First Things

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Theology for the Public Square


Theology for the Public Square exists to bring the truth of Christianity to political society in order to explain, promote, and defend the religious, moral, and philosophical foundations necessary to create and sustain a virtuous and flourishing civilization.

The Public Square

The idea of the public square originates from the ancient Greek agora, the “gathering place” or “assembly” where prominent citizens would gather to debate the urgent matters of the day. The agora, however, also served as a common place where athletes could train, artists could create and sell their crafts, and wise sages could teach their disciples. In other words, the public square was where citizens of a community would do life together.

While the public square used to be such a physical meeting place in American history, today it takes many different forms and manifestations: town halls, local councils, academic institutions, online forums, blogs and websites, political assemblies, social media, and more. Thus the public square serves more as a metaphor for the way in which we talk to our friends, neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues, and political representatives through various means of communication—most of it digital. Additionally, the public square is now a virtual global public square, so that the global village is just as important as our national one. The public square is where we as citizens discover and learn to live with our deepest differences, and where we wrestle with what it looks like to be a part of something greater than ourselves. It is paramount, then, that everyone be invited and everyone take part.

Yet today the public square is considered to be a place reserved for political, social, and economic debate, while religion and morality are left to the private sphere of the home. Not only is this historically anachronistic and inaccurate in America’s own past, but it creates the problem of the naked public square—a problem that Richard John Neuhaus identified almost thirty years ago. Thus, the public square in America today is in many ways an exclusive and intolerant public square, purposely pushing out unwanted groups (like traditional Christians), even while the dominant players covertly smuggle in their own morality and religion.

It is vital that we return America’s public square to an open, inclusive, and respectful place where everyone can come to discuss what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century. The public square is a place where we as a people and citizenry decide who we will be: what we will value, how we will behave, how will we treat one another, what our purpose and goals are as a people, and our place on the international stage. It is where we consider, debate, and resolve the prevailing, and often perplexing, issues of our day. No one should be excluded on the basis of country of origin, religious beliefs, ethnicity, or political ideology. A vibrant public square is vital to maintaining a flourishing culture.

Explanation of Mission Statement

Truth of Christianity. Christian theology regularly makes claims about the nature of truth that can be known through both reason and revelation. While this includes specific religious beliefs, it implicates the world beyond the Christian Scriptures as well. Christianity, then, is not simply one religious faith or creed among hundreds with application limited to the theological domain. Instead, it presents a worldview, a total and complete understanding of the nature, meaning, and purpose of life within a greater narrative that stretches from creation to consummation, including our own time. The modern world has long sought to drive a wedge between facts and values, science and religion, politics and theology. But the Christian God claims dominion over all of these: each forms an important yet distinct aspect of the fabric of his creation, and thus each should be the appropriate locus for Christian interaction, work, and rigorous thinking in service of truth and human flourishing.

Political Society. As a worldview, Christianity purports to encompass all of life, meaning that there is no sphere where Christian ideas and truth cannot be applied in order to bring about transformative results for the good of all. In addition, the gospel of Jesus Christ is public truth since it makes claims relevant to public life. Although issues like politics, economics, and civil society are often contentious and some Christians advocate abandoning any personal or communal involvement, there is no intrinsic reason to think that God does not care about these necessary and inevitable aspects of our lives, and that he desires us to think hard and do good for his glory and for the well-being of others in these areas. In fact, I will contend throughout my writings that the gospel of Christ—rightly understood—claims to redeem and restore all of creation, including the political, economic, and cultural dimensions. At times the public square has been neglected by Christians, which has sadly led to confusion and chaos regarding a healthy and redemptive approach to political and civil society by believers. Theology for the Public Square makes it its expressed goal to articulate a biblical vision of the Common Good that is both clear and compelling, and to lead the way in reforming a vibrant Christian approach to political society.

Explain, Promote, and Defend. In many ways a Judeo-Christian approach to political and civil society has been lost to America’s modern cultural consciousness. This is partly due to secularization which has been creeping through our institutions, schools, laws, and governance for over a century. Yet it is also due to misunderstandings and abuses by Christians who use the authority of their faith in the public sphere for destructive ends (often unwittingly). Theology for the Public Square seeks to combat both of these (and other) tendencies that dilute our vision of a flourishing civilization. This requires constant attention to explaining our positions thoroughly, promoting them widely and in an ecumenical fashion, and defending them when necessary. We do so on the conviction that the truth is knowable and can be mutually discovered through reasoned discourse and friendly argument.

Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Foundations. All civilizations build upon some sort of metaphysical and moral worldview, and America is no different. In fact, America was explicitly founded upon a natural law understanding of God, humanity, and political life together. While we are not a “Christian nation,” we owe a great debt to the Judeo-Christian beliefs that went into crafting our Constitutional structure, the envisioning of a free and virtuous citizenry, and making the government accountable to both the people and a higher law and Lawgiver. This understanding of America’s founding has been rejected in many scholarly quarters, as a revisionist history of America as a secular, godless, and oppressive regime has been widely promoted. Theology for the Public Square desires to return our nation to its religious, moral, and philosophical foundations, and to show not only why this is beneficial to everyone, but why the continuation and flourishing of our (and any) civilization demands it.

Virtuous and Flourishing Civilization. The story of America is a remarkable one, not least because the radically new experiment in order Constitutional liberty worked beyond the wildest dreams of the founding generation. Not only was our political government a success, but we became powerful and prosperous economically, culturally, and internationally in our early years. America is still a prosperous nation, at least materially. Yet flourishing civilizations do not happen by accident, and troubling cracks in our foundation have begun to appear. In many ways we have become complacent as a people, and we’ve taken American success for granted as we’ve lost the knowledge of what makes a country truly great. Economic, political, and cultural decline—civilizational rot—are always a looming threat, and so Theology of the Public Square promotes a vision of political society that will stave off national decay and renew our country as a virtuous and flourishing civilization.