The Civil Public Square

Craig Schwarze

I want you to imagine that the entire population of Australia has been reduced to just 20 people sitting in a room, and that you are one of those people. You look around at your fellow citizens and notice a few things. There are 10 men and 10 women present. 4 people are under the age of fifteen, 3 are over sixty-five, and the rest are somewhere in between. There are 2 people who look Asian, 1 who is half-middle eastern, and another who is half-aboriginal. Everyone else is white.

You begin talking with each other, and the subject turns to religion. 4 people immediately state that they are atheists, 2 people don’t want to talk about it, and 1 person has an ethnic religion.  Everyone else has some sort of Christian heritage. You are the only evangelical Christian in the room, and you and a devout Catholic are the only ones who attend church regularly.

A door suddenly opens and a man comes in carrying a bundle of papers. He says that you need to start making laws for your nation right away. He explains that Australia is a democracy. When there is a disagreement you must debate the issue and then vote, and the majority vote will carry the day. The first topic you are to legislate on is euthanasia, and you are asked to speak first.

What would you say?

Christians face a dilemma whenever we get involved in politics. This is because we hold “dual citizenship” - we are citizens of our nation, but we are also citizens of heaven. These citizenships are sometimes at odds! How do we move forward? Theologian Os Guiness describes three different ways that religion can interact with the “public square” of political debate.

The Sacred Public Square

The first model is the “sacred public square”, where a certain religion has a recognised priority over political decisions. The extreme form is a full theocracy, but more moderate forms can be seen when a religious group claims political privileges for some reason. An example would be the American “Religious Right”, which claimed natural authority on the grounds that America was historically a “Christian nation”. I don’t have time for a full critique, but history shows the sacred public square usually ends badly for politics and religion both.

The Naked Public Square

The other end of the spectrum is the “naked public square”, which demands that all religious content be removed from public political debate. People are required to leave their religion at the door. The call for a naked public square is both prejudiced and irresponsible. It is prejudiced because it applies only to the religious - the non-religious are not asked to abandon their ideologies. And it is irresponsible because it requires people to ignore deeply held values when making decisions - that is, it requires them to act without integrity.

The Civil Public Square

The third model, and the best one, is the so-called “civil public square”. In this option, no-one is asked to leave their beliefs at the door. The Christian brings their Christianity to the table, just as the Atheist brings their Atheism to the table. However, it is not a “sacred public square”, because no single belief system is given any form of priority. The Atheist, the Muslim, the Humanist, the Christian - all meet as equals, extending to each other mutual respect and “civility”.

How are decisions made? This is done using a framework that rejects dogmatic assertions, and instead focuses on shared values and reasoned debate. A moments reflection will show that a system like this *must* be in play if people holding different ideologies are to make a democracy work. If the Christian and the Atheist spend the entire debate hurling quotes from the Bible and the Humanist Manifesto back and forth, then very little will be accomplished.

There is no denying that Christianity once held a privileged position in our society, but those days are long past. For the Bible believing church goer in Australia, we are just 1 seat at a table of 20 - we can’t forget that fact. We need new ways to engage with public political life if we are to have any influence over the future of our nation.