Briefly Noted: On Rowan Williams, Christianity, and the Public Square

Things have gone badly enough lately for Archbishop Rowan Williams that he might want to wear his mitre sideways (as a rally cap). Or so say the commentators, who blame Williams for the Church of England’s failure recently to approve female bishops.  During times like this, when the church’s stance on an issue conflicts with the broader society, television commentators and political pundits bloviate endlessly about how Christians should not bring their religious beliefs into public discussion.

Such bloviations are precisely the target of Rowan Williams’ recent book—Faith in the Public Square—which Roger Trigg reviews in a recent edition of The Times Literary Supplement (Nov 30, 2012). Williams’ book is an intriguing collection of lectures given to various audiences, some of which were religious, some of which were not. The thread tying those lectures together is the issue of religious faith and public discourse.

In the Western world, one set of voices say that religion is an entirely private endeavor. It should be kept in the closet and not brought out when company is present. “One solution to all this,” writes Trigg, “is that religion be seen as a private pursuit, and the result of individual choice. It should not attempt to engage in public, reasoned debate, let alone suggest it has any reason on its side.”

Williams, however, is not among those voices. Although Williams does envision a secular society, he envisions one in which religious adherents come to the public square with the full wealth of their religious conviction. “Williams,” writes Trigg, “distinguishes between what he terms a ‘procedural’ secularism, of which he seems to approve, and a ‘programmatic’ secularism of which he does not. Procedural secularism, he says, as a characteristic of the public domain, means that there is no legal privilege for any specific religious position, but does not imply that such positions are simply private convictions. He fervently argues for the right of ‘larger commitments and visions’ to contribute to the public debate and provide much-needed moral energy.” Williams’ ‘procedural secularism’ allows for a sort of interactive pluralism in which various communities of discourse (religious or non-religious) interact between themselves, and between them and the government. His secularism works precisely because it does not illegitimize religious voices in political debate.

By way of response, I’ll note that Williams’ book speaks to two discussions which are very significant for Christians living in the 21st century USA: (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 relation to the first discussion, we should note three models for interaction in the public square. The first model is John Rawls’ naked public square. Rawls 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.

Rawls’ model fails, however, because (1) it is not possible to set aside our most deeply ingressed beliefs; (2) Rawls evidences this by holding deeply and religiously to his most ingressed belief, which is democratic liberalism. Indeed, no voice—especially not that of the atheist—is stripped naked of religious belief. All people, including atheists, have deeply held presuppositions or faith commitments and therefore all people, including atheists, are worshipers; (3) this model tends to muffle or stifle appeals to any authority other than the state; in so doing, it robs religious believers of the very religious convictions that allow them to hold the state in check when the state becomes tyrannical; and (4) this models “shuts up” the various religions and in so doing allows all of them—both good and bad—to lurk beneath the surface unchallenged by public discussion and debate.

A 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.

A 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.”

With Neuhaus and Newbigin, we agree that the naked square option is an illusion and a failure. Instead, of coming to the public square “naked,” we may come fully clothed. In relation to Neuhaus’ and Newbigin’s disagreement concerning pluralism and consensus, I say that we should work for political 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 (“thin” discourse), and when to draw more explicitly upon Christian Scripture and doctrine (“thick” discourse).

One more note: when God’s people buy into a “naked public square” model, in which they lay aside their distinctive beliefs during public discussion, they sometimes never pick back up those very beliefs. Political liberalism of the “naked square” sort often leads to theological liberalism  of the “naked sanctuary” sort. A Christian who goes to the public square naked tends to go the sanctuary naked also. When this happens, God’s church becomes little more than a useful weathervane, slavishly following in swan step the dominant social and cultural trends of the time, loyally echoing what society is saying rather than critiquing it.

Instead of forsaking her prophetic calling, therefore, God’s people need to come to the public square “fully clothed,” drawing upon the full wealth of conviction in order to contribute to the common good.

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

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.