Ethics & Public Policy Center

The “Naked Public Square,” Twenty Years Later


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


William F. Buckley, Jr., once wrote that “the moral curiosity of Richard John Neuhaus is one of the country’s most important assets.” A lot of the country became aware of that twenty years ago, when Neuhaus’s seminal book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, was first published. The book’s title injected an enduring image into our national conversation about Church-and-state. Where stands that debate, twenty years on?

The Naked Public Square brilliantly analyzed a discomfort that many Americans felt but couldn’t quite identify precisely. Something seemed out-of-kilter in the matter of Church-and-state; but what was it? Neuhaus argued that what the Framers intended as one constitutional “religion clause” – in order to foster the free exercise of religion in the United States, the Federal government will not sponsor a national church– had gotten divided into two “religion clauses.” Once “no establishment” and “free exercise” were sundered, the organic connection between forbidding an established national church and encouraging the free exercise of religious faith was lost.

Then the “two clauses” were put into competition with each other. And, over the course of several decades of wrong-headed Supreme Court jurisprudence, “no establishment” claims became trumps, in the sense that many “free exercises” of religion, once thought entirely constitutional, were deemed violations of “no establishment.” The annual fracas over creches in public parks at Christmas is but one of many examples.

Father Neuhaus (or Pastor Neuhaus, as the Lutheran-now-become-Catholic then was) thought this was not only wrong as law; he thought it was bad news for democracy. What would happen to our democracy, he asked, if the most deeply held convictions of the American people – their religious convictions – were ruled out-of-bounds in the “public square” where Americans decide how we ought to live together? Debate would be weakened, even deracinated; democratic commitments would atrophy; believers would become, in time, second-class citizens. So it was in everyone’s interest – believers and non-believers alike – to protect the right of all citizens to bring the most profound sources of their moral judgments into public life.

In a distinguished writing career spanning more than four decades, Richard Neuhaus has been known to wield a sharp pen from time to time. The Naked Public Square, however, was a notably irenic book. It welcomed the courage of evangelical Protestants who had “tripped the alarm” alerting the rest of the country to the encroachments of state-sponsored secularism. Yet Neuhaus acknowledged that many evangelicals lacked a “public” vocabulary that would translate their convictions into terms that non-evangelical Christians (and non-believers) could understand and engage.

Similarly, Neuhaus recognized that non-believers in America can feel like strangers in a strange land, and that believers are sometimes responsible for that. At the same time, he urged non-believers, and those members of the Jewish community who had historically supported the “naked public square,” to grasp one of the great truths of late modern history – that the worst regimes of the twentieth century were precisely those that had driven biblical religion out of public life in the name of race (Nazism) or class (communism).

The Naked Public Square reconfigured, and in some sense it reignited, the Church-state debate in America. It is less certain that it successfully changed the default secularism of government. Several commentators have noted that, in dramatizing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s war speech to Congress on December 8, 1941, at the new World War II Memorial in Washington, the designers left something out. Just before asking for a declaration of war against Japan, President Roosevelt said, “With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.” The last four words do not appear on the memorial. Not because there isn’t room. And not, I suspect, because somebody forgot. Rather, God got airbrushed from Roosevelt’s speech because, for all its success in clarifying the nature and stakes of the Church-state debate for American democracy, The Naked Public Square hasn’t – yet – changed the default position that tilts toward a genteel establishment of secularism as the official national ideology.

Which suggests that The Naked Public Square will be just as important twenty years from now as it was twenty years ago.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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