Religion in the Public Sphere – Good, Bad or Ugly?


With Christmas, ‘War on Christmas’ and ‘Creeping Shariah’ dominating our headlines, it looks like religion is making a comeback in  public discourse. Unfortunately, it seems to be for the wrong reasons – barring the Pope’s recent gestures of reconciliation with homosexuals and other minorities. But that doesn’t stop his critics from painting him as a ‘communist.’ Speaking of religion, it seems one is damned if you do take a position, or damned if you don’t take one. But in my case, I will take a position and point out (as others have) that religion can have a positive impact in the public sphere.

Image source :
Image source :

 The first time I had to deal with the issue of religion in public sphere was during my stint at Muslim Public Service Network (MPSN), an NGO that encouraged and trained young American Muslims to enter public service- broadly defined as anything from the nonprofit sector, media to the government. I served as its Executive Director for a year in 2012 and working in D.C. saw the implications of even mentioning Islam in public sphere. To be honest, for the most, things were ok. I would occasionally run into someone who would ask me absurd questions about our mission and who funds us, but other than that, things were ok. I saw these as ‘educational’opportunities and part of an adventure of working with a ‘hot button’ issue. With suspicions about our work and mission, the entire organization was on a watch, so as not to be perceived as something that we were not. Clearly, many of these fears were unfounded. It is only later that I started grappling with these issues at a theoretical level. Practice has informed my theoretical understanding, in this case.

Why are these issues so important? For one, because we are living in a diverse society and also with diverse claims made by various faith-based groups. With the (false) alarms of Shari’a creeping into the American system and some very real instances of the neoconservative influence on American policy (both domestic and foreign) in the recent past, religion and politics are inextricably tied in the policy debates and popular imagination in the U.S. The question that this gives rise to is: Should religion be part of the body politic? What role should –if any- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism or for that matter any religion have in shaping public laws and morality? These are deep questions that don’t have a simple answer. And the fact that these keep coming up, time and again, in various shapes and form, begs us to look at them carefully and examine them for what they are worth. Given the high levels of religiosity in the U.S. and despite decline in religiosity in some quarters (Evangelical Christianity for one) religion as a social and political force is still strong. So, in this short essay, I will point out the benefits and dangers of this trend of religion in the public sphere – using Faith-based organizations (FBOs) as an example. Talal Asad, Robert P. George and Jose Casanova have written about these issues and I will use their ideas to examine the topic at hand. This is an ongoing debate and while I will argue for greater inclusion of FBOs in the public sphere, the debate is still open and my own understanding of these issues is still being shaped. Before that, we also need a clearer understanding of ‘secularism’ and ‘secularization’ processes and our assumptions about them.

Religion in the public sphere: Challenge to modernity and secularism? 

Robert P.George, considered one of the leading conservative intellectual has argued that there is nothing in the U.S. constitution that demands that religion not be part of the public space in politics. In this short video, he points out that separation of church and state don’t actually appear in the constitution. The establishment clause gives freedom to people from interference from the federal government. He argues that a robust polity in which all people with their values, drawn from their religious norms, should be able to participate to shape policies that they think are right and just. He goes on to point out: “Since its establishment by Congress, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has stood for religious freedom in its most robust sense. It has recognized that the right to religious freedom is far more than a mere “right to worship.”

It is a right that pertains not only to what the believer does in the synagogue, church, or mosque, or in the home at mealtimes or before bed; it is the right to express one’s faith in the public as well as private sphere and to act on one’s religiously informed convictions about justice and the common good in carrying out the duties of citizenship.” This may seem all good in theory, but are there problems with this perspective? There are quite a few, and one of the key ones is that this could be extremely distorted when a majority wants to enforce its will on others, through policy measures or other means. The pro-choice discourse is a classic case – and one that is not settled, yet.

Along similar lines, in his most popular and important book, Public Religions in the Modern World Jose Casanova, talks about religion and how it interacts with politics and culture in the public space. He has argued that the Secularization hypothesis has proved to be wrong and the growth of religion across the world is proof of this. “Secularization” as the end of mankind’s evolution and is a normative condition – and precondition for modern politics (through privatization of religion) and understood as emancipation from religious norms. He also points out the plural character of secularization processes. “We are in a ‘post-secular’ society,” Casanova points out.

In Europe, Casanova argues that since the Reformation, all great revolutions and changes, have been lead by secularists. Europe has had tensions between church and capitalists. In the U.S., there has been no tension between religion and capitalists as in Europe and hence, progressive movements appeal to religious values, not secular ones. “The U.S. has always been a paradigmatic case and the secular came aided by the religious,” he points out. It would be ludicrous to point out that the U.S. is less modern than Europe, since there is less differentiation in the U.S. The European category of Secularism is not relevant for the U.S. as it did not have a church to be disestablished. This analytic conceptualization is key, he further argues.

Casanova is pointing out here that there are different types of Secularisms, as much as there are different types of “modernities” as Charles Taylor has argued. To just think of one model of secularism, as it has occurred in the West is not fair and perhaps he goes on to point out that even within the West, there are significant differences. The way secularism is understood in the U.S. is not the same as it is understood in Europe. In the U.S. people are generally proud to be religious, whereas in continental Europe, much the opposite is true. “Even if people are religious, they will lie, saying they are nonbelievers,” he adds.

Talal Asad addresses these questions through addressing the discourse of Secularism. Asad also starts saying that “If anything is agreed upon, it is that a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable. But does it follow that secularism is not universally valid?” He further argues that the fact that secularism emerged in a certain western context, under certain circumstances and relationships of the state, with that of religion, it cannot be considered universally valid, for all times. The rise of secularism with the modern nation-state is undisputed and he cites Charles Taylor as another eminent thinker who has mentioned this idea.

            He further argues that the notion of secularism as used to denote a very clear set of ideals is also problematic, as in the west also there are several models of secularism for example that in England, where the Church has a prominent role to play in the affairs of the state, although indirectly. The definition of secularism and that of secular societies has scope to accommodate enough contradictions, he points out. The repeated intolerance in the United States, a largely Christian country with a secular constitution can still be understood as part of the characteristic that defines a ‘modern secular state,’ he says.


FBOs as a paradigmatic case

Faith-based organizations are unique in their reach and scope of services. With the growth of Catholic Church and increased diversity in the U.S. and also growth of other faith denominations in the country, the debate about the role of FBOs has become salient. Bill Clinton’s passage of the Charitable Choice and George W.Bush’s further championing of these initiatives in opening the Office of Faith-based Initiatives at the White House is seen widely as pushing a religious agenda in politics.

While this is partly true, the other side of the story is that the state has retrenched from its provision of social services. In a marketized economy, where these services were ‘outsourced’ to FBOs’, these organizations came to fill in the service. Though they have not been able to and possibly can never replace the government agencies, in terms of scope of work or their reach; they still exist and continue to provide important services.

FBOs can be seen as this bridge between religious institutions and the state – and in this sense, they are also controversial. Charitable choice provisions did make it possible for congregations to receive funds from the state directly. So, where does this leave us with? Are FBOs just proxies for the state and have the freedom to do their work, as long as they donot proselytize?

One of the ways to think of them is how Robert Wuthnow has argued – that is to look at them as organizations, who just have a different mission; but for all practical purposes, function as other secular organizations. A much deeper examination of organizational theory and dynamics is warranted here, and I will deal with that in another blog post. For now, suffice it to say that though there are different degrees of how much faith informs the mission of an FBO, not all are out to push their ‘religious’ agenda, as one would fear. There is some evidence that

So, in conclusion, I think there is space for FBOs in the public sphere and by extrapolation, for the expression of religion in the public sphere. Much good has come from religious expression too. Beyond the psychological explanation that Carl Jung pointed out. And for practical reasons – both at the level of individual and group identity, they are playing a key role in American society. When it comes to issues of social justice, equality and taking care of the vulnerable, FBOs are known to do a good job-infact, a better job than government agencies, as Robert Wuthnow and Ram Cnaan have pointed out in their research. FBOs can be helpful in solving many of our problems, but only if they do not end up promoting their own brand of religion/ sectarian ideology. This is critical for those recipients of their services, who do not agree with their ideology, to feel they are not being pressured.  

2 responses to “Religion in the Public Sphere – Good, Bad or Ugly?”

  1. De Tocqueville (on your recent list of recommended reads) gives some background to the exceptionalism of the USA with regards to religious political and nonprofit associations. So the USA contrast with Europe is clear. I will be curious to read Wuthnow and also your next blog on this subject. Overall, I agree with your premise that, in the developed world, religions should – as any other lobbies or interest groups – have the right to be part of the public discourse and to make an impact in the public sphere. However, do all states and all societies have mature enough civil infrastructures for this right to be generalized? Sadly, I think not yet (and I am thinking in particular of the Middle East, where religion sadly remains entwined in schism and violence).

  2. Hi John, Thanks for your comment. I dont fully agree with you. Look at Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. They have now been deemed a terrorist organization and despite their presence for a long time, have not had the luxury of functioning as a normal political party and maturing as a process. Religion has been co-opted by other monarchies in the Gulf, and that is truly a tragedy and colonial machinations. While I don’t dismiss it entirely, I believe there is hope. The first step would be to allow the well-organized parties that have religious affiliations to function in a democratic fashion.

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