The “Public Square” Myth
Here’s a graphic I used in a recent presentation on “Accepting Pluralism in a Secular Society.” (Presented at the Recent Interfaith Forum, Hamilton). It shows data* which sort of demolishes the “public square” myth argued by militant Christians. This is the claim that Christians are somehow being denied their rights to take part in public debate. It comes up when there is an expansion of the human rights of everyone – these militants interpret it as a loss of rights for them. When usually it amounts to a loss of privilege – like their privilege to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality or religion.
Often this sort of whining comes from evangelical Christians – which makes this data all the more ironic – it’s data collected by UK evangelical Christians! And it shows that evangelical Christians are actually more likely to take part in the “public square” than are other members of the general public. They are twice as likely to write letters to a newspaper and five times as likely to lobby or demonstrate.
So why the concern? Why the newspaper articles and academic papers** implying some sort of restriction to Christian participation in the “public square?” Why all that whining we have seen in the UK lately about militant and “aggressive” secularism trying to eliminate religion from public life?
Loss of privilege?
Well – look at the details and you begin to see what motivates this. The Bideford Town Council has been ordered not to include Christian prayers in the official business of its meetings. (See Defeat for imposed prayer and Privileged whinging?) The Whanganui District Council here voluntarily took the same action (see Whanganui District Council comes to senses). Note that no-ones’ right to religious observance has been denied – just their privilege of imposing it on others. (In both cases the alternative of those so-inclined praying before the meeting was offered).
The truth is there are no unreasonable restrictions limiting Christian access to the public square. Where some restrictions seem to exist (eg. harassment of co-workers on the job, wearing religious symbols where there are uniform rules, etc.) these apply to everyone – all religions and none. The public whining about those issues, and attempts to get religious exemptions, are just another example of demanding special privileges.
Mind you, I can understand that there may well be “perceived’ restrictions. This comment from Linda Woodhead, in her article Restoring religion to the public square, illustrates this. She describes “Being jeered by a lecture room full of academics” when commenting “after a lecture delivered by a notable and brilliant feminist scholar. “ She doesn’t detail her comment, only that it had something to do with explaining feminism’s global influence as due to religion.
“Restriction” self-imposed and tactical
This reminds me of the reaction of audiences in the old days when a certain dogmatic Maoist used to get up and lecture everyone during question time at political meetings. I can imagine his comrades trying to reign him in. Telling him to use language that was mere acceptable. And not to rely on dogmatic arguments which only his comrades accepted.
I can also imagine Linda’s brothers and sisters in her church telling her to try to use more secular language and to stop promoting arguments about region being responsible for everything, Christian Chauvinism, even though they all agreed that it was so. It’s a matter of communication.
In other words one should be tactical, recognise where the audience is at, when one attempts to communicate a message. But of course the dogmatists, whether they are Maoists or Christians, will see this as cowardice. That they have a moral and ideological responsibility to impose the stories and language they love on the listener – whatever their own beliefs.
It’s an old issue in political and ideological communication. But such a tactical issue is not a “restriction” on Christian participation in the public square. To see it that way is perverse. It is demanding the privilege that everyone else must accept the same stories, same language. Everyone else must think they way the Christian or Maoist prosletyser does.
They don’t – and they won’t. But in a democracy the Christians have the right to present their arguments. If they are able to use a language and stories that do not turn off their audience they will be successful If they insist on dogmatically assuming everyone will accept their own sectarian language and stories, and if they don’t they should, then so be it.
They won’t get their message across and they well be laughed at or even jeered. But participation in the public square is a two-way street. The audience has the right to disagree, to object, to jeer or even ridicule. To demand that they don’t is not only demanding an unreasonable privilege for yourself. It’s restricting the rights of others to take part in the public square.
*Data thanks to Christians active in the public square: survey – an article on The New Zealand Christian Network - which, ironically, actively campaigns against secularism.
** Religion in the “public square” does seem to get a lot of unwarranted attention from academic theologians and philosophers of religion.