Neuhaus Calls for Return to Religious Values in Politics

October 2, 2003
Neuhaus revisited his book The Naked Public Square.

America cannot afford to ignore the importance of religion in its political framework, and should recognize that "we the people" — not the judiciary — should direct the nation, said author and religious leader Richard J. Neuhaus at a Law School event sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society, the Law Christian Fellowship, and the Federalist Society Oct. 1. When Neuhaus's The Naked Public Square, a book about the rise of secularism in public politics, hit bookstores in 1984, it was considered "a very radical argument," said Neuhaus, who revisited the territory of Public Square during his lecture. While Ronald Reagan was then president and evangelicals preached on TV sets, the fight over state self-governance has since heated up with the rise of the right, and the debate over abortion has grown more contentious.

"No other state entity in all of human history dared to say that the government should have no control over what people believe," Neuhaus said of the founding of the United States. American democracy is inevitably tied to religion: politics is debating "how we ought to order our lives together." Deciding what is just and fair in society "is by nature a moral enterprise.

"Politics is in largest part a function of culture … At the heart of culture is morality. At the heart of morality is religion," he said. Therefore, "it is obvious that you cannot exclude religion without excluding the very heart of politics."

A Lutheran pastor for 30 years and now a Catholic priest, Neuhaus worked with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights era and is now editor-in-chief of First Things, a magazine published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Neuhaus alleged that political decisions that would never be approved by the public are now being made through the judiciary. "The Supreme Court, and the judiciary more generally, has been conducting a massive assault on authentic politics" since the 1947 Everson decision, which rejected public funding for parochial schools.

Everson and a series of decisions since then have misinterpreted the religion clause of the First Amendment, he added. Unlike what some academics argue, the religion clause has two stipulations — no establishment of religion and free exercise of religion. In current legal circles, "the establishment clause is the primary focus of concern." Neuhaus said the reason the establishment clause was included during the drafting of the Constitution was to assure states that had established religions that the national government would not interfere. Of the 13 states in the original union, six had established churches.

"Up until World War II, there was a pretty secure Protestant New England cultural hegemony in American life" and little debate about the clause, he said. Education leaders freely admitted that "the purpose of the public school was to Americanize [immigrants] in a common faith." John Dewey's The Common Faith (1934) laid out that Americans shared a "watered-down Protestantism." After World War II, this hegemony began to fragment, as Jews and Catholics came into their own in America and were no longer "suspect newcomers."

A legal challenge led by Leo Pfeffer, working under the American Jewish Conference, argued "case after case" to further separate religion and state. Neuhaus called Pfeffer's take on the religion clause the "Pfefferian inversion," which he defined as the establishment clause prohibiting any governmental acknowledgement of religion in public life. (Neuhaus later met Pfeffer, who told him that although he disagreed with Neuhaus, he was at least glad to have a doctrine named in his honor).

Neuhaus claimed that the cultural elite — the New York Times editorial page, universities, television networks — are commandeering American culture. They have a "very different reading" of what constitutes a good and just society.

"The assumption is that we are or are rapidly becoming a more secular society," he said. Yet "the American people … are pervasively religious," Neuhaus said. "We live in a society in which over 95 percent of the people claim to believe in God" — a statistic consistent since the 1920s.

"We the people are the locus of political sovereignty," he said, and "in some deep sense [the people] intuit that there is a higher authority."

Because of this disparity, "you get an enormous clash that is often described in terms of 'culture wars.'" One colleague tells this story to explain the contradiction: Gallup polls determined that India was the most religious country, and Sweden the most secular. To understand the "culture wars" in the United States, you have to understand that "America is a country of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes."

Increasingly, secularists' only hope of advancing their vision is to bypass the democratic process and use the courts, he said, citing Roe v. Wade — what he called the Supreme Court's worst decision since Dred Scott.

Despite this "act of raw judicial power," Roe hasn't been internalized, he said. He pointed to a 1973 article in the New York Times that claimed "the Supreme Court settles the abortion question." Thirty years later, "there's no more unsettled question in American life." He defined it as a question of "who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility.

"The most fundamental question is, who belongs to the 'we.'"

He argued that using the judiciary to pass policies is in effect telling Americans they are not competent to make such decisions themselves. In her 1992 Casey opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor reaffirmed Roe : "it is the duty of the American people to accept the interpretation of the Court."

He called liberals' support of abortion rights a "fundamental betrayal of liberalism." Martin Luther King Jr.'s liberalism was one that reached out to accept common responsibility, he said. Abortion instead excludes human beings from a circle of concern or protection. He said if Americans applied the same reasons for abortion — unwanted babies are too much of a burden on society, they're too weak too make it on their own — to the born, you might implicate half the people in America.

In response to a question from the audience about conflict between Muslims and Christians, Neuhaus said the Pope was right to reach out to Islam. He said he hoped that people will arise from within Islam to articulate the religion in a new way. "We have to hope that this does not work out to its inexorable, bloody end."

Neuhaus said the argument of the Naked Public Square will continue, as will the question of whether it is possible to sustain the notion of representative government. "We're calling for a revival of the high adventure, joined admittedly to the high risk, of the founding of the nation."

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