Sexual Identity: Legal Issues: Conscience and the Public Square

           The human conscience is one of those metaphysical entities that we all love and yet, being a metaphysical idea, we’re not always clear about it. The Puritans were master theologians of the conscience, precisely because they were strong in God’s word. Sadly, I’m not sure that can be said for us these days. Nonetheless, people everywhere, Christian or not, still defend the idea of conscience and nowhere more so then in the public square.

            Christians fiercely and rightly defend religious liberties in the name of our freedom of conscience. But as Jonathan Leeman has wisely pointed out, we’re surprised when this same freedom of conscience is used to “define one’s concept of existence to uphold abortion, or the right to make certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs to justify same-sex marriage. Aren’t these latter formulations simply other ways of describing the free conscience? Why then should Christian consciences prevail over non-Christian ones when the two come into conflict?”[1] That seems to be the state of affairs in our country now, doesn’t it?

            The answer to this problem is not simple, and far be it from me to provide anything close to satisfactory in a short blog post. Nevertheless, Christians need to think through their role in the public square. What impact does their voice (or better yet, God’s word) have on the consciences of others within that public square? At the outset, we have to be convinced that we do have a voice and that we ought to use that voice within that square. To not do so, as one guy put it, is neither safe nor right, for here we stand, we can do no other, so help us God.

            It has sadly become a truism to many modern Americans that there is this clear and un-crossable separation between church and state. What that means too many people is that all things political are public and all things religious must remain private - the church, the private, must stay out of the public. But this is of course to get our history wrong and our understanding of the church/state relationship backwards.

            Any separation between church and state was originally intended to keep the government from influencing the church. One thing was clear - worship was a matter of conscience. But in early America, that was a somewhat easier thing to understand. Despite Thomas Jefferson’s remark that it did him no injury whether his neighbor believed in one God or in twenty, the truth of the matter is that almost everybody believed in one God (though we must admit not everyone agreed on who or what that one god was like).    

            Today's American conscience concerning right worship is really connected to a pantheon of other gods. And with the arrival of all these other gods within the public square comes a plethora of different ethics, endless ways to worship, and a salad-bowl of lives wanting to live in distinct, self-directed ways. The public square has become a bit cacophonous; perhaps that great singularity is fast approaching when the Public Sphere is no different from the Blog-o-Sphere.

            All the same, the way things are going now may not be too far from the way things were when Paul addressed the public square about the one true living God, his Son and his resurrection from the dead. “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked him” (Acts 17:32). But the point cannot be missed: Paul boldly (and winsomely) brought his faith to bear in the public square. Listen to what the Scripture says, “Others said, ‘We will hear you again about this,’ so Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed.” (Acts 17:32-34). Consciences were changed precisely because Paul did not keep his very religious convictions private.

            Historically, it needs to be seen that our desire to maintain our freedom of conscience is just an old Enlightenment spin on what was originally meant to be freedom of religion. Whereas our Puritan colonizers were convinced by conscience and Scripture to worship God according to how He instructed, for the most part our American forefathers were content only with what our consciences held.[2] Any man has the right to worship any god according to how his own conscience allows him.

            This has inevitably opened up the possibility to have what we have now: every individual conscience clamoring for the right to live and worship as their own heart sees fit. And as history and the movement of ideas have unfolded, we can now say hello to pluralism and give welcome to the absurdity that all truth is, at best, subjective, and at worst, nonexistent.

            There are many points to ponder concerning this conundrum, politically and religiously, but one thing I think the church needs to hold on to in dealing with our current situation is the truth that the Religious Sphere is not private. Our religious convictions ought to be known and should be allowed to influence the Public-Political Sphere. Here is why: because everyone else is already acting according to this principle, whether they know it or not. And because of that, the public square is reflecting more and more the ethics, values, and convictions held by unbelieving consciences. Everyone is worshipping some God, god, or gods (no matter what they call their god), and the choices they make, the words they use to engage with others, the lives they live, all reflect the god they worship. Simply put this effects society.

            Our consciences, as Christians, are bound to the one, true Living God, known through His divine Son Jesus Christ. In addition, because our consciences have been freed to live in submission to Him, our lives must reflect his character. And here is the rub: we ought to be an influence - with our lives and with our words - on everyone else around us. Not only is it inevitable but it’s also good for society, his preserving grace upon the Public Square. Are we not to be his public ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:19-20), reasoning daily so that all people might hear about Christ (Acts 19:9-10)? I pray our consciences are bound to do so, so help us God.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: the Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL, 2016), 13.

[2] ibid. 74.


Stephen Unthank