Public Religion In America Today
Martin E. Marty and Edith L. Blumhofer
- Find and Projecting
- The Project
- Public Religion
- The Act of Interpretation
- What Good is All This?
- Summary Findings on the "Use" of the Project
- Comment on "Today"
"One book is about one thing - at least the good books are." While philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy's words are about documents, they also can apply, with variation, to ventures like this one: "One project is about one thing - at least the good projects are."
The Public Religion Project is about one thing: within the limits of its resources, to help American religion "go public" more than it has. The corollary of this single purpose is that the Project help define the concept of "public religion" and interpret its evidences in the life of citizens.
Given the richness of North American pluralism and the diverse expressions of life in society and culture, the Project must work out of that single focus into many outlets, media, and connections. The Oxford Chess Encyclopedia reminds us that while "white" and "black" each have only 20 possible "first moves" in a chess game, "there are 2 x 1043 possible different legal positions on a chess-board, and it has been estimated that the number of distinct 40-move games is 25 x 10115, far greater than the estimated number of electrons in the universe (1079)."
American public life presents far more starting possibilities than does a chessboard. Those responsible for the Project have no interest in being protean or sprawling or in diffusing its energies. In a sense one must picture the Project's three years as a time for doing little more than making "first moves," concentrating on major religious bodies and voices, a few topics (e.g., media, politics, business, education), and not many occasions. Each of these moves opens more possibilities, many of them to be turned over to other agencies and individuals. For the Project, best protection against sprawling has been and will be the concentration on "public religion" as "religion going public" and being a more public expression than it had been.
As we at the Public Religion Project look at public religion in America today, we find it useful to use the framework of finding and projecting. "Finding," here, refers to acts in process. The public religion field is too vast, its facets are too many, for any project leaders to have "found" any data or been able to come forth with conclusions. We read the debates over public religion in journals such as the Review of Religious Research, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, or the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and become informed about particular aspects of religious expression or debates over the academic study of religion in the public spheres. Each such reading informs us and contributes to our findings. But taken together they make us aware of how much there is to learn and to do and how many opportunities there are.
Consider these tentative findings, here not backed by bibliographies, footnotes, or elaborated arguments, as part of what we then go on to "project." Projects ("undertakings, enterprises") are expected to project ("to throw or cast forward"), so we want to set forth areas for further inquiry, debate, and action. Thus we turn over to others what we also continue to pursue.
This essay and the findings and projectings it chooses to highlight emerge from the reflections and undertakings of the Public Religion Project. It is thus useful to consider the context and construct of the Project as well as its stated mission:
The Public Religion Project exists to promote efforts to bring to light and interpret the forces of faith within a pluralistic society.
From this description of what we are about, we lift up a number of terms.
First, we are promoting efforts. It is not the task of the Project to promote religion. None of the parties involved would have put energies into this subject if they did not have some positive views of the potential of religion to enhance public life - just as, of course, they also have some regard for the negative potential of religion. But the Project is not a public relations agency or activity. It reports on and engages in criticism of religious voices and energies where that seems to be in place. No denominational or ecumenical agency has asked us to represent it and we are beholden to none.
Therefore, it has to be understood that we are promoting efforts that are concerned with publicness and interpretation, efforts that are quite different from what public relations for religions and faiths would be. The verb promote indicates that the Project is not a think tank, though certainly it will be measured in the light of the quality of thought that goes into its ventures. It is involved with activities by others. Some of these others are scholars of religion in the higher academy. Others are appointed or elected religious leaders or thinkers who have won audiences and credibility. To describe the Project personnel as mere "connectors" or "fixers" would do an injustice to our own scholarly efforts and intentions. But the Project will succeed chiefly if it effectively represents efforts by the larger religious, academic, media, and other communities. In sum on this point: public religion is not a private affair.
We exist to bring to light the forces of faith. Bringing to light implies that there has been darkness, or at least shadows. We have not joined those who complain about a total absence of religion in a society gone secular; we believe that they misrepresent American public life. A "pluralistic society" offers a bewildering array of competing religious voices mingled with the noises and echoes of nonreligious claimants to public attention. We agree with ethicist William May of Southern Methodist University: America "reeks of religion." The connotations of "reeking" are largely negative, suggesting unpleasantness. The national atmosphere may as well carry pleasant aromas caused by religious endeavors. But either way, "reeks" and "aromas" are hard to grasp and define. In many ways, in a society where religion is not an official establishment, it is "everywhere but nowhere." For those reasons, among others, it is often apparently shadowed and in need of being "brought to light."
Continuing the unfolding of terms in the Project's mission, we promote efforts to interpret the forces of faith. To mention interpretation is to open the scene for intense debates. Ours is often described as a "hermeneutically-preoccupied" era, especially in respect to texts regarded as sacred. This means, among other things, that no one can expound ideas, texts, or events involving the sacred without raising legitimate suspicion. Questions of power and viewpoint come into play at once. Who are The Pew Charitable Trusts and The University of Chicago, these directors, editors, and researchers, that they should be authorized or encouraged to interpret religious forces or to interpret the interpreters?
There is no neutral space from which to view the passing scene, as we well know. Our position gives us a kind of power that has to be suspect from some viewpoints or others. There are hundreds of religious groups in America. Who can know about them all or be objective in appraising their case? Who can be neutral, especially if they themselves list "interpreting" as part of their work?
Aware of such questions and what they imply, we make every effort to be - to use an underused word - disinterested. Whatever our own convictions, if we are perceived as favoring ideologies of right or left (or center!), the interpretations cannot be of much use to the public and to leaders. Our task is to help interpret interpreters after they have been "brought to light." If recognitions of the complexity and interests of this case are so frankly stated up front that they start arguments, well and good. We also believe with the late John Courtney Murray, S.J., that a republic is made up of people "locked in civil argument." The more intrepreters, the better; the better the interpreters, the more civil life will benefit.
The guiding statement goes on to say that the above efforts give attention to the forces of faith. The concept of faith is notoriously difficult to define and isolate; it is full of ambiguity and its expressions are complex. Forces of faith can or could mean those of an individual, with faith here representing the basic trust, the root philosophy, the most profound commitments of an individual who "has faith." It can and does also mean the collective representatives of faith, sometimes through recognized institutions. Thus there are books on "American Faiths." These may be denominations, congregations, academies, voluntary agencies, publishers, and entrepreneurial groups; in every case, they set out to be "forces," to express power and interest. As such, they merit attention in society.
The society is here described as pluralistic. The adjective is stressed in connection with the society to indicate that late-modern American life yields to no single force of faith, be it Catholicism, secular humanism, or evangelicalism, however much any of these or others might dream of dominating. The United States republic's "rules of the game," just as the Canadian version, assures that "any number can play," that the playing fields should be level, and that each makes its own way. The Project is not interested in what might be called "mere" or "utter" pluralism; there is no point in calling attention to the thousands of institutional, or millions of other, voices that bid for attention. We are interested in what might be called "civic pluralism," which necessarily involves interpreting the role of religion.
To recall a word of Voltaire cherished by James Madison in the early days of the American republic: If a nation has one religion, it would characteristically persecute all others. If it had two, they would war against each other. Where it has many, as it did already in England at the time of Voltaire, they had to find ways to get along. The Public Religion Project is interested in what North Americans do with their many "forces of faith" as they seek to do justice to commitments of the spirit in the body politic.
From what has been said, it is easy to see what the Public Religion Project is not chartered to do. It does not promote a creed or creeds. Its leadership does not assume that the presence of religion is always a good thing. It is not a generating center that fashions and plumps for an ideology respecting things sacred or secular. Let it also be said that while it exists on a foundation grant, it is in no position to make grants of its own, but does what it can to stimulate the best stewardship of others, whatever the source of their credentials, funding, and mission.
It is from within that context, understanding, and mission of the Public Religion Project that we go about our findings and projectings on the topic of public religion in America today.
Finding: The concept of "public religion" has begun to be established but needs more clarification. The adjective public carries itself, chiefly as a contrast to private. In a recent work, editors Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar deal with Public and Private in Thought and Practice (University of Chicago, 1997) in a way that raises many issues and helps frame these inquiries. They point out that "the distinction between 'public' and 'private' has been a central and characteristic preoccupation of Western thought since classical antiquity." They quote Norberto Bobbio, who sees the public/private distinction as one of the "grand dichotomies" of Western thought, what Mary Douglas calls a basic "binary distinction." The editors go on to note that "the use of the conceptual vocabulary of 'public' and 'private' often generates as much confusion as illumination, especially since many confuse 'public' with 'political.'"
The distinction between public and private prompts Douglas to say that "we should look with suspicion on anyone who declared that there are . . . two kinds of reality or process." Her prompting leads some of the volume's contributors to propose "the social" as a third category or distinction. But Weintraub and Kumar are helpful when they point to one ambiguity inherent in the use of private and public. The distinction can refer to:
1. What is hidden or withdrawn versus what is open, revealed, or accessible.
2. What is individual, or pertains only to an individual, versus what is collective, or affects the interests of a collectivity of individuals. This individual/collective distinction can, by extension, take the form of a distinction between part and whole (of some social collectivity). (p. 5)
The private/public religion distinction refers to both. The Public Religion Project charter to "bring to light" the forces of faith suggests that they have been hidden or withdrawn. This is the case because such religion belongs properly to the heart, the spirit, the home and hearth, or the congregation - none of which are characteristically seen as public. Yet we find that they have a public bearing and implication and that it is in place to make them "open, revealed, or accessible." Just as often "private/public" refers to individual - meaning a single individual or a single entity, such as a person who testifies to her own spirituality - and a collectivity of individuals. A collectivity is more likely to have to be reckoned with in the public spheres.
Projecting: It is not possible to disentangle the two meanings of public/private from one another. But the public will be served as leaders make more consistently clear to which dimension they are referring when they use the terms. In all cases, however, public religion can mean both previously hidden or individual religion-in-public and also styles of religion that imply and address the public beyond the hidden and individual forms.
To further refine the "public religion" concept, it is usually distinguished from several other forms of faith and expression. Here we consider six: civil religion, ecclesiastical religion, public church, public theology, public ministry, and public nonreligion.
Finding: This term has been well established since sociologist Robert N. Bellah in 1967 discerned and described it as a reality in American life. In the course of the decades, "civil religion" through all its vagaries and varieties, tends to have a shadow of the top-down thinking of, in particular, Rousseau and Durkheim. In the former of these cases, civil religion has governmental or national auspices; in the latter it is a "collective representation" of the people. Public religion is more associated with figures such as Benjamin Franklin, who discerned and called for more of "publick religion" as drawing on the already existent religious groups and voices of the American colonies, in a kind of bottom-up view. The public religion concept comports well with Alexis de Tocqueville¹s famed observation and celebration of voluntary associations, especially of religious kinds, as enliveners of life in the republic. As such, they are not governmental at all; they may supplement, complement, or challenge civil religion of the top-down or national homogenizing sort.
Projecting: There is need for greater clarity about the sources and limits of public religion vis-á-vis both civil religion and religions of nationalism.
Finding: With this term we refer to what we may call the religion of the "Churches and Synagogues" section of the telephone book's Yellow Pages. There, alphabetized, are the denominations and then the congregations that remain familiar collective representatives of religion. We are finding that they are, more than they knew, public bodies. They are tax exempt. They must obey zoning and fire and police laws. Many of them have political voices or fronts. They draw people out of the cocoons of complete privacy into the beginnings of a public sphere. Parker Palmer speaks of the public as A Company of Strangers and likes to see religious congregations as gatherings of the not-only-likeminded. There people make speeches, form associations, try to make a difference, teach, and worship. Still, they do this with people who share their confession and their tradition and as such remain by definition partly "hidden or withdrawn," however large their welcome sign and however energetic their efforts to attract new members. Public religion does not follow ecclesiastical boundaries, though it draws upon, even as it complicates, church-and-synagogue religion.
Projecting: There is need for considerable dialogue with religious leaders, some of whom perceive their mission to be fulfilled if they can draw others into the life of their institutions and others of whom believe that major expenditures of institutional energies should go into ventures directly related to the public good, whether or not their institutions prosper from these.
Finding: This phrase is coming to mean the public expression, as just noted, of what had been conceived of as private congregations and denominations. The term does not refer to all that religious groups do; it does refer to what they do when they link up with, address, or think with those who do not share their confession, tradition, or observances‹as when they have an eye on a public good without seeking to draw the public into their zone of worship or claims of truth. The public church is not just "the church in politics" but the church active in the mall, the market, the concert hall and gallery, the town meeting and academy.
Projecting: There is room for discussion about where "public religion" resides if not in the "public church." How do individuals unconnected with traditional institutions give voice to and live off "public religion?"
Finding: This term is also in process of better definition, as it comes to mean both the interpretive language of thinkers in the believing communities, when they direct themselves to the public good, and the thinking of those unrelated to believing communities but who, as social philosophers, introduce religious themes and currents.
Projecting: There are reasons to sort out the meanings of "political theology" from "public theology," the former being a species of the larger topic, which includes society and culture in their many, often unpolitical, voices.
Finding: This term is coming into some currency as a way of conceiving ministry within ecclesiastical setting as having a public bearing. The American image of ministers is that they lead flocks in relative isolation from context; public ministry assumes attention to the private spheres, the "hidden" and "individual" sources of piety, observance, and theology. Public ministry refers to ministers' intentional or easily visible engagement with the public realm.
Projecting: "Public ministry" has usually referred to clerics, ordained people who represent specific institutions. Are there emergences that suggest lay versions of public ministry directly in the public sphere? Is there potential yield in the development of such a construct? If so, how is it modeled and pursued?
Finding: Particularly in dealings with mass communicators and leaders in higher education, there is often a distance from, mistrust of, or hostility to public (and often private!) religion. These attitudes have many sources. Some, a very small minority, are simply anti-religion. They know the record of religions when these have produced war, prejudice, injustice, or hypocrisy, and assume that religion, given free rein, will always adopt unwelcome forms. Others, thanks to their life trajectories - for example, during adolescent periods of testing, because of their location in areas where religion is marginal, or because they are trained vocationally to be suspicious - are remote from vital religion. They find it marginal and irrelevant, its causes vague, the case for it philosophically ungrounded. They may "cover" religion but see it to be a subject of fascination, much as religious people see astrology: "Isn't it interesting that so many find solace or seek meaning in unseen forces from supernatural or suprahuman sources?" They let it go at that.
Projecting: There are urgent reasons for discerning why "nonreligion" prospers in the most traditionally overtly religious societies in the industrial world. And to bring to light and interpret the expressions of the nonreligious-to see how they make their case for contributing to the common good - while many of the religious would dismiss them (e.g., as destructive "secular humanists").
Finding: Many have came to refer to the other side of this binary distinction as "private," as in "religion is a private affair." This reference was born out of good motives: keep religion from the public forum and you are less likely to have holy wars and tribal conflicts of the sort that beset the world today. Yet religion is in public affairs and the anti- , non-, or other-religious adherents will find themselves impinged and intruded on by others who, with constitutional warrant, put energies into endeavors that might suppress their own freedoms.
Projecting: For the common good and the health of the subgroups society, be they religious or not, some understanding of the public role of religion will become more urgent, in mass communications and education in particular. While many discussions have been aborted when people raise the specter of "separation of church and state," it happens that religious voices are deeply involved in discussion about and delivery of services in the public sphere. How can it be ensured that, where appropriate, other voices can be heard and their effects and products measured? One individual or organization alone cannot hope to meet all such demands and opportunities but will serve the public well if it helps inspire more agencies and individuals to address the issue of public religion as such.
Finding: For a variety of reasons, the act of interpreting public life is very much up in the air. Questions having to do with hermeneutics (the science of interpreting) and power (the license to interpret) have already been mentioned, and they both haunt and inspire efforts today. But there are special problems inherent in interpreting public religion. The following are among them.
There is surprise that religion is prospering. Leaders in mass communications, government and politics - especially political science - business and commerce, and higher education in particular have often let the act of interpreting religion-in-public or all forms of public religion atrophy or have failed to equip themselves for such activity. One reason for this is that, in the West and as heirs of the Enlightenment, many reflexively assume that religion will progressively disappear. They live in parts of the world or in local communities or they follow professions where religious vitality is rarely experienced and religion is hidden from view.
Global events and trends have jostled them in their understandings, as populations convert - witness the growth of Christianity and Islam in many parts of the world - and as militant forms of religion make the front page every day. The Enlightened had pictured that the religion that did survive would be private, ceremonial, recessive, and tolerant. Yet they find that it is precisely the more aggressive and enthusiastic, those unembarrassed by the contexts of modernity, that prosper. Those who had dismissed the public roles of religion - "How many divisions has the Pope?" sneered Mussolini - are finding that American presidential and many local elections are influenced by forces whose public stances and political involvements have been recently quickened. The instruments for assessing reasons for the selective religious quickenings and expressions have not been in place.
As those in other elites grapple with the religious presence and power, many in the religious world bring perspectives that may limit interpretation. Some see apathy and atrophy of the religious imagination as simply antagonism. Others assume that conspiracies - be they of liberals, secular humanists, or others - determinedly exclude religion from textbooks and classrooms, from political debate and clinical assessments. While there may be some determined opposition, often there is attributed to malice what ought to be attributed to lethargy, indifference, or ignorance.
Projecting: It is important to assess the reasons for the neglect of instruments as powerful as those in public religion. Again, the year of analysis of mass communications gives us encouragement to promote more of these. Numerous schools of journalism, foundation-backed agencies, and individual enterprises, are at work promoting better coverage of religion. Radio and television networks are employing full-time reporters of religious news and trends. Nostalgia for simpler times when religious voices of power were fewer has not proved to be creative. Whining as a form of voicing complaint has been ineffective at producing change. Conversation with and argument among the leaders in the various zones where public religion can be present appears to have more promise.
Debates over the Engagements with the Interpreters
Finding: Particularly in the societies and academies where religion is studied "scientifically" or "humanistically," the role of the scholar as "public intellectual" is being much debated. It would be premature to suggest that the beginnings of the resolution of such issues are appearing. The Public Religion Project both draws upon talent in these academies as well as looks in on and sometimes contributes to the debates.
What is at issue? For some, the commitment to scholarship is of a sort that public involvement would be compromising. One must be objective, distanced from the practice of religion, ready to reduce religious impulses to something other than religious; otherwise one cannot trust the representation of religion that is the subject of inquiry. Or, if not objective, the interpreter must bring to bear a commitment to some other sort of community than one inspired explicitly by religion. Thus race, gender, and class could be among the determiners of precommitment. Between them are those who believe that it is possible to be committed to the common good, the public order, religion, and even particular religious ways of looking at the world and still do justice to scholarship in a pluralistic society.
Meanwhile, in the religious community there are varieties of conflicting approaches. Some believe that pure religion is distanced from the public and can only be interpreted by adherents to their creed or tradition; outsiders need not apply. Others even reject interpretation and refuse to take hermeneutical themes seriously: there is only one true way to look at the world and they have it. Inquiries into public religion by definition are thwarted when such apparently solipsistic and private, or "gated-community," approaches are promoted to the exclusion of all others.
Projecting: While a project cannot settle disputes over the angles of interpretation, it can be aware of them and can help "set the table" to provide opportunities for others to refine their views. When scholarship is pursued "purely" or with "anti-" or "distanced-from" religion presuppositions, it is easy for the public to dismiss it. When the themes of public relevance in religion set the whole agenda, the temptations to popularize and debase religion are strong and can be corrupting. Meanwhile, the conversation between scholars and practitioners, interpreters of communities and participants of communities, should aid in future clarification.
Finding: While most of the Public Religion Project reflections have gone into the theories and acts of interpretation, we have rather consistently found evidence that those being interpreted - the practitioners of religion in the public sphere and those who speak for them - often lack understanding concerning their own situation and the problems they sometimes create for interpreters. Thus, when they criticize media or government, business or education, for neglecting to deal seriously with religion, they seldom appraise the ways in which religion presents itself.
Thus advertisers or programmers on mass media experience religious forces being at odds with each other, bringing forth reactions that unduly complicate the life of broadcasters. As one put it, "If we have a drama that does justice to the Mormons, their religious neighbors get mad at us and there goes the market. If we have even implicit criticism or offer a complex betrayal of them, we lose the Mormon market. So rather than be bland, we just shut up about the subject."
We also find that many citizens who are religious concern themselves with the public face of religion only when it affects them. Do Methodists read Baptist news? Do northern Baptists show interest in the Southern Baptist Convention, or African-American Baptists reveal curiosity about other Baptists? In the worlds of athletics, entertainment, or style, it is presumed that rivals and allies are concerned about the common representation of their enterprise. The religious until now have shown less interest in the public face of any but their own - and thus contributed to ignorance or indifference among others. University scholars will reckon with religion if it can be shown to make a difference in the world. Anthropologists, psychologists, and theologians will concern themselves with private expressions, legitimate as they are and basic in any understanding of religion. But they cannot show sustained interest if there is only inconsequence on the religious horizon.
We find, however, that this is not the whole picture. People in the private or subpublic groups that are part of the public are not all and only self-interested. We see evidences that in many local communities, as politics recedes as a zone of action, voluntary associations sustain interest, especially religiously backed ones. While it might be said that they "compete for the same dollar," most of them are sufficiently moved by altruistic and spiritual impulses or by the vision of human need to cooperate, support each other, and wish each well. Is this recognized in the world of the interpreters?
Projecting: A number of large philanthropic foundations do give grants to religious agencies. But others keep their distance, using the argument, among others, that the sectarian formation of American religion makes for rivalry and bad feelings. A grant to someone in a religious group will stir jealousy among others. We do not find such a dismissal or a reason for dismissal to be grounded in reality. What is necessary are presentations to foundations and large private donors to explore the ways in which grants to religious groups can often be among the more efficient ways to promote human good - without subsidizing acts like proselytism, which would be offensive to all but the proselytizers.
Public schools provide another example. Since 1963-64, debates have raged about "school prayer" and "school devotions" in the United State (the Canadian scene being somewhat different). From one side comes the charge that the Supreme Court is forcing godlessness and irreligion, and thus immorality, on children and therefore, on society. What they often overlook is that the Supreme Court decisions encouraged the study of religion and the teaching about it. But few have taken up this initiative in the crucial sphere of the education of the young. Texts and curricula need to be rewritten. The goal is not to teach a religion, "the truth about life" - even if that religion be so copiously tented as in the description "Judeo-Christian Tradition." But a full education will teach why people are religious, how they act in the light of religious impulses, something of what religions profess, and the difference they make around the world and next door. Many educators fear that introducing religion as a substantive (as opposed to devotional) element in the schools would only awaken rivalries. If it does so, no one would have anyone else to blame as much as the religious would have to blame themselves and each other.
Throughout these pages a barely questioned assumption suggests that religion is a good thing, that public religion deserves attention, and that ignorance about it or resistance to its presence is bad. The Public Religion Project persistently asks questions of its own charter and intentions, and provides not necessarily ambiguous but tentative answers. If it is not the Project's business to do public relations for religious groups or to offer the Good Churchkeeping Seal of Approval to certain groups, then what good might be expected to come of it as it partially fulfills its mission? One way to address that is to visit four elaborations of the Project's mission for means of activating responses to it.
Those who direct and serve it are to "seek to contribute to the improved quality of life in the republic." Some articulate theologians and activists argue that such a mission is irrelevant and distracting. Who should care whether there is such a thing as a republic, what is meant by "quality of life" and means of "improving" it other than by following the dictates of one religion. One should be religious for religion's sake, or for my God's sake, and that is that. While such spokespersons may be a minority and while they may be accused of living off the republic without contributing to it, the Public Religion Project views them as one more of the elements on the public scene: they are not making their charges in a vacuum, far from where the public exists. Instead they write books or for magazines, appear on campuses, and elsewhere become part of the public and, in this case, spokespersons on the "public religion" scene. However, the vast majority of citizens from founding times on have somehow connected religion with morals, ethics, benevolence, and the like. So it is valid to explore the elaborations of the line just quoted. The Project makes contributions to the improved quality of life by doing the following four things:
1. Finding ways to help assure that religion in its many voices is well represented in North American public life
Finding: The colloquial word for this is "to help assure that religious voices are 'at the table' in public life." Here one asks, "Why assure this? What good is it?" As stated before, we cannot take for granted that all voicings are positive contributions to American life. Religion can be a destructive force. What the Project hopes and helps to do has the assumption that all the agencies of a free society, if they occupy public space, should somehow contribute to the public good. They may do this even and also by criticizing it. The rendering visible and audible of these forces also follows a sort of Darwinian assumption, unattractive as that term might be to some of the religious on left and right alike. What is meant here is simply the republican assumption that there has to be an agreed upon set of terms for those who wish to, to vie for attention and compete in their offerings. Some do this now in "hidden" and others in "individual" ways. Our burden is to help bring them to light and see them at the table, so that the nonreligious or other-religious can deal more fairly with the reality that is there‹and then let the processes proceed.
Projecting: The goal, therefore, is not to "establish" religion, to seek favor for it over nonreligion or for this religion over that religion. It is not to win a good name for religion as such. It is to deal with reality, to help appraise the ways power is bartered, to bring to light some of the ways people make sense of their lives and bring that sense to bear on their actions, some of which affect the doings of justice and mercy.
2. To bring to the fore often-neglected resources for healing of body, mind, spirit, and public life that religion manifests
Finding: That religion often neglects its own resources, or that society neglects it among others, is evident. This part of the Project charter does not assume that all religion manifests healing potential; it can be destructive of individual health (witness repression and abuse, sometimes legitimate on religious grounds) or societal well-being (look at religiously motivated tribal warfare). But the religions would not have survived had their adherents not also experienced well-being while using its resources. In the past and present we can point to its reconciling potential.
Projecting: In many ways, public exposure or a seat at the table impels religions to see themselves as others see them and forces them to meet expectations that they might otherwise neglect. Pluralism impels once sequestered and sheltered people to present themselves in the light of others' interests, and that often means revisiting their own resources for healing. The publicness of religion can also help provide a better accounting of reality and of these resources. In a year of dealing with mass communicators, for instance, the Project had occasion to observe that most prime-time stories involving medical decisions, from conception through death, had religious dimensions. The understanding of these informs the public good. In the future, are there ways to improve coverage of medical news or accounts of suffering by reference to these religious dimensions?
3. Working to clarify the roles of religion in public spheres by engaging various expressions of faith, even those that are repressive or destructive
Finding: Here nothing more need be said except by reference to the words repressive or destructive. When the Public Religion Project was envisioned and initiated, this part of the charter received more attention than it has in practice. The leadership at The Pew Charitable Trusts and University of Chicago, along with many other responsible parties, were disturbed that it was difficult to get anywhere in addressing the profound issues of society without finding arguments go uncivil when religious voices were present. One need only mention words like "abortion," "school prayer," "the family," "homosexuality," "physician-assisted suicide," and the like, to trigger uncivil religious wars.
Frankly, the Project has not put major energies into work on this front, for a variety of reasons. First, many other agencies are doing so. If what we call the right found the left uncivil or destructive, one can count on them to raise funds and organize to oppose it. Similarly, when the left finds the right being uncivil and repressive, it marshals resources and passions we do not command to counter it. From the time of James Madison and Federalist Paper No. 10 until now, so it has more or less worked. Second, some scholarly agencies, including one at the University of Chicago, developed to meet the issue on a different level, and our efforts would have been partially redundant. Third, again frankly, we did not find incivility to be the biggest single issue on the religious front. It often is, can be, and is likely to haunt civil life for years to come.
However, Project leaders know that we cannot fulfill other parts of our mission if we have come to be seen as standard-setters or spiritual police. Who appointed us to apply or withhold the seal of approval? If republics profit from civil argument, is there not a danger that argument will be muted if prematurely there are foul calls: "Uncivil!"
Projecting: This is not for a minute to undervalue the dangers that come with religious people being too sure of themselves and about the others. Both the United States and Canada have seen long histories of demagoguery and hatred, some of it religiously inspired. The instruments, in the age of mass communications, have become more efficient than ever at summoning groups that create suspicion of the other. The Project will be putting more energy into how to help set processes in motion at which the "repressive or destructive" forces will be confronted with an eye on change. But it is not poised to do the diagnosis, labeling, or counteracting, that will be called for in times of crisis; we can only prepare for such times along with others.
4. Lifting up situations in which dialogue, mutual respect, and the search for common values and solutions have successfully proceeded.
Finding: In many ways this fourth assignment has been assumed throughout, for "lifting up situations" is similar to "bringing to light and interpreting the forces of faith." Dealing with media, government, business, or education in the name of religion-in-pluralism tends to be mainly story telling, and there are many stories that display what this talks about.
Projecting: What use is this? Such stories of situations can serve to motivate others who face that which is here called "successful." These can serve as models in a time when examples are often themselves hidden from view. What is clear from all these charters is that our responsibility in the Project is not to religious institutions and leaders as such, but to the common good made up of the religious, the nonreligious, and the other-religious.
"Bringing to light" means bringing entities into a zone where criticism can occur, mutuality can prosper, and no one can hide. When there are more voices at the table, it is likely that one may henceforth more likely enlarge the range of options for dealing with public problems and engage in celebrations for the renewing of public life. Here another hidden assumption of the Project is exposed to view: meeting the "other" does not necessarily lead to the dissolution of the self or the loss of identity. Instead it forces or compels clarification upon the self and one's group.
The directors, staff, and advisers of the Project consider these to be fortuitous times to pursue its ends. Whatever we do is done in a global context. Public religion is not only a domestic concept, as witnessed in the title of a book, Jose Casanova, Public Religion in the Modern World (University of Chicago, 1994) and many inquiries that appear under other names. World controversies over population, development, women's rights, the environment, and human rights have preoccupied headlines in recent years. All of them are informed by public religion. The North American piece of this picture deserves special inquiry because of the impact it has on the world and because of the internal pluralism with which it must deal.
Domestically, in a time called late-modern by some and postmodern by more, and especially as the turn of the millennium occasions much thought about circumstances and situation, religion is back in the public eye. Nostalgic or complaining people picture America falling from some or other religious paradise or fallen into some secular quagmire. Historical inquiry will show that evidences for the role of religion "in its many voices" in public life are more visible in 1998 than they were in 1938, 1958, or 1978. The situation of ever-growing pluralism on the foundations of older "Protestant-Catholic-Jewish" triads demands new conceptions of the public, the private, and the social in the American traditions.
For years, Americans had bewailed the absence of discourse on "the public philosophy" or the contribution of religious people to it. That has changed today. Explicitly religious thinkers such as Jean Bethke Elshtain, Ron Thiemann, David Tracy, Robert N. Bellah, Robert Wuthnow are being heard. Others who are presumed to begin with a secular voice have been heard speaking with religious overtones or implications, among them Michael Sandel and the late Christopher Lasch. It would be an occasion for sadness were this moment to be missed by the religious and civil publics.
Meanwhile, new issues keep developing. Many have to do with biological and especially sexual developments in science and morality; the religious voices are and need to be heard if the conversation is to "thicken" and relate to the real worlds. Others relate humans to their environment; ecological concerns are not well addressed by hidden or individualized religion; its adherents will simply be overwhelmed. It is in the public expression of religion that the environment will be faced in respect to ethics and stewardship. In a time of religious-inspired tribal warfare and uncivil domestic politics, religion can best be overcome by religion: creative forms, not nonreligion, will set out to attract the hearts of those who have used God against the neighbor. In a time when spirituality is fostered and commodified, there are those who measure spirituality by its effects in public life, and their number is evidently increasing. In a time when forms of association have to be recovered and in a time of religious individualism, certain leaders are posing fresh approaches in the life of congregations. They know that the local scene now has cosmopolitan implications.
To the conversation and argument over the actuality of public religion and, given that, its potential, the Project invites others. They may well use this essay to stimulate conversation in their own circles. Or they may speak up on their own at the republican table. If so, we hope to sit down and listen and then "bring to light" and interpret what they have been saying and doing. However short or long the life of a particular project, the leaders of this one have to say that opportunities and challenges come in seemingly endless numbers.