Religio-Secular -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

There is a lot of heat surrounding the topic of religious liberty.  Some religious folk are complaining that the forces of secularism are impinging on their God-given and Constitutionally-protected religious rights.  These include things like opposing gay marriage (marriage equality) and abortion.  I the name of religious liberty corporations are fighting to exclude contraception from health plans.  But how much of a threat is secularism to religion?  Martin Marty responds to an article by R.R. Reno, a Roman Catholic theologian, suggesting that we broaden our horizons.  He suggests that the lines between the religious and the secular are more blurred than activists on either side would like us to believe.  Marty has suggested that we might better speak of a "religio-secular" context, for there is an intermingling of the two in many interesting ways.  He offers this as a way to get beyond the purely political dimensions of the debate.  Invite you to read and offer your thoughts.


Monday | Mar 10 2014
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“Our Secular Future: The redefinition of religious liberty in American society” is a promising and threatening reflection by Richard R. Reno in the Jesuit-based weekly America (February 24, 2014). It turns out that the article deals more with the subtitle “religious liberty” than with “secularity” in “our” future.

Reno, a former professor of theological ethics at Creighton University, has given much thought to the religious-liberty theme, and joins the many current addressers of that theme in American politics. One hopes Reno will also explore the larger contexts of “our secular future,” since reducing that topic to politics, jurisprudence, and partisan themes does not do justice to the discontents and urgencies of the present time.

The “religious liberty” theme is unsurprisingly handled in Reno’s article: America was doing all right in its earlier two phases: getting rid of church establishment by 1830 and, in the mid-20thcentury, broadening the religious scope from Protestant domination to a generalized Protestant-Catholic-Jew polity, policy, and ethos. He does romanticize these two eras, minimizing references to the anti-Catholicism of the non-Catholic population.

But Reno hurries on to the recent past; let’s call it “The Fall,” which ended the “Christian-Jewish” era and which, after 1947, found the courts trying to assure religious neutrality. On his telling, the courts and “law professors” and “elites” have worked to give license to agents of non-religion and anti-religion in public life ever since. He documents the trend by citing the predictable concerns: anti-abortion, gay marriage, etc.

Well and good; these issues are worth fighting about and, if you oppose the court decisions, the law professors, the unnamed “elites,” the “engaged progressives,” the religious “nones” who, Reno says, have an “anti-religious instinct” as they work to “redefine religious liberty as a general liberty of conscience.” That’s a topic-area worth featuring, and we hope Reno will develop it. But we have to re-explore beyond this political front what “our secular future” means for public life and personal religion.

When sociologists of religion get bored, they restart debates on “the secularization thesis,” which, in effect, envisions the day when “sightings” of religion will be fewer and observers of religion will have too little work to justify their jobs. But has the progressive disestablishment of religion, whether in 1830 or 1947, led to decline in religion?

There were no “good old days" for religion, as the advocates of nostalgia picture them. When the churches were disestablished, First and Second and other “Great Awakenings” led to new religious prosperity. The “Religious Revival” of the last mid-century occurred precisely in the years when public “school prayer” was being silenced. These topics are too multifaceted to analyze in a short column, but we at least have to bring them up in the midst of debates over secular futures.

Of course, “secularization,” under myriad definitions, has occurred and is occurring. Western Europe is usually held up as “Exhibit A.” But religious scholars cannot explain the trend by reducing it to court decisions, “law professors,” or “engaged progressives.” There are multiple causes for times of religious prosperity or depression. Reno and others who focus prematurely or almost solely on current political trends and moments could help us more by looking also, if not instead, at the worlds of entertainment, worship, commerce, the arts, habits, and concerns for the “common good.”

In an article in 2003 I proposed speaking of “Our religio-secular world” (see reference below). That inelegant term buys us time to explore the complexities of religious trends without using pejoratives like “anti-religious cohorts” and other dialogue-ending snubs.


Reno, Richard R. “Our Secular Future: The redefinition of religious liberty in American society.” America: The National Catholic Review, February 24, 2014.

Marty, Martin E. “Our religio-secular world.” Daedalus 132:3, On Secularism & Religion, 42-48 (Summer 2003).

Image Credit: jamesgroup /

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:
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