Faith in a Pluralistic Public Square
When we look at the public square from a faith perspective (which I'm doing in a forthcoming book), it is important that we keep in mind the diversity present there. I doubt Jefferson or Madison ever imagined the extent of religious diversity that marks modern America, though I believe that given their personalities, they would have welcomed these changes. Religious diversity, however, for them largely meant differences within a predominantly Protestant nation, with a few free thinkers, Quakers, Jews, and Catholics might be thrown into the mix. Today our cultural and religious differences are so striking that it seems as if our nation could fracture, though despite the vocal minority that stirs the pot, most Americans have not only made peace with this diversity, but welcome it. In this pluralistic climate it might seem best to keep our religious opinions to ourselves, lest we offend our neighbor, but is this the best way forward?
In spite of the obstacles, pluralism is good for our nation and for American religious life. My encounters with other religious faiths have not just challenged my faith; they have invigorated and enlightened my faith. I have also become more sensitive to the beliefs and practices of my neighbors. My faith may influence my public views and actions, but I recognize that there are other religious beliefs and practices living in our communities. It is appropriate, therefore, to raise questions about the suitability of school-sponsored prayers, prayers at city council meetings, crèches on public property, and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, because the appearance of public support for one particular religious tradition can be coercive and marginalizing to those who do not share the beliefs of the majority.
I am a Protestant Christian, and though I do not believe Christians should hide their faith or act contrary to their faith, Christians need to remember that as fragmented as our voices may be, they remain powerful in the public square. Prayers in school and at council meetings may seem innocuous, but do we allow for diverse voices to be heard? At the same time, do our morals suffer from the absence of prayer, the Ten Commandments or even a pledge of allegiance that does not include “under God”? I do not think so, because my faith is nurtured by my church, not my government.
Religious voices are at their best when they are prophetic and free from government influence. Martin Luther King challenged white America’s racism, and his faith empowered his voice. The wall of separation is a necessary protection for both religion and state, but it should not exclude the religious voice from the public square. At the same time, we must protect everyone’s right to practice or not practice their chosen faith without repercussions. A person’s religion should not exclude them from public service, but, if we are to live together in peace, we must respect, tolerate, and be civil to those whose beliefs and practices differ from our own. I will continue living a public faith in the public square, but my focus will be on the common good of all our citizens, whether religious or not.
Although religion is personal, that doesn’t make it private. If we hold our faith traditions to be true and valuable, then surely they should influence the way we live our lives in public. Shouldn’t they guide our moral and ethical decisions? That is, of course, assuming that our faith traditions uphold justice, mercy, and the common good. But, if faith is to be present in the public square, then we must have a serious conversation about the form that this presence should take, especially in the context of a nation that is increasingly diverse and pluralist in its ethnic and religious make up (see Putnam and Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us for a detailed explanation of this reality).