In the 20th century, America witnessed a significant transition
toward a privatized understanding of religion. Social and
political pressures have prompted many to view religion as
inappropriate in public or political arenas. Meanwhile, trends
within many churches have contributed to narrowing the focus of
faith. As a result, where people once considered religion as
relevant to many aspects of life and society, prevailing
notions now often constrict it to spiritual beliefs and
psychological health. This marginalized, inward-looking faith has
the potential to weaken the perceived responsibility and social
relevance of local churches.
This change has political implications, as religion's role in
the lives of individuals and in society at large shapes Americans'
expectations of government. When religion is pigeon-holed as
private rituals and beliefs, the government more easily presents
itself as the entity most responsible for solving social problems.
But the Constitution declares freedom not just for private beliefs,
but for the public exercise of religion, testifying to the
nature of faith to engage the whole person and the entirety of
life. When religion is exercised in this more comprehensive way,
congregations can meet a wide range of needs and prevent unhealthy
dependence on the government.
Dividing Public and Private
One observer of Western society claims that "the decisive feature
of our culture" is "the division of human life into public and
private." This division is significant because it
influences the way Americans think about and categorize different
institutions and activities in society. For example, our culture
tends to view the public as the realm of politics, economics,
and science and the private as the realm of family life and
Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale University, describes
the effects of this "privatization" of religion: "[W]e often
ask our citizens to split their public and private selves,
telling them in effect that it is fine to be religious in private,
but there is something askew when those private beliefs become the
basis for public action." At the root of this process, Carter
asserts, is the widely held intuition that "religion is like
building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet,
something private, something trivial."
This segmentation of public and private worlds can easily lead
to the conclusion that the contents of these two realms are
separate and distinct. Because politics and religion are believed
to fall on different sides of this division, people often conclude
that their subject matters are fundamentally different:
Politics deals with law and order; religion deals with salvation
and spiritual health.
- Politics focuses on cities and states; religion focuses on
"sanctuaries" and heaven.
- Politics is about exercising power; religion is about
- Politics concerns people's bodies (and property); religion
concerns people's souls.
- Politics is about justice; religion is about love.
This division gives rise to social and political pressures that
relegate religion to a private corner of life, a "safe" distance
not only from government policy, but also from social debates
and public concerns in general.
Privatization Narrows the Focus of
In the midst of these social pressures, the prevailing
conception of religion itself has changed in America. Many
religious adherents have accepted a constricted view of religion
that is conducive to its exile from politics, economics, science,
and other arenas. The sub-set of issues assumed to fall within
religion's domain usually centers on doctrinal instruction and
spiritual guidance-matters of "belief," "conscience," and
"sensibility." In short, the social pressures for
privatization have fanned the flames of religiously privatized, or
narrowed, forms of faith.
This narrowed focus has been especially evident in the rise of
therapeutic spirituality.According to Professor James Herrick, "an
extraordinary redefinition of fundamental religious belief has
occurred in the West," and "the resultant spiritual transition has
been stunning in its rapidity, scope and impact." At the center of
this "new religious synthesis"-what Princeton University
sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes as a "transformation of
American spirituality"-lies the popular conception of the self
understood in terms of psychology and of religion understood in
terms of self-actualization.
According to theologian David Wells, what God is principally
thought to offer believers in this new spirituality is relief from
negative feelings like anxiety and doubt. This therapeutic
focus was noticed by Wuthnow in a study of support groups in the
United States, two-thirds of which focus on Bible study. When asked
why they joined, the number one reason participants gave was to
"feel better about yourself."
How Changes in Religion Can Influence Mutual
Responsibility and Community Belonging
When religion is narrowed to comprise only a certain set of issues
or concerns, local congregations tend to exercise a reduced social
role and relevance. Traditionally, religious communities in America
have played a significant role in providing a sense of belonging
and mutual aid to their members and exercising responsibility for
"the least of these" in society. In the past, this prompted
people to turn to religious congregations not only to receive help
when they were in need, but also to help others.
Many congregations still consider it important to help others
today. Prevailing notions of religion, however, seem less able
to offer a vibrant sense of either mutual responsibility or
belonging within a socially significant community. A narrowed
conception can drain a sense of responsibility to God, dilute a
sense of responsibility to others, and dampen a sense of community
belonging within congregations.
Responsibility to God. According to Wells,
postmodern spirituality provides less a sense of a transcendent
Other who calls us to be holy than it does a sense of a God whom we
incorporate to have a more meaningful life. Privatized,
therapeutic religion can therefore drain a notion of responsibility
to God-the sense of standing before an Other who summons us to
The notion of responsibility is rooted in the recognition
of a valid call to action. For people of faith, the sense of a God
who calls us to be accountable-who presses in upon us and
summons our most earnest attention and effort-makes the
teaching to care for others binding. For instance, in
explaining why his church took in many evacuees after Hurricane
Katrina, Rev. Bland Washington of Allen Chapel African Methodist
Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, declared, "We're doing
it from the fact that God wants us to do this."
When God's supposed relevance is limited primarily to
spiritual matters, narrowly defined, government's power can
seem more immediate and authoritative in many other areas of life.
For instance, the fact that government demands that
ciitzens pay taxes-while most churches only encourage
members to pay tithes-can foster a more concrete sense of
obligation to the former. This can encourage an inclination to look
to the state as the entity most capable of solving tangible
problems or meeting material needs.
Responsibility to Others. This narrowed
religious focus can also dilute a sense of responsibility to
others by weakening the notion that people in general-and, in
particular, members of the same congregation-make valid claims on
each other's time, efforts, and resources. When religion is held to
concern primarily spiritual concerns, meeting the non-spiritual
needs of others can seem optional rather than obligatory.
In such contexts, church leaders find it difficult to train
their members in challenging or uncomfortable practices that
they do not already find compelling. Many congregation members
in America seem motivated to serve others through soup
kitchens or canned food drives. They may be less likely,
however, to view other forms of service, such as meeting the larger
financial, physical, and social needs for which government
increasingly claims responsibility, as a religious obligation.
Wuthnow confirms that Bible study support groups in America are
often asked to offer support to people, but seldom to challenge
them to change their lives. Indeed, he reports that if such a group
makes demands on people's lives, suggesting specific
disciplines and practices, members will likely leave to find
another, more supportive and less challenging group.
Community Belonging. Privatized, therapeutic
religion can dampen the ability of local churches to provide people
with a sense of communal belonging by weakening social bonds and
producing pale imitations of religious community. Herrick's
and Wuthnow's work suggests that many religious adherents
today do not pursue joint church projects or share common
experiences outside of once-a-week worship services, if at
all. This makes it more difficult for
congregation members to know each other's needs and to develop a
strong sense of communal identity and common moral purpose. As a
result, this situation can not only weaken the sense of
obligation to sacrifice for fellow members in need, but also
lessen the tendency of those in need to look to their church for
help in many cases.
If they view churches more as places to practice religion,
narrowly understood, than as communities of faith to which to
belong, people may only feel comfortable asking churches for
assistance with "religious" matters. In a study of 15 neighborhoods
in Pennsylvania, Wuthnow reports that respondents are more likely
to turn to churches to meet emotional or spiritual needs while
gravitating to government or other public agencies to address
financial and unemployment problems (despite the fact that churches
appear to be located geographically closer to most respondents than
are government and other agencies).
In sum, when religion's ability to foster mutual responsibility
and community belonging is diluted in these ways, people's
expectations tend to shift to other institutions, including the
state, for meeting non-spiritual needs.
Reduced Social Role for Churches Weakens a Check on
As the social role of local congregations is narrowed,
society loses an important check on the role and reach of
government. The presence of a diversity of socially relevant,
morally authoritative institutions is an indispensable safeguard
against the centralization of authority in government. When
non-governmental institutions-including churches-decline in
significance, the role of the state is likely to increase. "The
real conflict in modern political history," claims Robert
Nisbet, has not been "between State and individual, but between
State and social group."
As religious adherents back away from viewing churches as
responsible for certain areas-when they consign issues of poverty
and injustice primarily to institutions in a separate
realm-the government is left as the dominant institution,
gradually absorbing more power and control. But religious
congregations have traditionally exercised responsibility for
concrete needs and social challenges, motivating sacrificial giving
and mutual aid on a wide array of issues.
Narrowing religion to a matter more of one's "insides and
insights" than of the full-bodied life of a responsible community
permits the growth of the paternal state. The state begins to
exercise responsibility for people's needs in ways that the
church and other institutions previously did.
Public Policy Assumptions About Religion: An
Public policy not only reflects, but also reinforces and shapes
the public imagination and discourse. Policy contains
conceptions of religion that can presuppose and foster either
socially relevant and responsible congregations or a more
privatized faith that would encourage dependence on the state.
For example, the draft language of one recent bill in Congress
attempted to define "religious" organizations as those whose
primary purpose concerns religious ritual, worship, or the teaching
of doctrines. Understood in these terms, "religion" is assumed
to take place only in certain locations (church sanctuaries,
synagogues, mosques, etc.) and at certain times, and "religious
jobs" are exercised only by preachers, teachers, and worship
leaders. This limited conception assumes a cordoned-off
"spiritual" section of life and thus works against a more
integrated understanding of religion and life that is still held by
Definitions of religion in law carry significant implications
and highlight the need to consider seriously the way religion is
understood in and shaped by policy.
Traditionally, religious congregations in America have served as
important social institutions for providing for those who are
in need, both within and outside of their fellowships. An
increasing division between "public" and "private" spheres of life
has relegated religion to a reduced social role as trends within
many churches have led to an unbalanced focus on spiritual beliefs
and psychological health.
Together, these trends narrow the focus of religion and
open the door for government to present itself as the authority
most responsible for meeting material and social needs. As the
perceived responsibility and social relevance of local
congregations weakens, citizens' potential reliance on government
is likely to increase.
A more comprehensive, robust conception of religion is important
for safeguarding the constitutional freedom of people not just
to believe or profess doctrines, but to "exercise" faith in public.
Such understanding is also important for legally protecting
religious communities that can provide a sense of mutual
responsibility and community belonging-key factors in meeting
people's needs and preventing unhealthy dependence upon the
Ryan Messmore is
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society in the
Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at
The Heritage Foundation.
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1986), p. 34.
Peter L. Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner, The
Homeless Mind (New York: Random House, 1973), Chapter 3.
Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and
Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Doubleday,
1993), p. 8.
Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a
Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity
Press, 1996), Chapter 2. The common stock phrases in our social
discourse not only reveal this dichotomous way of thinking, but
also perpetuate it. On the campaign trail, for example, questions
are often raised about "bringing religion into politics," or vice
versa, as though religion is foreign cargo being smuggled across
territorial boundaries. Many speak of religion and politics as
"meddling" or "intruding" in each other, and some even talk about
politics as an activity from which religious adherents can, and
perhaps should, "retreat" or "fast." Such phrases reinforce the
mindset that the two are, in their pure and natural state,
different, separate, and apart.
Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of
Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1993).
in an-depth discussion of the therapeutic tendency within modern
Western culture, see Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the
Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington, Del.: ISI
James A. Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The
Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (Downers Grove,
Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 17.
Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the
1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 14;
quoted in Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality, p.
David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why
the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), pp. 50-51.
Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and
America's New Quest for Community (New York: Free Press,
See Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion
(Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1992), and David T.
Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal
Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
See L. Gregory Jones and James Buckley, Spirituality and Social
Embodiment (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997); Os Guinness,
The Gravedigger File (London: Hodder & Stoughton,
1983); Wells, Losing Our Virtue; and Clapp, A Peculiar
Wells, Losing Our Virtue, pp. 16, 50.
Wells, Losing Our Virtue, p. 16.
See Donald A. Luidens, Dean R. Hoge, and Benton Johnson's comments
about the challenges of community and church authority in "The
Emergence of Lay Liberalism," Theology Today, Vol. 51, No.
2 (July 1994), pp. 249-255.
Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey.
For example, see Robert Wuthnow, Saving America? Faith-Based
Services and the Future of Civil Society (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 73.
Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics
of Order and Freedom (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1990), p.
See Ryan Messmore, "A Moral Case Against Big Government: How
Government Shapes the Character, Vision, and Virtue of Citizens,"
Heritage Foundation First Principles No. 9, February 27,
2007, at www.heritage.org/Research/Thought/fp9.cfm.
Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) of 2007. See especially
Sec. 6 (a) and (b) of the proposed bill (H.R. 2015) at www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=h110-2015.
This bill, which prohibits employment decisions based upon sexual
orientation, contains an exemption for religious organizations. The
religious exemption that was passed by the House of Representatives
was a heavily revised version of what appeared in the first draft
of the bill.