[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
    life today.
    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.
    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
    major players.
    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
    longstanding doctrines.
    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
    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.
    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
    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
    cultural message.
    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.
    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.
    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
    sustained challenge.
    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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