The term public square has become popular in Religious Right language in recent years. There is a great deal of umbrage taken that liberals and atheists have pushed religion out of the public square. Many Christians complain about the “attack” on Christmas crèches, crosses, and symbols on courthouse lawns, Ten Commandments plaques on the walls of government buildings, prayers by school boards, and political declarations of piety.
They convince themselves that perceived loss of Christian presence in public discourse is tantamount to a modern martyrdom, occasionally characterizing their plight as like facing lions in the Coliseum. Poor Christians. There is and long has been an overwhelming presence of the Christian message in public affairs. Along with Christianity’s theocracy-minded influence in government decisions, it still plays the persecution card. Thus does the Christian Right portray its bullying as victimization, all the while professing its actions—often even violations of law—to be in the service of religious freedom. As I pointed out in a previous post, Christian “freedom of religion” frequently means freedom to tell others what to do, using when possible the power of civil government.
Little inspection is required to see how hollow their dedication to religious freedom is. The flaw in Christians’ efforts to keep religion in the public square is that it is clearly Christianity they want there, seldom is it religion in general, and certainly not opinions antagonistic to their specific religion. In other words, their interest is not enrichment of public discourse; that would be a meritorious pursuit in a democratic society. Their interest is in the theocratic preference for Christianity to dominate the scene. One of their strategies is the rewriting of history, trying to demonstrate that America is and was intended to be a “Christian nation,” a patently unsupportable notion which this blog has also addressed.
Like the Pilgrims and Puritans who installed European Christianity on North American soil, the likes of Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee, the late Jerry Falwell, and thousands of conservative Christian leaders (not to mention millions of their followers), they have little interest in religious liberty except their own. Just watch the uproar when non-Christians try to place their messages on the same courthouse lawns or on the same schoolhouse walls. Billboards erected by freethought organizations with statements like “Jesus is a myth” or “Good without God” have been opposed vehemently and often vandalized. Similarly, demands by non-Christian groups to be given equal time for their points of view in schools, councils of government, or on public property are opposed as evil attacks on Christian hegemony.
Christians as a group (not all, to be sure) enjoy and demand as much theocracy as they can get away with, unmindful of the petard upon which government entanglement threatens to hoist even their own freedom of religion. The greatest threat to freedom of religion is that promulgated by religions, for religionists’ greatest combat is with each other, not with unbelief. A brief glance at history demonstrates the religious poisoning of civic life when one Christian sect or another becomes dominant. No one goes to war for atheism, but they have and still do for Sunni, Shia, Protestant, Catholic, and other faiths. Short of war, of course, have been numerous community travesties in America when one religion or another dominated the scene. Real freedom of religious expression brings the “threat” of our various religious sects assailing each other.
So if we must pollute our civic environment by homage to Jesus in the public square, let us invite all philosophies in without preference. Beyond common courtesies, they need not worry about giving offense or calling their opponents’ beliefs false. Open expression in the public square—unlike in the privacy of churches or other institutions of worship—must be truly open expression. Atheism is part of that discussion, so let secular humanists promote ethics that don’t rely on a supernatural source. Let Catholics extol the transubstantiation of Christ’s flesh and blood. Let Mormons and Hindus and Muslims preach their takes on reality. Let atheists say boldly what ridiculous propositions form the foundation of all religions.
The courthouse lawn and interior walls would fill quickly. Little children in public schools would be surrounded with competing religious and nonreligious world views. There would be scant justification for selecting some beliefs and non-beliefs to exclude. Government’s role would be one of strict neutrality in the melee, showing no preference between one faith and another, nor between religious faith and no religious faith.
Therefore, there would be a great deal of religion in the public square, though with no government preference. There would be no police cars garnished with religious slogans, no special attention to Christian views in public schools, no religious mottos and symbols in the courts, no tax benefits to religious institutions beyond those extended to other nonprofit organizations, no tax exclusions for the housing of religious leaders, and no hesitance in education to acknowledge findings of science, no pretense that American law is based on one of the sets of Hebrews’ Ten Commandments, and the many other ways in which religionists have manipulated government to favor their theology, symbols, practices and even their legal rights.
As a side benefit, atheists eventually could successfully run for political office, no longer subject to the preposterous religious lie that they are less trustworthy than the pious. Political office-seekers and office-holders, just as everyone else, would be free from having to afford religions freedom from criticism. Religion, like any other world view or proposition about reality would be as subject to reproach in polite society as nonreligious ones. Politicians would not feel constrained to punctuate their rhetoric with the obligatory “God bless America.”
Actually, I’d rather enjoy that vivacious, energetic kind of public square. But the most important consideration is this: our Constitution demands either this possibly disturbing scene or one in which public property and public decisions are reserved for civic affairs only, no sectarian messages allowed. Since religious people are in the majority in the US, it would even be religious people making the choice between these alternatives (since the nature of the public square, as long as it is Constitutional, would be a civic choice, not a religious one). But it is not a Constitutional option for the faithful to grumble and lick their pretended wounds while routinely violating Constitutional protections they don’t like.
In view of these considerations, would Christians, particularly those of the Religious Right, really want religion in the public square?