The Public Square, “Religious Neutrality” and the War on Christianity

The public arena is not neutral, with rival religions competing for hegemony:

We are told – at least in theory – that in the West all points of view are welcome, and they can be argued for in public forums. This may have been more or less true not all that long ago, but things have changed. Here I want to look at how one recent book deals with this issue, but I must do two other things first.

One, I must mention that I recently revisited the important 1984 book, The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus. In it he argued that religion was being stripped away from the public square. But the question is, do we still have a neutral or empty public square? Or has a new religion rushed in to fill the void? As one writer put it a few years ago:

True as Neuhaus’ observation of a “naked public square” may have been for his time, it no longer holds. The public square was “naked” only as a transitional stage, as one set of adornments—woven from religious tradition and taken from the wardrobe of the moral imagination—were taken down to make way for other, more daring ones. Today the public square is festooned with the draperies of multiculturalism, gender fluidity, and all the false colors of an ideology committed to using the federal government to re-order society in accordance with the dictates of the new religion. Adherents of this new religion no longer feel the need to hide their contempt for the old draperies, or for those who loved them. theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/06/naked-public-square.html

Two, and related to this, I recently quoted from a February 2022 article by Aaron Renn who discussed “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” He says that things have radically shifted in the past few decades (at least in America), so evangelicals will need to rethink how we engage in the public arena.

He mentioned three worlds: The Positive World (Pre-1994); The Neutral World (1994–2014); and The Negative World (2014–Present). While Christianity was once viewed positively, it is now treated in a hostile fashion. So just trying to be winsome and nice will not cut it. We are now on a war footing.

Those two preliminaries nicely tie in to the book I said I wanted to focus on. I refer to Stephen Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism (Canon Press, 2022). This is a significant book that I will discuss in a number of forthcoming articles, including a proper review.

Here I just want to look at a short section (pp. 339-345), where he discusses the stranglehold of liberalism’s soft tyranny, especially on public life, and how we must reject the myth of religious neutrality. He does not refer to Neuhaus, but he does mention Renn once or twice, although not in this section.

He of course is not the first Christian thinker to discuss these matters. But I like what he has to say here. And it comes in the context of why believers should not be shy in affirming their faith and beliefs in the public arena. The other side is always pushing theirs, so we should be willing to stand for Christian truth in public as well.

Image of The Case for Christian Nationalism
The Case for Christian Nationalism by Wolfe, Stephen (Author) Amazon logo

Wolfe notes that hardcore outward persecution of Christianity is rare. What is happening is much more insidious: “Today, we contend with the soft power of liberalism – a power that has been remarkably effective at destroying religiosity in the West without firing a shot and without significantly undermining ‘religious liberty’.”

He then offers a great quote from the recent book Demon In Democracy by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko who lived under both communism and liberalism. He says the endgame of both seems quite similar: both have succeeded in making secularism triumphant:

All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, pushing religion to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong antireligious bias in which a priest must be either a liberal challenging the church or a disgusting villain. In short – one may wonder – this nonreligious and antireligious reality of today’s Western world very close to the vision of the future without religion that the communists were so excited about, and which despite the millions of human lives sacrificed on the altar of progress, failed to materialize.

Says Wolfe, this has

occurred both without the use of explicit power and under the guise of “freedom” and “toleration.” There was no explosive event of anti-religious tyranny. A thousand nudges seemingly led Christians, largely willingly or at best begrudgingly, to confine their religion to churches, privatize religion, and surrender the public to hostile secularization. The uniqueness of our time is that modern liberal power seemingly protects religious liberty while simultaneously undermining religion with implicit social power. Secularism dominates the institutions and has normalized a “neutral” value system that conflicts with Christian moral teaching. “Neutrality” and “diversity” provide the perfect cover for the pervasive use of implicit power to undermine and control religion.

 

Christians were not ready for this. We are ever-vigilant for that explicit, outward, open, physical, declared, and official persecution. We received this expectation from the Christian tradition – a tradition formed in times very different from our own. But we don’t live in the same world as our spiritual forefathers, in the world of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The powers of our modern world – the ones that undermine true religion in the West – are more implicit and psychological; they operate in the normalization of secularism.

He continues:

Christians in the West are enmeshed in totalizing liberal regimes. Though seemingly limited in explicit power, liberal regimes have universal reach: Every square inch is secularist, unless granted an exception by the state. Christians in civil life must adopt either a secularist or a non-threatening religious posture. Contrary to what is promised and assured, there is no neutrality or contestability in the public square. As Lugutko said, “In defense of pluralism, we give people the right to choose any available philosophy, provided that they choose liberalism.”

The war on real Christianity becomes apparent in such a milieu:

The regime’s chief objective is suppressing an activist Christian religion that seeks Christian normalization and anti-secularism. The American regime does not want to eradicate religion. Thinking so was the error of prior generations of concerned Christians and perhaps also the error in strategy of the New Atheists twenty years ago. Rather, modern liberalism, at least in the post-Trump era, requires that the distinctives of the religion are either rendered harmless to the regime or the regime harnesses it for its own ends….

 

Christian Americans should see themselves as under a sort of occupation. . . . The occupation universalizes their ideology, forcing your Christianity to exist only in the walls of churches, denying any civil and social ordering to God and Christ’s kingdom. The top-down and foreign imposition of secularism is evident in Supreme Court decisions, though these are only the tip of the iceberg and most visible to us.

He wraps things up this way:

When Christians are under a universalizing and totalizing non-Christian regime that wields implicit powers against true religion, how is this not tyranny? Is this not an assault on the people of God, who are forced to live in a public square that wars against Christ’s kingdom and against the nature of true humanity? The natural spheres of life, each with its own God-ordained power, are ordered against God and his people. This certainly is tyranny, though there isn’t, at first glance, a clear tyrant. We see a modern regime made up of politicians, bureaucrats, media, Hollywood, public intellectuals, academics, corporations, HR directors, public health officials, foundations, medical associations, etc. The regime is the threat.

Everything he says here comes from Chapter 8, which is about “The Right To Revolution.” What he says about revolution will have to wait for another article. But I like how he highlights the very real changes that have occurred over recent decades, and how we need to recognise that full-on persecution is already here, but just in a form we may not have expected.

As such, the public square is not at all naked, but a new kid on the block has moved in and taken control. And his values and beliefs are overwhelmingly opposed to those of the biblical Christian. How we got this way and what we should do about it is the focus of this important new book. Stay tuned for further articles on it.

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7 Replies to “The Public Square, “Religious Neutrality” and the War on Christianity”

  1. I have often wondered whether apologetics should be part of the curriculum of churches as opposed to theological colleges, but have not seen how it could be done, even if there were the will.

  2. Thanks John. Well, when I was younger, adult Sunday School classes were a common part of church life in the US. Not just theology, but ethics and apologetics could be taught there. And apologetics topics can be incorporated into sermons as well.

  3. I am currently teaching an adult bible class at our church. We are going verse by verse through the book of John. The last two weeks we have been studying through John 15:18 through 16:11. This section deals with the world’s hatred for Christians and specifically the persecution we may face as followers of Christ. This article is very helpful to understand that all persecution is not overt but can be covert. The result is still the same; silence those who love Jesus Christ and desire to make Him Lord of their lives.

    Thank you for this article.

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