Andrew Preston, Bruce Schulman, and Julian E. Zelizer
The mingling of religion and politics has formed a defining feature of American public life ever since the founding of the United States as a nation. This potent, sometimes explosive mixture has been remarkably pervasive, especially given the limitations the Constitution placed on the extent to which religious faith can participate as a function of government. The only guidance the Constitution offered on religion's standing in politics came in Article VI, which prohibited the use of religious tests to determine if someone is eligible for national office. The Bill of Rights addressed religion more directly—the first sentence of the First Amendment guaranteed religious liberty through the establishment and free exercise clauses—but did so briefly, in only sixteen words. Legally, then, religion received no official role in national governance, and certainly no endorsement or encouragement.
Politically, however, religion has always been prominent in American public life. "Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports," declared George Washington in his farewell address of 1796. "The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them." Washington was a child of the Enlightenment and by no means an orthodox Protestant. Nonetheless, it seemed obvious to him that a healthy republic depended upon virtue, that virtue depended upon morality, and that morality depended on religion. According to Washington, in other words, democratic self-government could not exist without religion. "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure," he concluded, "reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
Not everyone shared Washington's vision of a religious republic. Thomas Jefferson, a deist and humanist who denied the divinity of Jesus and harbored suspicion toward institutional religion, sought to limit the place of faith in government as much as possible. His most famous contribution to this debate, an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, contains one of the earliest reference to "a wall of separation between Church and State." Jefferson reiterated his position before a national audience three years later, in his second inaugural address: "In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies." In contrast to George Washington, Jefferson did not believe that democracy relied on religion, and certainly not the fervent Christianity that prevailed in the early republic, particularly New England. As Jefferson explained to his attorney general, his views on the rigorous separation of church and state "will give great offence to the New England clergy, but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them."
On the surface, Washington and Jefferson's positions seem to be irreconcilable. On one hand, the first president implied that democracy cannot function without religion; on the other, the third president ostensibly claimed that democracy cannot function with it. Yet their views coincided more than they appear, and that underlying similarity helps explain the perseverance and prevalence of religion in American politics. Most important, neither president believed that the federal government should actively help or hinder religion; government must instead remain neutral. But beyond that basic stricture, both Washington and Jefferson subscribed to an idea that scholars now call the religious marketplace. According to this theory, based on Adam Smith's ideas about commerce in The Wealth of Nations and applied by many of the American Founders to matters of faith, religion operated in a manner analogous to a capitalist market: both functioned best when free from government constraints and manipulation. Just as a monopoly was bad for capitalism, an official church was bad for religion. In this sense, the First Amendment safeguarded church from state as much as it protected government from religious interference. In religion, as in governance and economics, this quintessentially American (and, not coincidentally, Protestant) principle was grounded in the assumption that liberty was best preserved when power was dispersed. Churches would flourish when forced to compete and innovate, and thereby check and balance one another. Moreover, religion remained an unavoidable fact of the people's lives, for better (Washington) or worse (Jefferson). Attempts to regulate it, whether through an established church, executive power, or congressional legislation, could end up only as undemocratic curbs on fundamental individual freedom. Thus the healthiest relationship between church and state was separation, so both could flourish independently. Unorthodox though his religion was, Jefferson certainly understood this, which is why he (together with James Madison) drafted the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom for Virginia. Staunch Anglican though he was, so too did Washington.
Both Washington and Jefferson realized that while the Constitution and Bill of Rights could separate the institutions of church and state, they could not keep politics free of religion. The separation of church and state forms only one part of this historic relationship. Just as important, and underexamined, has been the ongoing interaction between religion and politics, including partisanship, institutions, political ideology, and movement activism. Religion has always played an important role in shaping the nation's political culture, while religions have sometimes developed in response to political change. This intermingling remains as evident today as it was two centuries ago. During the 1800 election campaign, a bitter feud erupted over whether Jefferson's irreligion made him unfit to be president, but in the twenty-first century such arguments about a candidate's faith are no longer novel, despite the proscription on religious tests. The last three presidential elections highlighted the importance that Americans attach to religion: in 2012, unease about Mitt Romney's Mormonism persisted among liberals and conservatives alike; in 2008, controversial liberation theology sermons by Reverend Jeremiah Wright threatened to undermine Barack Obama's candidacy (while a small minority of Americans doubted whether Obama was even a Christian); and in 2004, while Archbishop Raymond Cardinal Burke of Saint Louis vowed not to give communion to Democrat John Kerry over his tolerance of abortion rights, Republican George W. Bush aggressively courted white Protestant evangelicals and conservative Catholics and rode their support to victory.
In fact, rarely have religion and politics ever been truly separate, and it is not difficult to see why. To a great extent politics is the product of culture, and religion is an important form of culture. More directly, religious Americans contribute to national debates on ethics, morals, economics, the size and proper role of government, and foreign affairs. Either individually or collectively, they bring their influence to bear on the political process by making their views known to politicians and government officials—many of whom are themselves religious, or at least conversant with the history, values, and prerogatives of religious communities. As long as the United States is a religious nation, religion will play a political role. Observers going back to Alexis de Tocqueville have pointed this out, and there is little to indicate that this essential part of the American national character has changed.
At the same time, religion is not static; it is constantly evolving and taking new shape based on the specific contests that it inhabits. The political world surrounding religious leaders and congregants can exert an extremely powerful influence on what takes place in the pulpit. Over time, the substance of religion and the context of politics assume a dialectical relationship that has great influence on each. Religious leaders started to take a more aggressive role in tackling political questions in response to changes in government. During the 1930s, some religious leaders incorporated a defense of the welfare state into the theological arguments they shared with constituents, just as the civil rights cause became integral to Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in the 1950s and 1960s. Political conservatism shaped other religious leaders in the 1950s, who embraced arguments about communism and the risks of strong government, just as the Moral Majority in the 1970s focused on issues such as abortion and government regulation as part of their regular dialogue.
Since Tocqueville traveled through antebellum America, religion has been an indispensable part of American public life—if anything, as David Domke and Kevin Coe have argued, religion is perhaps more central to American politics than ever before. Not surprisingly, then, scholars are now rethinking this complicated, fraught relationship. Recent work demonstrates this enduring religious influence on politics even as it complicates our conventional understanding of it. Amanda Porterfield, for example, has illustrated that the politics of the early republic were deeply affected by an aggressive Protestant campaign against incipient forms of secularism, such as deism and agnosticism, that had become increasingly popular and threatened the Protestant domination of public life. Harry S. Stout has shown that the political and military history of the Civil War is incomplete without a consideration of religion. Religious figures who never held elected office, such as the genial Presbyterian Billy Graham or the fiery Pentecostal Aimee Semple McPherson, had a profoundly important political presence that reverberated throughout the twentieth century, as Steven Miller's and Matthew Avery Sutton's biographies reveal. Mark Noll, Edward Blum, and Paul Harvey argue that the bitter history of racial politics, which has been at the heart of much of American history, cannot be fully appreciated without considering its religious dimensions. Similarly, whether it is through David Hollinger's study of the social sciences, Andrew Heinze's analysis of psychology, Jeremi Suri's reading of geopolitics, or Jonathan Freedman's account of different forms of popular music, scholars have traced the difficult but ultimately successful process of Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. Our understanding of U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War, a field long dominated by realist assumptions, has been enhanced by a torrent of revisionist investigations into the role of religion. As this small but indicative sample of recent scholarship shows, religion has played an integral part in shaping various aspects of American political history.
This is not to say that American religion has been monolithic and consensual, or free of conflict or contestation—far from it. Church and state may have been separate, but until well into the twentieth century Protestantism enjoyed an almost complete cultural and political hegemony enforced through the subjugation, sometimes violent but nearly always coercive, of other faiths (including other Christian faiths, such as Catholicism and Mormonism). Often these conflicts played out in the church or synagogue, but just as often they erupted in the political arena. Even within Protestantism, divisions between modernists and fundamentalists, or liberals and conservatives, stimulated political debate over foreign policy, civil rights, sexual mores, and identity politics.
Nor can we assume that all Americans have been religious. Some nations are extremely devout, and religion and politics are deeply intertwined; others, most notably in Western Europe, have marginalized religion to the extent that its political influence is rare, negligible, and unimportant. The United States is unusual in that it is both a deeply religious nation and a thoroughly secular one; faith and secularism have blended in American society in productive and unpredictable ways.
Yet secularism thrives in the United States, and in recent decades has thrived as never before. The strict separation of church and state as it is now construed is in fact a relatively recent development. It dates back not to Thomas Jefferson, but to post-World War II disputes about the proper role of religion in education. The construction of Jefferson's wall began only in 1947, when the Supreme Court's decision in Everson v. Board of Education codified Jefferson's strict separationism as legal doctrine for the first time, and was more or less complete by the early 1960s, with the Court's decisions in the Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) cases on, respectively, prayer and Bible reading in public schools. That process of separating church from state, which effectively meant the privatization of religion, did not augur well for religious observance. Though they have left an indelible cultural imprint, the forms of traditional institutional religion that long dominated American public life, particularly the mainline Protestant churches, have declined rapidly since the 1960s. In this "restructuring of American religion," attitudes toward faith either hardened into more conservative and devout forms of worship or withered away into a more secular strain of liberalism. Both the secular left and the Religious Right then radicalized, leaving little in the way of a common middle ground. Whereas evangelical and Pentecostal churches have boomed in recent decades, recent polling shows that the fastest growing religious groups are nonbelievers and those who identify as "spiritual but not religious." If religious adherence persists (and intensifies) among many Americans, it has died for many others. Thus if there is still a religious influence on American public life, it is complex, multifaceted, and fiercely disputed.
Nonetheless, few would dispute that religion, and with it a religious presence in politics and public life, endures. After all, around the same time the Supreme Court constructed Jefferson's wall of separation, Congress instituted the National Day of Prayer, codified "In God We Trust" as the national motto, and inserted "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance. It is thus incumbent upon historians to integrate both religion and secularization into their analyses of American politics, culture, and society. Yet for a long time, American historiography had what Jon Butler called a "religion problem": religious history was for the most part cordoned off from the rest of American history; church history was somehow not political, social, or cultural history (though it did enjoy very close ties to intellectual history). Compounding the problem was the fact that religion was mostly ignored in many subfields of American history, such as foreign relations and civil rights. Closely related disciplines, such as American studies and international relations theory, also had their own religion problem.
If American history once had a religion problem, however, that is no longer the case. Scholars of U.S. history now try to integrate religion into their understanding of the nation. Religious historians have strived to connect their work to broader narratives about American history, while the recently revitalized field of political history has also worked hard to connect political leaders and institutions to larger societal trends so as to avoid an insular analysis of their subject. While there is still much work to be done, historians are navigating an important historiographical turn that is bringing these two subjects closer together.
This religious turn in American history, reflected in the chapters in this book, is marked by several common characteristics. First, and perhaps foremost, historians are taking religion seriously as a discrete category of historical analysis and are treating religion as they would any other subject rather than using scholarship as a platform to demonize or lionize religious faith. This is in marked contrast to the battles waged by popular writers and public intellectuals over the validity of religion itself. Second, rather than simply assuming, a priori, that religion plays some sort of a role in American history, historians are thoroughly investigating the ways in which religion features in American political, cultural, economic, social, and diplomatic history. Third, the new history is seeking to complicate conventional wisdom about familiar but politically contentious topics such as secularization; pluralism, assimilation, diversity, and tolerance; the separation of church and state; how religion shapes voting behavior; and how it has influenced foreign policy. Fourth, in tandem with nearly all subfields of American history, religious historians are seeking to transform their work into something less parochial, by making it more comparative, international, and transnational. Fifth, and perhaps most analogous to political history, religious historians are seeking to balance a newer and fresh focus on social history methods and subjects—such as "lived religion," civil society, grassroots movements, popular culture, and minorities—with a desire to preserve what was best about the more traditional emphasis on churches, institutions, and elites.
There are of course many good overviews of the relationship between American politics and American religion, just as there is now a vast literature on specific religious aspects of political history. What makes this book unusual is that it provides an overview since the Civil War through a variety of detailed empirical case studies—meant to be indicative and representative rather than definitive and comprehensive. They range from explorations of how religion unexpectedly influenced political economy (as in the chapter by Darren Dochuk) to the complex connections between religious leaders and conservatism and liberalism (for example, in the chapters by Lily Geismer, Alison Collis Greene, Bethany Moreton, and Molly Worthen) to the particular political and social contexts within which religious coalitions took form (detailed in the chapters by Lila Corwin Berman, Edward J. Blum, Matthew S. Hedstrom, and David Mislin). Written by a new generation of historians, the chapters in Faithful Republic blend church history and lived religion and use the fusion to fashion an innovative kind of political history.
By adopting this approach, we hope to illustrate the textured richness that has helped give shape to religion and politics and America while also preserving the wide-angle lens of a broad survey. For this reason, we have also defined "political history" as broadly and inclusively as possible, to include ideology, economics, political culture, and social movements as well as high politics. Our individual chapters demonstrate the complexities of historical change over time, but they do so under the same rubric of tracing a religious influence on American public life. Overall, then, we hope that the diversity of the chapters reveals the pervasiveness of religion in American political history.