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Secular Conversions: Politics, Institutions, and Religious Education in the United States and Australia, 1800-2000

  • Author(s): Mayrl, Damon Walter
  • Advisor(s): Weir, Margaret
  • et al.

Although sociologists have increasingly abandoned the assumption that secularization is an inevitable byproduct of modernity, they have yet to develop a compelling account for why similar modern countries nevertheless accord religion substantially different roles in public life. This dissertation engages this problem by examining how the United States and Australia came to develop contrasting policies toward religious education in the late twentieth century. Prior to World War II, both countries adopted similar stances on the proper relationship of the state to religion in education: devotional practices were permitted in public schools, while financial support for religious schools was prohibited. Since the late 1940s, however, the two countries have moved in opposite directions. Australia has retained a place for religion in its public schools, while inaugurating generous government support for religious schools. The United States, meanwhile, has retained restrictions on public aid for religious schools while prohibiting devotional practices in its public schools. These changes have occurred, moreover, despite many apparent similarities: both nations are modern, religiously pluralist democracies with common-law legal systems and constitutions with explicit disestablishment clauses.

Drawing upon original archival research, as well as a wide array of other primary and secondary sources, this dissertation accounts for these divergent "secular settlements" by detailing how each country's administrative, judicial, and electoral institutions advanced or constrained three common secularizing processes: state-building, professionalization, and religious conflict. In brief, it argues that American political institutions constituted a "permeable state" which facilitated the progress of these processes, while Australian institutions constituted an "insulated state" which inhibited them.

The first part of the dissertation describes the genesis of the parallel secular settlements of the nineteenth century, focusing on how the state-building process generated public educational systems with similar policies toward religion, but divergent administrative structures. This prologue sets the stage for the second part, which examines how those administrative institutions affected the fate of religious education in state schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. America's decentralized system of educational administration advanced two long-term secularizing processes, professionalization and religious conflict, between 1880 and 1945, while Australia's centralized administrative system constrained them. The permeable American state facilitated challenges to pan-Protestant religious exercises in the public schools by religious minorities and educational professionals, leading to a slow attenuation of religion's position in public education over the early twentieth century. By contrast, the insulated Australian state made these kinds of challenges much more difficult, reducing the leverage religious minorities could bring to bear on policies they opposed, and actively suppressing professionalization among Australian teachers--both of which helped to sustain traditional religious instruction into the third quarter of the twentieth century.

The third part of the dissertation demonstrates how courts and parties provided contrasting opportunities and obstacles for concerted campaigns by religious minorities who sought to renegotiate each country's policy toward religion after 1945. Taxpayer standing and a realist hermeneutic made the American courts accessible and open to sustained litigation in ways that Australia's restrictive standing rules and legalist hermeneutic did not allow. By contrast, Australia's system of preference-voting and flexible party structure facilitated Catholics' political campaign to obtain state support for their school system--a campaign that foundered in the United States thanks to unfavorable coalition dynamics within a rigid two-party system.

This dissertation makes a number of contributions to contemporary debates about secularization. First, it develops a new, "political-institutional" approach to the study of secularization. Drawing on insights from institutional theory and historical sociology, this approach asserts that secular settlements emerge, not simply from broad modernizing trends or the self-interested calculations of political leaders, but instead from the interaction of general secularizing processes (such as state-building, religious conflict, and professionalization) and each country's specific political institutions. This approach offers increased explanatory power relative to four existing formulations. Second, it reveals that the state, as an institutional structure, has both mediating and constitutive effects on secularization. Both by conditioning the political and professional activities of would-be secularizing actors, and by actively calling into being the very actors who subsequently seek more secular outcomes, the state is a key factor in explaining variation in secularization. Finally, it demonstrates that the actors advancing more secular outcomes are animated by a wider variety of motivations than has typically been acknowledged. Although most existing studies focus on anticlerical or self-interested motives, this study reveals that practical administrative considerations and religious commitments have also been important forces driving the development of new secular settlements.

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