Public Square

Which Model Best Serves Religious Freedom for All?

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Ed. note: The following is an excerpt from the upcoming IFWE book Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All (Abilene Christian University Press, Nov. 12, 2019) and has been adapted for blog format. 

Which model of religion and public life serves freedom best?

This question lies at the heart of the issue of freedom and religion today, and it deserves far greater attention than it has been given—and urgent attention by Christians in the United States.

Quite extraordinarily, apart from the Williamsburg Charter and a tiny number of books, Evangelicals have given almost no attention to what is an urgent, practical matter. They prefer to protest violations rather than promote solutions. But the fact is that the present stage of the culture warring cannot last. The former U.S. settlement has broken down, perhaps irremediably, and one or another of the competing views is bound to replace it before long. But which? Will it be one that serves the gospel well, and serves America and freedom for the good of all, or will it be one that restricts all three?

Americans would do well to step back from the immediacy of the battles and to weigh up the pros and cons of each option with care. There are three major models on offer in today’s world, the first two being the dominant models in most countries at the present moment.

The Sacred Public Square

The first com­mon model is that of the sacred public square. This is a vision of public life in which one particular religion is preferred, formally established, or a monopoly. The sacred public square was, of course, the traditional settlement for most of Europe’s history until the French Revolution. Hence, the place of the Roman Catholic Church in France, Spain, or Italy; the Anglican Church in England; the Presbyterian Church in Scotland; the Lutheran Church in Sweden; and so on. Today there is still a wide range of countries with a sacred public square. Some versions are mild and weak—the Church of England, as its critics quip, is now fit only for “hatching, matching, and dispatching” (baptizing, marrying, and bury­ing). Other versions are far more severe. All too often, for example, to be a Bahai in Iran or a Christian in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia can be life-threatening.

In other words, the “sacred public square” model does not protect freedom and justice for those who do not subscribe to the religion that is preferred, established, or a monopoly. Indeed, they who do not share the faith are always second-class citizens in some way, and at any moment, they may find themselves in serious danger. As such, the model of the sacred public square does not provide freedom and justice for all, so it cannot be advanced as the best model for the global world.

The Naked Public Square

The second model is that of the naked public square. This is Richard John Neuhaus’s term for a vision of public life in which all religions—whether con­sidered irrelevant, unnecessary, divisive, dangerous, or false—are rigorously excluded.

Once again, there are mild versions of the naked public square, such as the French laicite, but there are also draconian versions, such as those in China, North Korea, and Cuba. What matters, however, is that this second model does not serve the interests of “freedom and justice for all” any better than the first model. The plain fact is that more than 80 percent of the world identifies itself as religious in some way. So the “naked public square” excludes the great majority of the world’s peoples, and in the process, it often establishes secularism as the official ideology.

In short, the “naked public square” is the mirror image of the “sacred public square,” but it takes a secularist rather than a religious direction. Neither model does justice to freedom for all or demonstrates what is required for it to be a model worthy of the global world.

The Civic Public Square

The third model is that of the civil public square. This is a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage in public affairs on the basis of their faith, as a matter of freedom of religion and conscience, but—and this is critical—within an agreed framework of what is understood and respected to be just and free for people of all other faiths too, and thus beneficial for the common good.

The vision of a civil public square is “utopian” in the sense that it is not yet operative anywhere (u-topia being the Greek for “no place”), but it is the natural development of the twin imperatives of freedom and diversity, and in many ways it is the logical development of what used to be the U.S. settlement at its best.

It is important to say that the framework of the civil public square is politi­cal and not religious. In John Courtney Murray’s apt description, it is a matter of “articles of peace” rather than “articles of faith.” As such, it has to be agreed upon, affirmed, and then handed down from generation to generation, through civic education, until it truly becomes the “habits of the heart” for the citizenry. At its core are the three Rs of freedom of thought and conscience: rights, respon­sibilities, and respect. A right for one person is a right for another person, and it is a responsibility for both—and for everyone. Freedom of religion and con­science therefore means that there are no special rights, no favored faiths, and especially no protected beliefs. It is the conscience of believers, not the content of beliefs, that is protected.

The civil public square is the political embodiment of the Golden Rule: treat others with the respect you would like to be treated with, and protect for others the rights you would like protected for yourself. Thus, a right for a Christian is auto­matically a right for a Jew, an atheist, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Mormon, a Hindu, a Scientologist, and every believer in every faith under the sun. All human rights are the rights of all human beings. They are to be protected for each person and for the good of all. Persuasion, not coercion, is the language of civility.

The United States is in the throes of the culture wars, when detachment and objectivity are in extremely short supply. At such a time, it will take an extraor­dinary level of leadership or a remarkable stand by some group of citizens to assess where the nation is now and to persuade the citizens of where it needs to go. It is therefore essential to decide wisely which model of religion and public life is best for freedom.

Editor’s note: Read Os Guinness’ full chapter in Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All (ACU Press, Nov. 12, 2019). Pre-order the book in the IFWE bookstore by 11/11/19 and save 30%!

What others are saying about Set Free:

“a must-read for those who care about the linkage between religious freedom and human flourishing.”
– James Gwartney, Professor of Economics, Florida State University

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