The Future of the Public Square
By Jeff Olson
A unique part of America throughout our nation’s inception and 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. This may have also been characteristic of your own home town as well. There may have been 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 proudly in the breeze. Ole timers would be arguing over some important local issue or maybe even preaching some good old-fashioned common sense which they sure wish would be applied by the politicians in Washington.
The public square is a vital part of our freedom, an unalienable right enshrined in our constitution. Fortunately, it is still with us. Unfortunately, for how much longer we don’t know. Its lifeblood, freedom of speech in the market place of ideas, has provided a forum to give each and every American a voice and the benefit of other voices. In some ways, it has become more so though the expansion of its format and scope.
With the advent of the computer age and social media, the public square has evolved more into a dimension than just a physical location. The quality of its impact however is still of no more value than the quality of its content and the attitude and values we bring to the park bench, coffee shop, phone, computer, or hardware store. The public square has served in a multitude of ways: 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 reflection of the strength of our nation’s religious and cultural diversity; as a means of passing our heritage along to new generations; and as gauge to measure how informed and responsible we as a people are in utilizing and preserving our freedom.
It is also in part through the public square that, in the words of 18th century British statesman and author Edmund Burke, America’s “little platoons” have organized and functioned through our intermediate institutions to carry out those local grass roots services and duties inherent and critical to the preservation and future of a free society.
The proprietorship of the public square has been a responsibility of each and every one of us. In traditional America, the moral compass for the public square has been primarily Judeo-Christian moral postulates cultivated and perpetuated within the family unit through our homes, churches, 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 and as a culture.
However, times have changed. That ethic has been 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. This has left the public square naked, not naked in the sense of not having any content but naked in the sense of having no transcendental authoritative point of reference as a source for a public ethic needed to provide normative values.
When one set of values disappears within any venue, another set (or lack thereof) will inevitably fill the void. In the words of author Richard John Neuhaus, “When recognizable religion is excluded [from the public square] the vacuum will be filled with ersatz [inferior substitute] religion, by religion bootlegged into public space under other names.”
Such we are seeing in the blatant censorship of traditional American values and conservative thought by big tech social media giants, substituting our tried and true inheritance and sacred patrimony with the ideological abstract utopian vision of the liberal, corporate and political ruling class which seeks to complete the total transformation of America.
They have amassed a tremendous amount power in recent history and are now even more emboldened and empowered through their allies in the media and political establishment, especially the Democratic Party. Secular humanism with the state as god is on the move and with a vengeance! I can’t help but remember Lutheran pastor Martin Neimoller’s words as I see things unfold today.
An outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, Neimoller later observed: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
While I’m not suggesting that America today is Nazi Germany of the 1930’s, I am saying that the core philosophy of many in our nation’s emerging ruling class is born of the same intellectual roots.
Does America’s current state of affairs spell doom the future of the public square in America? Perhaps, but it doesn’t have to. What did we do before social media? For those of you who can remember…we visited with folks on the phone, we sat down for a cup of coffee and some conversation with them, we got together for dinner out – or dinner in – and maybe included a game of some kind around the dining room table.
In other words we invested in each other, one-on-one/face-to-face, developing and sustaining relationships which often built trust and mutual respect. And, while this didn’t necessarily mean we agreed on everything, it did usually mean that we valued other’s opinions and were willing to listen and sometimes learn. These experiences and their impact cannot be substituted on social media. Even with the limits on social activities imposed by COVID-19, we have to find a way to regain at least some of what we have lost.
We live in a culture today where many, including many of the most powerful, believe that religious values and religious expression, especially those that are Christian, should be relegated and isolated to only our personal lives and within the four walls of the home and church building. For such to be a part of public life and the public square to inform us in moral discourse on the issues of our time is absolutely necessary in a free society but yet is equally repugnant to the secular mindset so prevalent today.
As we are seeing the advance of the secular state (a prelude to totalitarianism), religion (Christianity in particular) as a mediating structure is becoming less sought out as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state. If this continues, we may have only one path ahead of US.
Christians have a mandate and responsibility to first and foremost propagate the Gospel, but our salt and light must also serve 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 which are necessary to sustain an orderly and free society and a community of faith.
While all of us in Christendom will unlikely ever resolve all of our doctrinal and ecumenical differences this side of heaven, we can and should focus also on the fundamental essentials that we have in common and share and which can unite and enable us to revitalize the public square, no matter what form, into an environment and forum in which timeless and transcendent truth and values are once again important players and agents of positive change (John 10:10), change which must include the preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of all God created us for.