Revisiting the Naked Public Square

In 1984, a Lutheran pastor named Richard John Neuhaus published The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. The book’s timing coincided with the rise of the Religious Right and the midpoint of the two-term Reagan presidency. Neuhaus was concerned over the diminishing role of religion in American public life. While Americans were just as religious as ever, trends in the political and judicial arenas were seeking to relegate that influence to the private sphere. He did not see the methods of the Religious Right as the answer.

As I read the book last week, I was struck by it’s almost prophetic quality. One of Neuhaus’s central arguments is that any notion of a naked public square–a public square that operates apart from the influence of religion–is impossible. He wrote, “When recognizable religion is excluded, the vacuum will be filled by ersatz religion, by religion bootlegged into public space under other names.” In other words, you may be able to keep Christianity or Judaism out of the public square, but religion will invade that void under the guise of other names.

It is impossible to remove religion from the public square, because it is impossible to remove worship from the human heart. The public debate over abortion, for example, is not a debate between religious people and non-religious people; it is instead a debate between various worshippers. One group looks to God as supreme and depends on his revelation to assign value; the other group looks to human choice as supreme and depends on unabated desire to assign value. No human being defaults to a position of having no moral values. All of our arguments are over competing sets of values. Everyone is religious.

Neuhaus went on to describe what would happen if the public square continued to systematically exclude the influence of institutional religion. When organized religion is removed, the state will inevitably fill the void and supply the moral values for society. The desire for a religionless public square ends in totalitarianism. Given a value vacuum, the state is forced to provide the values. Writers such as Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat have recently made arguments that we already see that happening within secular progressivism.

As the nation watches the perfunctory confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, may we remember that our founders never envisioned religion as an enemy to public service. In fact, the republicanism of America’s founding posited that the flourishing of the republic depends upon the virtue of its citizenry, and organized religion was seen as vital to the cultivation of that required virtue. The alternative to Amy Coney Barrett is not a religionless, valueless law interpreter. The alternative to Amy Coney Barrett is someone who practices a different religion with a different set of values.

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