Defining Religion -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Who gets to decide what counts as religion? That is an important question, especially when it comes to tax exempt status. Is it possible that religion in the Unites States is subordinate to the State? That is the question raised here by Martin Marty. It's an intriguing question for us all to consider!!  Take a read, offer your thoughts!

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Defining Religion
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAY 16, 2016
Path of the Marian apparition at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, MA.
Credit: Jacob Watson / flickr
Sightings is commissioned to deal with “religion in/and public life,” an assignment that prompts me to spend time on the concept of “the public.” Doing so is problematic, even risky, but still simple compared to the corollary burden: “define ‘religion.’”

As I scan media of the week, it becomes clear that questions involving “religion and law” are very prominent. They receive attention more than do “religion and art,” “religion and health,” and many more, for one clear reason: the consequences of definitions in this case are immediately practical, always divisive, often expensive, and usually urgent.

So, the issue is not simply who “gets” to define, but who “must?” Those who teach in liberal arts faculties “must,” as they locate themselves among other disciplines, and also those who refine their own discipline “must” tell themselves and others what they are about.

As one who has had to participate in debates on many levels, I have to join those who propose that it is virtually impossible to define the subject. Weary would-be definers often cite Saint Augustine on “time:” he always knew what time was, until someone asked him.

But courts do get asked about “religion,” and can’t wiggle out of exchanges on this. It was easier to define in historic cultures where a manifestation of religion, e.g. “an established church” got to define religion in “we” versus “they” terms. Today, propose a parlor game in which participants have to define the term, and listen. If “established” versions you will hear are too constricted, others are too protean. One hears then: “if everything is religious, then nothing is religious.” Now, pity the people who are called to fight over religious subjects not in games but in courts.

Michael O’Loughlin performs a defining service by asking the question, “Who gets to define religion?” His case study is brilliantly chosen and reasonably argued. It seems that no one can satisfactorily define religion, but somebody must try.

O'Loughlin's case involves the keepers of a Massachusetts “religious” shrine whose property is tax-exempt for those parts of its workings which strike “everyone” as being focally religious: worshiping, nurturing, shaping spiritual life. But, strapped-for-tax-revenue neighbors of the shrine-keepers argue, should parts of the property used for what some would call “secular” purposes be tax-exempt because the owners or custodians of the shrine deem them and claim them to be ‘religious’? Sightings readers may follow the debates on their own (see “Resources”) as we move on.

Let us propose that the tax-exempt issue in a free and pluralistic religion-filled society draws thoughtful citizens to have to regard religion as “subordinate” to the state in some ways. What? Regard religion “subordinate” to the “superordinate” realm of ultimate concern, for example the activity and demands of God? Ow! But it is hard to escape this reality.

While researching background for comment on O’Loughlin’s issue, Google turned up a Sightings from February 19, 2001. It drew on a chapter by Walter Berns, who may have been incorrect, but can one easily duck this point? He wrote: “The origin of free government in the modern sense coincides with, and can ‘only’ coincide with, the solution of the religious problem, and the solution of the problem consists in the subordination of religion.”

Recall: the “state” does not come to the church to ask for exemption from its stewardship drives or from serving in the ushers’ corps, but the church must go to the state for exemptions from certain taxes and from military service.

Such distinctions will not settle the particular case of tax-exemption for the shrine in Massachusetts or in similar cases. But it may prompt reflection on finitude, limits, and the prophetic impulse—or, at least, it should stir some sympathy for the judges who have to make decisions in this plaguing but, yes, also exciting area of contention.


Definitions of Religion.” ReligionFacts. Accessed May 15, 2016.

O’Loughlin, Michael. “Should Courts get to Define Religion?” The Atlantic, May 3, 2016, Politics.

Marty, Martin E. “The Subordination of Church to State.” Sightings, February 19, 2001.

Laycock, Douglas. “Contemporary Hostility to the Free Exercise of Religion.”Sightings, March 3, 2016.

Richardson, Bradford. “Persecution of Christians is on the rise, Americans say.”Washington Times, April 5, 2016, News.

Pilon, Roger. “Whatever Happened to Religious Freedom?” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2015, Opinion/Commentary.

Sanchez, Ray. “Why the onslaught of religious freedom laws?”, April 7, 2016, US.

Image: The path of the Matian apparition at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, MA; Credit: Jacob Watson / flickr creative commons.

To comment: email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, 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
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