My hometown in central Pennsylvania has long had a naked public square. Today the most noteworthy buildings on the square are the Colonial Bar and Grill, a Seven Eleven, and a barbershop. Religion is nowhere to be seen. I am not, I must confess, embarrassed about this, except aesthetically. It reflects a tradition going back to the founding of the town in the l 750’s. At that time the town planners deeded lots to the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, and the Moravians. Unlike European precedents, however, none of these churches were to be on the public square. This geographical distancing symbolized a more basic principle. Religion was encouraged by the town founders; but it was also distanced from the formal center of civic activity. Eighteenth-century Pennsylvania was justly celebrated as a haven of religious liberty and was a model for the American experiment.
The naked public square, then, might be presented as a symbol of what is right about the American tradition of religion and politics just as easily as it can be used, as Neuhaus uses it, as an image for what is going wrong. At least, it is not immediately obvious why we should share Neuhaus’s alarm. Neuhaus’s alarm seems based primarily on his repeated assertion that the exclusion of religious discourse from public life will create a moral vacuum that will be filled by state totalitarianism. But is there historical evidence for this claim? If one considers the classic totalitarian regimes in nations with major Christian heritage, such as Russia, Italy, Germany, Cuba, or Argentina, public religious dis course does not seem to have been unusually lacking prior to the rise of such regimes
Nonetheless, Neuhaus has a point which makes his highly stimulating book also important. Some sort of moral consensus seems essential for the health and survival of a free society. At present it is difficult to see what holds together such a consensus in America. Popular American beliefs seem too relativistic and in dividualistic to sustain a substantial consensus indefinitely. Neuhaus is thus sounding an important call by urging us to attend to the moral dimensions of public philosophy.
On the surface, Neuhaus’s proposal looks like a plea simply to have more religious in put in public life. His problem religion and religiously based morality have been too much excluded from the public square. His apparent solution: put more religion and religious-moral discourse into public life. Nonetheless, Neuhaus’s book is dense, both in the sense of being tightly packed with stimulating remarks and in the sense of it being difficult to unravel from these the exact line of argument.
If one does look closely, one finds that Neuhaus is not advocating infusing public discourse either with more religion in a general sense or with the Judea-Christian tradition in a general sense. Rather, he seems interested in getting only a certain sort of Judeo-Christian tradition into the public discourse about morality. This becomes clear when we look at his treatment of the two major recent contenders for religious influence in American public life. The most recent, the Moral Majority, he credits several times with having touched a tripwire that has set off needed public discussion of certain moral-religious issues. He also emphasizes that he does not approve of the sort of religious discourse the Moral Majority has entered into the public debate. Truly public religion, he argues cogently, cannot be based on appeal to private authority. Public discourse must bebased on arguments accessible to the public. Fundamentalists, he says, fail on this score. Presumably, they disqualify themselves from public discourse not simply because they appeal to the authority of Scripture (which many Christians and Jews would want to do), but because they insist that their conclusions do not allow room for discussion.
Neuhaus indicts the politically liberal establishment of main-line Protestantism even more severely. They are eliminated in the search for a public philosophy because they too often fail Neuhaus’s requirement that one must believe that, on balance and considering the alternatives, America is a force for good in the world. At this point, and in related remarks, it becomes clear that Neuhaus is further limiting his call for religion in public life to a call only for a religion in public life to a call only for religion that will yield a particular political stance. He wants a Republican public square.
Having eliminated the whole religious far right and also the Protestant left, we are left with a much narrower conception of religion in the public square. The only people remaining are those who are moderate religiously, lean to the right politically, and are duly modest about their views, after the model of ReinholdNiebuhr. These are often fine people. But can this group of right-leaning centrists establish a religiously based consensus for American culture, law, and politics? Neuhaus points out that there are many Catholics, Lutherans, and evangelicals who might make up this group. But if we eliminate those politically on the left, the ideological right, and the religiously or politically indifferent, how many remain? Neuhaus’s proposals are too sophisticated to have wide public appeal. What he really seems to want is a religiously based moral leadership by an “elite” (as he puts it) who meet his criteria.
This is a quite different proposal from Neuhaus’s seemingly general call for an across-the-board religious in put into public debate. What is puzzling to me is how the sophisticated Neuhausian elite hope to control the religious ideologues on the right and the left. More religion in public life might well destroy the already weakened consensus in American public philosophy.
Neuhaus arrives at his puzzling and possibly self-defeating conclusion, I think, because of a faulty premise in his argument. “Religion in our popular life,” he says, “is the morality bearing part of culture, and in that sense the heart of culture.” Working from this premise, he argues that the issue today is that of morality or lack thereof in the public square. Morality then is, according to the premise, dependent on religion; so the real issue is whether “the religiously grounded values of the American people are ruled out of order in public discourse.” For one thing, ruling out religiously grounded values is nearly impossible. More important though, is that the issue in America today is not between religiously based morality and nonreligious nonmorality. Rather it is between competing systems of morality. Secularists do not lack moral standards. For instance, left-leaning secularists take strong morally based stands on behalf of the poor, for the rights of minorities, for the rights of individuals, or against various types of violence. One does not have to be religious to see these as questions of morality. The same can be said about the moral-political positions of the American right. Sometimes their moral basis is derived from religion, sometimes from secular sources. So Neuhaus’s premise of “no religion, no morality” seems incorrect. Hence his solution – that to put more religion directly into the public debate is the only way to revive a morally grounded public philosophy – simply lacks the basis hesupposes.
What I see missing from his analysis is sufficient regard for just the point that led the 18th-century founders of this nation symbolically to distance, not separate by a wall, religion from the public square. Public morality will arise substantially from the religious convictions of the populace. But that does not imply that religions should (or that mutually contradictory religions or religiously based moralities could) provide the best frame of reference for the public debate about morality.
Neuhaus’s analysis, despite some central weaknesses, contains many in sights on religion, politics, and morality. Certainly he is right that Judeo-Christian religion often contributes mightily to the moral health and stability of a culture. But if we distinguish polity from culture, then it is not clear that the more directly religion shapes the polity the better that polity will be. This is not to deny that people should be encouraged to relate their religion to their morality and politics. Neuhaus is also right in saying that religion should not be systematically excluded from public debate. But the primary ground for such political debate should be sought, as it was in the 18th century, in the common principles that many people share because of their common humanity and similar heritages. Such debate has the possibility of fostering some consensus between secularists and theists concerning public philosophy, rather than further dividing them over questionsof religious authority. The public square then will not be devoid of coherently defended moral principles; but neither will it be needlessly polarized by religious conflict, which can, as Northern Ireland and Lebanon illustrate, destroy the public square itself.