[Paleopsych] CHE: Religion and Culture: Views of 10 Scholars
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Religion and Culture: Views of 10 Scholars
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.10.22
What role do or should religious institutions play in society? Does
religion shape culture, or vice versa? Does it have a political
content? How has the relationship of religion to American society
changed in the contemporary world?
Many new and forthcoming scholarly books on religion and American
culture seek to answer questions like those, which are part of some of
today's most pressing public debates, underlying such controversies as
abortion, school vouchers, the roots of terrorism, and many more.
In light of the recent scholarship and public debates, The Chronicle
asked 10 leading scholars to give their views on religion in American
Still Divided, After All
In 1984, George Gallup Jr. and I were the first to conduct a
systematic study of the growing divide between those who designated
themselves as conservative or liberal in religion -- a divide that
pundits and scholars are still debating 20 years later. We found that
41 percent of the public regarded themselves as religious
conservatives (19 percent as very conservative), while 43 percent
regarded themselves as religious liberals (18 percent as very
liberal). Conservatives thought liberals were unsaved and morally
loose, and liberals thought conservatives were rigid and fanatical.
Neither side had much contact with the other -- but those who had the
most interaction regarded the other in the least favorable terms.
During the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan proclaimed that
America was being torn apart by a religious war. Such an exaggerated
claim became an easy target. In 1998, in his One Nation, After All,
Alan Wolfe argued that Americans were mostly in the unopinionated
middle. And rebuttals of the culture-wars thesis continue. For
instance, Morris P. Fiorina and his collaborators, Samuel J. Abrams
and Jeremy C. Pope, wrote in the recent Culture War?: The Myth of a
Polarized America that public opinion isn't nearly as divided as the
red-states/blue-states image suggests.
But other evidence points to a continuing and significant divide in
American religion. National surveys that I have conducted in recent
years show an even greater division between religious conservatives
and liberals than in 1984. There is a strong correspondence between
religious conservatism and political conservatism. In 2003 I found a
near-perfect correlation between states that scored high on a scale of
belief in America's being a Christian nation -- a view favored by
evangelicals and others who believe that Christianity is uniquely true
-- and states that voted for George W. Bush in 2000. John C. Green, a
political scientist, has found similarly strong associations between
religious traditionalism and political views during the 2004 election
The surest indication that such divisions will continue comes from the
emerging post-baby-boom generation. Adults ages 21 through 45 are more
divided than their counterparts were in the early 1970s, with sharper
divisions in beliefs and lifestyles between evangelical Protestants
and those with no religious affiliations, and between those who attend
religious services regularly and those who do not. Evangelicals in
this age group are even more opposed to abortion than their
predecessors were and increasingly vote for Republican candidates.
The impact of higher education on the current divide is unclear.
Historically, fundamentalist beliefs like biblical literalism have
tended to decline with college going. But that is much less true than
it once was. Anecdotal evidence suggests that fundamentalism is
flourishing on many of our nation's campuses.
The current religious divisions are hardly a threat to American
democracy, although political operatives continue to exploit them for
partisan purposes. It is not puzzling that religion is a vibrant part
of the political discourse of our nation. It is misleading to assume
that religious people have simply joined a complacent middle.
Robert Wuthnow is a professor of sociology at Princeton University and
director of its Center for the Study of Religion.
STEPHEN J. STEIN
A Decentered Religious World
Religion in the United States is undergoing major change, undetected
by many but clearly measured by the newest scholarship in the field:
The religious agenda of the past is losing significance. Theological
issues that were once prominent are now of less interest.
Denominational identities have become less important. Traditional
patterns of worship have been altered in multiple ways. Moral
standards have shifted repeatedly. The net result is an emerging
American religious bricolage that defies easy description. Several
forces are at work.
Globalization is one force reshaping American religious pluralism. The
nation once described as Christian, and then as Judeo-Christian, now
defies easy characterization. Post-1965 immigrants brought the
traditions of Asia into the diverse religious mix at the same time
that several truly indigenous communities, including the Mormons and
the Jehovah's Witnesses, have grown exponentially. The Latino presence
in the Roman Catholic Church is reorienting that huge community, too.
The challenge now facing scholars is to construct a new descriptive
model for this decentered religious world in America.
Privatization, another force altering American religion, is breaking
up the controlling interests of mainline denominations and
redistributing religious commitments. The second half of the 20th
century saw televangelists invade American homes, followed by the
expanding impact of cable TV on religion, and now the explosion of
alternative religious options on the Internet. New Age spirituality in
its infinite expressions allows individuals to participate in virtual
religious communities in the privacy of their homes.
Localization is another force affecting contemporary American
religion. As loyalties to ecumenical, denominational, and even
regional religious agencies diminish, Americans continue to support
local congregations, parishes, synagogues, and temples in
astonishingly high numbers. New kinds of local religious communities
also are enjoying remarkable success. Mega-churches, comprising large,
nondenominational Protestant congregations, are thriving as an
expression of the primacy of the local.
Polarization is a fourth force. Competition has always been present
among religious communities. Often it has been accompanied by overt
hostility. Sustained campaigns, for example, against Catholics,
Mormons, Jews, and various so-called cults are well known. Residuals
of those hostilities remain. But polarization between religious
conservatives and religious liberals, without respect to
denominational affiliation, has taken center stage. The divisive
issues include abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, prayer in the
public schools, the role of women, the response to terrorism, and war.
As they confront such changes, scholars of American religion are
attempting to move beyond the categories established by traditional
theology and the social structures of Western religious traditions.
They are examining the expressions of personal spirituality, the ideas
and practices crafted through interaction of diverse traditions, the
violence sanctioned by religious prejudice, and the new forms that
religion is likely to take in the future.
Stephen J. Stein is a professor of religious studies at Indiana
University at Bloomington.
The Paradox of American Religion
The United States is one of the most religious of modern nations and
also one of the most secular. Vast majorities of Americans profess
belief in God, and more than two-thirds affirm such traditional
Christian doctrines as the deity of Jesus Christ and the authority of
the Bible. Probably only about half of those Christians are active in
churches, but if you add practicing Jews, Muslims, and devotees of
other religions, the proportion of seriously religious Americans is
far higher than in other large highly industrialized nations.
Yet as religious traditionalists abroad remind us, our culture is also
strikingly secular, even profane. Part of the paradox is explained by
the many essential activities in a technological capitalist society
like ours that allow little room for religious groups to exercise
substantive control. Our government is officially separated from
religions and depends on coalitions that can bring people with
different beliefs together. Businesses serve diverse markets and focus
on what will turn a profit. The media's commitments to freedom,
diversity, and profit foster mass entertainments that would have
shocked older religious sensibilities.
What is remarkable is that in the United States those traits of
modernity have been accompanied by voluntary adherence to religion
that has grown at rates comparable to those of the population. Even
more remarkable is that these two cultures, the secular and the
religious, coexist in relative peace, often within the same
individual. Despite bitter political debates on a few notorious
issues, most Americans who are very religious accept that life is
many-sided and that religion has its own, limited place. Few, for
example, challenge the secular nature of the world of business and
industry. Religion flourishes as a largely private matter, while the
public domain is dominated by the secular.
At the same time, we must recognize that the divide between our public
and private lives is and will remain far from complete. The secular
and the religious inevitably overlap. Changes in secular culture
constantly reshape religions -- as, for example, in the higher
tolerance for divorce in most evangelical churches than, say, 40 years
ago. Correspondingly, genuinely religious people in aspects of public
life like politics, education, and social service can hardly avoid
being influenced by viewpoints that are shaped by religion, even if
they must temper how they speak or act to meet rules of the public
Much of the recent scholarship in my own field, American religious
history, has dealt with why and where religion has flourished in such
a modernized society. Two trends are especially striking. First, as in
the historical profession generally, numerous studies emphasize
previously marginalized people and groups. We have benefited vastly
from studies of popular religious practice among women and laypeople
and within ethnic and minority communities.
The other trend is the remarkable growth in the past quarter-century
of scholarship on evangelical Protestantism. Partly in response to the
unforeseen resilience of evangelicalism in the late 20th century, a
generation of scholars has tracked aggressive Protestantism's
influence on countless dimensions of American history. While much of
the scholarship about evangelicalism also leans toward rehabilitating
the previously marginalized, some bucks the trend by recovering the
multifaceted movement's influence on the American mainstream. Mark A.
Noll's much-noticed recent work, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards
to Abraham Lincoln, tracks the cultural impact of something so
un-trendy as theology in early America. Notable studies of Roman
Catholicism have similarly traced the influence of the nation's
largest religious minority on the larger culture.
Leading commentators on American culture of a generation ago assumed
that religion was an ephemeral -- or at least a diminishing -- force
in American life and, as a result, tended to neglect its pervasive
presence. The American historical profession as a whole is still
shaped by those outworn assumptions -- few history departments
integrate American religious history into their programs. Nonetheless,
illuminating scholarship on American religion exists, as does the
inescapable influence of religion itself.
George Marsden is a professor of history at the University of Notre
Defaming Islam and All Religious Belief
One of the most salient points about religion in American culture
today is the extent to which the events of September 11, 2001, have
tapped into a centuries-old heritage of demonizing Islam in the West.
Islam has long been depicted as despotic and oppressive, a useful foil
against which to define liberal democracy. That contrast has become
central to justifying the war on terrorism. Americans today view
Muslims as quintessential strangers, whose barbaric, sexist, and
irrational beliefs must be denounced as violating an international
consensus about the worth of human beings. Such a characterization
defames Islam, Muslims in America, and, in insidious ways, all
religious belief in America.
The majority of American Muslims came to the United States as part of
a migration that began after 1965. They came to a nation that had
outlawed racial segregation and was increasingly defining itself as a
pluralist country. Muslims set out to create a place for Islam in the
American mainstream, establishing organizations that parallelled those
of other religions, like mosques that provided social functions
available in churches and synagogues, youth groups, and charitable
That all changed on September 11. Since then U.S. government policies
-- the USA Patriot Act, profiling Muslims, raiding their homes and the
offices of their leaders, freezing the assets of their charities
-- have been seen by Muslims at home and abroad as a declaration of
war not only on terrorism but on Islam itself.
That is why American Muslims were so shocked at the appointment last
year of Daniel Pipes, a pro-Israel commentator and director of the
Middle East Forum, to the Board of Directors of the United States
Institute of Peace -- which had been commissioned by Congress to
promote peace -- despite opposition by Christian and Muslim religious
and civic leaders. Pipes and other critics of Islam have called for
"modernizing" the religion. They advocate a form of "religion
building" that would challenge the legitimacy of many Muslim leaders
and intellectuals, criticize Islamic fundamentalism, and promote
Western values within Islam. Not only is that seen as demeaning
Islamic belief; in essence, it also seems to be an attempt to isolate
Islam as a purely spiritual phenomenon, to concentrate on it as a
religion -- to separate it from public policy.
American attitudes toward Islam are also exacerbating divisions within
broad currents in American religion and culture. It's not just the
"with us or against us" attitudes that increasingly appear to exclude
Muslims and other newcomers and to redefine the country in
Judeo-Christian terms. It's also that American culture appears to be
of two minds about religious influences. On the one hand, the
conversation surrounding today's war on terrorism sometimes draws on
the longstanding religious beliefs that support liberal democracy
-- the "nice" side of Judeo-Christian thought, which emphasizes the
value of all people, regardless of their faith. That was reflected in
the initial reaction to September 11, which saw an outpouring of
support for American Muslims by helpful neighbors, rabbis, and
ministers. On the other hand, increasingly the war on terrorism also
draws on the "harsh" side of Judeo-Christian belief, promoting a God
of vengeance who does not tolerate other faiths, especially Islam.
God's plan for the end of time has begun, one in which Muslims are not
No wonder Muslims feel that they have been stripped of the right to
define their own faith and teachings, which must be revised to accord
with the interests of the U.S. government and Israel. They wonder what
kind of Islam America will tolerate.
Yvonne Haddad is a professor of the history of Islam and
Christian-Muslim relations at the Center for Muslim-Christian
Understanding at Georgetown University.
The Vanishing Middle Ground
Like much in contemporary America, religion has separated into two
extremes, veering off from what just a few decades ago seemed to be a
liberal consensus, about both the nature of religion and its place in
society, among Americans as a whole and within most faiths.
That consensus, which reached its high point in the 1960s, assumed
religion to be a progressive force that, despite clear denominational
differences, united Americans through common values and shared ideas
about progress and brotherhood. The liberal view of American religion
accepted differences among Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the title of
Will Herberg's 1955 book. Like him, Americans generally emphasized the
connections among people across rigid divides. But in the final
decades of the 20th century and into the early 21st, that widely
accepted truth has been shattered.
On the one hand, the boundaries between denominations have blurred,
and previously clear sectarian lines seem less well defined. Soaring
intermarriage rates complicate previously accepted definitions of what
constitutes the core of particular religions and what membership
means. "Exotic" practices have found their way into the sanctuaries of
once staid churches and synagogues. Congregations experiment in their
sacred services with modes of spiritual expression borrowed from other
religious systems and from New Age sources. Individuals sample from
the motifs of many religious repertoires without feeling obliged to
buy into total systems. Probably no popular example could trump that
of Madonna, a Roman Catholic by upbringing, who now presents herself
by her "Jewish" name, Esther, and has announced that she is a devotee
of kabbalah, a mystical Judaic tradition that flourished at the end of
the 13th century. Additionally, individuals who in the past had no
access to public roles of authority in religious organizations
-- notably women and gay people -- now serve as members of the clergy
and help shape forms of religious expression that challenge
On the other hand, the hardening of religious orthodoxies among the
most fervently committed Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims
-- and their increasing power within their respective faiths -- has
shaken mid-20th-century ideas about the basically benign similarities
among religions. That triumph of orthodoxy reflects a deep reaction
against blurring of boundaries, which had, in its turn, challenged the
assumption that "natural" categories of difference existed.
Thus elements within each of the religious communities have come to
stake out extreme positions, proclaiming certain incontrovertible
fundamentals of their religions and lambasting anyone who questions
doctrinal authority. Within Judaism, for example, the ultra-Orthodox
who refer to themselves as "Torah true" have made modern Orthodox
Judaism, long associated with the idea that faith and modernity could
coexist, uncomfortable with accommodation. The latter now feel
compelled to look to the right to make sure that they cannot be
accused of being soft in matters of Jewish law as defined by the
right. The purists make no room for either moral relativism or
creative fusions. They want thicker walls.
In a shorthand way, American religion, like American politics, has
come to be defined by the "reds" and the "blues," with little in the
middle to hold the center.
Hasia Diner is a professor of American Jewish history and director of
the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York
FREDRICK C. HARRIS
From the Social Gospel to the Prosperity Gospel
Religion and politics have increasingly become interwoven, often in
nuanced, unexpected ways. In recent years American consumerism and
corporate-management principles have joined with a steady rise of
Protestant, mostly denominationally independent churches. The
corporatization of that growing branch of American Protestantism, with
its emphasis on transforming individuals into prosperous citizens and
its de-emphasis of the communal values of the social gospel, will very
likely influence American politics for years to come. This turn in
American Protestantism, which is characterized by the ascendancy of
megachurches and a "gospel of prosperity" suggesting that believers
will be prosperous and healthy if they are financially committed to
their churches, may especially affect the politics of black
The popularization of megachurches and the gospel of prosperity act as
a counterpoint to some of the most important values that
African-Americans armed themselves with in their challenge to racial
segregation during the 1950s and '60s. Although most churches in
Southern black communities were not engaged in the civil-rights
movement, members of black churches, activist and nonactivist alike,
used the organizational skills they developed in their congregations
to help their communities work for social change. In similar fashion,
black churches served as incubators for political organizing and
voter-registration drives in the 1970s and '80s.
As black churches become more professionalized and adopt management
principles to run church operations, full-time church staffs are
replacing lay participation. As a result, congregants may have to
learn in other places the organizational skills that, for generations,
they had learned in church. What effect this will have on political
organization is not clear. What does seem clear is that, if current
trends in black Protestantism continue, black churches will no longer
be the birthplaces of civic and political change they once were.
In tandem with the professionalization of black-church leadership is
the emergence of the prosperity gospel, which is especially popular
with radio and television ministries. This religious worldview,
colloquially known as the "name-it-and-claim-it" gospel, measures
salvation by material wealth rather than by reaching out and "saving
souls" through community involvement. Although the social gospel was
premised on the idea of transforming the poor by uplifting them with
hard work and thrift, the prosperity ministry merely feeds on the
misery of the poor and working class by convincing them that their
station in life is caused by lack of financial commitment to God. The
prosperity gospel's view of how to change communities is by creating
righteous consumers rather than by uplifting the poor.
Disentangling the impact of corporatization and the prosperity gospel
on black churches and understanding how those forces influence
political activism in black communities should be at the forefront of
research on religion and black politics.
Fredrick C. Harris is an associate professor of political science and
director of the Center for the Study of African-American Politics at
the University of Rochester.
PHILIP KEVIN GOFF
Cultural Shifts: the Sacred and the Secular
The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture was
originally envisioned as a way to promote the understanding of
religion in American culture. As I have come to realize, the
modification to religion and American culture is significant. At issue
is whether we are studying religion as a subset of American culture or
its relationship to American culture.
Over the past 15 years, scholarship on American religion has moved
along the same trajectory as many of the humanities have, proceeding
from the social categories of race, women, and class to cultural
categories of ethnicity, gender, and material culture. This shift has
changed our focus from religion in society to such topics occupying
our religious lives as food, language (including shibboleths), dress,
entertainment, fashion, aesthetics, and law -- that is, to religion
and American culture.
My own studies in religious radio have forced me to conclude that we
are best served by analyzing both religion and the concept of
"American" under the larger umbrella of culture. That helps explain
the pliability of each, as well as their power when linked in the
sense of civil religion -- that moment when faith and Americanism are
one. I've watched with amazement as religious and secular entertainers
borrow from one another. It is that dance between what we
traditionally have called the "sacred" and the "secular" that most
reveals the nature of the relationship between religion and American
Look at the recent simultaneous growth in popularity of reality
television programs and the charismatic-style worship of
nondenominational congregations filled with the Starbucks-drinking,
Internet-surfing, therapy-seeking and thrill-seeking Gen X and Gen Y
crowds. The personal is no longer private. Both the personal and the
sacred have gone public in a big way. People believe that others want
to know about their deepest feelings and recent experiences
-- including their religious experiences. And many do.
It is not so much that religion has influenced America, or vice versa.
Rather, both have been affected by larger cultural shifts. Recently
that has included a combination of narcissism and voyeurism. We see it
in all sorts of moments -- when fundamentalist-Christian pharmacists
refuse to fill prescriptions for medical procedures that run contrary
to their consciences, or when citizens decide to vote for or against
candidates who acknowledge themselves as people of prayer. Those are
moments when the personal demands public attention.
All of which makes me take a second look at America's religious
history. Perhaps those 19th-century revival meetings emphasized
personal testimony for more than just the sake of proselytizing.
Perhaps railroad trains featuring Roman Catholic masses were meant not
just as religious experiences but as spectacle, right up there
alongside Rudolph Valentino films and gory wrestling matches. Looking
at religion in contemporary America against the backdrop of the past,
the wall separating the so-called sacred and secular seems less
noticeable than the one fencing the two in the same yard of culture.
Philip Kevin Goff is director of the Center for the Study of Religion
and American Culture and a professor of religious studies and American
studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He
also is coeditor of Religion and American Culture: A Journal of
ANDREW M. GREELEY
The Assault on Religion in the News Media
Perhaps the point that troubles me most about the relation between
religion and American culture today is rarely discussed by our news
media: the role of the press itself. Look at the public debate over
school vouchers. When the U.S. Supreme Court approved a Cleveland
school-voucher program in 2002, the editorial page of The New York
Times was troubled by the breach in the wall of separation between
church and state. Warning that taxpayers' money would be spent on
Roman Catholic masses, crucifixes, and Bibles, the Times harrumphed,
"It is hard to think of a starker assault on the doctrine of
separation of church and state than taking taxpayer dollars and using
them to inculcate specific religious beliefs in young people."
Leaving aside that the "wall" is an analogy more than a legal theory,
such commentators often reveal astonishing ignorance. Religion in
America flourishes, yet there is a layer of elite opinion in both the
academy (especially law schools) and the national media that religion
is in decline and, moreover, should be in decline. Therefore it should
be pushed back into the private sphere and kept there. There should be
no place for religion in public life. Thus the Times assigns the
review of a book by an atheist to another atheist. One of its religion
writers begins a report on sexual abuse by priests with a statement
that such abuse is spread all around the country, but she waits till
the 12th paragraph to report that the proportion of priests who were
abusers was less than 2 percent from 1950 to 2001 -- the obvious news
lead. Ignorance? Bigotry? A combination of both?
The mix of the two is not confined to the Times. The principal targets
are Catholics and evangelicals. If media bias and inaccuracy about
those two groups were as manifest when the subjects are Jews or
African-Americans, there would be a hue and cry in the land. As it is,
there is no sense that it is wrong to make sweeping generalizations
about either Catholics or evangelicals without being very careful
about what one says or writes. It's all right to go after
evangelicals, because they are President Bush's most important base,
and it's all right to attack Catholics, because they are against women
and gay people and vote the way their bishops tell them to vote
-- both of which assumptions are, by the way, false.
Further, while much recent research in the sociology of religion casts
grave doubt on the thesis that modernity has brought secularization,
it remains a favorite dogma of not just the media but also the
academic elite -- even among fellow sociologists. If religion is on
the wane, why should one worry about fairness? Let's rejoice that
finally enlightened thought sees through the fraud of religion,
especially the fraud of Catholicism and evangelicalism. That's the
The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley is a professor of sociology at the
University of Arizona and a research associate with the National
Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago.
BRUCE B. LAWRENCE
Crusades vs. Jihads: Religion and the Global Future
What is the role of religion in today's politics? Or, rather, what is
the political role of religion in contemporary America? The question
has been recast since September 11, 2001, with President Bush playing
the role of a modern-day crusader.
Two wars against Muslim enemies -- first the Taliban, in Afghanistan,
and then Saddam Hussein, in Iraq -- have been waged in the name of
combating terror. But the rhetoric to justify those wars has tapped
into a deeply religious Manichaean reflex in the American psyche. It
is epitomized by the phrase "axis of evil." Like President Ronald
Reagan's condemnation of the "evil empire" of Communism before it,
with its biblical invocation of sin, the term memorably used by
President Bush is nothing if not a reframing of religious rhetoric in
political guise, just as Osama bin Laden's language tried to justify
his terrorist acts as those of a "devout" Muslim opposing the
"Zionist-American crusade." Our crusades versus their jihads -- both
face the logic but also the limits of symmetric dualisms.
The current phase of this mode of metaphysical scapegoating recast as
political realism derives from the first Persian Gulf war. Soon after
the end of that conflict, in 1991, Samuel Huntington, a political
scientist, with an assist from Bernard Lewis, a noted scholar of Near
Eastern studies, coined the phrase "the clash of civilizations." It
became the basis for a 1993 article and then a 1996 book with the same
binary argument: There is a clash of civilizations; it pits the West
against the rest; the rest are Confucian and Islamic civilizations,
but Islam is the prime enemy. While Huntington denounces Islam as the
unredeemable "other," in the same way that Protestant patriots during
the Progressive era once denounced Roman Catholics and Jews, the truth
is that militant Muslims no more characterize Islam than the religious
right characterizes Christianity.
For Asian immigrants, African-American dissenters, and Anglo-American
cosmopolitans in the United States, the urgent need is to find a
future marked by convergent pluralism rather than confrontational
parochialisms. If there is to be a global future marked by social and
religious inclusion, it will be under the hybrid rubric of Abrahamic
civilization, a civilization shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
That future also must have secular and Asian accents that go beyond
the monotheistic imaginary. While this way is more complex than the
dyads of good versus evil and us versus them, it offers a future more
promising and finally more secure than its alternative, broadcast
under the flag of an American empire pursuing and punishing the
elusive but mostly Muslim axis of evil.
Bruce B. Lawrence is a professor of religion at Duke University.
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN
God Talk and American Political Life
American civic life is indecipherable if severed from its entanglement
with American religion -- most important, Protestant Christianity of a
Methodist variety. (This Methodist variety was various indeed, with
dozens and dozens of spinoffs.) As Alexis de Tocqueville observed
about the young nation in Democracy in America, the action of religion
on politics, and politics on religion, was "something new" under the
political sun, as the rich associational intermingling took place
absent a struggle for ascendance. That reciprocal relationship
continues in American civil society today. Everybody now recognizes
the fact, but it presents difficulties for scholars. It is almost
impossible to argue that one influences the other disproportionately.
Religion in its dominant American forms of Protestantism has paid a
price for its cultural centrality, of course. One charge against the
Protestant mainline is that in the past 40 years it has "followed" the
culture and its tendency to value individualism and play down a sense
of community. Rather than offering a bracing alternative to rapacious
individualism, Protestantism has fallen in line. One important task of
religion is to challenge the political world and what it makes most
important, to raise questions when politics overreach. You cannot do
that very effectively if you are simply absorbed within the forms of
politics and lose a robust "separateness."
Here is one place where the rubber hits the road. The First Amendment
of the Constitution's section on protecting the free exercise of
religion has come increasingly to mean "free religious expression,"
something that refers to a subjective belief. What the framers had in
mind may have been more robust -- not just freedom of individual
conscience but a form of institutional autonomy, real libertas
ecclesiae. It is very difficult for religion to serve as "salt and
light to the world" (that, at least, is what Christians are called to
do, which is of some cultural import since the United States remains
overwhelmingly Christian) if religion has no independent, vigorous
institutional site. Yet we remain suspicious -- or many do -- when
"churches" act, especially if the church in question happens to be
Roman Catholic. In that I see not only the continuing echoes of our
historic anti-Catholicism but a real fear, even animus, against the
notion of "church" or "institutional religion." We are happier with
"spirituality," but, as one wag put it, "What does that mean? That
I've watched many episodes of Touched by an Angel?"
Let's circle back to Tocqueville. He had in mind not only the
subjective freedoms of believing citizens but also the mutual
interaction of religious institutions and associations. That is what
appears to have withered. And it is through religious institutions and
communal bodies that the "politics" of religion comes through. It
isn't a politics that dictates a particular policy outcome in any
simple sense but that instead presents to a highly subjectivist
culture an alternative understanding of persons and the common good.
That may be the most important "political" contribution of all. If
there are changes in the relationship of religion to American society,
they very likely lie in accommodationism rather than continuing and
Of course, America's elites don't mind if "religion," speaking
institutionally, shares their enthusiasms. But as soon as "religion"
trenches on their turf -- on the abortion issue, say, or the cloning
and destruction of human embryos for research -- they voice cries of
the illicit intrusion of religion into politics.
As to new directions for research: Here the issue of religion in civil
society has certainly been joined. But there are fewer scholars than
there should be reminding both religious and political forces how
fractious the engagement can andI would insist -- ought to be.
American society has all sorts of ways of working this out. But one
party to the deep moral questions that vex us should not be forced to
operate under a cloud of suspicion that it speaks from, and to, a
"sectarian" perspective that is unacceptable in American life.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics at
the University of Chicago.
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