Os Guiness, a leading voice in evangelical circles, is bringing up courageously an important issue in his latest book The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on it. In it he is making a case against “the sacred public space”, where one religion is given “a preferred place in public life” [p. 88] and “the naked public space” where “all religious expression is inviolably made private and the public sphere inviolably secular (p.116). He concludes by pleading for a “civil public space” which he defines as:
“one in which everyone – people of all faiths, weather religious or naturalistic – are equally free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faiths, as a matter of “free exercise” and as dictated by their own reason and conscience” (p. 135)”
I believe strongly in the need for such civil public square and in staying away from the two extremes. I salute in this respect the publishing of this timely book. We need, however, to be careful and self-examine ourselves as we approach this important issue. What is it that motivates us to encourage such a public forum? What is our attitude entering this public square? How do we view the “other”? These are questions that determine how we behave publicly. Are the mistakes “the Religious Right” have made and against which Os Guinness is speaking so vehemently just a matter of discourse, of bad tactics or are they an issue of message and of beliefs we need to re-examine? Do we, as Christians, believe we have got it all figured out and everybody else is wrong?
Here are a few points in the book I want to interact with. In this public square “There is no common core and there is no all-inclusive identity” (p.147) Guinness writes, hence our irreconcilable differences he’s concluding. He also writes “ ’The right to believe anything’ does not mean ‘Anything anyone believes is right’ ” (p.155) and yet “Differences need to be debated” (p.148).
Personally, I wish Os would have used another word. Debating involves two or more parties coming to the table with the assumption that they are right and the other is wrong. This is not the kind of discourse we want in this public space. We’re not trying to convince each other of our ways. Debates don’t really bring people together; they have a tendency to segregate, to create points of conflict. Who wants to be shown they are wrong? Who wants to loose? Maybe a better atmosphere to be encouraged in the public square is that of a conversation. The essential difference is that the parties involved come to the table with the assumption that they might be wrong (which Guinness alludes to when he says “we have a responsibility to be right, but with modesty; for we, too, may be wrong” p.156). We need to come together with humility willing to listen to each other so we can learn together and thus create a common platform that allows us to live in peace even if we don’t agree on everything. This seems to be a better posture in bringing people together than that of a debate; it shows authentic respect for each other and truly encourages participation. Do we believe people of different religious backgrounds have something valuable to offer, that there is good everywhere and we need to come together and celebrate this? This is an issue of belief that is critical if we are to approach this civil public square with hope.
If there is no common core that unites all of us, as the author seems to suggest, than how can we come together? How can we even talk about a common good unless there are ideals that unite us all. If “not everybody is right” than who is? While the subtitle of the book may seem to be encompassing the whole society, Os Guinness explains in an interview, that by it he refers to “the freedom of followers of Christ to be faithful to him in every area of our lives, including our freedom to enter and engage public life”. Are we to create this public square so that we (i.e. Christians) can push our message out? Is it only our freedom that concerns us?
As important as this issue of civil public square is, it is just as important to be prepared to enter it with the right attitude.
What are your thoughts?