Evangelicals: Unwanted in the Public Square:

It is undeniable that some Americans just wish Christians would disappear from the public square. Since that is hopefully not going to happen, they spend most of their time and effort arguing that while it is ok to believe in Christ and the Bible, Evangelicals should not bring their faith into the public marketplace of ideas, e.g. politics, education, law…They do not mind our religious faith as long as it is a private faith, and only practiced alone with other like-minded people.

A study released May 7, 2007 by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research once again confirmed the bias against evangelicals that exists on university campuses.
“Among non-evangelical university faculty, 53 percent… said they held an unfavorable view of evangelical Christians while expressing positive feelings toward most other religious groups. One professor said he attributes the disdain for evangelicals to their Republican Party activism and their perceived opposition to science.

Gary Tobin, the institute’s director and chief pollster, said the results undoubtedly reveal “bias and prejudice” among the nation’s educational leaders. Tobin told The Washington Post, “If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry.” He goes on to note, “No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings. No one would say, ‘The reason they feel this way is because they don’t like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.’ That would be unthinkable.” Tobin further found “that 71 percent of faculty members agreed with the statement: This country would be better off if Christian fundamentalists kept their religious beliefs out of politics.” (( http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=25660))

In Lee v. Weisman, Justice Scalia dissented, “Church and state would not be such a difficult subject if religion were, as the court apparently thinks it to be, some purely personal avocation that can be indulged entirely in secret, like pornography, in the privacy of one’s room.” ((Scalia Dissents p187)) Of course it is not; consequently, the battle to impose naturalism and absolutely exclude supernaturalism in the public square will not diminish unless evangelicals abandon the public role of our faith and slink away into some designated conclave of privatism because the harsh reality is that secularism is not going to retreat.

If Christians abdicate the public responsibility that our faith places upon us because some think society would be better off without us, we fail society. In 1940, the exiled Albert Einstein made the following admission in Time magazine, concerning the spread of Nazism, “Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I had never any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess, that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly.” ((Sacred Causes, Michael Burleigh, p213))

But far more tragically, we fail to live as authentic Christians in obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; and thereby dishonor the one we claim to serve. The reality is that as Christians we are citizens of two realms, eternity and time—heaven and our homeland. We are to live out the values of our eternal faith in both time and eternity.  The transformation of salvation does not merely prepare us for eternity, it also empowers us for our work on earth, and part of that work is to be “salt and light”. While it is undeniably true that Christianity is intensely personal, it is simultaneously unabashedly public.

Brendan Sweetman, in his book, “Why Politics Needs Religion” says concerning arguments that seek to limit the scope of religious beliefs to a person’s private life, “[they] fail to appreciate the crucial point that many religious beliefs have political implications…and that it would be irrational for a religious believer to ignore or suspend these implications in the public square.” ((p.124))

To allow only appeals to secular reasoning, or even natural law, is to imply that religious beliefs have no place in a liberal political marketplace, which seems very anti-liberal and anti-democratic.

Most often when we are debating an issue in the public square regarding public education, law, politics and other societally pervasive and/or potentially altering issues, each side is actually arguing for a particular world-view since most opinions concerning substantive issues are, if the person is consistent, derived from a particular world-view; further, all world-views whether religious or secular, have some unproven assumptions. Consequently, religious arguments cannot rightly be excluded from public policy debates merely because they have some unproven assumptions.

What is necessary for the secularist and the Christian is that arguments that are set forth in order to influence national policy need to be expressed in a reasonable—rational—way. Sweetman notes, “One should introduce one’s religious beliefs and defend them by appeal to reason.” ((Sweetman p.132)) I would add that public argument may contain components based on logic, context, and revelation provided it is understandable and relevant to the audience being addressed and/or important to the presenter. ((This practice permeates the politics of American history, e.g. the Revolution, slavery, education, civil rights.))

Some things need clarified in order to understand the appropriateness of religious arguments in the public square; first, “Religious and/or secular beliefs need only to be reasonable and supported by some evidence that is accessible to non-adherents—the public at large—in order to be worthy of the marketplace.” ((See my blog “Why Religious Ideas Matter Even in Public Debate, June 11, 2007)) Second, by rational I mean that the idea being offered to affect public life of all Americans must afford some publicly accessible evidence regardless what a person’s world-view is. Third, rational does not, and cannot, mean that the idea must be merely empirical, natural or secularly motivated. Such a definition—as is often offered by the secularist—results in the ipso facto unrivaled dominion of the world-view of secularism. In other words, the secularist must not be able to define what constitutes appropriate public dialogue in such a way to definitionally exclude non-secular arguments. This is simply a tactic, which seeks to ban religious influence in public life without having to consider the merit of religious ideas. Lastly, I am not using rational to mean some sophisticated form of philosophical rationalism. Nor is it to be understood as implying that beliefs that are not accessible to all are thereby irrational, i.e. myth, blind faith, or nonsense. Rather, it simply means that in any world-view there are beliefs that are not accessible to people apart from being an adherent, having faith in that particular world-view or receiving a revelation.

An example of what I mean by rational is the belief in the existence of God. Many reasonable arguments can be marshaled for belief in God. In other words, some people who are not Christians or a part of any particular practicing faith believe in God. This particular realm of Christianity is known as “Apologetics” which is the setting forth of the rational defense of Christianity. In contrast, the belief in the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the atonement of Christ, etc. are not beliefs that one would come to apart from revelation. Apologetics is used with these beliefs as well, but this kind of belief cannot be known apart from special revelation from God.

Therefore, we can reasonably argue the existence of God, a religious idea, from reason based upon evidence that is accessible to everyone; moreover, from this rational religious idea come other concepts like the value of temporal and eternal life, absolutes, man is more than matter, etc. That not everyone will agree with our reasons does not invalidate or exclude the argument since the same could be said of every genre of argument.

The important point to remember with regard to whether or not arguments that are derived from or consonant with a particular faith are public square appropriate is that every world-view holds some of its essential assumptions by faith; consequently to exclude religious arguments from public policy is actually an attempt to exclude debate; ((see my paper “The Decline of Religion in Public Education and The Decline of Public Education” section entitled, ‘Discounting the place of faith in education’.)) therefore, to be worthy of influencing public life, an idea must merely be in part rational—accessible to all—not agreed to by all or without world-view value.

Moreover, to define the only suitable ideas for public discourse and policy as only what can be demonstrated by operational science (scientific method) is faulty on several accounts. First that is contrary to our national history, which was born and bred in a religious milieu. This is seen in the very founding documents of the United States like the Declaration of Independence (our birth certificate) and the Articles of Confederation, both of which refer to God specifically. The Constitution protects Sunday as a day of worship, and includes the words, “in the year of our Lord”. The famous Northwest Ordinance requires the teaching of religion in public education and the first amendment protects religion from interference by the federal government. ((see footnote 123 in my paper “Government Policy Toward Teaching Religion in State Schools))

Second, to accept such a notion is to concede that Christianity—or any supernatural religion—has no social value, which is in and of itself irrational and obfuscates much of the teaching of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. Third, it is dangerously undemocratic to argue in a democracy, particularly one that has such a profound and undeniably rich religious history, that people of faith cannot exercise their faith or speak from their faith. Fourth, and most importantly, to the Christian it would be disobedience to the Scripture. We are to “speak the truth in love” which includes the gospel but also truth in any area. Thus, to exclude our faith from the marketplace would be to fail as truth tellers and that is to fail indeed. Lastly, to remove religion from the public square is to by default make the secular position the presumptive position.

Of course, secularism is based on the idea that matter is all there is (materialism) or the idea that everything comes from matter (naturalism). Both have religious assumptions since it is pure faith to believe, and/or live as though existence does not extend beyond nature; however, an even greater leap of faith is to believe that anything really matters if matter is the totality of life. Ideas like Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” and statism…thrive quite comfortably in such environments. ((Spencer advocated preeminence of science over religion. He gave us the phrase “survival of the fittest”. As a social Darwinist he believed people were subject to the same processes noted by Darwin in biology)) In other words, religious people believe that someone is guiding things, and the secularist believes there is no one to guide things, and neither can be presently proved.

As Christians, our public proclamations are twofold. First is evangelism, which is declaring much of what can only be known by special revelation (the Bible). This includes truths like the sacrifice of Christ for sin, His deity, the nature of God and salvation though faith in Christ alone.

Second is the truth revealed in the Scripture that can be argued from Scripture, as well as from other areas such as experience, natural law, history, science, logic, or the popular vote of “we the people.” These are what we can call “rational beliefs’, which can include such things as theistic based education ((presently I am not considering the legal issues associated with this concept)) as opposed to atheistic based education. ((Remember that atheistic based education in the United States is a recent phenomenon, emerging simultaneously with and greatly contributing to the devaluing of non-secular ideas.))

While one may rationally argue that God does not exist, another may argue that He does. That the dispute is not settled is not an argument against religion in the marketplace but rather an argument for its legitimacy since the cogency of the arguments cannot ultimately settle the question and each are arguments for a particular world-view; a fortiori, each world view carries profoundly serious and far reaching corollaries, which impact all of society.

We cannot forget that the Bible speaks to societal issues like the nature of man, marriage, childrearing, education, jurisprudence, crime and punishment, ownership of private property, the legitimate role of government, welfare…and it is from these that we derive most laws and regulations of individuals.

Some say it is not right to use religious arguments because it is not right to impose religious beliefs on others; however, our Christian views that affect society or morals are not meant for only us anymore than the secularist believes all of the ideas of secularism are meant only for the secularist. For example, it is not merely that we believe abortion is wrong for Christians, and therefore it is okay as long as we do not have to have one. This overlooks the fact that we not only say it is wrong for us as an individual, but it is wrong for any individual to take an innocent life; consequently, it is wrong for society and Christians should say so.

Legalizing abortion forces Christians to live in a society where secularist beliefs are forced upon us since a secularist view of abortion is being imposed upon people of Christian faith—secularism believes that everyone should be free to have an abortion. This same argument can be seen in issues regarding murder, stealing, marriage, normalization of homosexuality, education…because there are some things which arise out of one’s faith—world view—that are not merely believed to be beneficial for that individual but rather beneficial to all. Further, it is nonsense to ask Christians—as well as any other group—to vote, support and speak for legalization of behavior they believe is detrimental to society and/or wrong.

The arguments about the place of religion are never about that per se, but rather about which worldview will be imposed upon our culture. Further, every law is enforced to the exclusion of other possible laws, and that is deemed to be moral. Secularism and religion are both worldviews, and it is inevitable that a worldview will be imposed on society; therefore, it is legitimate and necessary to argue both religious and secular worldviews in public debate.

Education determines a culture, and education by its very nature is always and unalterably religious. ((See my paper on The Role of Government in Teaching Religion)) Consequently, the question is not will there be religion in the marketplace, but rather which ones will be excluded?

As I noted at the beginning of this article, the rancor of naturalism’s dissatisfaction with anything less than a purely secular public square will not be satiated until we Christians go away, which means that they will never be happy because we will not, yea, we cannot go away.

Ronnie W. Rogers