U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Golden Cage

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?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I suspect your looking for a more complex idea but the term catch 22 I think took on a life of its own without burdening the author???

    The term “Culture wars” tends to entrap in that it suggests an irresolvable conflict calling for participants to take sides. It telegraphs a meaning and a condition but in fact it needn’t be so absolute. The idea of war draws more defined lines when in fact sometimes those lines are very subtle.

  2. Ray: Isn’t the difference that Bellah’s and Kennan’s metaphors achieved a kind of universal, even transcendental, application (which neither author ever really intended), whereas Neuhaus aimed at such universalism yet ended up serving the sectarian cause. This goes to a central question I have in my later US survey class: Was/is the religious right (broadly defined) a unifying or divisive force in American life? Certainly it came along at a time when Americans were looking for new national leadership after the liberal implosion. Certainly metaphors like “moral majority,” “pro-life,” and “family values” were/are intended to be consensus-building concepts. Still, it’s hard to see the religious right, including Neuhaus, as anything other than one more expression of identity politics.

  3. Thanks Paul and Mark.

    Mark: I think your question regarding Neuhaus as an expression of identity politics is one I am grappling with. I don’t know when or if he saw himself in that light or if his iconic term or his debating posture gave themselves over to the sectarian strife that Paul suggests. In one sense, Neuhaus probably did see himself “at war” in a way John Courtney Murray did in the introduction to “We Hold These Truths.” But Murray seemed closer to the “City of God” type warrior than Neuhaus became during the 1990s. Still I get the sense that the hope of a post-cold war, post-Vietnam, even post-liberal unity that I think appears among some on the Religious Left was simply no match for the way American politics had be forged since at least the end of WWII. Americans were just used to “wars”–real and cultural–and Neuhaus’s term fit the sensibility of the time even if he didn’t necessarily think this warfare had to go on without end.

  4. I’m not very familiar with Bellah or Neuhaus but I have read several books on Kennan and his memoirs.
    Kennan’s later regrets about his containment policy as it was presented in his “X” article was that it failed to make a necessary distinction between political and military efforts to contain communism. In addition, he failed to mention the anything about the division of Europe after the war which implied a tacit acceptance. Kennan might say he was a victim of his own imprecision. Nevertheless he was much more cautious about using military solutions. His impulse was to use political means of affecting change against the Soviets or their proxies. Later more activist, hawkish administrations in the grip of cold war anti communist zealousness would use containment to defend military incursions.
    Kennan’s idea of containment had been hijacked and misapplied by others and yet he was still seen as the architect. So yes the phrase became a bane somewhat for its conception but also its misuse. My point – once an idea is put out into the ether it’s there for anyone to cherry pick, bend, shape, or misuse as an individual or culture chooses whether its intentional or unintentional. Getting the idea straight is the historian’s job.

  5. Great point about Kennan, Paul. Frank Nincovitch, MODERNITY AND POWER, is great for exploring the differences between a Kennan and a Dulles (who used the term “Containment Plus” behind closed doors). Dulles, the CIA, and Eisenhower were really the children of James Burnham, whose 1947 book, THE STRUGGLE FOR THE WORLD and 1953 book CONTAINMENT OR LIBERATION? showed just how far from Kennan and, really, the Truman Doctrine speech which highlighted economic assistance.

    What does that have to dy with Ray’s initial post? Kennan was a historicist (i. e., a historical relativist) in an ideological age. Could the same be said of Neuhaus?

  6. Ray – Could you clarify what you mean by suggesting that “the discussion about American life” and the culture itself were “trapped” by Neuhaus’ metaphor. I can see the phrase applied to individuals, insofar as they come to regret, or need to backtrack on or revise an earlier formulation. But an entire culture? In what sense?

    Perhaps you have in mind something along the lines of Andrew Hartman’s piece on “The Cunning of History,” USIH – 3.27.09, in which he discusses Nancy Fraser’s thesis that second-wave feminism unintentionally contributed to the ascendance of the neo-liberal regime.

    I don’t know if they qualify as “misgivings,” but Neuhaus did some clarifying if not revising in the symposium in First Things, Nov 2004, on the 20th anniversary of his book.

    A couple of other “caged” folks come to mind – Thomas Kuhn and “paradigm,” Hofstadter and “anti-intellectualism” or “status politics,” and Nancy Fraser’s distinction between the politics of “recognition” and “distribution.”

    Mark and Ray both reference “identity politics,” which led me to wonder if people may become “trapped” — and I won’t explicate it either! — by a term that lacks an identifiable author. Wini Breines, in “What’s Love Got to Do with It? White Women, Black Women, and Feminism in the Movement Years,” Signs 2002, suggests it may have been used first in the Combahee River Collective statement of 1977, but I don’t know if that’s true.

    Paul – Your remark on the culture war metaphor summarizes some of the reservations I expressed in the blog in response to Andrew Hartman, asking whether he was writing the history of a term and concept, or adopting it as his own interpretive framework. I don’t recall what his answer was, but I share your sense that it may have come to shape thinking and discourse in the ways you suggest.

  7. Excellent responses–thanks!! Kennan is a cagey character in part because he both supported the creation of the CIA (historical relativist) and was deeply conservative about American culture (historical ideologue).

    What I think joins Kennan, Bellah, and Neuhaus (and perhaps Hunter) is that they all deployed a term that captured a very specific debate and channeled that debate in a direction in large part dictated by that term. While I don’t discount the politics swirling around them all–whether cold war or identity–I also think they did a great deal to shape the language and direction of politics. This point might be where Neuhaus diverges from the experiences of Kennan and Bellah by openly embracing the politics that he helped redirect. Kennan fell out of favor with the political powers who used his term in ways he might not have intended; Bellah had almost the misfortune to write an essay that seemed to ringer truer than other essayists at the time. In a way, Neuhaus intended his concept to replace civil religion as the paradigm that defined the next era of debate over the fate of the nation. So to Bill’s question about “trapping a culture,” I think Neuhaus was pleased, unlike Bellah, that his concept came to set the terms of the debate he had observed. Culture is comprised of metaphors, right, and Neuhaus generated one that channeled debates in specific directions. I think many religious as well as secular intellectuals felt constrained by Neuhaus’s concept.

  8. Ray – Thanks, that helps. I don’t know much about the subsequent debates, and nothing about how Neuhaus felt, or who might have felt “constrained” by his concept. In addition to getting into or making inferences about subjective feelings, how would you show observable effects? Anyway, if the public square is “naked,” we must need religion in some form as a “cover” – and there the metaphor goes in rather different directions!

  9. Ray you said-
    “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.'”

    Wasn’t communism a threat to our idea of freedom of social arrangements etc? It was an external threat and Neuhaus was saying that the “real” threat was internal it was us, thus the the naked golden cage represents us exposed and entrapped in our own decadent culture.

    Is this just another way saying we’ve identified the enemy and they are us? Are culture wars made up of the same common opponents simply finding different places to draw lines in the sand? Is this a continuation of the red scare of 1919-1920 and 1950’s but with different characters in different clothing albeit a more subdued and refined crowd?

    Sorry if I’m getting off on a bit of a tangent.

  10. It’s funny, when I called Neuhaus’s book up on Amazon, it was paired with Reinhold Niebuhr’s MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY. At first, I thought it was a mistake, as NAKED PUBLIC SQUARE much more closely follows Niebuhr’s 1944 book THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT AND THE CHILDREN OF DARKNESS, where Niebuhr argues that decadent liberal democracies needed a new “religious culture” if they were to survive the totalitarian onslaught. It’s a consensus work, like Neuhaus probably wanted to offer. Then I thought more and decided MORAL MAN was entirely fitting. In MORAL MAN, Niebuhr argued that oppressed people needed to organize to resist organized injustice. Isn’t that what the religious right is, a mobilization against institutionalized “secularism?” And didn’t Neuhaus, perhaps with more articulation and cosmopolitanism than a David Barton, nevertheless lend ironic creedence to that mobilization? I say ironic because, isn’t the very fact that NAKED PUBLIC SQUARE could be published, widely read and debated, show that our public discourse is not and has never been naked, but merely more post-Christian?

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