Fall 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 2


Quick Links
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 Pedophilia

Catholic Controversy III:  Philadelphia Story

On the Beat:  "Irreligion" in Denmark

The Oklahoman's Bible Belt

A New Establishment?
by Mark Silk

On July 4, Gayle White, the senior religion writer for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, wrote a lengthy article in the newspaper’s 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 White’s 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 to?

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 culture.

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 stories.