ImageIn 2008 the United States experienced a contentious presidential election that resulted in the first African American being elected as President.  It was within the milieu of divided political discourse leading up to this election that Ellen Ott Marshall, associate professor of ethics at Claremont School of Theology, penned her contribution to the topic of religion and politics, Christians in the Public Square.

The overarching purpose for Marshall’s book is to encourage engagement in democratic discourse by people of faith.  There has been an increasingly vocal segment of the US population who believe there is no place for faith or religion in politics.  Their position is that our country supports a separation of church and state, and therefore political candidates and activists should refrain from making statements of faith in their rhetoric.  However there are others, namely those from fundamentalist perspectives, who speak openly about the tenets of their faith and how they apply to politics.  Their rhetoric tends toward absolutism, authoritarianism, and divine endorsement, which is cause for the great divide currently being experienced in the square of public debate.  These are problematic features within the general state of our current politics.  There has been a continuing stalemate between the left and the right where no middle ground can be found, and it is paralyzing multiple levels of government.  Discerning individuals, me included, are exasperated by the lack of movement towards solutions this divide has created.  In response to our feelings of frustration, many of us have chosen to quiet our political opinions, or have disengaged from the political process entirely.  Marshall calls us back to the table and offers us insight into how to engage in crucial political conversations in constructive ways.

When we do come to the table Marshall invites us to place our faith squarely on top; there is no need to hide it beneath our napkins.  “We must do so because our faith is a deeply held part of who we are and therefore cannot be excised”, states Marshall (p. xiii).  Our faith informs our conscience and shapes our commitments to various social issues.  It is an essential component of political discourse and should be honestly shared as an informing resource.  Drawing upon liberal theology’s traditions of critical inquiry, freedom from religious certitude, and historical understanding, Marshall proposes three commitments when sharing faith in the public square:  unconditional love, moral ambiguity, and theological humility.  By practicing these commitments, people of faith can share their convictions in a constructive way that leaves the door open for transformation – a transformation of self, the other, the issue, and democratic discourse itself.

Marshall’s thesis holds that as more people begin constructively sharing their faith in the public square, the overall tone of political rhetoric will change from divisive to inclusive.  She admits practicing love, ambiguity, and humility in the current political landscape is difficult.  She understands such methods are seen as politically ineffective compared to statements of certitude.  However the only way to change the course of current political discourse is to begin making changes on an individual level.  As more individuals advocate for social change utilizing the above mentioned principles, a climate of compromise will be established and movement towards justice and truth will ensue.  Marshall echoes the political tension between absolutism and compromise as detailed by Hellwig (Public Dimensions of a Believer’s Life), but takes the argument a step further by offering a practical solution and challenge to the reader.  If agape, moral ambiguity, and theological humility are practiced in the public square we will all move closer to the truth.

Marshall proposes an interesting challenge that is still pertinent as we enter into the next presidential election.  Throughout the book she illustrates her argument using stories from life as a university professor and presenter.  These narratives are compelling and the language of storytelling flows easily.  However this flow is not matched in the majority of the book as Marshall fleshes out her argument.  The phrasing is stilted, and oftentimes redundant, making for a book that could easily have been distilled into a well-thought article.  In what seems to be another lengthening effort, an additional argument in defense of liberal theology is offered in the conclusion of the chapter on theological humility that I find an unnecessary appendix diverting focus away from Marshall’s central argument (p. 103-105).  While she does make a tie between liberal theology and theological humility, the connection is not strong enough to warrant the distraction.

Despite being unnecessarily verbose, I find Marshall’s thesis to be well thought out and of sound persuasion.  In the conclusion she sums up the arguments for how a commitment to constructive political activism is a positive transformational force in the public square by articulating how each practice works within the processes of deconstruction and creation.   Even though Marshall never uses the phrase “servant leader” in her work, the conversation guidelines she proposes and the challenge she submits would be well heard by servant leaders everywhere.  She calls for leaders to speak from a place of authenticity, vulnerability, and humility with the purpose of building relationship in the hopes of strengthening community.  This is difficult work, and service to the common good for whoever is willing to take it up.

As someone who is tired of the vitriol that is common place in public and private debate, I welcome anything that will disrupt the status quo and create new possibilities for consensus and compromise.  Marshall offers the most compelling and practical case for doing so that I have encountered thus far.  It is now up to her readers to put her thesis into action and institute the change.

References

Hellwig, M. K. (2005). Public dimensions of a believer’s life: Rediscovering the cardinal virtues.  (p. 45-54). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Marshall, E. O. (2008). Christians in the public square: Faith that transforms politics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from citationmachine.net

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