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The Paradox of American Religious Life, Religion and Economics, Separation of Church and State, and the Ironies of the Christian Right

East Iron Hill Community ChurchOne of the paradoxes of American religious life is how the U.S., on one hand, comes out of the  Enlightenment’s classical liberal heritage of religious disestablishment from the state, while, on the other hand, compared to other pluralist liberal democracies, like Europe and Canada, its denizens engage in religious participation at comparatively higher rates than their liberal democratic counterparts. Why is this so?

Now, the sort of explanations one gets after posing the aforementioned question usually—but not exclusively—involve variations of either the following arguments: (1) one of the reasons for the comparatively high rates of religious engagement among Americans, as compared to (for example) Western Europeans, has to do, as some argue, with the supposedly “backward” cultural-intellectual life of America in comparison to other modern liberal democracies, or (2) since the U.S., as argued by others, adheres more strongly to a Judeo-Christian heritage, compared to other liberal democracies, it has been relatively more resilient against certain secular influences that diminish engagement in religious life.

These sort of facile arguments—which are problematic from the standpoint of both historical scholarship and from findings of the social sciences, as well as being, at least in regard to the first argument, condescending in its tenor (to put it more mildly)—fail to offer persuasive explanations to America’s religious paradox. For example, in the U.K., British parliamentary democracy still recognizes an established religion (i.e., the Anglican Church) and the state, there, funds so-called “faith schools.” Yet, based on several studies (herehere, here, and here based upon certain data encompassing specific years between 2001 to 2012), the rates of religious affiliation and participation are decidedly lower in the British Isles than in some democracies without an established religion. Whereas, in the United States, such rates are higher, despite America’s historical heritage (unlike in Great Britain) of separating church and state that fosters both privatized religious activities and, to borrow the words from Princeton scholar Paul Starra “fully deregulated and unsubsidized religious economy.”

At the end of the day, the question is, again, what gives? Specifically, how does one explain this American paradox where religious engagement is higher in the U.S., despite having a long, historical heritage of separating church and state in its polity in stark contrast to other countries, like the U.K., Netherlands, and Australia, where establishment religion and/or direct non-preferential state support for religious entities exist?

Perhaps, one of the most persuasive explanations has do, in part, with the distinct intersection between religion and economics that exists because of the robust separation of church and state that gives rise to, again, a “fully deregulated and unsubsidized religious economy.” Based on several studies analyzing comparative religion and economics (such as “A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the ‘Secularization’ of Europe” by Stark and Ianoccone in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 [1994], The Churching of America, 1776-1990 [1992] by Finke and Stark, and The Challenges of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies [1997] by Monsma and Soper), Prof. Starr, in Freedom’s Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism, posits the following:

Inasmuch as churches in a free, pluralistic religious economy depend on voluntary contributions [as in the U.S.] rather than government subsidies [as in the U.K., Netherlands, and Australia], they tend to be more innovative and entrepreneurial than tax-supported churches in developing and marketing services that attract and keep members. Like any competitive market, an unregulated religious economy also allows stronger “firms” to emerge. . . .  Where a single church has a monopoly, however, the incentives and opportunities for innovation are limited, and the proportion of the population attending church every week tends to be low. (Emphases added.) (p. 65)

Now, one of the fascinating aspects about the “religion and economics” analysis, which, again, arises out of explaining America’s religious paradox, is that it has caught the attention of those across the pond who wish to reinvigorate a renewed, dynamic religious engagement in pluralist, secular-inclined liberal democracies in Western Europe as exemplified by a 2012 commentary in the British daily, The Telegraph, entitled,Only a free market in religion will save Anglicanism,” by Ed West. In the piece, West laments the moribund state of Anglicanism in the U.K. and states the following (emphasis added):

The problem with the Church of England is not just that it’s a broad church, encompassing some very, very liberal Christians and some very, very conservative ones, or that it’s led by people so open-minded that their brains have fallen out. Its real problem is establishment, which makes it less the nation’s conscience and more a dinosaur national industry, kept dysfunctional by state subsidies.”

In essence, despite coming out of polities where state and religion are not autonomous entities but are intertwined, some individuals in those societies, like the Ed Wests of the world, who favor a renewal of religious life in civil society, go counter-intuitively in the opposite direction toward a more muscular American-style secularization guided by a framework of religious disestablishment of deregulated, private religious practices and an unsubsidized religious economy.

(In light of all this, it is important to note that discussions that involve comparing the religiosity—or lack thereof—between Americans and other Western democracies are, at times, problematic insofar as some sloppily conflate both religiosity/non-religiosity in civil society and the association/non-association between state and religion in a given polity as interchangeable things. Which, at the end of the day, makes such discussions both imprecise and simplistic, for such issues involve a degree of specificity and nuance as some nations are faith rich in civil society, yet highly secular pertaining to religious [dis]establishment and [de]regulation in the polity, while others, of course, take the opposite course.)

Now, the other fascinating aspect of this discussion pertains to the following related question: Why do Americans, in the main, embrace secular sensibilities toward the machinery of the state, yet still hold a relatively more benign view toward religion in civil society? Using the insights of Prof. Starr to answer this inquiry, it has to do, in part, to the particular tendency within classical liberalism that arose out of the Enlightenment that was embraced by several early founders of America that influenced, in part, their thinking in the construct of the U.S. Constitution, in particular the Bill of Rights’ Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Prof. Starr writing, again, in Freedom’s Power, points out this tendency by delineating by two classical liberal approaches toward religion:

Broadly speaking, two currents in liberal political thought about religion emerged from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the age of the Enlightenment. One tendency, particular strong in England and America, sought to develop a political framework of religious liberty that would accommodate diverse faiths. The second tendency, particularly strong in France, identified religion with superstition and unreason and attacked clerical power. The first was the spirit of Locke [and Thomas Jefferson], the second that of Voltaire [and Thomas Paine]; the first, liberalism toward religion; the second liberalism against religion. The first called for a shared public sphere, the second for a secular public sphere. The first sought to release minority faiths from the tyranny of the established faith [such as in several colonial-era Southern states, like Virginia, where the Anglican (later the Episcopalian) church enjoyed a legal monopoly to the disadvantage of Baptists and other evangelicals as noted by Prof. Starr]; the second sought to release science, education, and the mind itself from all faith and dogma. The first culminated in the American Revolution, the second in the French Revolution. (Emphases added.) (pp. 62-63)

Now, in light of this historical development, regarding American religious life, it is all the more perplexing that Christian Right elements should be at the forefront of establishing a sort political bridgehead that would eviscerate the separation of church and state in America in order to promote a disturbing notion that radically blurs the lines between ecclesiastical authority and the state. Why is this perplexing?

Because what has kept religion, in particular Christianity, comparatively robust in the United States as opposed to other Western liberal democracies, is the flourishing culture of religious disestablishment, i.e., privatized religion—essentially a religious practice akin to a laissez-faire, libertarian economic approach to the marketplace where the government has a de minimis—if not nonexistent—role in this sphere. As such, it is deliciously ironic that individuals associated with the Christian Right, some of who are the most ardent “market fundamentalists” (no pun intended) when it comes to economic beliefs, somehow experience a rather quick conversion—a “road to Damascus” sort of experience—in which all of sudden they see the virtues of an active state role when it comes to the sphere of religious promotion and practice in America. (This sort of disconnect glaringly—and rightfully—frustrates both theists on the left and atheists/agnostics on the right for they ask the following: How can the Christian Right reconcile their sheer antipathy toward a government role in the broad, public economy, yet accepts, without critical circumspection, the notion of a “beneficent state” that supposedly has the wisdom to be actively—and affirmatively—involved in a matter that is essentially private in nature, i.e., the sphere of personal religious practice and conscience?)

Anyway, in closing, when one wrestles with the paradox of religious life in America—whether one is persuaded or not by the “economics and religion” thesis—such an inquiry helps to spur a lively, thoughtful discussion on an intriguing matter. It is matter, because of its serious nature, that also leads to, in the words of the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, “an argument without end” that, at times, fosters more questions than answers.


(Photo: A Christian church in Iowa. Photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 license. Photograph used in this article cropped by the post’s author.)