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  • Introduction Is the Public Square Still Naked?
  • R. Marie Griffith (bio) and Melani McAlister (bio)

In 1984, the Protestant minister Richard John Neuhaus published a groundbreaking book, The Naked Public Square. Articulating a critique that would serve as a profoundly influential touchstone for a generation of religious intellectuals, Neuhaus lamented that the public life of the nation no longer included a significant or sufficient recognition of a common religious foundation. The public sphere was "naked," stripped of its legitimate status as a place of moral discourse. A Lutheran who would soon convert to Catholicism and a onetime liberal in the process of becoming a neoconservative, Neuhaus argued that "politics is in large part a function of culture." Beyond that, he proposed, "at the heart of culture is religion," whether or not it is called by that name.1 Without a shared religious point of reference, no society could debate or resolve conflicts in values. The Moral Majority Coalition, founded just five years earlier, might have too strident a view, he argued, but it had made a crucial point: religion not only has a role in politics; it is at the heart of the enterprise. Readers then and later would see The Naked Public Square as a formative, early salvo in what would come to be understood (with only partial accuracy) as the "culture wars" between a liberalizing, secularizing, multicultural America on the one hand, and a more traditional, conservative, and religious nation on the other.

Twenty years later, as part of a symposium on the book's legacy published in the journal First Things, the legal scholar Mary Anne Glendon looked back in anger at the changes that had taken place since the 1980s. Since Neuhaus wrote, she contended, the secularization of society and the marginalization of religious belief had only intensified. Legal rulings and public policies were tightening the space of religious expression. And "state-sponsored secularism" was eroding the ability of religious institutions to function freely (requiring, for example, that Catholic Charities provide health care to its employees that included prescription drug coverage for contraceptives). Writing three years after September 11, Glendon proffered what was surely intended as a chilling comparison: [End Page 527]

If present legal trends continue, it is not fanciful to suppose that the situation of religious believers in secular America will come to resemble dhimmitude—the status of non-Muslims in a number of Islamic countries.

The dhimmi is tolerated so long as his religion is kept private and his public acts do not offend the state religion. Naturally, key positions in society must be reserved to those who adhere to the official creed.2

Glendon could assume that many readers would share her sense of persecution: by the early twenty-first century, despite the ubiquitous influence of religious discourse in U.S. public life, it was not uncommon for religious people, Christians in particular, to declare themselves under siege.

Glendon is a profoundly conservative intellectual, and her level of panic about the imminent demise of the rights of believers surely sets her apart from the vast majority of religious people in the United States. But her concerns were not unique. Although conservative Christians have been most vocal about decrying "the war on Christians" (not to mention the related "war on Christmas"), commentators across the political spectrum have expressed increasingly outspoken concerns about the "marginalization" of faith. From Joseph Lieberman to Barack Obama, from liberal evangelicals to mainstream Muslims, politicians and observers have decried the lack of attention to religion, and lack of respect for religious people, in U.S. politics. Not for the first time in U.S. history, there is a profound sense of crisis about the unsettled relationship between religion and politics in our public life.

These concerns, although in some sense perennial ones, conspicuously quickened after September 11, 2001. In the wake of the attacks, which instantly became identified with the shadowy category of "Islamic fundamentalism," Islam was repeatedly vilified; indeed, by 2004, 44 percent of people in the United States said they believed that "Islam was a religion of violence."3 Policymakers and pundits, aware of the delicacy of this situation and cognizant of the implications with regard to...


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