hate Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson?”
So how do we (for I, working for an organization with a mission to “influence others to a Christian view of work and public life,” hardly consider myself a neutral in this discussion) go about convincing those revelling in the freedom of the naked public square that they are missing out on something?
There are three basic tacts to choose from. We can debate our understandings of beauty. They clearly think our religious clothes are ugly; we think their lack of clothes is lewd and vulgar. We could try to point out the impracticality of their approach. Without wearing the clothes of some religious or moral code, it is impossible to make any arguments of what citizens ought to do. Without clothes that contain pockets, at least one hand is required to carry one’s wallet. The third tact is to point out the dangers that one can be exposed to. Nakedness may provide some comfort in the sunshine on the beach, but it hardly provides an answer to the winter cold.
All analogies have their limits (and we may have stretched this one as far as it should go), but there are at least three lessons we should learn if we are to be effective in making the case that the clothes of faith-based arguments are appropriate and necessary in public dialogue.
The first is that there is such a thing as ugly religious clothes. This ugliness takes many forms, and there are plenty of examples even in our recent history to create quite a rogues gallery. There are those who speak in the name of truth and love but have no hesitation getting caught up in the political game and misrepresenting their opponents in the most uncharitable manner. There are those who speak about the importance of speaking from conviction, but show no respect for the deeply held convictions of others with whom they disagree.
Speaking from the perspective of one who is engaged in the public square with label “Christian” applied to his activities, I think it is important that we hold to a much higher standard of civility and decency in our debates than is the norm that our opponents are held to. We bear the name of Christ, and as such, need to be prepared to turn the other cheek. We must always be ready to defend the name of Christ but also willing to allow ourselves to suffer loss. This is not a plea for a namby-pamby nice-ness that refuses to take clear stands or differ with others. It is a plea that the tone of our discourse and approach to the debate will be decidedly different than those with whom we differ. And while, there may from time to time be a place for righteous indignation, such a place is really quite rare.
The second lesson we should learn is no matter how beautiful the clothes, they do not wear well unless they are fitted to the occasion. Several important distinctions need to be made here. Public life is much broader than politics, and involves the many institutions that make up society. Clearly, it is appropriate to speak differently—even when making the same argument—in a Rotary club than in a church setting; in a public newspaper column than in an in-camera caucus meeting of a political party. Not only are these differences an obvious matter of prudence; they stem from the very character of the different institutions and their purposes. To return to our clothes analogy, both casual dinner wear and an evening gown have their own elegance, but all the elegance is lost if the evening gown is worn to a casual dinner party with friends and the casual clothes to a formal wedding reception.
The third lesson involves the defining of terms. Evaluating the beauty or ugliness of clothing worn by public arguments requires us to infuse some meaning into those words. One might hear the same word—beautiful—mouthed by those observing the dress at a classical ball as well as by those who are flipping through a pornographic magazine, but something very different is intended by the same term. At the core of the argument is an epistemology. Where does our idea of beauty come from?
On this front, we need to be more vigorous. We must not be ashamed to argue that the lessons of thousands of years of civilization must carry some weight against the recently found “wisdom” of modern secularists. The “progress” of secularism has resulted in more deaths in the twentieth century than the combined wars of religion of previous centuries. For all of the progress that material secularism has brought to our age, few can argue that the world is a safer, more stable, and happier place than in other ages. One fears that those who wish to make the arguments for clothing the public square have sometimes themselves become too diverted by the trinkets of modernity to argue with conviction and passion on what the essence of beauty is really about.
While such an argument inevitably involves truth claims and the religious presuppositions that our sophisticated secular friends argue do not belong in public, we can make the argument using empirically verifiable data they must contend with. They will try to duck the data claiming we are not playing by the rules of the game; it is here we must stop letting them get away with it. Although Christians who have a worldview inspired by God’s word may have a “privileged access” to a perspective that is not equally available and may not always make sense to secular neighbours (just as those arguing from an eastern philosophy will make arguments that don’t always appear to make sense to a more traditional “western” perspective), they need to convince their neighbours of the validity of this perspective based on public arguments which those who do not share the Christian faith can access by reading the “book of nature.” Different Christian denominations hold to various eschatological interpretations and expectations as to how successful those arguments will be, but the difference in expected result does not minimize the common duty which is placed on them all to at least make the arguments.
The debate that we need to engage in is not simply one about abortion, same-sex marriage, the distribution of wealth in society, or strategies to protect the environment. Neither will it be solved simply by managing to elect more individuals who confess Christ to positions of influence. The answer is not simply to be found in politics or the academy, or for that matter in any single institution.
In making his argument twenty years ago, Richard John Neuhaus argued, within the assumptions of a liberal democratic framework, that “politics is most importantly a function of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion, whether or not it is called by that name.” An over-simplistic, but helpful, definition of culture is “a set of unwritten rules that determine how people act.” Everyone in a cultural context is affected by those rules, even as they become conscious of what those rules are.
In our present shrunken world, where we all have become aware that the beliefs of people in a part of the world I have never seen does have impact on my security and how I live my life at home, we opening a new chapter in the discussion on the nature of faith and society. The debate is complex and requires a wisdom that few of us would claim to possess. But the sense of inadequacy is not an excuse of inactivity. Even if that activity is a look in the mirror to ensure that the garments with which we clothe our public arguments have the appropriate beauty.