Is There Room for Secularism in American Politics?

The current buildup to the 2012 presidential election is living up to the more general apocalyptic expectations of many Americans paying attention to Mayan calendars, solar events and biblical prophecies. Republican candidates are not only sending the message that America is on the brink of cataclysmic disaster, we have also been privy to the kinds of scandalous behavior and outrageous statements, as well as at least one instance of a brain freeze, that suggest the end is nigh.

While this election has its own unique and distinctive set of circumstances and consequential possibilities, one dominant force in the current political landscape that is driving the rhetoric and mobilizing the citizens has been present from the very beginning of national life: religion. Indeed, what we have seen in the world of presidential politics in 2011 is an undeniably common characteristic throughout American history: There is no room for secularism in the politics that matter most.

Religion has been and continues to be intimately intertwined with American politics. Or to put it another way, religious cultures consistently influence political parties and positions in ways that are often overt and explicit, but not always. The texture of the interplay between religion and politics is more nuanced, and complicated, than just the role of Christian churches in state and local government, though that is clearly one element.

Take for example the religious culture of nationalism, or what sociologist Robert Bellah describes as civil religion. In this case, denominational affiliation or particular theological leanings are less significant than the sacred valences and passions associated with the Constitution, or the Office of the President, or the American flag. This religious culture exists and is ubiquitous in American culture, tied to sacred places, sacred myths, sacred rituals, etc., but is not limited to Christians; Jews, Hindus, Muslims, even atheists can participate in this religious culture and have their political priorities shaped by it.

What are the politics that matter most to Americans, and that arouse sacred commitments and zealous passions along with highly contentious and divisive – and sadly, too commonly, violent – forms of behavior? The politics of bodies and the body politic; God in national life and religious diversity; and economic policy and the role of government in money matters are only a few of the politically charged topics that are infused if not driven by religious sensibilities and sacred ideologies.

For the last few decades, the religious right has been the dominant religious culture, setting the agenda and coordinating intensive efforts to set policy in such areas as reproductive rights, sexual practices, immigration, God in government, the limits of religious freedom, federal and state budgeting priorities and taxation. This powerful block emerged in the 1970s and solidified its power, shaped primarily but not exclusively by evangelicals with grassroots networks and increasingly well-funded supporters.

Even though what we know as the religious right emerged and gained strength only a few decades ago, it has deeper, more diffused historical roots tied to the early Puritan theology and the revivalist and rousing evangelical cultures of the early 19th century. Today the religious right encompasses conservative Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of Latinos and African Americans, but its core and vision is unequivocally tied to the longstanding power and influence of white Protestant males throughout American political history.

This peculiar religious culture – constituted of certain biblical, theological and moral sensibilities, and of sacred ideals tied to national identity and historical meaning – established the rules of the democracy game after the Revolution, which are still at play in the ongoing war on terrorism. These rules – about how to understand individual rights and freedom, voluntarism and civic responsibility, moral action in the world and foreign policy – are skewed to privilege Protestant values and aspirations, and desecularize the political arena promised in theory but unattained in practice by the Constitution.

One of the tried and tested means by which this religious culture, imbued with Protestant theologies though not solely defined by Protestantism, insinuates itself in our political debates and deliberations is to stir up fears about those who are different, demonize those who look or think differently, or insist that a mortal threat to national security, and God’s will, exists in the face of differences. Depending on historical era, the threat might be Jews or Catholics, blacks or Japanese, atheists or communists, Mormons or Muslims.

Yesterday and today, religious cultures across the spectrum have infiltrated and reshaped political parties in the service of sacred commitments and moral imperatives. Think of the treatment of Native Americans in the early national period, or the conflict over slavery in the middle of the 19th century, or military intervention in the two world wars, or the protests over the Vietnam War, or the culture wars of the late 20th century, or the response to the current Great Recession. I could go on and on.

Politics without religion is a pipe dream, a fantastical ideal that is as likely as America closing down the military industrial complex and turning to pacifism. The current presidential nomination season only reconfirms this truism about American politics. Yet even with all the humiliations and gaffes, imbecility and jeremiads, the present state of the Republican field –the converted Catholic Newt Gingrich leading the pack, the Mormon rock Mitt Romney holding steady, the cognitive challenged evangelical Rick Perry, and the rest of the not-quite-so Illustrious contenders – suggests that the once-solidly unified and politically potent religious right may be in serious trouble.

The urgencies and exigencies of our present economic collapse are creating rifts in this religious culture over national priorities and moral responsibilities to citizens. The ongoing and long-neglected dilemmas associated with immigration reform demand clear, fair and reasonable considerations that run counter to the impassioned and reactionary positions held by so many in the party. The demographic and generational shifts that have subtly but profoundly transformed the culture of the religious right are both diminishing the power of white conservative Protestant males and increasing the voices of younger, more diverse conservative voters who disagree with core values associated with sexual orientation and religious diversity, for example.

The religious right will not go away anytime soon but it may be that we are seeing the end of its heyday as the crucial and dominant religious culture in American politics. The 2012 presidential election may be a pivotal moment that witnesses the beginning of the end of this decades-old force in our political lives. If history is any guide, the question for us to ask is not whether a new dawn of secularism will save us from the dangers of religious extremism, but what kind of new religious culture will emerge and replace it?

Gary Laderman is Chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University and Director of

Politics without religion is a pipe dream, a fantastical ideal that is as likely as America closing down the military industrial complex and turning to pacifism.

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