It is quite fashionable to argue that religious belief has no place in the public square, particularly when the public square houses city councils, school boards, and state houses debating ostensible LGBT(Q) anti-discrimination measures.
Actually, it is usually the unpopular religious belief, or the religious belief with which the public square happens to disagree at the time, that finds no chair at the table. If it serves the public mood or helps pass legislation, religious belief becomes a favored guest. Customarily, though, we are led to believe that society is done a great favor when the religious voice is excluded, when the “fact” realm is kept safe from the “value” realm, when the public square is “naked” and apparently unashamed.
But culture will always need the religious voice, popular or not, and even various perspectives within what might sound like a cacophony of religious speech. This is true for many reasons, one of which is that the fact/value dichotomy in civic life is essentially useless: everyone holds to some kind of ultimate meaning that informs our values by shaping how we interpret the facts and decide what to do about them.
Each of us believes something about the world and about people that serves as a controlling principle to inflame our passions and inform our decisions. It might be Hedonism, Anarchism, or Neo-Pagan Mystical Sexuality, for instance, and it might take some digging to detect, but each of us measures the world, our own actions, and the actions of others by our controlling principle. As we relate to and live around one another, it is in your interest to know what my controlling principle is, and in my interest to know yours. If we truly want to understand one another, this knowledge is crucial.
Whether I believe that human beings are merely the product of blind, evolutionary forces, are the special creation of the loving, personal God of the Bible, or are each a divine extension of the cosmic “she,” my belief makes an enormous difference to how I view the world and relate to you. It makes an enormous difference whether your ultimate meaning is Love, Justice, Individualism, Nihilism, or Marxism, and it even makes a difference whether “Love” as your ultimate meaning is based in the revealed religion of Christianity, is informed by Secular Humanism, or is derived from Beatles-style pop philosophy. All You Need Is Love, after all. Kumbaya.
Additionally, of the varieties of ultimate meaning, only orthodox revealed religion recognizes a source of authority outside the self. Every other controlling principle is defined by man’s view of the world: how he relates to it, to himself, and to others. Only orthodox revealed religion prefers the reliability of God over the opinion of self, even the self that considers itself “god.”
This is not to say that religious views should outweigh other views simply because they are religious. But neither should certain views outweigh all others simply because they aren’t. To elevate one source of ultimate meaning over others, to favor “public fact” over “private values” is itself a value judgment (one of morality and ultimate meaning) requiring its own justification, and is another example of how a strict fact/value, religious/non-religious dichotomy is unworkable.
We might all observe, for example, that some people break into others’ houses and steal their belongings. How we interpret those facts (why people steal, whether it’s wrong) and what we decide to do about it (mandate that homes be safe for burglars, punish the burglars) are all value judgments, whether informed by religion or public square nudism.
Ultimate meaning, therefore, serves the same public function in each non-religious person that more organized, formal, revealed religion does in the obviously religious person. The only difference is that non-religious ultimate meaning is simply presumed to be a neutral, neutered king (or queen) who is safe for public consumption.
Culture can deem God unfit for public view, but let’s not pretend that excluding the identifiable religious voice from the public square has silenced the voice of ultimate meaning, has left us subject only to those controlling principles which are benevolent, or has kept “public fact” safe from “private value.”
Culture still needs to hear the religious view, even in the public square. And yes, even at the school board.