What is to be done... in the public square?
What is to be done... in the public square?

What is to be done... in the public square?

Domesticated religion isn't for Ray Pennings. Not for him, Christian faith that "knows its place" . . . as a private, highly individualized religion of the prayer closet and the cloistered chapel. Instead, Pennings calls Christians out of the cloister and the closet to pursue a strategy of cultural change as a public religion working together across disciplines, through institutions, over the span of generations.

Appears in Winter 2005

I've admitted in this space ("Learning from the journey," Comment, V. 22, I. 9, November 2004) that my analysis of North American public life has changed significantly in the past twenty-five years. Christians who take their faith seriously today constitute a small minority. The liberal-democratic framework within which we live needs some tinkering, but actually works reasonably well. Our governments are reasonably representative of society. When mediocrity and hedonism shape the lives of the citizens, why should their governments look any different? I don't like it. I believe we are on a path towards spiritual—and with it inevitably legal and social—suicide. But it doesn't do us any good to deny the realities of our present environment. North American society is such that North American Christians in general are apathetic and hedonistic, and as such are generally satisfied to live in the culture as it is without seeking to effect cultural renewal.

A few terms require clarification. The term "public square" is used by some as a synonym for politics. In my understanding, politics is only a subset of the public square. Politics is concerned about the exercise of power and the mediation of conflict. The public square is concerned about the exchange of ideas. Ideas do matter, and they do have consequences. Already in this series, we have seen the implications of presumptions regarding the human person, the role of the state (and other social institutions) as well as our understandings of power and justice as they impinge on political theory. Vincent Bacote focused on creation, the church, the Holy Spirit, and the human person (dealing with race and ethnicity) as priorities for renewed theological enquiry and development (see "The Spirit and institution-building," Comment, V. 23 I. 13, August 2005, and "What is to be done in theology?" Comment, V. 24, I. 4, September 2005). Both disciplines—while having an integrity and identity in their own right—also are part of the public square. We could stretch our definition of the public square so broadly that the term becomes practically meaningless and any suggested agenda unmanageable. My focus is those institutions which have as their mandate the communication of a message to the general public or to be adopted as public policy. This includes political parties, the media, think tanks, industry associations, and labour groups whose public agenda are broadly recognized. It also includes, however, arts groups, the academic community, and the church—among others—who influence the public agenda in different ways. Not everything that each of these institutions does is a public square consideration. Some serve memberships or constituencies in a manner that have little public impact or import. However, each of these institutions works from a particular understanding of truth, and each engages in activities that address the public beyond their own memberships. The public square is more than politics. Our efforts should shift from short-term grasping after political power toward medium-term influence through ideas on a variety of public square fronts.

Another term that requires some comment is the term "public." While the distinction between public and private is still one that is understood, the line between public and private and what belongs to each has changed over time. It used to be that the notion of "public" included a sense of service to others beyond one's immediate group. "Public service" or the "public good" involved a willingness to look beyond family and friends, and to do something that would benefit society at large. Today, if that "public good" relies on any truth claim for coherence, it either needs to be watered down to the point of inoffensive vanilla nothingness in order to be "tolerant" of all, or it must be relegated to a "private good" in which the reach of that good belongs to a more limited group. In the case of the various institutions we mentioned earlier as possessing a role in the public square, the general consequence has been that they've 'morphed' into service organizations to their own constituencies.

Tolerance is the screen to sort out what does and does not belong in the public square. When understood as the opposite of "intolerance"—a term whose contemporary stereotype is a Muslim society which persecutes infidels and denies women their rights—most North Americans, including Christians, want to be tolerant. But to force a choice between the two polarities is to pose a false dilemma. Christians ought to be civil and charitable in their public contributions, but that's quite different from contemporary tolerance. As Meic Pearse notes in his helpful book, Why the Rest Hates the West (IVP, 2004),

Where [tolerance] used to mean the respecting of real, hard differences, it has come to mean instead a dogmatic abdication of truth-claims and a moralistic adherence to moral relativism—departures from either of which is stigmatized as intolerance (p. 12).

This understanding of tolerance has as its by-product the relegation of truth-claims to the private sphere. In this context, identifiable institutional voices contributing to the public square with ideas rooted in defined truth claims are silenced. No longer are the transcendental ideas of truth, beauty, goodness and unity subjects on which relevant comment is heard. Instead, churches focus on the needs of their members, arts groups recruit and keep patrons satisfied, social agencies become advocacy groups for their constituents, and our unity is reduced to a common acquiescence to the latest court pronouncement or feel-good, wrap-yourself-in-the-flag speech from our political leaders. As long as we are willing to accede to this post-modern arrangement, there will be no effective Christian voice in the public square. The essential message of the Scriptures—that God made the world for His glory and although humans messed up everything through sin, God has provided and is carrying out His plan of redemption—is reduced to a private belief system. The notion that God has jurisdiction or that His Word offers wisdom in matters concerning here and now becomes about as relevant to the public square as whether I prefer my coffee "black" or "double-double." Christians must not submit to being silenced by the hegemonic ideology of a mock tolerance.

For a Christian voice to speak, there must be a body and community from which that voice can be raised. I am not simply referring to the organizational or institutional manifestation of that body. Rather, I am referring to a worldview that understands I am not a privatized individual who happens to live alongside many other individuals, some of whom share my faith in God and others who don't. That I am part of Christ's church on earth who are called to be a salt and light in the world. If I understand myself to be part of the body of Christ, then every action I undertake I will reflect on the witness of the church in the world. Then the "my-life-is-my-business" mindset which is too prevalent among church members will change. A different culture will emerge within the Christian community as to a view of authority and community. Let me state the point starkly for clarity. When churches back off their confessions in an attempt to avoid controversy, when the authority of ordained church leaders is ignored by church members and a blind eye is turned to lifestyles that flagrantly contradict what the church stands for, when the sacraments are debased and any transcendent significance lost, then those outside the church have no way of identifying who the church is, much less any reason to pay attention to what is said in the church's name. While various theological traditions and local church circumstances will apply this to their own context, it holds implications for the public square.

It used to be that the church sat on the main street of each town, with its steeple the highest point. Even those who never set foot in its door were reminded of its presence, even if they chose to ignore everything beyond the here and now. Vibrant churches, while a necessary prerequisite are by no means a guarantee of a Christian voice in the public square. The lessons of history painfully remind us that some of the most anti-Christian, destructive agendas have advanced while religious life appeared to be thriving. The other institutions involved in the public square also play important roles. The public square really cannot thrive without any of them. Churches must practice public theology—regaining a central place on the public square by proclaiming the meaning of the gospel for the common good. Vibrant churches with biblical and confessional grit, sacramental heft, and serious moral discipleship are central to any cultural strategy.

There are three strategic priorities on which we need to focus if we are to advance this agenda at all. Although some strategies make impact on one institution more than another, it is the synergies created by the activities of all of these organizations that generate the momentum necessary to observable change. Christians are working in virtually every quarter of the public square, but the accumulation of individual efforts do not amount to a strategy. Cultural change does not result from the accumulation of individual efforts, no matter how well they do their job. Most haven't really considered our efforts in the context of a cultural change effort. They simply latch onto good ideas when they hear about them, get enthusiastic and write cheques until they tire themselves out, and retreat to the safety of the sanctuaries to tell war stories and lament the lack of progress. Christian efforts in the public square are analogous to a bunch of hockey players who show up at the arena for a pick-up game, hop onto the ice, and take on whoever happens to be carrying the puck at the moment. They don't know who is on whose team, let alone positions or a game plan. I fear the analogy is more true than those in public life care to admit. I have more fingers and toes than there are individuals in Canada (I make no claims as to whether this is similar in the United States or not) who are:

  1. consciously Christian,
  2. active in public life, and who have
  3. cultivated meaningful relationships with like-minded significant leaders in each of the political, business, media, arts, and church communities.

Those Christians who are culturally active more often than not lack a viable strategy, partly because of the pervasive consequences of individualism. The cumulative effect of uncoordinated individual efforts is sadly inadequate. Christians need to shift from an individualist mindset to a sense of being the Body of Christ The building of diverse networks and investing the time necessary to build understandings and relationships of reliability are essential at both leadership and grassroots levels. At an individual level, people need to diversify their involvements where they meet different people. While not everyone can be involved in everything, people should consciously rotate their organizational commitments. It is the rare person who has the interest, aptitude, or energy to develop strong relationships in all five of the institutions I mentioned as being "key" to public life. But we need many more three- and four-institution players than we have today. There are two natural consequences that emerge from a conscious effort toward institutional diversification. The first affects our perspective. The ability to look at a problem through various lenses will deepen our understanding of both the problem and result in a far more creative process in proposing solutions. It will also help our communications. The age of broadcasting in which a single newscast or newspaper singularly shaped the environment is over. In an era of narrowcasting, aided by technological tools that equip everyone to communicate more broadly—even if it is simply forwarding emails to contacts on their contact list—diverse networks are essential to the arsenal required to fight the culture war.

Not only do we need individuals to diversify themselves, but we need forums that bring leaders from these sectors together. Time spent in discussion is necessary in order to bring coherence to a Christian framework of public life that will be communicated through a compatible vocabulary and based on some broadly recognized principles. Today, most Christian organizations are re-inventing the wheels.

I noted earlier that participation in the public square understood as an exchange of ideas should be distinguished from politics understood as managing the conflict between those ideas and determining which ideas govern. However, as James Davison Hunter points out in his speech, To Change the World, while ideas matter, not all ideas matter. There are tactics, tools, and competency involved in every aspect of public square participation. While the quartet of tools I identify here is usually linked in people's mind to partisan political activities, most overlap with all institutions. There are four essential components to any organizational strategy: a message, human resources, money, and leadership. While the philosophy, background data, option papers, and alternatives considered in building any platform take many words, the core message is reduced to a simple image or clear slogans. While most of us would like to think we are more sophisticated than to be influenced by marketing, the truth is that marketing does work. The marketing and "branding" of Christian public square involvement needs some work. For most, Christian public involvement today equates to "sex and family issues," with a secondary brand of "peace and poverty issues" that has carved out its place on the left. Neither is an adequate distinguishing brand. This isn't a call for an advertising makeover or cute slogans. However, "Joe and Mary Public" who drive by the local church and notice its steeple should equate the Christian church with something different from what they do currently if our voice is to be heard in the public square.

Human resources, leadership, and money are significant pieces of the strategy, but these are mainly internal challenges. There is simply not enough experience and practical know-how to fill the many crucial positions required. Even today, with the relative dearth of Christian candidates and cabinet ministers seeking and holding office, finding competent staff members to fill out their teams is a challenge. When it comes to the day-to-day tactical and communications skills required to conduct significant campaigns targeted to the general public, our best do not match up against their best. In fact, those who would oppose a Christian voice can go through several rungs on their depth chart before the levels even out. The only cure for this is time and experience.

Perhaps the most significant challenge will be reorienting expectations and the framework within success or failure as currently evaluated. Although motivating that majority for whom the public square is not on the priority list is the biggest challenge, the expectations of activists also need reorienting. While successes are to be preferred to failures, the battle for public square influence is not dependent on any one policy initiative, election, or campaign. Results will only be measured over decades, and we need to develop the persistence and perseverance to keep at it. The recent debate about redefining marriage is a prime example. It is only in the past few years that there has been anything that even approached a widespread awareness of this issue in the Christian community. For many, this was their first political experience. They became despondent when their petitions, protests, and ballots seemed not to affect the outcome. What is forgotten is that this issue is the culmination of about three decades' very active work by the gay-rights advocacy community. They used a variety of societal institutions and patiently worked, always keeping their longer term objectives in mind. We have some lessons to learn:

  1. Existing Christian cultural leaders need to reach out to one another across the divide between the various spheres to develop a common overarching strategy. This can unfold only if new forums are organized for intentional conversation about such a strategy;

  2. Christian cultural engagement must be re-branded both among Christians and in public opinion. It is not enough to be identified narrowly with either sex and family issues or peace and poverty issues; and

  3. It is important for Christians to recalibrate expectations to allow for perseverance over decades of effort, rather than be exhausted by the rollercoaster ride of short-term triumphs and disillusionment. We must gather our strength from the source of our hope and the promise of the gospel.

The work required toward envisioning a public square in which a Christian voice is heard, at least in proportions to our numbers in society, can seem intimidating. But if we take the claims of Scripture seriously, we have little choice to pursue such an agenda. When such an agenda is faithfully pursued, we can be certain it will have positive results. They will end up being realized in ways we can hardly imagine, albeit may not be in our lifetimes.

Topics: Religion
Ray Pennings
Ray Pennings

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.


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