Why God Can’t Go Out In Public

Why God Can’t Go Out In Public May 26, 2020

Ever notice how quiet it gets when God is mentioned in a public setting? Say someone prays out loud in a restaurant. Uneasiness settles over the atmosphere like a wet fog. Sometimes a “You’ve got to be kidding me” look is cast toward the perpetrator.

Awkward is an understatement; tense is probably more accurate.

But, why?

Why can we talk so easily about virtually every other topic in a country where three-quarters of the citizenry purport to be religious? What are the unspoken rules that make outward shows of religious faith noticeably uncool; and who set those rules?

Religio Non Grata

Few people are aware of their participation in the unspoken effort to eradicate the expression of religious faith in public forums. They’ve unwittingly embraced the sentiment that God should be consigned to society’s designated “box” — the church, synagogue, or mosque. So it feels weird and uncomfortable to see him out and about in daily life.

In America and most countries around the world, talking openly about God and one’s faith breaks no written law. The First Amendment protects that right in the U.S. Yet, many believe it’s best to keep all God-talk private. That belief is quickly becoming more powerful than the law itself.

What others think about us — largely determined by the unwritten but well-enculturated rules of public engagement — is one of the most influential forces in any society. Feeling accepted by whatever group of individuals we identify with directs most of our behaviors, however free we might think we are to “do our own thing.”

If you are aren’t aware of something you do, that’s a sure sign it is cultural.

As one anthropologist friend put it, “Culture is what feels natural.” So natural, in fact, that any other point of view seems to cut against the grain of the way things are inherently meant to be. Culture’s power is so ubiquitous that anything outside of group-sanctioned behavioral norms seems odd at best and criminal at worst — even to the point of requiring retribution against those who break established cultural mandates.

Shame On You

Take a whacky example — walking backwards down the street (a chiropractor once suggested I do it for back issues). No law prohibits it, yet the social shaming aimed at anyone who tries it constitutes something of a law in itself. I know; I tried it a few times and couldn’t endure the weird stares! I was being humiliated into walking forward like everyone else — back be damned!

So-called “guilt and shame cultures” exist in places like China and Japan, where innumerable strictures become unconsciously entrenched in society-at-large. Both guilt and shame work to insure mass conformity. American versions are perhaps fewer and more subtle, yet just as effective. Try cutting in line next time you go shopping. Technically, it’s legal. But, oh the shame…

Culture Power

Few are even aware of the effect our culture has on our values because we consider those values to be common sense at a minimum, and sometimes even sacred and inviolate. Yet we would find it almost impossible to explain why. Take burning the flag. Again, perfectly legal and protected under the Constitution. Yet to do so creates disgust and hatred among many Americans.

Why? Because their sense of what is culturally sanctioned and thus “right” has become intertwined with their sense of self-identity — bound up in a symbol that, scientifically speaking, is only a piece of painted cloth. Yet mutilating that cloth feels extremely personal, like a kick in the gut. It seems to violate their very person.
Behind every such thought and emotion we carry through life is a deeply instilled cultural value we unconsciously absorb somewhere along our journey from childhood. Symbols generate and unleash the emotions associated with those values.

Culture shapes our view of religion.

The same cultural forces shape the landscape of our religious views as well, whether we are religious or not. And the growing forces that oppose religion’s influence in our lives have unconsciously mandated that it is improper or even egregious to speak of God in public. Unless the god of whom we speak has been domesticated; that is, emasculated into a gender-neutral, impersonal force that demands nothing and offends no one. In other words, a god who thinks and acts just like we do — a god, one could say, created in our own image. Any such god who remains a mere opinion, theory, or lifestyle choice can come out to play now and then without rocking the boat. But the real God is rarely invited. He’s just too contentious.

How did this come about in a nation where a large majority of citizens declare that religion is important in their lives? Shouldn’t the opposite be the case?

Religious Scientism

To my reckoning there are at least two reasons. The first has to do with the elevated place we’ve given a scientific worldview. Many have taken its legitimate role as an empirical method with which to understand and manipulate the material world and refashioned it into a philosophy of life. That is to say, science is now often looked to as the definitive means with which to understand anything and everything — including all of dimensions that make us human. This, of course, is using science for something it was never designed to do or be.

Science is a tool that is useless outside of its narrowly defined parameters, limited as they are to understanding, measuring, and applying all aspects of the material universe. By definition, then, spiritual matters and questions of ethics lie beyond the domain of science, which is absolutely incapable of addressing such matters. That people believe otherwise shows contemporary culture’s powerful sway in their lives.

Science is the new religion.

The effort to go beyond the strict limits of scientific knowledge is nothing short of an ideological imposition by those who are unaware that secularized cultural forces have overtaken their better judgment. Through a process of erroneous extrapolation, they have decided that what cannot be tested or measured cannot be real.

Accordingly, God — who the Bible tells us is Spirit — can have no basis with which to exist, and is therefore nothing but a figment within the imaginations of illogical minds needing a salve for life’s fears and uncertainties. Interestingly, the absolutism that position entails is contrary to the empirically based scientific method itself, and no different in essence than the absolutism inherent in religious belief.

So when people purport to tell you they believe in science and not in God, what they are in fact saying is they have made science their god and their religion.

They have culturalized science into a philosophy of life. Efforts to make everyone else believe as much amount to little more than arrogant paternalism masked as intelligence and reason. It’s secular evangelism.

Democracy and Equality

The second main reason God is regularly confined to the private sphere (or tolerated in walled churches where religious activity can be restricted and thus better controlled) is our brand of democracy. We hold our democratic ideals so high that they have become hollowed in the eyes of most Americans. The Constitution is often seen as equivalent to or even above sacred books like the Bible. American democracy is rooted in a number of sources that stretch beyond colonial America to the Enlightenment in Europe, the ancient Greco-Roman world, and our Judeo-Christian religious heritage.

Yet at the center of our American democratic ideal is our firm belief in egalitarianism — that we are all equal under the law and in our fundamental makeup as human beings. Egalitarianism is embraced as an inalienable right that extends well beyond the legal and political spheres into our social, economic, and even religious areas of life.

Americans love to think that no one is above anyone else, at least in theory. In practice, we have social stratification like every other nation, based on race, income, education, and other distinctions. But we all seem to agree that, in principle, equality is the standard we should claim as our ideal.

But when egalitarianism meets religion, things get a little squirrely.

The constitutional guarantee of equality meant to protect Americans from discrimination against the free expression of our faith are being convoluted into a cultural authoritarianism against any expression of faith inherent claims to exclusive truth. The culture-du-jour mitigates against all faiths except non-absolute varieties (the secularized “universe-told-me” versions mentioned above). This position actually contradicts its own egalitarian ideal! (Those who believe all religion is essentially the same indirectly claim that religious beliefs that contradict the all-the-same position are wrong.)

It is a logical impossibility for all religions to be objectively correct, although all certainly do contain some measure of truth.

When applied to religious beliefs, cultural egalitarianism imposes its tyrannical set of unspoken rules meant to shame Christians (and others whose religions claim exclusive revelation) into conformity to its unyielding dictates; namely, no one set of religious beliefs is truer than any other — itself an absolute truth claim!

Do you see the sleight of hand? Note how the legal protection to freely express one’s faith has subtly morphed into a culturally sanctioned opposition to express it — grossly misapplying the egalitarian ideal.

Yoked together, philosophical scientism and cultural egalitarianism powerfully shape the collective beliefs and values of all who unwittingly swallow its force-fed indoctrination. Their marriage provides an excellent example of cultural imperialism at its best.
Today anti-religious bigotry has been turned inside out to look like ethical enlightenment, powered by the social shaming of all opposing views.

In the process, public prayer and other unhindered expressions of faith are being made to look like narrow-minded intolerance. And under the guise of inclusion and non-discrimination, spiritual whateverism continues to bully any system of beliefs that makes unique truth claims that contradict its self-conferred authority.

Still with me?

Well, then…so what? People of faith simply need to understand that is the way of the world. Truth and justice rarely prevail in this life. So other than calling religious bias out for what it is — hypocrisy and cultural imperialism — there is no value in Christians or other faith traditions playing the victim. That ploy comes right out of the playbook of a secular world bent on limiting free and open expressions of religious faith, claiming it injurious to an enlightened and thus more humane society.

The biblical response is to love and embrace one’s detractors, while confidently resisting attempts to impose their restrictive values onto those who believe in God and wish to worship him freely, “in spirit and in truth.” As it’s said, “hate the sin and love the sinner” — a category that Christians believe includes each and every one of us.

And that fact is the one that unifies us all — Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and spiritual what-have-you-nots. We are all sinners in need of transforming grace; imperfect human beings in need of conferred perfection; wayward seekers in need of absolute truth and love.

Sound familiar? That commonality lies at the heart of what Christianity is all about. It is the reason we Christians cannot compromise our faith in the self-revelation of God in Christ — the One whose sinless life of loving sacrifice makes a way to equally lift beyond every human fault and frailty all who put their trust in him.

It is in our dire need for redemption and the uncontested ability of Jesus to redeem one and all that, for once, we are truly and unequivocally equal.

So the next time you see God out in public, don’t freak out. He won’t bite and only has your best interest in mind. It all belongs to Him anyway. And you might even come to realize that his Presence makes every place infinitely better.

About Jim Rotholz
Jim Rotholz, PhD, spent five years working in missions and international development in Nepal and East Africa, and served a brief tenure as Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. His most recent book is Gospel Without Borders: Separating Christianity from Culture in America (Wipf and Stock, 2015). He has two grown children and currently lives in northern New Mexico with Louise, his talented and adventurous wife of 37 years. You can read more about the author here.

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