A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Public Square and the Politics of Translation

Book Review: Robert D. Cornwall, Faith in the Public Square: Living Faithfully in 21st Century America (Gonzalez Fl.: Energion, 2012).

Bob's book is a compilation of op-ed columns he wrote for the Lompoc Record (California) over a period of close to four years.They are re-printed largely as originally published with necessary editorial revisions "in order to make them more time and context sensitive" (p. xiv). Bob tackles many issues in the twenty short chapters including religious pluralism, America as a Christian nation, the separation of church and state, taxes, torture, and the ten commandments.

Bob's writing is clear and engaging and well-informed. His tone is respectful-- he critiques those he disagrees with in civil fashion. He is quite knowledgeable in reference to American history and the place of religion in that history, as well as American political discourse.

I appreciate that Bob identifies his own context from which he writes, not so those who do not share his views can immediately dismiss what he has to say (which would be a great mistake), but because our stories are important in understanding one another. Bob writes,

I'm white, male, fairly well-educated, Protestant, ordained, and politically and theologically left of center. Some readers may perceive what some call a Niebuhrian realism in my reflections. They are likely correct, though I have not read as widely in Reinhold Niebuhr's works as I'd like.
As I read through the chapters I found many places of agreement between the two of us, which having dialogued with him on these matters over the past two to three years, was not a surprise to me. And while I could pick and choose some topics on which I disagree with him and suggest why I think Bob is wrong, the biggest bone of contention between us concerns the fact that my context is different from his (though we are friendly about it).

Whereas Bob has been influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr's realism, I have been informed by such thinkers as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. When it comes to politics, I am radically Anabaptist, which does not mean that I promote Christian withdrawal from engaging the world. Individuals who take my position are often mischaracterized in such a way. The debate I have with Bob (and with Christians on the religious right as well) is not whether to engage the world and the powers that be, but how to engage them. Let me illustrate the differences I have by commenting on two portions from the Introduction to Faith in the Public Square.

First, concerns the notion of private, public, and political spheres. Bob writes, "I appreciate the distinction that Parker Palmer makes between private, public, and political spheres." Unlike Bob, I find it difficult to appreciate and embrace the private/public distinction, which I think undermines Bob's very project. He wants religion to play a role in the public, but his acceptance of such "spheres" leaves no real way to argue why the public should take seriously what many have come to accept-- that religious convictions are private expressions of personal belief.

Moreover, it seems to me that Bob puts the nail in the coffin of his own agenda when he embraces the modern insistence that specific religious claims be universalized. He quotes with approval a 2008 speech by President Obama:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason (p. 12).
In other words, in order for the religious to participate in the public square, their specific beliefs must somehow be boiled down into something vaguely universal that all persons, whether they have faith or not, can accept. This modern Enlightenment project, I suggest, is not only impossible, but it undermines the important context and character of all of the world's religions. It also embraces the false notion that particular claims cannot be universal in scope, and that universals, to be such, must transcend history. Christians can no more abstract their particular theological and doctrinal claims from their moral convictions than can a Muslim or a Hindu, and would I not expect them to do so. Indeed, I want the Muslim and the Hindu (and the Sikh, ect.) to come to the table of this "public square" with all their beliefs and convictions. I have no interest in how their claims would look as abstract universals. That would just make their identity-forming convictions very uninteresting-- a nice way to say extremely dull and boring. Instead, I want to know their particulars. What an interesting discussion that would be! I dare say that what Cornwall is suggesting is that for the religious to participate in the public square, they can only participate as vaguely religious. Christians cannot participate as Christians, Muslims, cannot participate as Muslims, and Hindus cannot participate as Hindus. Thus, frankly, the religious are not needed for the discussion. The irrelevance of religion in the public square that Bob dislikes (p. 1) is partly the result of this modern agenda. When the religious engage in translation politics in order to be relevant they make themselves irrelevant.

At the beginning of the book, as I mentioned above, Bob feels the needs to locate his own personal context because it's rightly important. And no doubt Bob would agree that he can no more separate himself from his context as "white, male, fairly-well educated, Protestant, ordained, and politically theologically left of center" (p. 14), than can someone with a very different context. Of course, he can critique is own context, and all of us should, but what would it look like for Bob to translate his context into universal values? We continue to be told in this postmodern world that we cannot throw off our stories whether those narratives are ethnic or social or geographic, and that is absolutely correct. But it is also true in reference to religion. But in order for the religious to participate in the public square, Bob believes that the narratives that give identity to every religion must somehow be translated into vague universals because we cannot force our faith context on others, though we have no problem employing all our other narratives to coerce and force onto others what we think are just and/or compassionate ends. As I write in my book, The Politics of Witness (that Bob graciously reviewed about a year ago):
By marginalizing Christian doctrine to the realm of nothing more than private reflections having nothing to do with public reality, they [the Founding Fathers] were essentially attempting to strip Christianity of its unique identity. Doctrine is, in one sense, the intellectual substance of Christianity. Jefferson may have believed that the doctrine of the Trinity was "mere abracadabra," but the Gospel of John employs the relationship between the Father and the Son as a model for unity among believers (John 17:20-21). Franklin may have thought that the belief in Jesus' resurrection was irrelevant to the afterlife, but St. Paul seemed to think that not only did the Christian faith rest on its truth (1 Corinthians 15:16-19), but that the resurrection of Christ was essentially instrumental for Christian virtue and living (Colossians 3). The modern Western attempt to privatize doctrine was also an effort to take away the distinctive of Christian identity. Once this happens, accounts of virtue are no longer intelligible as Christian; indeed it is even worse than that—accounts of "Christian" virtue become nothing more than explications of civic virtue. Benjamin Franklin thus gets his way: the task of that Presbyterian pastor Franklin listened to was not to make good Presbyterians in his preaching, but good citizens that would be loyal to the state.

Of course, nowhere does Bob explicitly state that doctrine should be relegated to the "private," but once particular Christian convictions are "universalized," into some vague principles, what makes Christianity Christian is irrelevant for the "public square."

Stanley Hauerwas observes that the church in the twenty-first century West exists in a peculiar situation where it makes perfect sense to say, "I believe Jesus is Lord, but that's just my personal opinion."

Bob will likely disagree with me, but I don't think he can ultimately avoid the same affirmation.

And so, while I have my disagreements, I would encourage readers to engage this book. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking. I may not be able to stand with him on all things, but Bob is a serious thinker and should not be ignored. I look forward to future discussions with Bob on these matters as they are clearly important for Christians of all political and ecclesiological stripes.


Robert Cornwall said...


Thank you for your gracious review and pointing out where we disagree. I would respond on the issue of universalizing faith perspectives. I would want to clarify that just a bit -- where that comes into play isn't at the beginning of the conversation, but in the implementation. In a pluralistic democracy we will need to find a point where our values connect with the needs of the broader community.

But I think our theological frameworks do make a difference. I'm not Hauerwasian, though I agree with him at points. But this all makes for a helpful conversation about how people of faith engage the public square!

Allan Bevere said...


Thanks for your response. Perhaps at some point before the election, you and I can have a fuller dialogue on these matters and cross-post them on our blogs.

Robert Cornwall said...

I think our conversation might be more useful than the one Henry tried to set up with Elgin Hushbeck who is so far from me that it makes conversation difficult!!