Faith and the Public Square

“And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’”
Luke 12:15

What is the basis of our security?

I’m not thinking here of our individual sense of security as it pertains to our finances, health, and whatever assets and resources we rely on for our comfort and ease of mind.

No, what I’m concerned with today is our national security, our security as Americans.

What I’m concerned with this morning is this question—what can we do as citizens, individually and collectively, to enhance and preserve the health and vigor of our democracy?

Or to put it another way, how can we as people of faith contribute a certain quality of justice and mercy to the ongoing political conversation in the public square?

Think of the public square as all those settings in which political convictions are expressed, discussed, and argued about.

So the public square can be any place in which we and our fellow citizens gather and give voice to our most heart-felt concerns about the state of our nation.

Now I for one count it an enormous privilege to be a citizen of this imperfect, fragile, precious democracy.

What a conspicuous blessing it is to be able to freely criticize and make jokes about all our elected officials including the President without facing the threat of imprisonment or worse.

But democracy is a vulnerable organism that must be carefully tended and cultivated.

And so we should register alarm that during this electoral season the public square has suffered considerable mistreatment and abuse.

In recent months we have witnessed the emergence of a very disturbing pattern of inflammatory speech in which a candidate has made preposterous, unsubstantiated claims for his own prowess and has dismissed his opponents as ridiculous and contemptible.

The most alarming thing about this corrosive corruption of public speech is that hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens have found this crude vilification of other candidates wildly appealing.

To witness throngs of angry, disaffected Americans jumping on this bandwagon is worrying and disheartening to say the least.

As one of our nation’s founders said, the preservation of democracy requires untiring vigilance.

Democracy is continually under threat from the extreme right, the extreme left, and the large swath of the population we might refer to as the apathetic middle.

Some of us are old enough to remember in the 1950s the far right exploits of Senator Joseph McCarthy when he convened the House Un-American Activities Committee and mercilessly interrogated those whom he suspected of having Communist Party leanings, many of whom turned out be blameless individuals who had served this country well and were patriotic to the core.

It was said of McCarthy that he sniffed a communist under every bush—there was the memorable occasion when the Senator was harshly accusing someone of being a fellow traveler in spite of a lack of incriminating evidence, and an opposing attorney blurted out, “Sir, have you no decency?”

At the other end of the spectrum, the Weather Underground Organization was an example of the militant left run amok—this was a group of rabid young idealists in the 1960s who came to believe that the most viable means of ending the Viet Nam War and achieving a new society was through the use of deadly force and armed insurrection—their tactics backfired when the bombs they were preparing in a house in Greenwich Village blew up causing several fatalities among their ranks and signaling the beginning of the end of their violent misadventures.

Throughout the history of our republic, there have arisen various fringe groups with authoritarian, anti-democratic agendas that have caused a flurry of excitement among a certain group of disenchanted citizens.

Pockets of our population have sometimes been seduced by demagogues promising the moon—but time and again these uprisings have been defused and disarmed by a stronger, more dominant, more sensible version of democracy.

Of course, we know that the vitality and dynamism of the public square depend on passionate, even bruising argument and debate.

Nothing is more beneficial to our democracy than rigorous, free-wheeling debate about what our elected representatives are doing and not doing.

And the more we’re informed about the intricacies of what’s at stake, the more we’re in a position to be persuasive.

But what hinders the functioning of the public square more than anything is speech that expresses scorn and contempt for one’s opponents.

I remember attending a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens in which Judge Michael Merz exhorted these new Americans to defend anyone who in their presence was the victim of hate speech.

So, yes, let us not allow hate speech to go unchallenged—but at the same time let us be aware, as our Baptismal vows remind us, that even the perpetrator of hate speech bears the imprint, however disguised and camouflaged, of Divine splendor.

Of course, it is always helpful for us to be mindful of our own flawed political perspective and judgment—that we ourselves are perpetually prone to being captive to self-interest.

Now I don’t have any grand schemes for rehabilitating the public square.

All I have to offer are a few modest proposals.

First of all, I beseech you not to abandon the public square.

I implore you not to withdraw and become disengaged from the tumultuous conversation now roiling the waters of our public square.

I urge you not to withhold your voice and convictions from the ongoing conversation.
So at the risk of sounding hopelessly naïve and unrealistic, let me suggest a partial, very unsensational remedy for mending and repairing the public square.
Here’s the prescription I’m recommending—for each of us, whenever possible, to indiscriminately disseminate goodwill to friends, neighbors, strangers, and adversaries.

Because it seems to me that every private act pf goodwill and generosity is a political act because it serves as a small but meaningful corrective to the tone of bombastic arrogance that in recent months has dominated our political discourse.

I’m convinced that every gesture of courtesy, thoughtfulness, and kindness ripples beyond itself and is passed on from one person to another until it is magnified a thousand fold and at least ever so slightly alters the climate of the public square.

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul gives us an inventory of the gifts of the Spirit—he includes the following—joy, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness—and we might add other qualities that are gifts of the Spirit, namely awe, gratitude, humility, and humor.

Paul suggests that we are called to let these qualities grow and bloom in us so that they become the predominant face and features with which we meet the world.

To greet our neighbors in the public square imbued with Spirit-driven kindness and generosity—what a bracing, healthful contrast to the politics of rancor and resentment!

Bringing goodwill and civility to the public square might mean absolutely respecting a political opponent’s right to exist and express her views—it might mean patiently listening without contempt to her story of how she came to acquire these particular beliefs that seem to be so at odds with our own.

We belong to a prophetic tradition that ardently insists that we are members one of another—that our well-being and the well-being of our neighbor are intertwined whether that neighbor is congenial to us or antagonistic.

And you might say that wherever we go we carry with us a portable version of the public square.

Our private lives and the public square overlap.

Stephen L. Carter is a law professor at Yale—when he was a boy in the mid-1960s, his family moved to Washington D.C.—they were the first African Americans to move into the almost exclusively white neighborhood of Cleveland Park.

He remembers that he and his family felt acutely isolated and bereft in their new surroundings.

Late one morning Stephen and his siblings were sitting on the porch feeling displaced and miserable when a white woman named Sara Kestenbaum suddenly appeared with a huge plate of sandwiches to welcome the family to the neighborhood.

Mr. Carter indicates that this one hospitable gesture instantly swept away his family’s perception that they were unwanted aliens and conferred on them in one fell-swoop the new identity of full-fledged neighbors.

The other day at the grocery store I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while.

She had just come from an appointment with her cardiologist who happens to be a Muslim who was raised in Pakistan—she has been seeing this doctor for several years and has developed great respect for his medical judgment and courteous manner.

She described him as personable, soft-spoken, and extremely competent with just a trace of an accent.

After they had finished discussing my friend’s medical issues and she was getting ready to leave, she was suddenly moved to ask him in the wake of the ghastly events in Orlando, “How are you and your family? Do you feel safe? Are you all right?”

She said he stood stock-still, looked at her, and after a few moments of silence he said to her, “I did not expect you to ask that question.”

And then he said, “True religion comes from the heart—it’s what fills us with the desire to take care of one another.”

My friend said, “That’s how you take such good care of my heart.”

And then as the doctor moved toward the door, he turned and said to her, “You have made my day!”

Now admittedly, these moments of connection, even multiplied exponentially, are no substitute for the hard, strenuous work of hammering out enlightened legislation and converting political beliefs into useful policies and programs.

But I’m convinced that every incident of graciousness and goodwill in which a neighbor or stranger is greeted, comforted, and encouraged becomes a highly-charged particle that enters the blood stream of the public realm and contributes at least a little to the strengthening of civility in the public square.

And I think nothing is more crucial for the security of America than a climate of civility which allows us to debate and disagree but without contempt.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
11 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio