Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Christianity and the Marketplace of Ideas

Acts 17:22-23 (New Living Translation)

22 “So Paul, standing before the Council,[
a] addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious, 23for as I was walking along I saw your many altars. And one of them had this inscription on it—‘To an Unknown God.’ You have been worshiping him without knowing who he is, and now I wish to tell you about him.”

I received some interesting comments to my last post on the issue of separation of Church and State. After reading them, I’ve decided to answer some of them briefly.

First, there was the comment from “anonymous:”

“No one I know is calling for the banishment of all religion from “the public square.” Instead, we want to make sure that the government isn't promoting one religion or belief system (monotheism, for example) over others, and in doing so, imply that there is only one “correct” system of belief. We want to make sure that the government is completely neutral on the issue of religion. Religion should be expressed — even flourish — in non-governmental settings. It is these non-governmental settings that I think of when I hear the phrase “public square.”

I wish that were true, but it isn’t. In ruling after ruling, the courts have ruled against any type of religious expression. That, in turn, has created a climate in which anyone who objects to religious expression can hire a battery of lawyers, submit a brief, and then take the case all the way to the highest court in the land. For example, there have been numerous cases in which high school valedictorians have had their prayers edited out of speeches by school authorities because they feared a backlash from those who would object to a prayer by a person of faith.

What the courts have done is to expand the notion of what a government setting is and what a public setting is. It’s one thing to say that courts and government offices are within the reach of jurists. But the reach is extending to the workplace, to our schools, etc. And, it hasn’t stopped yet. The wheel truly is “still in spin.”

I understand that opening the public square creates problems. I understand that there would be some who would object to Christian faith being expressed in such settings. I understand that there are some who would object to Islam being expressed in the same arena. But to stifle all and pretend that in so doing we’ve created a “marketplace of ideas” is baffling. More and more religion and faith are being squeezed out of this great arena. And, the primary reason why this is happening is that the courts have taken an adversarial view toward religion and faith. They have created a climate where hostility is equated with neutrality.

As a Christian I’m not asking to control the marketplace. All I’m asking for is a place in it, a place where I can express my faith and not have it subject to tests of secular utility. All that does is create a civil religion that is almost meaningless. I say that Christianity can win out in the marketplace of ideas. And, for the Christian, the issue at hand is not whether Christianity should rule the political arena. The issue is a place in the arena where matters of faith and policy can be addressed without the courts trying, by fiat, to inhibit or water down the public discourse.

Next, there was this comment:

“I wholeheartedly believe in your right to believe in whatever God, dogma, doctrine, or belief system you want. However, I do not share your values, nor do millions of others who live in this country. But I do not try to convince you that you are wrong. That your faith might be misplaced or that my God is better than your God. Why must religious people do so? I understand that many things that happen in today's society may not agree with your beliefs and that they may not even be the best for society. However, you are not my judge. You are not responsible for my actions. This is even supported in biblical scripture. Judge not lest ye be judged. But do you Christians ever remember that part? No. You are all too busy trying to foist your beliefs on others.”

Why must we try to convince? It’s a core Christian belief. And, along with that belief comes the idea that all men are free moral agents. As such, they are free to make choices about their eternal destiny. They can choose to embrace the Christian message or the can choose to reject it.

I’m surprised that people who object to Christian evangelism say that they have deeply held beliefs, but don’t try to convince others. It makes me question how deeply held their beliefs are. But that’s becoming a very popular belief system these days. I’ve heard it when it comes to political philosophies – “I detest communism, but I support the right of people to rule others in such a system.” I’ve heard it said when it comes to great issues like abortion – “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I support a woman’s right to choose to have one.” That’s the type of belief system that seems more than a bit lukewarm to me.

Regarding the issue of judgment, the commenter was, I believe, half right. I’m not his judge, nor do I want to be. I’m not responsible for his actions, either. But, knowing that, I also know that I’m called upon to make judgments daily. Sometimes the judgments have little import, but sometimes they are momentous. Jurors are called upon to make judgments of guilt or innocence of those accused of murder, rape, assault, etc. I’m sure that the guilty would love to hold the mantra of “don’t judge” over the heads of the jurors when the case is turned over to them for judgment.

Now the last thing I’d want to do is “foist” my beliefs on someone else. I’d like to discuss them with people. I’d like them to hear me out. Once that is done I wouldn’t think of denying them the freedom to decide. That’s what the free marketplace of ideas is all about.

But, I’m also comfortable with the idea that we can “foist” some ideas on society. For thousands of years, for example, there have been sanctions against murder and theft. I’d like to continue honoring those and other sanctions that have stood the test of time.

This next comment was especially interesting:

“That's what your employer meant, too. It's not that your employer should have required you to attend church, nor that he should have dictated to you what beliefs were okay to express on the job, but that you should manifest your inherent and internal morality in the good deeds and noble foundations for other actions you take on the job.”

What the commenter seems to want is faith that has some sort of tangible utility before it can be viable in the public arena. The problem with that notion is that it is at its core very subjective. I’m all for good deeds. I try my very best to do them on a daily basis. But there are times when I’m at odds with society, and I find it trivial at those times when I hear those I oppose in the arena tell me to just go and do something “good.” I take it from the comment that picketing an abortion clinic isn’t a good deed. I take it that preaching an “exclusive” message, the one that is at the core of Christianity, is not doing a “good” deed. The simple answer to the comment is this. The Christian message calls on those who believe to act on the message they’ve heard. It calls on them to do good deeds and it also calls on them to proclaim an exclusive message of repentance and belief. One outlet of this faith is social, the other seems less so. But both are critical to Christian thought, belief, and action. In fact, I believe that you can’t have one without the other. It’s a package deal.
Then, finaly, there was this comment:

“I'm sorry, I don't have time to read the whole post and comments, so I hope I’m not missing anything, but I'd at least like to point out that state and religion should be separate for one very good reason, we're not all Christian!”
“I'd hate to see a Christian govt determine my rights! I don't hold the same beliefs and values at all. I believe in tolerance, love and compassion. Where it's clear this govt does not, regardless of ‘supposed’ religious orientation.”
“Maybe if they WERE real Christians, it would be very different. I have no argument with real Christians, the ones that are capable of really following what Jesus taught. Jesus was cool”

I agree with the commenter. Jesus is, indeed, cool! I also believe in tolerance, love, and compassion. I also understand that not everyone is Christian. I’m over sixty now and I’ve seen and associated with people who hold all sorts of beliefs. I count among my many friends in life Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists. I’ve known people who believe that the earth is flat. But the commenter missed the point when he assumed that I was advocating a theocracy. All I’m advocating is a booth in the great marketplace of ideas. I don’t really care if it’s right next to the atheist’s or the agnostic’s. That doesn’t bother me at all.

Along with the comment is the assumption that by advocating a seat at the table I’d be imposing my beliefs. It’s a patently false notion, born out of the anti-religious climate that is now holding sway in the marketplace.
This, from Dr. Stephen Carter, really strikes a chord with me in this regard:

“The awful phrase – “imposing religious beliefs” – conjures up images of the religious right, the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the Reverend pat Robertson’s presidential campaign, the 1992 Republican Convention, and the rest comes in a jumble of post-Enlightenment angst: We live in a secular culture, devoted to sweet reason. We separate church and state. We believe in tolerance. We aren’t superstitious. Taking religion seriously is something that only those wild-eyed zealots do: Operation rescue, blocking the entrances to abortion clinics…you know who we mean, those Christian fundamentalists…the evangelicals…the folks who want classroom prayer in public schools, but think that God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews…you know, those television preachers…those snake-charming faith healers…and John O’Connor…and the “scientific’ creationists.”

As I said in my previous post, I’m not an advocate of Christian rule. All I’m advocating is a place in the great marketplace of ideas. Once there, I can make my own way and take care of myself. As far as I’m concerned it’s really all that simple. Unfortunately, the courts have muddied the water and created a climate that sees religion and faith as society’s enemies. This needs to stop!


Ed Darrell said...

You said: "In ruling after ruling, the courts have ruled against any type of religious expression. "

Can you name three such rulings? In my years working constitutional issues with the Senate, in my law studies, in my law practice, I can't think of any cases which "ruled against any type of religious expression."

Perhaps if you can demonstrate what you're concerned about, we can discuss with more information.

James Fletcher Baxter said...

From the days of the Mayflower and its Compact, the founding of America, and until the latter 20th Century, this was a Christian nation. Christians produced a nation of Liberty and value of each individual person, thus requiring an environment of Freedom in which all citizens are free to choose in every area of life.

Such a nation has staggered the imagination of the world by its creative opportunities for personal endeavor and private life and property and individual creative Rights. Responsibility requires evaluation of dangers and advantages of decisions based on glandular secretions - not superior criteria and courageous reason.

Christians are still today the greatest defenders of natural human Rights and Responsibilities. Possession of Transcendent Criteria and Principles equip the true Believer with abilities to anticipate consequences in the future, of ignorant, carnal, and selfish choices, and are guttsy enough to take on all comers with their anti-standards perversions and defensive mediocrities.

Their non-value systems are doomed by nature to fail since they are unable to come up with a better or superior alternative to the greatness of America; they prefer 'criticism,' betrayal, and sedition.

The coming generations will prove how inadequately any other (man-made) system will 'work.' Compromise and surrender will never produce a greater nation among the human family. selah

But, it will be too late... Heads up.

James Fletcher Baxter said...

"We have the gift of an inner liberty so far-reaching
that we can choose either to accept or reject the God
who gave it to us, and it would seem to follow that the
Author of a liberty so radical wills that we should be
equally free in our relationships with other men.
Spiritual liberty logically demands conditions of outer
and social freedom for its completion." Edmund A. Opitz

"These examples demonstrate a basic truth -- that human
dignity is embodied in the free choice of individuals."
Condoleeza Rice


Ed Darrell said...

To the extent that this nation was a "Christian nation" at the time of the Mayflower Compact, or at the "founding of America," it still is today. There is no need to change anything.

But then, I'll bet most people have never read the Mayflower Compact, diagrammed its sentences, and seen its history. It was an agreement between the minority aboard the ship, the religious refugees, and the majority, the non-religious craftsman the London Company sent along to make sure real work got done and real value got sent back to London. Since the ship had missed its landing spot by several hundred miles, the craftsman argued that neither the laws of England nor the contracts with the London Company bound anyone to anything. In short, they informed the religious bunch, once the party landed at Plymouth, it was every man or woman for self.

The Mayflower Compact has some flowery language in it, noting that the colonists come hoping to achieve something for the "glory of God." But the meat of the document is the compact between the colonists, a government by the consent of the governed, in which each of the colonists pledges to work toward setting up fair rules and laws, and then to obey them. It is a compact between the colonists, calling on the authority of neither the King nor of God. As conservative education specialist Diane Ravitch notes, it was the beginning of rule by consent of the governed among Europeans in America.

That agreement was necessary so that people of differing religions beliefs could live in harmony. It worked then. We should not abandon the concept now.

Anonymous said...


This is a troubling blog post. You apparently don't see the difference between a religion-neutral government and Christains being "denied a place at the table."

"In ruling after ruling, the courts have ruled against any type of religious expression."

As I recall, the Supreme Court recently ruled that a courthouse in Texas could display the Ten Commandments on its lawn in relation to displays of other legal systems. The substance of the ruling — and that of another case — was that the government could display the Ten Commandments, just not in a proslytizing context. To me, that hardly sounds like ruling against "any type of religious expression."

"What the courts have done is to expand the notion of what a government setting is and what a public setting is."

How? I regard public high schools as a government setting, and I have for a long time. The issue is still religious expression by the government, not in the public sphere.

And I don't see the marginalization of religion in society that you criticize. I see signs in many of my local businesses that say, "God Bless America." There was even a (privately funded) billboard with the same saying near my place last year. There's a Christian UHF station in my city that broadcasts religiously themed programs 24/7, as well as a couple of stations that reserve their prime-time slots for shows that preach Christianity. And that isn't even counting the religious programs on Sunday morning. Add to that the churches and synagogs that dot my neighborhood, religious-themed festivals, elected officials including statements of a belief in God in their speeches...

Christianity already has a "place at the table." The trick is to make sure that government doesn't favor one religious belief system over another.

With respect, your blog post is too hyperbolic. You seem to equate the courts upholding the wall between church and state with "an adversarial view toward religion and faith" — when they are not the same thing. If you define the "marketplace of ideas" as including the government, a case can be made for the government enforcing laws rooted primarily in Christian belief over competing laws rooted primarily in secular social benefits. If Christianity best expresses itself through proslytizing, as you seem to say, then it follows that the government should proslytize in the name of Christianity.

I do not agree with any of this. The United States has gone from a government in which Christianity — or at least monotheism — was the favored religion. We have moved toward a government that now (for the time being) recognizes that the best way to protect Christianity is to take a neutral position on it in respect to — and out of respect for — other religions. I believe that many Christians are resentful over this loss of privileged status, and they characterize the government's current position as "hostility."

And if we can't agree on what is neutrality and what is hostility, this doesn't bode well for discussing religion in this country or valuing religious diversity. Where will all of this lead?

Rob in L.A.