What’s Next? Public Religion in the United States

BY Evan Stewart

Like many of us, I watched the inauguration last month as both a citizen and a scholar trying to catch a glimpse of what was next. Having just wrapped my undergraduate course “Politics in the Digital Age” (taught over Zoom, poetically), I was eager to see whether my students’ smart observations about media, activism, and policy would come to pass in some of the first major public signals from the new administration.

Since then, I have kept returning to this segment in Senator Amy Klobuchar’s speech discussing the insurrection at the Capitol [emphasis mine]:

Two weeks ago, when an angry violent mob staged an insurrection, and desecrated this temple of our democracy, it awakened us to our responsibilities as Americans. This is the day when our democracy picks itself up, brushes off the dust, and does what America always does: goes forward as a nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. This conveyance of a sacred trust between our leaders and our people takes place in front of this shining Capitol dome for a reason.


I perk up when people talk about sacred and desecrated things, because that kind of language is a conscious choice. I study the cultural assumptions that bind us to social institutions and how people lose faith in those institutions and decide to leave them. Throughout the inauguration there was an overwhelming sense that we need to restore this legitimacy — to renew our sense of these collective commitments and trust.

Of course, most of that restoration could come through tangible legal and policy action (what Tressie McMillan Cottom called a “true accounting”). But this is also a cultural project. Calling what happened at the Capitol a desecration is an important framing device that sets up a bright, clear moral boundary about how we shouldrelate to each other in a democratic society. I am interested in how public religious claims like this one try to get that cultural work done.

When I talk about public religion, I am not terribly concerned with whether people go to church, whether they pray, or how they think about gods or higher powers. I am interested in how religious claims provide us with a set of expectations for navigating authority and social relationships with each other in public life. Robert Bellah’s classic notion of “civil religion” is the go-to example here. One of the core insights of more recent work, like Philip Gorski’s American Covenant, is that there are multiple, competing types of public religion that include civil religion, religious nationalism, and even a strict sense of secularism.

For scholars of political movements, public religion is key to understanding trends on both the left and the right. Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry’s prolific work on Christian nationalism is rightfully having a moment in the media, because it helps us to articulate what religion is actually doing in conservative movements: conditioning assumptions about who belongs in civic life, who is worthy of the goods of public policy, and who should be excluded, marginalized or subject to the authority of the state. One of the most important insights of this work is evidence that some of the core underlying assumptions of Christian nationalism diffuse beyond the boundaries of any particular church or religious subculture. A person does not have to have strong personal religious commitments themselves to take up and use the tenets of Christian nationalism to make political claims.

But Christian nationalism is only one, culturally specific kind of public religion. Other kinds are also central to emerging social movements on the left. Scholars like Ruth Braunstein, Jack Delehanty, and Michelle Oyakawa, also show us how progressive movements are cultivating a shared sense of social obligation through religious claims. Meanwhile, it is tempting to view the growing number of Americans with no religious affiliation as a sign of a growing commitment to a strict secularism that dismisses religion’s legitimacy in public life. That is true for some groups, but, for others, public religious claims continue to matter even among those who are not personally religious themselves. Other scholars are revisiting a secular worldview and re-imagining how it can be better integrated with a progressive political agenda in ways that the “New Atheist” movement of the early 2000s never really considered.

Public religion gives us a framework to reconsider our basic assumptions about how religion operates in political life. While public and personal religious commitments may be related to one another, they are different concepts with different implications for civic belonging, and one is not reducible to the other in our study of politics and social movements. When pundits and scholars comment on religion in politics, there is often a tendency to focus on inconsistencies in personal practices or beliefs. In the early era of Donald Trump, for example, many serious social scientists wondered how on earth religious conservatives could support a candidate who appeared so outwardly irreligious. I was glad to see the research on Christian Nationalism take hold and emphasize the public nature of religion, because it provided a better explanation for this question than the dismissive tone with which commentaries often talked about supposedly “contradictory” social behavior.

Inconsistency, hypocrisy, and norm-breaking need to be points of study for us, not points for us to be dismissive of these claims as irrelevant or unserious. Why? Because institutional boundaries between religion, the media, business, academia, and politics are more permeable than ever, and so we should not be surprised to see movements and leaders cultivating different combinations of political, religious, and social capital gathered from across these fields. Inconsistency is a feature worthy of our continued study, not a bug.

My colleague Jack Delehanty and I are excited to continue working on this topic with support from The Louisville Institute’s Project Grant for Researchers to run pilot surveys mapping out the varieties of public religious repertories that are currently at work in public opinion. Whether or not we ultimately get the reckoning for “the desecration” implied by these early signals from the Biden administration, studying public religion can help us better understand why and how those policy signals unfold.

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