by Michael Reid Trice, Ph.D.
Rooted in ancient Rome, yet also framed within the U.S. Constitution, is the idea of the public square or forum where “we the people” assemble to express our ideas and opinions. In Rome’s Forum stood the Rostra—a platform at the center of municipal life where public orators gathered to speak. The Rostra, named for the beak or ram at a ship’s prow, was lined with the rams of captured enemy warships, following the Roman victory at Antium in 338 B.C.E. The rams were hacked off the ships and then re-positioned on poles along that speaking platform. It is easy to imagine yourself at the Rostra with the Circus Maximus at your back and the gleaming marbled Coliseum before you. You feel the crosswinds of the orators’ ideas as if you were the ship’s ram pealing back the tide and cutting a course through the sea. You can navigate the sea by the stars if need be, but to navigate through public opinion to the truth requires that citizens listen and discern wisely, because even as they espouse public virtues in an ancient compact buttressed by trust, in the nearby Coliseum the masses watch carnage for sport. Life in and around the public square is complex. The same holds true today.
And expressing faith and values in the public square is also complex. To some “faith and values” can sound like code for the infusion of a religious element into an otherwise unalloyed public conversation. And yet, public discourse, as we know, has a history of being anything but one dimensional or pristine. Faith and values, when engaged in the public square, reflect the multi-dimensional realities we experience. When we lean into today’s realities we must discuss what has captured us in public discourse, what we are compelled to do as we cut through myriad opinions on matters such as immigration, the election of a U.S. President, and even the corrosive use of aspects of religion that may be co-opted and used to excuse violence around the world. Faith and values in the Public Square invites honest engagement about both ‘what,’ and particularly ‘why,’ you believe.
Additionally, we need to ask if there is something about living in the Pacific Northwest that shapes our specific view, making it different from others? We’ll need to assess that possibility together as well.
This blog is based on the belief that the contribution of faith and values is inseparable from the health of discourse in the public square—and not only because social responsibility is bound up in religious self-understanding. This contribution is necessary because our shared citizenry—that “we the people” part we publically solemnize—is central to the U.S. Constitution itself, particularly to the Bill of Rights. Within that document, the Establishment Clause is not about introducing a ditch and barbed-wire impediment between religious and secular life, between an imagined “us” and “them.” The document places all of us—the “We”—proximate to one another. The freedoms of Expression and Assembly allow “us” to stand at the Rostra and lean into the crosswinds of public discourse without fear of governmental retaliation and without the butts of rifles pounding at our doors. It frees us from experiencing violent carnage because discourse has ceased to be civil. And, as we engage in public discourse, our aim is not merely about reaching a least-common-denominator “common good,” which can be disguised as consensus or inertia in some cases. Rather, we are after “the greater good,” which holds for us the excellence of values in dialogue with one another, across religious and philosophical differences or even divides.
With a view to values and dialogue, a friend of mine, Marc Cohen, reminded me recently of a dialogue at the very beginning of Plato’s classic text, Republic. In the dialogue, a friend of Socrates, Polemarchus, threatens to drag a tired Socrates to a party. “I can force and coerce you to my will,” notes a determined Polemarchus. “But could you rather persuade me?” asks Socrates.
Isn’t honest dialogue, rather than coercion, the true indicator of the health of our democracy? Ultimately, what kind of model do we wish for ourselves, our families, and friends—the Rostra or the Coliseum?
Faith and values in the public square is about dialogue, persuasion rather than coercion, and the integrity of public engagement over against the fear that drives the tyranny of the urgent today. Words, dialogue, faith, values, the public square, persuasion and the Rostra—this is the story of civil discourse and who we are becoming as the public resonates with the questions we ask and the integrity of our responses. Happy writing.
Michael Trice’s bio may be found on the Assistant Dean’s Page.