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Lauren F. Winner

Going Incognito

Should Christians conceal their religious identity in the public square?

One of the richest conversations among theologians of late has circled around questions of Christians and the public square. How and to what degree should Christians participate in public life? As Augustinian liberals, practicing a kind of civic engagement that doesn't sacrifice the claims of Christian confession? As citizens of nations that cultivate the capacity to respond to the witness of the church in a way that shapes their own practices? Or should Christians largely stand aloof from the public square? What kind of participation in public life is good for the church? And what kind of participation in public life is good for the nation? Should Christians ground their public claims in an explicitly Christian discourse? In short, on what terms should Christians theologically interpret and practice politics?

Theologian Jonathan Malesic's first book intervenes in these discussions, offering a perspective on Christian engagement in public life that is decidedly contrarian and disturbingly counterintuitive. Christians, Malesic says, should keep quiet about their Christian identity when they are in public. They should be secretive about their commitments to Jesus. They should conceal their membership in the church.

We Americans identify ourselves as Christians, Malesic charges, because we think our Christianity will get us something. Recall the state senate candidate who lists her church membership on campaign materials, or the attorney who makes his church membership known because he thinks it establishes him as virtuous, or middle-class, or upright, or trustworthy. The attempt to "use … religious identity as a means of getting ahead in the world" is "one of the longest-standing American traditions," says Malesic, and this commonplace ballyhooing of Christian identity has "done damage … to Christianity itself." It has, at a minimum, fostered serious confusion about what "being a Christian" means, and what the ends of Christian practice are and ought to be. ...

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