Religion’s Place

These past few weeks have been something of a church and state wrestling match:

  • Obama administration begins the match with interpretation of contraception rules. (Bad Guy Wrestler strutting around an empty ring).
  • Then, a wide array of Catholic institutions and politicians respond with theological, political, and ethical argument about over-reach. (Good Guy Wrestler and posse enter the ring, knock Bad Guy wrestler out with a clothesline move).
  • Obama administration responds with changed rules. (Bad Guy wrestler gets up slowly, exits the ring).
  • Finally, a cacophony of opinions and arguments from all angles. (Good Guy Wrestler’s posse gets in a fight, throw dirty punches at each other, ensure a future re-match).

What’s going on here? A lot, but there are two other ways to think about what is going on that haven’t been much discussed.

First is how governmental bodies (such as Health and Human Services ) understand “religion.” Emile Durkheim explained religion as a system of relations between the sacred and the profane. However, he noted that this relation is at times exclusionary (sacred vs. profane) while at other times inclusionary (sacred seeping into the profane). Broadly speaking, we could think of a local parish as a manifestation of the exclusionary sacred (worship and community life within the walls of a building), but a local Catholic Charities as a manifestation of the inclusionary sacred (religious ideals, persons, and monies taking care of external social problems).

Some governmental bodies, ironically, view religion in a pure sense: as a community that separates the profane from the sacred. Anything mingling with the profane would not be “religion” in this approach. Thus, HHS viewed non-parish religious organizations as not-quite-religion given their inclusionary stance towards the profane. (Notably, the Supreme Court in rulings about religious organizations has tended to take an inclusionary approach. Rulings about religious activity in parks, schools, etc. is another topic altogether).

Sociologically speaking, this interpretation of protecting the sacred from the profane makes for strange bedfellows: a decade ago conservative religious voices lambasted Catholic Charities for “losing its soul.” Who would have thought that HHS might have so much in common with these critics?

Second is the long, bumpy change in the role of religious authority in the modern world. The concept secularization has many meanings, but one of the most useful is the disappearance of religious authority from certain institutional spheres (e.g., government) and certain personal decisions (e.g., contraception). This exiting is not necessarily about the power of a secular government or a modern attitude that is inimical to religion (despite certain religion leaders suggesting as much). Sometimes it is caused by social movements attempting to remove religion from a part of social life, sometimes it is caused by the development of new bureaucracies with expertise that outpaces (and replaces) religious thinking on critical issues. Much could be said about how the case of Humanae Vitae was a failed opportunity for the Catholic Church to reorient its engagement with sexuality in modernity, even if the anti-contraception conclusion had been retained. Leslie Woodcock Tentler in a new book about authority in contemporary Catholicism offers a fascinating (and saddening) look at how the sacrament of confession collapsed partially because of its close tie to sexuality matters, which American Catholics increasingly saw through a lens of personal experience rather than religious institutional authority.

We live in a secular age, which Charles Taylor has clearly shown.  But how the secular relates to religion, and vice versa, involves much more than what the recent controversy has centered on. Thinking about our wrestlers again, sociologists should be looking at the shape and size of the wrestling ring, not just the opponents.

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