Skip to main content
Religious Values and Public Service
May 1, 2017

Religion has been an important part of human civilization. Anthropologists have theorized that after hunter-gatherers settled down and began farming and forming communities the need to reduce tensions between people required some form of religion (Mann, 2011). Another theory postulates that it was religion that led humankind to begin settling and farming in the first place. This theory was developed by Cauvin (1997), who noted that social systems which have undergone significant changes have not done so because of farming. He believed that people began to change in their views of themselves and their relations with the world, which led to a change in symbols and the ability to imagine a “supreme being.” As a result of these shifting views of the self, a developed sense of the sacred eventually gave rise to civilization.

The theory is not far-fetched given archeological discoveries which may confirm that temples were built before there were settled communities. Göbekli Tepe, in present-day southeastern Turkey, was built 11,600 years ago and used for religious ceremonies. It was built by hunter-gatherers. Agriculture developed around the temple to sustain the feasts held there (Dietrich, 2012; Mann, 2011).

To organize these feasts, it’s likely that one of the world’s first bureaucracies was formed. There was no separation of religion and state: religion was the reason for the state – or in this case, the community.

Human civilization has come a long way since those times, and yet religion is still important in the lives of many people. Even in the most secular of societies religion plays a role in individual identity. In the United States, church attendance is much higher than in Western Europe, and in many parts of the world there remains no separation between religion and government.

In 2009, Gallup released the results of a poll that surveyed residents across the fifty states as well as across the world. They polled respondents on their views regarding the importance of religion. Gallup declared that the people of Alabama and Iran had one thing in common: their views on the importance of religion. Eighty-two percent of people in both Iran and Alabama stated that religion was an important part of their daily life. The difference between Iran and Alabama is that one is a declared theocracy and the other is secular, with constitutional constraints on the establishment of religion (Crabtree & Pelham, 2009).

At its core, religion represents a set of values and these values are still important, even in highly secular societies. Public administration has become the modern-day science of government – and within it, values have become a part of ethics.

The concept of values or principles is an extremely difficult subject in public administration, but it is important. Many of the reactions against established values or principles led to utilitarian or pragmatist ideas. These ideas were considered “scientific.” One of the earliest paradigms in public administration in the United States was known as “scientific management.” The values embodied by the “higher law” were viewed as an irrational dogma handed down from former generations.

Dwight Waldo, one of the foremost scholars of public administration, did not associate this higher law with the normative or cultural values of a society, but pointed out the need to educate administrators in both the normative values of a particular society and utilitarian concepts. These future administrators might then consider both sources in his or her professional life (Waldo, 2007).

Another intellectual heavyweight in public administration, John Rohr, believed that public administrators needed to be steeped in the constitutional values of the nation, and these values have origins in western Europe and its political, cultural and religious history. He identified three core values in the United States: freedom, equality, and property. Other values that are often associated with public service are the common good and serving others, which could be meta-values for those values listed by Rohr. These values have origins in religion, although they are not monopolized by it (Rohr, 1989).

There are many values that drive individuals to pursue a career in public service, regardless of if they’re elected or hired to the office. These values are associated with the common good, service to others, and social equity. There are also deeper values like benevolence, which can be defined as a love for others. Many of those who pursue these careers see it as a calling in which they have a strong communitarian impulse. These are all fundamental values found in religion (Lowery, 2010; Cunningham, 2005).

Cunningham (2005) argued that in public administration there is a space for mythos-thinking. This kind of thinking is focused on meeting the emotional and spiritual needs of those who serve and are served by the government. This type of thinking may be necessary to create social bonds between the citizens and the government, and may be more relevant in the United States since, “spirituality / religiosity plays a larger role in American lives and culture than we logos-thinkers are willing to acknowledge” (Cunningham, 2005 p. 951).

One of the key values that public administration and religion share is a belief in the importance of civil society. The United States was founded on this idea. McConnell (2010) asserted that the founders saw religion as a part of the formation of public character and opinion. The First Amendment, which outlines the non-establishment clause, was adopted to prevent the government from exercising control over religion. The founders sought to create space for religion, and thus the freedom of religion and to act on those religious beliefs became entrenched in the United States (McIntyre, 1993).

Unfortunately, public administration scholars rarely consider the influence of religion on government in the United States. This attitude has been shaped by the Progressive Era and the negative impression of the political activity of religious conservatives in the modern era (King, 2007). This has led to a situation in which “the academic discipline of public administration has largely ignored the religious or spiritual impulse that runs deep in American culture” (Lowery, 2010 p. 326).

A study by Houston, Freeman, and Feldman (2008) explored the religiosity of public servants in the United States. They found that people in government-related public service occupations were more likely to be more religious than people in non-public service occupations. This was even higher and more significant for government occupations than other types of public service occupations.

The researchers also found that public servants were less likely to believe that religion should be in its own sphere compared to other types of occupations. In general, the authors found that public servants were not secular, and that “religious values influence a wide range of behaviors, including voting and volunteering, and play an important role in the decision making of elected officials” (Houston, Freeman & Feldman, 2008 p. 428).

Religion can be a source of some of those lofty values that modern-day secular regimes cherish without divulging into the church-state divide discussion. Ignoring the reality that public servants serve while being inspired by these values or that public policy is heavily influenced by these religious values does a disservice to the field. It also forces a scientific, utilitarian rationalism on the human being that is rather alien to it. As pointed out by the example of the Göbekli Tepe temple, humans are motivated through community values that are often embodied by religion.

The idea of the community being greater than the individual, and the individual fulfilment that is attained through that process, has been appreciated by social psychologists for some time. Jesus addressed it in the Gospels. From Mark 10:42-45, according to the New International Version: “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (pp. 1065-1066).

In the above set of verses Jesus is distancing him and his community from those who do not believe, i.e. the Gentiles. Those without faith rule over people and expect those they rule to serve them. Those with faith do the opposite. Their position of authority is not for gaining power and forcing their will upon others, but to serve others. How much better would our world be if those in power served their people instead of expecting the opposite? Positions of power are not for exploiting, but helping and facilitating the well-being of the people.

In Islam, this tradition is represented by the life of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his Companions. It is known that even though he sat at the seat of what would become one of the greatest empires in the world, he lived in poverty until his death. His condition even caused Umar ibn al-Khattab to lament, noting that the kings of Rome and Persia lived lavishly while God’s Prophet slept on a cheap mat on a dirt floor. The Prophet retorted that it is the next life that is better than this life. He did not come to amass riches, but to serve God and the people. Did not Jesus come to do the same thing? Did not all prophets, all of whom passed to the next world in a state of poverty?

Umar ibn al-Khattab would go on to become one of the greatest Caliphs. There is a story in which, during a famine, he roamed the streets of Medina at night. He came upon a widow and her children, who were crying in their house. The woman was cooking, but explained to Umar that it was only water and stones so that the children would think it was food and fall asleep from their exhaustion. Umar immediately felt guilty and responsible for the plight of this woman and her family and immediately fed them. He then made it a point to ensure that he would ascertain the conditions of his people and not rely on them begging to know that they were needy. He exemplified public service that is directly linked with the meaning of the term khalifa in Islam.

We live in a changing world and in challenging times. The prophets came with sound advice couched in essential values. These have real meaning and utility that could be highly applicable today. Our societies are better off by appreciating and learning from these values. The world’s faithful are better off by understanding each other and how these values are the same or similar across faiths. Those that administer are better off by viewing themselves as responsible for the ills in their society and serving and upholding the will of the people. Communities are better off when they value each other and value the community and its maintenance. Selfishness only hurts the community and ultimately the individual. These values are just as important today as they were in the past. It would be advantageous if people learned from them even if they did not embrace the religious connotations behind them.


  • Cauvin, J. (1997). Naissance des divinités, naissance de l'agriculture: La révolution des symboles au néolithique. Paris, France: CNRS éd.
  • Crabtree, S., & Pelham, B. (2009, February 9). What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common | Gallup. Retrieved from
  • Cunningham, R. (2005). Religion and Public Administration – The Unacknowledged Common (and Competitive) Ground. International Journal of Public Administration, 28(11-12), 943-955.
  • Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K., & Zarnkow, M. (2012). The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey. Antiquity, 86(333), 674-695.
  • Houston, D. J., Freeman, P. K., & Feldman, D. L. (2008). How Naked Is the Public Square? Religion, Public Service, and Implications for Public Administration. Public Administration Review, 68(3), 428-444.
  • King, S. M. (2007). Religion, Spirituality, and the Workplace: Challenges for Public Administration. Public Administration Review, 67(1), 103-114.
  • Lowery, D. (2005). Self-Reflexivity: A Place for Religion and Spirituality in Public Administration. Public Administration Review, 65(3), 324-334.
  • Mann, C. C. (2011, June). The Birth of Religion. National Geographic. Retrieved from
  • McConnell, M. W. (2010). Religion and Its Relation to Limited Government. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 33(3), 943-952.
  • McIntyre, P. (1993). The Collision of Public Policy with Belief-Based Values. Journal of Church and State, 35(4), 831-857.
  • Rohr, J. (1989). Ethics for Bureaucrats: An Essay on Law and Values (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Marcel Bekker.
  • Waldo, D. (2007). The administrative state: A study of the political theory of American public administration. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.