The role of religion in the public square, a subject that attracted considerable attention during last year's presidential race, continues to inspire debate and reflection, in part prompted by President George W. Bush's newly formed Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Three recent pieces help to put this ongoing discussion in perspective.

The first is Wilfred McClay's superb essay "The God of Princes," in the March issue of Touchstone magazine. McClay focuses on Senator Joseph Lieberman, whose "remarkably frank and enthusiastic declarations of his religious sentiments in the days and weeks immediately after his selection as Al Gore's running mate were stunning departures from the norm, and immediately generated quite a storm of controversy and commentary."

It takes an effort to recall that moment, obscured by the events of Election Day and their interminable aftermath. Especially it is hard to recover the sense of promise that many religious believers felt when this "avowedly observant" Jew received the nomination. "Lieberman's candidacy," McClay writes, "could have raised some profoundly important questions for us. For example, What can the perspectives of orthodox Judaism, and the larger Judeo-Christian tradition, tell us about the most pressing problems of public policy?" After all,

it is not as if potential moral applications are not readily at hand. They fairly cry out to us at every turn. Are we to believe that a religion whose central affirmation is of a Creator God who has endowed every human being with the traces of his own image, and upon whose authority rests a comprehensive law of life, has nothing useful to to say to us about such issues as partial-birth abortion, euthanasia, welfare policy, divorce, homosexuality, same-sex unions. experimental use of humna embryos, human cloning—but offers us authoritative pronouncements on Sabbatarian car-driving and elevator-riding?

Indeed. But the lesson McClay leaves us with, it seems to me, is hardly restricted to Lieberman and his party. "Lieberman wanted to have it both ways at once," McClay concludes in his dead-on summary: "to be able to engage in breezy and nonspecific God-talk in public, while eschewing any God-think that might challenge the Democratic party line." Is that a temptation for Republicans as well? Is there anything in the Christian tradition or the Jewish tradition that might compel a legislator who is also a religious believer to challenge the Republican party line?

The other two pieces complement each other, and not just because their respective authors happen to be husband and wife. In his "Beliefs" column in The New York Times, Peter Steinfels takes note of "some surprising commonalities in the status of believers and nonbelievers in American society." Steinfels's point of departure is the "sad demise" of the notorious atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was evidently murdered some time ago and whose remains were recently discovered. Steinfels goes on to note a certain strange symmetry in the way that many unbelievers and believers perceive their place in American society: "an air, simultaneously defensive and triumphant, that comes with feeling beleaguered." How can both groups feel this way? Because each, in a way, is right: "the rhetoric of disbelief and ultimate Godlessness reigns as generally uncontested in important sectors of American culture as the rhetoric of faith and Godliness reigns uncontested in politics."

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Margaret Steinfels's Commonweal editorial, "Public Religion," takes off from the complaint of one of those beleaguered unbelievers, an egregious piece by Ellen Willis in the Nation ("Freedom from Religion," February 19). Willis, as Steinfels writes, argues that in the 1960s,

secularists and believers worked together to for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and against poverty and social inequality. … based on a shared understanding of the common good, rather than, as now, on efforts of religious liberals and leftists "to promote the power of religion itself or [take] issue with the secular left on specifically religious grounds."

As Steinfels shows, this is to begin with simply bad history: both the civil rights movement and later protest efforts such as the Central America peace movement were to a significant degree "fueled" explicitly by "religious teachings and sentiments." (See for example Christian Smith's book, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement.) The logic of Willis's argument, Steinfels shows, is that secular ideas are privileged: "For Willis, there is one absolute for democracy: religion cannot be part of the public conversation." (That is precisely the point made by Ashley Woodiwiss in his critique of "deliberative democracy" in the current issue of Books & Culture.)

Mention of the Central America peace movement—we could just as well cite the prolife cause—is a reminder that Christians are frequently divided in their attempts to bring their faith to bear on the "most pressing problems of public policy." Such bitter division bears witness to our sinfulness. But that is no excuse for apathy. There is no biblical warrant for a "private" faith.

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John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

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Wilfred M. McClay's "The God of Princes" is available at Touchstone's site.

Peter Steinfels's "Beliefs" column finding "surprising commonalities in the status of believers and nonbelievers in American society" is available at The New York Times site.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels's "Public Religion: Not around here, says Ellen Willis" is available from Commonweal's site (but you'll have to scroll down to the second item).

The Public Religion Project, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts through the University of Chicago (specifically the Martin Marty Center at the university's divinity school), seeks to "bring to light the forces of faith within a pluralistic society."

Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

How Can I Keep From Singing? | Arne Bergstrom has looked suffering square in the eye all over the world. Now he sings about hope. (Mar. 26, 2001)

To Poland, for an Evening | Once in a great while, a film like Kieslowski's The Decalogue discovers how to transport an audience. (Mar. 19, 2001)

Examining Peacocke's Plumage | The winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion rejects everything resembling Christian orthodoxy, but that doesn't stop him from co-opting the language. (Mar. 12, 2001)

Are Scientists Taking Orders from Pat Robertson? | A essay accuses the Intelligent Design movement of being primarily an arm of "conservative Republicans" and the "religious right." (Mar. 5, 2001)

Had Morse No Code? | Like much popular art, the finale of Inspector Morse functions like a dream of the collective unconscious. (Feb. 26, 2001)

Beware the Women! | A conspiracy theorist claims the church is becoming too "feminized." (Feb. 19, 2001)

Return to the Father's House | Touchstone magazine examines God the Father and human fatherhood. (Feb. 12, 2001)

What's the University For? | In James Davison Hunter's The Hedgehog Review, academics nibble on the hands that feed them. (Feb. 5, 2001)

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary? | Experiencing Marian devotion as a Protestant (Jan. 29, 2001)

Opening the Mind of Science | Science Goes Postmodern, Part 2 (Jan. 22, 2001)

Science Goes Postmodern | David Foster Wallace creates math melodrama with his essay-review. (Jan. 15, 2001)