Saturday, August 07, 2004

George Weigel on Neuhaus' The Naked Public Square

In his weekly column, George Weigel recently took a look at Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus' The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, twenty years after its publication:

The Naked Public Square brilliantly analyzed a discomfort that many Americans felt but couldn't quite identify precisely. Something seemed out-of-kilter in the matter of Church-and-state; but what was it? Neuhaus argued that what the Framers intended as one constitutional "religion clause" -- in order to foster the free exercise of religion in the United States, the Federal government will not sponsor a national church -- had gotten divided into two "religion clauses." Once "no establishment" and "free exercise" were sundered, the organic connection between forbidding an established national church and encouraging the free exercise of religious faith was lost.

Then the "two clauses" were put into competition with each other. And, over the course of several decades of wrong-headed Supreme Court jurisprudence, "no establishment" claims became trumps, in the sense that many "free exercises" of religion, once thought entirely constitutional, were deemed violations of "no establishment." The annual fracas over créches in public parks at Christmas is but one of many examples.

Father Neuhaus (or Pastor Neuhaus, as the Lutheran-now-become-Catholic then was) thought this was not only wrong as law; he thought it was bad news for democracy. What would happen to our democracy, he asked, if the most deeply held convictions of the American people -- their religious convictions -- were ruled out-of-bounds in the "public square" where Americans decide how we ought to live together? Debate would be weakened, even deracinated; democratic commitments would atrophy; believers would become, in time, second-class citizens. So it was in everyone's interest -- believers and non-believers alike -- to protect the right of all citizens to bring the most profound sources of their moral judgments into public life. . . . READ MORE.