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The Public Square



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I would like to second Ramesh’s praise: “The Public Square” in First Things was, indeed, “an extraordinary journalistic achievement”. Every issue, Father Neuhaus pulled an array of surprising and often apparently trivial items from the world’s media and addressed the deeper currents running underneath. A few years ago in that space he noted with regret an emerging post-Zionist fatalism regarding Israel’s prospects. Here are five sentences from that long-ago squib that sum up what’s happening in Gaza:

As too many people are eager to remind us, Israel is doing bad things to the Palestinians. And, as too many fail to say, Palestinians are doing bad things to Israelis, and it is not always easy to sort out which is action and which reaction, which is aggression and which defense. There should be no difficulty, however, in sorting out the difference between the one party that has the declared purpose of destroying or expelling the other party, and the other party that wants only to live in security and peace. This, I think, we know for sure: there could be a real peace process and a real peace if the Arabs believably accepted a sovereign Jewish state in their midst. This, sadly, does not seem to be in the offing.

And, in the end, that last point is the only one that matters — the one that keeps this thing going. Here he is again, getting to the heart of the matter, this time in response to a New York Times editorial:

The editors are also exercised that religious institutions are exempt from regulations having to do with religious and gender discrimination in hiring and promotion. But the key point, invoked over the years by opponents of free exercise, is that tax exemption is actually a government subsidy.

The underlying, and nascently totalitarian, assumption is that everything in the society belongs to the state and should be under state control. Government exemptions from tax and control are a privilege granted, not a right respected. From which it follows that an exemption is, in fact, a subsidy. This is a long way from the Founders’ understanding of the independent sovereignty of religion that the government is bound to respect.

Richard John Neuhaus was profound, civilized and witty, and ”The Public Square” was one of my favorite features anywhere in the world’s media. It was, as Ramesh says, a brilliant achievement.



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