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The Treasure of the Public Square

BY JEFF OLSON –

A vital part of Americana, throughout our nation’s history, has been the public square. Most of us have been on vacations or perhaps just taken a short trip within our own state and, while passing through small towns, observed the local town square. Here [In a Town Square], there may be a court house with a statue of some famous hometown or national hero and typically there would be some benches where the locals could sit a spell and almost always you could count on “Old Glory” flying in the breeze. Here, mostly the ole’ timers would discuss and fuss over an important town issue, inquire about one another’s family, or maybe even share some good old fashion common sense which they sure wish would be used by the politicians in Washington.

The treasure of the public square is a vital part of our heritage of freedom. Fortunately, it is still with us and the forum it provides still gives us a voice and informs us, although its format and scope have expanded with the advent of the technology age: first – print media, then radios, telephones and television, and now computers and social media. The quality of the public square’s impact, however, will be of no more value than the quality of its content and the attitude that we bring to the park bench, coffee shop, neighborhood BBQ, community fundraiser, county fair, city council meeting, election rally, store, cell phone or computer. The public square has served: as a unifying and stabilizing factor in American religious, cultural and political life; as an avenue for the exchange of ideas and where different points of view could be expressed; as a microcosm representative of the strength of our nation’s diversity and religious and cultural heritage; as a means of passing that heritage along to new generations; and as a gauge to measure how informed and responsible we as a people are in utilizing our freedom. It is in great part through the public square that, in the words of 18th century British Statesman and author Edmund Burke, America’s “little platoons” have voluntarily organized and functioned to meet those local grass roots needs and carry out those services and duties inherent and critical to the preservation and future of a free society.

The proprietorship of the public square is the duty of each and every one of us. In America, the public square has been informed primarily through the lens of traditional Judeo-Christian moral postulates and perspective cultivated and perpetuated within the family unit through our homes, churches, schools and other social civil institutions. Such principles have been the fundamental source of values for us and this has been reflected in the common moral ethos and cohesiveness which has bonded us as a people, as a culture. However, times have changed. That ethic is gradually disappearing in the public square because it is disappearing in the private sphere, and it will not leave a void if and when it is gone. The empty (or naked) public square is as big a myth as is the concept of values neutrality because a truly value-less existence is impossible for persons and societies. When one set of values disappears within any venue, another set will inevitably fill the void – and the latter may not serve us as well as the former. This is easily seen in the gradual decline of civility and decency within our private and public discourse and debates, in the lack of genuine tolerance and mutual respect for opposing points of view, and even in the disappearance of social graces which undergirded our society with common courtesies and class. Freedom of speech, as with other core freedoms, is not a license. It comes with responsibility as well as privilege.

We in the community of faith should understand that a dominantly secular society will not provide an environment conducive to the freedom of religious worship and expression necessary for all faiths to live and flourish. A society without moral truth which is transcendent and normative cannot long survive without degrading into totalitarianism where the State will define and regulate religion and morality for all of us.

Christians have a mandate and responsibility to first and foremost propagate the Gospel but we also need to advance a social vision derived from biblical teaching. What we believe is not only relevant to our modes of worship, church business, and in meeting the needs of those around us but it is also relevant to those organizations and institutions necessary to sustain a stable moral order in society.

We in Christendom will unlikely ever resolve all of our doctrinal and ecumenical differences this side of heaven. However, we can and should focus less on these and more on the fundamental tenets that we have in common and which can unite and collectively enable us to revitalize the public square into an environment and forum in which timeless and transcendent truth and values and standards of conduct are once again important players and agents of positive change.

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