Where Does Religion Belong?

Many of the leading issues in our country today have a significant moral or ethical element to them that invariably introduces a religious perspective into the conversation:  Gay marriage, abortion, and the death penalty all are heavily influenced by religious perspective in their public debate.  Even issues that are not so directly linked to basic freedoms can have religious elements to their debate–welfare, health care, and fiscal policy issues have all seen either overt religious reasoning applied to them, or more subtle attempts to sway the argument by appealing to moral and ethical factors formed by religious beliefs.

Several responses to “The Post That May Just Offend Everybody | My Thoughts on the Gay Marriage Issue” included a common theme that the respondent was perfectly willing to tolerate another person’s religious beliefs, so long as that person kept their beliefs private, and did not bring them into the public square.  I submit to you that this is an impossible, and I will go so far to even claim intolerant request.

I am too far removed from my undergrad days to recall the precise linear relationship of values, morals, ethics, beliefs, etc, but I do know that all of those have some root in each individual’s religious beliefs (even if those beliefs are to discount or even deny religion).  To ask a person to participate in the public square without applying their religious beliefs to their involvement seems to me to be akin to asking an accountant to do his job without applying arithmetic.  He can’t fathom doing it, and in reality all of the higher level governing elements of accounting are all foundational to the basic precept that 1+1=2, every time  (I’m sure this analogy has a hole in it somewhere in the fundamental differences between arithmetic and religion, but suffer me the comparison for the sake of discussion).

Where does this idea that people should leave their religious beliefs at home when participating in society (or at least in public debate of societal or governmental issues) come from?  I’ve done a little reading, and there’s no simple answer, but I submit that most in the US today will point back to the First Amendment religion clause and the “wall of separation between church and state” concept first described by Thomas Jefferson.  I think the important distinction that may be getting lost over time is that the intent of our founding fathers, and even Jefferson in his letter first describing the “wall of separation” was to avoid the government establishment of, or preferential treatment to, any particular religion.

Os Guinness has written a phenomenal book that addresses this topic and the context which raised it, called The Case for Civility, And Why Our Future Depends on It.  I won’t attempt to cover all the key points in this book that pertain to this topic, as I’d almost be recreating the book.  Guinness gives name to two concepts that are relevant to this conversation:  the “Sacred Public Square” and the “Naked Public Square.”  The “Sacred Public Square” refers to the idea that government should establish a particular religion as preferred–that very concept that our founding fathers sought to, and succeeded in prohibiting.*  The “Naked Public Square” refers to the idea that public interaction should exclude any consideration of religious thinking or beliefs.

I do not advocate in any way for the concept of the “Sacred Public Square.”  Without spending a lot of time here, I cannot submit to a government that forces me to ascribe to a faith system different from my own, so by that precept, I could only accept living in a Christian theocracy.  The problem with that is that so long as we remain a democratic nation (which I am strongly in favor, of, and dedicated much of my adult life to ensuring), I run the risk of some other religious system assuming control and running the government according to their religious principles.  Therefore, it is best for me (and I submit, for people of all faiths) to oppose the government establishment of any religion.

I also  can’t advocate for the “Naked Public Square.”  In the US today, this desire for a “Naked Public Square” has manifested itself primarily in the desire to exclude Christian beliefs, as, let’s face it, that is the primary religious belief system in play in our nation today, although the attempt to exclude Muslim beliefs is rising, primarily in more conservative circles.  No one talks too much about systematically excluding Hindu or naturalist thought, because given their relative representation in the US, they aren’t a real threat to attempt to influence our lives today.   In its most extreme, calls for the “Naked Public Square” include voices such as Sam Harris, who in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason states “We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene.”  I don’t believe for a minute that most Americans ascribe to the extremes advocated by Harris, but extreme voices like his dominate his side of the argument, much as extreme voices from the right tend to dominate the argument of the opposite side.

Part of the reason that the extreme voice dominates the religious side of the argument in America today is that many Christians have believed the “Naked Square’s” basic assertion that we should keep our religious beliefs in our churches and homes, but we shouldn’t take them out in public.  For much of the twentieth century Christians dutifully (or timidly) avoided displaying our religious beliefs in the public square, in what I believe was a well-intentioned attempt to allow for pluralism and diversity.  However, in the process we removed a reasonable Christian voice from the stage of public life.  I am borrowing Guinness’s distinction here to try to demonstrate that there is a difference between the “public square” where we collectively go about the business of establishing the rules of how society lives together, and “public life,” where individuals go about their lives interacting with others under those rules.  In other words, I interpret the distinction this way:  The public square is the structures where we as a society interact (government, the marketplace, etc); public life is how the individual interacts in the public square.   Guinness states that “There is a broad overlap, with no exact boundaries, between the public square and public life.”  Nonetheless, there is an important distinction that has been lost, and in an effort to avoid a “Sacred Public Square,” Christians (often at the encouragement of non-Christians) have withdrawn our voice not only from the public square, but from public life.

An unfortunate byproduct of the absence of a broad, moderate Christian voice in public life was that we allowed beliefs contrary to Christian beliefs to roam the public square unchallenged.  The absence of checks and balances permitted the growth and normalization of beliefs that contrasted with Christianity, and while moderate Christians became increasingly uncomfortable, the more extreme voices spoke up, and started trying to “reclaim” the public square.  The problem is, in my eyes, that the voices that are dominating the counterpoint are often too strident, and more importantly, they are approaching the problem not by participating in the public square in a way in which their beliefs influence the square, but instead they are trying to control the public square by legislating Christian beliefs.

I don’t think I must leave my Christian beliefs at home when I come to the public square in order to influence the governing of our society, and the functioning of our economy, any more than I believe I can tell a Muslim to leave his beliefs at home.  Where either of us go wrong is when we attempt to control the public square and enforce our religious beliefs.**

To avoid the risk of trying to re-write Guinness’s book in my own words, I’m going to let him close this post, in his words, in what I assert is an excellent answer for all of us to the question “Where does Religion Belong?”:

“…we should be clear that it is playing with fire to begin to argue in the public square about whether different faiths are true–because of the very seriousness of truth.  Nothing is more precious and potent than truth, but nothing is more dangerous than to debate such argument in the public square…. I am not arguing that faith should be ‘privileged,’ as if it requires kid-gloves discussion for fear of causing offense…. Truth and tough-minded debates about truth are the oxygen of a free society…. The politics of ‘no offense’ is a recipe for cowardice and appeasement.  Atheists [and those of other faiths] have every right to speak out, to argue for, and to attack whatever they choose.  The question for them is whether their arguments are good arguments….

“That said, in wise societies where the link between freedom and civility is respected, the public square is not the wisest place to examine the truth claims of different faiths.  Certainly it can and should be done in the private sphere with no holds barred, and certainly, too, in public life, if done with greater care.  But the public square is the place where the roots of faith are generally best left unspoken, and what is discussed are the results of faith–their implications for public policy and the common life of all citizens. 

“In short, my opening answer… is to call for civility first–to establish a civil public square, within which we may all learn to respect our deepest differences and discuss them robustly but civilly and peacefully–and then in the appropriate setting, human being to human being, to explore the reasons for why we believe and all that it means [with respect to public policy and the common life of all citizens that he refers to previously].”  –(Bold and underlined emphases are mine, italics are the original author’s; bracketed comments are mine)

My religious beliefs are my source of truth–they’re part of who I am.  Your source of truth, whatever it might be, is essential to who you are.  You can’t leave it out of living your life, even if you wanted to.  To say that you do is intellectually dishonest.   Bring your truth; let the implications of our varying understandings of truth influence our discussion as human beings over “public policy and the common life of all citizens.”  Beyond that, in the boundaries of civil society, let’s debate our differing sources of truth (not in the public square, but here and in other places of public life) to test our beliefs of truth, and to understand the beliefs of others.  Understanding those beliefs, whether or not we choose to ascribe accuracy to them, is crucial to our effectiveness in maintaining civil society.

 

*I acknowledge that our founding fathers were essentially writing to preclude establishment of a particular Christian denomination, and that they themselves were predominantly Christians, or at least aligned with Christian theology, rather than Islam, Hinduism, or some other naturalist theology.  That said, I do not want to debate whether or not the US was established as a “Christian nation.”  Most considerate people should be able to acknowledge that the religious practices of our nation’s original citizens were predominantly Christian, and that the national government was built on a foundation of “Christian” ethics (not that they are exclusively Christian, but their origins are from the Christian faith–because that’s where our founders derived their ethics). 

To my Christian brethren who want to insist on a foundation as a Christian nation that we must somehow return to, complete with government-sanctioned public prayer and religious observances, I strongly encourage you to  consider the fact that we are a very pluralistic society, and that it’s not unreasonable to think that although those prayers and observances might be focused on the Christian God today, they may one day soon be oriented toward a god that Christians would NOT want to pray to or publicly recognize.  More on that thought in my post “Hawaii Senate ends daily prayer in chamber.”

**This distinction is vital, and yet I’m not sure if I made it clearly.  My values will always effect my interaction in the public square, and in public life, by definition of the word values.  If I believe something is wrong I have every right to advocate vociferously against it, within the bounds of the rules of the public square, just as my Muslim brother does.  But my argument should not prevail solely because it is Christian, and it shouldn’t impose Christian practices upon others.  It’s when influence becomes control that we have crossed the line into the “Sacred Public Square.”

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