Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Refers both to a form of civic faith within a republic and to public expressions of religious faith in cultures where religion is more familiarly categorized as a private affair.

In respect to civic faith, the term derives from a phrase by Benjamin Franklin. In 1749, the American founder made "proposals" for an educational academy in Philadelphia. When discussing the study of "history," he argued that it would "afford frequent Opportunities of showing the Necessity of a Publick Religion ," arguing "from its Usefulness to the Publick; the Advantages of a Religious Character among private Persons," and the like.

In recent decades, as portrayed by Princeton historian John Wilson, "public religion" has come to be seen as a parallel or alternative to "civil religion" as a societal expression. Robert N. Bellah's notable essay (1967) describing and cautiously promoting "civil religion," inspired in part as it was by reference to collectivities in the schemes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Émile Durkheim, struck many as representing a kind of "top-down" governmental development.

In contrast to this, the Franklinian tradition of public religion was, in a way, seen as a "from-the-bottom-up" proposal. That is, Franklin and most other of the nation's founders were concerned about public morality and virtue, reasoning that without these the U.S. Constitution that they were drafting would be ineffective for republican life. They looked out on 13 colonies in which varieties of churches and other spiritual and moral forces were at work. Each had a peculiarity that gave it sectarian life, but almost all promoted the common good—and this endeavor was to be part of the public religion, to be discerned in education and voluntary acts of citizens.

Public religion , second, refers to expressions of religious belief and behavior generated by private individuals or in the subcommunities, communities, and associations in the voluntary sector but having direct bearings on public order. As such, the term serves to refer to one side of the familiar private-public dichotomy.

In a liberal society such as that of the United States, there is a long tradition of wariness voiced by those who have seen religious and tribal warfare elsewhere and the threat of the same domestically. In part because of such concerns, this tradition lends support to the folk distinction that religion is "a private affair." It has an honored place in the heart and the home, or in the religious institution and voluntary agencies with specific faith-based purposes. But, in part because of the volatile potential when religion goes public in a pluralist society, the publicness was discouraged.

Those who point to and even celebrate public religion, however, argue that religion will inevitably find outlets and will make intrusions in the public realm, and that it is better to recognize this and make such religion a subject of citizen observation and debate than to keep it covert and leave it unacknowledged. By "public," such advocates never mean that it does or should displace the private forms. Nor, they are quick to insist, does "public" mean always and only "political." The place of religion in politics particularly is related to its place in the public generically. The public includes all the spheres and zones where the different individuals and groups come out of privacy and seclusion into settings and occasions where citizens meet "the other," those who are not of one's own group, whether this group is religious, racial, ethnic, ideological, or whatever.

Those who both observe and advance public religion contend that faith is a major element in world and national history, and has its place in curricula; that it plays such a large part in life that it cannot fairly or safely be overlooked by mass communicators; that it is too vital to go uncriticized as it only can be criticized when it is subject to public view; that it can play its part not only in repressing dissent and variety but, more positively, in encouraging the development of virtue and contributing to ethical judgments.

Public religion thrives in many forms, but not, in the eyes of many who see hope in its category, as an official, legal, governmentally monitored phenomenon. Instead, it prospers when individuals and groups resort not to coercion but to persuasion and example, by dialogue and argument and voluntary action. Only in the eyes of a few is it seen as a rival or potential replacement for the nonpublic or less public forms of faith and religious institutions. Rather, most would say that public religion depends upon the cultivation that goes on in the more private expressions, because it does not aspire to satisfy many of the needs of the souls as citizens give voice to them.

See also Civil Religion

Martin E. Marty


R. N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96 (1967):1-21

J. Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

M. E. Marty, Religion and the Republic (Boston: Beacon, 1987)

J. F. Wilson, Public Religion in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979).

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