The Politics of Church and State

Social Sciences6 MIN READ

A Colby team is part of a large-scale national survey investigating the intersection of religion and government

Damon Mayrl, associate professor of sociology, poses for a photo at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland. Mayrl is a collaborator in a three-year research study to investigate how local government entities handle religious matters. The study has received a $568,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Ashley L. Conti
January 20, 2023

In our polarized times, a truth that most Americans can agree on is that the separation of church and state is one of the fundamental underpinnings of our government. 

But what that phrase means in practice is often unclear. There are many ways that religion and government intersect, including at the local level, and Associate Professor of Sociology Damon Mayrl is part of a team that is doing a large-scale, three-year research study to examine those intersections.  

The study, “Collaborative Research: Local Government Officials and the Management of Religion-State Relationships,” was recently awarded a $568,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The team also includes experts from Penn State University, Oklahoma State University, and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, along with Mayrl. 

The size of the grant indicates that the topic is both timely and relevant, according to the professor. 

“It definitely shows that people are increasingly attuned to the fact that religion matters, and that knowing how religious conflicts and religious differences get worked out in practice on the ground is important,” Mayrl said. “There are a lot of implications, not just for religious freedom, but also equity among religious groups and local civic vitality. For all these reasons, knowing how the relationship between church and state gets negotiated on the ground is an important thing to understand and to study.” 

Student research contributions are valuable 

The College will receive about $125,000 through the grant, which will fund student research assistant positions over the next three years. The students, who have already worked on earlier phases of the study, will help conduct a national survey of 2,500 municipal, county, and school officials. The survey will provide the first nationally representative study of how local officials engage with religion and how they think about religious freedom. 

Out of that larger group of respondents, the researchers will conduct follow-up interviews with about 150 officials to learn more about their opinions and beliefs on those matters. Students will help manage the data that is gathered, including coding interview transcripts. 

Colby is the only small, liberal arts college that is part of a three-year research study exploring how local government entities handle religious matters.

“They’ll get real hands-on exposure to what a research project of this size, with this many moving parts, entails,” Mayrl said. 

Colby is the only small, liberal arts college that is part of the study, but it is definitely holding its own with the large research universities, he said. 

“I think there may be a misconception that small liberal arts colleges like Colby are not places where scholars can do research like this,” Mayrl said. “Even though we don’t have graduate students, our undergraduate students are highly capable, and they can make real contributions to the study while also learning what it’s like to conduct a very large research project.”

“I’m very proud to be part of this grant. And I’m proud to be at Colby while I’m doing it.” 

Associate Professor of Sociology Damon Mayrl

Expected—and unexpected—findings

In earlier phases of the project, the team conducted interviews with religious leaders in eight communities, including two in Maine, to learn what their interactions with municipal leaders have looked like. Were they positive or problematic, and how did leaders think they could be improved? 

Through the interviews, researchers uncovered a much wider array of interactions between religious leaders and local officials than many people would likely expect to find. Those interactions occurred in situations as disparate as zoning board meetings, recreation departments, advisory boards, city council meetings, police departments, and more.   

Colby students will help manage the data gathered in the research, including coding interview transcripts. 

For example, in the wake of shootings, religious leaders often asked police officers to provide additional security. That was not a surprise, Mayrl said, but what was more surprising was learning that leaders of large American churches sometimes allow police departments to use their buildings to train drug-search teams with dogs. 

“Those were interactions that weren’t even on our radar,” Mayrl said.

Such discoveries help to show the myriad ways that religion helps shape American civic life and American politics. Although there previously have been other studies of religion and politics in the United States, most of those have focused on the courts, Congress, and the presidency. That left a lot of questions unanswered, he said. 

“What was interesting for us is that nobody was really paying attention to things on the ground locally,” Mayrl said. “And we know that the laws as they’re decreed by the Supreme Court don’t necessarily translate directly into practice on the ground. Local officials have a lot of leeway to bend the rules or adjust them at a local level.” 

A famous example of conflict

One non-religious, well-known example of that, he said, is what happened after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. The court ruled that schools must desegregate, but instead of quick compliance with the law, there were decades of resistance, including some instances in the South where local officials shut down entire school districts rather than allow integration. 

Another, religious example is how schools responded to the 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision that outlawed school prayer. “Many schools simply ignored the ruling, especially in smaller and more religiously homogeneous communities,” he said. 

This kind of tension regarding religion and the law continues today, from a county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses to churches that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. And because the Supreme Court has backed away from a strict understanding of church-state separation in recent years, local officials are increasingly empowered to make decisions on these matters. 

“Local officials will need to make decisions about how to apply the law in a particular circumstance,” Mayrl said. “And what they decide may not necessarily reflect what the Supreme Court justices thought would happen.” 

Finding insights

Ultimately, the researchers hope that through the project they will produce at least one book to provide insights into how religious freedom is understood and negotiated at the local level. 

“We hope that this book will be something that will be of interest to the broader public and will shed light on how local leaders think about challenging and complex issues,” he said. 

One potentially hopeful finding, he said, is that the hotly contested national political divisions and conflicts do not necessarily trickle down. 

“Local leaders don’t think the problems are as severe locally as they are nationally,” Mayrl said. “I think there’s a lot more faith at the local level that we can come to some kind of agreement or solution that will allow people of many faiths to live together well. The key question is what those solutions might look like. And we hope that our project can shed some light on how communities are arriving at those solutions.”