Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

Rethinking the Role of Religion in Changing Public Spheres: Some Comparative Perspectives

Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

Rethinking the Role of Religion in Changing Public Spheres: Some Comparative Perspectives

Article excerpt


Until the early 1990s, there was a clear disparity between the growing significance of religion on the world stage and the literature one could read on this score in either scholarly or popular publications. Historian Scott Appleby stated candidly that "Western myopia on this subject of religious power has been astounding."1 Former ambassador Robert A. Seiple, the first-ever U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, criticizes the academic disciplines that address international affairs for giving religion "short shrift."2 For a long time, scholars assumed that religions were the carriers of tradition and predicted that they would enter into decline because of secularization and privatization.3 The recent increase in claims for the recognition and implementation of religious ideas, identities, values, practices, and institutions in the governance of nation-states and the lives of their citizens, however, indicates that these predictions were wrong.4 In the words of Talal Asad, "a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable."5

Spurred by globalization, democratization, and the rise of modern media, this remarkable religious resurgence is evident in a variety of places-from scholarly work and popular interest to the increased awareness of the importance of religion in diplomacy and peacebuilding.6 Debates and publications regarding the appropriate role of religion in both emergent and longstanding democracies increasingly inform political will and public policy.

However, religious resurgence brings new problems for both emergent and established nation-states. This Article contends that nation-states can achieve successful governance only through careful management of religious and cultural differences and through respect for religious minorities and non-conventional religious groups in increasingly multi-religious and multicultural national contexts.7

Part II of this Article discusses the heightened role of religion, and the concomitant recognition of this role, in the public sphere. Part III addresses the new prominence of religion in American public life and the critical role religious activism is now playing in contested social issues. Part IV deals with the tension between secularism and religion and offers a glimpse of some of the problems associated with religious diversity and competition. Part V offers a brief conclusion.


A. Academic Recognition of Religion in the Public Sphere

Prior to the early 1990s, literature had been lacking in the area of religion in the public sphere, notably at the international level. This lack of recognition of religion caused scholars and observers to downplay the significance of religion in domestic and global affairs.8 The early 1990s marked an upsurge in literature recognizing the role of religion in the public sphere.

One of the most influential and controversial of these writings was Samuel Huntington's piece, The Clash of Civilizations?9 Huntington argued that the world would be shaped, in large measure, by the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations, namely, Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African. The article provoked criticism by suggesting that the most important differentiating feature was religion and that post-Cold War optimism would be shattered by dangerous and deep-rooted cultural conflict.10 Many scholars felt that Huntington oversimplified the mapping of the contemporary world by declaring that "[t]he fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."11

Prescient or not, Huntington's work stimulated a flood of long overdue studies on the role of religion in international affairs. It sent die-hard secular political scientists and social critics into a tailspin, as evidenced by the flurry of publications more attentive to the influence of religion in the last decade. …

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