Throughout the mid- to late-twentieth century, American education was governed by a peculiarly strong form of secularism, often termed "strict separation of church and state." This approach, which forbids both devotional exercises in public schools and public funding for religious schools, represented a marked departure from traditional American practice, which had been more accommodating of ties between religion and education. Since the late 1990s, however, the fortunes of strict separation have begun to wane, and many legal commentators now anticipate a profound transformation in church-state policy. In this talk, I analyze the rise and fall of strict separation through a political-institutional lens. I argue that the rise of strict separation in the 1940s depended on both the religious-political dynamic prevalent at midcentury, and on a set of institutional features that made American courts particularly receptive to proponents of strict separation. Recent developments, however, have destabilized both the dynamics of religious politics and the institutional supports for strict separation, weakening the foundations on which strict separation rests. This analysis both demonstrates the importance of taking institutions seriously in theorizing secularization, and provides a new framework for understanding a variety of recent developments in American law and politics.
Professor Mayrl’s research interests are in comparative secularization, religion and politics, historical methods, and public policy. His first book, Secular Conversions (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press) examines how political and institutional factors have contributed to the development of distinct patterns of secularization in Australian and American education since 1800. During his residence, Mayrl will lay the groundwork for a new project examining how religion has shaped the development of public policy around end-of-life care. He will be on the Berkeley campus from September 2014 through May 2015.