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Meeting the Lord in the Air

The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America

by Richard John Neuhaus
Eerdmans, 280 pp., $16.95

Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology

by Harvey Cox
Simon and Schuster, 304 pp., $16.95

The other day, in a coffee shop, I overheard a conversation between two men evidently engaged in the insurance business. They were discussing, after they had dispatched some professional matters, “the Rapture.” At first I couldn’t think what this was about. But when the conversation moved on to the topic of Armageddon, when and where this event was to take place, I began to see that the Rapture was a reference to Paul’s first Letter to the Thessalonians, in which it is said that those alive at the second coming of Christ “shall be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” What was startling was the conjunction of a sober conversation about questions of insurance with a discussion, equally sober in tone and, as it were, at the same level of concern, of the Rapture, understood as a happening of the same kind as the flights of astronauts, and of Armageddon, understood as a battle that would, when it happened, have the same reality as the war between Iran and Iraq.

I knew I had encountered for the first time something I had only come across in news reports or received as messages from bumper stickers. This is the revived fundamentalism that has already had an effect—how great is disputable—on American political life.* Overhearing this conversation made me curious, moved me to inward laughter, slightly nauseated me, and frightened me a bit. This response was, I knew, typical of a person of my age and education (that is, someone over sixty and educated in a British university). That I happened to be a Christian didn’t, so far as I can tell, determine my response, though perhaps it accounted for the quickness with which I caught on to the subject of the conversation. I suppose I had taken it as obvious that the fundamentalist movement was not uttering a genuinely religious challenge but was merely the ideological froth on a movement stirred by issues that had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the history of marginal groups in American society.

Harvey Cox and Richard Neuhaus try to convince us that the Moral Majority and movements like it present us with serious problems for theological thought. They admit that in its prejudices, its style, and its political preferences, it is troublesome. Its leaders know little history and have an exceptionally poor acquaintance with the complexities of American history. Their ignorance of the theology of even their own tradition is great. Renouncing modernity, they take up some characteristic expressions of modernity. They belong to television show business, to the world of The Johnny Carson Show, General Hospital, and Love Boat; they exploit the synthetic nostalgia purveyed by such programs as The Little House on the Prairie. Sometimes they affront public decency, as in the conferring by the Bob Jones University of an honorary degree on the Reverend Ian Paisley. In their ways of life the fundamentalist leaders are indistinguishable from the new millionaires of the Sun Belt. As Neuhaus puts it:

Preachers flash about the country in private jets, alternately perusing the latest catalog of electronic gadgetry and preparing the next sermon on the urgency of returning to an old-fashioned America…. Advanced technology, they say, is providentially provided for the task of this historic moment. Our Lord would have used a Lear jet and St. Paul would have exploited the advantages of computerized direct mail, if they had had the technology. Statements such as these suggest…not that these leaders are stuck in the past…. The problem is that there is no texture, no particularity, in their understanding of time and times. Nothing really has happened, nothing really has changed…. Given this flattened view of history, there is no conceptual obstacle to, for example, “restoring the Holy Bible as the basic law of the land.”

This distaste for the new fundamentalism, the New Christian Right, is common to the prevailing schools of thought, Catholic and Protestant. But Neuhaus thinks the fundamentalists represent a protest and an aspiration we ought to be serious about; and he argues that liberal comment on their modes of proceeding is often unfair. Where the fundamentalists see a conspiracy of the “Eastern” godless establishment, Neuhaus sees something different: the polemical use by liberals of a double standard, one for the fundamentalists, another for themselves. The fundamentalists are abused for compiling hit lists of those candidates for public office who have opposed the Moral Majority consensus on such matters as abortion, armaments, support for Israel, prayer in the public schools, and so on. Neuhaus doesn’t think there is much difference between what they do and what Americans for Democratic Action does; ADA supporters also cite the voting records of candidates in their campaigns to secure or defeat the election of particular men and women. He maintains that what is sauce for the Jesse Helms gander is also sauce for the Bella Abzug goose. (Perhaps we should add that the conservative committees sponsored by Senator Helms dispose of much more money than their opponents.)

Politically committed fundamentalism is essentially, Neuhaus believes, a protest, supported by many Christians who are not fundamentalists and not “twice-born,” against the notion that the public square, the forum of debate within the Republic, ought to be—and is in the United States required by the Constitution to be—“naked.” Spiritual “values,” especially those that are plainly grounded in religious belief, have, accordingly, no rights in the public square; the public square is and ought to be the place of competing interests, and the intrusion of religion, except as an interest along with the other interests, into the public square is perceived as a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.

This, the orthodoxy of many liberals and even of many in the mainline Protestant churches, is, Neuhaus argues, a recent invention and simply means that the tenets of a counter-religion, that of secularism, cover the nakedness of the public square. It belongs to the nature of society that the public square cannot be kept naked; to pretend otherwise is liberal humbug. And, he adds, it is proper, given the overwhelmingly Christian character of American society—he believes that it has historically been a condition of the Constitution’s functioning that American society is Christian—that the values governing public policy should in a broad sense be those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He wants, and here he is removed from the fundamentalist lobby, to respect the religious and moral pluralism of the United States; and he thinks that the Christian tradition can be construed, despite all the horrid counterexamples, as requiring a respect for pluralism and a rejection of those fanaticisms that give the secularists nightmares.

That they are nightmares and not reasonable apprehensions seems to him evident; there is no possibility of the restoration of the Inquisition’s rule or of Calvin’s Genevan polity, however much secular-minded civil libertarians may huff and puff about the campaigns against abortion and for prayer in the public schools. On the contrary, Christians may claim with justice that their own tradition, as it is commonly presented, has been injuriously handled by sophists, as in the arguments in support of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, arguments no better, Neuhaus thinks, than those in support of the Dred Scott decision. (I imagine that many who support the judgment in Roe v. Wade are embarrassed by the arguments advanced by the Court.)

If Neuhaus is right in supposing that the entry of the fundamentalists into national politics represents something broader than it seems on the surface to be, perhaps the beginning, even among liberal Protestants, of a movement away from a secular interpretation of the Constitution and in favor of the application of Christian principles to public policy, then it will at some time be necessary to weigh the claims of a new Christian social philosophy, not the claims of a fundamentalism already shot and stuffed by H.L. Mencken. Here I am not clear that Neuhaus has made out his case.

My doubts are of two kinds. First, I am inclined to think that the process of secularization belongs to the ways in which life goes on in the Western industrial societies. The emptying out of the sacred from human life, as Neuhaus knows and notes, has been a matter of sociological comment for a long time. It is a curious fact, as even persecuted Christians in Eastern Europe sometimes testify, that in the much less opulent societies ruled over by communist tyrants the sense of the sacred, and belief in its reality and in the activities that go with this belief, are more powerful and, as it were, plausible than in the West. This may be what the Polish pope has in mind when he includes “consumerism” in his catalog of Western failings. This may also suggest that for serious Christians another strategy may be worth thinking about: a resolute turning away from the public square and a cultivation of ways of thinking and living that go against the main trends of American commercial society. Such a strategy would be far removed from the television proselytizing of the Moral Majority.

Then, I think Neuhaus runs into a difficulty about belief. He asserts that for Christians “God’s revelation in Christ…is uniquely realistic because it is uniquely real, that is to say, uniquely true.” This fits in well with Neuhaus’s own Lutheranism and with Catholicism, that is, with the beliefs of those Christian bodies that have shared confessions and creeds. But is this the deepest American tradition? Isn’t this tradition rather that of sectarian pietism? Within this pietist tradition the absence of a firm credal structure is connected with the assumption that ecclesiastical life is filled with the exchange of individual and ineffable experiences. This assumption limps, and its limping is disguised from the enthusiasts of the pietist tradition by the many things that in fact bind the believers together: the King James Bible, the culturally based certainties of small-town and rural America, and a common language about the social phenomenon of conversion, though not about its inner content. Pietism of this kind always bruises itself against the logical awkwardnesses of its suspicion of credal statements and often rages against the indigestible fact that the Bible is not self-interpreting; hence the long history, from the beginning, of theological disputes that accompany a ceaseless process of splitting off from parent bodies. I don’t think Neuhaus’s book engages the reality of sectarian pietism in America.

Neuhaus writes of “the secular prejudice that religion is essentially a source of private visions that are by definition foreign to public discourse.” This does seem true of much in the Protestant tradition in the United States. Jimmy Carter was as president closer to the pieties of old-fashioned American religion (and didn’t hide his own piety) than is Ronald Reagan, a divorced man who rarely goes to church. And yet it is President Reagan, perhaps as a politician rather than as a believer, who wants, at least from time to time, to place old-style morality, and cult, in the public square. President Carter had too much delicacy to conceive of doing this; but he may also have thought that his own tradition was against placing the sacred in the public square.

The plan of the Moral Majority to “turn America around,” to make the Bible the law of the Republic, is simply incompatible with the fact of American society. This Neuhaus sees; but he seems to want a subtler, more humane, more generous version of the same project. The Americans are still, he thinks, a people who adhere with some force to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and they are entitled, despite the new interpretation of the separation of Church and State doctrine, to urge that their common moral judgments should affect legislation and the conduct of public policy.

During the past twenty years Professor Harvey Cox has been one of the most widely read and admired American theologians. He will be remembered for The Secular City, a book that, with the translations of Bonhoeffer, did much to familiarize the public with the idea that the secular temper of the modern world can be taken into the world of religion and that a possible, if paradoxical, way of putting the result of this is “Christianity without religion.” This thesis, along with another thesis, that “God is dead,” has not perhaps worn very well. Indeed, in more recent books, The Feast of Fools and The Seduction of the Spirit, Cox has told us that the fact of religion, especially in its convivial forms, must find a place in any complete account of contemporary life.

Harvey Cox is also concerned with the implications for Christian theology of the rise of the fundamentalist movement; but he wants to link in thought the fundamentalists of North America with the largely Catholic movements of Central and South America, movements that have good relations with the revolutionary left and are intellectually armed by the theologians of liberation. The two movements seem not to live in the same universe of discourse, but they are alike, Cox argues, in their hostility to what the modern world has made of the Gospel. Cox works hard to sustain his thesis that it is profitable to think about the two movements together. It is clear that he is much more interested in the “base communities” of Latin America and in the work of such theologians as Gutiérrez and Metz than he is in the preaching at Lynchburg, Virginia, the seat of Jerry Falwell. He begins with the opposing figures of Falwell and Ernesto Cardenal as representing “the polar antitheses of the Christian world,” but his—and our—interest in Falwell flags. There isn’t enough substance there; in the end Falwell is just boring.

Cox’s main question is about the future of theology and about how this will be shaped by the new fundamentalism and by the Latin American experience. At times this seems almost like curiosity about what the “new wave” in theology will be like, rather in the way one might be curious about next year’s fashions in clothes. I don’t think that in the last resort Cox would deny that there are theological classics that impose their own norms and that measured against such norms some of the styles that have come out of divinity schools in North America—“death of God,” “religionless Christianity,” and so on—now look pretty silly. But he does seem overconcerned with what may turn out to be merely modish.

Nevertheless, his basic interest is in something more substantial. He has lived with fundamentalist Baptists in Virginia and with poor Latin American “base communities” in which Catholic laymen organize their own systems of education and mutual help, often in opposition to authoritarian governments. He has been present at the Bible study sessions and the television spectaculars in Lynchburg and has been with the poor who carry the banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He gives us a sense of the texture, the flavor, of the religious life of these milieus. He thinks that what the fundamentalists desire and what they tend to bring about are different things: they desire the restoration of their dream America, something that never existed; in fact they strengthen Republicanism in the Reagan style, and they feed the paranoid fantasies that go with this style. The Latin Americans, on the contrary, are serious in their political aims and their strategies rest upon a plausible diagnosis of their societies. In siding with the poor, perhaps in being the poor, they are, Cox argues, faithful to the prophetic tradition and the Gospel, that is, they are working in fact and not in fantasy to establish a just society.

Cox’s account of liberation theology is benevolent and—except for reservations about its European ways of thinking and its neglect of feminist issues—uncritical. He takes the idea that authentic Christianity is for the poor and against the rich as clear. He thinks the Gospel is necessarily consumed with social and political issues and that problems about how we know something are solved by “praxis”—by which he seems to mean roughly that we find out what we ought to do by doing something and seeing how it goes. But how these issues work out in the rough life of politics is not seriously examined. One thesis—though Cox shrinks from this—would be that the proletarian revolution and the consummation of the age spoken about in the New Testament are the same thing. (This would be “realized eschatology” indeed.) Cox doesn’t argue for this position; but he leaves everything fuzzy, using rhetorical figures to turn away from the problem. For example, he speaks of “people at the bottom who believe change comes not through persuading the elites but through a structural transformation brought about from underneath.” What this structural transformation may be isn’t seriously considered. What are the models for it? Cuba? Eastern Europe? Tanzania? We are not told.

Surely the base communities deserve something better than these generalities. It would be right to say that they are justified simply in and by their existence, as places that have deliberately put themselves outside the circle of violence and power; and we may believe that out of this may come something better than the present regime of landlords, soldiers, and foreign corporations. But it won’t be the kingdom of the prophets or of the apostolic preaching, nor will it be a democracy of the North American kind. Even if it calls itself the dictatorship of the proletariat, or a people’s democracy, it will be the dictatorship of a bureaucracy. No doubt it is a task for theologians to connect mundane political struggles with the expectations of the direct reign of God; to think that there is no connection between the two would be to repeat Luther’s mistake over the Peasant War. But to identify political ambitions with New Testament expectations is to make Christianity simply banal, as though Jesus were a figure like Fourier or Saint-Simon.

Both books are important as comments on and expressions of certain perplexities among Christians in the United States. Neither book is carefully written with a particular audience in mind. Neuhaus’s book is too long, too prolix, too anxious to build a multitude of qualifications into what is said. These qualifications are in order but the way in which they are woven into the exposition gets in the way of a ready understanding. The Naked Public Square has been too much influenced by the rhetorical tradition of such writers as Reinhold Niebuhr. There are much better models—Jaroslav Pelikan comes to mind—in Neuhaus’s own Lutheran tradition.

Harvey Cox is always an engaging writer. Here he is lively, often witty, sometimes penetrating. But he is intolerably careless and can’t have looked twice at his own text. Examples: “Its [modern theology’s] world pole lay in shambles. Modern theology’s God pole also began to teeter.” Martin Buber is said to be “highly sympathetic to religion.” How crass! Again, Cox sometimes writes like a not very bright undergraduate vulgarizing the views of a hack instructor.

Completely integrated into the intricate pyramid of medieval society, both in its organization and in its mode of theologizing, Christianity at first resisted the stirrings of the new class. It insisted that only Jews were fit for the finance business, and burned rebels against the injustices of feudalism as witches and heretics. The bourgeois revolution…became rabidly anticlerical.

This is pitiful stuff. The notion of medieval society as pyramidical is nonsense and the idea that the mode of theologizing had something to do with a pyramidical social structure is baffling. The mode of theologizing was shaped by the coming of the friars, by the growth of town life, by the reception of Aristotle, by the rise of the universities, by the high cost of copying manuscripts…. The notion that Abelard, Bernard, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Ockham, were integrating anything into a pyramid is so strange as not to be intelligible. Cox should read some medieval history.

  1. *

    This question, along with other socio-political aspects of the new fundamentalism, is ably discussed in some of the essays in New Christian Politics, edited by David G. Bromley and Anson David Shupe (Mercer University Press, 1984). Those in Part 4, “The Political Impact of the New Christian Right,” are relevant. The general drift of these essays is to suggest that the New Right’s influence on the electoral fortunes of candidates has been much exaggerated.

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