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Review of Religion in the Public Square

Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell. James M. Patterson. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.


Patrick Deneen’s provocative book, Why Liberalism Failed (Yale, 2018), argues that “liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded.” The seeds of self-destruction were sewn within the liberal tradition from its very inception, Deneen argues, and now manifest themselves in predictable ways. Liberalism, in all its variants, has been particularly effective, apparently, at eroding the authority and effectiveness of the self-governing institutions necessary for the survival of liberal values. The prioritization of individual liberty as autonomy has obliterated families, local communities, and other intermediate associations which Tocqueville once celebrated as the lifeblood of American democracy.

Despite his incisive and prescient polemic, Deneen’s analysis overlooks much and curiously neglects one of, if not the, most important institutions in American liberal democracy: the Church. While he has much to say about the pre-liberal importance of Christianity in the West, it would seem institutionalized religion is primarily a victim of liberalism’s rise and decline. On this point and others, Deneen is half right. The Church has long been a source of order and authority in the lives of congregations and communities, but the modern obsession with autonomous liberty threatens that at every turn. Traditions of “church discipline,” have barely survived, and congregations have become more like social clubs paying lip service to clerical and scriptural authority but only selectively embracing it in practice. There are exceptions to such trends, of course, but the American Church, across denominations has, by-and-large, ceased to be an institution of authority and self-government. In some places it registers more as a curious artifact gasping for relevance in a nation that has grown increasingly hostile to, and suspicious of, its intentions. The Church in the contemporary U.S. may seem “miles wide,” but it tends to be “inches deep.”

Deneen would likely attribute this decline to liberalism and he would be right, to a point. Liberal theologians from Schleiermacher on have celebrated autonomous liberty at the expense of orthodox church doctrines and teaching. But it would be a mistake to lay blame exclusively on the theological left. James M. Patterson’s new book, Religion in the Public Square, helps reframe the interplay between liberalism and orthodox Christianity while resisting Deneen’s blanket denunciations of liberalism as a tradition. Patterson writes, “’Liberalism’ is not the cause of the problems Deneen observes, since ideas lack agency. Rather, one of the most important defenses against the excesses of American liberalism, religious institutions, failed to remain independent of politics. In short, liberalism did not fail the church; the church failed liberalism.” (3)

Christianity’s attention to, and participation in, politics and government is as old as the faith itself. At different times and places, Christians have ranged from politically persecuted sects to holding complete control over the civil authorities of a given empire or country. Their roles have varied from prophetic voices speaking against injustice and corruption to fully participating in that injustice and corruption. In the modern world of religious pluralism and growing irreligion, however, what, now, is the place of religion in the public sphere?

Since the emergence of American constitutional democracy, the prohibition of a nationally established religion and the recognition of the free exercise of religion have been enshrined as sacred pillars of American political culture. This identifiably liberal arrangement has resulted in a flourishing of religion, especially Protestant Christianity, in a manner unique among industrialized nations. While religious intolerance, persecution, and decline are also part of this story, American democracy has long had a great stake in the condition of the Churches – their leadership and congregations.

After WWII and the massive cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, however, the role of religion in American politics has become simultaneously more obvious and less understood. Talk of the “religious left” and the “religious right” colors political discourse in a way that makes one wonder if Christians can (or should) speak with a single voice. And this lack of unity, beyond religion, presents a problem for Patterson, since it speaks to a decline in any shared dogma among Americans.

Dogma, as I read Patterson’s use of the term, refers to the publicly accepted moral limits and a common cultural self-understanding rooted in a society’s historical consciousness and religious commitments. In this sense, “dogma” becomes more all-encompassing than related terms of ‘civil religion” and “political culture.” In much of the Twentieth Century, this dogma was often termed the ‘Judeo-Christian Consensus,” holding widespread acceptance, even among those who had left these faiths behind. A residual Judeo-Christian dogma persisted and brought something resembling coherence to American politics and culture. As American Christians have become more deeply embedded in partisan politics, however, that dogma has fractured, carrying less and less weight, and possessing only a superficial connection to its religious foundations.

Deneen is potentially wrong, though, to say that “liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded.” Following Patterson, it may be more accurate to say that “liberalism will fail if the Church fails to be the Church.” The result has been, and may continue to be, that dogma declines at the expense of American unity, coherence, community, and stability.

To illustrate the importance and subsequent decline of the Judeo-Christian consensus as a salient and unifying dogma, Patterson looks to the work of three prominent clerical voices from the second half of the twentieth century. These “popularizers,” as Patterson describes them, bear tremendous responsibility for the Church’s continued political relevance and legitimacy in the public sphere. “[T]o remain persuasive to the public,” Patterson writes, however, “clergy must focus their efforts on moral and religious education rather than direct participation in government or political parties.“ (3) Focusing on the examples of Fulton Sheen, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jerry Falwell, Patterson explores how the Church and its leadership in the U.S. ought to reconceive its role in the public sphere so as to remain true to its teachings without becoming corrupted, co-opted, or shut-out by U.S. politics.

The Venerable Fulton Sheen serves, for Patterson, as one of the closest examples available to how a faithful Christian ought to view their role in the public square in modern America. Sheen’s preaching was intoxicating and widely influential, as he spoke on radio and television programs for nearly four decades. Like his evangelical Protestant contemporary, Billy Graham, Sheen had the ear of many rich, famous, and politically powerful people. But Sheen did not, Patterson argues, view himself primarily as a political figure. Instead, Sheen understood the need to defend Catholicism against charges of the Church’s anti-Americanism and authoritarianism. Sheen, in a manner reminiscent of St. Augustine, argued that a Catholic Christian’s commitment to the Church is not at the expense of patriotism but a motivation for it. He did this by employing the symbol (in the Voegelinian sense) of “Americanism.” Sheen did not, by this, mean American exceptionalism or nativism; nor did he aim to divinize the “state” in the manner of Soviet communism. Instead, Patterson summarizes:

Americanism had three core principles: (1) that human beings must above all pursue spiritual ends and that these ends only came through religious institutions; (2) that the state existed to protect the pursuit of spiritual ends and the freedom of religious institutions to provide them; and (3) that totalitarian states were the greatest enemies of religious institutions and wished violence against religious people, thereby embodying what Sheen called the ‘spirit of the anti-Christ.’(p. 28)

Sheen’s modus operandi was neither partisan nor nationalistic. It was patriotic. America as an idea and as a people was worth celebrating as long as it allowed its citizens to “keep first things first.” As long as the State afforded a space for spiritual development and the work of religious institutions, then it would find in Catholic Christianity an ally in the fight against totalitarianism.

“Americanism,” however, risks deeper ties to Protestantism and a religious tradition historically uneasy with, if not openly hostile to, Catholics. “Sheen,” however, “replaced Protestant hegemony with the Judeo-Christian consensus, and he replaced the old enemy in the Vatican with the new one in totalitarianism; in short, Sheen appropriated old anti-Catholic discourse for Catholic ends.” (24)

This “Judeo-Christian consensus” helped conceptualize and popularize a unifying dogma to which a diverse coalition of Christians and Jews still appeal not only in opposition to totalitarianism, but to injustice. Few appreciated the importance of such unity as Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK’s inclusion in Patterson’s narrative is a welcome one, as contemporary admirers of King often neglect the deep theological roots of his work. This is especially true of King’s reference to a “Beloved Community,” which functioned as a symbol and a call to racial reconciliation and the need to ground social and political life in sacrificial love. Fulton Sheen resisted totalitarianism and the American suspicion of Catholicism through the dogma of patriotic “Americanism” and the “Judeo-Christian Consensus.” King called Americans, and especially its clergy, to proactively and peacefully resist racial injustice by recognizing their shared dogma rooted in a covenantal tradition subject to God as King. The “Beloved Community,” under the Kingdom of God, affords no place for racial injustice and obligates all Americans to sacrificial love and friendship for the sake of peace and justice.

Like Sheen, MLK’s ends were not exclusively political. He did not, for most of his life, tie the fate of the civil rights movement to partisan politics, but to the hope that Americans would (in a manner reminiscent of Frederick Douglas) be inspired to return to their covenantal obligations of liberty and justice for all. In this way, King exemplified not just the moral education that Sheen practice, but also the prophetic position so central to the Judeo-Christian Tradition. King recognized that the Churches must not stand aloof of politics nor be excessively entangled with it. Instead, a prophetic Church stands alongside MLK in the public sphere to speak truth – that is, the Gospel – to power.

King did not fully succeed in uniting Church leaders for the cause of civil rights and racial justice. This was especially clear in the unwillingness of Christian fundamentalists, in the South as well as the North, to embrace the civil rights movement. Instead of Sheen’s example as a kind of patriotic Catholic prophet or MLK’s martyrdom and sacrifice for the advancement of a “beloved community” and the Kingdom of God, the emergence of Jerry Falwell represents the rise of a new and more problematic dogma. This dogma centered around a distinctively “American dispensation.” Patterson writes:

The American dispensation began, according to Falwell, with the founding of America as a Christian nation, but the purpose of the nation would only become clear as Europe began its religious decline and left America as the last remaining political and religious leader standing between  the current ‘Church Age’ and the coming Tribulation. Hence, America faced a choice; the nation could either restore and preserve its Christian foundations and remain the last Christian mission, or continue ‘to stray from our original foundations’ and usher in the Tribulation. The aim of preserving American religious foundations, therefore, was to preserve the American state for as long as possible, thus bringing as many souls as possible to Christ before the End Times. (117)

Rather than seek racial reconciliation and moral education, the task for Falwell’s ministry was conversion and a view of the public square as a place for the previously exiled fundamentalists to reassert their political relevance and reestablish the American Christianity of the Founding era. Falwell, in contrast to Sheen and King, however, believed that the Republican Party afforded his movement the best chance for Christianity to achieve these ends.

Patterson’s choice of Sheen, King, and Falwell may seem a bit arbitrary until one notes that all three appealed “to religious foundations” and used “mass media to persuade a national audience of their truth,” in order “for the foundation to serve as a kind of religious dogma, a salutary restraint on popular sovereignty.” (160) Furthermore, “All three disputed American exceptionalism…[but] all three found a special purpose for the nation. Sheen saw America as the arsenal and pantry of democracy, whose leadership on religious freedom was its true calling. King saw America as a leader in the liberation of people of color from the remnants of colonialism and slavery. Falwell saw America as the last, great hope for world evangelization before the End Times began.” (161)

What all three men risked, however, was the politicization of the Church. None of these men embraced quietism and believed that Christianity, especially, had a place in the public sphere. But the line between a patriotic and prophetic Church and an ersatz political religion is a line too easily crossed in American history. In recent decades, many Churches have failed to maintain this difficult but immensely important balance. As Patterson observes:

The evidence suggests that declining religiosity correlates with poor religious education, but poor religious education begins with the departure of Americans from politicized churches. Scholars have confirmed observations Tocqueville made almost one hundred and eighty years ago: when religious authorities seek direct political influence, congregations split and decline. Therefore, for religious foundations to remain authoritative requires religious institutions to remove themselves from direct political activity. (163)

While political apathy is as problematic as politicization, the tendency is not at all confined to the American political and religious right. Religious progressives are as easily caught up with enthusiasm for particular candidates and causes, though with less electoral weight and often more at the expense of their Church’s membership.

The Church – left, right, and everywhere in-between – fails liberalism when the Church fails to be true to its own teachings and traditions and is instead co-opted and corrupted by the politics it must nevertheless remain attuned to. To be sure, the Church’s ultimate purpose is not to preserve political liberalism or any other political or economic tradition, as such. Christians must give primacy to the Gospel, the Kingdom of God, and the reconciliation of all people and things to Christ. But they may also provide a critical, culture “infrastructure,” by which a people understands itself. Christianity, and religion generally, also provides a basis for critiquing the dominant tradition and buttressing what is good within it.

Patterson’s book is a call to “keep first things first,” as it were, while also providing imperfect but immensely compelling examples of Christians engaging in the public sphere without consistently being coopted by it. A reader of Voegelin, however, may initially be uneasy with Patterson’s reference to dogma. Voegelin equated dogma and doctrine and was careful to emphasize that such formulations, when too far removed from their engendering experiences, can become deformed representations of a “secondary reality” less faithful to the mystery of existence and truth. This is, in part, why Falwell’s American dispensation inspired such backlash. His uneasy marriage of the “moral majority” with the Republican Party unintentionally confused rising generations who came to view Christianity more as a political platform than as a comprehensive, historical differentiation of reality that must nevertheless remain somewhat mysterious. Closed off to this mystery, the Christian faith becomes one opinion among many and lacks the authority to speak in the public sphere with anything resembling authority. As Voegelin writes:

It is the guilt of Christian thinkers and church leaders of having allowed the dogma to separate in the public consciousness of Western civilization from the experience of ‘the mystery’ on which its truth depends. The dogma develops as a socially and culturally necessary protection of insights experientially gained against false propositions; its development is secondary to the truth of experience. If its truth is pretended to be autonomous, its validity will come under attack in any situation of social crisis, when alienation becomes a mass phenomenon; the dogma will then be misunderstood as an ‘opinion’ which one can believe or not, and it will be opposed by counter opinions which dogmatize the experience of alienated existence. (“Response to Professor Altizer,” 1975, Collected Works, Vol. 12 p. 295)

Were Patterson to simply argue that the Church’s role was to champion or attack the liberal tradition, then he would be guilty of the dogmatic reification currently undermining Christianity’s role in the public sphere. The alternative, however, is shown in the example of Sheen, King and, I would add, Billy Graham, who consistently, if imperfectly, rooted dogma in their experience as Christians and Americans. They recognized that religion’s role in the public sphere is cultivate the kind of individuals and communities which sustain the good, the true, and the beautiful while resisting ideological disorder and deformation that threatens an increasingly fragile America.

As Tocqueville observed, American liberal democracy was sustained, often unconsciously, both by a common experience and by the interpretation of that experience in a common religious language and culture. Once the public sphere affords less space for religious voices, or when those religions fail to maintain a kind of “prophetic distance” from partisan warfare, there remains a crucial void in the political culture. Such a void risks being filled by the totalitarian and ideological deformations Voegelin, Sheen and many others once resisted. In the absence of similar leaders, or when their voices are drowned out by “Twitter mobs” and superficial “virtue signaling,” one wonders if the lack of a common experience and dogma renders even Deneen’s diagnosis of our present crisis, too optimistic.

Joshua BowmanJoshua Bowman

Joshua Bowman

Joshua Bowman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Ohio. He is author of Imagination and Environmental Political Thought: The Aftermath of Thoreau (Lexington Books, 2018) excerpted here on VoegelinView. He recently began a blog on his personal website,

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