The “Naked Public Square” is Clothed—with Intolerance
When Richard John Neuhaus published The Naked Public Square in 1988, his book captured the imagination of a generation of religious conservatives. Neuhaus expressed the concerns of millions of Christians in particular, who saw public life being stripped of religious symbols and content. He went on to argue that it was only through a reconstitution of religious values, expressed and heard in public, that democracy might be saved from a festering anti-religious intolerance that would end in its demise.
More than a quarter century on, it seems clear that Neuhaus was correct in his view that intolerance of religious speech has fostered a culture in which the values democrats claim to hold dear are violated, undermined, and even rejected. Of course, these values are not rejected out of mere ignorance. Nor, despite occasional protestations to the contrary, are they rejected in the interest of maintaining a truly “neutral” public square. They are rejected in the name of a new religion—a religion of equality and of “diversity” defined as the political distribution of goods and life chances according to victim status.
True as Neuhaus’ observation of a “naked public square” may have been for his time, it no longer holds. The public square was “naked” only as a transitional stage, as one set of adornments—woven from religious tradition and taken from the wardrobe of the moral imagination—were taken down to make way for other, more daring ones. Today the public square is festooned with the draperies of multiculturalism, gender fluidity, and all the false colors of an ideology committed to using the federal government to re-order society in accordance with the dictates of the new religion.
Adherents of this new religion no longer feel the need to hide their contempt for the old draperies, or for those who loved them. For some time, Christians in particular were told that the latest reform would bring “no real change,” and soothing words were issued about continuing respect for more traditional ways of life. Today, however, we are told that our previous opposition to changes in family structure in particular disqualify us from even a modicum of consideration in the brave new world being forged around us.
As always with such things, we may look northward for a glimpse of the intolerance we soon shall face. For decades, Canadian elites have sought to ape and even outdo European social democracies as a way of asserting independence from a United States that barely knows they exist. Canadians, in general, are more European than North American, and proudly so. But it is their ruling class—a small set of administrators, politicians, and lawyers more tightly bound socially, culturally, and ideologically than most Americans recognize—that has sought, with frightening success, to stay on the “cutting edge” of government oppression posing as protection of human rights. The result is progressive expulsion of Christianity and Christians themselves from public visibility. The drive for erasure of Christian symbols has been expanded to one for the erasure of Christians themselves from public consciousness.
The Canadian Supreme Court gave the world a “constitutional right” to group sex (a recent statutory ruling seems aimed at doing the same for the “love” of animals). The Canadian government also has produced a swarm of “human rights commissions” using Kafkaesque tactics to silence dissenting voices on issues of religious belief and conscience. Now Canada’s ruling class is leading the way in cleansing Christianity from its legal culture. How? By seeking to ban graduates of Christian schools from practicing law.
For years Trinity Western University (TWU) has required all members of its academic community—faculty, staff, and students—to sign a covenant pledging to engage in sexual relations only within a marriage of one man and one woman. Such a pledge hardly seems out of bounds at an evangelical Christian school. But the Law Society of British Columbia finds such a call to chastity to be unacceptable and likely to encourage discrimination against homosexuals. As a result, the Law Society recently declared it would no longer accept TWU law graduates to its membership. A firm believer in the right of association might merely shrug at such a decision were it not the case that the Law Society of British Columbia is no private association. It is, in fact, the licensing organization for all lawyers in that province. And that means? No membership, no job, no professional career as an attorney.
Some might find good news in the recent court decision holding that the Law Society was wrong to deny admission to TWU graduates. But that decision rests solely on the Society’s failure to revoke its former policy (which allowed for admission) through the proper procedures. Apparently there is nothing in Canada’s substantive law to stop a body wielding vast official power from denying the right to pursue one’s profession to anyone coming from an institution that holds to Christian doctrine on issues of sexual morality.
Certainly, Americans have little reason to feel superior to Canadians in the nature of our legal profession. For years, the anti-Christian lobby sought to define connection with then-Christian friendly Boy Scouts as unethical. The Boy Scouts, of course, caved in to pressure demanding it allow openly homosexual members and scoutmasters to serve and camp with its young men, so that problem was “solved.” But the principle has been established: Belong to the wrong group (and why should this not be extended—and soon—to the “wrong” religious organization) and lose your career.
Law is not the only profession being cleansed of Christianity. News stories regarding Christian bakers and photographers have made this point sadly clear. And the intolerance is both systemic and aimed at wider outcomes. One might note, for example, the attack on Catholic adoption agencies. For example, there is no longer a Catholic adoption service in Massachusetts for the simple and obvious reason that the state requires all adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples. Thus, only those willing to violate clear, settled Catholic doctrine may seek to place children in good homes in Massachusetts, among other jurisdictions.
One could go on for a sadly long time in listing the official and unofficial attempts to silence religious expression and render religious people invisible. But we have moved beyond this stage of secularization to one in which various governments and governmental agencies are telling Christians in particular that they must act against their faith or cease acting (or making a living) at all.
The lesson to be taken from all this, I submit, is that there is no such thing as a “naked” public square. No society is “neutral” in regard to religion or, indeed, any important set of social institutions or values. The liberal myth of laws that treat all values and value systems as equal covers up an attempt to change the cultural and ultimately religious norms that bind together any stable community. These norms undergird any society’s laws and shape its public life. As the demand for neutrality gives way to the demand for Christian conformity with anti-Christian dictates the bad faith of earlier claims to desire mere “fairness” become increasingly clear.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.