Christianity struggles in the public square
“We must divide the children of Adam into two classes; the first belong to the kingdom of God, the second to the kingdom of the world,” Martin Luther observed in his treatise on secular authority.
With this declaration, Luther was a forerunner to James Madison and Thomas Jefferson who won the battle for separation of church and state in Virginia in the 1780s, setting the precedent for the nation as a whole.
Even though Madison and Jefferson were representing evangelical Baptists who were trying to spread their gospel in an autocratic Anglican state, many of today’s evangelicals no longer support separation of church and state. In fact, they keep trying to breach the wall at every turn.
To translate Luther’s observation into modern America, we have Christians who are in both kingdoms – the church and the public square.
When America was founded, the kingdom of God was quite large. In fact, there was no public square because it was also the kingdom of earth with the Puritan hierarchy running both kingdoms in one town hall meeting.
As soon as other denominations and ideologies appeared, the public square had to become larger and its participants more tolerant with the addition of every new theology and belief.
Nevertheless, America became a Protestant country because the voice of Protestants dominated the public square. Then the Irish Catholics came and their presence required a place with the Protestants in the public square.
The outcome of this confrontation was predicted by history. Dominant religions have always found it difficult to welcome new believers so violence and discrimination greeted newcomers who needed space in the public square. But the Catholics persisted and were eventually accommodated in our melting pot.
A good example of accommodation occurred in a Benson County country school in the 1920s when the Lutheran teacher told the students: “We won’t be able to do our Sunday School lessons on Fridays anymore because a Catholic pupil will be coming to school.”
Through the decades, the size of the public square increased as religious, social, political and economic diversity grew. And each time it grew, those in the square were forced to reduce the size of their claim in the square.
Even though we consider ourselves a tolerant people today, the arrival of Moslem immigrants is resulting in discrimination and fear because they practice a unique religion, dress differently and are, well, different. So many today refuse to give them space in the public square.
So we are engaging in the same tactics against the Moslems as we used against Catholics, as well as African-Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanics. Painfully, the public square keeps growing, but not without bloodshed, fear and hate.
The public square of the Puritans is no longer the public square of today. Nevertheless, those who profess to be in today’s kingdom of God continue to act as though they were still in the days of the Puritans when they could enact laws to legalize their religious beliefs.
Well, those days are over. Those of us who think we are in the kingdom of God need to reassess our approach to serving society in the public square while remaining followers of Christ. So far, all we have done is polarize society, bring disrepute to the Gospel, and demonstrate a high degree of hypocrisy.
As the public square squeezes out the Christian values we profess, we need to back off the public square and look to churches to assume a greater responsibility for Christian values. And then individual Christians need to accept greater personal responsibility for their own faith and demeanor.
We can no longer depend on the government or the public square to maintain the Christian faith. Nor should we expect it.