Religion and Politics in America
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Religion and Politics in America

Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices

Allen D. Hertzke, Laura R. Olson, Kevin R. den Dulk, Robert Booth Fowler

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eBook - ePub

Religion and Politics in America

Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices

Allen D. Hertzke, Laura R. Olson, Kevin R. den Dulk, Robert Booth Fowler

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Religion and politics are never far from the headlines, but their relationship remains complex and often confusing. This book offers an engaging, accessible, and balanced treatment of religion in American politics. It explores the historical, cultural, and legal contexts that motivate religious political engagement and assesses the pragmatic and strategic political realities that religious organizations and people face. Incorporating the best and most current scholarship, the authors examine the evolving politics of Roman Catholics; evangelical and mainline Protestants; African-American and Latino traditions; Jews, Muslims, and other religious minorities; recent immigrants and religious "nones"; and other conventional and not-so-conventional American religious movements.

New to the Sixth Edition

‱ Covers the 2016 election and assesses the role of religion from Obama to Trump.

‱ Expands substantially on religion's relationship to gender and sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class, and features the role of social media in religious mobilization.

‱ Adds discussion questions at the end of every chapter, to help students gain deeper understanding of the subject.

‱ Adds a new concluding chapter on the normative issues raised by religious political engagement, to stimulate lively discussions.

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One cannot understand American politics today without knowing something about American religion. And one cannot understand either politics or religion without a sense of history, a sense of how the interplay among religion, politics, and culture has shaped the story of the United States. Since colonial days, religion has played a profound role in molding American culture, directly and indirectly, in ways that no one at the time of the founding ever could have imagined or predicted. To sort out the complex history of the relationships among religion, politics, and culture, we have organized this chapter around five themes: the Puritan temper, pluralism, the evangelical dimension, populism, and the contemporary growth of religious and spiritual individualism.


The United States was born of religious zeal. Its colonization coincided with, and was fueled by, dramatic upheavals in Europe that had been unleashed by the Protestant Reformation. The most important of these upheavals was the Puritan revolution that shook England and inspired many to immigrate to the New World. Today, the term “puritanical” connotes a narrow-minded, self-righteous rejection of anything pleasurable. But the Puritan legacy is something quite different. The Puritans bequeathed to Americans strong civic institutions, a sense of national mission, and a reformist impulse that continues to shape American society and political culture today.
The Puritans earned their name from their desire to “purify” the Church of England and, more broadly, society itself in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Inspired by Calvinist Reformed theology, Puritans reacted vehemently against what they saw as laxity and corruption in Christian churches. Infused with a sense of moral urgency, Puritans threatened established political and religious elites, and they often suffered persecution as a result of their agitation. To many Puritans, America offered both an escape and a fresh start. Thus, many Puritans (along with other religious dissenters) found their way to American shores beginning in the early 1600s.1
Although the American colonies were characterized by religious diversity from the beginning, the Puritans brought with them such a powerful vision that they exercised a disproportionate influence for a century and a half before the Revolutionary War. Many people at the time, regardless of their specific denominational affiliation, embraced the central tenets of Puritanism, and several leading colonial intellectuals were Puritan ministers.2
To the Puritans, the new land was not just a place where they could freely exercise their religion. It was literally the New Israel, the Promised Land on which the faithful could build a holy commonwealth unencumbered by Old World corruption. The Puritans called their mission an “Errand in the Wilderness” and saw it as divinely ordained. To use the celebrated Puritan phrase, America was to be “a city upon a hill,” a light to all nations. This sense of the nation’s providential destiny has infused many aspects of American politics, from the “manifest destiny” of westward expansion to various initiatives by presidents. From Abraham Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union as “the last best hope of earth,” to Woodrow Wilson’s quest to “make the world safe for democracy,” to John Kennedy’s Peace Corps, to Ronald Reagan’s confrontation with the Soviet Union, to George W. Bush’s declared foreign-policy aim of “ending tyranny in our world,” American leaders periodically have acted on a sense of special global mission and destiny.3 On the other hand, Donald Trump’s “America First” posture, with its zero-sum assessment of foreign affairs, seems to reject a wider global destiny for the nation, though many of his religious followers probably still adhere to that view. Whether, or how, a sense of divine mission should define America’s global responsibilities remains a hotly debated matter.4
Puritan doctrine also helped to nurture self-government in the new land.5 Puritans articulated a “covenant theology” that blatantly rejected the longstanding “divine right of kings” doctrine. As the Puritans saw it, political leaders did not derive their authority directly from God; instead, Puritans favored a model of government based on a community’s covenant with God. Puritan churches were autonomous, self-governing parishes. This “congregational” tradition gave rise to a parallel political preference for community self-governance.
To be sure, the Puritan conception of democracy was hardly equivalent to today’s understanding of democracy. Only the religious “elect,” or church members, were allowed to participate. People could become church members only by persuading church leaders that they were predestined for salvation; this status was understood to be enjoyed by only a small percentage of the population. But even if the Puritan colonies were more theocracies than democracies, they fostered a form of self-government from the start. Christian colonists had become outraged by 1775 as England and its established church continued to assert authority over the colonies. By then, the colonists had governed themselves for more than a century, and many in the Puritan tradition believed their religious doctrine justified revolutionary action.6
The Puritan emphasis on all humans’ tendency to sin also affected American politics, though scholars disagree on the extent. Certainly the Puritans’ skeptical view of human nature contributed to the American fear of concentrated governmental power. If political leaders are as tempted by sin as other human beings, then precautions against abuse must be built into the system. Some scholars see evidence of the residual cultural influence of Puritan doctrine in James Madison’s concern about diffusing and checking power in the US Constitution. Others note that during the American Revolution people largely avoided romantic and utopian thinking of the sort that led to the excesses of the contemporaneous French Revolution. A deeply ingrained understanding of sin thus tempered the early American practice of government.7
In addition, throughout the nation’s history, many Americans have based their social practices on the Puritan understanding of the need to restrain individual sin for the good of the community. As the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, the majority of Americans shared the Puritan conviction that “freedom” did not mean license to do anything one pleased but rather the ability to do those things that are good and right. Tocqueville found Americans remarkably faithful to this ideal in their organization of churches, schools, communities, and families. Powerful socialization forces restrained human impulses deemed destructive to the community.8 Thus, morally intrusive laws and practices that may seem suffocating today were viewed as helpful in early America, as they could liberate the individual from “slavery to sin.”9
Puritans emphasized the community’s central role in nurturing and restraining the individual. This aspect of their outlook is receiving renewed attention today. The Puritans and their heirs could be harsh, but their focus on community meant that people were not isolated. Women were not abandoned if they became widows; orphans were cared for; people did not suffer from rootlessness. Religious mores and strong communities restrained the atomizing tendencies unleashed by political freedom. Even today, many Americans continue to align themselves at least nominally with religious groups, even if their attendance is sporadic, in part because they value precisely this sense of community in congregations.10
Finally, Puritanism left a legacy of moral zeal that often did not recognize that shades of gray are needed in a political system whose lifeblood is compromise. Critics note how Puritan clergy moved with equal stridency from depicting the French as anti-Christian during the French and Indian War to viewing the British in similar terms only a decade later during the American Revolution.11 More sympathetic voices note that politics sometimes cries out for an infusion of religious conviction and fervor. Where would the nation be, they ask, without the uncompromising fervor of the abolitionists in the nineteenth century or the reformist energies of suffragists?
Whether for good or ill, we see evidence of this zeal among religionists across the political spectrum today. When today’s religious leaders prophesy against the evils of society and equate their political struggles with God’s cause, they are exemplifying the American Puritan tradition and keeping its cultural presence alive.


Important though the Puritan legacy was and is, the reality of religious pluralism played an even more powerful role in shaping the nation’s history. The roots of the dominant characteristic of American religion today—its almost bewildering multiplicity of religions, denominations, theologies, spiritualities, and organizational styles—may be traced to early colonial patterns. Moreover, the American break with the 1,500-year European tradition of maintaining a state-established church, as well as the eventual constitutional protection for religious freedom, combined to allow religious pluralism to flourish in the New World. And no one in any way planned this confluence of events.
Most colonies installed official state churches. The New England colonies formally designated the Congregational (Puritan) Church as their official faith; Maryland was at one time officially a Catholic colony; most southern colonies established the Anglican Church (the Church of England, which later became known as the Episcopal Church in the United States). This commonplace practice of establishing an official faith meant citizens had to pay a tax to support the colonial church and in some places had to be married by government-supported clergy.12
Despite the existence of established churches, members of other religious groups, including Jews, Quakers, Baptists, and many more, all found more room to practice their faiths in the New World than they had in Europe. If one found Massachusetts too suffocating, there was always Rhode Island, home to a host of dissenters, or New York, which had received numerous Jewish settlers by the late seventeenth century. Then there were the middle colonies—most notably Pennsylvania, where religious freedom was official policy from the start—modeling religious tolerance for the rest of the new nation. And there was always the seemingly endless wilderness, which became a haven to religious Nonconformists and visionaries. So Catholics settled in Maryland and tolerated Protestants; Quakers settled in Pennsylvania and tolerated Lutherans; Baptists agitated for their own freedom in a number of colonies. The idea of a society in which each faith tolerated all others so it could enjoy its own freedom took root.13
Religious tolerance was strengthened in the late eighteenth century when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were drafted and adopted, officially founding the United States. The framers of the Constitution faced an enormous challenge: knitting together thirteen colonies with different cultures, religions, economies, and climates. The solutions were born of necessity and compromise, as we can see in the language of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, which clearly are an attempt to address the complexities of religious pluralism: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The federal government was not allowed to favor one religion over all others, nor to limit the liberty of worship to any religion.
Then, as now, the goal of religious freedom meant different things to different people. Some of the framers, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, favored religious liberty in part to reduce clergy’s capability of meddling in politics, which to them represented a vestige of the corrupt and oppressive European world. Those founders who took this view were Enlightenment deists who believed in a God who had set the universe on course with natural laws and then left it alone. They cherished the chance to create an enduring United States free of the intense religious squabbles involving government interference that infected the Old World.
Jefferson, a religious skeptic who wrote his own version of the New Testament in which he did not affirm Christ as God, authored the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (a precursor to the First Amendment). Madison shared Jefferson’s belief that leaving individual conscience unfettered by the state would be the best guide in religion and morality. He therefore joined Jefferson’s effort to disestablish the state-established church in Virginia. Meanwhile, fervent Baptists and other religious dissenters also strongly supported constitutional protection of religious freedom and an end to state support for Virginia’s established church. Persecuted by Anglican authorities in the southern colonies and by Puritan leaders in New England, Baptists remembered times when they had been jailed for seeking marria...

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