Is God Relevant in the Public Square?

A special thank-you to the Emerging Scholar from Johns Hopkins University who passed along notes from Is God Relevant in the Public Square? Living with our deepest differences in a world of exploding pluralism — Os Guinness (March 26, Veritas Forum).*  Anyone have testimonies regarding or reflections upon the creation, cultivation, encouragement, and/or maintenance of a “Civil” Public Square on their campus, in their discipline?


Os Guinness, an author and social critic, began by asking us to take a look at history. In the last century, someone has been killed every moment in the name of religion.  Yet — as we’ve discussed here before — if we look at those killed by secular regimes in this century, the number is greater by far than all those killed by religions in all of past history combined.

What lessons can we learn from this? Guinness proposed three.

Lesson 1: How to live with deep differences is one of the most challenging problems for us to solve.

This is straightforward.

Lesson 2: This problem is being intensified by a global public square.

Many cultures in history have had a public meeting place for discussion. The Romans called this the “Forum”. In modern times, we have the op-ed column and, now, the Internet. Today, a Danish cartoon or what the Pope says is immediately known and discussed by the whole world.

How do we live in such a world?

Lesson 3: Of the various solutions to this problem, America has held (in Madison’s words) the “true remedy” — the First Amendment.

Now, the whole world is wrestling with this idea, and yet America, the founder of the idea, is floundering on it as the world looks to us. America needs to get it right again.

There is certainly not one solution to the problem. Take France, for example, their solution was to “strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.” They threw out both the idea of a king and religion; they held to a strict secularist answer.

But America was different. Under its First Amendment, faiths of all sorts were allowed to flourish, and this was voluntary.  Nowadays, it seems like people think of the Freedom of Speech as the primary right given Americans. However, to the Founders, it was Freedom of Religion, “the first liberty”. (If you think about it, Freedom of Assembly requires Freedom of Speech, because the whole point of assembling together is to speak together. Freedom of Speech, though, requires Freedom of Conscience, which of course is tied to what one believes.)

Most people (should) know that the words “separation of Church and State” are not found in the US Constitution. (The words were said by Jefferson in a letter.) Even so, the concept (as Jefferson really meant it) is there in the First Amendment. However, in 1947, Jefferson’s words were twisted into what might be termed “separationism” by Justice Hugh Black, in the famous legal case Everson vs. the Board of Education. Since that time, religion is thought to be a private thing, and the public a strictly secular place, but there is no end in sight to the controversy and instability.

There are three options for the public square, however:

Option 1: A “privileged” Sacred Public Square

This is pushed by many Christian Fundamentalists. They want prayers to the Judeo-Christian God in public settings and the Ten Commandments posted in court rooms. Ironically, this stated desire is bringing on a reaction — especially from the “new atheists” — that will lead to the banishment of God altogether from the public square, which is the second option?

Option 2: A Naked Public Square

In this option, though, people are (illiberally) asked to shed their very world views. Is such freedom?

Option 3: A “Civil” Public Square

This third option is the one for which Guinness argues. In such a public square, all faiths (and non-faiths) are welcome. In such a public square, persuasion is used, not coercion.

What is civility? There are a couple wrong ideas about civility.  Civility is not a “lowest common denominator” of world views.  That is impossible. Rather, it is a framework in which to allow the freedom to believe. Civility is not the modern idea of “tolerance”, where all ideas are equal.   No, in Guinness’ words, “the right to believe anything does not mean that anything believed is right.”

Civility is the ability to deal with others, to listen, to respect the right of one to believe what he or she wants, to agree to disagree if necessary.  To have a civil public square would take courageous leadership and “citizenship education”.  American schools used to have an unum to balance the pluribus; that is, students were taught to be American citizens, which gave them a unity in spite of their diversity. This is largely gone today.

Not everyone — though all are born free — is worthy of this liberty. Tocqueville wrote, “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” The American Framers wrote a glorious first chapter; they had numerous bad ones (slavery, lack of women’s rights, etc.). But their view on religion in the public square was nearly perfect. If our change away from this continues, we will have a bad end. Guinness ended with: “This is a standing or falling issue; for now, America is getting it wrong.”

*Audio and Video files available at Veritas Forum.

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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    Doug Indeap commented on June 12, 2009 Reply

    In discussing issues of separation of church and state, it is critical to distinguish the “public square” from “government.” The principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. And in practice, there is plenty of religion out there in the public square; I see and hear of it daily on the street, on the radio, on the TV, on the internet, etc. The First Amendment’s “establishment” clause constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. The First Amendment thus embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise and express his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote his or her views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others.

    Peter V commented on June 12, 2009 Reply

    Distinguishing the public square from government, though desirable, is not as easy as it sounds. Can a city park legitimately display a manger scene at Christmas, or is that establishment of religion by government? May a public school support an optional “religious” extracurricular activity?

    I would say yes to both these examples, provided alternative religious expressions (including atheism) be given appropriate (proportionate?) representation/opportunity if requested, but others argue that either of these would constitute (illegal) government establishment of religion because the institutions involved are supported by government. This could even be extended to private charities that receive government money. And what constitutes an appropriate accommodation of diversity?

    Doug Indeap commented on June 13, 2009 Reply

    I agree that making the distinction is not always easy. It is more than desirable, though; it is critical. “Government speech” is constrained by the establishment clause. “Individual speech” is protected by the free exercise clause.

    If a manger scene is displayed “by” a city in its park, then that is “government speech” to be assessed for compliance with the establishment clause. If a manger scene is displayed by a private person or group on a city park, it may well be “individual speech” to be evaluated under the free exercise clause. In the latter case, the city, of course, cannot discriminate against particular religions and thus must not allow other persons or groups equal opportunity to express their religious views on the city park.

      Doug Indeap commented on June 13, 2009 Reply

      Correction: There should not be a “not” in that last line; it should read ” . . . thus must allow . . .”

    Micheal Hickerson commented on June 16, 2009 Reply

    Here’s a related question: are private colleges and universities (e.g. Harvard, Oberlin, Liberty) part of the public square?

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