The Frontline of Church-State Relations: Local Officials and the Regulation of Religion in a New Era (Part of the RGK Center Working Paper Series)

Authors: Gary Adler (Pennsylvania State University), Damon Mayrl (Colby College), Rebecca Sager (Loyola Marymount University), and Jonathan Coley (Oklahoma State University)

Abstract: Interactions between religion and government, between church and state, have occurred with regularity throughout U.S. history. Over the past several decades, a new church-state regime of accommodationism has encouraged broader and more extensive church-state interaction. Nearly all such interaction is local in nature, but little scholarship systematically focuses on a key actor: frontline officials. We introduce the concept of frontline officials to research on government and religion, explaining why frontline officials have been previously missing. Frontline officials, appointed and elected, regulate church-state interaction, making decisions about whether and how to promote or limit closer engagement between religion and government. This regulation is often informal and discretionary, leading to diverse church-state patterns at the local level. We theorize the cultural and contextual factors that shape frontline officials’ ways of interacting with religion, then report basic results from a first-ever survey of frontline officials. Our results show that, among frontline officials, there are a wide range of attitude toward church-state relations, as well as practices that bring religion into relationship with the state. We suggest that scholars focus on the patterns of how church-state interaction happens at the frontline and the individual, contextual, and cultural factors for why church-state interactions differ across communities.