Attacks on Christians and The Naked Public Square


On 7 February 2009 we heard in Britain of gross discrimination against Christians in the work-place. One paper reported that a foster mother has been struck off by a council after a Muslim girl in her care became a Christian:

“The woman insisted that, although she was a Christian, she had put no pressure on the Muslim girl (who was 16 at the time) to be baptized. In 2007 she was asked to look after the girl, who had been assaulted by a family member. She told council officials that she was happy to support the girl in her religion and culture. But the girl, whose interest in Christianity had begun at school some time before her foster placement, also made it clear that she wanted to go to church.

The carer said: ‘I did initially try to discourage her. But she said to me from the word go, “I am interested and I want to come.” The carer said that the girl’s social workers were fully aware that she was going to church and had not raised any objections. The girl had told her auxiliary social worker of her plans to convert before she was baptized and the social worker had appeared to give her consent. The council then told the carer there had been a breakdown of trust and in November removed her from the register. The girl has been devastated by the experience.”

Nursing and teaching

On 18 February another paper reported that

“new NHS guidelines state that doctors and nurses face harassment charges if they are accused of ‘preaching’ to staff or patients, while a draft code of practice for teachers could be used by schools to discipline those who discuss their beliefs with pupils.” It went on to say that “Caroline Petrie, a community nurse who is a devout Baptist, was suspended without pay for two months after she offered to pray for an elderly patient. Jennie Cain remains off work from her job as a primary school receptionist for sending a private e-mail asking for spiritual support [prayer] after her five-year-old daughter was reprimanded for talking about hell.”

The good news is that Caroline Petrie is back at work having been reinstated. North Somerset Primary Care Trust now say that it recognized that Mrs Petrie had been acting in the “best interests of her patients”, that nurses did not have to “set aside their faith” in the workplace and could “continue to offer high quality care for patients while remaining committed to their beliefs.” The trust also admitted that, for some, prayer is recognized as an “integral part of health care and the healing process.”

In the light of all this (and more) Dr Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, said many Christians

“have the daily challenge of living by a set of values that the world thinks are mad. ... There is no more urgent time than now to break down the compartmentalized thinking that separates trust in God from the world of work.”

Fundamental issues and Richard Neuhaus

Cases such as these are very serious and deeply distressing for the individuals concerned. We should be praying for them, supporting them and supporting groups like the Christian Institute who can give practical legal help. But behind these presenting problems are equally serious issues for the whole of society.

On 8 January 2009 Richard Neuhaus, an American Christian and one of the great social analysts of the second half of the 20th century, sadly died. He came to fame in 1984 with a book entitled The Naked Public Square. The book had a profound effect in America and where ever else it was read.

Neuhaus’ concern was that people do not realize how fragile is true liberal democracy as a political system. It is not something that can be taken for granted. “In the longer reaches of history,” he argues, “liberal democracy appears as a curious exception to the various tyrannies under which human beings have suffered.” His thesis is that one form of tyranny is likely to occur when you have a naked public square - that is when religious belief, particularly Christian religious belief, is marginalized and excluded from public life being forced to be private. A secular state of this sort, where beliefs about the meaning of human existence are privatized, has then left in it only two public actors – the state and the individual. “Religion,” he argues, “as a mediating structure – a community that generates and transmits moral values – is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state.” So the naked public square is only temporary. It leaves a vacuum to be filled. In the West it has been filled with the tyrannical religions of relativism and secularity.

Subtle secularism and Martin Luther King

Neuhaus explains how secularization can be so subtle: “However many there are who actively promote a revolutionary re-evaluation of values, there are many more who quietly assimilate the dogmas of secularism. Among those dogmas, few have been so widely assimilated as the proposition that ours is a secular society. Even if it is acknowledged that historically our values were religiously based, it is alleged that that is a thing of the past. Religion may endure and be indulged in privacy, but it is no longer available for the reconstruction of a public ethic.”

He then gives as an example a broadcast way back in 1968 following the assassination of his friend, Dr Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader. “There was an ecumenical memorial service ... in Harlem, with numerous religious, political, and cultural dignitaries in attendance. The service was reported on television news that evening. The announcer, standing before St Charles Borromeo church where the service was held, spoke in solemn tones: ‘And so today there was a memorial service for the slain civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a religious service, and it is fitting that it should be, for, after all, Dr King was the son of a minister.”

Such blindness to the religious motivation and meaning of Dr King’s ministry, Neuhaus found astonishing. “The announcer was speaking out of a habit of mind that was no doubt quite unconscious. The habit of mind is that religion must be kept at one remove from the public square, that matters of public significance must be sanitized of religious particularity. It regularly occurred that the television cameras would be turned off during Dr King’s speeches when he dwelt on the religious and moral-philosophical basis of the movement for racial justice. They would be turned on again when the subject touched upon confrontational politics. In a luncheon conversation Dr King once remarked, ‘They aren’t interested in the why of what we’re doing, only in the what of what we’re doing, and, because they don’t understand the why, they cannot really understand the what.’”

Social senility

America (and the West – for Britain is now so like America) has lost its memory. One of the US founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson (not even a particularly orthodox Christian) wrote as follows concerning slavery:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties were a gift of God? That they are not to be violated without his wrath! Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among the possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with us in such a contest.”

Neuhaus saw that “Jefferson understood that the naked public square is a very dangerous place. No constitution or written law is strong enough to defend rights under attack. Their ‘only firm basis’ is in their being perceived as transcendent gift.”


The most serious problem in a secular society without a transcendent or religious point of reference is that conflicts of values cannot be resolved. There can only be procedures for their temporary accommodation. “Conflicts,” says Neuhaus, “over values are viewed not as conflicts between contending truths but as conflicts between contending interests. If one person believes that incest is wrong and should be outlawed while another person believes incest is essential for sexual liberation, the question in a thoroughly secularized society is how these conflicting ‘interests’ might be accommodated. Since the person who practices incest can do so without denying the rights of the person who abhors incest, the accommodation will inevitably be skewed in favour of incest.”

No wonder the Archbishop of York has responded last month by a call for Christians to stand up and be counted in the face of this growing illiberalism. May we heed his call. May we also thank God for the life and writing of Richard Neuhaus. And why not read The Naked Public Square? After twenty-five years it is still relevant.

Back to top