Sociology Religion and the Public Sphere
Michael Brennan, Diana Stypinska
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0246


Religion in the public sphere (hereafter RPS) refers to the intermingling of religion with issues of politics, governance, the state, and institutions of civil society. That it is a topic of interest to academics across the humanities and social sciences is itself a reflection of the gradual separation—over many centuries—of religion from public affairs in modern, largely secular, societies of the West. The readmission of religion to the public sphere raises several key issues, not least around secularization (and the extent to which religion has been disassociated from public life and policymaking), but also about the resurgence of religious conservatism as an attempt to close the gap opened up in modernity between religion and politics. The renewal of interest in religion as a social, cultural, and political force—a feature of what some are now calling the “post-secular”—has proved especially contentious in diverse, multifaith liberal democracies, where attempts to divorce religion from public life can be seen to undermine the inclusion of religious minorities and the expression of religious identities. Academic interest in the intersection between religion and public life has been concentrated largely among sociologists (of religion) and political scientists. The revival of religion in the public sphere confounds a widely held assumption among modern social and political theorists; namely, that religion would wither as a feature of public life as societies underwent a process of modernization—and where religion continued to exist at all, it would be confined to the private, domestic sphere and that of individual belief. Particular interest has been generated by controversies that expose the vexed nature of attempts to limit or bar the admission of religion in public life; such as the 1962 ruling by the US Supreme Court removing prayer from public schools (in the spirit of the First Amendment of the US Constitution), or, more recently, the banning of religious headscarves (and other “ostentatious” symbols of religion) from public schools in 2004 by the French authorities (in the spirit of secularism—or laïcité) enshrined in Article 1 of the French Constitution). Attempts to undo the “wall of separation” between religion and state first envisioned by Thomas Jefferson can be seen in attempts by American religious conservatives to overturn “progressive” legislation on abortion, gay rights, and same-sex marriage. Recent opposition in the United Kingdom by Muslim conservatives to LGBT education in public schools illustrates the sensitivities and tensions surrounding expressions of RPS in contemporary Western societies.


There are no textbooks devoted solely to religion and the public sphere. Instead, most textbooks in the sociology of religion devote some space to coverage of RPS. Many draw upon case studies related to RPS in regard of specific sociohistorical formations, especially modern nation-states. Roberts and Yamane 2016 and Johnstone 2016 discuss specific instances in the United States when religion enters the public sphere. Davie 2013 highlights the re-emergence—in post-secular European societies—of religion in public life, as an expression of religious minority identities and rights. Such discussion illustrates the tension produced when religion enters the public sphere, not least because it confounds assumptions that secularism inevitably follows modernization. Furseth and Repstad 2006 remind readers that the privatization of religion and its splitting-off from public life and the political realm extends only as far as modern industrialized countries of the West—a feature underlined by the fact that, until relatively recently, discussions of RPS were couched in terms of “church-state” relations, a distinction largely unknown outside the Christian world. RPS takes a variety of forms. Furseth and Repstad 2006 employ the following nomenclature as an organizing principle: (1) societies in which there exists an official religion of the state; (2) societies in which there is said to exist a “civil religion,” such as the United States, where all members of society, whatever their faith, are united in a common set of values and beliefs; (3) “public religion,” whereby grass-roots religious movements attempt to contribute to public debate on a whole range of social, political, economic, and moral issues; (4) instances where religion operates explicitly as a vehicle to legitimize political power; and (5) “political religion” or “religious nationalism,” by which the nation is sacralized as an object of popular mythology—totalitarian regimes such as the USSR and Nazi Germany being cases in point. Aldridge 2007 provides illuminating discussion of the latter alongside applications of the concept of “civil religion.” Christiano, et al. 2015 discuss RPS in expressions of fundamentalism following 9/11, as well as in historical attempts by Quaker women to exert religious influence in their opposition to slavery and campaigns for temperance, prison reform, and female suffrage.

  • Aldridge, Alan. 2007. Religion in the contemporary world: A sociological introduction. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    RPS is dealt with in chapter 7, providing a useful and lively introduction to successful and failed applications of “civil religion”—in the United States, Canada, and Northern Ireland; and to “political religion” in the case of the former USSR and Nazi Germany. The third edition, published in 2013, includes a discussion of the deeply contested nature of the European Union as an “unfinished project” of pan-European cultural identity.

  • Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. 2015. Sociology of religion: Contemporary developments. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    RPS is discussed briefly (in chapter 7) in reference to women’s exclusion from public life and leadership roles in organized religion; but also in terms of their influence upon the public sphere through, for example, Quaker women’s ministerial activity and involvement in social reform movements. Provides insightful discussion (in chapter 9) of the mixture of religion and politics by the Christian Right in the United States following 9/11.

  • Davie, Grace. 2013. The sociology of religion: A critical agenda. 2d ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    RPS is discussed—as part of the book’s “critical agenda”—as central to debates around secularization, modernization, fundamentalism, and identity. Long-term processes of secularization are discussed as occurring simultaneous to the revival of RPS. Provides useful discussion of the ways in which religious-cultural identities have begun to permeate the public sphere, not least in France, where the assertion of minority religious identities has served to undermine the principle of laïcité.

  • Furseth, Inger, and Pal Repstad. 2006. An introduction to the sociology of religion: Classical and contemporary perspectives. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    Contains a chapter on RPS (chapter 6) that is helpful in providing a panoramic overview of the field. Introduces readers to different expressions of RPS using a taxonomy (above) to illustrate its particular forms. Useful for those new to the field, especially in mapping the terrain, introducing theoretical and empirical studies, and providing suggestions for further research.

  • Johnstone, Ronald L. 2016. Religion in society: A sociology of religion. 8th ed. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Covers the relationship between religion and voting behavior in the United States and the influence of religion—as an attempt to legislate morality—upon the formation of public policy, where abortion, prayer in public schools, and Prohibition provide a focus for case studies. The blurring of religion and politics is discussed in a chapter on fundamentalism (chapter 8), and the influence of religion upon the economy is discussed in chapter 9.

  • Roberts, Keith A., and David Yamane. 2016. Religion in sociological perspective. 6th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Coverage of RPS is discussed in reference to secularization (chapter 13). Includes a section devoted to Bellah’s notion of “civil religion,” examples from the United States of when religion has entered the public sphere, and illustration of when private beliefs intersect with wider public policy. The text is accompanied by online instructor resources and “critical thinking” questions to stimulate student engagement.

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