Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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 Intermittently throughout American history, religious belief and practice have been an important source of political conflict. The occasional, and occasionally intense, nature of religious politics in the United States may be attributable to the unique role that religion plays in the life of the American nation. On one hand, religious belief and observance are quite widespread in the United States; relative to other industrialized nations, the U.S. population is highly religious. On the other hand, as a constitutional principle, religion is regarded as a separate sphere of activity from politics and government. Although the exact nature of church-state separation is a frequent topic of debate, few would dispute the principle itself.

Some scholars have suggested that these two characteristics of religion in the United States are not unrelated. Because religion (either singularly or collectively) is not accorded public support, religious denominations must compete for lay "consumers." In contrast to nations with established churches (which are regarded as similar to industrial monopolies), a competitive religious "market" encourages churches to attend to the needs and preferences of potential members. The laity is thought to respond to the efforts of the clergy by increased religious observance and devotion.

What this may mean is that, in many periods of American history, religion is an important personal matter for most citizens, but one with a very tenuous place in public discourse. The lack of public affirmations of specific religious principles may allow the perception that there exists a religious-moral consensus in American political culture. Observers from Alexis de Tocqueville to A. James Reichley and Richard Neuhaus have noted the widespread American adherence to "Christianity," or a "Judeo-Christian tradition." Because religious observance (church attendance and so on) is relegated to a private sphere, it may well be that most Americans are unaware of significant doctrinal or theological differences, or regard such distinctions as unimportant. In a religiously "consensual" polity, religion is not considered a direct source of political values but provides a context within which the political life of the nation can be conducted. Consensual religion is thought to provide boundaries on the range of permissible public policies rather than providing specific policy guidance.

Religious Mobilization

Historically, religious values cease to be a background characteristic of American politics and become a source of political mobilization when a group falling outside the prevailing "consensus" assumes a highly visible public role. In such a situation, religious values often are reaffirmed in public discourse as a means of defending a "lifestyle" that suddenly may seem threatened. Religiously orthodox citizens may use interest group activity, organize political parties, or form factions within the major parties in response to the perceived threat to the cultural hegemony of consensual religion.

On several occasions, religious beliefs have been mobilized politically in response to waves of immigration. In the 1850s, the "Know-Nothing" Party was formed in response to a large influx of Irish-Catholic immigrants. This movement was explicitly nativist and anti-Catholic, and served as one of the groups contributing to the rise of the Republican Party. Paul Kleppner (1987) has argued that, outside the South, the party system was divided on ethnoreligious grounds, with "ritualists" (Roman Catholics and "high church" Protestants) forming a constituency for the Democratic Party and "pietists" (experientially and evangelically oriented "low church" Protestants) tending to identify with the Republican Party.

Similarly, the Prohibition movement of the early twentieth century is often regarded as a reaction to another wave of Catholic immigration following World War I. Indeed, the Prohibition issue empowered a strong, "nativist" coalition of "mainline" Protestants and "fundamentalists." The former group was committed to the "Social Gospel," or a reinterpretation of Scripture as a response to modernity. The Social Gospel involved an emphasis on the ethical message of Christianity, an analysis of social problems in structural terms, and a corresponding deemphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. By contrast, "fundamentalists" sought to reaffirm the doctrinal "fundamentals" of Christianity, including the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance of individual conversion (as opposed to social reform). These divergent theological perspectives converged around the issue of alcohol. Proponents of the Social Gospel were able to portray alcohol as one of the most pernicious evils of modern, urban life, while fundamentalists were able to invoke specific scriptural injunctions against "demon rum."

Occasionally, publicly visible "out-groups" may not involve questions of immigration. In the 1950s, the specter of communism (both international and domestic) occasioned the formation of several interest groups, such as the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade and the John Birch Society. In these groups, and in other circles, the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union was often interpreted in apocalyptic terms, with international events viewed through the theological prism of the Book of Revelation. "Atheistic" communism was often perceived as literally diabolical by citizens on the theological and political right.

In the 1960s and 1970s, conservative religious sentiment was mobilized by issues of lifestyle concern. In response to "countercultural" issues such as drug use, sexual permissiveness, feminism, abortion, and gay rights, doctrinally conservative Christians mobilized sporadically throughout the period. The 1972 election is thought to be particularly critical in this regard, as the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, was widely perceived to represent groups opposed to traditional morality. Richard Nixon's appeal to the more traditionalist "Silent Majority," as well as the characterization of McGovern as the candidate of "Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion," may have attracted many previously apolitical or Democratic evangelical Christians to the Republican camp. Indeed, the McGovern candidacy was an important negative symbol for Republican candidates as recently as the off-year elections of 1994.

The candidacy and presidency of Jimmy Carter is an important watershed in the recent political mobilization of evangelical Christians. Although Carter's evangelical roots seem to have interrupted the realignment of white evangelicals to the Republican Party, the attraction of an explicitly evangelical candidate generated a strong increase in the turnout of doctrinally conservative Christians. Many evangelical Protestants had previously adopted an attitude of religious "separatism," which inhibited participation in political affairs. The Carter candidacy appears to have legitimized electoral participation for a large number of these people. However, the apparent liberalism on lifestyle issues that characterized the Carter administration proved disappointing to many conservative religious leaders. A White House Conference on Families, in which the Carter administration appeared sympathetic to alternative forms of family living (including cohabitation outside of marriage and homosexual couples), was regarded by many as a catalyst for another mobilization of the theological right.

In response to the renewed visibility of cultural, "lifestyle" minorities (the gay rights movement seemed particularly salient during this period), a number of conservative religious interest groups were formed. These included Christian Voice, Religious Roundtable, and Moral Majority. The latter group was formed in 1979 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a Virginia Baptist minister. Falwell also produced a television program called The Old Time Gospel Hour , which, along with Pat Robertson's 700 Club , Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL Club , and Jimmy Swaggart's televised ministry, was the most visible manifestation of a phenomenon that came to be known as "televangelism." The message of conservative Christianity, which was sometimes quite politically charged, was broadcast into millions of homes.

While stopping short of an outright endorsement, Falwell actively promoted the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and claimed a large share of the credit for Reagan's eventual victory. While the contribution of evangelical Christians to the outcome of the presidential election has been disputed, Falwell's attempts to mobilize conservative Christians (including voter registration drives) were widely credited with altering the results of several U.S. Senate elections. The 1980 election resulted in the defeat of several venerable Senate liberals, including John Culver of Iowa, Frank Church of Idaho, and (perhaps inevitably) George McGovern of South Dakota. Since the 1980 election, white evangelicals have been a reliable component of the Republican coalition, providing strong support for Reagan as well as for (Episcopalian) George Bush.

Religious Demobilization

It is important to note that religiously mobilized political activity is not a permanent feature of American politics. While religiously based political movements appear to arise as the result of a perceived threat to the cultural hegemony of traditional values, such movements appear to have finite, limited life spans. At least three processes appear to account for the political demobilization of religious beliefs.

Perhaps the simplest process of demobilization comes about as the result of issue displacement. Issues of lifestyle, gender roles, or "values" may give way to other matters and lose their prominent place on the political agenda. For example, the ethnoreligious party coalitions of the 1850s appear to have been displaced by economic depression in the 1890s. Indeed, Paul Kleppner (1987) has characterized the realignment begun in the 1896 election as the "secularization of politics." Similarly, issues of Prohibition and nativism that were salient in the 1920s may well have been displaced by the Great Depression of 1929. More recently, the oft-quoted internal slogan of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, "It's the economy, stupid!" reflects a conviction that economic issues may have a priority on the political agenda and that concerns about "lifestyle" issues may require a certain level of economic prosperity to assume a prominent role in political debate. However, noneconomic matters may also play a role in the process of issue displacement. It may well be that the religious anticommunist movement of the 1950s became less urgent with the election of Dwight Eisenhower and the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1957. It is also possible that the anticommunist issue was displaced in part by the civil rights movement, with its strong religious overtones.

A second process contributing to the political demobilization of religion may involve the countermobilization of other groups. For example, the presidential candidacy of Catholic Al Smith in 1928 seems to have had the effect of encouraging recent Catholic immigrants to enter the electoral arena. The alliance between urban, immigrant Catholics and the Democratic Party was cemented by Roosevelt's New Deal in the next presidential election. More recently, popular reaction to the Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Webster v. Missouri Reproductive Services on the issue of abortion appears to have mobilized pro-choice sentiment in a number of states. The Webster decision, which was widely interpreted as allowing state governments increased discretion in regulating the delivery of abortion services, seems to have repoliticized the abortion issue, which was credited for Democratic victories in a number of states in 1989 and 1990. Perhaps in response to these results, the Republican Party (staunchly pro-life in its party platforms since 1980) has sought to deemphasize the abortion issue in recent years. Party spokespersons have argued that it is more important to "change attitudes" than to pass restrictive abortion laws, or that the Republican Party is a "big tent," capable of accommodating a variety of positions on the abortion issue. The general point is that it is often politically costly for a political party to accommodate religiously based values, and "pragmatic" party activists may seek to suppress such issues on the political agenda.

Finally, religious particularism may contribute to the political demobilization of religion. The political mobilization of religious values entails the articulation of religious principles. It may be that, as previously implicit religious beliefs become explicit, the fragile nature of the American religious-moral "consensus" becomes apparent. Theological differences, which might not have been perceived or taken seriously, may well produce cleavages between "traditionalist" or "orthodox" Christians. Faced with such differences, potentially formidable political coalitions may fragment and splinter.

To illustrate, it has been argued that the nativist, Protestant coalition of mainline Protestants and fundamentalists were able to submerge their modern-anti-modern differences over the issue of Prohibition. Each side was able to find congenial theological reasons for a common position. However, issues of science and public education (culminating in the Scopes trial) exacerbated those very doctrinal differences. Adherents of the Social Gospel were quite willing to modify their understanding of Scripture to accommodate the insights of modern science, while the fundamentalists were moved to defend the inerrancy of the Bible.

More recently, organizations associated with what has been termed the "New Christian Right" have been weakened by the effects of religious particularism. Despite Falwell's claim that Moral Majority was an ecumenical, political organization rather than a religious one, the membership of Moral Majority never extended far beyond the bounds of Independent Baptist congregations. Support for Moral Majority was quite weak, even among those citizens sympathetic to the organization's religious and political positions. Similarly, the 1988 presidential campaign of Marion "Pat" Robertson was quite unsuccessful, in large part because of Robertson's inability to expand his base of Pentecostal Christians. Indeed, fundamentalist Jerry Falwell's early endorsement of George Bush's candidacy, and his expressed skepticism regarding spiritual gifts such as glossolalia, no doubt inhibited the formation of a potentially powerful coalition of fundamentalists, Pentecostalists, and charismatics. Finally, several observers have suggested that the political effectiveness of various antiabortion organizations has been diluted by mutual antipathy between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. Despite a common "pro-life" stance, theological differences between these two traditions have made political cooperation unusually difficult. The general point here is that agreement on political issues can be rendered politically irrelevant by disagreement on matters of doctrine or theology.

Toward the Future

In the early part of the 1990s, various attempts have been made to remobilize religious conservatives while avoiding the divisive effects of religious particularism. Such mobilization may have been made easier by the Clinton administration, which began by raising the controversial issue of the suitability of gays for military service. This issue, along with allegations of draft evasion, drug usage, and marital infidelity, may have made the urgency of defending "traditional" values more salient to doctrinally conservative Christians.

Perhaps the most impressive attempt at religious remobilization has been made by an organization called the Christian Coalition. Although nominally led by Pat Robertson, the most visible spokesperson for the Christian Coalition has been former executive director Ralph Reed. Prior to Reed's resignation in 1997, Reed had consistently taken the position that specifically doctrinal values are private matters and are not appropriate for public discussion. Instead, Reed has emphasized the importance of a "new ecumenism" in which people of different religious traditions will work together to achieve public policies designed to protect and enhance "family values." Thus the emphasis of the Christian Coalition is on the application of religiously based ethics, and not on religious beliefs themselves. Some preliminary evidence among political activists has suggested that, unlike Falwell or Robertson, the Christian Coalition has an ecumenical appeal among religiously observant and orthodox people across different denominations. It seems quite clear that the leaders of Christian Coalition have recognized the divisive effects of religious particularism and are responding to the challenge posed by the persistence of religious prejudice.

Ted G. Jelen


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C. Wilcox, God's Warriors (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)

G. Wills, Under God (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

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