A few weeks ago I did an interview and while much of it was on philanthropy the questions ranged across a number of topics. This first question was a good one.
Does religion still have a place in what some used to call “the public square”?
Yes, of course. However, it will be (and should be) what we have long referred to as “civil religion” and not a particular brand of religion. It has always been a combination of commonly held beliefs, symbols and rituals that have served as a national religion with its own sacred places and ceremonies. Truthfully, we want that. The question about religion and its influence in the public square has always been, “Whose religion?” Even if we agree that it should be Christianity the question then becomes, “Whose Christianity?” That is the benefit of civil religion. It was never thought to be a substitute for Christianity. The two were separate but friendly and civil religion has saved us from the disastrous religious wars of the past. While our individual religious beliefs of Judaism and Christianity change, our national civil religion has remained relatively stable and binds us. Yet, it is now our understanding of the American civil religion that is changing. What is it people hold in common about their country? While there has never been a formal creed there have been certain assumptions – mostly about our country’s relationship with God – that will affect our civil religion.
Civil religion has never been about the worship of the State or been completely secular. John Adams noted early on that our Constitution was “suited only for a moral and religious people and it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” We have never wanted a particular faith to be the basis of that self-understanding because we have witnessed what happens when we attempt to legislate private or sectarian faith. But if we lose that unique religious mixture that is our shared pluralistic and public faith we will be in jeopardy. Adams was right about a moral and religious people and it has always been the role of civil religion to be that common faith. A public ethic cannot survive without a shared religious grounding. When people say we need to take our country “back to God” they are saying without realizing it they want a return not to a Christian country but to a part of our American genius – civil religion. Christianity alone could never have been the single source of our public faith. But the danger will always be our temptation to move from being a religious voice to just another political voice competing for a hearing and influence.
Joseph Bottum said it well: “The question in America was always how to reap the benefit from biblical religion while minimizing the dangers of extra-political authority and a set of citizens called by their deepest beliefs away from any desire to help defend the political order. Biblical America is the oxymoron that defines us, the contradiction that maintains us. If either side in this tension ever entirely vanquishes the other, the United States will cease to be much of anything at all.”
So that religious grounding cannot be simply individual faith. I like what Richard John Neuhaus wrote: “Once religion is reduced to nothing more than privatized conscience, the public square has only two actors in it – the state and the individual. Religion as a mediating structure – a community that generates and transmits moral values – is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state.”
Yes, religion will always have a place in the public square. It cannot be roped off into a separate category. It is too influential in the lives of millions of people and informs their opinions and beliefs about our direction as a country. It is hard to imagine what would happen to that arena if, somehow, Twitter and Facebook were able to eliminate all traces of religion from their feeds. Many hold we are far more secular than we actually are for we are still a nation of believers and those beliefs are not limited to shaping how we formally worship.
There has been a radical change in what we call the “public square.” The dynamics are different now than 20 years ago. The way we communicate in public is not so much as before through books, long essays, thoughtful discourses and debates. Instead, it rewards fear and partisan hostility. Voices in the public square are what Renee DiResta calls “amplified propaganda” that does not move from the top to the bottom but from the base to millions of others passing along and multiplying a mixture of truth, misinformation, conspiracy, and sense of urgency in short bursts that are packaged for quick reaction and broadcasting. The public square of the colonial village is no more. It is now a public cacophony of voices and memes competing for attention and emotions. As always, religion will adapt but I worry about how far away from serious (and civil) religion we will move in order to compete.
The new book “The Edge of the Inside” is available on Amazon.