Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Three Public Squares

Stephen V. Monsma


April 13, 2012

By Stephen V. Monsma

As this year’s seemingly never-ending presidential race has unfolded, three different visions of the place of religion in the public square are competing for favor. 

One vision is that of a religious public square.  In this vision, religion—and usually the particular religion held by the advocates of this vision—occupies a welcomed and favored position in public life.  The religious right and some of the more religiously oriented Republican presidential candidates, such as Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry, took this position.  They favor prayers (presumably Christian) in the public schools, oppose gay rights on the basis that the Bible rejects a gay lifestyle, and favor religious symbols such as crosses on government-owned land and the Ten Commandments in government buildings.

The problem is that under this vision government is no longer neutral on matters of religion.  At the very least, this view favors religion and religious views of life over nonreligious, secular belief systems.  To the extent it favors Christianity or a broader Judeo-Christian tradition, this vision uses government to advance particular religious traditions—something both the demands of “justice for all” and the First Amendment reject.

The religious public square is vigorously opposed by those who favor a secularized public square.  President Obama, many other Democrats and some news commentators have taken this position.  From their perspective, the only way to assure freedom of religious belief and practice is to relegate religion to the private spheres of personal devotional activities and religious congregations with their religious rituals and celebrations.  By removing religion from public life of the nation, no one is subjected to unwanted religious messages or reminders. 

This vision has the same problem as the religious public square vision, except that it favors the secular over the religious rather than the religious over the secular.  Those who hold to the secularized public square as the key means of securing religious freedom for all fail to recognize that a public square scrubbed clean of all religion is not neutral, but instead favors secular understandings of life over religious ones.  As political scientist A. James Reichley once wrote, “[B]anishment of religion does not represent neutrality between religion and secularism; conduct of public institutions without any acknowledgement of religion is secularism.”  Secular views of life are today competing with religious ones, and to favor the secular over the religious is no more neutral than to favor the religious over the secular.

This leaves a third option: a pluralistic public square.  Under this vision, religious freedom for all is attained by welcoming all, but favoring none among the religious and secular belief systems of the nation.  Religion is welcomed to play a role the public life of the nation, as are secular belief systems, but neither the religious nor the secular is singled out for special treatment.  The government neither picks favorites nor attempts to block all evidence of religion from the public square.  This is the option that both the left and the right among this year’s crop of presidential candidates seem to miss.

This last vision translates into diversity and pluralism based on our ability to live together as one people in spite of our deepest differences.  This pluralist vision requires a mutual respect that prevents any group—whether religious or secular—from trying to impose its beliefs onto others by force of law.  It means, in today’s world, that no Christian should seek to marginalize and deny the legitimate rights of gays and lesbians, and it means gays and lesbians ought not to try to force Christian adoption agencies to go against their religious beliefs by placing children with same-sex couples.  It means Catholics ought not to try to limit the availability of contraceptives to the public, and the government ought not to force Catholic agencies to go against their religious beliefs by providing contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance plans.  This, I believe, is the path to a freedom of religion that assures freedom of beliefs and action for persons of all faiths and of none.

—Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University. This essay presents a greatly condensed version of the argument he makes in his recently published book, Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society (2012)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”