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Religion, Politics and Gender Equality: Public Religions Revisited (Draft)


Author(s): José Casanova
Programme Area: Gender and Development
Project Title: Religion, Politics and Gender Equality
No. of Pages: 30

The aim of this paper is to revisit the argument first presented in “Public Religions in the Modern World” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) in order to ascertain the extent to which the theoretical-analytical framework developed there needs to be critically revised and expanded in response to two main challenges. The first arises from the global imperative to develop comparative analytical frameworks which are applicable beyond Western Christian contexts. The second challenge derives from the equally urgent need to place the politics of gender equality and the related religious-secular debates into the center of any discussion of "public religion" anywhere in the world today.

The central thesis in 1994 was that we were witnessing a process of "de-privatization" of religion as a relatively global trend. It did not interpret the deprivatization of religion necessarily as an anti-modern, anti-secular, or anti-democratic reaction and, thus, offered a critique to prescriptive theories of privatization of religion and to the secularist assumptions built into social theories of Western modernity and into most liberal theories of modern democratic politics. One of its two new analytical contributions was the analytical disaggregation of the theory of secularization into three disparate components or sub-theses, namely, a) the theory of the institutional differentiation of the secular spheres, such as state, economy, and science, from religious institutions and norms, b) the theory of the decline of religious beliefs and practices as a concomitant of levels of modernization, and c) the theory of privatization of religion as a precondition of modern democratic politics. Such an analytical distinction makes possible the testing of each of the three sub-theses separately as different empirically falsifiable propositions. The second main analytical contribution was the distinction of three different types of "public religion," corresponding to the analytical distinction between three different areas of a modern democratic polity: "state," "political society," and "civil society." Obviously, this is an analytical, one could say, "ideal-typical" distinction. In actual empirical reality the boundaries between the three areas of the polity are by no means so clear cut and therefore the delineation of the different types of public religion can also not always be clear and distinct. Nevertheless, the purpose of the analytical distinction was to put into question any rigid theory of privatization which would like to restrict religion to the private sphere on the grounds that any form of public religion represents a threat to the public sphere or to democratic politics. This paper, therefore, argues that the meaningful question cannot be whether "public religion" in general, much less whether "religion" in the abstract, is good or bad, ally or threat, but which kind of public religion, in which particular context, for which particular purpose?

This paper revisits and expands this framework critically in order to address specifically the issues of globalization and gender equality. It addresses three main shortcomings or limitations of the original argument: 1) its Western-Christian centrism, 2) the attempt to restrict, at least normatively, modern public religions to the public sphere of civil society, and 3) the empirical framing of the study as church-state-nation-civil society relations from a comparative national perspective, neglecting the transnational global dimensions. It proceeds by offering first a revision and expansion of the analytical framework of "public religions" in order to make it more amenable to a global comparative perspective beyond the Christian West. The second part of the paper attempts to address some of the ways in which the central issue of gender equality impacts upon religious politics and some of the ways in which the deprivatization of religion may in turn affect the politics of gender equality.

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