Faith in the Public Square -- Four Manifestations

People of faith have long wrestled with the place of faith in the public square.  At times religious groups have sought to dominate or control the public square.  At other times, they have allowed the state/nation to dominate and control the faith community.  Others have sought to distance themselves from the public square -- with the Amish being the most distinct example of this.  There was a time, a half century ago or more that mainline Protestantism played a significant role in the public square while evangelicals largely stepped away.  In the past three decades the roles have reversed.

The question that is being raised at this time in a number of sectors has to do with whether faith should engage the public square and if so, how should this engagement occur.  I have found Mark Toulouse's book God in Public:  Four Ways American Christian and Public Life Relate (WJK Press, 2006), to be very helpful in this matter.  Mark has a good sense of the relationship between religion and the public square (that was the focus of his own doctoral studies).   

In this book, Mark focuses on the past fifty years, a period in which the nation has moved from homogeneity (at least on a regional level) to much great diversity.  We are now seeing how this plays out, as folks battle it out as to who will control America's identity.  Focusing on those who would want to see faith engage with the public square, Mark lays out four options -- not all of which views in a positive vein:   Iconic Faith, Priestly Faith, the Public Christian, and the Public Church.  Let me lay out these four styles of engagement and invite your thoughts.

  • Iconic Faith
Iconic Faith is an expression of civil religion in which either religious symbols become nationalized or national symbols take on a sacred hue.  Thus, a religious symbols, such as the Bible, takes on a nationalistic identity.  This can be seen in the way in which the Bible is used in ceremonies such as the swearing in of a President or other official -- or as the "guarantor of truth" when taking oaths in court.  On the other side of things, icons such as flags take on venerated status.  Thus to burn a flag is to desecrate it.   In this kind of engagement the church is rather passive.  It simply allows its symbols to be used for state purposes.  Of course, sometimes this becomes tricky, such as when a Muslim takes the oath on the Koran -- in contravention to tradition that privileges Christian icons.

  • Priestly Faith
The idea of a priestly faith is expressed most clearly in the ideology of America as a Christian nation.  In this way of seeing things, America is the vehicle for God's work in the World.  We are, as a nation, a chosen people, a special people, with a special calling.  The church, therefore, is called upon to be the nation's priests.  They give moral support to the state or the nation.  America's interests and causes take on the aura of divine missions.  It is expressed in ideology such as American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny.  Of course, if one is not part of the majority religion, then one is looked at with a certain degree of suspicion.  People of other faiths will be tolerated, but they will not be allowed to contribute to the nation's identity.   

  • Public Christian (Public Person of Faith)

A third style of engagement is that of the Public Christian.  It is a sentiment that has a long pedigree. It's rooted Augustine’s “two cities” and Luther’s “two kingdoms.” In this style, the church remains an entity separate from the public sphere.  One realm is spiritual and the other is earthly.  Christians are encouraged to engage the public square and bring their faith perspectives into the conversation, but the church should remain separate from public debates.  It is a spiritual entity not an earthly one.  The church may lift up issues and cultivate a sense of social justice in the individual, but the church itself will not engage in public action. 
  • Public Church
In this style, the church itself steps into the arena.  It not only nurtures and cultivates people of faith who engage the public square, but it takes up the issues of the day.  It becomes an advocate for social justice.   The Public Church model finds its roots in Calvin’s belief that all human life stands under the Kingdom of God and Ritschl’s “Ethical Imperative.” It undergirded the Social Gospel Movement (Walter Rauschenbusch) and Civil Rights Movements (Martin Luther King, Jr.).  The danger is knowing where to draw the line between the church's activism and the possibility of becoming a tool of party or nation.  That is, there is the possibility that the church can fall into the trap sprung by advocates of “Priestly Faith.”   The way in which one avoids this possibility involves great humility and great discernment.  It requires that we neither absolutize our faith or our nation.  

With Mark I'm drawn to the Public Church ideal.  But I also know its difficult to create, especially since most churches (at least Mainline churches) are not of one mind politically.  There are many dangers to be avoided, and for this conversation to be fruitful then neither church nor party should ever feel beholden to the other.  As Arthur and I put it the articles that we've written for Congregations and for CCAR Journal (forthcoming), "Clergy must not take on the role of kingmaker or inappropriately use their influence to dictate policy."

I believe that the gospel includes a call to engage social justice within it.  I believe that our missional activity should lead to transformation not only of individual lives, but of society itself.  But how does this take place?  How do we engage society without becoming tools of either state or party?  These are the questions of the day!


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