Religion and Politics in the USA: a reverse in the historic trend?

One of the dominant features of the farcical and desperately over-reported race for the Republican presidential nomination is the pandering to radical, evangelical Christianity. The rise in popularity of the Tea Party and its religiously-devoted proponents over the past couple of years has ensured the Republican presidential hopefuls have had to give great consideration to the demands of the Christian right.

All the surviving candidates have pledged to outlaw abortion and gay marriage, played-down the significance of climate change and emphasised the importance of Christian morality amongst themselves and the nation as a whole. Newt Gingrich’s well-documented marriage failures and infidelities, and Mitt Romney’s staunch Mormonism are perhaps reasons why neither candidate has assumed the unconditional backing of evangelical groups. Yet the importance of appeasing these increasingly-influential backers, many of whom could supply a substantial financial windfall for any person challenging the Obama presidency, has become essential.

In a country where religion and politics are nominally distinct, the current US political scene mirrors a far more archaic time period. Parallels can be drawn between the early Puritan colonies of the north-east and today. In the seventeenth century a close marriage existed between political office and religion in the Puritan settlements. Are we seeing such linkages re-emerging today?

The remaining Republican candidates must be wary of the Christian right

 

Puritan Piety Politics

From the 1620s onwards, vast organised voyages of Puritan emigrants left the shores of England, Scotland and the Netherlands to settle in the sparsely-occupied regions of north-east America. Whilst the Massachusetts Bay colony is probably the most famous, Puritans of various denominations established settlements throughout what came to be known as New England. A mixture of strict Calvinists, Scottish Presbyterians and Protestant evangelicals, the historic image of the Puritans is not a glamorous one. Indeed, religious purity was the foundation of their individual lives and communities; nothing more.

Advocating personal Biblical interpretation, the Puritans emphasised the importance of serving God on an individual and communal level, thus guaranteeing the future happiness and prosperity of their settlements. Any misfortune or misery within a Puritan society was quickly interpreted as a sign of religious laxity, from which scapegoats were often identified. The prevalence of witch-burning in New England – most infamously at the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692-3 – highlighted the desperation amongst Puritan communities to identify a clearly-recognisable source of their woes and to exact suitable punishment. A particular belief in demonic forces, supposedly manifesting the mortal will of Satan on earth, added to these religious suspicions, accusations and condemnations.

The mass hysteria of religious extremism was manifested at Salem

The fear evoked amongst Puritan citizens with regards to the infiltration of the Devil into their midst is well-evoked in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and H.P. Lovecraft in particular. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter offers the most vivid examination of Puritan moral expectations and the consequences of straying from the accepted mores of the Bible. Hester Prynne becomes the embodiment of “normal” humanity against a race of uncompromising zealots. However, whilst Hawthorne was quick to point to the over-severity of his New England ancestors, his works also present Puritan society as one of order and pragmatism that left no “moral” Christian impoverished.  The emphasis on child education for instance, not only for Biblical studies but also to familiarise children with the country’s laws, was an important facet of Puritan communities.

This example was part of a wider link between the political establishment and the religious foundations of Puritan life. Town and state laws were predicated on religious learning and the two reciprocated one another to create a life where politics and organized religion overlapped. The presence of religious leaders in high political office was the natural consequence of such a system. Cotton Mather, for instance, perhaps the most renowned of Puritan leaders, was not only a revered congregational minister, but a political bastion of Boston throughout his adult life. Put simply, with religious standing came political obligations. The two were inseparable in Puritan towns and villages. Religious convictions influenced political law and decisions, with particular authority typically residing amongst a clique of prominent religio-political figures.

Cotton Mather embodied the religious-political merging of Puritan society

The unity of religion and politics would not remain unchallenged, however, and it was soon to be revoked in America, seemingly never to re-emerge.

 

Separation of Church and State

The decline in Puritan emigration from Britain to its flourishing American colonies happened steadily over the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The subsequent War of Independence further eroded ties between the now-titled United States and its former patron. Meanwhile, the immigration of a wide variety of other Christian religious pioneers from Scandinavia, Germany, the Low Countries and France further reduced the prominence of the Puritans. Whilst undoubtedly still highly influential in certain communities, their political grip on larger county or state areas was slowly diminished.

The Revolution played a far more significant role, however, than simply reducing the rate of Puritan colonists arriving from Britain. It gave rise to the Declaration of Independence (1776) in which the freedom of choice and of the individual was valued above all else. The following First Amendment of 1791 enshrined in the fledgling constitution the rights of all men to have religious freedom, unchallenged by the laws of government. Where before church and state had existed in a symbiotic relationship they were now, in theory, separate. The previously-unsurpassable authority of Puritanism in particular communities could now be contested at a higher level, encouraging religious diversity within American society.

The First Amendment officially separated Church and State

Although political leaders often retained strong links to the church, their holding of office was no longer simply an extension of their “god-given” authority. National figures of prominence, meanwhile, came to be delineated more by their martial and intellectual accomplishments than their position within the church. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the backgrounds of the first few presidents of the USA, who either had military or political-intellectual pasts.

None of this is to suggest that religion suddenly disappeared from the American political scene. Politicians and office-holders continued to be judged from a Christian moral standpoint and religious transgressions were often fatal for their careers.  In this respect, little has changed. Nevertheless, the laws of the country were not in the hands of religious zealots but a new breed of idealistic politicians. Over the next two centuries religious considerations became increasingly marginalised by politicians whose remit was based on economic and social pragmatism rather than merely serving their Lord.

 

The “Secularisation” of America and the Democratic System

The debate over how secularised contemporary American society has become is a fierce one. With most of the population identifying themselves with one of the Christian denominations – and atheism still a largely-unaccepted concept in the country – the impression is of a nation largely tuned towards religious values. However, religious affiliation should not be confused with religious conviction and, indeed, many Americans could easily be labelled as “faux” Christians, whose chief concerns stretch far beyond church matters.

In 1878 a Supreme Court case – Reynolds vs U.S. – gave rise to a debate about the place of religion in American society. George Reynolds, a Mormon, used as his defence for charges of bigamy the excuse that he was following his religious duty and was entitled to religious freedom under the provisions of the First Amendment. Reynolds was ultimately convicted, however, on what has come to be known as the “separation principle”. The idea that organized religion and state organs should be separated by an invisible “wall” had been evoked by Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century. It was now used to legitimise the outlawing of criminal defence on religious grounds.

The Reynolds case led to the clarification of the relationship between Church and State

Reality dictated that American values in the late nineteenth century, whilst still based on principles of Christian morality, went beyond religion. The ideology of democracy, commercialism and liberty were all espoused more strongly than ever before, and this only increased as America entered the twentieth century.

Alexis de Toqueville may have seen the legacy of Puritanism enmeshed in the American democratic system – based on their ideal that all men were equal in the eyes of the Lord – yet democratic sentiments had become something altogether separated from the religious sphere. As the 1900s progressed, political canvassing increasingly revolved around promises of economic and social advancement, in tune with the liberalism and capitalism pervading the national psyche. Whilst the votes of the genuinely devout were not ignored, would-be politicians hardly campaigned on the “religious ticket” alone. The impact of the religious elders on the US political system was negligible, in stark contrast to two centuries previously.

 

Radical Religion Challenges the System?

In his 1967 article, “Civil Religion in America”, Robert N. Bellah coined a phrase that neatly illustrated American society. Civil religion, he argued, encompassed certain political and social beliefs shared by Americans through history. “Few have realised” he suggested, “that there actually exists alongside of, and rather clearly differentiated from the churches, an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America”. Therefore, whilst most Americans were happy to align themselves with a particular church group, their “way of life” was characterised by a set of beliefs alternative to religious law.

Civil religion allows church and state to exist separately; they inhabit different spheres. The religiosity of particular social mores allows the average man to follow political events with a zeal reminiscent of devout church-goers, which is why the US is the world’s most politicised country. But are we now seeing these separate spheres merging?

The chance of the evangelical right having an impact on the American political system, albeit through the democratic process, is burgeoning. Whoever seals the Republican presidential nomination will rely heavily on the financial backing of “radical” Christian churches if they are to topple Barack Obama and his well-oiled campaign machine. The so-called “Super PACS” – the Political Action Committees that enable the circumvention of donor restrictions in providing funding for political campaigning – offer an influential arena in which church-leaders can promote particular issues. The likelihood of the abolition of abortion and gay marriage, and the restriction of contraception is therefore going to be high if a Republican becomes president in 2012. Mitt Romney, the man most likely to seal the nomination, is anything but the ultra-conservative evangelical poster boy the Tea Party and its cohorts dream of. Yet he will be, to an extent, hamstrung if he enters office because of his likely reliance on evangelical support and finance. Indeed, his pandering to evangelical wishes will only increase further after far-right candidate Rick Santorum’s triple-caucus victory last week.

The Christian Conservatism of Rick Santorum appeals to the evangelicals

This essay does not suggest that there is again an overlap between the state and the church as existed during the early Puritan days, in what was a localised America. Nevertheless, for the first time since the seventeenth century, the inexorable decline of religious influence on the political system is being reversed. There is an excellent chance that through its financial power, and persistent scaremongering, that the evangelical Christian right may play a disproportionately important role in the coming presidential election. Jefferson’s “wall” may be safe from demolition; yet the numbers being allowed to sneak over it is a worrying trend.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

1 thought on “Religion and Politics in the USA: a reverse in the historic trend?”

  1. People have realized that what they have no is clearly evil. Therefor they are returning to values and views that have been known to work for a long time. In my view, the USA needs Ron Paul to start making things right again.

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