Best of Citizens

Michael Metzger

Fall colors.
In Maryland, we’re already deep into the fall colors.  I’m not talking about leaves turning various shades, but the splendiferous array of candidate’s signs that litter the landscape.  We’re in the political season again.  And that always raises the thorny question of the relationship between religion and politics.  At present, we have three options outlining what Americans understand to be "the public square."  One is promoted by secularists and the second by religious folk.  But the third option – one that restores the Founding Fathers’ vision for a connection between faith and politics – argues for a public square that can promote (as St. Augustine put it) the "best of citizens."
Three squares.
The prevailing opinion of Americans, often buttressed by official government sanction, is that people ought to be allowed to hold to a faith, but only if it is relegated to the private realm of their life.  This is the first option – that church and state should be absolutely separated – and has been described as the "naked" public square.  This view says religion ought not to be mixed with politics – a trend that marginalizes and trivializes Christianity.1  In other words, the primary business of religion is to provide a vague sense of private comfort and personal guidance.  The Founding Fathers however did not envision such an arrangement.

The second option is often promoted by well-meaning religious folk seeking to re-impose an imagined earlier state of affairs on present day realities.  They want a privileged position for the Christian faith in American public life.  This is the "sacred" public square, where we are urged to return to our roots as a "Christian nation."  Not only is this picture of colonial America a myth, "in light of the recent explosion of pluralism, this solution is neither just nor workable.  There are simply too many "others" for any faith to be given any preferential position in public life."2

The present state of religious diversity does not permit agreement at the level of the theological origins of belief (where differences are often ultimate and irreducible).  But an important, though limited, agreement is still possible at the level of the outworking of beliefs – if negotiated within a freely chosen compact over the "Three Rs" of religious liberty: rights, responsibilities, and respect.3

The possibility of finding "limited agreement" is developed in the third option – a "civil" public square.  This is where citizens of all faiths (and none) are free to enter and engage public life within the framework of Constitutional first principles.  As the Williamsburg Charter states, "The result is neither a naked public square where all religion is excluded, nor a sacred public square with any religion established or semi-established.  The result, rather, is a civil public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or none, engage one another in the continuing democratic discourse."4

There’s a great deal to commend to this vision of a civil public square.  If you find it appealing, you can go online and read the Williamsburg Charter.  In a forthcoming book titled A Free Peoples’ Suicide (to be published in 2007), Dr. Os Guinness will further advance the idea that a civil public square is best suited to produce "the best of citizens."  If nothing else, plan to purchase three copies.  One for you to read, one for the candidate of your choice, and the third for your candidate’s opponent.

1  C.f. Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivializes Religious Devotion, (New York: Anchor, 1994)
2  Os Guinness, "A World Safe For Diversity: Religious Liberty and the Rebuilding of the Public Philosophy," Trinity Forum Briefing (Vol 1, No. 1, October 2000)
3  Ibid.
4  In 1986, a group of individuals representing the main religious faiths in the United States (Protestant Christian, Catholic Christian, Judaism, Secularism, etc) met to draft a statement on religious liberty.  It was named after Williamsburg, Virginia in recognition of that city’s role in the preservation of religious liberty and signed by 100 national figures on June 25, 1988 (the 200th anniversary of Virginia’s call for a Bill of Rights).


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