People often say that religion has become more important in politics. In a way unimaginable in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, these days politicians, pundits, and pollsters give explicit attention to religion. In his famous speech nearly fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy tried to reassure his listeners that religion was irrelevant to politics, while this year Mitt Romney wanted to convince us that his faith has a good and proper influence over his life as a public servant. The preacher-politician Mike Huckabee won in the Iowa caucus. The Democratic party continues to try to rally voices on the religious left in order to counter the religious right. Books get written defending and descrying the role of faith in politics. Europeans look on in dismay. How could anybody deny that America has entered a phase of God-saturated politics?
But what seems obvious may be an optical illusion. I’m pretty sure that religion has become less influential rather than more so in recent decades. Today unbelief has a strong voice, and this new secular confidence throws the role of faith in public life into sharp relief as a quite distinct alternative. Religious conviction is less widespread, especially less widespread among the rich and powerful who tend to formulate and finance political platforms, and therefore it becomes more controversial. It is now a wedge issue rather than part of our common culture.
But I get ahead of myself. The story of Christianity in America is various and fascinating. One feature that stands out is our remarkable exceptionalism. Unlike Europe, the expansion of literacy, the vote, and economic opportunity did not erode religious faith. On the contrary, from the abolitionism of Wendell Phillips to the entrepreneurial self-image of Andrew Carnegie, the most progressive, modern sentiments were often expressed in explicitly theological terms. Our temples to liberty in Washington and our ziggurats of wealth in New York did not stand against the ancient faith of the apostles.
Today we often adopt a superior tone when we criticize our history. The ways in which American religion underwrote our westward expansion, the Gospel of Wealth, invocations of divine favor on the eve of battle¯it can all seem a hopeless tangle of worldly loyalties and divine truths. As Stanley Hauerwas never tires of reminding us, when the gospel becomes a useful rhetoric for national self-assertion, then the salt tends to lose it savor. But one fact remains indisputable: In all its compromises with secular trends, the predominant Protestant ethos of America remained extraordinarily influential.
My own memories suggest as much. I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and my extended family was fully involved at the Church of the Redeemer, a very large, very Establishment, Episcopal Church in the swanky north side of Baltimore. As a child I remember men in suits and women in Sunday hats and small, delicate glasses of lemonade after church in the summer. But it was the 1960s, and like so many cities in America, white Baltimore was in an agony of change. The old racial politics of Jim Crow were falling from the weight of its injustice, dramatized so powerfully by the heroic witness of a growing cohort of black and white activists. The threat¯and then the painful reality¯of racial violence convulsed the city. It was hard to see how the Maryland Club and the Bachelor’s Cotillion and all the rest of Establishment Baltimore could survive.
The Church of the Redeemer contributed no orator to the civil rights movement. It was not a hotbed of activism, and the congregation was certainly not on the forefront. Instead, like so many Establishment churches of that era, it did something more modest but perhaps just as important. With special Sunday congregation exchanges with inner-city, all-black Episcopal parishes; with countless soft-spoken but pointed sermons; with church-sponsored civil rights initiatives; and with coffee-hour conversations, the church did not so much convince rich, powerful white Baltimoreans that racial justice was a moral imperative (though it did make most feel guilty for thinking otherwise) as reassure them that they could live with the consequences of change. The church removed resistance, which was why what began as a protest movement in the 1950s became national policy in the 1960s¯and then solidified into an unassailable national orthodoxy by the 1970s, so much so that it became almost impossible to question even the most controversial and counterproductive policies without being labeled a racist.
By any reckoning, the success of the civil rights movement was the most important political event of the postwar period, and religion mattered a great deal in that achievement. Mainline Protestantism had the ear of the richest and most powerful Americans, some Roosevelt Democrats and some Eisenhower Republicans. And the pastors did what they were supposed to do: They shepherded their well-heeled, influential flocks toward a consensus about civil rights, which was why Lyndon Johnson could sign a civil rights bill with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1964. It capped a remarkable display of the power of the mainline churches to shape politics, a display unmatched by any influence exercised in recent decades by the evangelicals and Catholics whom the pundits accuse of theocratic ambition.
Today we hear about the role of religion in politics because the mainline churches no longer pastor to the rich and powerful. Since the 1960s, the most significant fact about the American religious scene has been the emergence of an elite culture unconnected to faith. We could stay up late into the night discussing causes: the rise of the New Left and the increasing anti-Americanism of mainline Protestantism in recent decades; the collapse of any semblance of doctrinal substance; the wholesale adoption of a therapeutic vocabulary for faith; the hoary, old secularization thesis, and so forth.
But the fact remains. In 1960, I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of major contributors to both the Democratic and Republican parties were influenced by mainline Protestantism. They may or may not have believed very much, but they went to church, or at least wanted others to think that they did. Today I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the top contributors to Hillary Clinton’s campaign have little or nothing to do with what such folks like to call “organized religion.”
In short, we have a large cohort of well-heeled and influential Americans who are no longer part of the Protestant Establishment once ministered to by the mainline churches. I don’t doubt that their political policy preferences are often well-intentioned and sometimes sound. After all, the Catholic Church teaches that the principles of justice necessary to govern well are accessible to all by virtue of our shared nature as rational creatures made in the image and likeness of God. But politics is not just about policy. It is also about a shared moral and political imagination, what Richard Weaver once called our “metaphysical dreams.”
I don’t think I’m breaking news when I report that our current secular elite invariably seems to think differently than the typical churchgoer. We see it in the divisive cultural issues of our day: abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation, and gay marriage. But it was already there in earlier efforts, stimulated by John Rawls (perhaps unwittingly, but that’s another story), to redefine “public reason” so as to exclude religious believers. Thus our current situation: Faith matters so much in politics because, for some, it ought not to matter at all. A secular “no” has given rise to a vigorous, religious “yes,” as the emergence of First Things in 1990 testifies.
Our political system encourages the perpetuation of two big, baggy political parties, because our electoral rules (winner take all) give no opportunities for coalition governments. Without proportional representation, winning 20–30 percent of the vote gets you nowhere. Therefore, our parties are constantly reinventing themselves in order to vacuum up as many votes as possible to accumulate a working majority. If enough people want to hear about the evils of a global economy or the dangers of global warming, then our two-party system will contort itself into all sorts of improbable positions to appeal to as many of these voters as possible without somehow offending those who think otherwise. This is the job of speechwriters and campaign managers. And the spectacle of convoluted euphemism and frequent poll-driven tacking gets the media attention.
Today, because there is a big and powerful bloc of voters who resent the role of religion in politics, and because there is another bloc equally convinced of the good effects of faith on public affairs, our political process now raises issues of faith, just as it raises divisive issues of immigration, economic, and foreign policy. Any contested issue of public importance provides an opportunity for political actors to try to motivate, reassure, deceive, energize, and otherwise mobilize voters. The more visible and intense the political rhetoric, the more sure you can be that the issue cuts very close to the majority.
Two kinds of views get no attention: those everybody shares, and those few believe. Nobody is trying to drive a wedge between the mom-and-apple-pie crowd and the rest of us. Nobody is gunning for the anti-patriotic vote. When mainline Protestantism held sway over polite society, religion itself was uncontroversial, because elite Americans were confident that political differences were encompassed by a larger religious consensus. They may have fought it out in the polls, but whoever was elected president led a “Christian nation.” This is no longer the case, as everybody realizes, and it is precisely because religion is less ubiquitous that it has become more controversial¯and more noticed¯in the public square.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.