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By Robert Wuthnow

Public Religions in the Modern World

"Public Religions in the Modern World," by Jose Casanova. University of Chicago Press, 320 pp.; $49.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper.

A generation ago, scholarly observers of religion generally believed that faith was rapidly retreating from active, organized engagement with public life. Today that view seems blatantly wrong. People of faith have become significant forces in the politics of most Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Latin American countries, and they are not without importance in Korea and Taiwan, India, Ireland, and the United States.

Understanding why religion has rediscovered its political voice is one of the urgent tasks of our time, and it is complicated by the fact that different religious traditions and national customs must be understood in their own contexts. In "Public Religions in the Modern World," Jose Casanova usefully examines how Christians in four societies have entered into a new engagement with civil society in recent decades. In Spain, leaders of the Catholic church have struggled successfully against efforts to disestablish it and transform it into a purely voluntary church; the church has managed to maintain itself as an established church with considerable influence over the Spanish government. In Poland, the Catholic church emerged from suppression under Communist rule to serve as an important mobilizing force for the Solidarity movement in the 1980s and now has an active voice in the new government. The Brazilian church, under quite different conditions, has survived disestablishment to become an influential national church in alliance with the secular state. Finally, Catholicism in the United States after the Second Vatican Council and evangelical Protestantism after the middle 1970s provide further instances of Christian groups learning new ways of playing a role in political affairs.

The U.S. case becomes especially interesting in light of these comparisons. Whereas Christianity was an established national church in each of the other countries, it has always been separate from government in the United States, and its diverse manifestations have resulted in a denominational pattern that encouraged Christians to respect one another even when they disagreed. But denominationalism also meant staying out of politics and thinking of faith largely as a private matter. The fact that religious groups have become politically active in recent years is all the more notable for this reason.

Casanova argues that the "deprivatization" of religion poses an important challenge to understandings of religion that have emphasized the idea of secularization. This is a timely argument because it reinforces the view that academics have used such a wide brush in dealing with religion that they have painted themselves (and it) into a corner. Ethnographic and comparative studies, feminist approaches, and discussions of postmodernism all suggest that social reality is more complicated than it was once thought to be. Casanova's perspective retains some of the valuable insights of the older literature while contributing a more nuanced understanding of secularization. As he argues, secularization happens in multiple ways, depending on its social location. In the United States, membership and attendance at religious services has remained relatively constant, yet this fact does not disprove the secularization thesis, as some have suggested, because important spheres of social activity, such as counseling, education, and hospital care, have also become more autonomous from religious organizations. Secularization is also evident in the ways in which religious services adapt to consumerist and therapeutic motifs in the wider culture. Casanova's point, nevertheless, is that religion's return to public life runs counter to these other forms of secularization.

In Casanova's view, public religion is here to stay--a thesis that many observers are likely to find credible for at least two reasons. One is that religious organizations have developed the leadership, communications technology, and financial base with which to perpetuate themselves into the foreseeable future. Their fortunes may wax and wane, depending on the political and economic climate of particular societies, but they are unlikely to recede willingly from articulating their claims. The other reason is the shift away from strong, centralized political regimes capable of suppressing religious movements. The collapse of the Soviet Union has unleashed ethnic and regional rivalries in Eastern Europe that have often been organized along religious lines, and these struggles in turn have encouraged religious groups in the Middle East, Latin America, and Western Europe to champion similar ethnic and regional causes. In the United States, the collapse of the welfare state and widespread cynicism about the role of federal government have created similar opportunities for grassroots religious movements.

The return of religion to public life has, however, raised widespread concern about how responsibly its influence will be exercised. Militant fundamentalists who overthrow regimes in the Middle East and violent anti-abortion protests in the United States evoke fears that religious convictions may tap more deeply into mass hysteria and personal passion than even the best democratic institutions are capable of handling.

In a word, the issue is trust. When Christians keep quiet about their convictions, they tacitly agree to trust one another and to behave in ways that do not give offense, but when Christians claim that their beliefs have implications for public policy, it becomes relevant to ask whether they can be trusted to participate responsibly in civil society.

Certainly mistrust has been much in evidence. Adherents of one faith distrust those of another faith because they do not understand it, and they wonder if spiritual conviction is actually at work or if political agendas are being manipulated in the name of faith. Public officials who are used to governing on the basis of legal principles and common administrative procedures distrust religious groups whose values may not be so easily reducible to those principles and procedures. Some Christians generate mistrust because their convictions are so strong that they seem intent on imposing them on everyone else; other Christians generate mistrust because their beliefs seem incapable of giving them any moral guidance on public matters at all.

The problem of mistrust has a long history. Framers of modern democratic theory in eighteenth-century Europe were profoundly influenced by the religious wars that had dominated the previous century and a half. Locke's emphasis on tolerance and Rousseau's idea of a social contract were efforts to find unifying agreements that would discourage religious groups from appealing absolutely to a higher source of authority. The idea of civil society emerged as a way of saying that people who disagree with each other about such vital matters as religion could nevertheless live together in harmony.

The privatism that came to characterize modern religion during the first half of the twentieth century was the result of long-term social processes that gave religion a place in which it could be exercised with relative freedom and in a way that did not undermine public trust. Privatism meant that individuals could believe as devoutly as they wished and practice their faith as actively as they wanted to as long as they did not intentionally try to curb the rights of others to do the same. It did not exclude religion from influencing public life but encouraged it to do so through the involvement of devout individuals in other institutions, rather than through organized religious efforts by themselves. Privatism nevertheless depended on a wide variety of free, voluntary religious organizations that could support individuals in their quest for faith and, indeed, that could also represent these individuals in public according to commonly accepted norms. The fact that Catholics were expected to bring their convictions to public life primarily as individuals did not mean, for example, that the Catholic church was prevented from functioning as a voluntary, nongovernmental institution.

Trust of religiously minded people was reinforced by this arrangement, because individuals with deeply held convictions were expected to work through established institutions to achieve their aims, and because religious institutions themselves were understood to be part of a specialized system of organizations that worked together. For example, a church board might formulate statements about doctrinal or ethical matters, and even participate in discussions of policy matters, but recognize that the special expertise of scientists, transportation engineers, and professional planners was also important.

The breakdown of this arrangement had as much to do with religious organizations' growing emphasis on the purely personal aspects of private faith as it did with any deliberate effort by secularists to marginalize religious organizations. What analysts of privatism found worrisome even in the 1960s was church leaders' tendency to treat faith as a kind of therapy, concerned chiefly with making people feel happy and with adjusting emotionally to contemporary life, rather than linking these concerns with civic participation. As faith became increasingly subjective, it was thus harder for people to know who they could trust and, indeed, whether they could trust themselves (as illustrated by Robert Bellah's famous example of Sheila in "Habits of the Heart," the woman who invented her own religion--"Sheilaism"). Mistrust of others and questions about one's own identity went hand in hand.

When religion becomes so thoroughly privatized that people are no longer sure who they can trust, one solution is to promote greater social interaction, as is being done by advocates of the communitarian movement and by leaders of voluntary associations. Churches, too, increasingly speak of themselves as communities in hopes of overcoming privatized spirituality. When people interact with each other in these communal settings, they are likely to develop interpersonal trust. This kind of trust gives people confidence that they are not entirely alone in their views and thus, as Tocqueville argued, can participate in civil society. Christians who are members of such communities can answer confidently that other Christians --at least ones like themselves--can be trusted.

But communal interaction of this kind is not sufficient to guarantee trustworthy civic participation. The Branch Davidians and the Michigan Militia are evidence of that. Members may trust one another, but they give the wider public scant reason to believe that they can be trusted. Short of such extremes, congregations also fail to promote genuine trust when they are too large or too diverse for members to gain an understanding of one another. Under such circumstances, the fragile trust on which harmony in congregations is built may be fractured when people break their silences and say what they believe, or when the congregation's decision to become involved in social issues forces members to confront one another.

There is a second kind of trust, however, which might be called institutional trust, that does not depend entirely on firsthand, personal acquaintance. The reason that Jaycees, Kiwanis, Lions Club, scouts, labor unions, and Sunday-school classes play an essential role in civil society is not only that members interact with one another in intimate settings, but also that these organizations are linked to one another, to community leaders, and to public officials through a complex set of network ties and institutional arrangements. In a large, diverse society like that of the United States, institutional trust is especially important. People may not know each other well enough to trust their neighbors, but it is possible to trust the system of laws, roles, and organizations in which these neighbors are embedded.

Whether or not Christians can be trusted is thus a question about the institutional arrangements on which civil society depends as much as it is about individual benefits, commitments to absolute values, or even extremism. Christians can be trusted to participate responsibly in civil society to the extent that they form organizations that connect them to broader social institutions and to the extent that they participate in a wide variety of civic organizations. The Christian Coalition's effort to work within the Republican Party is an example of such integrative efforts. Were there comparable organizations giving Christians a voice in the Democratic Party, public trust in the ability of Christians to consider social issues from a variety of perspectives would be enhanced. Were the Christian Coalition shunned by the Republican Party to the point that it chose to pursue its own autonomous objectives, there would justifiably be greater public mistrust of its members.

In this analysis, the concerns expressed by Stephen Carter, Richard John Neuhaus, and others about the exclusion of Christians from public life are well founded for no other reason than the fact that exclusion, real or imagined, discourages Christians from working with other organizations. But, by the same token, organizations that claim to be the exclusive bearers of God's truth isolate themselves in ways that damage both their own cause and the degree to which Christians can be trusted to participate in public life.

In the end, mistrust of Christians is ultimately less about the potential for fanaticism among believers than it is about Americans' broader sense that the institutional fabric of civil society is becoming frayed. Militias, cults, radical anti-abortionists, and people who hear voices from God worry many Americans precisely because they fear that others care too little about America to stand up for what is right about its political system, and because they suspect that public officials are too distant or too corrupt to respond adequately to such threats. In asking whether Christians can be trusted, therefore, the real question must always be whether Americans trust themselves enough to support the institutions on which civil society depends.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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