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Naked Public Square

Does The Separation Of Church And State Violate Religious Freedom?


One common complaint raised about the way strict separationists read the First Amendment is that it leaves the public square “naked,” by which it is meant that the public square is now “bare” of religious speech. This, in turn, is believed to foster and encourage public hostility towards religion, something which is actually forbidden by the First Amendment. This view has been widely popularized by Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and regular critic of the separation of church and state.

The problem is that this complaint is based upon false premises. The fact of the matter is, religious speech has not been excluded from the American public square; quite the contrary, religious speech is very common and very public throughout the country. Religious groups enjoy the exact same freedom (no less, but sometimes more) as every other organization when it comes explaining and promoting their perspectives to the public. Religious groups also exert a great deal of influence at all levels of American government and society.

The real problem is that traditionally, Christians and Christian groups occupied a position of privilege which was not accorded to any other religious tradition in America. Today, however, more and more of that privilege is being lost, and even if they are not able to consciously articulate it, many Christians are acutely aware of that loss and aren’t happy about it. Unfortunately for them, there also isn’t anything which they can do about it, at least so long as they remain committed a free nation.

Attorney Ronald A. Lindsay put it thus:

    What is going on here is whining: whining by individuals and groups who have been deprived of the truly privileged position they once enjoyed. For most of this country’s history, theism, in particular Christianity, has enjoyed favor. Those who are thirty-five years or older (somewhat younger if one grew up in the South) will have no trouble remembering the evidence of this privileged position. Organized prayers were a matter of routine in public schools. ...Textbooks extolled the virtues of religion. The symbols of ...Christmas and Easter were displayed on public property at public expense.
    The courts have put an end to some, but certainly not all, of this collaboration between church and state. In doing so, the courts have upset many who assumed that this was the proper way of doing things, the American way of doing things, and who did not see anything coercive, let alone unconstitutional, about such practices. Not unnaturally, they have interpreted the courts’ actions as an attack on religion, when in reality they were simply an attempt to put an end to the privileged position that religion enjoyed.

The loss of this privilege for Christianity is not unlike the trauma experienced by Americans when whites lost their privileged status — but it is a necessary trauma if society is going to grow, mature, and become truer to the principles upon which it was founded. Many Christians are aware of this and are quite willing to work with other religious traditions in order to help create a more positive society, but quite a few continue to object and agitate for a return to the time when they had a higher status, when others were expected to accommodate Christian desires.

Unfortunately, they fail to see the great value which lies in having a “naked public square” — at least, when “naked” refers to a lack of government sponsored displays supporting religion and religious beliefs. Many believers see religion as something which unites, but at best it only unites people with the same beliefs — and the more people examine their beliefs, the more they find to disagree about. In the end, religion does quite a lot to divide and separate people; this is a primary reason why religion was removed from the authority of our government. So long as the government does not involve itself with religious matters, it is harder for the public to become politically divided on religious questions. As conservative columnist Paul Greenberg has written:

    An empty public square is a useful thing. It allows us to stay apart together. Start filling it up with granite monuments and counter-monuments, and our attentions are diverted, our loyalties split. Our public spaces become like a Roman pantheon full of competing gods. And we turn on one another, sneaking our favorite symbol into the forum under cover of night and daring them to remove it. What ought to elevate and unite us divides us and reduces faith to a rhetorical contest.

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