In the mid-1980’s Richard John Neuhaus was warning about the consequences of what he called the “naked public square.” The naked public square describes a society where religion has been privatized and removed from public discourse. The “public square” has been stripped of anything resembling the transcendent all in the name of “secularism.” The most obvious place to look for evidence of this nakedness is in government where the interpretation of the first amendment has shifted from protecting religion from the intervention of the government to protecting the government and everything the government might come into contact with from the spoiling influence of religion. Of course nowadays the government comes into contact with quite a bit. We can barely walk without bumping into some obese outcropping of government control. The modern assumption is that if it is at all public, it must be naked – stripped of any sight or smell of the transcendent.
Sometimes this nakedness is enforced through legal action – like this or this. But often the nakedness is willfully chosen. I once sat through an entire presentation from an administrator at a university with a religious heritage with the title “creating upright citizens of the world.” You would like to think that a religious institution would somewhere want to at least give lip service to the idea that religion positively contributes to the development of “upright citizens.” I’m so naive. In the nearly two-hour long presentation there was not a single mention of spirituality or religion. Not only was this university pretending as if this significant part of the majority of people’s lives was completely non-existent, it was also willfully ignoring the fact that religion is a positive contributor to a person becoming an “upright citizen of the world.” Imagine spending 40,000 dollars a year to send your child to a “Christian” liberal arts university only to have your child learn that religion has no place in public life.
Neuhaus points out some of the devastating consequences of the naked public square.
It is a recipe for totalitarianism. Neuhaus says,
More than that, the 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—a community that generates and transmits moral values—is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state.
The naked public square doesn’t remain naked for long. Despite what you’ve probably heard, secularism is not devoid of the values, principles, beliefs, and practices that characterize religion. And so, in the naked public square, secularism is allowed to become the religion of the state and the law of the land. And this secular public square has grown in size and reach forcing mediating institutions – institutions that give our lives structure and meaning independent of the state – like the church to fade (or sometimes are forced) into the shadows of public life leaving only the the individual and the state. Even the mediating institution of the family is not exempt from the advancing religion of secularism. The ongoing erosion of important public institutions has created a vacuum filled by the presence of the state. Which leads to the next point.
Literally everything must be political. When there is nothing that exists between the individual and the state everything must be interpreted through the lens of politics.
Haven’t you noticed? Our football games, our bathrooms, our wedding cakes, our after-school activities, the clothes we wear and the food we eat. Everything is political! What a God-awful, exhausting and pathetic way to live. I wonder how many enthusiastic advocates of the naked public square would find themselves nodding in earnest agreement with Mussolini: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” We have also become incredibly litigious. Every slight. Every unfairness. Every offence – real or potential – requires a governmental intervention because other institutions have been stripped of their public relevance.
There are no guiding principles, only partisan interests. Neuhaus again,
Without a shared world of moral discourse that transcends the divisive issues at hand, however, partisanship slides into dehumanizing polarization…When the public square is thoroughly desacralized, political action is, in every sense of the term, thoroughly demoralized.
Religion is not only a mediating institution, it also provides what Peter Berger called a “sacred canopy” over and above the state. Religion provides meaning, shared values, and principles that offer both guidance and judgment. In the naked public square, there are no common principles that unite a people. In the place of principles, we are left only with partisan interests. Politics becomes a game with winners and losers. In the naked public square, there are no transcendent values that judge a person or a nation. And in the naked public square, patriotism – which relies on higher ideals and principles – devolves into blind nationalism or tribalism.
You get Trump. A cynic might wonder how we got Trump if the public square is in fact so naked. I mean, didn’t evangelicals basically elect Donald Trump? Well, yes and no. It should be pointed out that Neuhaus was writing in the 80’s about the naked public square in the era of Reagan and the Moral Majority when evangelicals enjoyed even more cultural power than they do now. Neuhaus’ argument is basically twofold.
First, the election of Ronald Reagan was the result of evangelicals, who before 1976 had very little political agency, coming in from the political cold. Evangelicals essentially became fed-up with being smugly told by cultural elites (often left-leaning Christians) that they were the only ones who had to leave their most important beliefs at the door of the voting booth. Evangelicals have been more engaged politically ever since. The reasons why Trump got elected are complex, but there is little doubt that a lot of evangelicals (both of the nominal and committed variety) harbor many of those same resentments that informed their votes in 1980. So you don’t get Reagan or Trump if there isn’t some sense of indignation over the consequences of a naked public square.
Second, it can be argued that the relationship between many evangelicals and Trump demonstrates just how naked the public square has become. Religion isn’t the sacred canopy informing and judging. Religion has become little more than an appendage for exercising partisan power – offering little homilies of consolations in support of the programs and policies of the President. And the previous sentence could be said equally about the last President in regards to left-leaning Christians. The naked public square turns religion into a court jester. The minute the jester starts to get lippy, he is exiled from the halls of power. Neuhaus doesn’t pull any punches here:
One part of the problematic is the debasing of religion, making it an appendage to partisan purpose. Those on all sides can cite ample instances of their opponents’ seeming to do just that. Such “using” of religion is, by any serious definition of the term, blasphemy.
I think it is wildly unfair and irresponsible to call anyone unAmerican and certainly unChristian because of who they did or did not vote for. The reasons why people vote for any candidate are often complex and personal. I’ve tried to become more understanding and sympathetic of those Christian brothers and sisters who voted for Obama (someone with whom I disagreed with quite a bit) and those who voted for Trump (someone with whom I also have a lot of disagreements with). But Neuhaus offers this warning and encouragement for all of us – no matter where we fall on the political spectrum.
The public role of religion will not be decided by a few defeats or victories in specific elections or policy disputes. It will be decided in large part by the capacity of various religious leaderships to liberate themselves from their captivity to political partisanships. It will be decided by religion’s ability to help reconstruct a “sacred canopy” for the American experiment.