Magazine article The American Enterprise

Church and State

Magazine article The American Enterprise

Church and State

Article excerpt

The Naked Public Square By Richard John Neuhaus

Last fall, Ashley Woodiwiss, a political n science professor at Wheaton College cut short his "Gandhi, King, and Havel" seminar to let me ask his upper level students about their beliefs on religion and politics. The students held a wide range of political views, but they all seemed to agree with one who told me, "Christianity should never be reduced to politics. The Christian Coalition perverts the cause of the church and the cause of Christ." It was a surprising sentiment to find at the nation's flagship evangelical college that counts Billy Graham among its graduates.

It was not always like this. In 1984, at the height of the popularity of groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, Father Richard Neuhaus attempted to describe the origins of these movements, determine their usefulness for the polity, and predict their chances for future success. His book, The Naked Public Square, turns out to be a surprising read for those whose political consciousness was not yet formed at the time, and provides a valuable history lesson for those whose memories have blurred.

Neuhaus argues that the Moral Majority and groups like it emerged as a reaction to a public sphere increasingly devoid of religious voices, a situation that has resulted in the "secular reduction of moral discourse to a contest over interests."

Though he understands the difficulty of using specific religious beliefs as the basis for law, Neuhaus makes a convincing case that a democracy based on "inalienable rights" cannot be sustained in the long-run without the foundation for a belief in those rights. He worries that "law [will be] made to stand on its own, as it were; in isolation from, even in hostility to the morality that alone can make law legitimate."

As much as Neuhaus approves of the Moral Majority's drive to clothe the public square with moral discourse, he does not agree with its leaders' conception of the proper relationship between religion and politics. These groups are "very conservative religiously and politically," Neuhaus explains, and "believe that America must be 'turned around'" so it can serve as a "'launching pad' for the evangelization of the world." It is this mentality, Neuhaus believes, that "leads to increased activism in battles as varied as that against pornography and for a larger defense budget."

Neuhaus determines at least two problems with this marriage of Christianity and politics: The church becomes a servant to its political affiliations, a temptation to which liberal churches are equally susceptible; and the tendency toward theocracy, "in which ... religion claims to embody and authoritatively articulate absolute truth," a problem Neuhaus calls "idolatry. …

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