Have you ever had anyone tell you that religion was not allowed to be discussed in a public setting? Perhaps you were talking about politics, education or some other subject that is common to civic life. And then you mentioned God or faith and suddenly you are told that you had crossed an invisible line. Namely that you are in the public arena and that religion is not allowed here: in this time and in this place. And you wonder(ed): what ought we to say to such people as we defend the hope that lies within us? (1 Peter 3:15). I suppose that there are many ways that you could answer but the following is one attempt to deal with this objection.
One might ask: has the objector really thought about what they are saying? For, in reality, they are making a religious claim themselves. To say that religion is not allowed in schools, city hall, parliament or in any public discourse is to make a universally binding rule that has been imposed upon everyone else. It is a non-negotiable principle that, it would seem, requires every person who hears it to comply. In essence here is no difference between a demand such as that and the command that “everything that has breath praise the LORD” (Psalm 150:6). Do they not both require something of their hearers?
Of course, our interlocutor will say his statement has nothing to do with God or faith. Rather this is simply the idea(l) of our culture or society. And typically we will be led at this point to consider the separation between church and state. However this is only a facile defense of his or her position. Even if it reflects the consensus of our culture or society this is no sound or sufficient reason to believe it or uphold it, whether in conversation or in the courts of the land. Simply because something ‘is’ does not make it ‘ought’ (for example: there is much racism that exists in the world today, but that does not mean there ought to be racism).
Indeed to say that their argument or worldview has nothing to do with God or faith is also wrong because they have made themselves god by requiring that, at least by my silence in matters of religion in the public sphere, not only respect but pay homage to their authority and to their worldview which has trumped my own. Indeed, as long as one requires that religion, God, faith or any other such thing not be mentioned, alluded to or otherwise referenced, they also infer, if not require, that we should not express our faith in public and will be silenced if we try. Now any attempt to do so may not be as dangerous as far as the consequences that are reaped, but there is no essential difference between this practice and that of ancient Rome’s who demanded that Christians worship the emperor. We may thank God that we are not there yet but essentially we have embraced pluralism not only as (supposed) celebration of diversity but also as a means to censor public discourse. And people should be told that is precisely what they have done.
But perhaps it is true that most of us think believe that religion is a private matter. And even the courts of our land will (likely) uphold this dogma. And yet it should be apparent that one needs to have a better defense of this principle than a bare reference to the authority of one’s fellow man. Yes it is true (and even the Christian agrees) that the government has authority over us (see Romans 13:1ff.). But the difference between the Christian and the world is that the latter thinks this authority is self-appointed (or to be taken) and the former believes that it is given by God. Thus the authority of man is limited and subject to the authority of God. It is not an end to itself. For if so it has no transcendental right or power because it only exists insofar as we agree with it or allow it to exist. And therefore the current ‘requirement’ to keep religion out of public discourse is good or right only as long as it is supported by the people who believe in it. But it could easily be overturned by the shifting tide of opinion that is our political and social landscape. Potentially one could envision a time in which only persons of (organized) faith would be allowed to hold public office. Surely this would make our objector rather irate? Perhaps he would be even more frustrated than you and I feel at the present moment.
So whatever we decide with respect to religion’s right to exist in a public fashion, we are always doing so or have done so; we just don’t know it. We don’t realize that religion will have its way, whether true of false. In this way, the Christian and the world are on equal footing.
But, we might say: is there no difference at all between our culture’s demand to heed them and the scripture’s demand to worship God? It is true; there is a difference. Indeed this is ultimately where we need to bring the objector. Namely one demand is a mere statement of man and one is the demand as stated by Almighty God. That is to say that the former is laughable (Psalm 22:4) and the latter is laudable (Psalm 22:11).
Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating disrespect for our opponents. No am I saying that we should be haughty or self-righteous in our answer. For we are called to speak with grace when we answer those who are outside (Colossians 4:6). But this does not change the fact that the natural man has clearly embraced pure folly and is now on a mission to impose it on us all. And therefore we now have an opportunity to oppose it (if God gives us the means to do so).
Let us then speak the truth. Indeed I am reminded and encouraged by one man who, while in the public ‘arena,’ spoke the following to those who questioned his faith:
I perceive that in all things you are very religious... but [God] commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:22,30-31).