Theology & Culture (10): Why The Public Square Matters to God

February 17, 2011 by Bruce Ashford

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Evangelicals have always wanted to “change the world” and it seems American evangelicals have increasingly tried to do so through political action. We want to change the world, I think, because we want this world to reflect more accurately the world that God intended when he created, and to foreshadow more accurately the world that is to come. We know that God created the heavens and earth in a state of shalom or universal flourishing. And we know that shalom was broken when Adam and Eve sinned, such that humans are alienated from God, from each other, from the created order, and even from themselves.

Our alienation from God is at the core of broken shalom. Because we are not at peace with God, we will not be at peace with our fellow humanity, with God’s creation, or even with ourselves. Fellowship with God leads to fellowship in every other sector of society, every dimension of culture, every thread in the fabric of human existence. We are not at peace with each other, and this is made clear by such things as war, murder, rape, slander, embezzlement, selfishness, and greed. We are not at peace with God’s created order, and this is made clear by our utter disregard for his creation and creation’s sometime hostility toward humanity. Finally, we are not even at peace with ourselves, as is evidenced by our feelings of alienation, our restlessness and dissatisfaction, our deep depressions, and other disorders of the psyche. We are fragmented and disordered at the depths of our being.

Because of this broken shalom, the world is not the way it is supposed to be. Our local communities as well as our state, national, and global communities reflect this brokenness. In recognition of this present reality, we want to help “make things right” as a way of reflecting God’s intentions for his creation. We rightly recognize that the public square is a significant place in which to stand and engage our communities in an attempt to order things rightly.

Unfortunately, however, we often rely almost exclusively on either private spirituality or public political coercion, neither of which strategies represent the comprehensive and compelling manners in which Christians can work for the shalom of their multiple communities (local, state, national, and global). Such strategies ignore the way in which we can work through mediating institutions (churches, non-profit organizations, businesses, etc.), formal and informal media outlets (papers, magazines, blogs, TV, etc.), vocations (service industries, business, arts, sciences, education, etc.) and societal connecting points (coffee shops, book clubs, etc.) to work for shalom.

In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, two of our most vigorous discussions centered on (1) religious language and argumentation in the public square, and (2) the failure of a majority “Christian” nation to build a society that reflects their vision for the common good.

In the first discussion, we discussed three models for interaction in the public square. The first model is provided by John Rawls, who argues that we should decide political matters from behind a “veil of ignorance.” He argues against “thick” theories of the good, which would utilize religious, moral, and philosophical arguments in the public square. Rawls wants people to set aside their most deeply ingressed beliefs when arguing for the public good. This model fails, however, because (1) it is not possible to set aside our most deeply ingressed beliefs, and (2) Rawls evidences this by holding deeply and religiously to his most ingressed belief, which is democratic liberalism.

The second model is provided by Richard John Neuhaus, who argued that “naked squares” are not possible. We are always and necessarily making arguments that are “thick” in nature. We come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing. We cannot sever our public selves from our private selves. For this reason, we should come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing, and work for the common good by working for public consensus. Christians have motivation to do so because we believe that Christianity, by its very nature, fosters the common good.

The third model is provided by Lesslie Newbigin, who is more similar to Neuhaus than to Rawls. Newbigin agrees with Neuhaus that naked squares are not possible, but unlike Neuhaus does not think that we should seek public consensus. He argues that we should endorse public pluralism. Newbigin’s context was different from Neuhaus’, in that he was primarily interested in situations in which Christianity is a minority belief, and in which the Christian’s role in society is clearly and obviously one of a “missionary.”

In our seminar we were able to agree that Christians should bring their convictions to the public square. They should work for consensus when possible, but recognize that we increasingly live in a post-Christian context where consensus will not be possible on many issues (in spite of the fact of a law written on the heart). Further, we should practice wisdom in deciding when to draw primarily upon general revelation to provide a compelling case on some matter of public significance, and when to draw more explicitly upon Christian Scripture.

A second discussion revolved around James Davidson Hunter’s argument that Christians are not likely to foster real and enduring change in American society and culture largely because we have relied upon personal evangelism, political action, and micro-level social reform rather than supplementing those things with a focus on being “faithfully present” in the inner circles of the cultural elite. He argues that real and enduring cultural change has always been leveraged by the cultural elite, including especially the early growth of Christianity, the Reformation, and the Awakenings. He writes, “In short, when networks of elites in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose, cultures do change and change profoundly. Persistence over time is essential; little of significance happens in three to five years. But when cultural and symbolic capital overlap with social capital and economic capital, and in time, political capital, and these various resources are directed toward shared ends, the world, indeed, changes.”*Therefore, he argues, Christians should seek “faithful presence” at all levels of society, including our vocations and other spheres of cultural influence.

In our seminar, we concluded that (1) our network of churches has not always placed value on the workplace and the various dimensions of culture, and in particular has not worked hard to foster an environment where our people might find themselves among the cultural influencers in Hollywood, New York, Wall Street, New Haven, or Cambridge. Therefore, we hope to acknowledge the Bible’s robust theology of culture, and its attendant motivating thrust toward culture work and cultural engagement, and work hard to be faithfully present in every sector of society and dimension of culture; and (2) because none of us in the room were postmillenial (we were premillenial and amillenial), we do not expect that our public square work will not usher in Christ’s Kingdom. Instead of ushering in his Kingdom, we are bearing witness to that kingdom and providing a foretaste of that kingdom by bringing Christian love and Christian thought to bear upon the public square.

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*Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford, 2010), 43.

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4 Responses to “Theology & Culture (10): Why The Public Square Matters to God”

  1. Jim Upchurch says:

    Bruce,

    Enjoying all the posts, just haven’t had much to say.

    I agree especially with your last point. Those who hold to premil and amil positions don’t expect that they will “usher in Christ’s Kingdom.” But doesn’t it seem that in terms of “culture change,” some who are confessionally premil or amil are functionally postmil?

  2. Jim,

    Great to hear from you, and thank you for taking the time to read the posts. The short of it is that I think you are precisely correct. Christians of all strips are tempted to be functionally postmillenial. Perhaps that tendency reveals our overestimation of our own abilities and an underestimation of the pervasive consequences of sin?

  3. Steve Schenewerk says:

    Bruce
    Thanks for helping seminary students think through these issues before they get in the field. For the last 30 yrs as pastoring in the Northwest I think Newbingin’s approach is more adequate for the post-Christian, or frankly, totally non-Christian culture in which I live. Rural Oregon is extremely conservative politically but totally illiterate biblically. Though many charismatic and Pentecostal churches boast of large attendance in our area, their members are primarily experience centered believers, with little or no biblical grounding. For all practical purposes they are pragmatists…finding that a relationship with God ‘works’ for them…anyway, wishing I was 30 yrs younger and could start my seminary ed over again!
    Steve

  4. Steve, I tend toward Newbigin’s position also, but have learned quite a bit from Neuhaus. Thanks for taking the time to share your insights which arise from 30 years of ministry. Significant.

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