What the Religious Right in America can teach us about Pluralism

Religion in the public sphere has not always been problematic, as American history demonstrates. Clergy have taken both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ positions when it comes to issues such as civil rights, anti-war protests etc. This is seen as in the 1960s, when the clergy lead demonstrations for civil rights while in the 1980s they vehemently protested abortion. This hard-nosed pragmatism is a feature of American public life and will likely continue, says Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University Professor of Sociology in his essay The Religious Right and Symbolic Politics (1991). In analyzing the effectiveness of the Religious Right in American public and political sphere, Wuthnow asks: What worked for the Religious Right and what did not? An answer to this may point to the direction in which the future leaders of the Religious Right may strategize, he suggests. Further, Wuthnow shows that the Religious Right has consistently tried to mold public policy, defined as the outcome of the political process with respect to specific substantive issues. While the stated position of the Religious Right has consistently been to ‘uphold morality’, the way to achieve this has varied, depending both on the power that the groups have enjoyed as well as the relations between local and national politics.

photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/
photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/

In an insightful remark Wuthnow captures the paradoxes of American life : “ The American public does not want our public policy makers to be devoid of value considerations, but neither does it want its seminaries and churches to become halls of public administration.” (p.89). By this he means that while there is a great desire to see values reflected in the public sphere, Americans deeply pragmatic in several ways, and are conscious of keeping the separation of Church and State. Americans do not want Clergy to run be Surgeons, nor carry out bureaucratic functions, he reminds us. At the same time, he reminds us that one of reasons the Religious Right was successful in the 70s and 80s was because of its ‘outsider’ image, of being the ‘Moral majority’, standing up for what was right, and being ‘anti-establishment.’ When this gave way to being ‘inside’ the corridors of power, the legitimacy that they enjoyed began to wane. The reason for this is that the anti-government sentiment among most Americans is still prevalent among most Americans, who are ambivalent about the ‘over-reaching’ aspects of the federal government.
Also, this moral majority succeeded post-Watergate and other business scandals of the 1960s and 70s’, when Americans were worried about growing immorality, drugs and teenage pregnancies and a drop in general morality. The ‘flower children’ of the 1960s had grown up and were becoming responsible adults. Further, he argues that it may be prudent to look to the Right for lessons by considering some of the ways in which it influenced public agenda. This theme is well developed and illustrated in his book Red State Nation (2012), where Wuthnow argues that the Republican Party and the centrist conservatism of the state’s two religious denominations – Methodism and Catholicism- in Kansas State actually deterred radical religious and political movements from gaining ground during most of the state’s history. Though Kansas is a paradigmatic case for how the Republican party has established a strong hold, there are many internal debates, inconsistencies and struggles between the Religious Right groups that are not fully appreciated, Wuthnow reminds us. For instance, the tension between Methodists, Catholics and Baptists is not taken into consideration, when we speak about the Religious Right. Nor is the ‘moderate’ side of the Republican Party itself, which in many cases goes against the extreme Republican perspective.
The ‘moral majority’ of today seems to be decidedly liberal, by many measures. As recent studies have shown, the fundamental structure of American family is changing. As this in-depth report by NY Times argues: “Yet for all the restless shape-shifting of the American family, researchers who comb through census, survey and historical data and conduct field studies of ordinary home life have identified a number of key emerging themes. Families, they say, are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.” The report goes on to say that increasing intermarriage between races, religious denominations is causing a shift in how people conceptualize kinships. “ In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows. Good friends join forces as part of the “voluntary kin” movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally. Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called “greedy marrieds.” This level of mingling, complication of associational life has not occurred before, according to observers. While there is little doubt that this is impacting the shift towards a more liberal and plural outlook towards moral values, the exact shift is yet to be determined.

Hobby Lobby and the debate about religion

Several important legal cases in the past few months have made the issue of pluralism salient, in the American public consciousness. Issues related to marriage equality, Immigration and most recently, healthcare have brought forth some deep underlying tensions in American society, to the fore. While these cases are about particular issues, I would argue that they are ultimately about defining the scope of religious pluralism in America. This case, like the others is about what Wuthnow has called ‘symbolic politics,’ i.e., the strategy of gaining attention for symbolic issues and ensuring that the Right Wing’s agenda stays in the public policy realm. The decisions that courts reach in deciding these cases will have far-reaching implications on how the future generations come to understand the limits of religion. Also, these debates involve ‘factions’, in this case, special interest groups, that are often accused of undermining democratic participation.
I will briefly discuss the impact of religion in the public sphere and use the example of Hobby Lobby case that has challenged the neutrality of courts and the state in implementing laws. In this case, it is the federal healthcare law that is being challenged. While it is not possible to go into all the details of this case, a quick synopsis of this case is as follows: Two companies: Consestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby, want to be exempt from providing their employees contraceptive coverage as required under the Affordable Care Act. While these two firms are not religious organizations, their owners say that they are the ‘victims of an assault on religious liberty’, as the owners disapprove of some of the contraceptives, points out a New York Times editorial.
The question that is at the heart of this debate is whether the contraceptive coverage rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that government may not “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless it be to “further a compelling government interest.” The NY Times editorial argues that the Supreme court should not allow the corporations to get away with this, as it would mean permitting the companies to impose their views on thousands of their employees.
As the editors further argue: “If there is a Supreme Court decision in favor of these businesses, the ripple effect could be enormous. One immediate result would be to encourage other companies to seek exemptions from other health care needs, like blood transfusions, psychiatric care, vaccinations or anesthesia. It could also encourage toxic measures like the one vetoed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona that would have given businesses and individuals a broad right to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of religion. The Supreme Court cannot go there.” The arguments about religious freedom are being used to deny services to women in this case, as they were used to deny equality to African Americans before the Civil Rights movement. While this particular instance could be seen as ‘government aggression’ against religion, the principle of non-discrimination would be violated if the Supreme Court supports the corporate case.
Beyond the immediacy of the issues we are discussing and the legal wrangles involved, the big issues involved are those of the changing morality in America. This is related not only to the changing family structures, as mentioned earlier, but also increased shift in religious denominations, conversion to other religions as well as a moving away, from religion, generally. An article in The American Scholar points to the declining influence of the Evangelical Church, and the impact this is having on other denominations. Call it the ‘fall of Evangelical Church and the Rise of Catholic Church,’ if you will. As the article argues: “But the reality, largely unnoticed outside church circles, is that evangelicalism is not only in gradual decline but today stands poised at the edge of a demographic and cultural cliff. The most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, found that just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants—five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.” Simultaneously, while the growth of ‘spiritual shoppers’- those who are religiously unaffiliated but spiritually active, grows, other religions such as Islam gain more converts and the Catholic Church also becomes an attractive proposition for the more liberal minded Millennials, we have the shift of an entire generation of Christians.
Further, pointing to the broader sociological changes, the American Scholar article claims: “ Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.” So, taking a cue from this, one can ask: Are the Hobby Lobby and related cases an attempt by the Religious Right to assert its ‘moral authority.’ Can it be seen as a desperate effort to claim its own moral territory, that it is afraid of losing?
A related concern that comes up, in this examination of the changing demographics, religious affiliations and moral values is: How is the notion of pluralism (pertaining to religion, ethical values, morality) shifting in this context? A careful analysis of the aforementioned factors suggests that there seems to be a gradual expansion of the idea of pluralism. Also, if the Republican Right’s strategies of using pluralism to advocate a more narrow vision of society is not working, might we see a broader vision of pluralism in America? At the level of discourse too, are we seeing a gradual relaxation of how we seek out ‘morality’ in the public sphere. As Connolly argues in his book Pluralism (2005): “ What is needed today is a cautious relaxation of discourse about the sacred, one that allows us to come to terms affirmatively with the irreducible plurality of sacred objects in late modern life. With respect to sovereignty it is important to underline the significance of acts by which deep conflicts are settled; but it is equally important not to elevate them to the level of the sacred.” (2005,p.39). By this, Connolly is referring not to the relaxation of moral norms, but the entrenchment of positions, that often goes when people are discussing deeply normative values.


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 : theologicalvacillation.wordpress.com
Image source : theologicalvacillation.wordpress.com

 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.