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Secular Conversions: The Importance of Thinking Institutionally about Secularization

Damon Mayrl

Church and Skyscraper by Mike Procario via Flickr

Church-state relations are a perpetual source of controversy in the United States, where courtrooms and school board meetings regularly feature arguments over alleged violations of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. Yet while America’s “strict separation of church and state” has yielded some of the most secularized public institutions in the developed world, social scientists have had relatively little to say about how and why this arrangement came about.

In part, this is because for many years social scientists believed that a secular public sphere was an inevitable feature of modern societies. The growth of the state, expanding religious pluralism, and economic development, they thought, would inexorably drive religion from the public square. From this perspective, America’s “strict separation” seemed unremarkable.

But viewed comparatively, modern societies have adopted a wide array of “secular settlements”—or policies governing the role of religion in public life—very few of which are as starkly secular as America’s. To understand the origins of these settlements, one has to turn to politics. Secular settlements are the product of political struggles, of various kinds, whose outcomes are shaped by their encounters with the rules, procedures, and regulations of the state. Both political campaigns and a nation’s institutional terrain combine to produce any given settlement.

Politics and institutions help explain why a “strict separationist” settlement developed in the United States, but not in other similar countries. Australia, for instance, is also religiously diverse, has a constitution that disestablishes religion, and a history of church-state ties in education. Yet it has a very different secular settlement: Whereas America today bans public school devotionals and sharply restricts funding for religious schools, Australia instead embraces public-school religious education and lavishly funds denominational schools.

These differences reflect both political action and the structure of the state. In the United States, “strict separation” is the product of longstanding political struggles by religious groups, educators, and legal advocates, who fought the Protestant devotionals often found in America’s early public schools, and strategized to prevent the public financing of denominational schools. These actors found American political institutions remarkably open to their campaigns. Long before church-state controversies filled the Supreme Court’s docket, they troubled the meetings of school boards and state courts. Because educational policy was decided locally, school boards became early targets of disgruntled religious minorities. And because there were relatively few procedural barriers to legal challenges, courts became regular venues for the adjudication of church-state disputes.

Things were different in Australia. Although Australian religious and legal activists also attempted to challenge church-state ties in education and promote a more secular state, Australia’s would-be secularizers came up short. Their campaigns failed because they could not gain leverage over the centralized Australian educational bureaucracies, nor overcome difficult procedural hurdles in the Australian legal system.

Secular Conversions reveals the importance of thinking institutionally about secularization: religious change is not an inevitable byproduct of modernity, but instead a political product deeply shaped by the structure of the state. And in this regard, America’s “strict separationist” settlement reflects its contentious politics and highly accessible political institutions.

About The Author

Damon Mayrl

Damon Mayrl is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. His recent publications include writings in Sociological Theory, Social Forces, Social Scienc...

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