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Policing the public square

There’s not much that you can’t hear on a busy street in the UK. Pedestrian traffic is much higher over there, which means that you have more opportunities to hear what others are saying as they go about their business. They also have a long history of street preaching. Apparently, though, things are getting a little more challenging in that arena. The Telegraph reports that a street preacher was recently arrested in the UK for publicly saying that homosexuality is a sin according to the Bible.

Whatever you want to say about the legitimacy of declaiming sins from the street corner, events like this raise serious questions about the continued direction of public discourse in western society. We seem to be picking up pace toward an understanding of the public square that renders off-limits any perspective that is overtly theological. This is, of course, simply the continuation of a centuries long trend toward secuarlized public spaces, but it is no less troubling for that fact. Like many, I worry about where this is going. We seem to be headed toward one of two possible outcomes. (1) We could capitulate and agree to shelve our theological convictions when we engage in public discourse. Basically, this means agreeing to “play by the rules” of public discourse by only using non-religious arguments. The problem here, of course, is that we will still have these theological convictions, and everyone will know it. So, try as we might to offer non-religious arguments, everyone will suspect that these arguments are actually drive by other (religious) arguments – and they’ll be right. The other apparent option (2) is to retreat into a theological ghetto where we continue to espouse religious reasons for public policy, but no one is listening.

Obviously, I’m not satisfied with either approach. Somehow we need to convince people of the legitimacy of religious (and, not just Christian) argumentation in the public square. Somehow, we need to revision the public square so that it is not viewed as a “secular” space, but as a space for legitimate, public discourse. And, that means a space where none need surrender his or her fundamental perspectives in order to participate in the conversation. Indeed, true public discourse should affirm the importance of these various perspectives for generating meaningful dialog. This won’t make the process any easier, indeed it will make it harder, but it will be significantly less shallow that what we have now.