CFC Lecture

Faithfulness in the Public Square: Takeaways From Brent Leatherwood’s Carver-Barnes Lecture

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Are we fearful followers or faithful Christians? How can we be salt in light in the public square? Brent Leatherwood – president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission – addressed these questions and more during his recent lecture at the Center for Faith and Culture’s annual Carver-Barnes lecture. Addressing topics relevant to Christians (and Baptists in particular), Leatherwood explored the topic of witness to Christ in the public square. Here are some key takeaways:

Scripture and Defining the Public Square

At the outset, Leatherwood was quick to identify the foundation of Christian political witness: Scripture. Without this foundation in place, Christian political witness will surely fail in what it seeks to achieve. Second, Leatherwood insightfully noted that when it comes to defining the public square, most of us simply think of politics alone. This is a mistake. Indeed, while the public square certainly includes politics, it is much more than just politics. The public square encompasses all our day-to-day encounters with one another. In this way, the public square is a means of consistent interpersonal interaction as opposed to being specifically relegated to political conversations or encounters. This reality ought to change how we view our everyday exchanges with others.

A Danger: Ideology as Idolatry

But how can a Christian hope to engage in the public square in the midst of hostile ideological power struggles? Leatherwood offers a couple of different responses to this pressing question. First, Christians need to realize – and many are already aware of this – that the constant drama and vitriol permeating the public square, though we all have become accustomed to it, is not normal. Normal public square living involves people coming together to respectfully engage with one another. Second, given the rise of postmodernism and what some have called “expressive individualism”[1], Christians must realize that if “power becomes an end, it becomes an idol”, as Leatherwood put it. In order to live as salt and light in the public square, political power must not be pursued as the ultimate end as it shifts our focus away from God.

Third, Christians need to remind themselves that our true identity is found in Christ and Christ alone. We often believe the myth that our identity is lost if our political side loses ground in the public square, but this view is a short-sighted, unbiblical picture of reality. One could also speak to a Christian witness issue here. If the unbelieving world sees Christians turning ideology into an idol, why take Christianity seriously? We must, as the saying goes, practice what we preach.

As Christians, the statement “Jesus is Lord” should encompass our whole being

Principle One: Christians As Exiles

Leatherwood wrapped his lecture up focusing on two principles. The first principle is that our identity as Christian citizens is an identity of exiles. I think one could extend this idea further in the sense that Christians are not only exiles; we are pilgrims on the way home to “restful communion with God”[2], as Ross Inman puts it. This idea of being exiled pilgrims is crucial to keep in mind, as it fundamentally changes how Christians should perceive and dwell within the public square. We must be prepared to be active, invested, and rooted where we are right now. This also requires that we be a people demonstrating mercy and being Christ-like towards our neighbors, seeking their well-being in all aspects of life. Will this labor as exiled pilgrims be glorious and well-known? Most likely not. As Leatherwood phrased it, “the work of Christian citizenship is often unremarkable and unknown.”

Principle Two: A Proper Understanding of the Role of the Church and State

Here, Leatherwood tailors his message more in a Baptist-specific direction.[3] He started by noting that, for Baptists, a proper understanding of the church and state starts with local churches and baptism. Why baptism? Because “baptism is inherently political. To declare ‘Jesus is Lord’ means He alone is Lord and earthly leaders are not.” That said, Leatherwood was quick to make the important qualification to this comment by also noting that our dedication to the local church, baptism, and witnessing for Christ does not mean we are to be rebels against the state. No, the state has proper authority. Our goal as Christians is to be on mission for Christ while navigating under the authority of the state.

Prophetic Patriotism: Or Advocating For a Better Country

Leatherwood brought his lecture to a close by focusing on practical steps Christians can – and should take – in regard to being a Christian citizen. First, Christians should love their country enough to call out wrongdoing and promote positive change. Second, expounding upon the first point, there are many things Christians can and should be calling for Christ-centered change on already, such as abortion, school shootings, immigration, etc. There is a proper, Christian way to advocate for change as well as a way that emphasizes gentleness and respect, knowing that our fellow public square dwellers are image bearers of God and should be treated as such. As Christians, the statement “Jesus is Lord” should encompass our whole being. With this statement at the forefront of our minds, we can truly begin to be Christian citizens.


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[1] See Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020); Strange New World: How Thinkers And Activists Redefined Identity And Sparked The Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2022).

[2] Ross Inman, Christian Philosophy As A Way of Life: An Invitation to Wonder (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2023), 136.

[3] For a comprehensive treatment of how the Baptist tradition, past and present, has engaged with the State and the public square more broadly, see Thomas S. Kidd, Paul D. Miller, Andrew T. Walker, eds. Baptist Political Theology (Brentwood: B&H Academic, 2023).

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The Master of Arts Ethics, Theology, and Culture is a Seminary program providing specialized academic training that prepares men and women to impact the culture for Christ through prophetic moral witness, training in cultural engagement, and service in a variety of settings.

  • CFC Lecture
  • Challenges to Humanity
  • Christ and Culture
  • politics
  • public square
Eli Kunkel

Eli Kunkel

Eli Kunkel (BS, College of Education, North Carolina State University) is currently pursuing MA degrees in both Christian Education and Christian Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition, he teaches middle & high school courses in Apologetics, Cultural Engagement, and Competing Worldviews at Bethesda Christian Academy, in Durham, NC.

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