What a 'Public Church' Would Look Like

ADOZEN years ago, Martin E. Marty published The Public Church. As the title suggests, the book is concerned with the privatization of religion in America under the impact of pluralization and secularization. The publication of the volume initiated a decade of debate about what constitutes an appropriate strategy for the Churches in a new, more secular and less cohesive public order. With reference to Supreme Court decisions of the ‘60s and ’70s, Marty measured the extent to which “the civil religion was becoming so diffuse that it was ungraspable.” And the collapse of the American consensus on fundamental values within the legal realm reflected a growing fragmentation and pluralization in the culture at large.

Marty looked back to John Courtney Murray's classic statement on the American consensus We Hold These Truths (1960) as an anchor and marker for possible courses of ecclesial and public life. He made the case for a new reading of Murray that stressed not so much his theory of consensus and effort to develop a public theology as his vision of disparate but potentially collaborative religious communities. That is to say, Marty emphasized Murray's pluralist impulse; he argued in effect that Murray had anticipated the present cultural moment of centrifugal pluralism. The dangers of such pluralization were privatism and tribalism at one extreme and the “administrative despotism” of which Tocqueville warned at the other extreme. Marty proposed that the most effective way to counteract sectarianism and administrative despotism would be to gather together in a “communion of communions,” or a “public Church.” Participating Churches and denominations would get the opportunity to join with others in a common worldly Christian calling without having to sacrifice their unique traditions. Moreover, the public Church did “not await discovery”: it already existed in the network of voluntary and benevolent associations and ecumenical bodies that the Protestant Churches had created during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period, the constituency of the “communion of communions” had expanded to include not only the old mainline Churches but “the newer evangelization and Catholicism” as well.

In the past decade, others have endorsed this vision of a public Church. Dennis McCann, for example, has argued that the public Church is a “more modest and more promising” strategy than outright calls for a restoration of moral consensus through a public theology. In continuity with Murray and Marty, McCann focuses his advocacy on the concept of civility. “The ‘public Church’ is less a strategy for coalition-building,” he says, “and more a collective learning process for cultivating the Churches ‘common ’faith in civility.’” He goes on to say:

“Pluralism may exist without ‘civility’ but a pluralistic society cannot, if it lacks the sense of social interdependence which this virtue fosters among diverse communities who, both because of and in spite of their differences, remain pledged to one another for the sake of the common good.

“The ‘public Church,’ then, is merely the process that institutionalizes the practice of civility within the Christian “communion of communions” in order to promote ‘the harmonious exercise of the [nation'] social life.’”

Whether civility as a virtue of the public life has a future is an open question. There is nothing that guarantees its survival. With the breakdownof the synthesis of Christian piety and enlightenment republicanism that historically engendered civility in the American citizenry, tribalism or administrative despotism are real possibilities. I am sympathetic with McCann's contention that the public Church is less ideologically charged than certain versions of public theology issuing from the right and the left and that it is “more faithful to Toqueville's pioneering insight into the relationship between religion and democracy in Americas.” Nevertheless, I remain skeptical about the public Church proposal because of the ways in which shifts along the fault lines indicated by Robert Wuthnow and James Davidson Hunter have reconfigured religion in America and the roles that it is possible for Churches to play in the culture. If Hunter is correct, we are witnessing the end of the symbiotic relationship of biblical faith and society that Tocqueville described.

Herberg accurately described the public Church more than 30 years ago, although he did not use the term then: “America has emerged as a ‘three-religion country,’ in which the Protestant, the Catholic , and the Jew each finds his place. Insofar as America knows of a Church in the Troeltschian sense—a form of religious belonging that goes along with being a member of a national community—it is this tripartite unity of Protestant-Catholic-Jew.” Neither Marty nor McCann would argue that this configuration holds as it did when Herberg wrote Protestant, Catholic, Jew, for example. As Hunter has pointed out, “Whether one is Protestant, Catholic, or Jew does not mean very much when attempting to explain variations in peoples'attitudes or values…. Evidence strongly suggests that the significant divisions on public issues are no longer defined by the distinct traditions of creed, religious observance, or ecclesiastical politics.” Herberg has monitored this trend during the 1950s, and he saw that the narrowing of the once-substantial theological and ecclesiastical gaps between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews left room for a common alliance in a communion of communions that fostered the American Way and the American national consensus.

Hunter teaches us a new lesson. He asserts that the impetus toward common alliance and consensus that Herberg described no longer obtains. Instead, the ideological divisions between “progressives” and “orthodox” cuts through the major communions and denominations. This is bad news for the advocates of a renewed public Church, because it means that the Churches and denominations themselves have become divided houses. On specific issues—abortion, say— conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Jews will join forces in opposition to more liberal Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Marty's and McCann's broad vision of the public Church as a “communion of communions,” a proximate reality in Herberg's America, looks increasingly remote and unrealistic in the age of the culture wars.

Hunter has shown that the major historic faiths and their denominations have internalized the culture wars. They mirror the conflicted moral vision in American life within themselves and precipitate conflict elsewhere. Indeed, precisely because religious communities cultivate moral sensibilities and convictions, the conflict is often more intense and divisive within their ranks than it is within the public at large. McCann's more modest definition of the public Church as “a collective learning process for cultivating the Churches'common ‘faith in civility’” deals only partially with what Hunter uncovers. It is difficult to see how even a teaming process could be common to religious houses as resolutely divided against themselves as those in America today.

But why even argue that cultivating a “faith in civility” is what makes a Church public or that it should be the first priority for the Churches in America? I am inclined to think that the Churches have no more idea than the culture at large about what civility amounts to— beyond some form or other of “liberal” tolerance. Civil society has come to mean a “neutral” society, in which conviction and deeply-held beliefs (especially religious beliefs) that make claim to public profession are held in suspicion and viewed as candidates for “deconstruction.” Tolerance requires that belief and conviction be removed from public discourse in deference to “personal preferences” and “lifestyles.” “Preferences” and “lifestyles” are now acceptable because they are more easily negotiable in a variety of business, familial, artistic, educative, and therapeutic environments.

Marty argues correctly that the contribution that civility makes to the common good is less an offering of the Churches than of the Enlightenment spirit, which is itself in eclipse. Frankly, I think that if there were to be a restoration of faith in true civility that respected and left space for belief and conviction, it would be just as likely (if not more likely) to issue from secular sources as from within the religious communities. Certainly, there is no reason to presume that religious people possess the moral insight and means to accomplish such ends, whereas nonreligious people do not.

Dr. Vigen Gurioan is a professor of theology and ethics at Loyola College, Baltimore, Md. He is a member of the Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church.

Excerpted with permission from Ethics After Christendom by Vigen Gurioan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996; tel. 800-253-7521.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

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