Religious freedom between universalism and particularism

Professor Hansen’s post on the new particularism in the American military chaplaincy, based in his own rich ethnographic study, is an admirably clear and cogent description of what is a larger issue in American religion today.

There seem to be two contradictory trends, one that is inclusive and universalist, understanding freedom of religion to involve the enabling of different paths within an essentially common human spiritual impulse; the other exclusive and particularist, understanding freedom of religion to underwrite the rights of religious communities to a kind of sovereign exception to the rule of secular law. The schizophrenia is evident in recent decisions by the Supreme Court, as well as in the fabric of religious life. See, for example, the 11 January 2012 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v EEOC.

Hansen suggests that this contradiction is the result of an unresolved contradiction at the heart of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution does seem to point in two directions, one universalist, the other particularist. At least, certainly that is the way things appear today; it is not clear that such a result was determined from the beginning. Federalization of the religion clauses in the 1940’s, the civil rights movement, and shifting Cold War alliances, at home and abroad, post 9/11 realities, have all had an important impact on the politics of religion in the U.S.

An important reason for this rather American (although not, by any means, exclusively so) situation is indeed disestablishment, but not just the constitutional doctrine. The effect of disestablishment on the religious sociology of American life can be seen already in the colonial period. The lack of historically stable religious structures to locate and contain religion, sociologically and legally speaking, combined with the acknowledgment of indigenous religion and immigrant religions, has resulted in an uneasy free market in religion which tends to produce eclectic reflections of the range of religious options in the world.

It is also important to understand the symbiotic relationship between these two kinds of American religion and their relationship to the academic study of religion. The universalizing language of religious studies depends on and continually returns to the messy particularities of actual historical traditions, even while it abstracts from them and helps to re-make them. Advocates for religious liberty, too, while employing the universalism of human rights talk, defend the rights of members of living religious communities bound to theologies that are often far from bulwarks of human rights. Meanwhile, traditional religious authorities link their cause to that of human rights advocacy in the vain hope that their own abuses will be overlooked in the name of religious liberty and that their particularisms will not be lost in the universalizing trend.

There is a tragic quality to the situation Hansen describes. A broad-based critique of secularism feeds a widespread romantic yearning for the presumed holism of intact and homogenous religious cultures. But churches and other religious authority structures can no longer rely on the obedient conscientious dissent of their followers from majority cultures. Many religiously committed individuals meanwhile worry about whether the interests of organized religions can continue to serve as a proxy for their own existential commitments.

Professor Hansen is careful to qualify his generalizations about “evangelicals.” I would like to highlight his caution. The churches and peoples who are caught in this demographic generalization are a highly diverse group, theologically and politically. While it is easy to point to those who seem to lie on the intolerant edge of this group, there is much evidence that their views do not characterize the whole. Many evangelicals are religiously tolerant, interested in other religions, and genuinely devoted to the freedom of individuals to choose their own religious path. Furthermore, non-evangelical religious folk are also concerned about losing their particularity.

The history of the military chaplaincies in the U.S. is a fascinating one. Chaplains have struggled to justify their role at every stage, caught between their own religious training, the obligation to support the mission, and the existential demands of different wars. In the mid twentieth century the chaplains in the Army were given the job of improving the morality of an army of conscripts that was believed to be a place of lax morals, over-consumption of alcohol, and venereal disease. Today, a voluntary U.S. military tends to see itself as a bastion of morality, now burdened with the task of inculcating good values in a population that has lost its discipline as a result of greed, consumption, and an over-sexualized media.

Chaplains exist throughout the secular institutions of contemporary life, hospitals, prisons, law enforcement, schools, businesses. They have more in common than is often acknowledged. Theirs is a peculiarly modern religious calling, ministering to the inbetween spaces of secularized societies. It is a demanding and risky vocation.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton 2005).

By Winnifred Fallers Sullivan
Published June 10, 2012 8:32 PM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:49 PM