Family and Religion

 

Social scientific notions of the disappearance or vestigialization of religion and family are deeply rooted in our theoretical conceptions of the social processes that created the modern world and that now are transforming that modernity into postindustrial, postmodern society. Theories of modernization envision social change as entailing the rationalization of all spheres of existence. In a statement characterizing the classic modernization approach, Moore (1963, p. 79) says, ‘‘A major feature of the modern world . . . is that the rational orientation is pervasive and a major basis for deliberate change in virtually every aspect of man’s concerns.’’ There is little room for the seemingly irrational and unscientific impulses of religion, primary emotions, and familial concerns.

With this approach, the secularization of religion is a given. Moore (1963, p. 80) states, ‘‘Even with regard to the role of religion in human affairs, the ‘rational spirit’ takes the form of secularization, the substitution of nonreligious beliefs and practices for religious ones.’’ Though religion survives, it addresses ‘‘personal misfortune and bereavement’’ above all else in modern society (Moore 1963, p. 104).

Furthermore, ‘‘economic modernization’’ tends to have ‘‘negative consequences for extended kinship systems’’ and leads to ‘‘extensive ‘family disorganization’’’ accompanying the ‘‘breakdown of traditional patterns and the incomplete establishment of new institutions’’ (Moore 1963, p. 102). For modernization theorists, although families remain significant as consumption units, the ‘‘decline’’ of the family (Popenoe 1988) is, at minimum, a metaphor for its consignment to a peripheral societal role. The analogue of the notion of linear secularization of religion is the idea of the loss of family functions (Vago 1989, pp. 150–157). Shaped in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, modernization views have continued to dominate public opinion and much of social scientific discourse. In general, according to modernization theories, both family and religion are relegated to the ‘‘private’’ sphere, set apart from the broader social processes and, thus, less significant than those broader processes.

Despite this widespread orientation, a revolution in the social sciences has been gaining momentum over the last twenty years or so. The message of this revolution is that the modernization perspective is no longer an adequate vision for understanding the dynamics of modernity or the potentials of postmodernity for religion and family. In the sociology of religion, the paradigm shift moves social science away from a focus on religion as a disconnected phenomenon to a much more complex view of the nature of religious interinstitutional relations. Reflecting this shift, numerous scholars have begun to examine religion as an influence on and as an effect of varied social, political, and economic variables (e.g., Carter 1996; Cousineau 1998; Hammond 1985; Misztal and Shupe 1992; Roberts 1995; Rubenstein 1987; Shupe and Misztal 1998; Swatos 1992; Witte 1993). A market model of religion, based in rational choice propositions, has become the most strongly debated version of the new way of looking at the religious institution (Hadden 1995; Warner 1993; Young 1997).

Similarly for the family, there are many who now argue that, in spite of its changing forms and functions, the family as an institution remains crucially central to social processes and to the patterns of change determining the future of human societies (cf. Cherlin 1996). If not taken into consideration, family processes themselves are liable to torpedo efforts at planned social change and to deflect the vectors of unplanned change in unexpected directions (Settles 1996).

Attuned to the inter-institutional perspective, this article examines the linkage between family and religion. Then, after discussing social change processes, we make the point that the religion and family linkage today is important not only in the burgeoning private sphere but in the public realm as well. In spite of its importance, sociologists have given relatively little attention to family and religion together (Thomas and Cornwall 1990). A few journal articles and four collected volumes have addressed this institutional linkage. D’Antonio and Aldous (1983) and Thomas (1988) edited general volumes, and a collection by Ammerman and Roof
(1995) focused on family and religion in relation to work. As of 1999, only one book (Houseknecht and Pankhurst 2000) had taken an international comparative approach to the topic. (An expanded discussion of some of the themes presented here can be found in the introduction of the latter volume.)

The Religion and family linkage

In order to understand the significance of religion and family for both the private and public spheres, we must see clearly their unique characteristics and how they interrelate. The inter-institutional relations between family and religion are strong and qualitatively different from other institutional relationships. Berger (1967) noted that in premodern societies kinship was permeated with religious meaning, and in modern societies religion remains closely connected to the family. Hargrove (1979), in her systematization of the sociology of religion, argued that religion and family have had a close relationship throughout history in both Western and non-Western societies. D’Antonio and colleagues (1982) also stressed the significance of the connections between these two institutions.

Both the familial and religious institutions are characterized by what MacIver (1970, p. 45) called cultural rather than secondary interests. In other words, associations within the religious and familial spheres pursue interests for their own sake, because they bring direct satisfaction, not because they are means to other interests, as in the case of economy and polity. Both family and religion are devoted to organizing primary group relations. They stand out as the only two institutions that deal with the person as a whole rather than just segmented aspects of individual lives. These various similarities that religion and family share serve to strengthen the inter-institutional ties between them.

The interrelations between the institutions of religion and family are reciprocal (Thomas and Henry 1985; Thornton 1985). Religion provides the symbolic legitimation for family patterns (cf. Berger 1969), and the family is a requisite for a vigorous religious system because it produces members and instills them with religious values. In fact, numerous familial events are marked in religious contexts (e.g., weddings and funerals), and many religious observances take place within the familial setting (e.g., prayers at meals and bedtime).

The special affinity of religion and family as institutions takes varied forms. Almost everywhere, religion provides ritual support for family and kinship structures. This is the case even in a highly secularized society such as Sweden (Trost and Palm 2000). In some societies, this ritual support may be seen in ancestor rites or memorialization, for example, in Cameroonian Kedjom rites (Diduk and Maynard 2000), Japan’s core religion (Smith 2000), Taiwan’s folk religion (Yang et al. 2000), and French Mormonism (Jarvis 2000). Such practices support family life and, at the same time, fulfill a central function for religion itself (cf. Berger 1969, p. 62). In fact, Jarvis argues that the familism of Mormonism, expressed both ritually and in church values, is its greatest asset in the eroding environment for traditional families in France. Moreover, utopian experiments and new religious movements often take the family as their essential focus. According to Christiano (2000), in the Unification Church (‘‘Moonies’’), the family serves as more than the organizing metaphor for the group: It provides a basic model for the church’s self-conception.

Family, Religion, and Social Change

The institutions of family and religion, in their interactions with each other and with the rest of society, can be considered in terms of two broad social change patterns—institutional differentiation and institutional dominance. Secularization can be seen as a special instance of institutional differentiation, and we discuss the concept and its use below, indicating the value of religious economy models over the conventional secularization approach.

Institutional Differentiation

Underlying all the dimensions of social change is the notion of institutional differentiation. This phenomenon implies greater specialization. Although the paths and extent of institutional differentiation vary across societies, when differentiation does proceed, we see fundamental changes in inter-institutional relations (cf. Alexander and Colomy 1990; Beckford 1989). Institutional differentiation affects all institutions, and we argue more broadly that one cannot assume inter-institutional isolation of religion and family in the private sphere, even in highly differentiated societies. The effects of these institutions are always felt across inter-institutional divisions in some measure. In this section, we examine the issue of differentiation of religion and family conceptually.

Our previous description of the religion and family linkage as involving special affinity and reciprocity was not to say that religion and family always and everywhere are, or must be, equally intimately entangled. We can see a continuum in the level of differentiation of these institutions. On the one end of the continuum, Islam in Egypt (Houseknecht 2000) displays a lack of differentiation, an elaborate interweaving of the two institutions that makes each strongly dependent on the other. And research on the Cameroonian Kedjom funerary rites (Diduk and Maynard 2000) provides an example of religious practices that are hardly differentiated from the kinship context; they are precisely an affirmation of the kinship patterns of Kedjom society.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sweden, a country in which the Lutheran Church is officially established and a large majority of the population are nominal members, is highly secular. Developments in the family there have widely diverged from the traditional model that Protestant Christianity had advocated. In Sweden, the two institutions are intertwined only in limited ways (Trost and Palm 2000). It is primarily in regard to lifecycle rites that the two intersect. The individualized faith of many Americans also accompanies a highly differentiated system of institutional relationships (Christiano 2000).

Secularization Theories

Secularization is a special process of differentiation in which that which was previously under the ‘‘sacred canopy’’ (Berger 1969) of religion is removed from that realm and placed in a nonreligious institutional context. Allegedly, education, the acceptance of science, urbanization, industrialized work-life, and the like take away the mystery of religion and strip it of its ‘‘plausibility’’ in many areas of concern. Thus, cure of disease, protection from misfortune, explanation of the universe, and so forth are made rational and thus not subject to religious intervention. In this approach, religion remains relevant only for very personal spiritual quests and solace in the private sphere, and most of its social institutional ramifications become, first, empty shells, and eventually vanish.

The notion of a unilinear process of secularization has long troubled many sociologists (cf. Hadden and Shupe 1986; Hadden 1987; Hammond 1985). Some have developed variants that see secularization as a cyclical process with long historical waves. Nisbet (1970), for example, reminds us of the rationality of the eras of classical Greece and of the Renaissance and Age of Reason, with the period from first century Rome to the Renaissance having Christianity ‘‘virtually eliminating secular rationalism from the European continent for more than a thousand years’’ (p. 391). Though we are now in a rationalizing or secularizing age, ‘‘To argue permanence for this age would be, on the testimony of history, absurd’’ (p. 391). Recently, as we shall see, sociologists of religion have focused upon shorter waves of secularization and have viewed the process as self-limiting. The most prominent versions of this approach apply economic models to religious markets, putting aside the notion that religion must be irrational or otherwise antimodern. Some of these postsecularization theorists argue for a rational choice approach to religion (Young 1997), an approach that is largely alien to the mode of thought underlying secularization theory.

In the long debate about the validity of notions of secularization within the sociology of religion, it has become clear that secularization cannot be understood in a simplistic way, if one wants to keep the concept at all. While certain evidence of secularization seems apparent, there are countermovements suggesting that religion is truly vital in the modern world (cf. Marty and Appleby 1995). The spread of Liberation Theology throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s (Berryman 1987; Smith 1991), followed by the more recent explosion of evangelical, fundamentalist, and pentecostal Protestantism in the same world region (Martin 1990), suggest the power of the human concern regarding spiritual or nonempirical matters. Similarly, the tenacious attachment of Americans to belief in God (Greeley 1989, 1992; cf. Wald 1986), their high levels of religious activity, and the numerical growth and public voice of evangelical Protestantism indicate that religious sentiment of some sort is compatible even with a society that is highly developed socioeconomically. Going beyond the simple Marxist assertion that religion is illusion, even if religious claims are often masks for the interests of power or wealth, religion must be understood as a very real and consequential part of sociocultural life.

Casanova (1994) carried out one of the most extensive recent cross-cultural analyses of religion, a close examination of the conditions of evangelical Protestantism and Catholicism in the United States and of Catholicism in Brazil, Spain, and Poland. He argued that the social scientific literature depicts secularization as having three correlated dimensions, but his research challenges this idea by convincingly showing that the three dimensions are not always present together. First, Casanova accepts the validity of claims that secularization entails a structural differentiation of the religious institution from other institutions as societal modernization takes place. This differentiation means, in particular, the ‘‘emancipation of the secular spheres from religious institutions and norms’’ (Casanova 1994, p. 6). However, the second dynamic often subsumed under secularization—the decline in religious beliefs and practices—cannot be taken for granted, and it does not necessarily follow from the first. The third dynamic, which is the core of the privatization thesis, is that religion will sequester itself in the private sphere under modernity, and, according to some analysts, will be marginalized there. However, this process, too, cannot be assumed to be associated with secularizing institutional differentiation. The second and third dynamics are unwarranted correlates of the first. While Casanova would have us accept the first as the true essence of secularization, he argues that the second and third are not supported by empirical evidence and should not be seen as part of the secularization process.

While there is no question that institutional differentiation is a sort of master process of the modern era, we cannot assume that it has progressed equally far everywhere. As already noted, cases like modern Egypt and Cameroon, though both experiencing significant pressures toward greater differentiation, evidence far less differentiation between family and religion, and between these two and other institutions, than does, for example, the United States or Sweden. Furthermore, even if there is great differentiation, one cannot presume that the influences of the religious and familial institutions end. As the debates on abortion policy illustrate, even in a highly differentiated society like the United States, there is plenty of room for religious assertions beyond the alleged parameters of secularized religion and into political life. This circumstance indicates that we cannot take for granted notions of the irrelevance of religion for social policy, as secularist analysts are prone to do.

In addition, it also is possible for there to be de-differentiation in a highly differentiated society. Some of this has happened in Belarus during the post-Soviet period (Vardomatskii and Pankhurst 2000). Better known to the U.S. public is the recent passage of laws in Russia favoring the Russian Orthodox Church (Pankhurst 1998) after many decades of antireligious, extremely secularist communist control under the Soviets and after a brief period of strict legal disestablishment of all religions between 1991 and 1997. Here are instances of seeming de-differentiation, where the gap between politics and religion is narrowed. Similarly, the debate in Indonesia over divorce law indicates efforts to reassert religious authority over a legal arena that had been under state control for several decades (Cammack et al. 2000).

Religious and Familial Markets

The notion of unilinear secularization seems untenable, but there are certainly processes of decline and growth in religious phenomena that must be explained. The general inter-institutional perspective focuses attention on relationships that are important for these variations in the strength and character of religion. In addition, sociologists of religion have found market model approaches useful, within the general inter-institutional perspective, for generating testable hypotheses about several aspects of religion and family in various societies.

Social differentiation approaches, including secularization theories, start from observations of society from the top down. An alternative approach is to look from the bottom up, moving from the level of individual social action toward the institutional structures that the aggregation of such action creates. Such an approach is found in rational choice theories, which begin by analyzing patterns of individual behavior according to the economic logic of consumer choice. In rational choice approaches to religion, churches and other religious organizations are seen as firms offering a variety of goods and services to consumer-believers and consumer-parishioners. When patterns of individual consumer choice are aggregated, market structures become apparent. Such markets provide the context within which patterns of supply and demand are worked out. They distribute goods and services to consumers, as well as ‘‘market share’’ to religious firms. Seen from the market model viewpoint, the issue of the strength of religion boils down to the likelihood on the part of potential consumer-believers to buy into a given religious belief or practice, or to affiliate with a given religious firm such as a temple or a missionary organization. Just as the level of economic purchases rises and falls over time, so does the level of various religious ‘‘products,’’ like church membership or belief in God, rise and fall. What governs variation in purchases or adoptions (or church membership or belief in God) is the logic of rational choice among the options in the marketplace that are available to the consumer-believers or the consumer-members. Religious organizational leaders, like business executives, proffer a variety of products to the consuming public and vary the price of such products in order to attract consumer-believers. The leaders seek market share in the religious market.

This emerging ‘‘new paradigm’’ for understanding religious change relies upon economic models of the religious market to understand differing levels of religious group affiliation and participation (Hadden 1995; Warner 1993; Young 1997). Stark and Bainbridge (1987) provide an elaborate deductive theory of religion based upon rational choice principles, and this theory provides the backdrop for a series of more recent studies by these authors and collaborators (Hadden 1996). Perhaps most prominent among the studies developed in connection with this theoretical approach is Finke and Stark’s (1992) analysis of American religion, which shows that, over the last three centuries, it has grown, rather than declined, in number of participants and proportion of the U.S. population, contrary to what secularization theory would predict. The authors argue that the growth is the result of competition in a pluralistic market. The economist Laurence Iannaccone (1995, 1997, and works cited in these sources) has elaborated several propositions in line with the theory and expanded the application of economic modeling.

The approach seems to hold greater promise for explaining and predicting the dynamism of religious phenomena than do other approaches that are primarily based in traditional functionalist secularization theorizing. For present purposes, its primary wisdom is that secularization processes are self-limiting. That is, when ‘‘the processes that erode commitments to a particular set of supernatural assumptions’’ (Stark and Bainbridge 1987, p. 311) advance far enough, the religious market will be open to new options. These options, according to Stark and Bainbridge (1987), take the form of either schisms from established groups, sects, or cults.

One of the great assets of the cultural market approach is that it is inter-institutional while at the same time giving individuals agency. That is, market- based institutions are structured by the individual patterns of choice that are aggregated in any society. Simultaneously, institution building is regulated by relationships with other institutions in an interactive process. Clearly, there are many avenues for development of other theoretical approaches to these issues. In particular, conflict theory, social movement theory, and Weberian theory have valuable traditions of analysis that apply to family and religion. Theoretically and conceptually, there are similarities between the market approach and these other approaches. But the market approach, which has assimilated numerous insights from other approaches, establishes a greater balance between micro and macro elements.

The economic model in which the market approach is rooted certainly has its own limitations. Perhaps its biggest problem for many readers is the use of a language that has its own implications that do not and should not apply to religious and familial processes. From a strict theoretical perspective, perhaps the most daunting criticism of the theory argues that religious choice by its nature cannot be strictly rational (cf., Chaves 1995; Demerath 1995; Neitz and Mueser 1997). It is this point of view that has discredited the theory most strongly in the religious studies field, where its advocates are relatively few. In his review of Finke and Stark’s (1992) revisionist study of American religious history, Martin Marty (1993, p. 88) writes that their ‘‘world contains no God or religion or spirituality, no issue of truth or beauty or goodness, no faith or hope or love, no justice or mercy; only winning and losing in the churching game matters.’’ The work, Marty says, is reductionistic, oversimplifying complex issues. Further, James Spickard (1998, p. 110), though expressing considerable sympathy for the rational choice model, has argued that ‘‘a rational-choice [sic] model can duplicate the overall structure of a religious marketplace, but it cannot demonstrate that individual people think in market terms.’’

Some sociologists (Ammerman 1997; Ellison 1995; Sherkat 1997) have contended that the notion of rational choice does not adequately take into account the structuring of individual preferences by a host of contextual, cultural, or environmental variables. Several have argued that the value of the approach in analyzing the open, pluralistic market of the United States may not extend to other societies (cf. Warner 1997). The approach also has been charged with being androcentric (Carroll 1996) and with ignoring gender as a variable (Neitz and Mueser 1997). These criticisms are important, but they do not, in our eyes, undermine the approach so much as indicate an agenda for research and further conceptual development.

At this juncture, it should be noted that much of the logic that has just been applied in the discussion of religion could presumably be extended to families. Among many social scientists, there is an overgeneralization from patterns of differentiation related to families that is similar to that which Casanova identified in secularization thinking about religion (cf. Hargrove 1985). There is a widespread notion that changing patterns in the family (related to institutional differentiation) mean that the family is not centrally important in the modern age. From this premise, we are led to focus on the ‘‘private’’ family to the neglect of the ‘‘public’’ functions that the family retains (Cherlin 1996). It is as if the many ‘‘problems’’ of families remove the family from useful consideration. While scholars often take families for granted, there is clearly no more powerful socializer of the young and no other viable means for the reproduction of society through the birthing of new members than the family, whatever form it takes. If we assume the phenomenon can be identified by its function, that is, by what it does, rather than by its form, then we cannot imagine a society without families and without the effects that families by definition have.

Family sociologists and economists have long examined the economic side of families in its own right, looking at the effects on families of work, the household division of labor, the patterns of money and time budgets, and the like. There also have been significant studies using the market analogy to understand strictly familial phenomena. The economist Gary Becker (1973, 1974, 1976, 1981; Becker et al. 1977) has been the most deliberate in applying analytical tools from economics to family matters. (His impact on the religious economy approach is acknowledged by Iannaccone, 1997.) Others using economic analytical tools in studies of aspects of families that are not formally economic include Grossbard (1978), Huber and Spitze (1980), and Johnson (1980).

In an open ‘‘family market’’—a notion that deserves much more elaboration and evaluation than we can give it here—the adoption of one family form over another (say, single parenting over dual parenting, isolated nuclear households over interconnected extended kin networks, or formal marriage over nonmarital cohabitation) would relate to the evaluation by participants of the costs and rewards associated with the adoption of the given form. Costs and rewards would be assessed by the individual taking into account the surrounding culture and relevant subcultures, which would presumably restrict options for ‘‘choice’’ in numerous ways. Trost and Palm (2000) have outlined the conditions for a fairly open familial market system in Sweden.

As some work in the economic approaches to religion shows, one can include consideration of contextual variables in developing criteria of ‘‘choice’’ in such matters (see, for example, Ellison 1995; Iannaccone 1997; Sherkat 1997). Among significant influences on choice would be individual religious beliefs or the values of the religious affiliation a person may have, both of which are the product, to some degree, of the family socialization and community experience of the person. We can extend this line of thought by including a range of cultural variables that allow the research to be fully comparative, potentially applicable to any society or subsocietal unit. In short, conceptually exploiting the analogy with economic markets has potential for the analysis not only of religion but of family matters as well. In the end, such an approach would identify the conditions under which particular choices in the realm of families can be seen as signs of the strength of adaptive families rather than compromises of weak and ineffectual families.

Finally, it is interesting and important to note that the economic approach to religion relies on an understanding of religious choices as based in the household as much as in the individual. Religious ‘‘goods’’ are ‘‘household commodities’’ that the household invests other goods, labor, and skills in producing, according to Iannaccone (1997). In this imagery of the household producing religion, then, we again emphasize the intimate connection between religion and family. From this point, we need to establish its place in the larger sociocultural context.

Institutional Dominance in Modern Societies

Modern structures of institutional dominance— a concept first articulated by Williams in ([1955] 1970)—do not negate the importance of the religious and familial institutions. In many societies today, family and religion do not rank high in the relative dominance of major societal institutions. On the contrary, there usually is some other institution that dominates the entire social system, most often the economy (as in Sweden and the United States, for example). Although this means that the economy is much more likely to be the instigator of social change in the less powerful institutions than vice versa, it does not follow that family and religion cannot initiate change as well. They can and they do, although such occurrences are much less frequent than in the case of the dominant institution(s).

Sometimes the question is asked, Do family and religion facilitate or hinder social change? But this question is an inappropriate one to ask. It is one that never is asked about the economy or the polity. Perhaps it is raised in the case of religion and family because these two institutions are viewed as conservative—as part of the past that is slowing down forward motion. This view, however, is untenable. All societal institutions—including family, religion, polity, economy, education, health care, welfare, and so forth—both facilitate and hinder social change. The direction of their effects depends on what best meshes with their interests at a particular point in time. Research on Brazil and Mexico illustrate facilitating effects of religion for change in gender roles. In fact, according to Rosado Nunes (2000), Catholicism in Brazil did more than facilitate—it orchestrated dramatic changes in women’s roles, restricting women to a very limited range of options within the household by the nineteenth century. Fortuny Loret de Mola (2000) showed how the mobilization of Protestantism in Mexico has provided for certain aspects of authority and legitimacy for women that the dominant Catholic culture did not support, that is, religion has fostered change in gender roles in a direction opposite to that of Brazilian Catholicism. While these examples evidence the changeoriented qualities of religion and family, work on Egypt (Houseknecht 2000) provides a good contrasting example in that it describes the hindering influences that religion and family can have with regard to social change in other institutions. Finally, in Godsell’s (2000) study of South Africa, we see examples of both facilitation and hindrance of social change by the religious and familial institutions. While the East Asian Hindu and Muslim networks promote entrepreneurship, the black African Christian ones tend to inhibit the development of entrepreneurial activities.

In the modern world, the intersection of institutions is largely in the realm of economic issues— because of the dominance of the economic institution. This is true even in the interactions of noneconomic institutions, since the values and norms of the dominant institution ‘‘permeate a great many areas of life and enter into the operation of other institutions’’ (Gouldner and Gouldner 1963, p. 496).

Religion and Family in the Private and Public Spheres

Although analysts have tended to see family and religion as institutions of the private sphere, there is no question but that they are both found in the public sphere as well. In the following sections, we elaborate on the dynamics that are found within and between these spheres.

The Private Sphere

Some theorists have argued that ‘‘privatization’’ (Luckmann 1967; Berger 1967) characterizes religion in modern societies and that the private sphere is shared by the family (Berger 1969). With modernization, these two institutions tend to become more specialized and to take on new forms as they structure and give substance to the private sphere. A high degree of differentiation, though, does not put an end to the family and religion connection, even though it weakens the relationships that they have with each other and with other societal institutions. The private sphere may seem to be, in a macro sense, peripheral in the modern world, but it nevertheless is where we find a bedrock of mutually reinforcing relations between family and religion. As noted earlier, both of these institutions focus on primary relations, and, in the past, primary relations were much more encompassing of all interinstitutional relations. This meant that the points of intersection that these two institutions had with each other and with other societal institutions were many. In modernized societies, though, the relevance of primary relations has come to be limited more to the private sphere than in the past. And it is in the private sphere where we see what is really unique about the family and religion linkage. It is here that the connection is cut to the bare bones, and it is here that we see the affinity (although reduced) that persists despite differentiation.

With modernization and postmodernity, the private sphere has emerged as a unique social phenomenon. Although family and religion come to be dominated by other societal institutions in the modern setting, the private sphere that they constitute is of growing importance. It is a buffer zone in which individuals receive support that helps them absorb the stresses and strains brought on by their public activities in other institutional spheres. Because the public and private domains become less and less well integrated, the need for retreat to privacy grows. Not only is the private sphere an essential retreat, but it is also a place where people can devote more and more of the bounty of economic development—increased leisure time, less constant concern with mere survival, and greater financial and other material assets. In short, the private sphere is expanding in the modern world both because of the social psychological need for it and because of the availability of
greater resources that can be devoted to it.

The growth of the private sphere signifies one way that the importance of family and religion is growing. Roof (1993) and Wuthnow (1994a) have argued that a primary form of contemporary American religion is found in the self-help or support group (which is frequently located within the context of the church, though it need not be). Aimed at solving problems of individual adaptation, interpersonal relationships, and local community issues, such groups would seem to represent a therapy technique for private troubles. As the private sphere grows, this function grows to match. However, both Roof and Wuthnow also claim that these groups are, in fact, linking mechanisms which bring the private sphere and the public sphere into connection. They are means of overcoming onedimensional individualism and of connecting the individual with the broader community.

The Public Sphere

The recognition that the private functions of religion and family are vital and even expanding in modern societies is not inconsistent with the fact that the public side of these two institutions retains significance (cf. Beyer 1994). Both family and religion provide important public functions that, in the end, demand our attention. They are public functions that are in crisis in many ways in modern and globalizing societies, and understanding them clearly should aid those who seek to overcome the crises. Following the work of Cherlin (1996) on families and of Casanova (1994), Cochran (1990), and Wuthnow (1994b) on religion, we note that both these institutions provide a range of significant public goods. Such goods are general benefits for the society; they cannot be denied to those who did not participate in producing them, and they often are in short supply due to the tendency for nonproducers to ‘‘free-ride’’ on the efforts of those voluntary actors who take part in the production.

Families provide the public good of children— they give birth to them and raise them to be contributing members of society. These children, then, by being productive, paying taxes, and paying into Social Security and other pension systems, help support all persons in the society, but particularly persons who have aged past the productive years. In addition to reproduction, Cherlin (1996) asserts that, in bearing the burden of dependence created mostly by care for children and care for the frail elderly, families are providing public goods. These public functions are fewer than the public functions of families in the past (Demos 1970), but they are nevertheless extremely important in the modern world.

In a similar vein, religion provides important public goods as well. The first of these is moral values. In modern societies, many citizens do not nurture moral values through church participation and support, and yet the Ten Commandments are nearly universally honored as moral values. Although derived from religious sources and cultivated and rehearsed in religious settings on a regular basis, they are not perceived as sectarian or limited in applicability. They are the concrete form of broad societal values that are not, for the most part, in dispute. Still, it is only the religious groups—aided and abetted by families, of course—who spend the time reminding us of the importance of these fundamentals. Even atheists profit from the order and social stability that such an emphasis nurtures (cf. Cochran 1990). While Durkheim (1973) thought that adequate progress would lead to the usurpation of this moral production role of religion by education, with schools sustaining the essential values for the modern society, this situation has not yet arrived. The difficulty in designing a moral program that can be taught in the schools seems only more and more dependent upon the interpretation of relevant faith traditions. The schools, rather than displacing religious groups in this task, seem to be calling upon them for clarification and support (cf. Wuthnow 1994b).

Cochran (1990) stresses that religion is also important as a forum for public participation, that is, a place where people come together and discuss, evaluate, lobby, and generally keep informed about public issues and problems. In fact, while the private side of religion focuses upon individual salvation, there is also the supremely public side of ‘‘prophetic’’ religion, to use Weber’s ([1922] 1963) term for the kind of religion that challenges and calls for reform in society. As a forum for participation, the church, synagogue, mosque, or temple provides a venue in which individuals and families work out their positions vis-à-vis the politics and economics of their communities.

Casanova (1994) argues that religions today are more and more asserting their influence and enunciating their interest in secular affairs, mostly rising against the presumptions of the state and the market to prevent their incursion into religious matters. There is a new era, he asserts, of ‘‘public religion.’’ The core of Casanova’s argument is that, instead of a retreat by religion into a segregated and marginalized private sphere, there is today a ‘‘deprivatization’’ of religion in the world as one after another faith reasserts its claims to an active role in the broader society, especially in politics and economics. The mobilization of religious groups around the abortion debate in the United States is one such example, with the wellknown engagement of American Catholic and conservative Protestant groups in unexpected political contestation with the government (cf. Pankhurst and Houseknecht 1983). Another form of this deprivatization is the demand that the church not ally itself with the political and economic elites when the latter create and enforce policies or patterns of control that disenfranchise segments of the population, such as the poor or minorities. From within the faith, there has arisen the counterdemand that the poor be given a chance to improve and to escape the bonds of poverty. We can see these counterdemands dramatically stated in the Liberation Theology of the 1980s in Latin America. They also are advocated by a variety of Christian groups in the United States (Hart [1992] 1996).

In the end, such processes indicate the reinvigoration of public religion around the world. For Casanova (1994), even Islamic movements can be seen in this light and should not be consigned to a peripheralized ‘‘fundamentalist reaction’’ to modernization. Whether progressive or conservative, public religions’ calls for a new vision of politics and economic life are an essential characteristic of the present era. We cannot, then, think of religion as circumscribed by the private sphere, Casanova argues, and must not neglect the public roles that religions play if we are to perceive the modern world clearly.

In sum, religion and family, both public and private, are essential components of modern life. If anything, their future roles seem to be growing rather than shrinking. Biomedical advances promise to play out most dramatically the questions of life and death, spirit and body in the public church and the public family, which will have to adapt to longer life and, perhaps, longer periods of dependency for the elderly. The need to prepare children for appropriate careers in the new fields being created by technological advances will have to be addressed in the personal councils around the kitchen table that always so strongly influence the occupational choices that young people make. Those occupational choices will rely, in some indirect but profound ways, on the economic ethic that is espoused in the religious community that the family adheres to. In the Third World, development hinges, to some degree, on the fertility decisions made in the family under the influence of the faith that defines appropriate sexual and reproductive behavior. In the process of economic and political change that so many societies experience as disruption and disorganization, family and religion provide important sources of stability and order, even as they adapt to the changing circumstances they find themselves in. It is there that one should go to find the processes working out the morality for the new age and the lifestyles for the new era.

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This Aricle was Written by
JERRY G. PANKHURST
SHARON K. HOUSEKNECHT

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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