On Religious Monuments in Public Places

Paul among the philosophers in the open market of religious ideas in Acts 17.

This weekend Mark Silk editorialized on some of the recent hubbub over erecting religious monuments in public places. This endless back and forth battle over secular spaces raises the question for me: Where would be the dividing line between displays of religion and displays of ideology, and displays of, say, remembrance.

For instance, regarding ideology: If I wanted to erect statues of prominent American deists who signed the Declaration of Independence, as a testament to how deism contributed to American constitutionalism, would that be in violation? Or, even weirder, if I wanted to construct a giant right triangle to celebrate the contributions of Pythagoras to mathematics, would that be a violation (especially since he did found his own religion)?

Or in terms of remembrance: If I erected a holocaust memorial with Jewish symbols as a reminder of what the tyranny of government can do to minority people? Or, if I erected a cross for the purpose of reminding people how gruesome government sponsored capital punishment can be?

And finally, what if a public building was constructed with geometric shapes as part of the design that could be taken as religious symbols (let’s say crosses or crescents)? Could a court room have a light fixture that looked just like a menorah, but it wasn’t a menorah, just a light fixture?

The fact that such a variety of borderline situations can be easily imagined, and the fact that courts have gone back and forth deciding these kinds of cases, seems to tell me that the very way we have the issues framed is probably in error, or at least not helpful. And saying that, I don’t have a solution myself. I wish I had a better conceptual apparatus to untangle the gordian knot of how religious commitments to ethics and social good should interface with a democratic political system in which every person has rights, and every minority group is protected from oppression by the majority. But I don't.

I have a hunch that the extremes of "soft theocracy" on one side and "absurdist pluralism" on the other side are equally unhelpful. A soft theocracy pays lip service to the separation of religion and politics on the surface, while implicitly making policies and putting up public displays which favor one religion (or anti-religion!) over all others. Soft theocracy quietly, implicitly, with a wink and a nod, disenfranchises minority religions and spiritualities, giving them silent systemic difficulties in education, employment, and access to services and rights. This all happens while doing the public bare minimum to make it look outwardly as if society respects all viewpoints.

Then there is "absurdist pluralism", in which the public square is turned into a cacophony of dissenting voices, all given equal time, equal space, and equal dignity, regardless of the level of sincerity, level or organization, or amount of time any of the religious traditions have been around. Thus, ancient religions like Judaism and Buddhism are treated with the same respect-- or contempt-- as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Satanic Temple. The carnival of absurdist pluralism has no public criteria for making any distinction between religions and ideologies that contribute to the health and functioning of society, and those that merely mock or casually erode civilization.

As bad as both of these social extremes are, if I had to choose between only one of these, I would go with absurdist pluralism. In such a system, if I am part of the minority, my religion might be mocked in social discourse, but it couldn't be legislated against or oppressed as a matter of public policy. And I once heard from someone I trust:

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." [Matthew 7.1-2]

If we are doomed to absurdist pluralism for the foreseeable future, we don't need to despair. The Mediterranean world that the Church was born into was not too terribly different in terms of cults, religions, and philosophies competing for the public imagination. Granted, if you didn't pay lip service to the animating spirit of the Roman Emperor (by sacrificing to his "genius" in public ritual once per year) you could get in quite a bit of trouble. But usually no more trouble than you might get into in our society by rejecting the US monetary system and trying to set up an alternate public currency (which might make you question what our public "god" is consumer society).

But other than the public gods we must sacrifice to-- whether the semi-divine Caesar or the Almighty Dollar-- religions then and now competed in public places for public attention by touting the unique advantages of adhering to their particular doctrines and ethics. It was into this public carnival that Paul plunged in Acts chapter 17, when he went to the marketplace of ideas at Mars Hill in Athens, to offer the unique gifts of Christ among the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers gathered there.

As Paul approached-- so the story goes-- he found an area outside of Mars Hill cluttered with monuments and altars to dozens of gods and goddesses, including the famous Socratic-inspired "monument to an unknown God". Rather than lamenting the absurd carnival of pluralism he found himself in, Paul made use of the gift of open discourse offered to him in the garden of the gods. Seizing upon the "unknown God" of Socrates, he then begins to outline the Gospel of the God of all creation uniquely revealed in Jesus.

Perhaps in the "garden of the gods" we find ourselves in here in the 21st century United States, we can do a "monumental" version of dedicated free speech areas, where any group can put a monument to anything they want. If our communities created postmodern "monumental gardens" where all the god(s) get their altar, maybe we could once again find our voice as Christ-followers. And  maybe, just maybe, we could once again present Christ anew as servants and friends to our neighbors, rather than as owners and masters of society.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.