Religion: A Private Affair, in Public Affairs

Religion is not a private affair; it now covertly and overtly animates much of national life, often in ambiguous ways. Presented in October 1992 as a public lecture to the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture.



The topic “Religion: A Private Affair, in Public Affairs” demands five definitions.

Religion we define as “anything a board of editors would sensibly put into a sixteen-volume Encyclopedia of Religion.”

Public, says the canonical Oxford English Dictionary, means, “in general, and in most of the senses, the opposite of PRIVATE.”

Private, according to the same source, refers to what is “withdrawn or separated from the public body. . . . Kept or removed from public view or knowledge.”

Affair refers to “what one has to do with.”

Affairs points to the “ordinary business or pursuits of life.”

Thus, if X is a Mennonite, the practice of her faith can be kept “withdrawn or separated from the public body.” However, if Mennonite X or Y brings that practice to bear on the “ordinary business or pursuits of life,” since business and pursuits are practiced in the range of the “public view or knowledge,” this often “private affair” becomes part of “public affairs.” “Faith” and “practice” here are two dimensions of “religion,” which we waste no time truly defining. It is more efficient merely to point. Thus, one can argue that hockey is Canada’s national religion or that sunning and strolling on the beach are Rio de Janeiro’s focal religious practices. But such argument can be cute or distracting, and we are better off simply suggesting that the thousands of entries in an encyclopedia devoted to religion demonstrate the very broad but still bounded range of the business or pursuits before us.



First, in the case of religion in a free republic, it is more accurate and beneficial to think of the dictionary’s opposites, “private” and “public” in terms of the modes of experience and expression than of spaces to which experience and expression are conventionally confined. One begins to see that in life the distinct elements of what is “private” and what is “public” intersect, interact, and interpenetrate each other—something that is not seen when the two are located apart from and over against each other.

Second, these two modes intersect each other better and allow for more interactions when they appear in voluntary and associational “modes” than when we conceive or observe them boxed into coercive, such as governmentally monitored, “sectors” of life.


Why Supplement Spatial with Modal Concepts?

Two reasons, one partly private for me and one generally public for all, motivate the suggesting of modal approaches to religion.

First, for historians and analysts of the scene, one might cite historian Edmund S. Morgan as he slightly but creatively miscited another historian, R. H. Tawney, on why Tawney studied history: “The world seemed an odd place, and he wondered how it got that way” {1}. We shall discuss some oddnesses which have appeared and survived in American life. These oddnesses and oddities somewhat artificially chop up the religious experience and expression of many citizens in their lives of belief and nonbelief. How did things get to be the way they got to be?

Second, for those who have an interest in policy, the use of modes instead of space for making distinctions has the promise of making possible better concepts and bases for action. The present approaches to private and public religion are often artificial, confining, and detrimental to faith, the Republic, and the public good.


Samples of Oddnesses and Oddities

It is odd, for example, that there exists so much religion in the Republic today. Whatever is manifest in other nations—since documentable religion might vary in various places—the American experience does not match what conventional moderns had long prophesied would be the outcome by now. This avant-garde nation, heir of the rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, should by now be simply and only secular—which we here define only as non- or post-religious. Instead, the phone book’s Yellow Pages, the steepled cityscape, and the daily newspapers confirm what eye and heart intuit: that unexpectedly large numbers of citizens somehow identify with, profess, and adhere to religion.

It is odd, for a second example, that despite the power of communal or associational and public religion through the aeons, the modern American resolution was one which many chose to cherish under the notion, colloquially expressed, that, individualized, “religion is a private affair.”

It is odd, further, that even though such expression would relegate and restrict religion to private life, the majority of citizens welcome, at least in diffuse ways, the power of religion to influence public affairs. They like to quote the Farewell Address of George Washington to the effect that religion and morality are supporting pillars of national life. They like to hear political candidates make at least very vague religious references. They tell pollsters that such generalized references to religion are to be favored over simply secular and certainly antireligious expressions.

It is odd, fourth, that so many citizens, be they ordinary folk or members of elites, so readily collapse all meanings of “public” into “political,” referring instantly and exclusively to partisan politics, whereupon they retreat from their expression of favor for any form of religion that is more than private. By moving at once to the necessarily controversial field of partisanship and ballots, such citizens overlook the fact that the public is a far more encompassing reality than campaigns and elections. The town meeting, mall, gallery, elementary and high school, academy, forum, festival, congregation, and association are also public, but they are not merely political. They are not noncontroversial: the public exists to bring the color and texture of individuals and subcommunities to light, and these individuals and subcommunities have often conflicting interests. But the ballot box and the division on party lines are not the only inventions used to address such conflicts.

It is odd, for a final example, that from the beginning observers have remained puzzled by the way ordinary citizens, without evidencing much dissonance, have improvised ways to deal with putatively contradictory claims and demands that connect their “private” and particularized religion with their “public” and more cosmopolitan life. There must be ways to remove some occasions for puzzlement.


On the Conventional Dividing of Private and Public Spheres

Certain dichotomies and dualities demand to be dealt with by anyone who observes American religion. For example, how is one to understand the intersection of “the one” and “the many” in a nation whose very motto is E pluribus unum, which refers to how the “many” are (always in the process of becoming) somehow “one”?

The division between “private” and “public” is a match for “the one” and “the many” in the books of history and analysis. This division presents itself to anyone who is concerned with the past, with law, with prescription. Here are two examples of the way the public and the private might have related had America turned out differently than it has so far, and a third example for the way it has at least provisionally turned out.

Had the United States been a theocratic or hierocratic society, one that, like ancient Israel, claimed to be ruled directly by God or indirectly through God’s priests, religion-as-public would have had a monopoly. There is no place to hide from the all-seeing eye of God and the all-seeking eye of the priests in such societies.

Had the United States been an officially and efficiently atheistic society, one that, like the former Soviet Union, claimed to be ruled entirely apart from the claims of God or representatives of the divine, religion-as-private would have been all that survived or was even conceivable.

But the United States turned out to be a free republic with a liberal, which in this case means open, culture. Here religion is legally subordinated {2}, though it is not necessarily subordinated in the ethos, concepts, and practices of the people. This means that it is free to be both private and public and that some sort of dynamic relationship has emerged between the two. Insofar as modernization means the differentiation and specialization of spheres of life, through the expression of republican freedom people have chosen frequently and perhaps increasingly to “privatize” religion. But such privatization is not in every respect, or even in many respects, an occurrence demanded by constitutional law.

As a consequence of the dynamisms, in the late twentieth century citizens live with a coexistence of claims, some of them at least apparently contradictory, such as the following:

Religion must be private because faith is personal and individual. But religion must be public because it is characteristically supported in legally licit faith communities that take up public space and make public claims. For example, the custodianship of churches’ physical properties must conform to police and fire regulation, and they may be tax-exempt.

Religion must be private because the First Amendment in its clause preventing Congress from making laws which restrict “free exercise” of religion protects from public scrutiny the opinion, expression, and action of religious individuals and groups when they do not present clear and present dangers to the Republic. But religion must be public because the same constitutional clause, by preventing Congress from making laws “effecting an establishment of religion,” requires that there be no legal disability experienced by individuals or groups, even though disestablished, from seeking to effect consequences of their faith in public life.

Religion must be private because some dimensions of religion by command or definition must be protected from legal intervention or scrutiny. Thus, the Christian majority has heard evangelical counsels from Jesus “when ye pray” to allow for the integrity of privacy. But religion must be public, in the same evangelical counsels, because the faithful in that faith or analogously in others are mandated to have public influence, for example, metaphorically, by being yeast, salt, or light.

Religion must be private because only when enclosed and in escape from public intervention are groups able to pursue the purity that many of them conceive to be integral to their religion. But religion must be public because, beyond the enclosures, religions have acquired influence—and, with it, power. Thus, they tend to want and need to assert it.

Religion must be private because a liberal culture demands a measure of civility and tolerance, and, looking at the lethal record of public religion in other cultures, such virtues and expressions prosper best when “religion is a private affair,” even if such privacy suggests indifference to the profound claims of faith, inside the public order. But religion must be public if adherents wish to fulfill their self-advertised roles as being critical and prophetic, on one hand, and constructive and healing on the other.


Some Consequences of Conventional Divisions of Private from Public

The general public generally approves of the conventional divisions between private and public in religion. Evidence produced by sociologists of religion, so consistent that it does not need documentation here, shows that most people think of religion as being ordinarily private. Public expressions may be licit but are seen as potentially intrusive and disruptive. The terms “Moral Majority,” “Christian Coalition,” “Bishops’ Pastoral,” and “National Council of Churches” in headlines signal actions of which many disapprove a priori.

At the same time, the distinction is deceptive and distorting; it makes possible the overlooking or dismissal and artificial exclusion of religion from many areas of life. If religion can be seen as and must remain a purely private affair, it will be of interest only to people sequestered in religious institutions having no outside concerns. Or it may satisfy people on their own religious pilgrimages when they are unmindful that there is a world around them. Third, it will preoccupy social scientists and pathologists of idiosyncratic behavior. Religion, consequently, is of no consequence to “the powers that be,” to public elites.

One could illustrate this outcome in numbers of realms; I will point to six. In the academy, scholars can analyze human nature and culture with an interest in providing accurate pictures of the social environment—only to miss one of the most profound motivators of all, religion. The public media will regard religion as too irrelevant or, paradoxically, too controversial to notice and cover. In politics, religious discourse has to be eliminated or, curiously, exploited. In commerce, the interests refuse to explore the religious commitments behind ethical understandings. The world of the clinic must screen out religious motives for doing good or finding ways of being well—even though the patients and sufferers and care givers might be moved most by religion. In the world of philanthropy and voluntary associations, secular-pluralist definitions must prevail: “we don’t touch religion, which is a private affair.”

The result is frustration on the part of “private believers” who would also be “public religionists” and of critics within the elites. Let us revisit these six areas.

The academy is regularly and often properly accused of providing biased, inaccurate, and misleading accounts of reality on Enlightenment-rationalist-humanist-secularist antireligious grounds. Academics, then, are “the last to see.” The media are seen as being dominated by secularists who choose to mishandle, misuse, and mistreat religion, or as being afraid of it. Those who are supposed to spread knowledge are then “the last to tell” about religion. Politicians get charged with mishearing the voices of constituents, yet manipulating religious sentiment. They are “the last to understand.” Commercial interests are unmindful of the sensibilities of the religious sensibilities of the religious public, or they “commodity” religion and turn it into products. They are “the last to respond.” In the clinic, elites are unmindful of the full range of patient interests, and they fail to use all resources. They are “the last to listen.” And in the world of voluntary associations, foundations, corporations, and specialist agencies fail to recognize the contributions of religion to the public good. They become “the last to cooperate.”

Since the conventional way of conceiving private and public religion leads to confusion, it is necessary to ask what aspect of the conception most gave rise to the confusion—and then to see whether change is possible.


The Problem of Thinking in Spatial Terms about Private and Public

Much of the problem, I contend, results from inherited and continually readopted habits of thinking about these matters exclusively in spatial terms, even though these do not do justice to the way people transact with each other. Almost everyone who looks seriously at these matters—certainly I among them—has used and will continue to employ metaphors, images, and proposals that reflect spatial segregation, segmentation, differentiation, and opposition. A sample list might include at least the following.

Emphatically spatial terms appear when there is a “wall” of separation between church and state (Thomas Jefferson). One separates “factions,” including the religious, in a republic (James Madison). There is a “public square” (Richard Neuhaus). One mediates between “structures” (Peter Berger). There is a “voluntary sector” (James Luther Adams). On a slightly less rigid scale, where the segmentation is more social and personal, one speaks of “the ordering” of spheres, as in the cases of Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Augustinianism. Or, with the Lutherans, one can speak of the “realms” or “kingdoms.” The Dutch Kuyperian heritage introduces more dynamism with “spheres,” while Alexis de Tocqueville and James Luther Adams deal with “associations.” More nearly fluid are James Madison’s concept of a “line of distinction” and José Ortega y Gasset’s concept of “zones”: you never know quite when you enter and leave one, but they are there.

These spatial concepts are certainly appropriate, for example, when one deals with formulistic, legal knowledge: when one argues. For what follows, I want to draw on concepts introduced by the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott. He argues that, in such discourse, technical knowledge comes into play: this is “knowing that” {3}. Technical knowledge, he says, is susceptible of formulation in rules, principles, directions, maxims, and propositions. We find it in laws, constitutions, canons, dogmas, and codebooks. These are all necessary but not sufficient in religious communities and republics. Over against this, one finds “practical knowledge,” or “knowing how.” With it one negotiates in a complex society; with it the citizen deals with competing claims. This kind of knowledge is not reflective and cannot be formulated in rules; it exists only in use. The two sorts of knowledge are distinguishable but inseparable. They are twin components of knowledge in all concrete human activity, including politics and religion. They intersect and interact constantly.

I am arguing that those who too rigidly make the distinction between private and public affairs in religion do justice only to codified technical knowledge and overlook the practical ways citizens individually and collectively do their living.


How Citizens Practically Negotiate Private and Public Religion

When citizens transact in both modes of knowing, they sometimes appear to be expressing bad faith. Thus, historian Sidney E. Mead, when observing the contradictoriness of citizen attachments to both spheres, sees intellectual and moral schizophrenia. Religion has to be “this or that,” “all or nothing.” Thus, “two theologically contrary views, each rooted in age-old antagonistic theological traditions,” are demonstrably “held simultaneously by conservative Christians in the republic.” Such people must be “religiously and intellectually split,” with the result that they or their republic are doomed {4}.

Alexis de Tocqueville had looked at the practical ways and knowledge of the people and decided that, since they were sectarianly “different” about their religions and publicly “indifferent” about dogmatic clarity, there must be bad faith of some sort, or confusion for sure. Through two centuries, many have pondered how citizens could insist on constitutional grounds that there be “no establishment” or “no privileging” of religion—and then turn around and assure largesse to churches through tax-exemption of religious properties. Yet, most citizens evidently feel little unease about doing this. I propose that different philosophical and psychological understandings can help us better to address the conundrums and contradictions.

Through the years, a variety of thinkers have helped me approach this; time and space permit only brief reference here. Benjamin Mariante has spoken of the “foci of consciousness.” Thus, “people are religious when religion is at the center of conscious life, as on a questionnaire, ‘Do you believe in God?’ They are economic when the economy is at the center, as on a questionnaire, ‘What is the most important problem facing America today?'” {5} Robert Bellah has spoken of not merely a double or duplex but “multiplex” world to which each person is and has to be attentive, most notably when facing modern differentiation and specialization {6}.

Phenomenologist Alfred Schutz developed such ideas further by referring to “nonparamount realities” and various “universes of discourse” or “provinces of meaning.”

All these worlds—the worlds of dreams, of imageries and phantasms, especially the world of art, the world of religious experience, the world of scientific contemplation, the play world of the child, and the world of the insane—are finite provinces of meaning. This means that (a) all of them have a peculiar cognitive style . . . ; (b) all experiences within each of these worlds are, with respect to this cognitive style, consistent in themselves and compatible with one another . . .; (c) each of these finite provinces of meaning may receive a specific accent of reality. {7}

Schutz also cited William James on the variety of spheres, each of which was a “world” which, “whilst it is attended to, is real after its own fashion; only the reality lapses with the attention” {8}. Schutz included for James the world of mythology and religion and the world of “idols of the tribe” alongside the world of science and the world of ideal relations or the various worlds of individual opinions.

Once again, I turn to Michael Oakeshott to put a seal on this. He speaks of the various “modes of experience.” Here the thesis can be applied: the same individual or group who would be put off, torn, or confused by decisions over formulated, precise, canonical spatial boundaries, such as “separation of church and state,” or “contradiction between private and public spheres,” actually moves with ease across the separations, unmindful of the contradictions. The individual or group does this through use of “practical knowledge” and “knowing how,” employing one of the foci of consciousness at one time and another at another; dealing with multiple realities, subuniverses and “modes of attention.”

Suddenly, we have moved from argument to conversation. Oakeshott bids one to think of the world as a continuous, pluralistic conversation, a whole, offering an experience of a world. A student of Oakeshott condenses the matter: “A mode is essentially a particular, consistent way of seeing or conceiving the world, or the world as so seen; the product, roughly speaking, of a settled direction of attention.” History, Science, and Practice (which includes this dimension of religion) are three such modes. “An idea cannot serve two worlds,” he adds. Thus, in the dogmatic and creedal expression of private faith, things are different than when the civic or cosmopolitan expression of a republic is called forth. So, there are various languages, “discourses,” and more or less self-sufficient meaning-systems within a broader meaning-system.

Where does conversation come in? These worlds are brought together through conversation within the person, as it were; within the subcommunities; between the spheres; and within the sectors of republican life. Conversation may include argument (where “knowing that” is prime), but it is essentially an inconclusive “unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” This, let us contend, is what comes into play in “the voluntary sector,” where life is lived sub specie voluntatis. (Argument belongs to what Aristotle calls proairesis, or purposive undertaking—which is what formal church, state conflicts tend to be.) Voluntary activities have an experimental, random, boundless, general, and sometimes even playful character. Here is where “religion” best “fits” in public life. Those who live with “modes of experience” attentive to it know that “other kinds of experience are possible,” but here “is a genuine and unqualified recognition of other selves.” Which is why conversing citizens, even when they bring religion into the public sphere, or, better, when they subject it to “modes of attention” appropriate to public life, need not kill each other, as religious partisans have so frequently attempted to do elsewhere. Here is a desire to “keep the conversation going in terms of a civility among persons who have a propensity not always to be conversable” {9}.


What Modes Have to Do with Private/Public Religion

If we learn to think more consistently in terms of modes of experience and expression and less habitually in terms of spaces, blocs, static institutions, canons, and codes and laws, there might be significant changes in conceptions of national life. Of course, when a formal church and state issue or dogmatic argument arises, following the modal theory, one would be attentive to the appropriate (“knowing that”) realities and would argue. But most of ordinary, practical life does not follow such patterns. Here are some possible consequences.

First, there would be more attention than there now is to the voluntary mode, which everyone knows is the recognized form of most American religious life and has been for two centuries. Yet, it has not had its due, perhaps because so much of American religion derives from and perpetuates aspects of European church establishment. Even after disestablishment, thought about religion confined to denominations (themselves now voluntary forms) has been in terms of the spaces, places, walls, and spheres and not of the “modes of experience” in individuals or groups. Denominational life may be one of the most difficult ways for citizens to express the public dimensions of religion, for these reasons. Modal metaphors will make possible a more accurate rendering of the way people transcend denominational and institutional boundaries even while adhering to them for some modes of experience.

This means, second, that there would be a more frank recognition of the world in which the majority of citizens live. At present, they are seen to be “spiritual” in isolation and privacy, or “religious” when they band together away from the public sphere. Yet, in reality, both as individuals and in groups, they employ modes appropriate to private being also in public activity. How else account for the fact that intense, intelligent, and informed citizens are at ease with their own particular-sectarian-exclusive faiths and, paradoxically, they are also at home with generic civic faith or public religion, ready to negotiate with measures of tolerance and ad hoc cooperation with neighbors of many or no specifiable religious faith?

Third, such a vision carries the potential of change among elites, who gradually might find occasion to gain more honest and accurate views of religion in their culture and thus to act with more responsibility than before. In their case, a revisiting of some “spheres” of organized life is in place.

The academy, from elementary through graduate school, would be able to give a more accurate rendering of the role and weight of religion in national and personal life. So long as religion is a private affair, spatially segregated in denominations, and public life is simply secular there will be distortion. Thinking in modal terms does not mean that religion will then be neutered or favored: it can turn out to be ominous as well as promising, capable of inducing conflict as well as healing. Public schools certainly would not need to employ segregatable “religion departments,” but they would treat religion when it comes up by “natural inclusion.”

The media would be free to do a better job. Currently using spatial metaphors, newspapers have a “religion page,” if they cover a definable subject at all. Mainstream radio and television, fearful of the defenses and aggressions of canonically defined, self-protective institutions, tend to avoid the defined religion these institutions profess to profess and, thus, miss the deepest fonts of human motivation, some of the most startling expressions of vice and virtue, and many of the modes with which people deal with the drama of living.

Political life would no longer be responsible to religious voices only when these come as blocs looking after their own interests. Of course, churches and agencies would be free to lobby self-interestedly, trying to influence legislation. But the more subtle influences of religion would now be studied, isolated, defined, approached, and employed. Many underestimations of religious power result from looking only at formal religious institutions or writing off religion because it is voiced by lonely and virtually powerless religious individualists and entrepreneurs.

The commercial world could reassess the role of religiously based ethics and the understandings of how resources are to be deployed. Its participants could see themselves as a (secular) ecumenical force interacting with others in a world where religious tribalism can be a barrier to commercial activity. “Christian Yellow Pages” books are not the only way religion enters markets.

Healing and better decisions could result in clinics and medical worlds if religious motivations were free to be brought to bear in hospitals and agencies which, because they are govemmentally financed or profit-driven, currently and characteristically find religious voices uncongenial, bewildering, and obstructive—as most patients and clients do not. Religion is interwoven with concepts of care, cure, wellness, suffering, and the like. It does not enter the medical world through Mormon brain surgery, Baptist blood transfusions, or Lutheran X rays, but it is in the world of healing.

Voluntary associations could turn new powers loose and establish new modes of communication. I am convinced that this is the most promising new zone, especially in a time when the limits of governmental funding and secular-agency volunteering are patent. In the voluntary zone, where foundations, endowments, philanthropies, and the like are operative, often with self-imposed strictures against recognizing that religion exists, such agencies could reexplore the religious motivations that, more than any other, now move more citizens to donate hours and dollars. An unnecessary and unproductive breach would be crossed; no, even that summary image of a breach is too spatial. Instead: There would be recognition of the way the same people and institutions can work with different modes of attention to promote the common good.

Thus, a charitable foundation may currently shun a religious agency for fear lest such a foundation find itself cooperating with someone who is in the act of proselytizing others and thus disrupting civil peace and hurting the causes to which the foundation is dedicated. It fears jealousy of sects, some of which might be favored. “No religion in our program” seems to be a safe and fair way to divide labor. But such a stipulation moves beyond the scope of these philanthropic agencies the most easily amassed and perhaps most dedicated of volunteer work forces: religiously moved people. Such people are capable of working with different modes of attention and going through an entire life of service without using the field of service to proselytize and undercut others.

No one, certainly not I, expects that tomorrow people in a culture would instantly, with ease, and without qualification give up old habits and speak in terms of modes of experience and not static spheres or spaces when they think of religion in private and public. But I argue that, to the degree that the kinds of insights here appropriated from James, Schutz, or Oakeshott come to currency and are refined, there can be a more realistic and more promising dealing with a two-century-old system whose workings we still, none of us, very well understand.



  1. The New Republic, September 9, 1992, 40.
  2. Walter Berns, The First Amendment and the Future of American Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 26.
  3. One of the best of many passages is in Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 53ff.
  4. Sidney E. Mead, The Nation with the Soul of a Church (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 125.
  5. Benjamin Mariante, Pluralistic Society, Pluralistic Church (New York: University Press of America, 1981), 83.
  6. Robert N. Bellah, “Religious Evolution,” American Sociological Review 29, no. 3 (June 1964): 371.
  7. Alfred Schutz, On Phenomenology and Social Relations, ed. Helmut R. Wagner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 255.
  8. William James.
  9. This argument about conversation and conversation about argument is developed from Oakeshott and with numerous citations in R. M. Grant, Thinkers of Our Time: Oakeshott (London: Claridge, 1990), 65–70.


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