Jan. 14, 2009
Richard Neuhaus offered many lapidary phrases to enliven our public debates. He's credited, of course, with the influential book, The Naked Public Square. His title and his arguments have influenced the views of many religious and political thinkers for a generation.
We see evidence of the ceaseless demand for such nakedness in the silly lawsuit filed to prevent prayers from being offered at President Obama's Inauguration later this month. We see it more menacingly in the offhanded godlessness of the new Capitol Visitor Center, whose vast empty spaces are almost literally a naked public square. Rev. Neuhaus warned of what might come to fill that space if religiously derived principles were ruled out of order. Public life would not remain a vacuum. Predictably, we have seen that void filled with political correctness and unprincipled concessions to what can be termed soft jihadism.
Consider the case of Georgetown University. Some time ago, we saw a celebration of Georgetown's $15 million Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding with a full-page, four-color ad in The Washington Post. Georgetown's great old Gothic spires topped by the cross were depicted under a night sky in which the Crescent Moon and five-pointed star of an ascendant Islam stood out most starkly.
Meanwhile, Georgetown's law faculty went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with a lawsuit challenging the Solomon Amendment. That law requires that institutions of higher education which accept federal funds must permit military recruiters to have access to students. Georgetown profs joined thousands of others from the nation's leading universities in protesting this requirement. They were outraged by the U.S. military's "don't ask/don't tell" policy on homosexuals. The Supreme Court slapped down their suit by a vote of 9-0. The best law professors in the nation had crafted an appeal so devoid of merit that it could not even command the assent of Justices Breyer and Ginsburg.
Still, no one asked Georgetown profs how they could deny our Armed Forces while welcoming on their campus Saudi Arabia's Prince Alaweed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. After all, have the Georgetown Hoyas ever inquired about the status of homosexuals in the Saudi military? It's safe to say, the Saudi authorities don't ask; Saudi homosexuals don't tell. And Georgetown doesn't care.
The public square, when stripped of its Judeo-Christian raiment, will not long remain naked. We need only consult French and British police, many of whom fear to enter some neighborhoods in their largest cities. There, shari'ah holds sway.
Perhaps my favorite Neuhaus formulation is the phrase "welcomed in life and protected in law." That was his way of describing the goals of the pro-life movement. We want a country where unborn children are, indeed, safely born and provided with the protections of law before and after birth.
There has been, frankly, too much emphasis on "creating a culture of life" as a precondition to passing protective laws. This lets half-hearted politicians neatly off the hook. Father Neuhaus certainly recognized the need for legal protections. He marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, where all the freedom demonstrators needed legal protection. Dr. King himself famously pointed to the need for protective laws: "I know a law cannot stop a racist from hating me; but it can stop him from lynching me. And his chances of learning to love me are a lot better if he has not lynched me first." Lynching was stopped in this country because federal law led to federal protection. The law led the culture.
That idea leads to the second function of the law: its teaching function. The inauguration of President Barack Obama would have been inconceivable had not Dr. King and Richard Neuhaus and so many others marched for the passage of good and just laws-laws that taught all Americans that it was wrong to judge our fellow Americans by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character.
There is nothing wrong and everything right with a culture of life. It can only be wrong if we argue that we must first create a culture of life before we can pass protective laws. Unless the laws teach us that life is to be protected, children will not be welcomed.
When young Pastor Neuhaus was marching with Dr. King, I was a college student at the University of Virginia. I had been shocked to find that though the University was de-segregated, the city of Charlottesville was not. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964-that
great charter prayed and labored for by Dr. King and Fr. Neuhaus-passed Congress overwhelmingly, a small number of Charlottesville's restaurants and swim clubs resisted integration. Overnight they became "private clubs." Anyone with five dollars and a white face could join one of these "exclusive" clubs. Some of my fellow students brazenly showed off their membership cards.
That bravado soon faded. Within a single year, all of those segregated clubs had folded. The good people of Charlottesville refused to patronize them. Membership in them was considered an indecent thing to do. Because the law taught us that racial discrimination was wrong, the racists quietly folded their tents.
It is not clear that such would have been the reaction if America in those days had had a naked public square. Richard Neuhaus was a leading clergyman even then, but his efforts to support Dr. King were joined by millions of believers, clergy and lay people alike. America's great achievement in civil rights would have been impossible without them and without the religiously grounded motives upon which they acted.
So, we should understand Richard Neuhaus' powerful formulation. Shall unborn children be welcomed in life? Yes, pray God they will be so welcomed. But they are more likely to be welcomed if they have not been slain first. The protection of law will teach all of us to extend that welcome. "Welcomed in life," of course, "and protected in law."
That is the legacy from my friend Father Richard Neuhaus that I will cherish. May he rest in peace in the richly adorned public square of Heaven.