Religion and American Politics


August 8, 2017 (San Diego) Religion has a role in American politics. The United States is a secular nation, with a strict separation of Church and State. This is what the First Amendment says. The country that emerged from the American Revolution was tied to the ideology of the Enlightenment. The National creed of the era included the concept that there was a public sphere and a private sphere. Religion, faith, was reserved for the quiet of the Church and the home. It was not to be shared in the brashness of civic and public life. In modern terms, it was not to be worn on your sleeve.

It is not that the generation of the enlightenment was not religious. Or that they thought God did not belong in private life. Some of the founders were the children of ministers that were part of the First Great Revival a generation before. Some were leaders of different faiths themselves, In the case of Peter and Frederick Muhlemberg, they were preachers. Their father, Henry, is the founder of the Lutheran Church in the United States. To say that there was no religiosity is wrong.

There were discussions during the era of what the role of religion should be in the public sphere. However, the people who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were familiar with the religious wars that wracked the continent after the Reformation. Some were descendants of people who came from Europe fleeing those religious wars. Others were from New England where religion played a more important role early in the colonial history. This was not a country that started as a New Jerusalem, nor was this the City on the Hill of Cotton Mather’s sermon. They were removed a few generations from Mathers ideas.

The tension that exists between secularism and the religious life goes to this period. The country was to be a new Jerusalem, a new religious beginning ordained by God, a new Canaan. The Constitution that emerged after independence, and in particular the First Amendment, set a critical barrier between the church and the state. This new nation was the first secular state in modern history. While England had a state religion, the US was to have none.

This was the theory. The tension between the church and the state was there and survives to this day. For some, the message of Cotton Mather, that the United States is a New Jerusalem that came from prophecy, remains in place. The nation is the product of Providence. This is hardly a majority view these days. However, there are Americans who believe this. The American religious right still believes in this godly tradition. They also believe that the country is a religious nation and at heart a Christian nation. It is part of one powerful prophetic tradition.

Over the course of the last few generations, the far fundamentalist right has entered the political fray. This has come from an effort to stop abortions, as well as desegregation or the liberalization of American life and mores. At the same time, the religious left withdrew, with the secular left. Never mind that throughout American history a significant part of the religious left worked in causes ranging from the end of slavery to civil rights and union rights.

Americans also know of the role of this other prophetic tradition, since the Civil Rights struggle is still within living memory. It was led by Reverend Martin Luther King, who fought to achieve equality and voting rights for African Americans. However, after his death, religious leaders fractured and surrendered the field to the religious right. This right holds a very different view of both the gospel and the role of religion in the political arena.

The Rise of the Fundamentalist Right in the 20th Century

This ideology started to take form in the 1910s. For the most part, those who followed the Fundamentals stayed out of politics. These series of essays were written between 1910 and 1915 and were meant to counter the rise of Darwin and modern science. Who are these Fundamentalists:

Following Laws’s original usage and utilizing the excellent analysis of Nathan Finn,fundamentalism, in its broadest and original sense (encompassing the disparate parties that would emerge), can be defined as conservative Protestant dissent against progressive (or revisionist, or Modernist, or Liberal) doctrine and mores. Those in the crossfires of fundamentalist so-called militancy were those who advocated:

progressivist beliefs that undermined the fundamentals doctrines (e.g., naturalistic evolution, biblical criticism, later neo-orthodoxy), and

progressivist values that undermined the fundamentalist understanding of the Christian life (e.g., dancing, drinking, gambling for some; others would focus more upon political movements like communism in the 1950s, or upon sexual mores, especially into the 1960s).

The Reagan revolution brought a more active fundamentalist movement. Reverend Jerry Falwell took not just a passing interest in American politics but saw it as essential to win the culture wars. The Fundamentalist right became involved in Republican politics, but in some ways become kingmakers. In the meantime, their counterparts in liberal churches withdrew from American politics, but the few attempts they made to act were rebuffed by internal disorganization and in some ways a rejection of their social justice gospel. The country was growing more conservative overall, or rather the liberal churches, like the American left overall, had no idea how to respond to this assault on their ideas.

The fundamentalist churches also pursued the Gospels of Wealth and Health. Both are in some ways a more radical view of Calvinism, which considers wealth an indication of being one of the chosen. It was a retreat from the idea that greed is bad or one of the deadly sins. This is to the point that some of these churches have multi million salaries for their preachers and multimillion facilities. Since they are churches, they are not taxed either.

In many ways, this ideology is in service to capitalism as a system. It would be unjust to say that this was all of Christianity because not all Christian churches follow these principles. It is a corner, a very loud corner of the faith. Some of the followers of this ideology are in Congress, and some attend C-Street on regular basis. Nor are all of them Republicans.

The religious right also has its origin in segregation and the fight to keep it. Randal Balmer writes in Politico:

In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1969, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero.

This environment is toxic, not to just religious life in the United States, but this accepts greed as a value. If it was just wealth, I suppose the country could ignore them. However, the religious right seeks to overturn many of the social justice gains of the last century. Whether they are labor rights, or civil rights, or LGBTQ rights, or women rights. They are also convinced that this is the New Jerusalem, and as such it has been chosen by God to lead the nations in a biblical manner. This divine view of the political world means that they are willing to pressure and endorse politicians that will try to return the country to a strict, if divinely ordained, caste system.

This is why many Evangelicals blame the poor for their lot in life:

“There’s a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality — often, as the Bible makes clear, in unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures,” said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.

In many ways the Christian Right are the heirs of the puritans who came to the New World on the Mayflower. They shared this highly moralistic view of the world, and also saw the poor as trash people. To understand them we need to understand the compact of 1620 which is essential to their world view. We quote it in full.

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e& [etc.].

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.

This tells us what fundamentalists desire. This is to establish a modern day theocracy. They are close to their goals, as the last 40 years have seen their goals ascendant.

Having somebody like DeVoss in education is a dream come true. Education and control of it is a goal of the far right. Moreover, the goal to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, or underfund Housing and Urban Development is a way to force their morality on society.

Reverend William Barber and a New Social Justice

After the death of King, as we wrote above, the progressive churches went into severe disarray. Yes, there was a March on Washington or two, and Reverend Jesse Jackson tried to organize people. He went so far as to run for office under the banner of the “Rainbow Coalition.” Most of these efforts failed since the ground was not quite fertile. There was a spiritual and moral malaise, brought about by Watergate and other matters. Americans were not in the mood for either mid-century big government programs, or what they perceived as the social engineering of the 1960s.

Riots drove some of this narrative. So did police violence, and a few other elements. Decay came to the inner core in many American cities. Many churches on the progressive end of the spectrum withdrew into their congregations.

Over the last few years, Reverend William Barber has emerged in North Carolina as a new leader of the Social Justice Gospel. He leads the Moral Mondays movement, that is spreading across the nation. This movement, which started in North Carolina to resist the far right wing conservative take over of the state, seeks to not just preserve the gains of the last 100 years but to expand on them. Reuters finally noticed after President Donald Trump came to power.

I did see many of our local religious leaders in the streets over the course of the last five years. Whether they were Rabbis, Imams or Christian ministers of multiple denominations did not matter. I noticed this and gave it importance in local politics, The Interfaith Center for Workers Justice was essential in the passage of the minimum wage ordinance in San Diego. However, this was local.

The story with Barber is different. His reach is national, and while locally this prophetic work started before Barber had a national reach with people like Reverend Beth Johnson of the Universalist Church in Vista and Rabbi Laurie Coskie, as well as Imam Taha Hassane who are part of the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice. Then there are the black congregations, and the work of the National Action Network under the leadership of Reverend Shane Harris. They are now augmented by national messages and Barbers Moral Mondays movement.

We are seeing something that we have not seen since King’s death, and this is the entry of the liberal churches into the political fray in an effective, organized manner. It started locally, but now it is quite national. It is also part of the reaction to Trump, but to a lesser extent, a reaction to the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party.

First off, we need to note that King drew from a previous tradition. He also stood on the shoulders of giants, just as our current religious leaders are standing on his shoulders. According to Kenyata R. Gilbert:

Baptist pastor Adam C. Powell Sr., the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) pastor Florence S. Randolph and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Reverdy C. Ransom spoke to human tragedy, both in and out of the black church. They brought a distinctive form of prophetic preaching that united spiritual transformation with social reform and confronted black dehumanization

The Moral Mondays Coalition, which started in North Carolina in 2013 under the leadership of Reverend Barber,  was also instrumental in saving the Affordable Care Act in Congress. They took on this fight by making this a moral issue. Their protests, while covered on the edges by major media, were loud, but effective. They also led to multiple arrests of religious leaders. This has not gone unnoticed by their counterparts, in places like Falwell University. There are many arguments made that this intervention in the political arena is ungodly, never mind the fundamentalist right is acting with all its might in that same political process and making or undoing political leaders. Their latest success was the endorsement of Donald Trump for the presidency.

Barber has written in the Third Reconstruction what the purpose is.

We cannot let narrow religious forces highjack our moral vocabulary, forces who speak loudly about things God says little about while saying so little about issues that are at the heart of all our religious traditions: truth, justice, love, and mercy. The movement we have witnessed—the movement we most need—is a moral movement.

This is the beginning of a new political movement within American politics. One that looks at life from a different prophetic tradition than the right wing, particularly evangelical churches. The conflict is not just with the secular world but within the body of the church.

Many politicians in the Democratic Party have paid no heed to religious life for the last 40 years. They attend churches, and mosques and temples, but overall, the influence of the social justice tradition has waned. It is starting to find its voice. Politicians will be foolish to just pay lip service.

It is not just politicians. Many political reporters and I am guilty of this, pay little attention to this corner of American Politics, or pay scant attention to it. It is true that we are a secular country and that religiosity is waning. However, religion still matters and it is a strong force in politics. We are seeing a revival of the moral prophetic social justice tradition. However, the conservative, fundamentalist churches (as well as Jewish temples and other conservative religious organizations,) are not going away. They are part of the political fabric of the United States.


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