Home / In Depth / THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN THE US POLITICAL SYSTEM- PAST TO PRESENT
US President Donald J. Trump gestures after the State of the Union address in the chamber of the US House of Representatives in Washington, DC, on January 30, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Win McNamee

THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN THE US POLITICAL SYSTEM- PAST TO PRESENT

 

BY: SYED MOHAMMAD HUSSAIN —

 

“There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular Left’s relentless effort to drive God out of America’s public square.”  Newt Gingrich[1]

Perhaps this quote made by Newt Gingrich- former Republican Party presidential nomination and 50th speaker of the House of the Representatives- best describes the perennial struggle for religious values, ideals and beliefs by the American people and government at large, through the times of the nation’s founding fathers to the 2017 Presidential elections. Religiosity has remained an intrinsic part of the American society and political structure, with strong adherence to religious values in large parts of the United States despite growing trends of secularization in many other parts of the western world. In analyzing the dynamics of religion in the US political system, we shall look at the religious landscape of the country since its war of independence, the influences of religion as a marketplace and impacting the political system and the significance religion created in national politics and the foreign policy of the United States. Also, in this paper, we shall give detail and deeper discussion on Christianity as the main religion affecting the US political system as it has also served as the single largest believed faith in the country’s history; roles of other religions, however, shall also be touched upon in the course of a discussion.

The Christian faith and religion in general has remained an existential aspect of the US political system. According to a 2014 study by conducted by the Pew Research Centre, 70.6% of the adult US population identified themselves as believers of the Christian faith. From the 70.6% mentioned, 46.5% professed attendance at churches that are believed to be of Protestant guidance, while 20.8% profess to follow the Catholic denomination of Christianity. [2]Other denominations such as Mormon’s (1.6%), Jehovah’s Witness (0.80%) and Eastern Orthodox Christians also are present. According to the same study, under the umbrella of Protestant Christians, there exist other prominent sub-denominations such as the Evangelical Protestants (25.4% of Christians), Mainline Protestants (14.7%) and Historically Black Protestants (6.5%). Further dividing these sub-denominations, we get believers such as Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Amish and Presbyterians among many others. Other than Christianity, the study finds non-Christian faiths to compromise 5.9% of which the more prominent ones are Judaism( 1.9%) and Islam (0.9%).Some  22.8% of the respondents affiliation to no particular faith of which also comprised atheists and agnostics. The United States is generally regarded as more Protestant dominated due to the majority population present. The Protestant faith was brought largely by the Puritan immigrants in the seventeenth century while the Catholic faith formed its stronger roots mainly through European immigrants coming to the United States in the early nineteenth century. In 1776, the Catholics were less than 1% of the total population but now serve as 25-27% of the national vote.[3]

Today, the American society and nation is considered one of the most religiously inclined in the western world and religion does indeed play a pivotal role in the political dynamics of the country. Many may however find it hard to believe so, in particular, after the formulation of the US constitution and the subsequent separation of the Church and the State. Indeed, 65 percent of Americans say that religion is important in their daily lives compared to just 17 percent of Swedes, 19 percent of Danes, and 24 percent of Japanese.[4] Furthermore, a Gallup Poll released in 2007 indicated that 53% of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist as president, up from 48% in 1987 and 1999.[5] Research shows that candidates that are perceived to be religious are considered more trustworthy[6]. While Article 6 of the US constitution maintains that those running for public office need not pass any religious test or examination for qualification[7], potential candidates have to pass through a lot of scrutiny and informal checks by religious groups and lobbyists and the views/influence of who can impact the final chances of a candidate This had been the case with Thomas Jefferson and John Kerry in their presidential election campaigns. Jefferson’s views on Christianity and religion in general were seen by the public as controversial and many saw his victory as a result of his strategy on changing audience debate from views on his own religious thoughts to his views on tolerance of other faiths.[8] John Kerry on the other hand lost his presidential elections due to Catholic voters not trusting Kerry as a person who would help the Catholic Church once elected. Subsequently many churchgoing Catholics voted for Bush despite John Kerry himself being a Catholic.[9] The religious ‘marketplace’ in the United States too has evolved over the years. In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the people were not part of any specific churches and there was competition amongst the suppliers- priests, preachers, churches- to influence most of the people towards their particular school of thought. As historian of religion Martin Marty describes that ministers who supported a particular Christian denomination found that “their first enemy was neither the devil nor the woman but the Baptist”- or any number of evangelists.[10]  The people who demanded were the ordinary individuals who seek a religion that most satisfied them. It is safe to say that the religious market of the time was free and disorderly as compared to the modern day where religion is far more orderly and organized with the concept of American civil religion also firmly embedded. American civil religion can be defined as the state’s use of consensual religious sentiments, concepts, and systems for its own purposes.[11] It is a system which links the nation and brings cohesion using common general religion to unite the masses and serve as a unifier for patriotism and solidarity for the national cause using symbols such as soldiers and national flag and deriving their religious significance, in addition to their national importance.

The First Amendment in the US constitution allows the freedom of religion and from this amendment was coined the world in a letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. However, the system is not as simple as that. The Supreme Court has also had to frequently intervene in matters where the church to state separation is not clear with decisions going in favor of either side. For example, in 1962, the court addressed the issue of state-sponsored religious recitations in public schools. In Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421 ( 1962), the court ruled against the state deeming state prayers unconstitutional remarking: “, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by the government.”[12] On another occasion, in the Everon v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1(1947) case, the government ruled in favor of a New Jersey law that allowed the government to use its funds to pay for transportation of students to both public and Catholic schools.[13] Similarly, the court has also been invoked in other matters of social importance where the Church/ State may seem to be crossing the line of separation between themselves.

While the court regulates, another critical proponent that influences the US political system and decision-making are lobbyist groups. These are used by various interest groups and religious/ideological interest groups to advance their interests whether it is for Judaism, Buddhism or Islam. However, in this paper, we shall discuss the efforts of the Christian coalition. The Christian Coalition was founded in1989 by Pat Robertson initially as a religious conservative/traditionalist voter mobilization forum. It has had its organization largely for Republican candidates and candidates with strong conservative/traditional beliefs and values on issues of morality and family. The organization lobbies for political candidates but cannot endorse a candidate due to its status as a tax-exempt non-political organization. The organization has been driven primarily by the Protestant Evangelical Christians but since 1996 have had good alliances and relations with Roman Catholics, members of the Greek Orthodox church and even Jews. Its central beliefs are essentially politically conservative and socially conservative/ traditional with strong adherence to Christian belief through practices such as school prayers, the formal pledges of allegiance, critical rejection of any abortion laws and inter-sex marriages amongst other traditional beliefs and values. The Christian Coalition has through its grassroots lobbying, campaign engagement, voter mobilization, national social reach through voter guide distribution and organizational committees helped the Republican party over the years in winning election campaigns. Such has been the voter mobilization of conservatives/ traditionalists that even Democrats- traditionally fielded relatively secular candidates- have in recent election cycles been encouraged to field less secular and more conservative candidates in order to extract traditional religious voter share. A prime supporter of the Christian Coalition was former president George W. Bush to whom the organization’s lobbyist success can largely be attributed to. In the 2000 presidential primaries, Bush won in every US state where the more than 15 percent of the state populace identified themselves as members of the Religious Right.[14]  Similarly, Bush’s victory in the 2004 presidential elections may also be attributed to the efforts of the Christian Coalition grassroots lobbying, in particular when Ralph Reed( former executive director of the Christian Coalition) became the Bush campaign’s regional coordinator for the South East that encompassed large parts of the Bible Belt as well. This move helped unite the Evangelical Christian vote for Bush and helped him get an additional  3.8 million votes through the 78% of Evangelical Christians who came out to vote, voted for Bush; an increase of 9 million such votes from the 2000 presidential elections[15]

Moving forward we touch upon a relatively lighter note of religion’s impact on US politics which is God-talk and the significance of God-talk by various presidential nominees. From the founder of the nation George Washington to current President Trump, presidents and presidential nominees have frequently made reference to a God and a Divine Power holding firm to Christian religious beliefs. With that, American exceptionalism and concepts such as manifest destiny are oft-discussed where America is believed to be given the responsibility of upholding good values in the world and fighting for justice and what is morally right as a guardian of values and morals. Democrats have historically been relatively more secular and less overt of religiosity than Republicans have also in recent election cycles become more open to showcasing religious values as a good portion of voter share and voter base is derived from religious conservative Christians. Civil society religious beliefs are showcased through statements such as ‘God bless America!’ and ‘America is God’s chosen nation’ and have been spoken by many US presidents ranging from Richard Nixon of the Quaker Christian denomination to a secular Barack Obama to presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, a practicing Methodist(Christianity denomination). In the June 2006 ‘ Call to Renewal conference’ sponsored by Sojourners, a progressively Christian organization, Barack Obama said the following about his faith and religion and his statements earned him much public praise: “‘It came about as a choice and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t-magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.’[16] Such expression of views is generally considered rare for Democrats. In a later conference organized in 2007 by the same organization, Hillary Clinton commented the following when asked by a moderator over why she is not public/ expressive about her religious views: “‘I take my faith very seriously and very personally. And I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves.’’[17] Hillary Clinton was referring here to claimed and alleged double standards and hypocrisy of the religious right in matters of social and religious issues. George Washington, the founder of the nation, would frequently make references to ‘ God’, ‘ The Distributor’, ‘ Diety’ and ‘ Providence’ and would praise a God making public strong Christian affiliations. Americans recount the immigrant flow from Europe to US fleeing persecution as similar to the Biblical references of the Jewish people fleeing an Egyptian-Pharaoh land of persecution in search of peace and harmony. George Washington makes a similar reference here in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah, Georgia: “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of those people whose God is Jehovah.”[18]

Finally, we move to religion’s impact and religious literature on foreign policy. We shall not have profound engagement here so as to stay relevant to national politics relationship with religion. A country with deep roots and embodiments in politics of religion must have certain religious influences in the foreign policy sphere. Here too, American leaders make reference of God and Divinity with a responsibility bestowed on the American nation to bring morals and justice to the world. Woodrow Wilson once presenting the Treaty of Paris and while making reference of the ‘hand of God’ through the League of Nations to the Senate claimed ‘A supreme moment of history has come. The eyes of the people have been opened and they see. The hand of God is laid upon the nations. He will show them the favor, I devoutly believe, only if they rise to the clear heights of His own justice and mercy.”[19]During World War II, Roosevelt declared in his 1942 message to Congress: “We on our side are striving to be true to [our] divine heritage.”[20] The entirety of the Cold war was seen as a conflict between ‘evil’ communism and the good of ‘America’. The Vietnam War was also given significance from a religious view as the American people saw it as a clash between the ‘ evil’ Communists in North Korea against Christian South Korea and the result of the war would also decide the fate of Christianity in the region. Nabil Shaath, who was Palestinian foreign minister at the time of the Afghan/Iraq war, claimed President Bush told them that he was given a mission by God to end the persecution by terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ex-foreign minister claimed: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God’. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.”[21] Evangelical Christians have also supported the Israeli claim to statehood on ideological reasons including references in the Bible to Jews being returned to their ‘promised land’.

As we conclude, we accept that religion does have an influence on most components of American life whether it is through an organ of the state, domestic public or in the external matters of the state. Religion has had a direct/indirect influence on the domestic political systems and external dealings. The religious fervor in American society is high as compared to other Western countries and this is exhibited in the decision making framework. Though predictions depict that the future has a young population of highly secular and religiously indifferent individuals, it would be much time before the American society incorporates elements of high secularism and religious indifference to the political framework and decision-making process. Indeed the religious landscape and marketplace has become robust and organized from the infant years of the American Union and religion has played roles of varying degrees throughout American history through its system, leaders, and people.

 

[1] www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/5/3/648/pdf

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/

[3] http://www.officialcatholicdirectory.com/OCD/home

[4] http://news.gallup.com/poll/142727/religiosity-highest-world-poorest-nations.aspx

[5] http://news.gallup.com/poll/26611/Some-Americans-Reluctant-Vote-Mormon-72YearOld-Presidential-Candidates.aspx

[6] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532673X15608939?papetoc=&

[7] https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlevi

[8] Lambert, F. (1997). `God-and a religious president… [or] Jefferson and no God’: for a voter-imposed. Journal of Church & State, 39(4), 769. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

[9] http://edition.cnn.com/2005/POLITICS/04/08/catholic.voters/index.html

[10]http://bostonreview.net/blog/americas-religious-market

[11] http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-99/civil-religion-in-america.html

[12] https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/370/421/case.html

[13] https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/330/1/case.html

[14] https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297a/Religion%20in%20US%20Domestic%20Policy.pdf

[15] http://www.economist.com/node/3375543

[16] http://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1039&context=gov_fac

[17] http://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1039&context=gov_fac

[18] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0279

[19] https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/quotes/woodrow-wilson-on-the-hand-of-god-in-1917-state-of-the-union-address

[20] http://carnegieendowment.org/files/PB37.judis.FINAL.pdf

[21] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/oct/07/iraq.usa

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