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Monday, July 9, 2018

Remembering Richard John Neuhaus’s 'The Naked Public Square'

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Fr. Richard John Neuhaus Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

In July of 1984, the then Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus, previously known across America for his Civil Rights activism and his leadership of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, was brought to Bohemian Grove, the exclusive and scandalous northern California retreat of wealthy Republicans, by John Howard, president of the conservative think tank, the Rockford Institute. While visiting Bohemian, Neuhaus met with Edwin Meese III, who would later serve as Attorney General of the United States during Ronald Reagan’s second term. In between a little R & R, Meese and Pastor Neuhaus hashed a plan for Neuhaus to visit Reagan’s White House later that year in order to give a briefing on “Religion and Politics.” This briefing was, in effect, one of the most important events of Pastor Neuhaus’s life and would come to cast a shadow over the Catholic Church in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, for it was, at heart, the wedding ceremony between social conservativism and the Republican Party.

As critics such as Pat Buchanan have noted, this marriage between the Republicans and social conservatives was, for the most part, a one-way street in which Republicans got Christian votes and Christian men to serve in neoconservative wars while Christians frequently got unfulfilled promises of protecting human life and defending Christian marriage.

Moreover, dear reader, you may be wondering exactly what a Lutheran pastor who would later become one of the most powerful and influential Catholic priests in America was doing at Bohemian Grove, which, as both presidents and media figures have admitted, is a very strange place.j

While rumors of sex-parties and occult rituals have abounded about Bohemian Grove for decades—President Nixon on the Watergate tapes, commented on the homosexual activity that went on at Bohemian, stating that he could “hardly shake hands with anyone from San Francisco” due the impure activity that Nixon observed at nearby Bohemian Grove, where the San Francisco elite would escape for getaway weekends—Bohemian Grove has become synonymous with Deep State bad behavior after the controversial media personality Alex Jones snuck into the Grove in 2000 and recorded a mock human sacrifice that took place during his undercover investigation.

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This is not to suggest that Fr. Richard Neuhaus engaged in any of these activities. However, it is weird that Fr. Neuhaus would be promoted by the Republican Party immediately after this meeting. It is further weird that Neuhaus would become a Catholic in 1990 and then a Catholic priest one year after his baptism after being given a crash course in theology by Avery Dulles, SJ, whose father, John Foster Dulles, and uncle, Allen Dulles, were the founders of American Intelligence—Allen, of course, was the father of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Why a former anti-Vietnam War protesting peacenik Lutheran pastor would be attending such a strange place may, at first, seem like a puzzle. On the other hand, the year before, Neuhaus had written what would become the Bible of the new religious right: The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, a book that is key to understanding the correct predicament of the Church in America.

Left wing critics who flew into a hysterical fit during the reign of George W. Bush, when the Catholic neocons or “theocons” were at the height of their power, often point to The Naked Public Square as a manifesto of reaction and oppression that presented the blue print for a theocratic dictatorship.

Unfortunately, the Naked Public Square is anything but a map to restoring a truly Christian society. In fact, one might argue that the liberal, neoconservative approach of The Naked Public Square did more damage to social conservatives than any left wing book could possibly have done. Rather than being a “Rules for Christian Reactionaries” manifesto, Richard Neuhaus’s most famous book is a dead weight that frustrated and neutered what could have been a truly Christian revival in America at the turn of the last century.

The Naked Public Square sought to launch a new religious right and tame the old one which was too weighted down with illiberal sentiments for neoconservative taste. Taking from Enlightenment rationalism and not authentic Christian theology, Neuhaus makes it clear in The Naked Public Square that the new religious right will base its arguments not upon the Bible, but upon natural reason, condemning the “strictness and dogmatism of reactionary religious groups” or those who would call for “Constantinism,” a code word for the traditional Catholic society or Social Reign of Christ the King. Shedding traditional American conservative Protestant antipathy to Catholicism and, to a lesser degree, Judaism, Neuhaus calls for a public square defined by “biblical, Judeo-Christian religion” and led by “nonfundamentalist evangelicals.”” It is clear here that Neuhaus is trying to head off Protestant (and, to a lesser degree, Catholic efforts) to mold a society that is specifically Christian in place of a nebulous “religious” or “Biblical” society—it is interesting that this vague language will be later exploited by the left during the Obama era to sell tolerance to Evangelicals and Catholics whose faith had become diluted and impotent due to ecumenical tolerance.

In place of a Christian theocracy, Neuhaus seeks to blend the new non-fundamentalist union of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism into a powerful political force that will be entirely harmonious with American liberalism. In The Naked Public Square Neuhaus lays out a litany of qualities of “the project we call America,” which include “a devotion to liberal democracy, a near obsession with civil liberties, a relatively open market economy, the aspiration toward equality of opportunity, a commitment to an institutionalized balancing of powers and countervailing forces, and a readiness to defend this kind of social experiment, if necessary, by military force.” This last point of advocating liberalism via the bayonet would come to define not only Catholic but all of neoconservatism in the twenty first century. In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus further assures his readers that, “considering the alternatives,” he considers “the influence of the United States is a force for good in the world.” This notion that America is a force for good in the world would later, during the War on Terror, color the Catholic neoconservative avocation of military force in the world against a host of alleged enemies of American freedom.

Neuhaus’s “new religious right” would not only transform the Protestant world but would shape what fellow Catholic neoconservative George Weigel would call “Evangelical Catholicism.” This is little doubt that this new, hip and liberalized Catholicism was able to bring many converts and to cause a slight uptick in religious vocations.

On the other hand, as Catholics in America have had to endure almost twenty years of nationwide publicized clerical abuse as well as now five years of the reign of the worst pope in the history of the Church, Evangelical Catholicism has not proved strong enough to prevent the Church in America from hemorrhaging vocations and membership.

Perhaps Neuhaus’s fortuitous visit to Bohemian Grove and his friendship with Cardinal Avery Dulles, a scion of what was once one of the most powerful families in the United States, were just innocent happenstance events that occur regularly when someone is close to the centers of political power. Perhaps the hamstringing of a Christian revival and political power grab in The Naked Public Square was unintentional. Regardless, the continued turmoil in the Middle East, the failure of the Church to exercise her moral authority in chastising Catholic politicians who support attacks on the family and abortion, as well as the loosy-goosy Novus Ordo conservative piety that still dominates so much of the Church are all part of the legacy of Fr. Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square.

While Catholics have much to be cautious about in regard to President Donald Trump, it will be a tremendous irony if the loud-mouthed New York real estate mogul brings peace to the Middle East, appoints Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade and Obergefell, and secures the American border. It would be a strange twist of history if by making America great again, President Trump brought about the birth of the truly Christian America that was lost thirty years ago in the woods of northern California.

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