June 10, 1999
Number of Centers Studying Public Religion Grows
-- Martin E. Marty
The concept of public religion generally went unmentioned two score years ago. Only within this decade has it become linguistic "coin of the realm." The term admits of many meanings. It can be something like "civil religion," which means it is some sort of generic reality accessible by the public and publics. Or it can refer to "religion in public," as opposed to "religion is a private affair," talk. Because of the presence of so many meanings, many of them not yet defined or explored, the subject deserves and is attracting scholarly attention.
We mention this as the Public Religion Project Advisory Board prepares to meet this weekend for its last business session. There will be a celebratory event in September, and then the Project's work folds into the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago. Which leads to the topic for today: the establishment of numerous centers dealing with public religion--almost all of them on university campuses, where there had been none only a few years ago.
Mention the subject in "Sightings" and we usually hear from more such centers. Sherry May checks in from the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, which is located at the University of Southern California. Boston College is getting into the act with a new Center on Religion and American Public Life, to be headed by sociologist Alan Wolfe. Harvard Divinity School has a center that stresses values. Garrett/Northwestern accents journalism and American public religion, as does a center at Trinity College in Connecticut. The Poynter Center at Indiana University has spawned the Project on Religious Liberty (the accent there has been broad for years). Princeton has a center led by Robert Wuthnow. Watch for more, as more foundations learn of the promise of such undertakings.
Why these projects and institutes and centers? Why now? Why where they are? One could dismiss the focus as a fad, but the field of study and dissemination is so large and complex that it is hard to picture an easy-come, easy-go, late-come, early-go blossoming and fade. Why where they are? Universities had been inept at tracking religion, even after they started religious studies departments. Public religion demands discourse among and beyond the disciplines. American life, so rich in pluralism and so constant in change, is relocating many of its religious accents in a world that did not turn out to be simply secular. Individualized "spiritual journeys" do not replace the social, communal,....and associational elements of religion. All the centers and projects are on to a hot and urgent topic that is not likely to cool. Each of them welcomes the other as together they raise public consciousness and refine their arts and sciences and endeavors. Welcome to the club(s).