It’s time to reclaim the word “public.”
I don’t mean to sound like a nerdy grammatical purist, as if etymological arguments are a trumping corrective to everyday conversation. In this case, discussing the development of the Greek polis might be illuminating, but current examples provide enough fodder to make my case.
My concern is quite straightforward. Notions of inclusiveness and common good that were once understood as part of the term “public” have been lost. In its common usage today, the word has morphed to mean state-funded or endorsed and devoid of any religious claim—a positive antidote to the badness of things “private.”
But words are important as the conveyors of meaning, and so losing this word impairs our ability to flourish in this pluralistic environment.
Let me clarify my concerns with a few specific examples. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is on a campaign, investigating universities that require faculty to sign a statement of faith. That fact alone (goes the charge) is a denial of academic freedom.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel on this subject, and while preparing my remarks I realized how easy it was to lose the argument by conceding to the other side the word “public.” My first draft included the term “public universities,” which I meant as a shorthand for universities that were funded by the state. Although this language was convenient and would have accurately communicated to my audience the universities to which I referred, it would force me to use a word other than “public” for the non-public funded universities.
But public funding had nothing to do with the question we were debating. We were discussing whether the explicit commitment to certain presuppositions or first principles in academic work was fatal to academic freedom. Was scholarship that took place in one type of academy, in which these presuppositions were explicit, of a different nature than the scholarship that took place in a different kind of institution, where the scholars might hold the same convictions but were not asked to make them explicit? I wanted to make the case that scholars in both settings were carrying out a public vocation—namely, that of the academy. The academy is called to add to the body of knowledge on which our society relies and to share it with the next generation. We do not support scholarship so that academics have the space to study and reflect on the questions their curiosities create. Rather, we support scholarship to enable them to make a contribution to the public so that we can all share and benefit from their insights.
Although this is a challenge to those who hold convictions like those of CAUT (and I use this example simply to illustrate—similar things are happening in various social spheres), I suspect it is equally a challenge to those who work in faith-based universities. Sometimes it is easier to retreat from the broader academy and focus more narrowly on the students and context of your own university, as if your responsibilities were purely local (or, to use the terminology preferred by some, private.)
But to give in to this language is to concede that religion is really a private matter, and this concession has consequences for both who can participate and how they participate in society. Even the Supreme Court of Canada noted in a 2002 decision that an understanding of secularism which implied religion had no place in the public square was misguided. Secularism, properly understood, is a pluralist principle. It does not divide society into two groups: one holding a privileged non-theistic framework that gets to dominate the public square, and another with theistic beliefs who can participate only if they keep quiet about their deeply-held convictions. The public includes both theistic and non-theistic believers.
That challenges what has become conventional thinking on the part of many: the idea that only non-theistic belief can be objective. Recently, I was before a foundation-granting committee with a proposed project that involved engagement with a multi-faith group of stakeholders. My questioner was puzzled how an organization like Cardus, which has clear statements regarding its Christian convictions on its website, might be qualified to lead such a process. “We don’t do religion,” he reminded me, convinced, I am sure, that he had the public interest at heart. It seemed to puzzle him that a person with faith commitments could properly engage a broader community.
I tried to answer his query by pointing out that it was precisely because of my faith commitments that I could respect the beliefs of others and support democratic pluralism. But what was lost in this, and so many other conversations like it, is the implicit view of the “public” that the question presupposes. If people of faith are disqualified from engaging and leading a multi-faith dialogue because their personal faith biases them, then the only ones left to do it are those who do not have theistic faith. But non-theistic faith also has its presuppositions. We are left with a truncated view of the public square.
In using these examples, I do not mean to suggest naively that there are not valid concerns and historic abuses that have provided impetus to this changing notion of what is public. There are settings in which academic freedom is stifled in the name of religion (and those who remember Copernicus will know this is not a problem of recent invention). There are studies—although, these days, this seems more prevalent among non-theists than theistic believers—in which professional standards are compromised and supposedly public square processes are used to proselytize, rather than engage in dialogue.
But let’s not allow certain abuses of the term “public” to change the meaning of the word. A civil plural society cannot survive if we marginalize the public contribution of faith. This is a challenge to those who would engage in campaigns to marginalize faith. It is also a challenge to many people of faith who are content to retreat from the public square and reduce their religion to a “God and me” arrangement that is no one else’s business. Faith is personal, but it is never private. Our core beliefs shape who we are, how we live, and what we pursue. They define who we consider to be our neighbour and what it is that we owe them.
There are many dimensions to this complex issue but if the conversation is to continue, we need words that communicate what we mean. Reclaiming the appropriate use of the word “public” is important in that process. After all, we are the public.