The Naked Public Square and the Culture War: Why Evangelicalism Mattered in Reagan's America

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 3:10 PM
Kansas City Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Steven P. Miller, Webster University
The growing prominence of Reagan-era conservative evangelicalism sparked an enduring debate about the place of faith in U.S. public life. The influence of evangelicalism (here, defined as the public expression of born-again Christianity) resonated as pointedly in Manhattan’s Upper West Side as it did in Virginia’s Tidewater. The First Evangelical Scare of the early 1980s shaped the course of post-New Deal Coalition liberalism, producing a new organization (People for the American Way) and revitalizing an existing one (American Civil Liberties Union). More importantly, it produced two metaphors that profoundly informed subsequent discussions of faith and public life: Richard John Neuhaus’ “naked public square” and James Davison Hunter’s “culture war.” Both authors wrote in the shadow of the First Evangelical Scare. In a 1986 book, Neuhaus argued that secular elites had “systemically excluded from policy consideration the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief.” Five years later, Hunter described a conflict between “progressive” and “orthodox” forces in American society. Neuhaus, a Lutheran activist turned Catholic traditionalist, and Hunter, a sociologist who began his career studying American evangelicals, each positioned himself as a civic-minded referee. Yet their metaphors ultimately chose sides. The “naked public square” became an evangelical rallying cry, to the point where Time magazine counted Neuhaus on its 2005 list of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.” The “culture war” became a rhetorical weapon for American liberals who turned the phrase into a descriptor of Christian Right militarism. In the end, neither metaphor could transcend a defining characteristic of late twentieth-century America: the complex, often ironic influences of evangelicalism on U.S. politics and culture. The history of modern American evangelicalism assumes new significance when its subjects are not simply evangelicals themselves.
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