The politics of religious freedom:

The power of pluralist thinking

posted by Courtney Bender

It is hard to remember, but religious pluralism meant something quite different fifty years ago. We have, I would argue, so shifted our collective understanding of religious pluralism, and this transformation has been so naturalized, that we have little common conception that this shift even happened and much less sense of its consequences. To put it succinctly: in the 1950s and through the 1960s, sociologists argued that religious pluralism and secularization went hand in hand, contributing to the development of a modern shared “secular” faith that could support and was indicative of religious freedom. But since the 1980s, sociologists have argued that religious pluralism leads to religious vitality. The new model, like the old one, argues that the religious pluralism observed in the United States is brought about by and likewise promotes religious freedom. Both positions have, arguably, contributed as much to our collective imagination of freedom as they have to theoretical understandings of the same.

Given that “religious freedom” seems to be a troubling concept at the moment, it might be worth returning for a moment to the 1950s, to mark the difference between then and now, if only to highlight the contours of what we now take to be obviously and empirically identifiable as “religious pluralism.” The 1950s was an era of many things—the Beats, the Cold War, and bestsellers like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale, a psychologist and Christian minister, boldly proclaimed that Americans could experience a better life (more friends, more money, more happiness) by cultivating a positive mindset. The book was widely panned, but Peale was very much of his time: as he wrote, everyone—no matter their creed or religion—could benefit from positive thinking. All Americans could do as the first chapter implores: “Believe in Yourself!”

Peale’s book features as an important exhibit in Will Herberg’s 1955 Protestant-Catholic-Jew. Herberg used the popularity of positive thinkers such as Peale as evidence that the social and political forces of sectarian difference were waning. Postwar America brought Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together in new ways—in suburban enclaves, in public schools, and on the factory floor. Herberg’s analysis of religious pluralism and “the American Way” echoed classical Durkheimian and Weberian articulations of secularization. Along with Peter Berger (The Sacred Canopy) and Robert Bellah (“Civil Religion in America”), Herberg extended and confirmed classical theories’ understanding that religion’s privatization (institutionally and individually) coupled with new social interactions among multiple religious individuals contributed to secularization. In the American case, they noted, individuals’ beliefs were increasingly private and atomized (“believe in yourself!”), yet nominal religious identity remained an important marker of the true scope of religious pluralism in American democracy. Or, as Herberg put it, Protestant-Catholic-Jewish pluralism revealed the religion of America to be democracy itself: the plurality of religions points to a “common faith” called democracy, itself the “religion of religions.”

Today, this analysis of religious pluralism sounds archaic, if it is noted at all. Today, sociologists who study religious pluralism in the United States observe robust religious differences and a plurality of observable groups. The shift is significant, particularly in its implications for how we think about religious “freedom.”

Why did this shift happen? The usual answer is that religion changed. It had been private, but it became public. Something “happened.” Given the benefit of hindsight, many scholars now find the story of radical upheaval in the 1960′s as the engine behind this shift to be incomplete or misleading. But that said, sociologists working at the time observed “religion” working in ways that they had not predicted, and which demanded theoretical revision. Of the many alternatives proposed, the “religious economies” model rose to the fore as the strongest alternative and revision to secularization theory.

Religious economies models focused particularly on the question of pluralization of religions and its effects on religious participation. In a marked turn from classical theory, this model’s proponents argued that religious plurality and vibrancy is a natural consequence of limited or absent state regulation of religion. In the United States, therefore, religious vibrancy can be explained as the consequence of religious groups operating in a religious free market, one made possible (or perhaps better put, revealed within) the First Amendment. Where state regulation is absent, religious groups are free to organize as they wish, and rise or fall based on their abilities to appeal to religious consumers. Religious economies models borrow explicitly from the Chicago School of economics. So, in this model a rational, voluntary, religious actor will consistently seek out the religious option with the compensatory system that best suits her. Individual religious freedom is maximized in a religious marketplace where multiple firms exist. Competition has the effect of increasing religious vitality and fervor rather than marking its decline, and creating an ongoing religious equilibrium. Thus, as the argument goes, a plurality of Protestants—Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, even Mormons—vie for members. Over time, the losing firms are those who can’t attract or hold members, and the ultimate winners are all those people who can maximize their religious potentials in a firm of their choosing.

This is all well and good, detractors note (and there have been many critics). Except, however, for the fact that this free market model also generates a whole bunch of religious losers. These are the people that are not playing the game at all, or are not playing it very well. Jews and Catholics, slaves, Native Americans, and so many others are difficult to place into the religious economies models. Not surprisingly, they often appear to be differently and often not adequately religious (or, by extension, even adequately American).

The illusion of the free market is the subject of Bernard Harcourt’s recent genealogical critique of the Chicago School of economics. As he argues, the concept of the naturally regulating, universal free market recurs in multiple generations of free market economic thought. Where the market is conceptualized as naturally existing, he notes, regulation becomes an enemy: the state’s meddling poses a threat to the naturally developing and self-regulating equilibrium. But this is not all, of course, for as he notes, the self-regulating free market also is threatened by those actors who are not able to self-regulate—those economic actors who are not free and rational, for example. Whether they refuse to act as proper self-regulating economic actors or because they cannot do so, they become unnatural actors. Thus, even as regulation threatens market equilibrium, it nonetheless plays an important role in policing and regulating those actors. The state can protect, rehabilitate, regulate, or penalize them. Harcourt argues, in short, that one of the effects of the logic of the free market is to designate those economic actors who are free of the need for regulation and those who are not so free.

We can take the analogical step to consider how Harcourt’s observation may relate to free market religion. Religious economies models view the failures of various religious groups to participate in the market as problems inherent in the groups themselves—failures, for example, to cast off religious peculiarities so that they can participate in the thriving religious commerce of modern democracies, and real, “free” religiosity. They rarely if ever point to problems that might be inherent in the market itself: that it might not be as free as they imagine, or that it might in fact be regulated, or regulating.

I am hardly the first one to point to the limitations to the religious economies models. As I have noted, the criticisms have been legion. But none of these serious critiques have stuck. One has to wonder, why not?

One reason, I believe, is that even the staunchest critics of the religious economies models share its basic premise—namely that a plurality of religious groups indicates the presence of religious freedom, and that this freedom furthermore indicates the presence of democracy. While it is explicitly articulated in the religious economies model, it is embedded as an operating premise in almost every recent analysis of religious pluralism.

Take, for example, scholars who analyze religious pluralism with institutional models. Sociologically speaking, an institutional model identifies organizational fields (for example, religious, financial, educational, or the like) that are so designated because of the various laws, regulations, cultural norms, and professional rituals that both define its legitimate actors and enable their functioning and coordination. Various regulations and norms operate within and at the boundaries of fields, and have the effect of shaping (or demanding) some measure of conformity by all actors who participate within them. As such, an institutional approach both calls attention to a field’s norms and regulations and to the cultural rituals and habits that normalize them. We could imagine that the study of a religious field, then, would identify the norms of “freedom” shaping actors’ views of their position within a field, and the legal and social structures that demand conformity to them. Altogether, it seems that sociologists drawing on these models would be well positioned to challenge the illusion of the free religious marketplace.

But surprisingly, this is not what we hear. Instead, sociologists who use this theoretical frame nonetheless maintain that the field of American religion is free, both from state control and state support. They likewise argue that the salutary effects of this freedom are such that new entrants to the field are uniquely able to determine their own, “authentic” spirituality. No one compels them to be other than what they truly can be: naturally free religions, able to interact peacefully with each other. As one of the fiercest critics of the rational actor model thus argues, religious groups are “free to find … fertile soil or perish.” In the United States, “each group could embody its religious impulses in the pragmatic organizations that the American experiment made possible. It was a system born of the Protestant impulse, but nurtured in the pragmatic and pluralist democracy of the United States.”

In America, religion finally comes into its own, in all of its manifest plurality. Insofar as religious groups willingly submit to freedom, they certainly change. But their transformation is not into an American norm but into freedom itself. This regulation is self-evident and natural. The free market allows—and in fact trains—religious groups to be free: to cast off the cultural and political baggage or problematic connections to other parts of life. What we confront in these theories, and what ties them together, is much less a theoretical frame of pluralism than a political doctrine of freedom.

Two things are thus worth pondering at greater length than this forum allows. First, we can consider the consequences of our current concept of religious freedom. Our public discourse has, for a host of reasons, abandoned an earlier vision of religious pluralism that focused on the private religiosity of individuals, and that was designated by the shared language of a civil religion or spirituality (and which as even Herberg noted, is so easily transformed into the nightmarish, anti-democratic transgression of religious nationalism). Rhetorically and politically, we need our religions to be more clearly identifiable than that. In order for religions to be free, they must be differentiated, both from each other and, more importantly, from the elements of society that would regulate them and keep them from being free. Except that, as Harcourt’s examples would remind us, this freedom is an illusion. Much like the “positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale, our pluralist thinking hides the mechanisms through which we recognize religions as free or many, and hides the reasons why we find those evaluations useful or necessary.

Second, the “new” sociologies of religion claim to have successfully challenged secularization theory, but it is clear that most sociologists working in this framework now cling even more tightly to one of its central tenets: differentiation. In fact, we could argue that our current political and sociological uses of pluralism depend upon—and demand evidence of—religion’s differentiation from other parts of social life. It is only through differentiation that religion is free. This “fact” of theory and empirical work itself demands further exploration of the twinned and complex visions of religious toleration and economic freedom embedded deeply in liberal political theory, from Locke and Smith to Mill and beyond.

For if the power of the positive religious thinking embedded in religious economies models highlights anything, it is that our concepts of free markets and free religions are tied in deep ways, and not only analogically. I doubt that embarking on a historical or genealogical project will allow us to shed the pluralist thinking that inhabits us. But we might be in a better position to observe and speak of its effects.

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