A blog about (ir)religion, ritual and so on …

The most important sentence in recent histories of American religion?

Of all the tediously long sentences published on American religion, this one, in which Tracy Fessenden introduces our nation’s “unmarked Christianity,” is by far the most important for everyone in the field to comprehend. No seriously:

When secularism in the United States is understood merely as the absence of religious faith, or neutrality in relation to religious faith, rather than as a variety of possible relationships to different religious traditions—for example, an avowedly secular United States is broadly accommodating of mainstream and evangelical Protestantism, minimally less so of Catholicism, unevenly so of Judaism, much less so of Islam, perhaps still less so of Native American religious practices that fall outside the bounds of the acceptably decorative or “spiritual”—then religion comes to be defined as “Christian” by default, and an implicit association between “American” and “Christian” is upheld even by those who have, one imagines, very little invested in its maintenance.

The sentence is from Culture and Redemption (p. 3), which of course deserves to be read in it’s entirety.

Atheists: Pope Francis Wants (to Work with) You!

As the Catholic News Service reports, Pope Francis delivered a homily this morning that went beyond ecumenism in affirming what appears to be a radical preference for works over faith.

“The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” he said. Some may ask, “‘Father, even the atheists?’ Them, too. Everyone.”

The commandment to do good and avoid evil is something that binds all human beings, he said, and it is “a beautiful path to peace.”

Noticing the good others do, affirming them and working with them promotes an encounter that is good for individuals and societies, he said. “Little by little we build that culture of encounter that we need so much.”

Someone can object, “‘But I don’t believe, Father, I’m an atheist.’ But do good and we’ll meet there,” he said.

While it was always clear that Francis, a Jesuit, was a proponent of the social gospel, reaching out directly to unbelievers like this in order to find common ground in good deeds is rare to say the least. Where will it lead? Is the Church ready for a sustained interfaith dialogue with groups that share it’s justice aims no matter how sincere those individuals may be in their unbelief? I’m willing to wait and see…

(Non)religion and Charity


The photo above was taken by a Reddit user who tells us that when he passed this homeless man, the man proclaimed: “The atheists are winning!” Since being posted on Reddit the photo has made modest rounds across various social media platforms even landing in a handful of blog posts. Some atheists, like Taslima Nasreen of Freethought Blogs, have been quick to use the photo as exemplary evidence of the supposedly unbiased nature of non-religious generosity. While she acknowledges the studies that show rather emphatically how religious people self-report more charitable giving that the non-religious do she also has a theory about why:

They do not help to really help others, they help others to help themselves. Mostly they donate money to build churches, mosques, temples, gurudwaras, pagodas, synagogues. They do not give a damn to the eradication of poverty programs. When atheists help, they help out of sympathy and solidarity, love and compassion. They do it to make the world a better place. They do not do it to go to heaven.

Now while it is true that studies have also shown a higher association between giving and compassion among the non-religious the reasons for this are far from clear, and certainly do not always or even usually come down to different understandings of otherworldly compensation. And in fact as James McGrath asserts the photo isn’t a particularly good measure of anything at all. It is actually a “Data Collection Fail:”

Is the photo a set up or something a homeless man really did? Did atheists and agnostics give more because they normally would or because of a desire to “win” in this competition? Did money move between baskets? Did the proportions change at different points during the day? How many people in each category passed by there? We simply don’t know what we would need to know in order to interpret the significance of the picture.

McGrath is right to point out that the photo is not a good source of data for a variety of reasons, some of which his questions clearly elucidate. But does that mean that the photo is useless to scholars who are interested in the intersection between religion and charity? I would argue that it  isn’t useless, and that it in fact points to a variety of unanswered questions.

By depicting hard currency in a context of actual giving the photo raises the question of how closely self-reported giving is reflected in actual practice. We know that (religious) Americans have a propensity to greatly exaggerate some activities that reflect outwardly upon how faithfully they are practicing religion, like going to church. Could religious Americans who are taught that charity is a virtue also be over-reporting their giving practices? Scholars were able to solve the church attendance puzzle by counting bodies and cars on Sunday morning, but actual giving is nearly impossible to measure. One would have to convince a blind sample of Americans to answer a battery of religion questions and then to release their tax-records. That doing so is unlikely is a understatement, but that doesn’t mean that keeping the question in mind is unproductive. While we should take the “data” provided by the photo with multiple grains of salt, we should also save some of those grains for times when we consume “data” that reflects self-reported measures of socially desirable behaviors, like giving to charity.

There are, of course, a variety of other questions that we could be asking ourselves in relation to religion and charitable giving. As I wrote last year, recent data from the Portraits of American Life Study (PALS) have shown that people who encounter personal financial hardships are increasingly likely to leave their religious communities. While personal stressors like a recent breakup or the death of a loved one actually bring people closer to those communities, financial hardships push individuals out. Why is that? Could this be partly because charitable giving is seen as a virtue; a virtue that those experiencing hardships can no longer even feign a connection to as such? What does this say about the culture of charity in some religious communities? Might there be a relationship between the Great Recession and the recent uptick in religious dissafiliation? These are the types of questions that remain unanswered and in my book this photo, despite being a shoddy piece of data, is a great reminder of how little we know and how much work is left to be done.

Why are Men So Violent?: The Missing Angle on the Boston Bombers

Why are men so violent? That is the question on my mind as I try to wrap my head around the tragic events that unfolded at the Boston Marathon just over a week ago…but why isn’t it the question being asked by the media, by policy makers and by our nation’s thought leaders? As journalists, investigators and politicians try to understand why the Tsarnaev brothers planned and executed a deadly attack on innocent civilians they run through a veritable laundry list of descriptors related to the identities of these two young men. For example NPR asks, “What Drives Young Muslim Men to Violence?:”

It’s been a week since the Boston Marathon bombing, and people are still wondering why they happened. Media sources have suggested possible motivations, like the suspects turning to radical Islam. Host Michel Martin gets perspective on how young Muslims are reacting to this case, and how Islamic extremists are spotted. She hears from AbdelRahman Murphy, a youth director at a Tennessee mosque; and Mohamed Elibiary, who works with radicalized Muslim youth.

Despite featuring “young [...] men” prominently in the title and recognizing that women don’t commit these crimes the actual discussion quickly turns to “Muslim youth,” apparently ungendered Muslim youth if we take our cues from how the discourse unfolds. What about being a young Muslim, in other words, becomes the operative question. Here the NPR interlocutors join their many colleagues in throwing around a number of descriptors that are supposed to help us understand this horrific event: Muslim, Chechen, immigrant, radical, devout and in this case even young. But “male?”  What about being male?

As Todd May points out in a recent New York Times editorial, “we are a violent country:”

We might begin by asking the question, Who are we now?

Clearly, we are a violent country.  Our murder rate is three to five times that of most other industrialized countries.  The massacres that regularly take place here are predictable in their occurrence, if not in their time and place.  Moreover, and more telling, our response to violence is typically more violence.  We display our might — or what is left of it — abroad in order to address perceived injustices or a threat to our interests.  We still have not rid ourselves of the death penalty, a fact that fills those in other countries with disbelief.  Many of us, in response to the mindless gun violence around us, prescribe more guns as the solution, as the Republicans sought to do during the gun debate.  And we torture people.  It is as though, in thinking that the world responds only to violence, we reveal ourselves rather than the world.

May should be commended for asking us all to face the marathon tragedy as part of a larger problem our nation has with violence. In other words let’s not get bogged down with all those descriptors that point away from us to cast blame on outsiders and forces beyond our control. This is our violence problem. Let’s own it. In his attempt to own it May points to three significat (causal) variables: ‘[c]ompetitive individualism, insecurity, neoliberalism.” These are all clearly important factors that need to be explored if we wish to reduce violence in America, but the one most glaringly correlated variable here is still missing — maleness.

Between 1980 and 2008 males committed nearly 90% of all murders, according to the Department of Justice. What’s more, men accounted for an even higher percentage (94%) of mass murders, or the kinds of events that include the bombings of the Boston marathan and Oklahoma City or the shootings in Columbine, Aurora and Newtown. And of course we all know the names associated with perpetrating these tragic events — Dzhokhar and Tameran Tsarnaev, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza. All young men. This is not to say that being male causes one to be violent, or specifically that being a young American male does, but there is clearly something about being  male that relates to why some Americans, sometimes from the ranks of the  socially maladjusted or “mentally ill,” react violently to various life circumstances. Why is that? While there is clearly a growing scholarly literature that tackles this problem there is yet to be a serious national conversation about it. Isn’t it time that we, as a nation, start asking why our men are so violent and what we can do to prevent them from being so?

UPDATE: I just noticed an article by Paul Campos of Salon, from this past December: “Why is the shooter always male?” Here’s hoping more people will ask these questions publicly.

UPDATE 2: It has also come to my attention that Caryn Riswold has a very insightful piece in her Patheos blog today on this very topic: “Why Guys Throw Bombs.” Although the piece is short Riswold moves beyond merely asking the question, by utilizing Mark Juergensmeyer’s work on religious violence – the same work I talked to him about last fall.

Secularity in the Religious Marketplace?

In a recent Religion Dispatches op-ed, “Why Atheists Should Fight For Establishment of State Religion,” professor Shanny Luft advises American atheists on how they can win the “culture war.” Using the recent proposal to establish a state religion in North Carolina as an example, Luft points out that our nation’s various squabbles over religious/public entanglements add up to a veritable stalemate in the larger culture wars, a situation he claims a remedy for:

Those atheists and progressives hoping to end religious intrusion in government affairs should not have protested this legislation or claimed the founding fathers as secular liberals. Instead, they should have done everything in their power to promote North Carolina’s Freedom of Religion Act and, more, fought to establish the Christian state of North Carolina as quickly as possible. And conservative evangelical legislators need not waste their time writing toothless resolutions establishing state religions. Rather, if the Christian Right would like religion to prosper in America, they should erect a wall between Church and State so high it can be seen from orbit.

According to history, the side that heeds this advice first will win.

I’m dubious about the extent to which “history” can accord future outcomes and especially based on the observed correlation between just two of many interrelated variables. Luft’s premise follows the assumption that America’s “free market” of religious competition is the cause of our nation’s religious vitality. As the argument goes religious monopolization in Europe (in the form of state churches) spurred on the secularization of European society by regulating religion and limiting choice. Apparently when faced with only one choice religious consumers grow disinterested, or so say the supply-side rational choice theorists (e.g. Rodney Stark, Roger Finke and Laurence Iannaccone) who originally championed  the theory. The flip side is that by (constitutionally) deregulating the religious market in the United States–through the freedom of (personal) religion and from (state) religion–our founding fathers set into motion a self-replicating personal interest in religion. Not only are Americans interested in faith because as consumers they inherently like choices, but because competition between religions and denominations has meant the production of innovative religious goods, services and perhaps above all marketing plans. Or so the story goes, and that is why Luft suggests that atheists should fight for state religion(s), because, following this argument, it will lead to European style secularization.

I’ve always found this particular narrative of American religious history wanting and consider its current ubiquity unfortunate because it prevents scholars from considering other variables that may have been equally or perhaps even more responsible for American religious vitality. Consider the so called “rise of the nones” we are currently experiencing in the United States. Surely the contemporary decrease in religious affiliation (and belief/practice to different degrees) is not due to the regulation and/or monopolization of the religious marketplace, which has remained unchanged for the most part. So why is it happening if the religious marketplace remains free? No singular cause has been pinpointed with certainty, although the going explanation is usually that people on the liberal ends of American religion (mostly Christians) have left organized religion altogether because of the public association between faith and social conservatism. And of course in keeping with supply-side assumptions religion scholars have been busy working on depictions of these unaffiliated Americans as no less interested in religious goods and services. According to these commentators American “nones” just aren’t attracted to the mainstream producers of those goods and services or indeed to the very category of production they operate within. While it is true that most of the unaffiliated still believe in various supernatural phenomena and find some “religious” practices meaningful the assumption that disaffiliating Americans are merely shifting their religious needs away from established institutions is just as unfounded as the idea that they are all becoming atheists. What survey data from Pew, the GSS and ARIS has shown us is that in the last three decades American religion has, perhaps slowly, been losing ground across a spectrum of measures, including beliefs and practices. So is that trend mainly or merely due to the religious politics of social conservatism?

I don’t mean to downplay the negative effects that the Religious Right has had on religious affiliation, as noted early on by Michael Hout and Cluaude Fischer and more recently “confirmed” by Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s work  in their recent book, American Grace. Surely these scholars are onto something, but just perhaps not onto everything. In fact there is one obvious correlation that has to date been seriously explored by no one (at least to my knowledge), and that correlation brings us back to Luft’s essay. As evidence of religious vitality Luft states that: “Compared to Europeans, three times more Americans report that religion is ‘very important’ to them, and three times more Americans attend church regularly.” On the one hand it should be noted that the first of the two indicators is perhaps the most significant, since it is well established that church attendance figures in the United States are widely exaggerated by survey respondents. The obvious explanation is that religion is deemed so “important” by Americans overall, that many are driven to exaggerate their relationship to it. In Europe, where religion is considered much less important, scholars have found virtually no exaggeration of church attendance. So why has it been so much more important for Americans to be religious? This is where the other correlation comes in…

The “rise of the nones” began in earnest in the 1990s, which not only correlates with the political entrenchment of the Religious Right but also with the end of the Cold War. While the first correlation has been investigated by several scholars at this point, the second hasn’t been considered in earnest by anyone looking directly at the rise of the nones (although in his chapter of Religion and the New Atheism Stephen Bullivant suggests that the abatement of Cold War rhetoric has at least made “atheism” more acceptable as an identity).* So why is no one treading this path? Perhaps because it doesn’t conform as easily to the afore mentioned “free market” narratives that underlie so many perceptions of American religious life. If the end of the Cold War is indeed related to the “rise of the nones” it suggests the importance of another narrative in our religious history–the story of America’s civil religion. If we consider church attendance (actual and reported) as an indicator of religious vitality, we have to consider the fact that at our nation’s founding virtually no one attended church, and the pattern remained the same for much of our early history. While the nineteenth century saw an increase in church attendance the astronomically high figures being reported at the tail end of the 20th century were a product of that same century, and especially starting with WWII. As American civil religion became increasingly nationalistic in contra-distinction to the “godless” foes of the Cold War, Americans reported an increasingly intense involvement with (mostly Christian) religion(s).  After all this was the era in which the Pledge of Allegiance was officially blessed with the additional words “under God” (1954) and “in God we trust” became our nation’s motto (1956).

In contrast to supply side claims then, church attendance and the American experience of religious importance went hand in hand with an increasingly intertwined relationship between American politics and religion–not through specific Christian denominations like the state churches of Europe perhaps but instead (as Robert Bellah originally noted) through a tacitly (Protestant) Christian civil religion. With this in mind one could argue that the supply side comparison between the United States and Europe is, at minimum, too general. The world of contemporary global religion also suggests that state religions backed by nationalism actually thrive in the right geopolitical contexts, and I’m unsure why we should consider the United States exceptional in that regard.

Perhaps a civil religion/religious nationalism approach provides a more accurate explanation of religious vitality in twentieth century America than the supply side approach does. It would be interesting to see religious historians and social scientists alike tackling the “rise of the nones” as a distinctly post-Cold War phenomenon. In fact, it isn’t difficult to consider ways in which the going explanation of reactionary politics could complement a post-Cold War theory of religious decline. Perhaps after America’s communist foe disintegrated as a godless superpower American civil religion became so fractured that it has become easier for Americans to both shed their religious identities and to question various ongoing relationships between God and government that still persist. If that is true one might also reconsider Luft’s advice to atheists and their culture wars foes. If American religion thrived throughout the twentieth century in no small part due to a form of institutionalized religious nationalism then Luft’s advice would itself be upside down.

*UPDATE: Barry Kosmin has also commented on this correlation in Free Thought Today but from a socio-economic angle, suggesting that post-Cold War prosperity and national security could be linked to secularization (in line with Norris and Inglehart’s “existential security” thesis). But then what do we make of continued disaffiliation post-9/11 and now in the wake of the Great Recession?

The New Atheism’s “Islamophobia” Problem

In case you missed it, the last week has seen the publication of article after article accusing New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and perhaps most of all Sam Harris of expressing Islamophobic ideas. A week ago Nathan Lean of Salon penned, “Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia,” which was followed days later by Murtaza Hussain’s Aljazeera piece, “Scientific racism, militarism and the new atheism.” When Guardian editorialist Glenn Greenwald  tweeted a link to Hussain’s article Sam Harris started a heated exchange with him, inevitably leading to Greenwald’s own “Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus.” As one might expect Harris and other prominent atheist activists (some self-identified New Atheists and some not) have taken issue with various aspects of these accusations.

So who’s right? I’ll let you be the judge of that, because what I want to point to isn’t the truth(s) behind these various claims and counterclaims but the nature of the very discourses that contain them, which is warlike. These are the kinds of discourses that take place between combatants who wear brightly colored ID badges at times of their own choosing, but even more often by edict of the enemy. Lean, Hussain and Greenwald are quick to point out (perhaps quite accurately) that at the heart of the New Atheist critique of Islam is an unjust essentialism that veers too easily into Islamophobia and racism. But what of their own expositions, do they not also essentialize? It is clear that part of the work accomplished by these accusations, much like the work accomplished by the writings of those they accuse, is the performance of difference. And where do such performances lead?

In the middle of this furor anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann published a completely unrelated opinion piece in the New York Times, “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect,” which presciently speaks to that very question:

Perhaps there is hope. Good marriages work because couples learn to repair, rather than escalate, their conflicts. Same-sex marriage and abortion should not be approached by drawing a line in the sand and demonizing everyone on the other side. We need to recognize something of what we share, and to carry on a conversation — and if we can keep the conversation going, we will, however slowly, move forward.

If we can’t, we’re in real trouble.

It would appear that this week’s back and forth between New Atheists and their critics suggests that we’re “in real trouble,” and that we’ll remain so until the discursive combatants are willing to find ways to actually “connect” with one another as something more than mere foes. Of course applying similar insights to the relationship between atheists and Muslims isn’t exactly novel. For instance just months ago, in Religion Dispatches, atheist interfaith activist Chris Stedman expressed the admonition that “Atheists Ignore Islamophobia at their Peril.” But isn’t there a larger collective peril we all move towards when any number of us fail to connect, whether those missed connections are between socially marginalized atheists and Muslims or between multiculturally thinking journalists and anti-religious celebrity atheists?

CFP: Secularism and Secularity (AAR)

At the end of November I wrote about our efforts to get a new group into the American Academy of Religion (AAR) dedicated to the study of “Secularism and Secularity.” Those efforts paid off and our new group will hold its first sessions at the 2013 annual meeting in Baltimore. Here is our call for papers in case you missed it:

Over the course of the last few decades, theoretical reappraisals of the secular have tried in a variety of ways to destabilize and revalue the notion of the secular so that it no longer means simply the “absence of religion.” Yet vernacular uses of the secular frequently continue to orbit around that very understanding. With this in mind, we invite proposals for papers or panels that explore “the secular” at its various sites of construction. In concert with this year’s conference theme, we are particularly interested in proposals that critically engage public understandings of secularism as well as those that investigate the constitution of the secular in religiously plural publics, in multiple identity formations (especially among the so-called religious “nones”), and in and through a range of social practices (for example, those related to death and dying). In addition, for a possible cosponsored session with the Death, Dying, and Beyond Group, we seek proposals on secular approaches to death.

If you are interested in submitting a paper please do so by March 1st 4th, 2013 – instructions can be found here.  If you have any questions about the group or about the CFP please direct them to either/both of the co-chairs Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Per Smith (yours truly) at You can also send us a note requesting to be added to our email list for updates going forward.

UPDATE – The deadline for submissions was recently extended to Monday, March 4th.

What is the Sociotheological Approach to Religious Violence?

If you are curious you better listen to the interview I recorded with Mark Juergensmeyer in November for the Religious Studies Project‘s podcast series. I asked Prof. Juergensmeyer to talk about global religious violence and to explain the “sociotheological approach,” and he was gracious enough to do so for 30 riveting minutes. Here is a synopsis:

Over the course of the last few decades religious violence has become an increasingly salient topic of public discourse and particularly in its global manifestations. In the social sciences these discourses focus primarily on explanations of violent acts that are driven by the socio-political contexts enveloping them. Mark Juergensmeyer argues that such explanations only tell part of the story, however, since some actions are motivated by a religious vision, like the vision of “cosmic war.” Talking to Per in this podcast Juergensmeyer explains how a “sociotheological approach” is particularly well suited to the task of understanding religious violence by engaging the worldviews of violent actors directly and taking their theological concerns as seriously as their political ideologies.

The podcast can be heard in its entirety here. If you find it interesting or helpful (or even if you don’t) I suggest listening to some of the others in the series, which include interviews with Grace Davie, Tariq Modood, Robert Orsi, David Morgan and others. Enjoy.

Secularism and Secularity at the American Academy of Religion: A Proposal

Prior to this year’s AAR annual meeting in Chicago I wrote about an effort to carve out a space within the AAR that attends more fully to secularisms, secularities and non-religion. We held a exploratory session on “Irreligion, Secularism and Social Change” in furtherance of that cause, and it was a smashing success. Over 90 people were in attendance to see three interesting and provocative papers by Daniel Silliman, Petra Klug and Jordan Miller that covered a variety of approaches to the secular and social change. Jonathan van Antwerpen of the Social Sciences Research Council also did a marvelous job tying them together despite their divergence. Now we are onto next steps, which means a proposal for the actual group.  The full proposal text can be found at the Immanent Frame, and if you skip on over there you’ll see that we are also requesting letters of support. If you are a member of the AAR and you like what you see, please do send us a letter to All letters have to be received by the end of the day tomorrow.

Secularism and Secularity
Proposal for a new program unit of the American Academy of Religion

Per Smith (Boston University)
Jonathan VanAntwerpen (Social Science Research Council)

Steering Committee Members:
Joseph Blankholm (Columbia University)
Mayanthi Fernando (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Jonathon Kahn (Vassar College)
Kathryn Lofton (Yale University)
Robert Yelle (University of Memphis)

The shifting boundaries of religion in late modernity have increasingly pointed up the problematic relationship between “the religious” and “the secular.”  In the wake of a contested and frequently maligned “secularization thesis,” a new set of questions have appeared that draw our scholarly attention to secularism, secularity, and the secular—questions around the changing role of religion in law, politics, and public life, around the metamorphosis of personal identities, practices, and affiliations (figured as religious, spiritual, secular, or otherwise), and around a broader set of historical transformations that have conditioned and been imbricated in these and other changes.

In the course of pursuing answers to such questions contemporary scholars are confronted with, and challenged by, the ways in which diverse modes of secularism and multiple forms of secular practice are entangled with—and variously seek to disentangle themselves from—religion and the religious. These entanglements can take shape as contestations or conversions, appropriations or accommodations, while also pointing toward the different ways in which the religious and the secular depend upon and indeed constitute one another. Exploring the interplay of “religious” and “secular” identities, communities, and institutions, for example, is an important part of more fully understanding a widely noted rise in religious disaffiliation within the United States…

Do read the entire proposal and if you support it remember to send your letter to

Marriage Law, Agents of the State, and the Ministerial Exception

On Monday, October 22nd the US District Court in Indiana will start hearing arguments in the case of Center for Inquiry, Inc., et al. v Clerk, Marion Circuit Court, et al. which I wrote about this spring. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) seeks to have their own “celebrants” added to the list of religious and civil officials recognized by the state of Indiana as agents empowered to solemnize marriages. I don’t want to rehash my initial reflections on the lawsuit at this time although I primise to follow the case and write more about it as the arguments proceed. Instead I want to use this opportunity to reflect on one small point I made in the comment section after the post:

Consider the fact that the Supreme Court has unanimously decided, in Hosanna-Tabor, that the federal government cannot mess with the hiring, firing (and clearly training) practices of religious institutions when it comes to their religious leaders. This means, ironically, that the state has no say in the hiring, firing or training of some of its own representatives when it comes to solemnizing marriages.

For those who are not familiar with the Hosanna-Tabor case, the important bit to us here is that it was the first time the Supreme Court officially recognized something called the “ministerial exception” as a legal doctrine dictating how the First Amendment protects religious institutions in their hiring and firing practices. Here’s how Peter Schmidt put it in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

On the question of whether the ministerial exception applied to discrimination lawsuits, however, the justices were emphatic in stating their view that interfering with a church’s ability to hire or fire those it regards as ministers violates two clauses of the First Amendment: the free-exercise clause, which, they said, “protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments,” and the establishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such religious decisions.

In other words Hosanna-Tabor solidified the fact that religious institutions have autonomy over the hiring and firing (and of course training) practices of those officials that minister their faith. So what does that mean to marriage law?

Every state in the Union grants agency to the very same persons (who are charged with ministering their faiths) as state actors who may solemnize marriages. That means solemnizing the civil institution of marriage as an agent of the state, not the religious institution of marriage, which the state has no control over (nor should it control the religious institution of marriage). So in other words the state has no control over the hiring, firing (and of course training) of some of it’s own representatives. So why does that matter?

It matters because it exposes one way in which our political system propagates an illogical, and quite frankly contradictory, structural relationship between marriage and religion. It’s no surprise to me that religious arguments against same-sex marriage, for instance, persist with such force in the public sphere despite the fact that legal marriage is an ostensibly civil institution. They persist because even the state presents the institution of marriage as something not quite free of religious control. What would happen to such arguments (e.g. religious arguments against same-sex marriage) if we disentangle this relationship and establish marriage as a truly civil institution? Perhaps pushing the Hosanna-Tabor decision, and the “ministerial exception” to it’s logical extreme in relation to the solemnization of marriage would force the courts to recognize this contradiction and take steps to clarify the truly civil nature of marriage once and for all. It’s a thought…

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