PU shield
PWB logo



Princeton scholars examine intersection of politics and religion


Princeton NJ -- With debates raging on the U.S. war on terrorism, gay marriage, abortion, federal funding for faith-based charities and other issues that mix religion and politics, two Princeton scholars have written new books examining the relationship between Americans' religious beliefs and political actions.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow investigates religious organizations' contributions to American society and the controversy over whether the government should support them in "Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Society." Professor of Religion Jeffrey Stout, in "Democracy and Tradition," offers his vision for a public political discourse that embraces rather than suppresses a variety of religious viewpoints. Both books recently were published by Princeton University Press.

Wuthnow, the Gerhard Andlinger '52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion, has taught at Princeton since 1976. His previous books include "Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves," "After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s" and "Loose Connections: Joining Together in America's Fragmented Communities."

Stout, a member of the Princeton faculty since 1975, also has written "Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents" and "The Flight From Authority: Religion, Morality and the Quest for Autonomy." He currently is working on a book on religion and critical thought.

Wuthnow and Stout spoke with Princeton Weekly Bulletin writers Patricia Allen and Eric Quiñones, respectively, about their books and the influence of religion on public policy and politics.


  Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow


One of your goals when you began work on "Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Society" was to provide solid research to contribute to the debate on federal funding of faith-based programs. What was your most compelling finding?

Wuthnow: Policy-makers obfuscate the distinction between congregations and faith-based organizations. It surprised me that policy-makers don't often make that distinction because congregations function quite differently from more specialized faith-based organizations.

Faith-based organizations are Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Lutheran Services; these organizations are really where the action is. These faith-based service organizations actually run pretty much like nonsectarian service organizations. They are usually set up as nonprofit organizations, and they are separately incorporated from churches or congregations. There is a legal separation. That's the way the professional staffs and volunteers see it, and that's the way the clients see it. It's usually an arm's length transaction. If clients go to them because they need a wheelchair, they don't care if it's a faith-based organization. The professionals there usually don't talk about their faith, because it's not a professional thing to do to impose that on a client.

Congregations are different, because they are in the business of making people into Christians or Jews or Muslims or whatever it is they are about. The government will run into trouble if they start giving money to congregations. There are some faith-based organizations, such as Prison Fellowship and Teen Challenge, that function like congregations and they are about making people Christians or better Christians. And government, in my view, should not be spending money to make people Christians.

Can the federal government provide a viable program to support faith-based services that is inclusive of all religious traditions?

Wuthnow: The way the Bush administration's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program is set up, any religious organization can apply. The problem is that about the only programs the administrators have given money to are Christian organizations. That has been one of the criticisms.

Some of the backers of faith-based organizations don't seem to quite understand that this has to be pluralistic. They are quite willing to spend money on Prison Fellowship and Teen Challenge -- both are effective Christian organizations. But if it's the black Muslims in prison doing exactly the same type of work, they are skittish about that. They are dealing with some of these issues now in the courts.

Do you think the American public is still interested in the religious identity and practices of political candidates?

Wuthnow: I do think the public cares a lot about candidates' religious affiliations. It's surprising because if we go back in our history to the Eisenhower, Nixon and Kennedy years, especially with John F. Kennedy, we thought a person's private religion should be private. Kennedy made a big point of saying that.

But now, religion is out there. When one looks at surveys, somewhere around three-quarters of the public think that candidates should talk about their personal faith and that religious leaders should talk about their political views. That has been a very divisive factor. There are, in fact, identifiable blocks of voters who think religion is absolutely the litmus test.

How have Americans' recognition of religion and religious ideals changed after the terrorists' attacks on Sept. 11 and during the war on terrorism?

Wuthnow: The post-9/11 period has pushed the United States as a culture into growing recognition of religious pluralism, both in the world at large and in the United States. We are much more aware of Muslims in the world. Slowly and gradually, we are becoming aware that there is a substantial Hindu population in the United States, a Buddhist population and so forth. That has created a very acute tension within our culture between a past in which many Americans felt comfortable saying, "This is a Christian country. It was founded on Christian principles, and democracy was rooted in Christianity. We were a strong nation because we believe in God." One side of President Bush believes very strongly in that. We have a Christian understanding of the nation -- "civil religion" is what some people call it.

On the other hand, we have the tradition of civil liberties. We say, "Sure, if you're a Muslim, we respect your faith." That was President Bush's statement shortly after 9/11. We understand at some level that we should treat people equally. But when push comes to shove, it's not quite clear which of those understandings of America is going to come out. Our rhetoric about respecting religious diversity rings false if we don't really understand those other faiths.

The problem is that there is really no concerted effort in most communities to do anything about this, to promote more understanding. That's the conversation that needs to happen. Religious organizations need to encourage that conversation. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be doing very much of it. But in the meantime, the news media help a little bit and community organizations do. This is a place where colleges and universities have a major role to play in promoting those conversations among the diverse people on campuses and in communities.


  Jeffrey Stout

Jeffrey Stout


What role does religion play in America's political dialogue? Is it different from your own vision of the proper relationship between religion and politics?

Stout: The First Amendment helped create a political culture in which American citizens feel free to express the reasons for their conclusions as they see fit. When those reasons are religious, citizens are protected twice over -- on the one hand by freedom of expression, on the other by freedom of religion. It violates the spirit of the First Amendment when intellectuals urge citizens to keep religious premises out of their political reasoning. Believers are going to rely on religious premises regardless of what the liberal professors say. It seems to me that we all have a stake in knowing what those premises are. Premises unexpressed are often premises unexamined and unchallenged.

But this is only half of the story. The First Amendment also prohibits Congress from establishing a religion as the basis for politics. In keeping with this notion, I say that political officials should refrain from presuming to speak for the whole nation on religious questions. Kings and queens used to make a mockery of religion by presuming to be its caretakers. What most of them really wanted was a kind of religion that would justify their rule while pacifying the populace. Our elected representatives are prone to the same temptations. The religion that our politicians practice in public often smells of sanctimony, manipulation and self-idolatry. Its symbolic gestures make for bad religion and bad politics.

How has religious discourse changed throughout the country's history? What was the effect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in this context?

Stout: Among the great achievements of American history was the abolition of slavery. How did it come about? The abolitionists had to persuade American Christians that biblically grounded defenses of slavery were not compelling, despite St. Paul's advice that slaves should obey their masters and the notion that God had punished blacks as descendants of Ham. The abolitionists did not say to their opponents, "Keep your religious views to yourselves." They said, "Speak your minds, so that we can test the soundness of your argument and its coherence with the rest of what you have said and done." And then they talked about the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the rights that everyone possesses as a child of God.

A debate is now raging over issues like abortion and same-sex coupling. Like the debate over slavery, these debates are full of fear, hatred and paranoid fantasy. It is too early to know how they will turn out, but there is no way to avoid having them and no way to keep religious premises out of the discussion.

The next generation of aspiring leaders will have to decide whether they want to exploit the culture wars for political advantage or rise above them in a way that helps the people see what they have in common. The citizenry is not nearly as divided along cultural lines as many politicians and opinion-makers would have us believe. Ideologues on the right and the left are dragging the people toward a dualistic struggle that need not and should not take place.

Immediately after Sept. 11, the people spontaneously came together in a sense of unity. But our leaders missed the opportunity to transcend the logic of blue states and red states. They failed to articulate a vision of our shared fate or demand sacrifices on an equal basis at the very moment when the people were most prepared to respond favorably to high statesmanship. One party exploited our fear of terrorism to justify a war that had little to do with terrorism, while the other party held one moist finger in the wind.

You write that "appeals to religion as a source of civic unity" can be seen as "implicitly threatening." Do you feel that, in the post-9/11 climate, non-Judeo-Christian viewpoints are being marginalized?

Stout: Time will tell whether new leaders will arise who can revive the ideal of democracy in the wake of Sept. 11. In the meantime, it won't help for our judges to display the Ten Commandments in our courthouses or for our congressmen to stand on the steps of the Capitol and sing "God Bless America." Neither will it help to scapegoat secularists, nor to imply that atheists and agnostics, let alone Muslims, are something less than full-fledged citizens.

A country that has preachers, prophets, poets, houses of worship and open air does not need politicians expressing its piety collectively in public places. Individual citizens can be trusted to find appropriate ways to express their own religious convictions and train the young in virtue. What the people need from political leaders are the virtues of truthfulness, justice, practical wisdom, courage, vision and a kind of compassion whose effects can actually be discerned in the lives of the poor and the elderly.