Pious Public Silence Is Dereliction of Duty (Unless You're Amish)
From time to time, some orthodox Christians wonder aloud whether the pro-life movement, the struggle to defend the integrity of marriage, and other "social issues" implicate believers in an overly political activity that is a distortion of their faith. It would be best, they argue, for Christians simply to bear witness to their beliefs—even more in their lives than in their words—and not to politicize religion.
The dangers in such politicization are real enough. Christians can indeed become so involved in causes as to define their faith exclusively in those terms, to lose sight of why they are involved, and to push into the background everything that does not relate directly to those causes—a mirror image of what liberal religion has become.
Believers are also routinely condemned by secularists for "intruding" their beliefs into the public square, a charge that assumes something uniquely sinister about religion; citizens may form their principles in any way they choose (astrology, throwing dice) except religion. The obvious response is that Christians have as much right to be in the public square as anyone else, but it is a response that is less than satisfactory. Is Christian morality to enjoy only the formal tolerance accorded all other schools of thought?
But those Christians are doomed to fail who insist that their beliefs must prevail because they carry divine sanction. In the public square, such a claim merely provides ammunition to those who warn that religious believers are dangerous, that believers can offer no argument except that of authority.
Given this reality, some Christians choose to withdraw from a public square where the truth of the faith is not recognized, a position similar to that of those who reject political action as a distortion of the gospel. Holders of both viewpoints seek to keep the faith uncontaminated by involvement in the secular sphere. But those who seek such purity often do not seem to understand the logic of their position, or how radical it is—the action of "dropping out," the claim that being a citizen is incompatible with being a Christian.
The Obligation to Fight
The moral basis of the pro-life movement is a simple one. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that the fetus is a human being—a living member of the species Homo sapiens, and, however limited one thinks the power of government ought to be, the state's most fundamental obligation is to protect the lives of the innocent (and even, up to a point, the lives of the guilty). Conscientious citizens cannot debate whether or not to oppose abortion—they are obliged to do so. Their effort may often seem quixotic, but it is an effort from which no one is excused.
Similarly, from undeniable empirical evidence it is indubitably clear that the family is indeed the basis of a good society. Same-sex "marriage" radically redefines the family; thus, the ultimate good of everyone requires opposing it.
The nature of modern democracy is such that everyone who has an idea of the good society is expected (indeed, required) to enter the political arena to fight for it. The secularist attempt to exclude religion from this arena is an outrageous violation of the very nature of the democracy that secularists claim to cherish. Christians active in the public square have learned never to lose sight of the truth of the gospel even as they must present that truth in ways that are accessible even to unbelievers.
Those Christians who, for whatever reason, choose to remain aloof from these struggles surrender their rights (indeed, their obligations) as citizens, a renunciation that can be defended only on radical theological grounds that few of the renouncers seem to understand, something like the classical Anabaptist position that the world is irredeemably evil and so the godly must simply withdraw. It is a theology that has its place in Christian history but that very few Christians have in fact ever embraced.
Those who today remain aloof from the public square are not likely to adopt the way of life of the Amish. More commonly, they have simply found a way of fitting into society more comfortably, of minimizing the tension between themselves and an often hostile world.
—James Hitchcock, for the editors
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Square None” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.