Moderator: Professor Toyin Falola

This series creates a Pan-Africanist intellectual community drawn all over the world to examine serious and current issues about Africa. The third in the series examines the issues of interactions between the United States and Africa. USA/Africa Dialogue, No. 1 spells out some of the core issues to be pursued.
No. 3: Religion and Politics (back to menu)

Ogbu U Kalu {}  has led us to a recent compilation of views on religion and politics in America in the Chronicle of Higher Education , issue dated October 22, 2004 .  Kalu is the Henry Winters Luce Professor of World Christianity and Mission, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, and Associate Director of Chicago Center for Global Ministries.His book, Embattled Gods was first published in 1996 and has been republished in 2004.His forthcoming books are (a)  Clio in a Sacred Garb: essays on Christian Presence ; and (b) African Christianity: an African Story.

Religion and Culture: Views of 10 Scholars

 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 campaign.


 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 domain.

 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 Dame .



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 organizations.


 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 University .



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 communities.

 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 life.

 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 Interpretation.




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 .
Section: The Chronicle Review

Volume 51, Issue 9, Page B7