Thanks to Lora for extending the discussion on my last post. I relish exchanges with my colleagues here at S-USIH.
I have an extension of my own: if Bellah and Kennan felt trapped by their own eloquence, can the inverse happen? Can the golden cage of a term or concept release the author and entrap the culture?
The example I have in mind here is Richard John Neuhaus’s use of the term, “the naked public square.” His 1984 book by that name, appearing in an election year and at a moment of impasse for the Religious Right, captured a transition in perils from the cold war to, perhaps, the culture wars. Among the most remarkable features of the book is the limited discussion of communism–the specter that had provoked calls-to-arms of all kinds, secular and religious, since the late 1940s. But that peril had faded as a new peril was identified, manufactured, and endlessly debated. Neuhaus defined that new peril, Mary Ann Glendon asserted in a retrospective on Neuhaus’s book: “Richard Neuhaus correctly saw that the chief threat to our republic was not communism (as many people thought at the time), but ‘a collapse of the idea of freedom and of social arrangements necessary to sustaining a liberal democracy.'”
Before the publication of The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus had been a fascinating but not necessarily influential public intellectual. As many know, he started his adult life as a Lutheran minister and pastor of a church in Brooklyn; a man of the religious left who marched with Martin Luther King and joined other religious leaders in opposing the Vietnam War. By the mid-1970s he had begun to migrate away from the radical critique of the United States as a hopeless nation–fallen, perhaps, but Neuhaus argued it was redeemable. By the early 1980s, he made an ill-fated alliance with a group of “paleocons” and in the aftermath of a minor fiasco founded the Institute for Religion and Public Life and the journal First Things. In less than a decade he would enter the Roman Catholic Church as a priest and take up a place squarely at the center of the culture wars that defined the decade prior to 9/11. At various times, Neuhaus expressed surprise that his book and the metaphor he used struck such a vibrant chord with so many people. His fellow religious and conservative intellectuals had already come to admire him by 1984 but his presence at debates about the fate of American life undoubtedly grew more essential after the publication of his book.
Yet, one of the questions I wrestle with is whether his metaphor trapped the discussion about American life in a way that concepts launched by Bellah and Kennan had trapped them. Neuhaus’s public life benefited from the reception of his metaphor, but what did that metaphor do to the culture it attempted to describe? Both Bellah and Kennan lamented the fact that their professional careers became defined by terms that they felt ambivalent about. Their ambivalence seemed to come from finding the world around them too complex for simplification by terms such as civil religion and containment. I don’t know if Neuhaus had similar misgivings, but it seems to me that the golden cage that Bellah and Kennan felt trapped within did not prompt similar misgivings with Neuhaus. What “the naked public square” did as a concept was set the terms of a debate Americans have been having one way or another every since Neuhaus introduced it. The 2007 issue of American Quarterly entitled “Is the Public Square Still Naked?” stands as a decent example of that. Likewise the well-regarded religious historian Steven P. Miller recently took up the iconic metaphors of Neuhaus and James Davison Hunter in a paper at the 2012 AHA. Is there significance in the different ways Bellah, Kennan, and Neuhaus (and perhaps Hunter) related to their iconic concepts?