Why Leaving Religion Out of the Public Square Is Impossible (Favorite Sermon Notes - Part 2)

This is part 2 of a series called "Favorite Sermon Notes" that shares notes from my favorite sermons or writings. This article draws from the writings and sermons of Timothy Keller, the pastor who founded the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York. He is also the author of The New York Times bestselling books "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism," "The Prodigal God," and "Prayer."

All beliefs are unavoidably exclusive; but some beliefs, like secularism, are much better at hiding it. This is the self-refuting mechanism found in secular, relativistic arguments against absolute truth, as explained in Part 1 in this series.

But wait, there's more!

There's more circular logic floating around that loves to condemn others of the very things it practices.

For example, modern secular philosophy argues that religious faith must forever be a private affair only -- something that is never brought into serious discussions in the public square.

Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, sums up this post-modern attitude that has worked hard to make people "feel uncomfortable" about bringing up their Christian faith in public. Secularists often express the following sentiments:

Religion-based positions are seen as sectarian and controversial, while secular reasoning for moral positions are seen as universal and available to all. Therefore, public discourse should be secular, never religious...*

But there's a very subtle false assumption -- a wrong presupposition about the definition of religion -- hidden in that anti-religious attitude above.

Keller explains what this hidden false assumption is (and I've re-formatted it for easier online reading):

Let’s begin by asking what religion is:

  • Some say it is a form of belief in God. But that would not fit Zen Buddhism, which does not really believe in God at all.
  • Some say it is belief in the supernatural. But that does not fit Hinduism, which does not believe in a supernatural realm beyond the material world, but only a spiritual reality within the empirical.
  • What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing.
  • For example, some think that this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and therefore the important thing is to choose to do what makes you happy and not let others impose their beliefs on you.
  • Notice that though this is not an explicit, “organized” religion, it contains a master narrative, an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things.*

This secular viewpoint -- that we are here by accident, and when we die, we rot, and that's it, so live it up not while you can and don't let anyone get in your way, etc. -- is an "implicit religion," as Keller calls it.
"Implicit" means "implied though not plainly expressed." It's a little like being passive aggressive or expressing your opinion in a roundabout, indirect way.

Every view about the world requires elements of unprovable faith. As Keller puts it: "Everyone lives and operates out of some narrative identity, whether it is thought out and reflected upon or not."*

In other words, if you are coming to the table of public policy -- whether you're a city council member, a senator, or the President -- if you are making a statement that expresses a belief about what society should do and what society should not do, then you are automatically presenting core beliefs that tell others what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing.*

Just because your beliefs and assumptions about the nature of life and purpose of human existence aren't colorfully clothed in the garb of organized religion, it doesn't mean it's not a religious view point.

The secularist points fingers at religious people who bring their "unprovable faith assumptions" into the public square. But the secularist's grounds for making this criticism reeks with hypocrisy. As I quoted in my previous article, "Why It Is Not 'Narrow-Minded' to Believe in Jesus":

"Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true. But this objection is itself a religious belief. It assumes God is unknowable, or that God is loving but not wrathful, or that God is an impersonal force rather than a person who speaks in Scripture. All of these are unprovable faith assumptions."*

Keller goes on to explain the fundamental hypocrisy that exists in those who attack Christians for expressing their faith publicly:

All who say “You ought to do this” or “You shouldn’t do that” reason out of such an implicit moral and religious position. Pragmatists say that we should leave our deeper worldviews behind and find consensus about “what works”— but our view of what works is determined by (to use a Wendell Berry title) what we think people are for. Any picture of happy human life that “works” is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life. Even the most secular pragmatists come to the table with deep commitments and narrative accounts of what it means to be human.

Keller hits a home run with this next point:

Rorty [a prominent secular philosopher] insists that religion-based beliefs are conversation stoppers. But all of our most fundamental convictions about things are beliefs that are nearly impossible to justify to those who don’t share them. Secular concepts such as “self-realization” and “autonomy” are impossible to prove and are “conversation stoppers” just as much as appeals to the Bible...There is no objective, universal consensus about what [it means to be happy and fully human]. Although many continue to call for the exclusion of religious views from the public square, increasing numbers of thinkers, both religious and secular, are admitting that such a call is itself religious.*

And that's the point here: they are forbidding others, with a high-minded moral authority and condescending arrogance, from doing the very thing that they themselves are doing.

The bottom-line?

When someone uses a hypocritical line of reasoning to shut you up, do not shut up. Speak louder, bolder, and with more determination.

When people tell you to shut up about your faith in public, kindly agree to be silent about your faith as soon as they agree to be silent about theirs.

Besides, there are some very good reasons to ensure that Christianity maintains a prominent role in our culture.

Keller's Defense of the Positive Influence of Christianity in Society

This is breaking news by the way: Academic World Rocked by Discovery: The Free World Owes the Church for the Great Magna Carta.

Kindly remind Christophobic secularists who attack your beliefs and try to censor you that Christianity, as demonstrated by the recent Magna Carta discovery above, has contributed many, many priceless treasures to civilization. Yes, there have been Christians who have rejected the teachings of Christ, twisted them into abusive creeds, and done terrible deeds in the name of Christ, but I would argue that Christianity has given much more to society in its history than it has taken.

As Keller argued in reply to skeptics who were quick to list the "sins of the church" (and notice he makes a distinction about what kind of Christianity):

However, within Christianity— robust, orthodox Christianity— there are rich resources that can make its followers agents for peace on earth. Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart...Christians believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, capable of goodness and wisdom. The Biblical doctrine of the universal image of God, therefore, leads Christians to expect nonbelievers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them. The Biblical doctrine of universal sinfulness also leads Christians to expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them. So there will be plenty of ground for respectful cooperation.*

Keller exposes a misguided stereotype that many people hold about what Christianity actually teaches -- especially in regards to how its adherents should treat those who disagree with them:

Christianity not only leads its members to believe people of other faiths have goodness and wisdom to offer, it also leads them to expect that many will live lives morally superior to their own. Most people in our culture believe that, if there is a God, we can relate to him and go to heaven through leading a good life. Let’s call this the “moral improvement” view. Christianity teaches the very opposite. In the Christian understanding, Jesus does not tell us how to live so we can merit salvation. Rather, he comes to forgive and save us through his life and death in our place. God’s grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Savior. Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf. Most religions and philosophies of life assume that one’s spiritual status depends on your religious attainments. This naturally leads adherents to feel superior to those who don’t believe and behave as they do. The Christian gospel, in any case, should not have that effect.*

Keller then responds to the charge of "fundamentalism" within Christianity:

It is common to say that “fundamentalism” leads to violence, yet as we have seen, all of us have fundamental, unprovable faith-commitments that we think are superior to those of others. The real question, then, is which fundamentals will lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive to those with whom they differ? Which set of unavoidably exclusive beliefs will lead us to humble, peace-loving behavior?*

He then makes a telling contrast between ancient Grecian culture (which had a hyper-tolerant mix of worldviews not unlike post-modernistic tendencies) and ancient Christian culture:

One of the paradoxes of history is the relationship between the beliefs and the practices of the early Christians as compared to those of the culture around them. The Greco-Roman world’s religious views were open and seemingly tolerant— everyone had his or her own God. The practices of the culture were quite brutal, however. The Greco-Roman world was highly stratified economically, with a huge distance between the rich and poor. By contrast, Christians insisted that there was only one true God, the dying Savior Jesus Christ. Their lives and practices were, however, remarkably welcoming to those that the culture marginalized. The early Christians mixed people from different races and classes in ways that seemed scandalous to those around them. The Greco-Roman world tended to despise the poor, but Christians gave generously not only to their own poor but to those of other faiths. In broader society, women had very low status, being subjected to high levels of female infanticide, forced marriages, and lack of economic equality. Christianity afforded women much greater security and equality than had previously existed in the ancient classical world. During the terrible urban plagues of the first two centuries, Christians cared for all the sick and dying in the city, often at the cost of their lives.

Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behavior that was so open to others? It was because Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peace-making. At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them. It meant they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents...We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?*

Amen, Timothy Keller. Amen.

*All quotes from "Reason for God" in this article can be found: Keller, Timothy (2008-02-14). The Reason for God (p. 12-19). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.