Faith in the Public Square

Greg Strand – November 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Questions are being raised today about whether or not there is a place for faith in the public square. Some are interpreting “freedom of religion” as “freedom from religion.” Some are pushing towards neutrality, as if that is a good thing and it is even possible.

Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, picks this issue up in the lead article in a recent publication of Christianity Today 56/10 (November 2012), 25-29, “Honoring Faith in the Public Square.”

What is so special about religion, that it should receive any “special privileges”? Why should we regard a church or other religious association differently than we regard any other social club or cultural organization? Why treat the rights and expressive liberties of religious adherents any differently than we would treat those of other individuals?

Such questions are a fairly recent development in our history, and perhaps a sign of the growing secularity of so much of our public life. But there is no denying the fact that, in some sense, religion and religious institutions are not treated according to a principle of strict neutrality. To be sure, the recognition and support of “religion” is something dramatically different from the establishment of any particular religion, an important distinction that the First Amendment sought to codify. The fact remains, though, that something like a generic monotheism enjoys a privileged public status in present-day America.

McClay states that many think that the special status given religion is “embarrassing, or downright illegitimate.” To these skeptics, he provides five arguments which “begin to explain why discussion about religious freedom needs to move beyond the sterile logic of abstract neutrality.”

The five arguments, spelled out below without the further explanation, address the following: 1) Our Tradition, 2) American Pluralism, 3) Human Nature, 4) Social Benefits, and 5 ) Ultimate Meaning.

First, there is an argument based on America’s historical and constitutional roots:  Our founding tradition links religion, and the active encouragement of religious belief, to the success of the American experiment.

[T]he very fact of that diversity itself leads to a second argument for deference to religion, an argument rooted in American pluralism: The free flourishing of diverse religious identities provides a powerful source of moral order and social cohesion.

A third argument for religion’s special place is anthropological:  Human beings are naturally inclined toward religion.

A fourth argument might be called the “meliorist” argument:  Religion deserves an exalted place in American life because of the extensive good works religious institutions reliably perform.

Last but not least, there is the “metaphysical” argument:  Religion should have a high place in public life because religion is humanity’s single most important body of reflection regarding the ultimate meaning of the universe and the proper conduct of human life.

McClay then offers an even deeper, more important question: can the American experiment continue to exist without a religious foundation? He is not suggesting that all must  be Christian, and he is not recommending a theocracy. But he is stating that there must be principles of virtue and concern for others, not just self, that are found in and will not likely exist apart from Judeo-Christian truth and values.

There is, however, an even deeper question. Can our freedom itself, and more generally the rights-based liberalism we have come to embrace in the modern West, survive without the Judeo-Christian religious assumptions that have hitherto accompanied and upheld it? Though himself an atheist, the Italian writer Marcello Pera has argued that it cannot – that it is impossible to uproot such ideas as human dignity from the Christian intellectual soil in which, historically, they were nourished. It’s a dangerous illusion, he says, to imagine that modern liberal values can be sustained apart from religious presuppositions about the nature and destiny of man.

Even a world-class skeptic like Jefferson understood that erasing the name of God from the foundations of the American order could lead to fearful consequences. Which provides yet another reason why upholding the special status of religion is not merely reasonable and defensible, but of fundamental importance.

I think McClay is mostly right. What about you?


Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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