the empty public square

If there was one word to describe 2020 it would be “empty.” Empty schools. Empty houses of worship. Empty arenas. Empty streets. Empty restaurants. Empty proms and graduations. Empty beaches. Factories without workers. Funerals without mourners. Weddings without revelers. Grandparents without grandkids. Teachers without students. Doctors without patients. Even stores marginally filled with people are also filled with eerie silence. Neighbors and friends afraid to talk. Strangers afraid to lend a helping hand.


Years ago, Richard John Neuhaus lamented what he called “the naked public square.” The naked public square was a description of secular democracies who had banished all religious thought from public life. Citizens instead were required to enter into public life stripped of any religious commitments in favor of a bland secularism. Neuhaus pointed out that naked public squares are not as naked as they seem since secularism is its own, competing religious commitment.

Neuhaus’ warnings are still relevant. The public square remains “naked.” But the public square is also now empty – both literally and figuratively. One of the best books I’ve read on politics and culture is Yuval Levin’s book “The Fractured Republic.” One of Levin’s critical insights is that healthy societies require healthy mediating institutions. Public life consists of three different entities: the State, the individual, and mediating institutions. Mediating institutions are everything from schools, to churches, to local businesses, to sports franchises. The most important mediating institution in healthy societies is the nuclear family. Mediating institutions serve a critical role in the lives of individuals. They provide structure for life. They provide meaning. They provide love and care. They help to orient us in confusing times. And they provide a defensive buffer between the individual and the state.

Totalitarian regimes are always noteworthy for attacking mediating institutions before they attack individuals. They take over business. They close civic organizations. They remove local governance of schools. In some countries, they may even close churches and separate families. It is all a calculated move to create an atomized society consisting of only individuals and the State. It is the State alone that can provide meaning, structure, and care. Other mediating institutions need to get out of the way and let the State do its job.

Our mediating institutions were struggling and crumbling long before this crisis began, but this crisis has put a dizzying number of mediating institutions into Intensive Care. Thousands will not survive. We are now the atomized society of the empty public square. Churches? Closed until the government says they can open. Schools? Closed until the government says they can open. Factories, restaurants, sports leagues, civic life? Closed until further notice. We now “shelter in place” with only our families – but even family has been undermined. You better not visit grandma and grandpa! Cousins? Out of the question. It is now just the individual and the State operating in an empty public square. We’ve all observed the rising, fevered pitch of individuals – both on the right but especially on the left – crying out for the State to save us. Any institution like a church who dare raise a voice of question or protest is shouted down. “It’s for the public good. Go home. Sit on the couch. The government will save us.”

“Never mind your civil liberties. We are in crisis! I can’t believe you are even questioning the government.”

I’ve never been a libertarian. I think just and transparent, representational governments are critically important for a flourishing society. But I also believe that a government operating in an empty public square free from mediating institutions can also be a terrifying thing for individuals.

This is probably going to be a popular post for some of you. This will likely be unpopular to others who want to straw man my position. I’m of course not claiming that shelter in place is unnecessary. Just ask my teenage kids what my position is on shelter in place. I simply believe that good citizens and good mediating institutions must ask hard questions of their government. The minute we are told to “shut up and comply” is the moment that tyranny begins.

When you go to the hospital for some disease, medical personnel are obviously concerns about treating that disease, but they are also mindful of secondary infections. These are infections that might be caused by the primary infection, or, in some cases, might be caused by the treatment to the primary infection. I’m increasingly concerned about secondary infections. Obviously, the primary concern of the virus remains critical, but I fear that months from now, it may be too late to sound the alarm on secondary infections that are being caused by our treatment of the virus.





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