Religion Meets the Public Sphere


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

In the United States at least, the old joke runs that friends should avoid talking about two topics at parties or over dinner: religion and politics. A conversation about the local school board race can become fractious enough, but when one candidate’s stance on prayer in public schools is broached, the once fractious exchange turns riotous.

Ever since our Founding Fathers included a clause in the Constitution regulating the relationship between church and state, American society has struggled with establishing a healthy and productive relationship between religions and society. In just the last year alone, the Supreme Court heard—and decided differently in each case—two cases about the public display of the Ten Commandments. New York City struggled this past Hanukkah season with several challenges to laws regulating the public displays of menorahs. Over the past decade, parents and school boards have fought over the exercise of religious activities in schools, the inclusion of “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, and, most contentiously, the teaching of evolution in public school science classes.

September 11, 2001, brought a new dimension to the conversations about religion in the public square. Political pundits and religious thinkers debated about how to respond politically and religiously to a culture where religion and politics are inextricably bound. Moreover, how could political and religious leaders in the United States respond to a violent religious extremism when they had ignored the roots of such religious extremism (Christian fundamentalism) in their own country? Could religious and political leaders even talk to one another productively in their quest for a response?

The struggle between religion and the public sphere is nothing new, of course; Greek religion experienced it when the Classical Age gave way to the Hellenistic Age under Alexander in 333 BCE and democratic impulses swept over old concerns about the gods and their role in society. Judaism long struggled with the proper relationship of the king to Yahweh, and the prophets did their best to insure that Israelite society knew clearly the deep religious dimensions of their political worlds. Christianity literally evolved out of its conflict with the Roman Empire and would not exist as we know it today without its co-optation of Roman imperial religious practices. The earliest Muslim leaders, after Mohammad’s death, were canny political leaders who understood that the rules for their actions could be found only in the hadiths (sayings or prophecies of Mohammad) in the Koran.

Over the past forty years, numerous books have tracked the relationship between religion and society, charting the ebb and flow of society’s fascination and repulsion with religion.

In the late Fifties, with the United States in the throes of post-war prosperity, many religious thinkers wondered aloud how an increasingly consumer culture would affect attendance at religious institutions and how such organizations might have an effect on their constituents. H. Richard Niebuhr’s now-famous Christ and Culture (Harper Collins, 1956) proposed five models—including “Christ against culture” and “Christ and culture”—that attempted to assess how deeply religion mattered to and affected culture. Fifty years later, Mark G. Toulouse provides a kind of update on Niebuhr in his God in Public: Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate (WJK, 2006). He offers models that contrast the public expression of religion with its more personal, private expression.

By the beginning of the 1960s, American religious experience appeared to be so pervasive that sociologist Will Herberg could characterize it as a homogeneous phenomenon that he would call “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” (the title of his still oft-quoted book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology [Doubleday, 1960]). By the middle of the 1960s, however, various forces including the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement broke down Herberg’s homogeneity, and the cry for social justice and relevance in religious institutions arose across the land. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man and Man in Search of God, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and Thomas Merton’s The Nonviolent Alternative each called religion to be a force of change in contemporary culture.

In 1965, Harvard theologian Harvey Cox dramatically argued that religion increasingly had little value in The Secular City (Macmillan, 1965). Secularization, according to Cox, led to increasing anonymity—neighbors in suburbs did not know or have anything in common with one another—and to an increasing tendency to avoid community. By and large, religion seemed absent in the 1960s and 1970s and religious expression tended to be private rather than public expressions of faith. The turn to Eastern religions and the evolving New Age movement only reinforced this tendency to avoid society and to search for one’s inner self.

The privatization of religious experience was so deeply embedded in American culture by the mid-1980s that several books sounded an alarm. At least one book, Steven Tipton and Robert Bellah’s seminal Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Univ. of California, 1985) sought to explain sociologically the phenomenon. The book consisted primarily of interviews and responses to surveys that indicated that religious experience was so private that many individuals used their own names to describe their religions, e.g., the religion of John. Other books, however, wondered what consequences such private religions would have on society. Bellah sounded the troubles of American religion just a year earlier in his The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial (HSF, 1984). The same year, Richard John Neuhaus urged Christians to engage with politics once again in his The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Eerdmans, 1984).

In Religion in the Secular City (Simon & Schuster, 1985), Harvey Cox offered a rethinking of his earlier The Secular City by witnessing to the emerging new religious forces of fundamentalism and pentecostalism sweeping developing countries as well as the United States. His book pointed to a reemergence of religion and its interaction with society that has carried us up the early years of the twenty-first century.

Some recent books seek to discover the historical foundations of the tangled relationship between religion and society. Sociologist Rodney Stark points out that the Christian religion gave rise to forces that led to the development of western society in his The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005). In one of the best accounts of the relationship between religion and society in early America, Jon Meacham offers a rethinking of America as a Christian nation in American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House, 2006). Michael Novak, whose many books have explored the relationship between religion and society, and his daughter, Jana, offer a new take on Washington’s God (2006) which they argue was not the watchmaker God of the rational religion Deism as is so often claimed but the providential God of more traditional Christianity.

The resurgence of interest in religion and society goes beyond historical treatments to more practical questions. Brendan Streetman wonders how religion can inform and influence the political realm in Why Politics Needs Religion: The Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square (InterVarsity Press, 2006). He concludes that politic needs religions sense of justice, tolerance, and equality to engage in truly vigorous discussion. D. G. hart examines the reasons that Christians often argue for the separation of church and state in A Secular Faith (Ivan R. Dee, 2006). Senator John Danforth enters the fray by exploring the ways that debates over values divide our society in Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together (Viking, 2006). Sojourners magazine founder Jim Wallis discovers that each side of the religious divide falls short of good communication in God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (HSF, 2005). Echoing the title of John Howard Yoder’s classic book on religion and pacifism, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1972), Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. uses Jesus as a model for political action in The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (Doubleday, 2006).

Not everyone thinks that religion offers a healthy interaction with society. Atheist Richard Dawkins—already famous for his reduction of human behavior to genetic determinism—indicts religion in The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), declaring that religion is little more than superstition. He claims that teaching children to be religious amounts to child abuse. Before Dawkins delivered his blows, Sam Harris has already urged that religion be replaced with reason in his sophomoric, yet highly acclaimed, The End of Faith: Religion, Terrorism, and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004). Harris follows up this attack with his recent Letters to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006) where he calls into question the common notion that America was founded on Christian principles. Finally, Daniel C. Dennett reduces religion to its naturalistic foundations, offering scientific explanations for religious experiences, in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2005).

Unless Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris are correct in thinking that religion is simply a stage of human existence that we will soon outgrow, political and religious thinkers will continue to engage in conversations about the extent to which religion should play a role in the public sphere.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became
Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

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