Summary and Keywords
In the United States, religious, political, and social life has been structured by a public/private binary. Oftentimes, religion is understood as private and politics as public. This framework informs a religious/secular binary and carries important implications for the structure of American life. Particularly affected arenas include church-state relations; religious discourse in public life, including prophetic protest and religious nationalism; sexual regulation and the politics of morality; and norms of civic and civil discourse.
Real politics and consequences attend the definition of terms like “religious,” “secular,” and “pluralist.” Many observers have called the United States a secular, pluralist nation and, simultaneously, the most “religious” nation in the “developed world.” The perceived incongruities or affinities among these labels betray fundamental assumptions about religion and its place in public life. When public figures invoke the language and imagery of “civil religion,” for example, they may be understood to sacralize the public sphere or bring religion into the public or treat the nation’s “shared” symbols with a religious reverence. Although pluralism, as both a demographical description and a progressive goal, has been broadly championed amid growing religious diversity, certain groups, ideas, and practices have nevertheless remained excluded from the realms of public secularism and private (proper) religiosity. The politics are messy and often subtle, but the consequences can be stark. In these ways and more, American life has been shaped by the entwined concepts of secularism, pluralism, and publics.
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