Ethics & Public Policy Center

What Would Father Richard Say?

Published in National Review Online on March 1, 2012



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.

Moreover, Neuhaus would not have been surprised that all the controversy of recent weeks, along with the demons it has set loose, was closely linked to the ongoing debate over the abortion license and, more broadly, the sexual revolution. In 1967, more than a half-decade before Roe v. Wade turned abortion into a fevered national issue, Neuhaus took to the pages of the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal to decry the Left’s acceptance of the abortion license, which he foresaw leading inevitably to the deconstruction of American liberalism into a narrow-minded, even fanatical, authoritarianism.

Thus Neuhaus, however sadly, would have understood just what was going on when Planned Parenthood successfully called down the unmitigated wrath of the Government-Media Complex on the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, for daring to suggest that Planned Parenthood should actually provide the genuine preventive health-care services — mammograms — for which Komen’s money was given. Indeed, Neuhaus, a veteran civil-rights activist, would have quickly seen the analogy between the Komen lynching and the struggle to desegregate America: Komen was condemned and threatened with shunning (and worse) by Planned Parenthood and its allies, just as men and women of conscience who defied the racial conventions of the time were shunned (and worse) in the days of rigid segregation, and for the same reason: Komen had violated a great taboo — in this case, the taboo that Planned Parenthood is without sin, being the single most important institutional embodiment of that unquestionable good, the sexual revolution. And while Neuhaus, with his Niebuhrian sense of the ironies of American history, might have made a wry comment or two on Barbara Boxer’s being cast in the role of George Wallace in this particular drama, he would have understood perfectly just what was afoot: social, political, and cultural pressures being brought to bear to sustain the irrational and immoral.

Richard John Neuhaus was not given to saying “I told you so”; his more characteristic comment was “We’re going to turn this around.” Yet the man who taught the country (and George W. Bush) that the America the pro-life movement seeks is an America in which every child is cherished in life and protected in law knew that the first part of the project — the conversion of America to a culture of life — was likely to be the more difficult to achieve. Thus Father Richard would likely note that “it’s no surprise, as our Marxist friends used to say,”
that the culture wars — the struggle between what his hero, John Paul II, called the “culture of life” and the “culture of death” — have been reignited a month after the pro-life movement completed its most successful year in passing pro-life legislation since Roe v. Wade.

Yet he would also find some satisfaction in the way the current debate has been conducted. A pioneer of ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and evangelical Protestants and a long-time proponent of theological dialogue between Christians and Jews, he would have been pleased to see his work in those fields vindicated by the ecumenical and inter-religious alliance that quickly formed to challenge the HHS mandate’s assault on religious freedom. A sometimes stringent critic of the public-policy efforts of the Catholic bishops of the United States, he would have applauded the united efforts of the bishops to defend constitutional first principles for the sake of everyone, as he would doubtless have been in close contact with his old friend, now Cardinal Timothy Dolan, over rhetorical and political strategy.

In 1987, Neuhaus, then a Lutheran pastor, wrote that the next decades would be a “Catholic moment” in the history of American Christianity: the decades in which the Catholic Church would become the “lead Church” in proclaiming the Gospel and securing the moral-cultural foundations of American democracy. However one measures the degree to which that has happened, it’s very clear from the vocabulary, the ideas, and the cast of characters in the present debate that we are in a “Neuhaus moment.” For which we may well give thanks, again, for a life of conviction and consequence.

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

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