Professor Says Religion, Private Life Are Public Concerns

Professor Susan Hanssen argued that the private bonds of religion and family life are the root of public relations and should be protected by law.

Susan Hanssen at the Catholic Information Center on June 4
Susan Hanssen at the Catholic Information Center on June 4 (photo: Addie Mena/CNA)

WASHINGTON — In a talk in the nation’s capital, a U.S. scholar argued that so-called private entities — such as the family, religion and interpersonal interactions — involve and are in fact the core of public society.

“Religion itself is a rational insight into what it means to be human: what it means to live in a particular place, to speak a particular language, to have particular family members, to be here and now,” said Susan Hanssen, an associate professor of history at the University of Dallas.

“If religion is the primary rational insight into our human condition, then it has to be also central to our public discourse; these are all public relations,” she noted.

Hanssen spoke June 3 at the Catholic Information Center in Washington.

During her remarks, she argued that the private bonds of religion and family life are the root of public relations and that, historically, America has had “laws that have this sort of reverence” for the family and church groups.

“A father’s relationship to his children is a public relation that has to be respected in law,” Hanssen said, “the marriage bond is a public relation that is of concern to everyone because it is the core of society,” and these relations have been protected in public society.

Hanssen distinguished between the nation and the state, arguing that, while the state is a purely political entity, “the nation has to recognize both the natural existence of the family and the church,” incorporating both into the well-being of society.

She explained that, historically, the state “was the only corporate sovereign that had any right to exist,” whereas, within a nation, “there is, beyond the polis, church and family.”

However, Hanssen noted, the United States and other countries have moved from an understanding of a society that incorporates corporate institutions such as the family and religion towards individualism.

Instead of the nation assisting the task “of creating and sustaining a family” and other corporate entities, the state “tolerates” certain groups and collections of persons, Hanssen said.

She explained, though, that this trend does not ring the death knell for churches or for families, saying that these social institutions “can’t die unless no one sustains them.”

Hanssen noted that, despite popular conception, institutions of popular culture and political power don’t “have actual human gravitational pull” because of their focus upon the individual.

Interpersonal social institutions can be maintained and revived, she stated, because people “do still value genuine interpersonal relationships.” Hanssen added that the “the more vibrant” these forces are, “the more it becomes the center of gravity.”

She encouraged young people to focus upon creating “truly personal communities,” saying that the maintenance of the family is the “only thing that will work” in holding together the nation.

She also warned against those who wish to preserve the nation from becoming “desiccated, uprooted, solo, modern, individual yuppies fighting a policy battle to the death of church, family and love of patria,” saying that, instead, “it’s much more important to put effort into sustaining those groups.”

“Law follows life,” Hanssen said, adding that the structure of the country follows its lived practices and beliefs, and she encouraged young people “to put more of their effort in the myriad of decisions and judgments and life adjustments necessary to sustain churches and families and a nation.”