Why we don’t stay naked

According to Richard John Neuhaus, here’s how the public square “became naked,” and why it doesn’t stay that way:

The political theory and practice of the Western world is the story of a growing Erastianism in which the modern state, brooking no competition from other claims to sovereignty, has attempted to eliminate the “boundary disputes” between temporal and spiritual authorities. The United States in its founding, as is evident in the Religion Clause of the First Amendment, is the great exception to this general pattern. But “American exceptionalism,” also on this score, needs constantly to be reexamined and, when necessary, defended. Without that, the state drives out prophetic religion and establishes a monopoly on public space and public meanings. That is the circumstance referred to as “the naked public square.” Which, as we must never tire of recalling, does not remain naked but is taken over by the pseudo-religion established by state power.

Comments?

10 Responses

  1. Well, Neuhaus is a liberal so this is not surprising coming from him.

    Certainly there should be a separation of Church and state in the sense that the heirarchy should not get into the way political structures. The Church also cannot be reduced to political structures (the error of some forms of liberation theology). At the same time, we must say, because of the Incarnation, that the world subsists in the Church. What does this mean? What does it mean that God has become man? It means that reality must be seen in its positivity, that it is a gift and a response is required. Freedom is the adherence to truth and goodness. Because God has united Himself to creation, creation, the “world,” is not neutral. It has value, it has positivity. Failing to adhere to this truth, the Incarnation, is a suffocation, a loss of freedom. Freedom, then, is not whatever you choose. If that was the case, God is not free. Freedom is the satisfaction of receiving the love of Christ and the continual fiat of Christ and Mary.

    In this context, we must ask: can any political structure, the government, for example, be neutral? Or is it not the government’s obligation that it conforms to the truth of the human person? The question, then, is anthropological. If the human person desires the good, the God-man, then there must be structures that provokes him to adhere to this good. There can be no dualism here between “spiritual” or “temporal”, but both must be united without confusion.

    So…I pretty much disagree with Neuhaus.

  2. Apolonio:

    Freedom is the satisfaction of receiving the love of Christ and the continual fiat of Christ and Mary….The question, then, is anthropological. If the human person desires the good, the God-man, then there must be structures that provokes him to adhere to this good.

    Does that mean that, according to you, the state is obligated to favor Christianity over other forms of religion?

    Prior to the middle of the last century, most American Protestants would have answered that question in the affirmative. Some still do. Of course, what they meant by ‘Christianity’ was not quite what the Catholic Church meant, and wasn’t even all that coherent theologically. As you may know, that caused a lot of problems for American Catholics. To a lesser extent, it still does.

    So perhaps you mean that the state ought only to favor Catholicism. If that’s what you mean, I disagree. History shows that whenever the state favors one church over another, that church loses credibility either slowly or quickly—and unavoidably so. That’s why Western Europe is now a lot more secularist than the U.S.

    So, I tend to agree with Neuhaus. But perhaps that only makes me an American.

    Best,
    Mike

  3. The genius of the American body politic is to create an illusion of “religious neutrality” by the government when in reality the United States has seen itself on a “God-given” mission almost from the very beginning of the Republic. We used Manifest Destiny and the idea of the superiority of white Protestant civilization to annex half of another country. We used the same sort of ideology to declare war on Spain and annex the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and carve out our own piece of the pie in the mad dash of empire building early last century. Even now, the “war on terror” and the “axis of evil” are contemporary manifestations of the American government playing the role of the ultimate arbiter of the fate of “Christendom” (for lack of a better word) and civilization.

    The genius of American Protestantism is that of creating a detente when it comes to particular confessional lines (did it really matter to the Presbyterian what his Episcopalian neighbor believed?) while creating an idea of “America” that included some and excluded others (blacks, Asians, Latin Americans, Irish, Catholics, etc.), depending on the time in history. Pope Leo XIII saw the destructiveness of this process when it came to the Catholic ethos, and roundly condemned Americanism as a heresy. Perhaps the most dangerous imperialism, or Erastianism, is one that goes unnoticed. But there is still the problem, particularly on the right, that many Americans seem to think that a good American is a Christian par excellence, and vice versa. Those who play out the more prophetic element seem to be liberal Christians who started the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war movements, and other progressive causes of that nature. The only problem is that they tend to slide very quickly into Christian heterodoxy. Not really easy solutions all around.

  4. Mike,

    The issue is how we see reality. Is reality neutral? It seems to me that the problem with liberalism is its notion that reality is neutral. Its starting point is what the self has, what rights he has, on the other rather than the self as a gift from God and a response to Him and our neighbor. The problem with liberalism, and with a lot of philosophy today, is a lack of perception of interiority, that every aspect of reality has a capacity to “desire.” In fact, if we really think about Christianity, we have to say that every aspect of reality requires a response because each aspect is positive; it is for you. In fact, we *have* to believe that because we believe that the whole creation speaks the name of Christ.

    Having said that, I don’t see how that doesn’t apply to political structures. If it doesn’t, we fall into dualism. Even the natural law is submitted to the divine law. (that’s another topic)

    About Catholicism and the state..I would say this..the state should always propose communion.

  5. Apolonio:

    Is reality neutral? It seems to me that the problem with liberalism is its notion that reality is neutral. Its starting point is what the self has, what rights he has, on the other rather than the self as a gift from God and a response to Him and our neighbor.

    Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that you’re using the term ‘liberalism’ to mean only secular liberalism, or what Europeans often call “laicism.” Secular liberalism is a powerful current in the wider phenomenon of American “liberalism,” but it is not the only current. Many Catholics of the Left, for example, are passionate about certain aspects of social justice as understood by the Church, and want to see the state work toward social justice so understood, without imposing Catholicism on the nation as a whole. Many such Catholics are found on that part of the American political spectrum which is called “liberal”; others are still further Left, and are really socialists.

    But still more to the point, people like Fr. Neuhaus are not considered “liberals” in an American context. They believe that the language of the Declaration of Independence about “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” should be taken as expressing the basis of the American polity’s moral legitimacy. That entails, among other things, that essentially religious views about man and his place in the scheme of things should be allowed to influence legislation and national goals. In American parlance, most of the people who think that way are not called “liberals.” They are called “conservatives.” Fr. Neuhaus and his allies are called, more specifically, “theocons”—the sort of “neo-conservative” or “neocon” who offers a theistic, natural-law rationale for their political conservatism, or what is called conservatism in American terms. They certainly do not believe that “reality is neutral.” They count as “liberals” only in contrast with monarchists, theocrats, and other authoritarians of the Right. To most American liberals, however, the theocons are the authoritarians of the Right. American liberals are a rather spoiled bunch. They should all be required to spend a year in Saudi Arabia.

    What Fr. Neuhaus and his allies, such as myself, advocate is what then-Cardinal Ratzinger called, in 2004, a “just laicism.” Thus: A just laicism allows religious freedom. The state does not impose religion but rather gives space to religions with a responsibility toward civil society, and therefore it allows these religions to be factors in building up society. Given how power corrupts, we believe that’s about as far as the state can go to create positive conditions for the spiritual path you advocate, a path I understand from my exposure to Communion and Liberation. Trying to go much further than that, utilizing a legal monopoly of force, inevitably ends up doing more harm than good.

    Such a view, it should now be clear, has nothing to do with the illusion that “reality is neutral.” It doesn’t even propose that the state be neutral. All it proposes is that the state be quite limited in what it does to promote what is objectively good, especially in matters explicitly religious. And we propose as much because of our keen sense of the effects of original sin on those with power as the world understands it.

    Best,
    Mike

  6. Mike,

    I should’ve been clearer in my definitions. By liberal, I meant the tradition coming from the enlightenment all the way to, say, Rawls. One of the aspects of it is that the state should remain neutral to what the good life is. Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel, for example, are clear examples of people who think that Catholicism and liberalism are compatible, especially when it comes to what the state should do about the economy. John Paul, contrary to what they say, is not the vindication for capitalists. He understood freedom relating to the truth. So when, for example, George Bush gives us a rebate, see how we are given money to improve our economy. It doesn’t matter what we buy just as long as we stimulate it. Again, this, I believe, is contrary to our theo-logic.

    When it comes to religion and the state, I do think there should be a certain separation. Liberation theology was wrong on the point that it reduced Christianity to political structures. However, again, the question is, is the world, the state, neutral or does it subsist elsewhere? And especially because of original sin, doesn’t this therefore mean that it needs the Church? Can we know justice apart from the Church?

  7. The separation of Church and State is just a de jure ideal, not at all, not even in principle, I think, a de facto reality. The Church is as separate from the State as the center (void) of a volcano is separate from the (surrounding) mountain, as I briefly expressed in this post: http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2008/07/volcano-and-crater.html

  8. Apolonio:

    I meant the tradition coming from the enlightenment all the way to, say, Rawls. One of the aspects of it is that the state should remain neutral to what the good life is. Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel, for example, are clear examples of people who think that Catholicism and liberalism are compatible…

    In my view, that’s not a fair reading of American theocons such as Neuhaus and Novak.

    Ponder, e.g., the following from Neuhaus:

    There have been other efforts to establish a public philosophy quite apart from over-arching claims of providential purpose. To cite an outstanding instance, thirty-four years ago John Rawls published A Theory of Justice. It will be remembered that, in this intricately reasoned work, Rawls proposed that reasonable persons motivated by self-interest and risk-aversion and unencumbered by a knowledge of their place in the world could deliberate behind a “veil of ignorance” and agree upon the principles of a just society.

    Rawls, to his great credit, helped revive an interest in political philosophy. Like Aristotle, and against the thinkers for whom politics is all procedure to the exclusion of ends, he understood that politics is the deliberation of how we ought to order our lives together. But his “oughtness” was assiduously insulated from what he called “comprehensive accounts” of history and the world, resulting in an esoteric theory of little use to the democratic deliberation of the question of how we ought to order our lives together. In that sense, Rawls is very un-American. From the Puritan beginnings to the Founding, from Emerson and Lincoln to Rauschenbusch and Dewey, Americans have been embroiled in comprehensive accounts, trying to make sense of the story of America within the story of the world.

    And then there’s this from Michael Novak, one of many similar passages I could quote:

    Historical evidence shows quite clearly that, for our founders, common sense and humble faith taught complementary lessons about truth and liberty. For them, Jerusalem and Athens—and Cicero’s Rome—spoke in harmony on these issues, and reinforced the same points. Faith itself inspired the founding of universities, the presenting of argument and evidence, and the Jewish and Christian ideal of the man of reason and common sense. Meanwhile, common sense and reason, contemplating the sorry record of human experience (as do many passages of The Federalist), pay homage to the “indispensable” role of religion in preparing the common run of men for self-government. Our founders knew that faith ignites new awakenings and fosters new births of struggle and reformation.

    Not quite a century after this nation’s founding, for example, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” reached back into Jerusalem for one of our nation’s deepest roots, and proclaimed resoundingly: :His truth is marching on!” This was a truth Thomas Jefferson grasped, but could not make effective in his own life: “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” God, that is, made all men free; slavery is an affront to the dignity with which their Creator endowed them. Foreseeing the bloody price that would be paid for slavery, Jefferson wrote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

    “As He died to make men holy, Let us die to make men free. . . .His truth is marching on!”

    The founders of the United States held some truths to be self-evident, and cited often the words of St. John: “The truth shall make you free.” In recent decades, by contrast, many have given up their roots in Jerusalem. They no longer believe in truth, or that it is truth that makes men free. They believe that relativism is essential for freedom. At least, that is what they say they believe; but the idea itself is absurd, and it is clear that they do not really believe it. They do not accord equal truth-value to the opinions of religious fundamentalists and their own. All such persons abhor and oppose religious fundamentalists, and some of them…scathingly equate Jerry Falwell’s views with those of Osama bin Laden. They tout their own moral superiority, and credit secularism with all that is good in Western civilization.

    Anyone who argues holds implicitly that argument under rules of evidence is a norm for reasonable men. Such a man commits himself to something more than vulgar relativism; he holds that truth matters, inasmuch as the proposition for which there is superior evidence is more worthy of belief. By this method, Aristotle and Plato showed the Sophists and relativists of their day that they were talking nonsense. This is why our nation’s second president, John Adams, held that the Hebrews, by introducing the idea of a transcendent Creator who deliberately created all things and “saw that they were good,” did more than any other people to establish the possibility of civilization. No human being may be in possession of the rationality behind all things, but the confidence that there is such a rationality requires each inquirer to listen sharply to evidence that sorts out what is true from what is false. It also requires him to respect the rationality of all other inquirers, who may be in possession of evidence he himself lacks.

    The belief that there is ultimate truth in all things (to be approached, step by step, through the examination of evidence) makes possible rational argument among those who disagree. That possibility, in turn, makes civilization possible. Barbarians, contemptuous of evidence and believing only in power, club one another. Civilized people converse, trying to persuade one another through argument and mutual respect. This is truth’s superiority to power. The very possibility of government by the consent of the governed depends on it.

    When men such as Neuhaus and Novak say that “liberalism” is compatible with Catholicism, they do not mean that the political philosophy of a Rawls, or of such forebears of his as Diderot or Hume, is true. What they mean is that it is possible, given the theistic, natural-law basis of our polity’s moral legitimacy, to accommodate atheists in general and work with secular liberals in particular toward mutually agreeable goals. That strikes me as almost self-evident.😉

    Best,
    Mike

  9. Mike,

    I agree with you that they do not agree with Rawls and others. However, it cannot be denied, and they won’t deny this because they themselves don’t find any problem with this, that they are working within the framework of liberalism.

    Your last paragraph seems to me the most important point. There are questions such as, is freedom to be identified with liberal capitalism? Is religious liberty simply non-coercion? The Christian answer must be no because freedom is always for something. Freedom requires an openness to God. The way we can understand Vatican 2’s teaching on religious liberty is when we understand it the Christian way, that is, that it is oriented towards the good.

    Now, you spoke of “theistic, natural-law.” This is where the new natural law theorists such as Robert George are wrong. We cannot understand the natural law without an understanding of the metaphysics of the human person. In his treatment of ethics, Aquinas started with the telos of the human person. The human person is oriented towards God. Which God? Jefferson’s God or Franklin’s God? Neither. It’s the God of Jesus Christ. It is the God who became man. The natural law is situated within grace, within the Person of Jesus Christ. The historical situation of man, his narrative, must be seen within the context of the Incarnation. This means that the Church cannot coerce the state but she must Christianize the state. The goodness of exchange, then, must be maintained, must be transformed by grace. We’ll probably see more of this in Benedict’s new encyclical. I know many neo-cons who were disappointed with what Benedict said about capitalism in Brazil.

  10. Apolonio:

    Now, you spoke of “theistic, natural-law.” This is where the new natural law theorists such as Robert George are wrong. We cannot understand the natural law without an understanding of the metaphysics of the human person. In his treatment of ethics, Aquinas started with the telos of the human person. The human person is oriented towards God. Which God? Jefferson’s God or Franklin’s God? Neither. It’s the God of Jesus Christ.

    The reason I accept the American polity as morally legitimate is that I interpret the Founding Fathers to have premised it on “ethical monotheism” without thereby committing the new polity to any particular instance of such monotheism. As a generic, philosophical idea, of course, ethical monotheism is not the same as Christianity. But Christianity is a concrete instance of it; hence Catholicism, as the normative form of Christianity, is compatible with ethical monotheism. Accordingly, Dignitatis Humanae‘s vision of religious freedom and the role of religion in society is morally consonant with the existence of a polity, such as the United States at its founding, that is premised only on generic ethical monotheism.

    It goes without saying that such a polity does not premise itself on “the whole truth about man,” namely Christ. But it does not follow that the actual premise is thereby false. All that follows is that, given its premise of ethical monotheism, the role of the polity in promoting union with Christ must be very limited. It can and ought to accommodate Catholicism, along with other religions; it ought even to encourage believers as such to influence the political process; but it cannot actually promote any religion in particular without doing more harm than good.

    I regard such an arrangement as an advantage for the Church. It’s what works best, in the long run, for fostering what you insist should be fostered.

    Best,
    Mike

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