This post started out as a comment on John C.’s excellent post from three days ago, but as my comment grew in length, I decided, with apologies to John, to write a follow-up post.
John addressed the familiar complaint which is often voiced by conservative religious people, including many LDS people, that they are being denied a fair hearing in “the public square”, whatever that is. The idea, as I understand it, is that in the cacophony of competing voices in our society today, the religious voice is being shouted down. John correctly identified the immediate problem, which is that we have no satisfactory answer to the question: What is religion? Many of the people in the First Things/Square Two crowd have tried to get around this problem by saying, for purposes of the public square, that all systems of belief qualify as religions, including secularism and atheism. I think that approach is wrong for two reasons: It is a tactical error, and it is fundamentally dishonest.
It is a tactical error because it forces us to compete on somebody else’s terms. We will never prevail in a secular discussion because sooner or later we need to retreat to faith claims and testimony. We would be better off to acknowledge that right up front and then appeal to the idea that religion deserves to be respected because it is good for the social order. This was the view that was held by both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and neither of them could be described as pious. (And it is also worth thinking about what we mean when we say that the founders were more religious that we are today. Thomas Jefferson edited and published his own version of the bible from which he removed any mention of the divinity of Jesus and miracles. Let’s see a show of hands from everybody who thinks somebody could do that today and still be elected president.)
It is dishonest because we don’t really want just to be heard, we want to be agreed with. The complaint only comes up when people don’t accept our arguments. And it is also dishonest because we ourselves don’t think that all religions are created equal. Here is a partial list of authentic religions the public square complainers don’t care about: People who worship Vishnu, native Americans who use peyote in their ritual, people who would seek to institute Shari’a law, and adherents of the church of the High Holy Snakehandler. When we claim to speak on behalf of religion, what we really mean is our religion. It would be refreshing if we would drop the pretense.
Finally, I think the public square is an inadequate metaphor. It calls to mind a genteel New England town hall meeting where everybody gets a chance to say what’s on his mind and then goes home happy. But nobody is going home happy now, so I think it would be better to think of the rough and tumble sorting-out that is going on in our public life in Ultimate Fighting terms. It is a zero sum game where there are winners and losers. You are probably going to take a few roundhouse kicks to the head, and you should understand that before you even get into the octagon. And nobody likes a sore loser, so you can’t complain afterward that the fight was rigged or that the ref wasn’t fair. But the main reason we need to stop our everlasting kvetching about the public square is because the first rule of the public square is that you don’t talk about the public square.