Sharon James looks at the role of Christianity in the public square
In 1793 a poor cobbler from an obscure village in Northamptonshire arrived in Calcutta. Driven by the conviction that God should be glorified in all nations, William Carey (1761–1834) is remembered as the father of the modern mission movement and as a great educationalist and social reformer.
He translated Scripture, preached the gospel and trained Christian ministers. He also promoted education for all, pioneered technological, horticultural and agricultural innovations that would alleviate poverty, and campaigned against abuses (such as widow-burning) which demeaned the dignity of women.
William Carey defied the idea that the Christian faith can be pushed into a private sphere involving only personal, family and church observance. He shared the Reformed conviction that God’s glory is supreme in all things and that this world, both natural and social, was created to provide a dazzling theatre for the display of that glory.
What is the public square?
Many today tell us that you can believe what you want, worship as you wish, and run your home as you please, but ‘don’t bring your faith into the public square’!
The ‘public square’ relates to what goes on outside our own religious practice, our home and our church. It concerns interactions with our neighbours and community (work, education, business, voluntary associations, public services), what goes on in our nation (media, academia, politics), and global matters (international bodies and corporations). Whether we go to school, college or work, or engage in voluntary activities, or have positions of influence in public services, local government, media or politics – we can be confident rather than timid if we remember these biblical truths:
• God is the Creator. He has placed His moral law on the heart and conscience of all people made in His image. Following His moral law leads to human flourishing.
• Truth is absolute. God’s truth is true for all people, and true for all of life.
• God has ordained rulers to restrain evil and promote good, but we remember that Jesus is Lord. If earthly authorities command us to do anything in direct opposition to Christ, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
• We are to function as salt and light in a corrupt and dark world. We are to love our neighbour, which includes engaging with policies that affect our neighbour for good or ill.
The transforming impact of ‘ordinary’ Christians
During the first three centuries, Christianity spread rapidly despite strong persecution. Christians insisted on the dignity of all people as made in God’s image, which resulted in an ethic of service to others: a stark contrast to the surrounding culture. Emperor Julian the Apostate, who reigned from 361 to 363 AD, lamented that Christians, who he hated, showed love and compassion, whereas his pagan countrymen did not.
Over 2,000 years, countless Christians have had a transformative impact, even when they have not enjoyed a privileged position in their societies. This has had (and still has) an immeasurable impact on health provision, philanthropy, education, on elevating the dignity of women, and on challenging injustice. For example, today in India many Christians are at the forefront of trying to rescue those regarded as ‘untouchable’ by the caste system.
Some suggest that Christians have only been able to impact society when they have been in an ‘established’ position of privilege. But many have served sacrificially even when discriminated against themselves. John Comenius (1592–1670) of Moravia spent much of his life as a religious refugee because of his Reformed faith. Driven by the conviction that everyone made in God’s image should learn about God, man and nature, he started schools for poor children, both girls and boys. He wrote around 90 books on education, and published the first-ever picture book for children. Many European rulers sought his advice. Some consider him to be the father of modern education.
Right into the 19th century Christians in Britain who, for conscientious reasons, couldn’t belong to the established Church, suffered penalties designed to keep them out of the public square. They were not able to hold public office until 1835 or enter the universities until 1871. Exclusion from the establishment meant they threw their energies behind commerce, businesses, alternative educational establishments or numerous charitable endeavours.
Andrew Reed (1787–1862), for example, left school early and was largely self-taught. This humble Baptist minister became a nationally-recognised pioneer in care for orphans, those with learning disabilities and the terminally ill. Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) was converted as a teenager in the Society of Friends. Almost immediately she took the initiative to start a school for poor children. Aged 20, she married a fellow Quaker and went on to have 11 children. That didn’t stop her charitable work! Her visits to Newgate prison transformed conditions there. She went on to campaign for prison reform at a national and international level. She is widely remembered today. By contrast, Sarah Martin (1791–1843) is now forgotten. Orphaned at an early age, she had to go out to work as a seamstress aged 14. But her voluntary work in the prison in Great Yarmouth elevated conditions for the inmates and led to declining reoffending rates in the town.
‘You can’t legislate morality!’
On 12 May 1789, William Wilberforce (1759–1833) made his first major speech in the House of Commons on the issue of slavery. He reasoned that the trade in human beings was morally unacceptable. Those who profited from the trade were incensed by his effort to bring ‘private’ morality into public life.
When, 178 years later, the 1967 Abortion Act passed through the Westminster Parliament, nearly all evangelicals remained silent. In 1980, Francis Schaeffer (1912– 1984) brought his landmark film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? to Britain, attempting to stir up awareness of the need to defend human life. Comments heard at this time among evangelicals included: ‘I don’t want to get involved in politics.’ ‘We shouldn’t impose our morality on others.’ ‘The church should keep to spiritual matters.’ Schaeffer believed that many had bought into the idea that there are ‘two storeys’ of reality: the ‘upper storey’ relating to spiritual values (private), and the ‘lower storey’ relating to facts (public truth). This unbiblical divide served to gag Christian witness by keeping it in the ‘private’ realm. His books and films were one factor leading to evangelical re-engagement with public policy from the 1980s onwards.
The ‘naked public square’?
Some still maintain that governments ‘shouldn’t legislate morality’. We need to remember that fraud, theft and murder are all matters of morality! We are not to try to coerce others into religious compliance. True faith is voluntary. But we are to seek (graciously) to influence others to see the need to defend human life, and to adopt measures that lead to human flourishing.
Many assume that if religion is kept out of the public square it will leave a neutral, tolerant space in which all can flourish. But emptying the public square of the Christian conviction that all humans are created in the image of God, with real dignity and freedom, makes space for a hard secularism which is far from neutral. It is based on a worldview which sees Christianity as toxic and Christian morality as repressive. This worldview dominates the major institutions of the West. It is deeply intolerant.
While many evangelicals have failed to engage effectively with the lies that poison our culture, some non-Christian writers such as Tom Holland, author of Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind,* have shown that the ideas underpinning liberal democracy were, and are, grounded in the Christian faith. In The Madness of Crowds, atheist writer Douglas Murray warns of the totalitarian dangers of ‘liberal overreach’, where views which ‘hurt the feelings’ of ‘victim minorities’ are silenced.
To retreat into a private bubble of personal devotion and chummy corporate worship only encourages opponents of biblical Christianity to push back into the private sphere itself.
• State overreach now threatens church freedoms: for example, some demand legislation against ‘spiritual abuse’ (calls for repentance can be viewed as abusive). State overreach threatens family
• freedoms: for example, therapeutic culture views all exercise of discipline as potentially abusive (hence the banning of smacking in Wales and Scotland). freedom of
• State overreach threatens thought and speech: as when an academic was accused of bigotry after she posted on social media that only women can have periods.
Living for the King
In 1863, a young Dutch ministerial candidate, Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), was converted to living Christianity. The established Church in the Netherlands had succumbed to liberal theology. A pious remnant loved the Lord, but had retreated into private devotion. Kuyper, as a newly-converted minister, wanted to plead with his few believing parishioners: ‘Don’t just sit reading your book in the corner’!
Kuyper recognised the need to challenge the strongholds of untruth. He wanted Christian parents to be free to organise their own schools. In order to campaign for this he entered journalism, going on to edit a national newspaper, found a political party and start a Christian university. Kuyper would ultimately serve as Prime Minister. He pursued policies that would further human flourishing, motivated by his conviction that Christ is King, with all authority in Heaven and on Earth, and that God should be glorified in every area of life. His articulation of the doctrine of ‘sphere sovereignty’ provides a biblical bulwark against overweening state intrusion.
Today, if we truly love our neighbour and seek God’s glory in all of life, we won’t accept the lie that the public square should be stripped of Christian influence. We will see, as Abraham Kuyper did, that: ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine”!’
Dr Sharon James is social policy analyst for The Christian Institute, http://www.christian.org.uk Sign up to our free mailing list to receive ongoing briefings on issues of current concern in the public square. Forthcoming subjects will include teenage gender confusion and social contagion, and Identity Politics.
* See EN’s review of Holland’s book here