Religion in Public Life

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1984

Richard Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who had been an anti-war activist in the 1960s, took a look at the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and found himself in democratic sympathy. The gatekeepers of culture, he concluded, had largely banished from public discourse any serious expression of religion—the most important element in the life of many Americans. He predicted “a deepening crisis of legitimacy if the courts persist in systematically ruling out of order the moral traditions in which Western law has developed, and which bear for the overwhelming majority of the American people a living sense of right and wrong.”

Neuhaus began to deepen these ideas with funding from the Lilly Endowment. He received grants from the Bradley and Olin foundations to write a book he ultimately titled The Naked Public Square, which came out in 1984. Both his title and his thesis went mainline, and even commentators who “subscribed to exaggerated notions of church-state separation,” as Neuhaus put it, began to acknowledge that America is harmed when all moral calculus is stripped from public discussion and policy. With continuing donor support, Neuhaus subsequently published the influential journal First Things, which deepened and extended this understanding of religion’s healthy role in public life.

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