The Naked Public Square?

No one comes to the political table as a blank slate. Everyone comes to the political table with a set of precommitments. This is what the Lutheran, then Catholic, minister, Richard John Neuhaus told us in 1984 in his book, The Naked Public Square. The central proposition of Neuhaus’ book, now close to 40 years old, was that the Founders of the United States, in drafting the First Amendment, were seeking to prevent the government from coercing religious belief, but many modern Americans had reinterpreted that amendment to mean that the square of public life ought to be devoid of religious belief. In other words, many modern American’s have come to think of the public/political square as non-religious, or “naked.” We’ve all heard statements like, “Believe what you want in the privacy of your own home, but you can’t bring private beliefs into discussions on public policy.” The shortened version is, “You can’t legislate morality.”

While the debate over the separation of church and state in the U.S. dates back Jefferson, it was the presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy who relaunched the conversation in the middle of the 20th century. Kennedy was the first Catholic candidate who was likely to win the office, and many were concerned that the Church of Rome might exercise outsized influence in the decision making of the most powerful man in the world. In an effort to assuage the worries of many, Kennedy, through a series of interviews and speeches, began to make strong distinctions and divisions between what he might privately believe as a Catholic, and what his responsibility would be as President. Take, for example, this quote from a Look magazine interview in 1959

“Whatever one’s religion in private life may be, for the office-holder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts — including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state.” 1

Look Magazine1

Notice the words, “strict separation.” Kennedy was not making the same argument the Founders intended to make. He was not saying, “The government has no right to coerce religious beliefs.” Instead, he was saying, “Privately held religious beliefs have no place in the public square.” The problem with this view, as Neuhaus rightly saw, was that it’s perfectly impossible to have any kind of political debate in which everyone checks their presuppositions at the door.

Another way I like to put it is, “It’s not whether, it’s which.” It’s not “whether” privately held beliefs will influence public policy, it’s “which privately held beliefs will we codify into law.” No one comes to the political table with a blank slate. Everyone comes to the political table with a set of precommitments. As Christians, we might argue over which of our beliefs we ought to codify in to law and policy. For example, while we agree that lustful sexual fantasies are sinful, we may find it difficult (impossible) to adequately criminalize such thoughts. But what we must reject, whole-heartedly, is the idea that public policy can be conducted a part from the worldview presuppositions of those creating and enforcing the policies. It’s just not possible. Worldview matters.

In the coming days and months I plan to write a series of posts on the importance and components of a fully-developed Christian worldview. If you have questions or comments, I’d love to engage.


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