The separation of church and state is a concept many Americans have held dear since the nation’s founding. The actual relationship between religion and government, though, has been noticeably blurring in recent years, and a team led by Associate Professor of Sociology Gary Adler Jr., will examine the issue more critically, thanks to a $568,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Adler will serve as lead principal investigator for “Collaborative Research: Local Government Officials and the Management of Religion-State Relationships,” a three-year research study exploring how local government entities handle religious matters. The research team includes Adler’s College of the Liberal Arts colleague Eric Plutzer, professor of political science, and several of Adler’s undergraduate and graduate students.
Of the grant’s total, $256,408 was awarded to Penn State.
“The grant is really exciting because it enables me to do the kind of deep research on this subject that I’ve been dying to do,” said Adler, who also serves as director of the undergraduate program in sociology. “Our awareness of a separation of church and state is powerful culturally but doesn’t reflect how religious groups have been present in public life for a long, long time. We want to explore that, because as researchers we too are concerned about how national politics end up being translated at the local level.”
Adler and his collaborators will aim to address the extent to which local government officials interact with religious issues, and how individual and contextual factors influence those interactions, particularly when the situations haven’t been dealt with before.
The study builds on previous research conducted by the group, including a 2018 interview study of religious leaders and a 2020 pilot study funded by the University’s Social Science Research Institute that surveyed government officials from across Pennsylvania.
Beyond that, there has been virtually no recent scholarship on the role of local officials in religion-state interactions, Adler said. He finds that surprising, given over the past couple decades the laws and policies that once separated religion and state have given way to extensive interactions between public and religious entities and widened protections for religious free exercise, in turn “raising important questions about equality in governance and the establishment of religion,” he said.
“While this shift has been driven at the state and national levels, the actual management of religion-state interaction in this new era falls to hundreds of thousands of local officials who are entrusted with decisions about whether and how to engage with religion,” Adler said. “These officials must make decisions about sectarian prayers in town meetings, religious displays on public property, religious social service partnerships, zoning for religious congregations, and religious conscience exemptions for government employees. … This power has profound implications for the equitable delivery of public services, the treatment of minority religious and non-religious groups, social conflict, and the civic identity of communities.”
In the project’s first phase, Adler and his colleagues will conduct a nationwide survey of local government officials — specifically those representing municipalities, counties, and school districts — on their attitudes and actions regarding state-religion interactions.
From there, the group will conduct in-depth interviews of 150 frontline officials sampled from the survey based on their level of religiosity and their local environment.
“We’ll talk to officials who are navigating conflict to see how they’re contending with that,” Adler said. “We’ll interview those who see themselves as quite religious but are serving in municipalities that are not considered religious, as well as people who are atheists or not religious, yet find themselves in a rural community with more religiosity in the air. How are they working through these issues? We want to show how government officials, who often have ample discretion and limited formal guidance, harmonize the law with other logics to manage politically delicate issues and resolve conflict.”
As it happens, Adler has been thinking about these issues since his teens. In high school, he wrote a letter to the editor of his local newspaper that argued in favor of valuing the separation of church and state. “My dad, who has the same name as me, came home one day and said, ‘A lot of people are asking me about that letter to the editor. They think I wrote it,’” Adler recalled with a laugh.
From a research perspective, Adler first became interested in the issue around 2010, with the rise of the Tea Party movement. Since then, there have been many examples of religious issues playing out in the public sphere — from Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, to the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming Washington state high school football coach Joseph Kennedy’s constitutional right to pray on the field after games.
“We’ve had about 20 years now of Supreme Court decisions shifting things on the ground, but at a time when a lot of Americans are becoming less religious and religion itself [is] becoming a more polarizing issue,” Adler said. “There’s this idea that government runs according to legal rules, but at the local level, there are a lot of pressures, and officials have lots of ideas of how the world should work. On one hand, you have examples of inclusive pluralism, like when a municipality displays both a Christmas tree and a menorah. But then there are other examples like Kim Davis, and the football coach ruling, which suggests that someone who’s a public employee doesn’t have to restrain themselves in the same way anymore. Will that be embraced in a way where people feel more included, or will they feel more combative and excluded? We want to unpack that. There seems to be this thinking that officials want to embrace religion in the government sphere, but our hunch, based on the research we’ve done so far, indicates that’s not the case.”
Once the data is collected and analyzed, Adler and his colleagues plan to promote the findings via a book and a website that scholars and government officials alike can use as a resource. The other collaborators are Jonathan Coley from Oklahoma State University, Damon Mayrl from Colby College, and Rebecca Sager from Loyola Marymount University.
The ultimate hope, Adler said, is to help the public understand how government officials can support pluralism and resolve conflicts in local communities, while also generating insights applicable to other polarizing issues such as policing, school curricula, and gender and racial inequality.
“We really hope this is something that scholars and local officials would be interested in — how what’s important nationally happens in the laboratories of democracy,” Adler said. “There have always been ways in which religion and government have touched each other, but there’s a lot of change going on now and we want to be the ones showing what’s happening.”