Christians in the Public Square

Chapter 7 of Tim Keller’s Generous Justice provides a very useful summary of theologically sound advice for Christians in the public square. His thesis is that “Christians’ work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.” (158)  He supports “co-belligerency,” working with anyone who supports the right cause—but challenges Christians to respectfully provoke our (temporary) allies into recognizing the only real foundation for human rights and virtues. For example, it’s fine to work with radical feminists to oppose pornography or with ardent leftists to oppose human trafficking. But as we work shoulder to shoulder with them in these limited endeavors, we have the opportunity to tell them that their worldviews can’t really support their work, that only biblical morality can create a truly just world.

Keller cites two books, especially, in which non-Christians call for morality to re-enter the public square. One of those books was my favorite work from the past year, Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. The other is Steven Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular DiscourseKeller mentions these authors in this helpful conclusion to his chapter:

Sandel, Smith, and many others say that we must begin again to talk about moral and religious beliefs in public discourse. The rules of secular public discourse will not allow us to talk about such matters, since, it is feared, discussions of religious beliefs will lead to endless public disagreement. However, we are already locked in endless disagreement, largely because we live with the illusion that we can achieve moral and religious neutrality. And because we can’t talk about our real differences, we simply make power plays to weaken and marginalize our opponents, not persuade them. We have to change these rules and this climate of discourse. Christians can be an important part of changing this climate from one of yelling “injustice!” to one of talking and seeking justice together. (168)

Keller follows the above paragraph with the quote below—and guess which U.S. president of the last 30 years uttered it? I won’t tell. You’ll have to Google it. But try guessing first. It will be so fun!

Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “Christians in the Public Square”

  1. The paragraph that Keller quotes is followed by the following paragraph:

    “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

    One author wisely noted that this paragraph contradicts the preceding paragraph. Perhaps Obama’s desire to have it both ways is politically motivated :0).

  2. Excellent point, Cecil. I’m going to hold on to this.

    I personally attribute President Obama’s ability to utter these contradictory paragraphs not to some purposeful intent to lie, not to some secularist conspiracy, but to a sincere personal belief that the two can be harmonized. This is testimony to the triumph of secularist discourse: it makes even the sincerely religious, which I take our president to be, give up their authority without thinking that’s what they’re doing.

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