The New Realities of the Public Square

Today’s public presidential inauguration festivities were reported with as strenuous a level of polarization as has characterized our politics these past years. Several, representing both the gleeful and despondent that represent our poles, have evaluated the benediction delivered by Luis Levon. Whatever his flaws or merits as a “benediction-giver”, much has been made over the fact that he is not Louis Giglio, the Atlanta pastor of Passion City Church. Most know that Giglio was initially chosen to give the benediction as a result of his substantive work in the name of justice, particularly toward the recognition and elimination of human trafficking, and that he withdrew his name after a sermon from over two decades ago, critical of homosexual activity, became impossible to reconcile with a presidential speech that linked Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. It is not my interest to elaborate on this issue, though evangelical thinkers are neither monolithic nor graceless on the matter. This is part of a larger wind, one that already sends a January chill through many who think that the Bible is not a quaint historic book filled with a mix of arcane thought and unreal sublimities, but a legitimate directive on how to live a moral life, and who question their place in the public dialogue.

It was on the “Huffington Post” site, of all places, that the headline jumped out: “After Louie Giglio Bows Out, Some Ask If Conservative Evangelicals Are Welcome in The Public Square.” Lured in, I found no lamentation inside the text for the loss of these voices. Especially for the “H.P.” (and the internet in general, where nuance is replaced by red meat) I found this piece curiously dispassionate. It didn’t blast the bigoted and hateful voices of conservative evangelicalism (that was left to the comments section), but it didn’t speak of the diversity of view that will go missing in the public square without them. It closed with a bland request to offer some names that could replace Giglio.

As someone with a bunch of convictions on all kinds of issues, many of which relate to issues of bioethics, I fear this attitude more than open disdain. I see evangelical Christians engage in solid scholarship, made all the more real by its connection to heartfelt spiritual conviction. I can bear seeing their work refuted, for they often serve as modern prophets to academia, and prophets have never been the popular kids in school. What is worse is to see an entire community dismissed as utterly irrelevant and hardly troublesome to the status quo.

A couple of things should be said about this. First, we knew it was coming, but it sure came fast—the biblical worldview espoused by many evangelicals is no longer welcome in the public square. Speech will increasingly be offered by invitation only, and we won’t be invited. I agree with the premise that a liberal democracy will allow all viewpoints to be presented on whatever basis—religious or secular—the presenter chooses, a Nicholas Wolterstorff view. I just can’t see that happening, when the public square for such arguments is limited to the insular world of faith-based websites and still-protected pulpits and not the wider avenues that reach our culture. The invitations will be fewer to public debate, except to serve as caricatures or foils to the flow of popular sentiment. Christian bioethicists that can’t make cogent arguments to secularists will find themselves as intellectual circus curiosities, as anachronistic as the Amish, but without the charm. If someone who gathers 60,000 people at one time to speak boldly against human slavery can be quickly disinvited by the president, should we assume a seat at the table?

Second, what is the role of a blog site like this, or even of Bioethics program like that Trinity offers? Last week, Chris Ralston and, before him, Joe Gibes, more eloquently (and, indeed, more briefly) than me addressed the sweeping secularization of bioethics as an opportunity, not an obstacle. I do not think what we do here to be an inside game, a list of “house rules” that impact nobody outside our circle. The error of an evangelicalism that strays from biblical conviction is that it has no anchor; it can, at best, supplement an existing secular argument, but not serve as a prophetic voice that to some offers conviction and to others, the sweet aroma of life that Christ provides. If we don’t know our stuff, in its fundamental form, then we have nothing to offer for the increasingly rare opportunities we have to address the public square.

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