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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 ...

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