The pressure in the West for Christians to confine their faith to the private sphere is immense. Recently, a US Senator commented that even the right to freedom of worship was confined within the walls of a church. This reflects, at best, a stunted understanding of what secularism is about, and at worst is a deliberate attempt to impose such a version on others in the name of ‘freedom’; we live, indeed, in an Orwellian world where freedom means its opposite. With the obvious decline in Church attendance in the West, it is tempting to wonder why some politicians and commentators are so frightened of Christianity that they spent so much time on the subject?
Part of the problem can be seen in the way Christians have, too often, witnessed to their faith. When we were in the driving seat in the public square, we behaved all too often in ways we now criticise when they were directed at us; the idea of persecuting people for their beliefs and proscribing and punishing them was not, for centuries at least, a secular one; we might want to wonder whether when what goes around comes around, we are in the best position not to sound hypocritical? To complain about the way a court punishes bakers who refuse to subscribe to the new legal consensus is our right; but a brief survey of of Christian churches have treated those who refused to subscribe to their Creed, suggests that we are not being consistent. We might argue ‘but of course, we are right’ – in which case we differ not at all from those who now prosecute Christians.
Real secularism has a broader and deeper vision of civil society. It recognises a plurality of beliefs and faiths, and it acknowledges their right to be in the oublic square. There is, of course, a condition for this – namely that all those faiths acknowledge the right of the others to be in that public square too. Those who wish to argue for a Catholic Monarchy which allows only their interpretation of Catholic teaching are, of course, free to do so, just as those who argue for Sharia Law are; but in both cases advocates need to stay within what the law of the land allows.
If what we believe is true, then let us witness to it in our daily lives. The public square is full of sloganeering, clamant voices drown out each other, and as with the Athens St Paul visited, there are altars there to every god. Our God is not some faint-heart or sensitive soul who needs shielding from criticism; the world already did its worst to Him on the Cross. He comes not to dominate by force, not to receive the worship of men and women at the point of the sword, he comes because he is love. He comes because he sees our chaos, he sees the misery we cause to ourselves and to others by our harkening to our needs rather than his laws. In all of that brokenness, he loves us, and to it he brings healing. As St John rightly advises us:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.