R.I.P., Naked Public Square

By Flynn, Tom | Free Inquiry, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

R.I.P., Naked Public Square


Flynn, Tom, Free Inquiry


An unprecedented torrent of compulsory "civic Christianity" is about to sweep America, soaking Jew and Muslim, Hindu and secular humanist alike in the figurative blood of the lamb. Under George W. Bush, America is on the threshold of a new and frightening experiment--a wholesale retuning of the church-state model that's driven Supreme Court jurisprudence (and much executive branch activity) since the late 1940s. Everson v. Board of Education (1947) established what would become the reigning interpretation of church-state separation: first, that government must neither promote any particular sect nor promote religion over irreligion generally; and, second, that existing government practices that violated this principle could be dismantled by the courts.

With another trio of cases, Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abingdon School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (both 1963), the U.S. Supreme Court put these ideals into action, declaring public school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional. Many observers sensed where such jurisprudence must lead--toward a "naked public square" in which public schools and the affairs of state would be explicitly off-limits to religion. Some found that idea abhorrent. Neoconservative Richard John Neuhaus put the phrase "the naked public square" (and himself) on the map with his disapproving 1984 book of the same name. Joseph Lieberman dismissed it as a "discomfort zone." Other observers see its logic. A naked public square provides a useful buffer zone where Americans of all faiths--and of none--can come together, transact the public's business, and get to know each other as citizens rather than sectarians. As a bonus, the state's machinery enjoys protection from the strife of sects.

Make no mistake, the naked public square was never popular. A national school-prayer referendum held on any day between 1963 and the present would have spewed the "Our Father" back into American classrooms by the greatest mandate since Johnson sandbagged Goldwater. Still, for more than a generation, judges defended the naked public square--I'd maintain--because it was the right thing to do. During that same period, most politicians complained about it only in ways that wouldn't matter, perhaps because they saw, however grudgingly, that the naked public square was the best way to prepare America for a demographic revolution in which our nation would extend its welcome to every religion on Earth.

During the 1990s, support for the naked public square declined sharply Charitable choice, stadium prayer, courtroom Commandments, piety on the campaign trail--as the twentieth century waned, the only thing rising faster than religion in public life was the Nasdaq.

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