Briefly Noted: On Rowan Williams, Christianity, and the Public Square

Things have gone badly enough lately for Archbishop Rowan Williams that he might want to wear his mitre sideways (as a rally cap). Or so say the commentators, who blame Williams for the Church of England’s failure recently to approve female bishops.  During times like this, when the church’s stance on an issue conflicts with the broader society, television commentators and political pundits bloviate endlessly about how Christians should not bring their religious beliefs into public discussion.

Such bloviations are precisely the target of Rowan Williams’ recent book—Faith in the Public Square—which Roger Trigg reviews in a recent edition of The Times Literary Supplement (Nov 30, 2012). Williams’ book is an intriguing collection of lectures given to various audiences, some of which were religious, some of which were not. The thread tying those lectures together is the issue of religious faith and public discourse.

In the Western world, one set of voices say that religion is an entirely private endeavor. It should be kept in the closet and not brought out when company is present. “One solution to all this,” writes Trigg, “is that religion be seen as a private pursuit, and the result of individual choice. It should not attempt to engage in public, reasoned debate, let alone suggest it has any reason on its side.”

Williams, however, is not among those voices. Although Williams does envision a secular society, he envisions one in which religious adherents come to the public square with the full wealth of their religious conviction. “Williams,” writes Trigg, “distinguishes between what he terms a ‘procedural’ secularism, of which he seems to approve, and a ‘programmatic’ secularism of which he does not. Procedural secularism, he says, as a characteristic of the public domain, means that there is no legal privilege for any specific religious position, but does not imply that such positions are simply private convictions. He fervently argues for the right of ‘larger commitments and visions’ to contribute to the public debate and provide much-needed moral energy.” Williams’ ‘procedural secularism’ allows for a sort of interactive pluralism in which various communities of discourse (religious or non-religious) interact between themselves, and between them and the government. His secularism works precisely because it does not illegitimize religious voices in political debate.

By way of response, I’ll note that Williams’ book speaks to two discussions which are very significant for Christians living in the 21st century USA: (1) religious language and argumentation in the public square, and (2) the failure of a majority “Christian” nation to build a society that reflects their vision for the common good.

In relation to the first discussion, we should note three models for interaction in the public square. The first model is John Rawls’ naked public square. Rawls argues that we should decide political matters from behind a “veil of ignorance.” He argues against “thick” theories of the good, which would utilize religious, moral, and philosophical arguments in the public square. Rawls wants people to set aside their most deeply ingressed beliefs when arguing for the public good.

Rawls’ model fails, however, because (1) it is not possible to set aside our most deeply ingressed beliefs; (2) Rawls evidences this by holding deeply and religiously to his most ingressed belief, which is democratic liberalism. Indeed, no voice—especially not that of the atheist—is stripped naked of religious belief. All people, including atheists, have deeply held presuppositions or faith commitments and therefore all people, including atheists, are worshipers; (3) this model tends to muffle or stifle appeals to any authority other than the state; in so doing, it robs religious believers of the very religious convictions that allow them to hold the state in check when the state becomes tyrannical; and (4) this models “shuts up” the various religions and in so doing allows all of them—both good and bad—to lurk beneath the surface unchallenged by public discussion and debate.

A second model is provided by Richard John Neuhaus, who argued that “naked squares” are not possible. We are always and necessarily making arguments that are “thick” in nature. We come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing. We cannot sever our public selves from our private selves. For this reason, we should come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing, and work for the common good by working for public consensus. Christians have motivation to do so because we believe that Christianity, by its very nature, fosters the common good.

A third model is provided by Lesslie Newbigin, who is more similar to Neuhaus than to Rawls. Newbigin agrees with Neuhaus that naked squares are not possible, but unlike Neuhaus does not think that we should seek public consensus. He argues that we should endorse public pluralism. Newbigin’s context was different from Neuhaus’, in that he was primarily interested in situations in which Christianity is a minority belief, and in which the Christian’s role in society is clearly and obviously one of a “missionary.”

With Neuhaus and Newbigin, we agree that the naked square option is an illusion and a failure. Instead, of coming to the public square “naked,” we may come fully clothed. In relation to Neuhaus’ and Newbigin’s disagreement concerning pluralism and consensus, I say that we should work for political consensus when possible, but recognize that we increasingly live in a post-Christian context where consensus will not be possible on many issues (in spite of the fact of a law written on the heart). Further, we should practice wisdom in deciding when to draw primarily upon general revelation to provide a compelling case on some matter of public significance (“thin” discourse), and when to draw more explicitly upon Christian Scripture and doctrine (“thick” discourse).

One more note: when God’s people buy into a “naked public square” model, in which they lay aside their distinctive beliefs during public discussion, they sometimes never pick back up those very beliefs. Political liberalism of the “naked square” sort often leads to theological liberalism  of the “naked sanctuary” sort. A Christian who goes to the public square naked tends to go the sanctuary naked also. When this happens, God’s church becomes little more than a useful weathervane, slavishly following in swan step the dominant social and cultural trends of the time, loyally echoing what society is saying rather than critiquing it.

Instead of forsaking her prophetic calling, therefore, God’s people need to come to the public square “fully clothed,” drawing upon the full wealth of conviction in order to contribute to the common good.

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  1. Battah   •  

    This article is all the more reason why, in my very humble opinion, I find that most Christians who claim to be called into full time ministry are not called to those places at all. I observe that because of their fear of life and employment in the public sector where theological/religious unity may be absent, they abandon it all together for the safe haven of ministry in the church. They unfortunately did not learn how to be a Christian in a very secular and often anti-Christian work environment. Just my little thoughts over the past four years of working in manufacturing and doing music ministry in local churches.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Mr. Battah,

    You are right that the public square is a very challenging place for an evangelical Christian to find himself. The lines are not always drawn so neatly, the approach one should take it not always immediately obvious.

    As for Christians who are not called to be pastors, I think many of them think that the only honorable callings in life are pastor/church planter, etc. But the fact is that God gifts and calls some men and women to the arts, the sciences, the public square, homemaking, business, etc. And those callings are honorable and vital to the Christian mission.


  3. Kenny   •  

    I’m a Dad who heard you heard you speak at SLU 101 last summer and I enjoy reading your blog. I think the enemy would like nothing more than Christians dropping their beliefs before engaging in public discourse. But that would be like a surgeon entering the OR without a scalpel or a mechanic working on a car without his tools. A Christian in the public square without his convictions is of no use to the Kingdom and of little use to the world.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thanks for joining the conversation… I like your analogy!


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