Chapter 07: Relations between Religion and Society

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Chapter Summaries

In political discourse the rhetoric of “church and state” is so prevalent that we sometimes ignore other aspects of society and the ways in which religion may function privately and publicly. This chapter introduces the idea that there are at least three social sectors (governmental, religious, and economic) that interact with one another. Additionally, in each of these domains there is a spectrum of behaviors ranging from the most private to the very public. Many of our most contentious fights have to do with marking the boundaries between one sector and another: How much should government “interfere” in the economy? To what extent should business leaders influence the government? Ought public funds go to support the charitable work of religious institutions? Even as these questions occupy us, we also constantly strive to find the right balance between public and private actions: Religious faith is fine in a candidate, but should public pronouncements of religious belief play a role in campaigns? Does my employer have a right to know my political affiliations? Is voting a private matter, or should ministers examine candidates for office from the pulpit? Once again, moderates often find themselves torn between competing answers to these questions. A clearer understanding of the relevant issues can help us articulate a clearer moderate vision.


For most of the last two thousand years Christians have been concerned to make distinctions. This long experience has made one conclusion quite clear: accurate and nuanced distinctions have a lot more staying power than colorful and overdrawn distinctions. The move to honor nuance is sometimes challenged by some within the church, who might prefer black-and-white simplicity. But the crisp contrast of black-and-white distinctions is fragile and lacks the staying power of nuanced distinctions.

For instance, it was tempting for many early Christians to say that “Jesus is God and merely seemed to be human,” which made a deliciously black-and-white contrast between Jesus and ordinary human beings and helped to explain how salvation through Jesus Christ could be so powerfully transformative. Similarly, it was tempting for other early Christians to say that “Jesus is an exceptional prophet and not God,” which helped to defend a black-and-white distinction between the divine and human realms and thus defend divinity from arrogant and idolatrous human incursions.

The wisdom of the church was that both of these distinctions were inaccurate and over-crisp. A black-and-white distinction between the human and divine is insufficient to capture Jesus Christ’s personal reality and significance. Thus, church leaders adopted a subtle distinction between the divine and the human that allowed the divine and human to unite without confusion in Jesus Christ’s nature. One way of understanding the debates, discussions, and even the fights among Christians about Jesus’ identity is as a prolonged attempt to articulate nuanced categories and distinctions that might more accurately reflect the Christian experience of Jesus as Christ. Neither “He is just God,” nor “He is just (a) man” capture the complexities. He was truly divine and truly human.

Unfortunately, nuance means complexity, and complexity requires energy and effort in learning and explanation. It only makes sense, therefore, that some Christians throughout history have worked against registering nuance on many different issues: Jesus’ humanity and his divinity, the relationship between our bodies and minds and souls, the relationship between divine and human freedom, and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit and the effects of sin.

In recent decades in the United States, many such doctrinal issues have faded from public consciousness even as the question of the proper relationship between the church and the state has come to occupy an increasingly central place in national public and religious discourse. For the student of church history, the contemporary debate about the relationship between government and religious institutions follows a familiar pattern. At one extreme some advocate a complete separation between religious and governmental institutions, even to the point of delegitimating public discussions of religious values and banning religious participation in secular practices. At the other extreme are those who advocate a complete merger of church and state–a twenty-first century American theocracy based on a literal reading of the Bible.

Political moderates instinctively reject these two extremes. They sense that the distinction between church and state encoded within these extreme views is over-crisp. Specifically, moderates recognize that the secular ideal of an impermeable boundary between religion and government and the conservative ideal of a coterminous state and church overlook the complexities of human behavior and motivations. Most of us do not separate our religious thoughts and feelings from our non-religious thoughts and feelings and thus cannot think and act in a purely secular fashion. However, most of us are also uncomfortable with the idea of giving religious sanction to governments, or awarding governmental powers to tax, imprison, and wage war to religious institutions. Most moderates understand that the relationship between religious thoughts and feelings and secular thoughts and feelings is very complex, and that the relationship between religious institutions and governmental powers should be similarly nuanced. In order to do justice to both, the extremes of total separation or total integration should be avoided. As has been the case so often in church history, a nuanced distinction is required.

Get Busy


Chapter 7 offers a model for understanding the nuanced relationship between the religious sphere, the governmental sphere, and the economic sphere in American life: Wuthnow’s Orange (named after Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow). Rather than conveying a crisp black-and-white distinction, this model allows for many subtleties. In Wuthnow’s Orange, the economic domain (or orange wedge) is an independent aspect of American life, separate from both religious and governmental institutions, though also intimately interfacing with them. The religious domain interfaces with both economics and government. And the Orange model adds a new dimension that registers in all three wedges: the continuum of private and public behavior, with private behavior in the interior and public behavior close to the outer rind.

Think about this diagram. Where would (or should) the following activities fall? Place a dot on the diagram to indicate their ideal location. Choose a segment or an interface, and then decide how close to the middle (private) or the rind (public) the dot should go.


Choosing a church to attendPraying
Paying one’s taxesBuying a car
VotingInteracting with one’s neighbors
Running for MayorChoosing a school for one’s child


If you are using this study guide in a group, it is likely that many of you located these activities differently. For some, buying a car is purely an economic decision based on one’s needs and income. For others, there are moral or religious issues involved as one considers environmental issues and the safety of other drivers. For some people voting and other forms of political engagement are fairly public, and they feel free to discuss their vote and even to work publicly for causes and candidates. Others may feel that one’s political leanings and especially one’s vote are private affairs, protected in the sanctity of the ballot booth. Famously, for some people, voting and political engagement are driven by economic concerns, while for others moral or religious issues play a larger role. Some people feel compelled to reach out to their neighbors in Christian hospitality, while others are more reserved and seek to honor their neighbor’s privacy.

It is particularly important to note that some of our most cherished activities often fall on the boundary between two slices of Wuthnow’s Orange. For example, our political and economic actions may have moral and religious aspects, just as our religious and moral actions have political and economic implications. This often holds true for both our most private and our most public actions. Secularists on the extreme left of the political spectrum and religious conservatives on the extreme right bemoan this situation; it violates their black-and-white distinction between church and state. Moderates take this complex situation of implications across interfaces for granted. Moderates recognize the need to maintain some distinction between the political and religious spheres, while acknowledging that the distinction must be a nuanced one.


Think about Wuthnow’s Orange and the wider range of options it offers for understanding the complex relationships between church and state. Often we become so caught up in arguing about what the framers of the US Constitution intended or what the letter of the law says regarding the proper establishment of religion that we fail to notice a wide range of options. We might envision a society in which religious concerns swelled to dominate almost all economic and governmental activity. We might also imagine a form of government in which economic activity almost wholly encompassed religious and governmental concerns.

  • Can you think of any contemporary or historical examples of societies in which one wedge or sphere came to dominate the others?
  • What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of these arrangements relative to one another?

Though it often goes unnoticed in public discussions, it is also instructive to consider the private-public dynamic. The United Kingdom is an interesting example of a society in which this distinction is very important. There is no formal separation of church and state in the U.K., since the monarch is officially both the head of state and the head of the Anglican Church. Yet religious concerns tend to shape economic and governmental affairs only on the public level. Individual citizens are relatively free to spend their money and pursue religious interests without state interference. This arrangement strikes many citizens of the U.K. as healthy and natural, just as a stricter separation of church and state in the United States satisfies many American citizens. Both organizational principles have their advocates and detractors, but it is interesting to note that in the United States the private-public dynamic is less frequently included as a factor in analyses of church-state relations.

  • What activities do you think should be wholly private? What pursuits should be undertaken wholly within the public sphere?
  • What difficulties arise when we try to draw hard lines between the private and public spheres?
  • What kinds of public religion are important to you, keeping in mind that public religion does not necessarily entail governmental involvement? In your mind are these more or less important than private religious beliefs and practices? Why?

Get Caught Up

Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)

At the beginning of the week, choose three days on which to keep a log of your activities. For each of these three days, keep track of what you are spending your time doing. You might choose to use 30, 15 or even 10 minute intervals. Remember to bring your logs to the discussion group.

Example Log

12:00 AM-6:00sleep
6:00-6:30shower and dress
6:30-7:30cook breakfast, feed and dress kids
7:30-7:45gather kids’ things for school
7:45-8:00drive kids to school
8:00-8:15stop for coffee
8:15-8:30drive to work
8:30-12:30 PMwork
12:30-1:15lunch at fast-food
5:00-5:15drive to sports field to pick up kids
5:15-5:30dive to grocery store
5:30-6:15grocery shop
6:15-6:30grab takeout pizza for dinner
6:30-6:45drive home
6:45-7:15put away groceries and set the table
7:15-7:30pizza with family
7:30-7:45clear table and clean kitchen
7:45-8:30help kids with homework
8:30-9:45pay bills while watching television
9:45-10:00change clothes and brush teeth
10:00-10:30read in bed
10:30-12:00 AMsleep

Homework Discussion (during group meeting)

Let’s turn to the activity logs we generated during the week. Take a few moments to look over your logs and jot down next to each activity whether it is economic, religious, or governmental. You might also note whether it is private or public.

  • Disregarding sleep time, what category of activities occupies most of your waking hours?
  • Does your schedule reflect your priorities?
  • What kinds of activities are difficult to characterize? What kinds of activities are easy to categorize?
  • Think about the activities that are most important to you. What domain are they in? Are they private or public?

Get Scriptural

Bible Reading: Ecclesiastes 3

A Time for Everything

1 There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven–
2 A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
3 A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
4 A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
5 A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
6 A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
7 A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
8 A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.

9 What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?

10 I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.

God Set Eternity in the Heart of Man

11 He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.

12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime;

13 moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor–it is the gift of God.

14 I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.

15 That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.

16 Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.

17 I said to myself, “God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,” for a time for every matter and for every deed is there.

18 I said to myself concerning the sons of men, “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.”

19 For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.

20 All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.

21 Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?

22 I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?


Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes may be one of the best known scriptural passages in the United States thanks to the song writing of Pete Seeger and the recording of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds. In its entirety, however, the chapter is much more than a simple plea for peace. The chapter is a call for balance, and an appeal for people to take joy in their work. The chapter also describes the human condition and compares it to that of the other animals in creation. It is a brutally honest section of scripture. What can we learn from it?

Ecclesiastes has long puzzled biblical interpreters, so multiple interpretations abound, but one of the lessons we might draw is to consider the warning inherent in Ecclesiastes regarding human pretensions. If we pay attention only to the early portions made famous in Seeger’s song, we might be tempted to read the scripture as a recommendation for us to learn and then follow the proper order of things. However, if we read on we see that the writer of Ecclesiastes draws other conclusions about our abilities to achieve some kind of perfect order.

We might read the final lines as a fatalistic and pessimistic assessment of human efforts to organize ourselves and our institutions. We might also turn that around and find some genuine freedom in Ecclesiastes. Yes, we should strive for justice, for harmony, for a workable balance between our economic activities, our religious concerns, and our governmental institutions. But there is no perfect solution that will cause everything to fall into place. In short, there is no perfect plan, and all of our plans will be swept aside by the tides of history. So we should, as Ecclesiastes suggests, take joy in our labor. We should think, pray, and then do the best that we can, knowing that it will not be perfect or permanent. That knowledge is a gift. We are freed from the false expectation of perfection.

Get Practical

Case Study

In Chapter 7 we read about a congregation that is facing some growing pains (97-99). As the town grows, more families are joining the church. However, while these families bring new energy to the church, they are also subtly (and unintentionally) changing the church’s dynamic and focus. The long-time members have come to expect sermons and programs that focus almost exclusively on social justice. They have noticed that the preachers and leaders, while not rejecting social justice, pay increasing attention to the spiritual growth and personal piety of the congregation. This new emphasis reflects the needs and interests of the new church members. The church’s staff and resources are finite, so as the ministers preach and teach more on personal spiritual discipline, they necessarily preach and teach less on traditional social justice issues.

One way of interpreting the situation in this church is by focusing on the issue of religious relevance. The long-time members of the church tend to see a significant overlap in issues of religious, economic and political concern. To them, it is obviously religiously relevant that we pay attention to the source of our coffee and the fuel efficiency of our vehicles. To them, it is religiously vital that the congregational statement of faith include language about third-world debt relief, the expansion of civil rights, and condemning the influence of the military-industrial complex on U.S. foreign policy. These same members are puzzled by sermons that focus on personal piety, prayer, Bible study, and the role of Jesus as supportive companion in times of stress. At best, they argue, these are means to the real religious end of social justice for all; at worst they are self-indulgent distractions from the task of realizing the Kingdom of God.

The newer members of the church tend to be younger, have young children, and are relatively more conservative than the older members. They value the social justice commitments of the church, and in fact some of them were drawn to the church because of these commitments. But they also bring with them a desire to cultivate personal piety and to develop a deeper relationship with God that makes a difference within their families. They have friends who attend more charismatic churches and they want to find ways of bringing some of this spiritual energy into the church’s worship. Perhaps most importantly, they have young children and teenagers, and they want to be sure that their kids receive strong religious and ethical training through the church’s educational and youth programs. To them, encountering God in prayer and song is obviously religiously significant. Of course strong bonds between family members are religiously important. Of course it is important that our statement of faith include strong language in support of families and regarding the central role of Jesus Christ and the Bible in a Christian lifestyle. These newer members would be puzzled by sermons that focus on technical issues of foreign policy and events in countries and boardrooms far away. The most pressing religious issues for them are the spiritual meaning of their lives, the moral and emotional growth of their families, and the safety of their community. Social justice is wonderful, but it is not their sole or central religious concern.


Is this congregation doomed? Must one side “win” or convert the other side to its cause if they are to go forward in unity? Might the church be better off splitting up?

Chapter 7 argues that complete unity of Christians across the ideological and theological spectrum is not practical. The far right edge of feasible Christian moderate togetherness cannot reach as far as authoritarian biblical literalism, while the far left edge cannot go so far as to decentralize Jesus Christ. Biblical literalists and Christians for whom Jesus Christ is peripheral are welcome in moderate congregations but should not be allowed to determine the identity of those congregations, or the ideal of radically inclusive Christ-centeredness will be lost.

Based on this delineation of a feasible moderate church community, many in our test case congregation push up against the left-most boundary, while a growing segment find themselves squarely in the middle. What strategies might the church’s minister use in order to hold together such a diverse group?

Based on the limited information provided in this test case, is this a liberal-evangelical or intentionally moderate congregation? If not, what would it take to become one? If so, how might articulating this identity serve the congregation?

Get Going

For Further Thought

Take a moment to go over the following list of activities. Circle those activities that you think require religious consideration.

  • Choosing what to wear in the morning
  • Buying a house
  • Eating dinner
  • Watching a television show
  • Drinking a cup of coffee
  • Renting a movie
  • Choosing a mate
  • Giving blood
  • Making a political donation
  • Voting
  • Greeting someone you pass
  • Driving to work
  • Watering your lawn
  • Choosing a brand of soda
  • Interviewing for job (as a candidate)
  • Interviewing for a job (as am employer)
  • Choosing a career

If you are working in a group, take some time to compare your answers with those of others in your group. There is likely to be a wide range of answers and opinions, and discussion might cause some people to change their minds. It is also likely that some of the above activities generate a broad consensus, while others offer no consensus.

In some liberal churches the decision to serve coffee is religiously charged. These churches stress the fact that they purchase and serve fair-trade coffee and discourage members from buying and drinking anything else. There are even fair-trade coffee companies who specifically market their beans to liberal congregations. Many conservatives would find this extremely puzzling as a religious concern. In some conservative churches renting or attending movies is religiously charged. These churches not only emphasize the religious merits or demerits of a particular film, but also encourage members not to support studios, distributors, directors, theaters, or actors who make or show films on themes deemed religiously suspect. Famously, some conservative Christian groups boycotted theatres that showed “The Last Temptation of Christ” or “Dogma” or “The Life of Brian”. Many liberals would find this extremely puzzling as a religious concern.

Clearly, not all Christians construe the relationship between religious and economic behavior and between political and religious activities the same way. However, as Chapter 7 argues, moderates generally agree that the extremes of either entirely separating religious concerns from political ones or comprehensively merging the two areas of concern are both to be avoided. The challenge for intentional moderate Christians and for moderate congregations is finding ways of serving, worshiping, and praying with other moderates despite the fact that they may construe the range of religiously significant activities quite differently.

Closing Prayer

Lord God we stand in awe of your creation, our place in it, and the tremendous power and freedom you have given us to make a place in the world for ourselves.

We acknowledge that the task is daunting.

We acknowledge the need for communities, for governments, for economic organization, and for religious institutions, but we also recognize our inability always to find an elegant balance between these.

Grant us wisdom.

Give us patience, tolerance, and a spirit of compassion so that we might better compromise with one another and seek harmony together.

Help us to succeed. Forgive us when we fail.

As we wrestle with our finitude, help us to learn and grow from the struggle.

We thank you for the privilege of working for advent of the Kingdom of God.


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