Sociology 06.4: “Religion in American Public Life” – Fall 2004

Professor Christian Smith, Office: Hamilton 209

— 962-4524 (office)

Class Meets: Thursdays, 2:00-4:30, in Dey Hall 207


            Should government funds be used to support church and faith-based social service programs for the poor? Can businesses restrict the religious practices of their employees? Do religious believers have the right to proselytize others in public places? Should religious groups be allowed to operate in public schools? What is it that makes a public school “public” anyway? What is it that makes “government funds” the governments’ funds? How, if at all, is religious knowledge really different from scientific knowledge? Is it possible to identify a universal, secular morality? Is religion good or bad for democracy? How have U.S. church-state relations changed over the decades? What alternative models for church-state relations do other Western nations practice?

            The proper role of religion in American public life has been a contentious issue throughout our nation’s history, and continues to be a source of much controversy and conflict today. The subject involves a number of areas of life about which many people and groups have definite, passionate, and often conflictive feelings and ideas: faith, politics, education, taxation, morality, child-rearing, etc. The matter also often evokes larger controversial issues, such as the social recognition for religious minority group identities, equity in governmental spending, the values that define our common American identity, and so on. At the same time, it is clear that neither religion nor modern pluralism are going away anytime soon; nor is the need to carry on together as a nation with a common, civil public life. So the problem—and perhaps opportunity?—of religion in American public life remains ever present and very important.

            This seminar will explore many of the central, underlying sociological, historical, legal, cultural, political, and philosophical issues concerning religion in American public life. Its primary purpose will be to provide students with a broad orientation to the major issues and complexities of religion in public life. As a result of taking the seminar, students should be able both to understand more clearly contemporary public debates, and to formulate more competently their own informed views on the matter.

            The seminar format lends itself well to open discussions of readings, as well as to class presentations, debates, viewing videos, and other learning experiences. Seminars also require of students greater responsibility and participation than do lecture courses. We should work together to take advantage, as much as possible, of the particular opportunities for learning that a seminar format affords.



            Required readings for the seminar, all of which are available at the Student Stores textbook department, include readings posted on the course and three books:


- Stephen Monsma & Christopher Soper, The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies, Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

- Michael Sandel, Democracy and its Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Harvard, 1996.

            - Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals, Oxford, 2003.


The seminar will not proceed with a pre-defined schedule of readings, but will work with a more open and flexible approach. The professor will announce required readings for upcoming classes as the semester progresses. Students should also feel free to bring to the seminar any other reading or other materials related to the class for possible inclusion and discussion.




            Final grades for the class will be determined by student performance with regard to the following requirements:


(1) Regular seminar attendance and constructive participation in discussions of the assigned readings (missed seminars will detract from one’s final grade);


(2) Weekly 3 page (printed, double-spaced, 12-pt Times Roman font) written summaries and evaluations of each week’s reading. Each week, students must bring to the start of class to turn in a 3 page written paper that (i) concisely summarizes the central thesis, argument(s), evidence, conclusion(s) of the reading(s), and (ii) appreciatively and critically evaluates the readings. The purpose is for each student to have to grasp, summarize, and appraise each week’s readings. Students may not give or receive help in writing these short papers (see below on the UNC Honor Code). Do not forget to include your name and the week/date at the top of each week’s paper. Students are expected consistently to use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation in these papers; I suggest using the UNC Writing Center () to get your work checked before turning it in.


(3) A final essay, about 12 pages long (printed, double-spaced, 12-pt Times Roman font, 1" margins) due at the scheduled final exam time, clearly explaining and defending your own personal (general and policy-specific) position on the proper role of religion in American public life (details forthcoming). Students may not give or receive help in writing these short papers (see below on the UNC Honor Code). Students are expected to use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation in these papers. Due on Thursday, Dec 9, at 4:00PM, in Dey 207.


These written assignments are fairly demanding. Beyond them, there will be no term papers, student projects, quizzes, or written final exam for this seminar.


Ground Rules for Discussions

            Class participants may themselves have strong views about religion in public life. Maintaining an environment conducive to learning and common civility in the seminar will require that each participant feels free respectfully to express their own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings on matters of discussion without fear of disparagement from others. It is not a constitutional right nor university guarantee never to be angered, annoyed, or hurt by others in a class. But we will not get very far if some of us perpetually hold back our contributions to the discussion, or if others of us interact in ways that “shut down” discussions. This will require virtues and skills well worth cultivating in any case: that we carefully listen to each other; consider with a sufficiently open mind the possible merit of what others have to say; refrain from slighting or attacking each other personally; offer criticisms always with due respect for the criticized; and so on. At the risk of promoting a religious teaching in a public university, a version of the Golden Rule may serve us well here: treat others the way you would like them to treat you.

            Another idea that I will explain more in class: I am more interested in your good arguments (claims based on premises, evidence, reasoning) than your personal opinions (individual subjective feelings and attitudes). Work to advance sound arguments, not just personal opinions.


The UNC Honor Code

            All provisions of the University Honor Code—which prohibits giving or receiving unauthorized assistance on graded course work—will be in effect for all requirements. Please study the Honor Code website to familiarize yourself with the Code. If you have further questions, do not hesitate to talk with Professor Smith.