Studying Public Religion

The need for study of the nexus between religion and politics has seldom been greater. Ignorance of religion and bias against it are rampant. Religious prejudice is used to stigmatize President Obama, a Christian, as a Muslim; and anti-Mormon prejudice threatens to reduce support for Mitt Romney among Republican evangelicals. The abuse of religion, even by those we should expect to be most solicitous for its integrity, is common. With alarming hyperbole, one bishop recently associated President Obama with Hitler and Stalin.

The issue of religion has forced itself into the presidential election campaign. During the long Republican primary campaign, no issue produced as much heat as the place of contraception in health care. Now, as the election campaigns shift into high gear, the U.S. bishops have announced “a fortnight of freedom” to challenge a multitude of court decisions, legislative initiatives and executive decisions by both state and federal governments as violations of religious liberty.


In light of these developments, we ask what should students in Catholic colleges and universities know about the role of religion in public life? What sort of religious literacy will prepare them to read today’s headlines critically? Here are a few topics that schools might explore:

Religion’s role in public life goes far deeper than politics. The churches, along with synagogues, mosques and temples, are “the first of [American] public institutions.” They are the places where neighbors first examine local issues and learn to speak in public. Church volunteers are recruited for civic roles, poll watching, hosting blood drives or collecting disaster aid. Religious congregations sponsor schools, hospitals, clinics and retirement homes. All these belong to what the Catholic tradition used to call “society,” the set of associations that are intermediate between politics and the market. For individuals, families and communities, society remains an alternative to and a bulwark against both big government and big business.

Over two millennia Christians have taken a variety of postures toward the state: from sectarian disengagement to the social gospel and from the imperial papacy to state churches. The current wave of conservative American evangelical politics followed long periods of political disengagement, but evangelicals are not uniformly conservative. The evangelical community includes liberals like Jim Wallis and moderates like Richard Cizek and Ron Sider. Contemporary Catholic social action stems from the church’s engagement with the world begun at the Second Vatican Council. Today the American Catholic mosaic includes the Knights of Columbus and seamless-garment Catholics as well as Feminists for Life. Political stereotypes fail to reflect the complexity of attitudes toward politics even in one denomination.

Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state obscures the real-life interaction between religion and government. The Constitution forbids the establishment of any one religion, but it also guarantees the free exercise of religion to all its citizens; and within a wide margin of freedom, believers and their institutions interact daily with government. From chaplains to the houses of Congress and in the military services to contracts with humanitarian agencies, the U.S. government interacts with religious organizations all the time. Every year presidents and members of Congress participate in prayer and Communion breakfasts, just as judges and legislators attend Red Mass celebrations. Religious leaders lobby administration officials on immigration and refugee protection. They communicate with congressional committees drafting legislation on moral matters as different as marriage and arms control and on their institutional interests in education and health care.

Religion is not essentially violent and is often a force for peace. The history of organized religion from the Crusades to jihadism and the Jewish settler movement has included violent currents. But religion has also been the source of pacifist movements, including monasticism East and West, the Mennonites and Quakers, the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the Catholic Worker. Religious leaders, like Gandhi, Abdul Gaffar Khan and Martin Luther King, led history-making nonviolent movements. In meetings in Assisi, world religious leaders have gathered with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to reject religious violence and pray for peace. Religious groups like the Mennonite Central Committee, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and the Community of Sant’Egidio are working to transform conflicts and reconcile one-time enemies.

Alumni of Catholic colleges and universities ought to understand the complex history of church-state relations, the contemporary realities of religion in society and the contributions of religion to the common good and world peace. So informed, they will be better able to participate in the recurring debate over the role of religion in public life.

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William Atkinson
6 years 8 months ago
With over 7 million tax exempt religious organizations in U.S.. Studing any kind of relationships (disgruntled or other minded attitudes) between religions and other entities, like science or politics would be a mammouth undertaking requiring much expertiese and years and years of effort; Its probably and practical to just make humor of this field, join the rubble effort, and let this intelectual area die with its short lived time.
6 years 8 months ago
GREAT ISSUE, much on my mind this year. Fr. John Coleman, SJ has written about the role of 'mediating institutions' in the past. It's time for him to dust 'em off and reissue so we can think about how to tread that middle ground where the public philosophy is shaped and formed. It's a dangerous thing to mix the power of temporal rulers to the power of the 'sacred'. And this is where the 'mediating institutions' can be that buffering 'firewall' that protects the integrity of each, yet helps develop the dialogue that informs public policy.
Steve Gethin
6 years 8 months ago

There is nothing alarming or hyperbolic about a Bishop comparing Obama to Hitler or Stalin. Obama presides over a system which takes in excess of 1 million innocent lives each year, through abortion. Christians need to unite to oppose abortion because it is by several orders of magnitude more serious than any other political issue. The Jesuits need to overcome their ambivalence on this issue and stand up with the many Catholics who are doing their part. It is very easy to tell whether a candidate's position on abortion is consistent with that of the Church. It is much harder to tell whether a candidate's position on some other issue, such as poverty reduction, accords with Church teaching. While the Church teaches we are to be concerned for the poor, it does not make us experts on the economics of any particular program. 

Francis Gindhart
6 years 8 months ago
To quibble, the constitution does not forbid "the establishment of any one religion," but rather forbids laws (as interpreted to mean state action) "respecting an establishment of religion," a much broader prohibition.
Lisa Weber
6 years 8 months ago
Anyone who has lived in Utah would think twice about voting for a Mormon.  Separation of church and state doesn't exist there.  The possibility of fostering that thinking in the national government is a valid negative factor in considering Mitt Romney for president.
Craig McKee
6 years 8 months ago
@3: Christians need to unite to provide much need programs of SEX EDUCATION to teen age girls AND BOYS so that they never get to the point of needing/wanting an abortion. The Catholic Church can't have it both ways. JUST SAY NO! didn't work for Nancy Reagan's anti-DRUG campaign, and it certainly won't help kids growing up in a JUST DO IT! world where abortion has become just another form of birth control.
James Palermo
6 years 8 months ago

            The “Wall between church and state” is illusionary.  Each of us is informed by our religious (moral) convictions when we enter the public square to discuss, advocate or oppose laws, policies and positions.  As one pastor noted when paying tribute to Martin Luther King, the operative honorific was “Reverend not doctor.”   So it is right and good for people of faith to participate in our nation’s political life, mindful that we live in a democracy in which a particular church’s religious convictions may not prevail and in which there are sharp disagreements among the various denominations regarding moral issues including abortion, birth control, the death penalty and social justice.  When that happens, the respective churches may appropriately prevail upon their members to carry on. 

            I believe, however, that churches need to be very honest, acknowledging, for example, that many of their “charitable works” are actually revenue generators.  Religiously affiliated “schools, hospitals, clinics and retirement homes” charge clients in the same manner as secular hospitals.  So one may ask whether it is fair for what are essentially not-for-profit corporation to seek exemptions from insurance requirements and employment laws that enhance their ability to compete in the market place.            


Ron Skufca
6 years 8 months ago
If the church wants to be a voice in governing the state then it must be taxed like everyone else who takes ownership and voices their thoughts.  Taxation is our investment in the participative process.  Until the institutional church pays taxes, they should be forbidden to lobby the legislative process and influence the laws of our land. 


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