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Fisher of Men

Private Religion v. Christianity

Private Religion v. Christianity

James Turnbull in G. K. Chesterton’s 1909 novel The Ball and the Cross had been attacking Christianity for years in his magazine, The Atheist. The “fiery little Scotchman, with fiery, red hair and beard” worked hard at it, but no one paid any attention to him or his tireless assaults on the Bible and the Faith hung prominently in the plate glass windows of his office for all to read. “He had said the worst thing that could be said,” writes Chesterton, “and it seemed accepted and ignored like the ordinary second best of the politicians. Every day his blasphemies looked more glaring, and every day the dust lay thicker upon them.”

“Year after year went by,” we read, “and at last a man came by who treated Mr. Turnbull’s secularist shop with a real respect and seriousness. He was a young man in a grey plaid, and he smashed the window.”

Evan MacIan, a visitor to London and a devout Roman Catholic, reads one of Turnbull’s articles and the blasphemies so incense him that, upon seeing Turnbull inside, he comes through the window to confront him: “Stand up and fight, you crapulous coward.”

The police bring MacIan before a judge who asks why he smashed Turnbull’s window. “He is my enemy, he is the enemy of God.”

The mention of God is too much. “Be quiet,” says the judge, “it is most undesirable that things of that sort should be spoken about—a—in public, and in an ordinary Court of Justice. Religion is—a—too personal a matter to be mentioned in such a place…. But to talk in a public place about one’s most sacred and private sentiments—well, I call it bad taste. (Slight applause.) I call it irreverent.”

But MacIan offers no reason for breaking the window except Turnbull’s blasphemies and assures the judge of a forthcoming duel to the death over religion. The judge is appalled, but reluctantly sets him free after Turnbull assures the court that he will have nothing to do with a duel. Yet no sooner do they leave the building than Turnbull says to MacIan, “Well sir, where is the fight to be? Name the field.”

The book traces Turnbull and MacIan—“alone in the modern world in that we think that God is essentially important”—in their quest to find “the field” where they can do battle. The rest of the world, wanting more than anything else that their religious passions will just go away, does its best to stop them. 

The atheist and the Christian in Chesterton’s novel hold what the world considers the very worst in religion: a public faith he believes is true everywhere, always, and for everyone and for which he is willing to die. Such faith is, to say the least, “bad taste.” Religion, you’ll remember, along with politics and the Great Pumpkin are the three things you should never, never discuss in public. 

Or, at least, that’s what many would like us to think as they chip away at our religious freedom. In fact, “religious freedom” has been excised from the vocabulary of many including President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton. They prefer “freedom of worship,” which is cut-rate state-sponsored permission to indulge in Sunday morning God-oriented leisure time activities and personal opinions. 

And it’s not just government. When Tiger Woods’ adulteries grabbed all the headlines, journalist Britt Hume suggested on air that Woods, a Buddhist, explore the redemptive power of Christianity. Carl Cannon cataloged the immediate and vicious responses. One commentator wrote, “faith is a private matter between that person and God, and is not a matter to be judged by some pompous TV anchor.” Hume was accused of being “rude and crass” and of having “bad manners.” He had “denigrated” and “diminished” the Christian faith. His “talking trash” was “sanctimonious,” “distasteful,” and “inflammatory.” His comments were “madness,” “off-the-cuff, off-the-wall.”

I suppose that beats being locked away in an insane asylum—the fate of Turnbull and MacIan—but that sort of vitriol will get anyone thinking twice before bringing his or her faith out in public.

And yet we believe that faith in Christ is a matter of life and death—eternal life and eternal death. We believe it’s objectively and eternally true. We believe it leads to authentic human flourishing. At least we used to. That’s why Christians spoke up. That’s why the Church evangelized. That’s why there are martyrs. 

Like Turnbull and MacIan, we face a world that wants to lock religion in private places and out of public life. Like Turnbull and MacIan, we need to decide how we’ll respond: obedient silence or faithful rebellion. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”


James Tonkowich is a writer and scholar at The Institute on Religion & Democracy where his focus is the intersection between faith and the public square, where worldview makes all the difference in the world. Jim worked with Chuck Colson, managing his daily BreakPoint radio commentary, founding a magazine, writing, speaking, and developing curriculum including the Centurions Program. He is a regular contributor to and also works with The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, Oxford House Research, and other policy institutes. Learn more about Jim at

Publication date: September 4, 2014

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