Faith Returns to the Public Square

Finding the right voice for religion in public conversation and social action.

Religion is no longer just a private affair. It's back with a passion in American public life. And it's not only the religious right pressing its case.

The Supreme Court last week hewed close to separation of church and state in its ruling that Texas public schools could not allow prayer at football games. Yet more than 70 percent of Americans tell Gallup pollsters that daily prayer should be permitted in the classroom, the Ten Commandments should be displayed, and prayer should be allowed at graduation ceremonies.

Those views may not show a deep grasp of the US Constitution's First Amendment principles, but they vent a growing desire to break free from the idea that voicing religious values is forbidden in the interactions of community and national life.

"There is a high level of frustration among many Americans about what they perceive to be a hostility to religion in the public square," says Charles Haynes, of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "Whether that's true is a matter for debate. But that's how they view it, and they'd like to see changes."

Yet while they're more willing to speak openly about their convictions in the workplace, schools, and elsewhere, Americans remain largely alienated from political life and the civil discourse most recognize as crucial to sustaining a healthy democracy. Can they be wooed back in greater numbers into discussions on the issues? Can the shrill tone of public life be changed, and the confusion about First Amendment principles be alleviated?

Many people from across the political and faith spectrums are embracing the idea that religious values should be openly brought to bear in public debate as well as in social action, and are exploring ways to do that in line with First Amendment principles and without increasing divisiveness.

This spring, adherents of Islamic, Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Native American, and other faith traditions met for three days under the umbrella of Columbia University's American Assembly to develop a civic framework for public dialogue, and a plan of action for spurring it at all levels of public life.

Similarly, clergy and laity, activists and scholars on both sides of the pro-life/pro-choice debate recently came together under auspices of the Aspen Institute to draw from their intense experiences the lessons learned about "religious voices in divisive moral debates."

Religion not just a private matter

"The recent conviction of the latter part of the 20th century that religion was a private matter was an anomaly," Dr. Haynes adds. "The question for the 21st century is how we can make sure it comes back into public life in ways that strengthen the nation and not tear it apart."

Those involved in the emotionally charged abortion debate know first hand how religious convictions can foster misunderstanding and violence. But some on the front lines have made great strides in reaching across the divide and even in developing projects with those on the other side.

They were able to do that because often "their religious beliefs also propelled them toward common-ground dialogue," says Mary Jacksteit, former director of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which has supported such initiatives in communities across the country.

She points to Buffalo, N.Y. - "a place where religion, and where you go to church, really matters" - where citizens made the difficult transition over the past decade from confrontation to dialogue to active cooperation, and then passed the test of renewed crisis.

When Operation Rescue's 1992 anti-abortion campaign in the city provoked tensions, Ms. Jacksteit says, the local council of churches sought to stave off violence by opening up dialogue, and formed the Buffalo Coalition for Common Ground. Over several years, pro-life and pro-choice proponents learned to respect one another, built relationships, and created joint projects to reduce teen pregnancy and promote sexual responsibility.

Then in late 1998 a local doctor who performed abortions, Bernard Slepian, was murdered. Operation Rescue announced another "Save America Campaign" rally to be held a few months later in Buffalo.

"People in such crises often use it as an excuse to attack the other side," Jacksteit says. "In Buffalo, they stepped away from that stance." Working from the trust already established, the coalition spoke out against violence, held a 24-hour vigil in which both sides read from the Psalms, and brought pro-life activists together with Jewish community members to address anti-Semitism concerns. They convened public forums, and issued a "New Way" statement that committed them to working together on seven common concerns for the community. The rally fizzled.

As pro-life/pro-choice participants in the Aspen Institute meeting put it, "From our own experience, we are convinced that religious voices brought together in dialogue to locate common ground can serve the deepest public good."

Yet they also acknowledge "that some Americans are suspicious of religious voices in public discussions." Those suspicions arise mostly from the ways religion is often injected into the debate, ways that have helped define the "culture wars."

A veteran of testy public dialogues on many fronts, Martin Marty pictures it this way: "There are two mesas, and on top are the artillery of both sides of any cause shooting away at each other; in between in the valley are the majority of citizens.

"The 5 to 10 percent who are really impassioned set the terms and call on their God to reenforce them in ways that alienate almost everyone else," he adds.

Dr. Marty, director of the Public Religion Project and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, is committed to getting that vast majority back into the discussion - for the public good.

He has written a direct plea to Americans of faith in his new book, "Politics, Religion, and the Common Good," and he chaired the American Assembly session that brought 57 people from many walks of life together and demonstrated that "you don't have to follow the sniping model."

The assembly experience proved that people of profound and differing convictions could "speak absolutely freely" when the right kind of climate existed, he says. Marty believes that kind of climate can be created in town meetings, at school- and hospital- and zoning-board sessions - in all those places where communities grapple with contentious issues.

Joe Annicharico would agree. The assistant superintendent of Ramona Unified School District near San Diego has seen his district through challenging public discussions on the way to formulating school policies on teaching religion, a multicultural curriculum, and employment issues related to sexual orientation.

When religiously oriented segments of the community began to raise curriculum concerns about the same time that a very diverse school board was elected, the district asked the First Amendment Center to run workshops for school and community members on "finding common ground."

A task force was set up to consider religious and curriculum issues and engage faith leaders in dialogue. "This provided us with a public forum for dealing with sensitive issues," Dr. Annicharico says.

A civil civic process

The process worked well in designing the curricula, so when the district recently faced two other difficult issues, it took the same route. Community members expressed strong feelings about the implications of changing the school district's hiring policy to include protections for homosexuals, and its plans to end a practice of sharing a list of seniors with a local church, which then mailed Bibles to all graduates. Task force discussions yielded acceptable policies in both cases.

"The value of such a process is tremendous," Annicharico says. "You respect different points of view, encourage civility, and set a tone for the community.

"You can't educate children with a divided community," he adds. "This has become a strategy for us to come together on issues that involve deeply rooted convictions, whether they deal with religion or lifestyle."

The advocates for renewed public engagement recognize that if many religious voices join the scene, the potential for cacophony is great. Religious communities need to get busy and educate about civic principles, Haynes says.

In communities where one religion tends to predominate, adherents can be "tone deaf" to the problems of religious minorities, he says, but when they go through an educational process that changes.

Groups like the American Assembly, with its "Matters of Faith;" the Aspen Institute; and the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics, near Chicago, are helping by publishing suggested principles and guidelines for religious participants in public discourse.

Religion belongs in the public square, Marty says, because it deals with our "ultimate concerns" and our desire for community. "You can't get rid of religion, but you can improve the quality of what gets said, and the only way to do that is to involve more people with more viewpoints."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Faith Returns to the Public Square
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today