You Are Not a Religion

In Habits of the Heart, written almost 30 years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah and his co-authors came up with a term to describe a new American religion: “Sheilaism.” The phrase comes from an interview Bellah conducted with a woman called  Sheila, who described her religion as follows:

I believe in God. I am not a fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. . . . My own Sheilaism . . . is just to try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.

You don’t have to be a sociologist to appreciate how well Sheila’s comments reflect the mindset of millions of Americans. You can dismiss that mindset as empty and self-indulgent, but in the land of  postmodern individualism, Sheilaism has powerful rhetorical appeal. It is preached relentlessly in advertising, books, movies, music, TV programs, even presidential politics (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”). It is the effective religion of the “Nones”– the rapidly increasing cohort of Americans who claim no formal religious affiliation–and, one imagines, many churched people as well.

Yet Sheilaism is not a constitutionally recognized religion, at least in the Fourth Circuit. That’s one lesson of the recent, fascinating Psychic Sophie case that Marc described in his post this week. In the case, a Virginia fortune teller, “Psychic Sophie,” argued that local licensing and zoning rules violated her First Amendment right to freely exercise her religion. She described her religion this way:

I am very spiritual in nature, yet I do not follow particular religions or practices, and “organized” anythings are not for me. I pretty much go with my inner flow, and that seems to work best.

She didn’t use the phrase, but Psychic Sophie’s religion is Sheilaism. And, as Marc notes, the Fourth Circuit held that this worldview does not constitute a religion for purposes of the First Amendment. For constitutional purposes, the court reasoned, religion means some organizing principle or authority other than oneself.  Going with one’s inner flow does not qualify.

That makes a good deal of sense. Sheilaism is a very useful concept in sociology, but it doesn’t really work in constitutional law. Recognizing Sheilaism as a religion for constitutional purposes would create all sorts of problems. We’d have millions of religions in America, each of which could claim a right to free exercise. We’d be courting anarchy. 

Or would we? The really interesting thing about the Psychic Sophie case is that it’s so unusual. With so many Sheilaists in America claiming to follow their own paths, surely we should be seeing many more claims for religious exemptions from generally applicable laws. There should be much more friction in American life. But there isn’t. All these free spirits wind up believing pretty much the same things and acting in pretty much the same ways. Perhaps Sheilaism isn’t really about following one’s inner voice, but the voice of the mainstream culture. In which case, Sheilaism isn’t really about individualism, but conformity. Like the guy said, you can have a car painted any color you like–as long as it’s black.

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