What Would Father Richard Say?
Neuhaus 101 on church and state.

Father Richard John Neuhaus during an appearance on Meet the Press


George Weigel

Since his untimely death three years ago, there have been many moments to regret the loss of Father Richard John Neuhaus, who redefined the church-state debate in America and introduced the phrase “public square” into the national vocabulary. Even now, one can imagine him hunkered down in the bunker-like basement of his East Gramercy house, pounding out his monthly commentary in First Things and “smiting them hip and thigh” (as he liked to put it privately), as the nation engaged in yet another round of not-altogether-high-minded controversy over religious freedom. Yet Neuhaus left such a voluminous body of work behind that it’s not impossible to suggest some answers to the question, “What would Father Richard say?,” were he still among us and surveying the current controversies over church and state.

In his seminal 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus made three points that remain as salient today as they were 28 years ago.

The first had to do with the Constitution, whose proper interpretation has taken another battering in recent weeks. The First Amendment’s address to religion, Neuhaus insisted, was integrated and synthetic: “No establishment” was meant to serve the cause of the “free exercise of religion.” Free exercise was the end; no-establishment was the means. Thus the two parts of what Neuhaus insisted were one “religion clause” were not in tension, and the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence that began from the premise of that tension was deeply flawed — as the historical studies of scholars like Philip Hamburger have confirmed.

Moreover, Neuhaus would have been among the first to point out, and demolish, the incoherence of the Obama administration’s reduction of religious freedom to a private right of worship. The free exercise of religion, he would have insisted, involved religious institutions as well as religious individuals, and any suggestion to the contrary was both constitutionally and theologically ludicrous. Thus Neuhaus would have been at the forefront of the condemnation of the administration’s HHS mandate, because it violates the religious freedom of both individual employers and institutional employers, making both into simulacra of the state for purpose of delivering “preventive health care.”

Neuhaus’s second point in The Naked Public Square has been just as fully vindicated in recent weeks: the claim that religious people in America have more secure and compelling arguments for tolerance than their secular counterparts. Yes, there were still a few religious wing-nuts in America, Neuhaus conceded. But as he once wrote in a brilliant article for Commentary called “What Do the Evangelicals Want?,” the vast majority of American Christians are tolerant of the religious convictions of others — and thus able to contribute to a civil public square — for the strongest of reasons: They believe that God commands that they be tolerant. Or as Neuhaus put it, the overwhelming majority of Christians believe that it is God’s will that they be tolerant of others who have different notions of God’s will. Religious tolerance, for Christians, is not a mere pragmatic accommodation to the fact of religious difference; it is a virtue, a moral good.

What, by contrast, could secularists say? They were left with arguments from pragmatic accommodation — let’s be tolerant because it’s, well, less messy — and those were weak arguments, likely to crumble under pressure. As indeed they have when the pressure to defend the abortion license and the sexual revolution through the use of coercive state power became irresistible.

Neuhaus’s third point in The Naked Public Square was closely linked to his second: The secularism of late modernity (and, now, post-modernity) would not be neutral, civil, and tolerant, but aggressive, rude, and hegemonic. It would demand, not a civil public square in which the sources of all moral convictions would be in play in a robust debate, but a naked public square — a public square in which secularism would be de facto established as the national creed (or, perhaps better, national moral grammar). The new secularism would not be content to live and let live; it was determined to push, not only religion, but religiously informed moral argument, out of public life, and to do so on the ground that religious conviction is inherently irrational. And of course it would be but a short step from there to the claim that religious conviction is irrational bigotry, a claim implied by the Obama administration’s refusal, in defiance of its constitutional responsibilities, to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act in the federal courts.

All of this, it might be added, was foreshadowed by John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. And while Father Richard might have suggested to Rick Santorum that “I wanted to throw up” was perhaps not the most elegant or prudent way to describe one’s response to JFK as prophet of the naked public square, he would have agreed with Santorum’s analysis of the effects of that speech and its defense of an “absolute” separation of church and state — a notion that was quickly extended to exclude religiously informed conviction from public life, in a process of profound cultural change accelerated by the unhappy Supreme Court history noted above.