Vol. 1, No. 2
to other articles
in this issue:
Race and Disgrace
Submission in Salt Lake
Church, Lies, and Polling Data
Catholic Controversy I: Jesus Off Broadway
Catholic Controversy II: Handling
Catholic Controversy III: Philadelphia
On the Beat: "Irreligion" in Denmark
The Oklahoman's Bible Belt
by Mark SilkOn July 4, Gayle White, the senior religion writer for
the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, wrote a lengthy article in the
newspapers Faith and Values section outlining congressional legislation and current
court cases involving religion. White covered the ground well, but what most distinguished
the article was its uniqueness. As far as can be told from Lexis-Nexis and Internet search
engines, no other newspaper saw fit to do likewise (except for the Minneapolis Star
Tribune, which reprinted Whites piece).
Although American journalism is devoting more attention than ever to
religion these days, the coverage steers away from formal issues of church and state-and,
indeed, from national and international religion news generally. The creation of dozens of
new and expanded religion sections over the past few years has generally included moving
the religion beat out of news departments and into feature sections. Religion, newspapers
seem to be saying, has to do with human interest, not public business.
This is ironic, because it was the irruption of religion into politics
that attracted editors attention to religion in the first place. Not that the news
media have ignored the religious right and religiously inspired struggles over abortion,
homosexual rights, school prayer, and tuition vouchers. But little journalistic energy has
been expended on reckoning with "public religion" as such.
For the better part of two decades, pundits have noted the failure of
Christian conservatives to get their "religiously inspired" agenda enacted into
law. This past year, congressional Republicans came up short on abortion, vouchers, and
the "marriage tax." The Religious Freedom Constitutional Amendment, intended (in
some way) to restore organized prayer to the public schools, garnered less than the
necessary two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives.
But where the proposed legislation has the backing of a broad spectrum
of religious groups, the results have been different.
This year, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Religious Liberty and
Charitable Donations Act, which amended the federal bankruptcy code to protect tithes and
other charitable contributions from creditors. Congress also passed the Freedom from
Religious Persecution Act, thereby empowering the president to impose economic sanctions
on countries that discriminate against religion. Although the bill was watered down-thanks
largely to the efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to safeguard business
interests-religion is now on the American human-rights watch in a new and significant way.
The agenda for the next Congress includes the Workplace Religious
Freedom Act, designed to protect the practice of religion on the job; and the Religious
Liberty Protection Act, a second attempt to overturn Smith v. Employment Division,
the 1990 case in which the Supreme Court scaled back the ability of citizens and religious
institutions to require governments to take their religious practices into account.
Even as it limits free-exercise claims, a divided Court seems to be
loosening the rules on religious establishment in ways that may signal a willingness to
sanction school vouchers for religious elementary and secondary schools, as well as to
give a green light to "Charitable Choice," the provision of the 1996 welfare law
that enables "faith-based" social-service providers to advance a spiritual
agenda with federal funds.
In short, there is more religion on the table, and the jurisprudence
governing it is more unsettled than at any time in recent memory. What does it all add up
Since the beginning of the republic, religion in American public life
has ebbed and flowed through a succession of "disestablishments" and
"re-establishments." After the First Amendment persuaded those states that
maintained established churches to get rid of them, Protestant leaders rushed into the
breach with strenuous evangelistic, moral, and political campaigns that re-established
religion (informally) through a kind of pan-Protestant hegemony over American society and
This Protestant establishment fell apart in the 1920s and 1930s, thanks
in no small measure to the growing social and political power of non-Protestant immigrant
communities. But after World War II, a tri-faith "Judeo-Christian" establishment
of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew came into being, presiding over the so-called Eisenhower
Revival and helping to define the patriotic, anti-Communist ethos of the era.
In the view of sociologist Phillip Hammond, the 1960s ushered in a third
disestablishment, one characterized by shrinking church participation, a preference for
spiritual self-expression over collective religious identity, and a general decline in the
potency of religion as a public actor.
Now the next establishment may be at hand.
From colonial state church to Judeo-Christian umbrella, each
establishment has been more religiously inclusive than the one before. Yet each has had
its official dimensions-from Sunday blue laws through insertion of "under God"
in the Pledge of Allegiance. It is too early to tell where the currently shifting
boundaries between church and state will wind up. But if the past is any guide, the
results will profoundly affect the lives of ordinary Americans-and their human-interest