The Public Square of Worship

As we stand at the cusp of another Election Day, let’s return to the concept we developed a few weeks ago regarding politics and worship. I have spent the past few months slowly reading through Jonathan Leeman’s large Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Ruleand hope to pull out some helpful gems from it as November draws closer. 

Let’s imagine a cul de sac with five homes. One family who lives there are Muslim, another Jewish, another Wiccan, another Roman Catholic, and finally one which has no religious affiliation at all. Now, let’s say that this diverse collection of families keeps running into some problems. The Muslim family is uncomfortable with the alcohol that was served at the last block party. The Jewish family dislikes the Christmas decorations of the Roman Catholic neighbors, and the Roman Catholics are horrified at the Wiccan household’s insistence on burning incense on the street to ward off evil spirits. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholics keep attempting to get all of their neighbors to sign political referendums on abortion and marriage. Pretty soon, the neighbors begin bickering and arguing.

Eventually, the household with no religious dog in the fight steps in to the fray and suggests that the best way to keep the peace would be to keep our religious convictions inside our homes. Since we can’t all agree on religion, let’s not bring religion into the public. Let’s focus instead on what we do agree on.

Let’s call this the “coexist” perspective of pluralism, the dominant perspective on religious freedom today in the West. The immediate benefit of such a perspective is that it appears to remove the opportunities for conflict that had been flaring up. If the Roman Catholic family wants to hold a public prayer vigil in the street–nope! If the Wiccan family wants to hold a tarot card reading for the neighborhood–nope! It limits the families in the cul de sac to only  participate publicly in events, activities, etc. that all families would agree on, regardless of their religious differences.

There must be, in the words of liberal political philosopher John Rawls, an “overlapping consensus,” shared by the various households. So, perhaps the five households cannot agree with what is sinful or if “sin” even exists, but they can all agree that their garbage cans shouldn’t be overflowing, that you shouldn’t block a neighbor’s driveway, or that if someone gives you a casserole, you should return the pan.

This is a rough sketch of how we tend to view the “separation of church and state” or the division between the private world of religion and the public square of work and politics. The analogy, however, eventually breaks down, since there is no mechanism of actual governmental authority in the cul de sac, but it roughly illustrates the political ideal represented by formidable thinkers like John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and John Rawls. 

For a long time in Western history, the religious differences between Deists, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics didn’t lead to great societal upheaval because there was a widely shared ethical worldview; most people agreed on “right” and “wrong”. So the first amendment of the Constitution in America (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) works because the moral framework of Americans in the 18th century–of whatever religion–was largely shared.

But what happens when we no longer share the same moral framework? When the “overlapping consensus” begins to shrink? The answer appears to lie in what the religiously unaffiliated household suggests to his neighbors: let’s keep religion private, and out of the public square.

But let me briefly lay out a couple of problems with this view:

  1. This misunderstands how religion works.
    Religion is not a compartment that can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of life. One’s religious convictions are not like one’s support of a sports team or a hobby. If your love of the 49’ers is causing tension in the workplace with a coworker who is a Seahawks fan, your boss can tell you to check your football fandom at the door. But the same cannot be done with religion. Religion is more expansive and authoritative than this. It isn’t a room in the house of your life, it is the foundation the entire home is built on. 

    Religion deals with the biggest questions of life: What is ultimate reality? What is true? How should we live? Who are we? Where are we going? How we answer those questions are not only unavoidable in the public square, they are necessary when we come to our public life of work and politics and neighboring. 
  2. This doesn’t actually grant religious freedom, but constraint.
    If the families in our cul de sac are limited to only making decisions that have no religious basis at all, this actually constrains these families from practicing their religion. Let’s say that the month of June rolls around and the religiously unaffiliated home and the Wiccan home want to sponsor a Pride month parade put on by their neighborhood. The Jewish, Muslim, and Roman Catholic homes explain that they don’t want this to take place. When pressed why, they express their belief that the LGBT lifestyle is sinful and shouldn’t be glorified. They don’t want to use their street or have their name associated with something that violates their conscience. 

    But, if they agreed that they wouldn’t bring religion into the “public square” of their neighborhood, then these protests will be “out of bounds.” We agreed, the other two homes might say, we wouldn’t bring our faith into discussions. What are the other homes to do? They are constrained to only make arguments that are religiously neutral.
  3. This unfairly favors the gods of secularism.
    Jonathan Leeman explains: “Imagine an airport security metal detector standing at the entrance of the public square, which doesn’t screen for metal but for religion. The machine beeps anytime someone walks through it with a supernatural big-G God hiding inside of one of their convictions, but it fails to pick up self-manufactured or socially constructed little-g gods. Into this public square the secularist, the materialist, the Darwinist, the consumerist, the elitist, the chauvinist, and, frankly, the fascist can all enter carrying their gods with them, like whittled wooden figures in their pockets. Not so the Christians or Jews…What this means, of course, is that the public square is inevitably slanted toward the secularist and materialist. Public conversation is ideologically rigged. The secularist can bring his or her god. I cannot bring mine because his name starts with a capital letter and I didn’t make him up.” (Political Church, p. 14)

    So, in the debate over the Pride parade in the cul de sac, the religiously unaffiliated household assumes that it is not making a religious argument in wanting to hold the celebration. They are not appealing to any religious text, creeds, or churches for support. Yet, they are making an unequivocal statement about morality, truth, and therefore about what human beings are through what they are praising. In other words, they are making a religious argument; they are just doing so with the little-g gods of our day. But they can claim they are neutral while delegitimizing the religious arguments of their neighbors.

Every belief system–even agnosticism–carries with it a moral framework, and that moral framework is always going to show up in the public square. The question is not whether we should legislate our morality, but whose morality we should legislate. Our aim shouldn’t be to rid the public square of religious arguments. That isn’t possible. Rather, our aim as Christians should be to obey King Jesus in every facet of life–public and private. This means that in the public square, we shouldn’t blush at using our distinctly Christian moral framework as we evaluate laws, pundits, and candidates. Jesus is the King of all kings, the One to whom all the princes of the earth owe their allegiance. So we ought not tremble when employing the King’s standards of justice and righteousness in the public square.

But does that mean that we should create laws that impose Christianity on non-Christians? Should we attempt to govern states the way we govern the Church? In my next email I will answer that with an emphatic “No.” 

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