gods in the public square

Jonathan Leeman, in Political Church, lays out his stall in the opening preface. This is is part of his excellent opening:

We often rest the case for religious liberty on the publicly accessible and nonsectarian idea of “freedom of conscience” but are then surprised when a court employs “the right to define one’s concept of existence” to uphold abortion, or the right to make “certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs,” to justify marrying same-sex couples. Aren’t these latter formulations simply other ways of describing the free conscience? Why then should Christian consciences prevail over non-Christian ones when the two come into conflict?

This whole conversation about religious freedom rests on assumptions about the relationships between the political and the religious – namely, that they occupy separate, if sometimes overlapping, domains. Generally, we think of the public square as the place for politics, while the private domiciles of home and church are reserved for religion, even if we maintain that the boundary between them is porous.

This is the map I want to help throw out. Church and state are separate institutions with different jurisdictions. Neither should confuse itself for the other. One bears the sword, while the other bears the keys of the kingdom. Yet the work of each is set on a landscape where politics and religion are wholly coterminous, like two circle lenses placed perfectly on top of one another. The public square is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods. And the church is a political institution inhabited by citizen of heaven who bear a distinctly political message: Jesus is king.

The division between politics and religion, I dare say, is an ideological ploy. Imagine an airport security metal detector standing at the entrance of the public square, which doesn’t screen for metal but for religion. The machine beeps anytime someone walks through it with a supernatural big-G God hiding inside of one of their convictions, but fails to pick up self-manufactured or socially constructed little-g gods. Into this public square the secularist, the materialist, the Darwinist, the consumerist, the elitist, the chauvinist, and, frankly, the fascist can all enter carring their gods with them, like whittled wooden figures in their pockets. Not so the Christians or Jews. Their conviction that murder is wrong because all people are made in God’s image might as well be a semiautomatic. What this means, of course, is that the public square is inevitably slanted toward the secularist and materialist. Public conversation is ideologically rigged. The secularist can bring his or her god. I cannot bring mine because his name starts with a capital letter and I didn’t make him up.