We recently marked the tenth anniversary of the death (on Jan. 8, 2009) of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and the influential journal, First Things. This year also marks the Institute’s 30th anniversary.

Neuhaus made numerous contributions to a tolerant and civil discussion of the role of religion in public life. One only wonders what he might have added to address the declining civil discourse of the past decade. What I most value about those contributions, however, was Neuhaus’ firm, yet civil promotion of the role of religion and belief in public life. As Mary Ann Glendon and Seth Kaplan observe in the February 2019 issue of First Things, the secular state and our increasingly secularized publics are “undermining one of the West’s greatest achievements” by narrowing a robust right to exercise religious freedom into a cramped “right to believe and worship—not a right to practice and observe.”

In paying tribute to Neuhaus’s contributions, let me single out two: his approach to the First Amendment and his seminal book, The Naked Public Square.

The First Amendment contains a variety of rights upon which Congress is forbidden to encroach: religion, a free speech and press, peaceful assembly, and petition for redress of grievance. As Neuhaus never tired of noting, the very first right enumerated in the very First Amendment of the American Constitution protects religion.

That perspective aligned with the name of Neuhaus’s journal, First Things. Looking at the current cultural milieu where—especially in prominent public discourse—“politics is everything and everything is politics,” Neuhaus voiced a polite but firm: “no.” Politics is not everything nor even the first thing: there are other things that our civilization has considered far more important than the ebb and flow of politics, and man is impoverished when he allows what Jacques Maritain called the “minotaur of immanentism” and things temporal to suck all the air out of human life and culture.

Recapturing the primacy that even the Founding Fathers recognized, Neuhaus asked how it was that the First Amendment, which attaches such significance to religious liberty, had become (particularly under Supreme Court interpretation) a tool to drive religion out of public life and influence. Neuhaus argued that we were misconstruing the first right of the First Amendment.

The relevant text reads: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]”

So, how many “religion” clauses are there in the First Amendment? Are there two—“no establishment” and “free exercise,” independent and unrelated, which come into conflict with each other and require judicial arbitration to determine which prevails? Or is there one—freedom of religion—of which “no establishment,” i.e., the establishment of a state church, is one of the means by which the end of robust exercise of religious freedom? Neuhaus held the latter.

The implications of this interpretation are important, for XX reasons. First, it sets a vital and overarching perspective: the Constitution protects religious expression. The Constitution is not neutral about religion versus non-religion, and certainly does not mandate a state (much less a culture) hermetically sealed off from the baneful influences of religion. The Constitution protects religion and gives it at least tacit encouragement by excluding state action that inhibits it.

Second, given that perspective, there is no in-built conflict in the First Amendment which demands constant judicial intervention to protect civil rights, much less the casuistic jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court over the last seventy years that multiplies distinctions with differences in order to cobble together majorities of five human beings to claim that “the Constitution is [or at least means] what the judges say it is.” My favorite illustration of this unnecessary judicial equivalent of counting angels on the head of a pin is the Supreme Court jurisprudence that tells us that states can help parochial schools buy books but not maps. As late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan witheringly observed: “Well, what about atlases?”

Neuhaus’s approach to the First Amendment will undoubtedly be branded by some today as “extreme” (although it is arguably what our Constitution was understood to mean at least through 1947-48 and the Everson and McCollum decisions). It would be called “extreme” in the sense of calling into question a whole line of precedent built upon an approach to the First Amendment that treats its approach to religion as inherently conflicted with itself. The real questions, though, are whether that approach itself was wrongheaded, and whether wrongheadedness ceases to be so because of longevity. The real issue is that, in the current model, those who would want to create a secularized America have a constant opportunity, no matter how much they lose in the court of public opinion, to shop for a judge somewhere who will agree with them and come up with sufficient rationalizations based on that line of precedent to convince another five Supreme Court justices to go along. Those who are partisans of what Mary Ann Glendon once pejoratively called “rights talk,” i.e., the ability to invent rights and judicially graft them into the Constitution, are unlikely to surrender to a more principled reading of the First Amendment that obviates the need for constant judicial intervention.

Which brings me to Neuhaus’s second contribution: his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square.

The Naked Public Square is arguably one of the most important books of the twentieth century. In it, Neuhaus challenges the secularist viewpoint that democracy requires persons of faith to divest themselves of their religious principles as the price of admission to public discourse: they have to be “naked” to enter the “public square.”

Neuhaus argues that this model of participation in public life is contrary to American history and tradition and establishes its own version of a religious test for being part of public policy-making: the disavowal of one’s religion. The “naked public square” privatizes religion, inhibits robust free exercise rights, and establishes avowing secularism as the price of being admitted to public discourse. In other words, it would have historically disenfranchised the vast majority of Americans.

I think that Neuhaus’s book should be read in tandem a short and not-well-known in America book: Zbigniew Stawrowski’s The Clash of Civilizations, or Civil War. Stawrowski is clearly alluding to Samuel Huntington’s book of the same name and argues that the fundamental fault line in Western civilization is not between the West and the Rest, e.g., Christianity v. Islam, but most basically within Western civilization itself. Within Western civilization lie two competing and contradictory trends, one born of that civilization’s Judaeo-Christian roots, the other of the Enlightenment project, with the latter appropriating established terms like “freedom,” “religion,” and “person,” while investing them with wholly contradictory meanings, i.e., a war on Western civilization using its own terminology with flipped meanings. Most importantly for our purposes, Stawrowski argues that there is no such thing as “religion” versus “non-religion” – all persons are “religious” because all persons take certain principles as their ultimate and absolute controlling positions, which structure and define their worldview and approach to life. Those ultimate viewpoints, which cannot be wholly defined by reason alone, are ultimately accepted by some act of faith. In that sense, even secularism is a religion, albeit one that does not want to acknowledge its debt to an act of faith.

In the 35 years since Neuhaus first published The Naked Public Square, I have repeatedly found its insights relevant. With the growing ascendance of “nones” and “spiritual-but-not-religious” identification in the United States, I see the naked public square coming back with a vengeance in the form of demanding full faith and allegiance to particular sides of the cultural wars, especially on abortion. The opposition clearly embraces a “take no prisoners” approach.

So, on this decennial of Father Neuhaus’s death, American Catholics can best pay tribute to this pioneer in two ways: by reappropriating and applying his insights to the challenges we face today, and by saying a prayer for his repose. Well done, good and faithful servant. Rest in peace.