Follow Me On
The Woman in White Marble

{Click Marble or visit Books in the main menu}

Dis-Ease: Living with Prostate Cancer

{Click or visit Books in the main menu}

« Aging, Dung Beetles and Me | Main | Gazing at Windows »

Discourse in the Public Square

A few weeks ago we almost had bus wars here in London. At the beginning of April Stonewall began a bus campaign with the slogan “Some People are Gay. Get Over It!” Then a Christian organisation called the Core Issues Trust planned to begin its own bus campaign with the slogan “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post Gay And Proud. Get Over It!” The Core Issues Trust, backed by Anglican Mainstream, advocates “reparative therapy” for gay people; essentially therapy to make them straight. However, before the campaign could be launched the London mayor Boris Johnson blocked the ad campaign saying it was offensive, intolerant and cruel. While I agree with the mayor and abhor so-called reparative therapy, that is not my issue today. Rather, I’m wondering about the nature of Discourse in the Public Square.

Another way of putting it is: Who gets to participate in public discourse and why? And: What are the ground rules that determine who gets to participate? Clearly, at least in London, Stonewall was allowed to participate and the Core Issues Trust was not. Having said that, Boris Johnson’s decision to block the Core Issues Trust campaign, welcomed by most, was not saying or even implying that religious organisations cannot take part in public discourse.

It seems to have any discussions in the public square at all we need a acceptable common language (representing an acceptable notion of reality) and an acceptable common morality (representing an acceptable notion of what is right and good and what is ethical).

If there were a public debate about the future of the space programme and the Flat Earth Society advocated ending the space programme because the earth is flat, it would not be allowed, by the public and by experts, to participate in any discussions that would influence policy. The Society’s understanding of reality would not be taken serious in the public square and thus the Society would not be allowed to influence policy. There would be no debate on the issue of its exclusion. If a political or religious organisation advocated the enslavement of people and that slaves should be used in our factories and on our farms, any such organisation would be excluded from the public square because secular society has decided that slavery is immoral and has thus made it illegal. Both the understanding of reality and morality in this case are not up for discussion.

At the very least we have to agree on a “civic voice” and a “civic morality” that is generally acceptable in our society. Obviously the range of what is acceptable must be wide and flexible, but that is not to say it can be limitless. In Religion in the Public Square, Audi and Wolterstorff say:

Part of civic virtue consists in having an appropriate civic voice, part of civic harmony in a framework of pluralism and disagreement consists in using that voice as the primary mode of communication in debating fundamental issues of citizenship. It need not be any citizen’s only voice, not even for public argumentation and certainly not for self-expression. But it is achievable by any rational citizen committed to liberal democracy...”[1]

This is a tricky business for religious people. Many religious observers might say they are disciples first and citizens second, and that they are committed to an understanding of reality and morality grounded in their notion of God (which, for example, necessitates their discriminating against women despite society’s disapproval). If so, their motivations for taking part in public discourse may be more to impose their morality and understanding of reality on others and less to seek compromise (for example, it seems it is not enough for religious people to discriminate against gay people in their own organisations, they need also for all of society to discriminate against gay people). On the other side of the coin, much of religious language used to represent reality and morality is akin to flat earth nonsense and oppressive practices not acceptable to many in society who are not religious. However,  Audi and Wolterstorff go on to say they believe a “theo-ethical equilibrium” is possible and if so, then:

a civic voice is available, in part through adherence to the principles of secular motivation, to most rational religious people without compromise of their basic religious commitments.[2]

Our secular societies are amazingly open to wide ranging participation in the public square, but as Deborah Orr, contributor to The Guardian, noted in her article “Whether you're religious or secular, imposing your views on others is foolish” there is a line individuals and organizations, whether religious and secular, cannot crossover if they want to continue being taken seriously and welcomed in public discourse. It is often difficult to define or find that line, but the Core Issues Trust, clearly stepped over it.

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger

[1] Audi, Robert & Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC. pp. 34-35.

[2] Ibid., p. 35.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>