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.


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

Remembering Richard John Neuhaus

Remembering Richard John Neuhaus

By Bruce R. Ashford and David P. Nelson

On January 8, 2009 Richard John Neuhaus passed from this life to the next. Neuhaus was pastor, author, commentator, and served as Editor in Chief of First Things, a journal of religion and public life. Given his deep influence on our lives and work, we want to present this as something of an “in memoriam.”Perhaps it is surprising to some that Southern Baptists would appreciate someone who is a Roman Catholic. By appreciating Neuhaus we are not endorsing various theological positions he held about which it is obvious we would disagree. We are, rather, appreciating the man and reflecting on the enormous influence he had on our lives.

We were in the midst of teaching a PhD seminar together on the morning of January 8 when the news arrived that Richard John Neuhaus had not survived the infection that caused him to be hospitalized shortly after Christmas. In the days and weeks since we have experienced a truly deep sadness about this loss. We did not know Neuhaus well; we were only acquaintances. He has had, nevertheless, an enormous influence on both of us. It is not an overstatement to say that he is among the greatest influences on our lives and thought, particularly in issues at the intersection of ethics, culture, and public life.

We were introduced to the work of Neuhaus by our doctoral mentor, Paige Patterson. We were both told by Dr. Patterson of the significance of reading First Things, and the sheer enjoyment of reading “While We’re At It”, Neuhaus’s musings about all manner of things, in each edition of that journal. We have both read that journal and other works of Neuhaus ever since, in a way that could perhaps be called “ritually”

We first met Neuhaus in the winter of 2006. We had recently been awarded a grant by Yale University for the development of work on the intersection of faith and culture and were wrestling with the beginnings of an idea for a faith and culture center (that idea has developed with the support of our President, Danny Akin, into what is now the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at SEBTS). As we considered this venture, we thought a conversation with Richard John Neuhaus about such a center would be not only helpful but would also be a delight. So, we penned a letter to him, imagining it unlikely that he would have time for us. In rather short order we received a reply from Neuhaus that he would be willing to meet with us if we could travel to his office in New York City for an afternoon meeting.

We arrived at his office in the aftermath of a substantial snowstorm in Manhattan for what was scheduled to be a two hour conversation. That meeting, which lasted about three hours, was something we will never forget. It wasn’t simply the stimulating exchange of ideas and the advice from Neuhaus (which still marks the shape and function of the Bush Center), but the demonstration of charity and friendship by Neuhaus toward us. As we left that day, we discussed many things, but one lasting impression upon us was that we wanted our lives to be marked by the same charity, kindness, and servanthood toward others that Neuhaus showed to us.

We met Neuhaus on only one other occasion, when he journeyed to Wake Forest to speak for us at a collegiate conference on the Southeastern campus. His depth of thought, his wit, and his (once again) charitable spirit, marked that occasion. David will never forget a conversation over dinner that ranged from presidential politics to Christian liturgy and quite a few things in between.

While our personal time with Neuhaus was minimal, over the years we have spent time with him on a monthly basis through his written work. Whether through a book he edited or authored or, more frequently, with First Things, we were thinking with Neuhaus about a variety of issues on a regular basis. We often tell our students that one of our favorite times each month is that occasion when we brew some coffee and sit down in a quiet place to digest “While We’re At It.” Frankly, our lives will be impoverished without that experience.

So, in what ways are two Southern Baptists so influenced by Richard John Neuhaus? There is so much we could say, but we have narrowed our thoughts to a few of the chief influences Neuhaus has had upon us. We hope this will serve to honor Neuhaus in a manner that is fitting, and we pray that others may find such an influence somewhere in their own lives.

One of the influences Neuhaus has had upon us is the model he provided as a man who had read widely about, thought theologically about, and could speak eloquently about a wide array of issues. Few things seemed beyond his grasp-he spoke with perception and wisdom about virtually everything. He spoke easily, and with substance, about philosophy, the arts, the sciences, politics, and nearly anything else that is an issue of public life.

Neuhaus also showed us how to reason from the Scriptures and to reason scripturally from God’s world. He “stood in the public square” and reasoned from the Scriptures. He quoted the Scriptures in support of, or against, some particular issue (i.e. homosexual marriage or abortion). But other times he reasoned scripturally from God’s world, not quoting Scripture passages per se, but rather speaking reasonably from the depths of a Christian theistic worldview.

We of course have to mention the wit of Neuhaus. He wielded his sharpest wit, it seems, either on those who openly mocked God or on theological liberals who sought to remake the faith in their own image. At the expense of the liberal theologians and churches, he had a heyday. The WCC, he thought “seems to have a bottomless source of last gasps.” Of the Anglican Communion, “the Anglican communion will at last achieve a one-to-one ratio between clergy and laity. And while that might provide opportunities for pastoral care of unprecedented intensity….” Of the ELCA, “The ELCA Lutherans met in August, if not august.” Of the United Church of Canada, “The UCC is prepared to die for the principle that nothing is worth fighting for. And it is.”

Of the NCC, he pointed out that Billy Graham had urged people to pray for the NCC, but that “for Catholics, who also pray for the dead, the urgency is not so great.” Of Bishop Spong, he remarked “He is a religious phenomenon of our time and his retirement should not go unremarked. In person and in his writings, he is a man of breathtaking intellectual and spiritual vulgarity. His towering self-approval, clearly intended to intimidate, only astonishes.” Of the Lilly Endowment, he commented that it was an organization committed to bringing together people from liberal churches “that have generally experienced in the intervening years whatever is the opposite of renewal.”

But on the whole, Neuhaus is not defined by his wit or by what or who he was against. He is better defined by his striving for what the apostle Paul referred to as “a more excellent way.” He believed deeply and fleshed out the implications of his belief in all dimensions of public life and culture. Although he did indeed give a good skewering to those whom he thought deserved it-usually God mockers, theological liberals, or mean-spirited Christians-for the most part his writing was marked by serious minded reflection on the important issues in life, by an attempt to state the implications of the Christian worldview, and in a way that was winsome and persuasive, in a manner consistent with “a more excellent way.”

Father Neuhaus was one of God’s gifts to the world. We are all richer because of his life and his work. We will miss our monthly coffee with Neuhaus over “While We’re At It.”” But fond memories we will keep, and his influence will remain with us. And we are better people, yes, better Christians for the life that was Richard John Neuhaus.

May the Lord hasten the day when the Southern Baptist Convention is capable of producing scores of young men and women who can speak publicly to the big issues of the day (whether they be in nature ethical, political, scientific, or artistic), even in some small measure like Neuhaus taught us, in a way that is well-reasoned, articulate, and persuasive, for the glory of online game car