The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 32 (April 1993): 58-64.

This month:

What Is To Be Learned From "The Church in Socialism"

At Boston University's Institute for the Study of Economic Culture, headed by sociologist Peter Berger, a recent conference asked what the end of socialism means for Christian ethics. One paper given was Berger's "Social Ethics in a Post-Socialist World" (FT, February). Another was by Trutz Rendtorff, professor of Christian ethics at the University of Munich, and a major player in the leadership of German Protestantism. Many Protestant leaders, Rendtorff notes, were somewhat slow to applaud the collapse of the wall between East and West. A small thing, but a thing of great symbolic importance, was that the churches disappointed the popular expectation that church bells would be rung the day that German unification was formally declared. Leaders were taking their time, too, about reuniting the Protestant church, which had been divided in 1969 under Communist pressure. At first they said reunion was scheduled for 1995 or thereabouts, but, in response to popular demand, the two jurisdictions were patched together in 1991.

In the last days of Communism in East Germany (DDR), it seemed that the Protestant church was the very center of the action. And it was. But in retrospect it became apparent that the action was more political than indicative of anything like a spiritual revival. The church provided the only available space for protest against the regime. Now, says Rendtorff, "a profound reversal of opinion has taken place." The climate has been additionally soured by the opening of the archives of the Staatssicherheitsdienst, or the Stasi, as the former secret police is called. It turns out that a distressing number of church leaders, including some who presented themselves as the democratic force opposing the regime, were in fact collaborating with the Stasi. The generalization is sadly true, writes Rendtorff: "The church exercised no active resistance against the socialist regime. Did it perhaps even support the regime, even if only in the interest of protecting its continued existence?"

In 1949, 80 percent of the DDR population belonged to the Protestant church, and 15 percent were Roman Catholic. By 1989, says Rendtorff, it seems likely that no more than 10 percent of the population were active Christians. That is one obvious measure of what forty years of socialism meant for the churches in the DDR. From the beginning of the Soviet occupation, a Russian model was adopted and it was continued by the German Communists. As in Soviet treatment of Russian Orthodoxy, the church was to be reluctantly tolerated so long as it confined itself to the sanctuary, to Kultus. Any attempt by the church to address broader social questions was declared to be an illegitimate interference in affairs that were none of its business.

"It is true," says Rendtorff, "that the authorities legitimated this attempt to restrict the church to the narrow sphere of Kultus and the care of souls by appeal to the modern principle of the separation of church and state. In fact, however, government policy regarding the church followed the principle of the unity of state and Party." The Party was the government, the Party was the society, the Party was everything. The concession to allow the church to operate within rigid confines was only temporary. "One of the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism held that the realization of Communism meant the withering away of religion. Moreover, socialism on its way to Communism was expected to perform active euthanasia on religion."

Little wonder that the regime was hostile to those pastors and theologians who wanted to engage in "Christian-Marxist dialogue." From the Communist viewpoint, such dialogue served the purpose of lulling "useful idiots" in the West into a more positive disposition toward socialism, but the dialogue also ran directly counter to the claim of the Party that it had a monopoly on defining Marxism, and the Party knew that its definition had no place for Christianity. Rendtorff offers the lapidary observation, "This kind of critical discussion between Christianity and socialism, as in 'Christian-Marxist dialogue,' is a phenomenon of Western societies and churches."

The Guilt of the Churches

"Whoever wanted to be someone in the DDR," says Rendtorff, "could under no circumstances let their identity as a Christian be known. This consistent discrimination against Christians under socialism was without question the greatest burden imposed upon the members of the church during the DDR's forty-year history." It also helps explain the dramatic decline in active church membership. Church leaders could and did develop grand theories about "the church in socialism," suggesting a compatibility, even complementarity, between Christianity and socialism, but the regime was having none of it. "The only professions excluded from systematic discrimination against Christians were those professions pursued within the strict organizational boundaries of the church itself," Rendtorff writes. It is not entirely surprising, one may note, that after 1989 so many pastors entered politics. In the DDR, the pastorate was one of the very few positions that provided at least some distance from complete control by the Party. With the end of the socialist regime, those who were more politically motivated to begin with no longer needed the "cover" of the pastorate.

The obsequiousness of the Protestant church in the DDR may be explained in part by the fact that, before 1961, millions of DDR citizens fled to the West, including a significant number of theologians. For reasons both good and bad, church leaders who remained were determined, somehow, to make their peace with the regime. They would become the architects of the theory and praxis of "the church in socialism." Two themes, says Rendtorff, promoted a conceptual and psychological "accommodation to the socialist state." They were "anti-fascism" and "anti-capitalism."

"The church blamed itself becaue it had not quickly or courageously enough resisted National Socialism. Socialism, as the representative of the anti-fascist camp, was, after the Jews, the largest victim of fascism. The admission of the church's guilt provided the incentive for the church placing itself on the side of the victims of fascism by building up a socialistic society. The church also blamed itself for failing to respond to the social question of the working class and, as the church of the bourgeoisie, not opposing vigorously the destructive forces of capitalism. This guilt could now be expiated by the church's willingness to cooperate with a regime that would, presumably, guarantee social justice and equality for everyone while contending against the forces of capitalism."

Capitalism, of course, meant chiefly the United States, with West Germany cast in the role of America's servile pawn. In the 1970s and 1980s, the themes of anti-fascism and anti-capitalism were joined to the compelling theme of "peace." Rendtorff writes: "The 'peace movement' was a self-designation of DDR rhetoric, and appealed to all 'peace-loving' men and women. For a long time the church resisted being coopted into the socialist 'peace camp.' But in the 1980s, under the influence of nuclear confrontation, the great closeness between the church and the DDR regime developed. Church leaders adopted the East's version of reality, which cast NATO and, most particularly, the Reagan administration as warmongers. The church leaders believed for some time that their approval of the 'peace policy' of the DDR was in agreement with their own theological and ethical convictions."

Ecumenical Impact

This explains also the prominent role of the DDR church in the ecumenical movement, especially the World Council of Churches (WCC). To get permission to travel, church leaders were expected to promote the regime's "peace policy"-a policy that much of the leadership of the WCC was only too eager to embrace. "The church of the DDR," writes Rendtorff, "was welcome in the Oekumene much more than the West German Evangelische Kirche Deutschland because, as a church that not only lived and worked under socialism but also 'in socialism,' it was suited to support the prevailing trend of the ecumenical body. From the Oekumene, the church in the DDR received a reinforcement of its desire to seek an accommodation with actual existing socialism."

In legitimating their chosen course, pastors and theologians drew on the thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor martyred under the Nazis, and of Karl Barth, the century's preeminent Protestant theologian. Of course they used both very selectively. The focus was on Bonhoeffer's observations about "religionless Christianity" in his last papers from prison. That focus fit nicely as a kind of confirmation of the Marxist critique of religion from within Christianity. Similarly convenient was Barth's polemic against bourgeois Christianity and the Western Enlightenment. The many and powerful writings of Bonhoeffer and Barth on the integrity of Christian witness and resistance to temporal powers were not so convenient for the theory and practice of "the church in socialism."

The collapse of "actual existing socialism" in the DDR and elsewhere does not mean the end of socialism per se, says Rendtorff. In Germany there are publications that argue that the events of 1989 simply illustrate the ever-present danger of counterrevolution and, ex negativo, confirm the Marxist theory of history. Socialism as practiced in this century, says Rendtorff, leads to the "cancellation of the constitutional state" whose institutional arrangements are the most effective guarantee of freedom and human dignity. Protestant social ethics, he believes, continues to fail to appreciate the moral significance of the constitutional state.

There is a reason for that, he argues. Protestant ethics (and here we would add that the failing is not limited to Protestant ethics) has reinforced the desire to overcome the state in a society that is all- encompassing of human needs and aspirations. "The dependence of the basic ideas of socialism on conviction makes it imperative that only those who have the right convictions are called to cooperate in the realization of socialism's goal. Therefore, the Party as the community bound by conviction takes the place of law and government. As a result, the acknowledgement of individual rights becomes dependent upon the individual's prior conversion to the convictions of socialism. In contrast, the decisive foundation of the constitutional state is the fact that membership in the community bound by law is valid independently of confession and conviction."

The Hunger for Community

The affinity between Christian ethics and socialism is to be found in this idea of a community of conviction. The church is to be such a community of conviction. Only those truly belong who share the constituting conviction. Protestant ethics, Rendtorff suggests, has not really, not deeply, internalized the understanding of the difference between church and society. It is useful, he believes, to distinguish between "soft" and "hard" socialism. Soft socialism is evident among those Christians for whom the idea of church as a societas perfecta slides into secular notions of the ideal communication community (Habermas), of society as perfected human solidarity. Of course that notion is older than Marxism, going back to nineteenth- century evangelisch-sozialen movements, which were in this respect similar to aspects of the Social Gospel movement in the United States. "Soft" socialism is that bundle of ideas and sensibilities that drives toward Gemeinschaft (community) as distinct from Gesellschaft (society). Even the young Marx can be included in the genealogy of that sharp distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.

One reason that soft socialism is so perduring among Christians is that it is tied to "the principle of hope" that is directed to the coming Kingdom of God. Rendtorff writes, "The eschatological ingredients are best suited to make the concept of soft socialism immune to concrete experience because of a hope that is always able to reformulate realities so that they are in accord with what is hoped for. Eschatological expectations are irrefutable; by virtue of their pure normativity, no experience can compel their revision. This is the point at which we find the meeting between soft and hard socialism. Hard socialism presents itself as the vehicle and executor of the hopes of soft socialism. Hard socialism is a program of political and economic order, a form of rule."

The Beautiful & the Ugly

Hard socialism does the dirty work, so to speak, of soft socialism. Soft socialists do not like to see freedom denied and ideals turned into a crass struggle for power, but these ugly means can be justified if they lead to the desired and necessary end. "Hard socialism," Rendtorff observes, "has again and again been replenished from the intellectual, moral, and religious resources of soft socialism." And so it is that in the DDR today there are Christians who speak about an "improved" socialism; the manifest failure of one form of hard socialism is in no way permitted to throw into question the commitment of soft socialism. Rendtorff expects that in the Oekumene, in church bureaucracies, and in the writings of "prophetic" theologians rhetoric and resources will continue to be devoted to the socialist "ideal."

Like John Paul II in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Rendtorff argues that the failure of socialism is to be found in its central tenet-the belief in the economic basis of the social realization of human hope. Christianity has, necessarily, an "eschatological surplus," and the ever-present temptation of Christians is to invest that surplus in utopian programs for the economic and political order. The utopian impulse cannot be and should not be eradicated, but it must always be redirected to the judgment and promise of God. Put differently, the utopian impulse must be subordinated to an eschatological hope that is radically eschatological, that can mistake nothing short of the Kingdom of God for the Kingdom of God.

Plus ca change, one is inclined to think with respect to the socialist delusion. Soft socialism survives all falsifications by hard (real existent) socialism. As John Paul argues in Centesimus Annus, real existent socialism was not the betrayal of the socialist idea; it was the predictable fulfillment of the socialist idea. Rendtorff's additional point is important, that the affinity with socialism is that it is, like the church, a community of conviction. It is not simply that some Christians want to establish the Kingdom of God now. It is also that they want the society to be something like the church, or at least what they think the church should be-a community of deep sharing, of solidarity, of community, of Gemeinschaft.

The constitutional state is something else, and necessarily so. Father John Courtney Murray wrote that our constitutional arrangements are "articles of peace," not "articles of faith." To be sure, in the American order these arrangements are premised upon conviction ("We hold these truths . . ."), but the agreed convictions are very limited. They do not intend to be all-encompassing, they do not intend to provide a comprehensive meaning system. Comprehensive meaning sytems are the business of religion. The truths we hold are the truths that are necessary for ensuring a constitutional order that allows for the flourishing of many truths, of many meaning systems, of many encompassing explanations of reality. In short, the constitutional state makes pluralism possible.

The alternative to pluralism is monism. In this century, monistic hungers have generated the unspeakable tyrannies of National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism. Soft socialism, apparently so innocent and idealistic, is too often ready to take up with whatever hard socialism comes along to offer its help in realizing beautiful dreams. The monistic hungers are evident, too, among some Christians who yearn for a "Christian America," a society reconstituted on the basis of "Bible law" that assures solidarity in righteousness and truth. That is the project peddled by some who call themselves "Christian Reconstructionists" or "theonomists." Whether it appears on the right or the left, whether in religious or secular guise, monism is the perduring temptation. Monism presents itself as the alternative to a pluralistic, diverse, differentiated, fragmented, alienated, and generally unsatisfactory social order. In sum, it presents itself as the alternative to the real existent world short of the Kingdom of God. Its appeal for those who refuse to wait for or refuse to believe in the Kingdom is perfectly understandable. It needs only to be added that refusing to wait and refusing to believe are pretty much the same thing.

The Crowded Public Square

A good many Americans, it is reasonable to assume, do not regularly read the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, and they therefore miss the wisdom of Paul Greenberg, its editorial page editor (who also appears from time to time in these pages). He is always interesting, even when, maybe especially when, he is wrong. A recent editorial, prompted by the annual fuss over Christmas displays in public space, suggested that our problem is not the naked public square but the crowded public square. The Christians want a creche, the Jews want a menorah, maybe next year the Muslims will want their crescent displayed, and pretty soon, says Greenberg, the square "looks like a competing bazaar of creeds or an ancient pantheon of the known gods."

Everything gets trivialized. Greenberg cites an Arkansas secretary of state who a while back defended a Christmas display at the state capitol with the argument, "The Arkansas display incorporates the theme of Christmas and not just the Nativity of Christ." Greenberg continues: "There is a kind of territorial imperative at work here as temporal authority inevitably reaches out for symbols of the everlasting. But, although the state may covet holy symbols, it stops short of identifying itself explicitly with any confession of faith. It seeks religiosity, not religion.

"Those who claim that religious displays at public sites really do not commit the government to faith may have a point. Somehow that makes it worse. It's as if the state were adapting religion, not adopting it. How many years of using the menorah and the manger as civic decorations before they are seen as, yes, civic decorations?"

Greenberg's conclusion is that the naked public square can indicate respect and even reverence for religion, "as if the state understood that it still had limits, and that there are some things it should not lay hands on." Greenberg has a point, in fact several points. The placing of religious symbols in government space has never been among our big causes. That the public square is now so rigidly defined as government space rather than, more flexibly, as community space is a concern. Of greater concern is the reason why such symbols are typically removed. It is not because of the clamor for equal time and the danger of turning the square into "a bazaar of creeds." It is because of the triumph of the ACLU dogma that communal beliefs cannot be publicly expressed if even one person finds such expression offensive. The creed of that one person, who is usually a professing atheist, has veto power over the democratically determined ways in which the community publicly identifies itself. The naked square is a sign not of respect, never mind reverence, for religion, but of suspicion and hostility toward religion. It reinforces the doctrine that religion is a purely private predilection, and that wherever government advances religion must retreat.

Religious symbols in public space may be a lost cause in some places. But, in our judgment, the battle should not be given up without a fight. The naked square declares the inability of a community to arrive at peaceful and civilized accommodations - or, more often, the arrogant determination of the courts to nullify such accommodations. It declares the victory of a deadening secularism in stifling the celebration of the beliefs and traditions by which people live, or aspire to live. It is not simply a matter of "civic decoration." It is a matter of how the civitas and its diverse people are communally identified. We are a long way down the road to the situation in which any belief system or tradition can be publicly expressed, under government auspices and even with government funding, except those that are "tainted" by their association with religion. This strikes us - and, we expect, most Americans - as being not what the Founders meant by the free exercise of religion. Perhaps we will not have to wait until next Christmas to get Paul Greenberg's second thoughts on an editorial position that is, we respectfully suggest, very intelligently wrong.

While We're At It