“For the Good of the City”: Thoughts on Public Theology

In early 2003, I was invited to offer a short paper as part of the Samuel Ferguson Lectures at the University of Manchester (UK). On this particular occasion, the lectures were in memory of the late Ronald Preston, who had been the Ferguson Professor of Social and Pastoral Theology, and one of Britain’s leading authorities on social ethics. The conference papers were collected into an edited volume, and are available here.

As Preston was allegedly the theological heir to William Temple, my invitation was specifically to be a bit of “grit in the oyster” (a role I thoroughly enjoyed), and question whether this was an accurate assessment. I had met Professor Preston during my dissertation research (generously funded by Marquette University’s Smith Family Fellowship, which I was awarded in the 1998-99 academic year), and corresponded with him for the remainder of his life. The ongoing conversation was helpful and sharpened my arguments concerning Temple’s ecclesiology–and I completely disagreed with the assessment that Preston was an “heir” to Temple. Although Ronnie’s work has many enduring merits, he routinely dismissed reading most of Temple’s work, only focusing on (or even showing serious knowledge about) the famous distillation of over 30 years of ministry in all three orders, which is found in Christianity and Social Order.

I was the only North American presenter at the gathering, and one of only two women. As a rather small (under 100 people) meeting, there was ample opportunity over two and a half days of plenary papers, parallel sessions of short presentations, meals, and tea-breaks, to speak with a range of individuals. It was one of the highlights of my truncated theological career.

In the two plenary presentations, by Duncan Forrester and John Atherton, concepts emerged which shadowed all the other papers and conversations for me during that conference, and have stayed with me since (in ways I’ve seldom experienced). The phrase “public theology” is the first. This is not a matter of proclaiming Christian faith in public settings with the aim of attracting those who are not Christian into becoming good church members. It is a way of addressing public issues, in accessible language that clearly articulates Christian rationale for taking (or eschewing) certain positions.

The second set of words, which has come, for me at least, to be the distinction between good and bad public theology, is the phrase “for the good of the city. “City”, for Forrester and Atherton, is not just an urban location, but a sort of “code for all places where people meet, exchange goods, services, and ideas, where the skills and resources of many come together peaceably for the benefit of all. Furthermore, ‘city’ is not just the place, but the inhabitants and visitors found there.” (I am quoting my own summary, which can be found in the Fall 2012 issue of Anglican Theological Review). It is not about the prestige or privilege of the institutional church, its members, or any particular viewpoint. Indeed, good public theology might sometimes lay aside ecclesial privilege in the interest of care for place and persons.

That is why the Hobby Lobby decision is not only not a victory for religion, but bad public theology. As is the request by certain Christian leaders that they gain a presidential exemption from non-discrimination. The request for the privileging of certain Christian views (especially those which are not held by all Christians in all places), which is not clearly in the public interest (or the interest of advancing God’s peaceful reign, really), is poor public theology by the standards set out by Forrester and Atherton. And which I have embraced (and think should form a part of the standard by which religious statements on public policy ought to be assessed). If one considers the thinly-veiled threat that religious groups may withhold services to persons in need unless they are allowed to discriminate against people of whose sexuality they do not approve, it is incredibly bad public theology.

We are not, in the United States, very good at doing theology in public. We are somewhat good at proselytizing in public, we are good at making a show of our religiousness in public. We make a lot of noise about the rights to religious liberty. We complain quite a bit about the waning influence of religion (especially certain brands of Christianity) in the public sphere. But we are not very good at applying theological reasoning to what we say about public issues.

However, we are not alone amongst Western industrialized nations in our inability to do nuanced public theology. The British Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed that he heads the government of a “Christian country” (a claim which is blessed hard to prove from my experience of living there and working for the established church). But making the claim–or even having an established church–does not make it so.

Over the last 18 months or thereabouts, there has been a bit of a dust-up about some schools having banned pork products from their school lunches, and making sure that all meat products conformed to the requirements of halal foods. A few Facebook memes went around about how this is against being a Christian country, and how the Muslim minority was somehow depriving good British children of their rights. This is, even before scratching the surface, a patent silliness. Your kids don’t have the right to pork sausages, and even if they do have that right, they are not being deprived. You just have to cook them at home. Big deal. Get over it.

There are objections concerning whether complying with halal requirements is “forcing their beliefs” down the throats of good Christians. Well, I suppose maybe. If you object to a method of slaughtering an animal that minimizes suffering, that might be a bad thing (although, I would argue that maximizing the suffering could be seen at least as equally problematic). If you object to the prayer that is said, you can go in one of two directions. The first is to recognize that Allah is the God of Abraham (who, oddly enough, is also the God of Jesus Christ). Or, if you can’t do that, and must insist that the meat has somehow been “offered to an idol” (the topic under discussion in 1 Corinthians 8), there is yet a further fork in the road. You either understand that the idol is “nothing”, and therefore eating the meat is not problematic; or you have to admit that your conscience is “weak” and needs a little strengthening.

The strong, well-formed Christian conscience–especially if it is resident in a “Christian Country”–is utterly unburdened by conforming to halal dietary requirements.

It should be extremely burdened at thinking a child cannot eat lunch as a result of bigotry.

And that is what both the dust-up over the request of Christians in the US to be allowed to discriminate against LBGTQ persons, and the halal meat (non) controversy in the UK are. Requests for religious permission to be bigots.

Both are trumpeting of “religious values” in the public square, but neither rise to the demands of good public theology. Because good public theology, especially in those contexts where Christianity has enjoyed historic privilege–and it is hard to make a claim against that in either the US or UK–seeks, not the good of its own views, but the protection of views with which it may disagree.

That is the light which darkness cannot overcome.

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