Wednesday, August 03, 2011

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).

9 comments:

Gary said...

The religious diversity of America is a weakness which produces differences in most other areas. That diversity of opinion and belief has led to a disuniting of the country, which I think cannot be fixed. America is broken and cannot be repaired. The differences between Americans prevent them from being united in any meaningful way.

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

Nice turn of a phrase: "Although religion is personal, that doesn’t make it private." Liberal Christians and liberals in general react negatively to the notion that our faith should inform our politics, I think in large part, because of how conservatives put this into practice. We don't like their application so we dismiss the whole idea. Too bad, because if one has a faith position it can't help but inform our politics. And I think we lose something if we can't publically relate it to our faith.

John said...

Diversity is the fruit of liberty. Not only that, it is one of the safeguards purposely designed into the fabric of the Republic to protect the interests of and the rights of minorities.

The Founders discerned that the greater number of divergent points of view in the Republic, the greater the restraint preventing well organized factions from pursing their political and economic agenda at the cost of those with opposing points of view and opposing interests. The Constitution was intentionally designed to exploit the political fractiousness inherent in a free thinking people.

It will only be possible for the government to move forward on political and economic initiatives when the widest number of points of view and interests are taken into account. Otherwise the government cannot act, and the people remain at liberty to pursue their own agendas without governmental interference.

Religious diversity is no different than any other kind of diversity. In fact religious diversity is probably the most important manner of diversity: religious diversity prevents fanatical adherents from seizing the reins of power for the purpose of holy wars and otherwise enforcing religious conformity.

We survive today as a nation because of the disunity resulting from our diversity.

The greater the diversity the greater the protection afforded to our liberties.

Brian said...

I think John is correct. He's clearly educated to know such things. For what it is worth, he articulates what I wish I could RE: the US system.

The founders knew they were creating a messy system, but one that slows down the tyranny of the majority.

Gary said...

I'm pretty sure the corrupt politicians and dishonest bankers have figured out a way to bypass the Constitution.

John said...

Gary,

You're probably right.

However, diversity and pluralism may be the best antidote to the corruption we all fear by those with money - they can't buy everyone, and the more and varied the participants, the more likely we will find those who will stand against the power of money.

Brian said...

http://movetoamend.org/

Gary said...

John,

They don't need to buy everyone. The Federal Reserve(a private corporation owned by the banks) has been given the authority to print money, by the government) only has to buy enough politicians to achieve their goals, which they have done and continue to do.

Back to diversity: I don't see how a person who favors big government, with lots of social programs, regulation, etc., can be happy in a country that does not have those things to the degree they want. Many people disagree on the kind of government we need.

And not just the kind of government, but the kind of society. The moral and philosophical worldview of ordinary people is so different in America now, that there is very little agreement on any subject. You can't have a well functioning society under those circumstances, which we are seeing now.

John said...

Gary,

You said: "I don't see how a person who favors big government, with lots of social programs, regulation, etc., can be happy in a country that does not have those things to the degree they want."

Just because that is what I want does not mean that I cannot be satisfied with less. I am happy to compromise on most things - the result is that the other side is just as invested in the result as I am.

In our national diversity, we all share one idea, and that is that we all want to see our country survive and prosper - we just have different ideas about how that should happen, and, to some degree, different ideas on what prosperity looks like. Even so, most would agree that 100% employment and a thriving consumer driven economy are desirable. Most agree that we will have to come to terms with some degree of unemployment (which includes seniors, children, and the unemployable). The question is how are we going to handle the needs of the unemployed. It is not wrong or dysfunctional that we disagree on the amount and type of assistance as well as the source of the assistance.

Diversity of opinion means that more ideas are in play, with a greater opportunity for creativity in accomplishing shared goals.

Finally, I guess ultimately we may disagree on what constitutes a "well functioning society." Perhaps you could describe what you envision as a "well functioning society."