Mixing Faith into Public Life?

By Bob Cornwall 11-12-2012
Photo: Group prayer circle, Lisa F. Young/ Shutterstock.com
Photo: Group prayer circle, Lisa F. Young/ Shutterstock.com

People of faith have long wrestled with the place of faith in the public square. At times religious groups have sought to dominate or control the public square. At other times, they have allowed the state/nation to dominate and control the faith community. Others have sought to distance themselves from the public square – with the Amish being the most distinct example of this.  There was a time, a half century ago or more, that mainline Protestantism played a significant role in the public square while evangelicals largely stepped away. In the past three decades the roles have reversed.

The question that is being raised at this time in a number of sectors has to do with whether faith should engage the public square and if so, how should this engagement occur. I have found Mark Toulouse's book God in Public: Four Ways American Christian and Public Life Relate (WJK Press, 2006), to be very helpful in this matter. Mark has a good sense of the relationship between religion and the public square.   

In this book, Toulouse focuses on the past fifty years, a period in which the nation has moved from homogeneity (at least on a regional level) to much great diversity.  We are now seeing how this plays out, as folks battle it out as to who will control America's identity. Focusing on those who would want to see faith engage with the public square, Mark lays out four options – not all of which he views in a positive vein: Iconic Faith, Priestly Faith, the Public Christian, and the Public Church. The book was written to help Christians find their place in public life, but in many ways what is true for Christians could be true for people affirming other faith traditions. 

  1. Iconic Faith:
    Iconic Faith is an expression of civil religion in which religious symbols become nationalized or national symbols take on a sacred hue. Thus, a religious symbol, such as the Bible, takes on a nationalistic identity. This can be seen in the way in which the Bible is used in ceremonies such as the swearing in of a president or other official – or as the "guarantor of truth" when taking oaths in court. On the other side of things, icons such as flags take on venerated status. Thus to burn a flag is to desecrate it. In this kind of engagement the church is rather passive. It simply allows its symbols to be used for state purposes. Of course, sometimes this becomes tricky, such as when a Muslim takes the oath on the Koran – in contravention to tradition that privileges Christian icons.
  2. Priestly Faith: 
    The idea of a priestly faith is expressed most clearly in the ideology of America as a Christian nation. In this way of seeing things, America is the vehicle for God's work in the World. We are, as a nation, a chosen people, a special people, with a special calling. The church, therefore, is called upon to be the nation's priests. They give moral support to the state or the nation. America's interests and causes take on the aura of divine missions. It is expressed in ideologies such as American exceptionalism, wherein Americans claim a certain specialness that makes them different from others, indeed makes them better than other nations, as well as in the idea of Manifest Destiny. Of course, if one is not part of the majority religion, then one is looked at with a certain degree of suspicion. People of other faiths will be tolerated, but they will not be allowed to contribute to the nation's identity.
  3. Public Christian:
    A third style of engagement is that of the Public Christian. It is a sentiment that has a long pedigree. Although this view is rooted in Augustine’s “two cities” doctrine and Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine, it is also present in Anabaptist traditions as well – though in a much different manner. In this style, the church remains an entity separate from the public sphere. One realm is spiritual and the other is earthly. Christians are encouraged to engage the public square and bring their faith perspectives into the conversation, but the church should remain separate from public debates. It is a spiritual entity not an earthly one. The church may lift up issues and cultivate a sense of social justice in the individual, but the church itself will not engage in public action, especially action that could be seen as political in nature. For those of an Anabaptist persuasion, this style goes even further, so that Christians are to refrain from participation in the public square.  
  4. Public Church:
    In this style of engagement, the church itself steps into the arena. It not only nurtures and cultivates people of faith who engage the public square, but it takes up the issues of the day. It becomes an advocate for social justice. The Public Church model finds its roots in John Calvin’s belief that all human life stands under the Kingdom of God and Albrecht Ritschl’s “Ethical Imperative.” It undergirded the Social Gospel Movement (Walter Rauschenbusch) and Civil Rights Movements (Martin Luther King, Jr.). The danger that is present in this style of engagement is the difficulty in knowing where to draw the line between the church's activism and the possibility of becoming a tool of party or nation. That is, there is the possibility that the church can fall into the trap sprung by advocates of “Priestly Faith.” The way in which one avoids this possibility involves great humility and great discernment. It requires that we neither absolutize our faith or our nation.  

With Mark Toulouse I'm drawn to the Public Church ideal, but I also know that it’s difficult to remain faithful to one’s ideals when stepping into the fray. The other issue that makes this style fraught with danger is that most churches (at least Mainline Protestant churches) are not composed of people who are of one mind politically. There are many dangers to be avoided, and for this conversation to be fruitful then neither church nor party should ever feel beholden to the other. As Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaeffer and I put it an article published in the journal Congregations: "Clergy must not take on the role of kingmaker or inappropriately use their influence to dictate policy” (Gross-Schaefer, 29).

As a Christian, I believe that the gospel includes a call to engage social justice. I believe that our missional activity in the world as church should lead to transformation not only of individual lives, but of society itself. But how does this take place? How do we engage society without becoming tools of either state or party?

Essay excerpted from Faith in the Public Square: Living Faithfully in 21st Century America.  (Energion Publications, 2012), pp. 42-45 

Bob Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan and editor of Sharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. He holds a M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a graduate of Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Ore.

Photo: Group prayer circle, Lisa F. Young/ Shutterstock.com

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