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Klaus Stüwe

Politics and Religion in the USA


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 11/2008, P. 723-733
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Up to more than two-thirds the religious landscape of the United States is moulded by Christians. At the eve of the American presidential elections KLAUS STÜWE, professor of political science at the University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, describes the American civil religion which is also articulated in foreign policy, and deals particularly with the "Christian Right".


The European tourist who travels around the United States will mainly take home two impressions: the immense vastness of the country and the diversity of people who live there. In comparison to most European countries including Germany the American nation appears highly segmented and fragmented. This segmentation is ethnic, but also cultural, religious, economic and political.

Ethnically, the USA is a highly heterogeneous country: The white Americans of European origin now constitute 74 percent of the population. African-Americans, by the majority descendants of African slaves, make a little more than 13 percent of the population. Especially in the American Southwest and in Florida there is a large population of Latin American origin (Latinos). In the last few decades it steadily grew up to today 13 percent {1}, because many Latin Americans flee from the economic hardship of their home countries to the North. They often live as illegal immigrants and keep strongly to their culture and language. Asian immigrants (e.g. from China, Japan and Korea) are with four percent of the population a relatively small group.

With 78 percent the religious landscape is clearly dominated by Christians. Jews, Muslims and Buddhists follow far behind. Within the Christian faith group, however, there is a wide range of churches of different religious directions. With approximately 67 million believers the Roman Catholic Church is the largest compact Christian communion of faith, but all Protestants together make almost two-thirds of all Christians in the United States. These split into many individual religious groups. Baptists, Pentecostal Churches and Lutherans have the most members, followed by countless small and smallest denominations.

In the social and economic sphere there are highly problematic inequalities: While the affluent middle class retires into the suburbs, in the town centres the visible poverty is increasing. Large differences mainly appear in the social structure between the white and the black population: Afro-Americans on average have lower incomes, a shorter life expectancy, a poorer education, a higher crime and execution rate. Not only in the southern States residential areas and closed institutions - such as churches or private organizations - are often de facto still racially separated, although the formal separation now is illegal.



Often that is also owed to the economic differences, but also to traditional and firmly established patterns of prejudice in the respective ethnic groups or sections of the population.

This segmentation of society is reflected in the political system of the United States. The state itself is no centralized state, but divided into relatively independent states; there is a system of mutual checks and balances which distributes the political power to different bodies. Much political power is concentrated in the office of the President. But - what many Europeans overlook - the President is faced with a powerful Parliament, which perfectly is in a position to counter the policy in the White House.

In view of that differentiated perception of the U.S. population the question about the unifying element arises: What keeps together that colourful and diverse society, fragmented into numerous political units, what keeps the state, what keeps the nation of the United States together at all? What connects the Americans despite their differences among themselves so that they recognize and experience themselves as Americans and just not only as members of various social groups?

The answer is as simple as surprising: It is a kind of "political religion" which makes the residents of the United States Americans. In every day life and in politics it is of an importance which is alien to other nations, so that they cannot understand some phenomena of American politics - also of foreign policy. It is based on certain beliefs, is surrounded by rituals and symbols, and gets such an enthusiastic devotion that it has already been described as a "civil religion".

In the following the special relationship between politics and religion in the United States is to be presented. First, it is outlined how in the USA politics and religion meet in the form of a civil religion. Secondly, it is then about religious aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Thirdly, it is analyzed which historical experiences have led to those phenomena. And finally, the last part deals with religion in politics, the so-called "Christian Right".


The American Civil Religion

In terms of constitutional law the United States is a secular state. The U.S. Constitution of 1787 stipulates in Article VI that it is "never allowed to demand the proof of a religious affiliation as a prerequisite for an office or a position of public trust under the sovereignty of the United States". The first constitutional addition (1791, Bill of Rights) added the special guarantee of religious freedom:



"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In 1802 the third president Thomas Jefferson interpreted that clause so that by it a "separation wall" between church and state was built. The Supreme Court of the United States endorsed this view in several verdicts {2}. The fundamental principle of its jurisdiction is not to allow the government to interfere in religious matters or to establish a state church. So the Supreme Court prohibited for example in the 70s of the 20th century in public schools the school prayer jointly said by teachers and students.

But in the USA politics and religion are by no means spheres which are isolated from each other. State and churches admittedly are constitutionally strictly separated, but religion has always had a high standing also in political issues. According to opinion polls almost two-thirds of U.S. citizens regard religion as "very important" in their lives. According to a survey of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in August 2007 69 percent of U.S. citizens are of the opinion that the U.S. president must have strong religious beliefs {3}. This attitude is not new: Already in 1835 the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville stated in his still today often quoted report "On Democracy in America" that here "religion ... is connected with all national habits and almost all patriotic feelings" {4}.

Against that background the sociologist Robert N. Bellah coined the concept of an American "civil religion" {5} in which the idea of "one nation under God" created identity among the citizens. The religious nature of this particular form of patriotism becomes clear in the public area: So the flag gets everywhere an almost religious reverence; in the capital Washington the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are kept as in a shrine, and larger than life-size monuments remind us of the "saints" and "martyr" of American history.

In the sense of the American civil religion the USA are portrayed as a system of common spiritual principles and virtues, as a nation that has to fulfil a special mission in world history by the achievement of freedom, equality and democracy. Already in 1788 James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the United States, called the constitutional debate a political process that fulfilled the "divine promise". In the 19th century the writer Herman Melville, author of the famous "Moby Dick" likened the Americans to the biblical tribes of Israel, "the especially chosen people ... the Israel of our time" {6}.

The American presidents act, as it were, as high priests of this quasi-religious self-interpretation. This includes, for example, the somewhat "monarchic" appearance of the President, which is surrounded by an amazing, symbolic ceremonial.



But above all the speeches of American presidents have civil religious contents. In their inaugural speeches civil religious contents have even become a central subject; the presidents ritually profess their faith, as it were, on behalf of the whole country. The President presents himself as the nation's spokesman who verbalizes the collective will. With the help of religious symbols and metaphors one purposefully appeals to the voters. But in addition to that many speeches also contain explicitly religious elements and passages which go clearly beyond the mere use of metaphors. Hardly any speech ends without the obligatory "God bless America!" Not only preachers such as Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson often enjoyed quoting from the Bible. The Catholic John F. Kennedy in his inaugural speech recited a verse from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In 1974 Ronald Reagan portrayed the United States in a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference as "City upon a Hill", a metaphor for the biblical Jerusalem {7}.

Such religious references are not only important for the electoral clientele of the Christian fundamentalist movements but also for average Americans. Religious speech passages are therefore not the expression of the speaker's individual religious attitude but are to be of integrating effect by appealing to the religious basic attitude of many Americans.


Religion and Foreign Policy

The fact that the idea of "America" gets such a religious reverence and touches the everyday life of every U.S. citizen by rituals and symbols has of course also repercussions on the Americans themselves. Already in the 19th century most of the European observers of the United States agreed with Alexis de Tocqueville that the political values of the Americans had created a special style of political thinking and behaviour which clearly differs from that of the Europeans. Dennis Brogan, an English journalist who lived in the 30ies as correspondent in the United States described this particular political behaviour of the Americans as "American Character" {8}, which made them in domestic and foreign policy act according to different principles than the Europeans.

What he meant with it becomes clear in a Congress speech which the former President George HW Bush delivered in 1989. He reminded the deputies and senators of the Americans' common responsibility to promote the progress and quoted Abraham Lincoln's view that man was obliged not only to improve its own circumstances but also to contribute that the situation of the whole mankind improved. This was a general mission to which he called upon all Americans, because it constituted the American character.



The effect of religious ideas on the state is therefore also and especially to be looked for in the foreign policy of the United States. Since the Americans are deeply convinced of the accuracy and validity of their values, and since they understand their conception of values as a normative idea with universal claim they are at the same time convinced that this concept is to be implemented worldwide. An inscription on the wall of a corridor in the Washington Capitol reminds of Franklin D. Roosevelt's words, "We defend and build a way of life not only for America alone but for the whole mankind." During his election campaign in 2000 George W. Bush said in a speech before the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith, "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model for the whole world." At festive occasions, e.g. at the inauguration of the president, God is explicitly called upon for help, in order to be able to fulfil the mission of the United States. And time and again in the American historiography the crusade idea emerged, as e.g. in the First World War which the Americans also waged as a war against the "tyranny" of European monarchies.

The dream of a worldwide democracy, the urge to want to bring all people of the world America's ideals has undoubtedly an aggressive side. First the indigenous peoples got to feel that for which the "conversion by missionary work" resulted in oppression and decline. As the only remaining super power the United States today have the military potential to be able to carry out their mission also globally. This often leads to criticism. But it must not be overlooked that the worldwide spread of democracy in the 20th century not least is owed to the USA's democratic missionary zeal. The fact that after World War II Germany was able to become a stable democracy and that in the Cold War Western Europe and other regions of the world could be defended against ideological and military threat is ultimately owed to the Americans' commitment


Religious Roots of the American Constitution

The political roots and the roots in intellectual history of the Constitution of the United States are many and diverse. Since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville liberalism was regarded as the main source in the history of ideas of the U.S.A. Constitution. In 1955 Louis Hartz set up the well-known thesis that in the USA triumphed an, as it were, "natural liberalism" {9} without Europe's social antagonism. Liberalism was not only the basis of the democratic development of the USA's constitutional history but also a source of national identity.



Besides agreement Hartz's theses also met with contradiction. So John GA Pocock pointed to the importance of the republican tradition for the American political thought {10}. Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood too argued that the founding fathers had been more influenced by Republican than liberal ideas {11}. Rogers Smith in his works finally drew our attention to the "ascriptive Americanism" and the racism connected with it. That means that many Americans - despite their declaration of belief in the universal claim to freedom and democracy - were already "born", as it were, with the attitude that they as Americans were simply better Democrats than other peoples. This must, so Manfred Brock quotes, be regarded as an "often suppressed but nevertheless also efficacious anti-liberal trend within the American political culture, ... as an independent persistent ideological tradition" {12}. Tocqueville's thesis, so Smith, failed to take into consideration the non-egalitarian ideologies and conditions of the United States' foundation history, by which the revolution had been influenced at least as much as by liberalism.

The history of the United States is apart from those liberal and republican tendencies also a history of a religiously motivated settlement and state foundation. Other important traditions of American identity are therefore Calvinism and Puritanism of the 17th and 18th century. In 1620 the "Pilgrim Fathers" on the Mayflower sailed across the Atlantic and founded the Plymouth Colony in today's Massachusetts. The "Pilgrim Fathers" belonged to a particularly radical movement of the English Puritanism, which had broken with the Church of England and demanded an absolute autonomy of the congregation. There was a persecution by the English State Church, which about 100 pilgrims initially eluded by fleeing to Holland and then by a voyage to America. In November 1620 they dropped anchor in front of today's Massachusetts. Since they had no official authorization to colonize the territory they gave themselves their own statutes, which became known as the "Mayflower Compact". In it they fixed among other things that they wanted to form a self-governing community.

The Puritan Pilgrim Fathers had come to America because they wanted freely to realize their religious ideas. But while they in Old England had still fought to be tolerated and recognized as minority, i.e. asserted for themselves the ideas of equality and tolerance, in the New World the exact opposite was what mattered to them: The Puritans of Massachusetts tried there to turn their doctrines of original sin, predestination and controlled life into a political order. At first the main purpose of the first colony in New England was to preserve the purity of the Puritan doctrine. Already since 1630 in this theocratic system only that one got the civil rights whose orthodoxy was proved. The civil rights were thus made dependent on the religious qualification.



Anyway, the religious and political program of the Puritans had little resemblance to what today makes up the American mentality. Amazingly enough, just the religious fundamentalism of those English settlers finally led to the democratization of the first political systems on American soil. For he who in the Puritans' communities wanted to take advantage of the civil rights and the economic benefits connected with them was forced to join their denomination. And vice versa, in the colonies immigrants were urgently needed for colonization and economic development, so that one in the long run couldn't afford to make the hurdle for the granting of citizens' rights too high.

In the course of time more and more groups of people with rather dubious religious qualification were admitted by the Puritans' communities; what on the one hand let more and more settlers enjoy the civil rights, and on the other hand resulted in a liberalization of religion. Against that in turn the fundamentalists rebelled, who kept to stricter standards and united in other, more exclusive circles. The result was therefore an unintentional pluralization, which became even stronger in the 18th century through the awakening movements of the Baptists and Methodists who opposed the religious control by the congregation {13}.

That failed attempt of establishing a Puritan rule in New England, the subsequent revision of the conditions of access and the counter movements conversely triggered by it have therefore led to the fact that until the end of the 18th century all Protestant Americans could feel as equally qualified citizens - after all, the first settlers were almost exclusively English Protestants - and at the same time the historical discovery was fostered that tolerance towards dissenters was necessary. Puritanism has so unintentionally contributed to the democratic development of the United States {14}.


The "Christian Right"

In the 70s in the United States the protest movement of the so-called "Christian Right" emerged, which was committed to America's "re-Christianization" {15}. Its followers were drawn from the "Evangelicals". Meant are those faithful who regard the proclamation of the Gospel as the central task, who believe in the infallibility of the Bible and the need for a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, and who mostly call it a spiritual "Born Again". The Evangelicals are therefore no separate church or denomination but a particularly conservative direction within the Protestant Churches.



So e.g. among the Baptists there are the conservative ones - who describe themselves as Evangelical - and the rather liberal ones who call themselves "Main Line Church". But the Evangelicals themselves are by no means monolithic. There are absolutely differences in the understanding of important theological questions among the various ("Neo-evangelical", "fundamentalist" and "Pentecostal-charismatic") trends of Evangelicalism {16}.

The political arm of Evangelicals, the "Christian Right", is organized in effective public relations work by organizations such as "Focus on the Family" or "Family Research Council" and so effortlessly reaches a large proportion of the population, especially in the states of the "Bible belt" from the Southeast to the Midwest of the United States. Apart from the hardliners who reject the theory of evolution or the so-called Reconstructionists who want to replace the Civil legislation by a kind of Christian sharia their demands start - against the background of many Americans' religiosity - to a large extent from assumptions to which most people will consent [konsensfähig].

The political institutions, especially the Republican Party, are purposefully infiltrated. So Evangelical candidates are financially supported and all Congress MPs from the so-called "Christian Coalition" are observed and regularly checked by a rating which evaluates their attitudes toward key issues such as the prohibition of cloning or the unconditional support of Israel. This displays the high level of organization which the religious Right has achieved. When it in former times quite heavily depended on charismatic leaders like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed it can now build upon developed structures. Educated in training-grounds for new cadres and training seminars the Christian Right uses all medial opportunities - E Mail, television and radio shows - to influence the formulation of political objectives.

Sociologists of religion estimate the proportion of white Evangelicals on which the Christian Right leans between 23 to 26 percent {17}, they are therefore an interesting group of voters. During the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 the Evangelicals made up about 23 percent of all voters. It is therefore not surprising that also the "reborn Christian" George W. Bush before his election in 2000 and at the beginning of his presidency strongly placed his hopes in the religious Right. But George W. Bush should not, as it in Europe especially at the beginning of the Iraq war repeatedly happened {18}, be regarded as exponent or even "puppet" of the Christian Right in the USA.

The current U.S. president's relationship to the Christian Right is primarily an election strategy. From the beginning he was aware of the fact that he had no election resp. re-election chance without the segment of Evangelical voters. At the same time, however, he understood that he just as strongly needed the support of the other Republican regular groups of voters - e.g. of the economic liberals



who in moral and religious issues are rather moderately minded. Accordingly Bush confined himself to symbolic gestures and staffing concessions towards the Christian Right in order to satisfy that clientele without alienating other groups of voters . He took no steps, however, to prohibit abortion, to restrict the homosexual marriage or to reinstate the school prayer.

That Bush's relationship to the Christian Right was motivated election strategically is - contrary to the expectations of many Europeans - proved also by his foreign policy. While the Christian Right had early denounced "Islam" as the epitome of evil which had to be fought by the United States, Bush tried time and again - particularly during the Afghanistan and Iraq campaign - to avoid the impression of a "clash of civilizations", a religiously motivated "crusade" against Islam. Responsible for the attacks of 11 September 2001 was not "Islam", Bush repeatedly stressed, but "terrorists" who abused the name of that religion.

Some may regard this as political rhetoric - but fact is that many followers of the Christian Right or of the Evangelicals feel disappointed by George W. Bush. The Republican party, the home of most Evangelicals, lost its majorities in Congress. The influence of the Christian Right on the candidates and the orientation of the party dramatically declined in the last months before the presidential election in November 2008. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, cannot be classed as belonging to the Christian-conservative camp. On the contrary: McCain meets with disapproval with the Evangelicals. In important social-political issues he is too liberal for them.

The Democratic Party is currently doing everything to exploit this situation. In February 2008 the former Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton invited the Baptist leaders of the country to a conference in Atlanta. The Democratic heavyweights wanted to renegotiate with the church leaders what the Baptists ideologically connects. The common belief in Jesus Christ should be dissociated from traditional conservative issues like abortion and coupled e.g. with ecology and social justice. That way one hoped not only to regain the votes of Evangelical voters but also those of Catholics. In the presidential elections of 2004 the Catholics, actually by the majority supporters of the Democrats, had also in large numbers voted for the Protestant George W. Bush.

The Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama too sees his chance with the religious voters. As a supporter of abortion and because of his attitude to the homosexual marriage Obama until now was regarded as non-eligible by the Christian Right. But Obama meanwhile sets great store on presenting himself as an exemplary Christian. In his speeches values and issues are increasingly brought up with which also Evangelicals can identify - for example the fight against climate change or social justice.



Obama's campaign strategists are planning up to the elections in November 2008 thousands of house parties, dozens of Christian rock concerts, meetings of church leaders, visits to universities and phone conferences in order to win over religiously motivated voters. This campaign is meanwhile regarded as the most intensive canvassing of a Democratic candidate to Evangelical Christians. The ambitious goal is to get away significant parts of the Evangelical voters from their historical connection with the Republican Party. But this ambitious aim also has its risks: The progressive, liberal loyal voters of the Democrats could so be alienated.


The Constitution is no Creed

In the United States politics and religion entered into a historically evolved, unique connection. Most Americans' understanding of the nation manifests itself as a kind of political religion, which is in a position to create a common identity beyond the social and political fragmentation of the United States. Religious symbols and metaphors are of great importance in politics, because religion is very important also in the personal lives of most Americans. Both of them are ultimately the reason that in recent years the Evangelical Protestants could become so successful.

But this religious dimension of the state does not only integrate - it has also a certain splitting effect. First for the Europeans and other states which cannot always comprehend the United States' Messianism in foreign policy. The religious imagery in the speeches of many American politicians has outside the USA a strange effect. But the symbiosis of politics and religion above all increasingly splits also the Americans themselves, because not all are covered by it.

Interestingly enough, from the Catholic side the concept of a liberal democracy is defended as a counter model to the American civil religion. The Jesuit John C. Murray already in the 50s pleaded that the spheres of religion and politics must remain neatly separated from each other {19}. The American Republic admittedly deserved the full loyalty of Catholics, but the Constitution was no creed but an instrument to secure peace. Others too feel excluded. Civil religious or Evangelical attitudes are mainly to be found among the so-called "Wasps", the "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants", a section of the population with the characteristics of white, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon descent. Other social groups cannot necessarily get on with it: the lower social strata in the slums of large cities and in the streets, ethnic minorities such as Black people, Latinos and Asians. For those sections of the population the "American Dream" has remained an illusion.




{1} In the statistical surveys of the United States those who belong to the Hispanic section of the population are not regarded as an ethnic group ("race"), but are defined via their origin from Latin America and the Caribbean resp. via their Spanish mother tongue.

{2} About the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court see J. Hitchcock, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life. Two volumes (Princeton 2004).

{3} See

{4} A. de Tocqueville, Über die Demokratie in Amerika. Zweiter Teil. Werke u. Briefe, 2 volumes. (Stuttgart 1959/62) 18.

{5} R. N. Bellah, Civil Religion in America, in: Daedalus. Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 96 (1967) 1-21.

{6} H. Melville, White-Jacket (New York 1892) chapter 36.

{7} About it in detail K. Stüwe, Die Inszenierung des Neubeginns (Wiesbaden 2004) 81ff.

{8} D. W. Brogan, Der amerikanische Charakter (Stuttgart 1947).

{9} L. Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Liberal Thought since the Revolution (New York 1955) 16.

{10} J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton 2003).

{11} See B. Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge 1967).

{12} R. M. Smith, Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America, in: The American Political Science Review 87 (1993) No. 3, 549-566; see M. Brocker, Protest Anpassung Etablierung. Die Christliche Rechte im politischen System der USA (Frankfurt 2004) 36.

{13} See D. Boorstin, The Americans, volume 1 (New York 1958) 5.

{14} See H. Vorländer, Hegemonialer Liberalismus. Politisches Denken u. politische Kultur in den USA 1776-1920 (Frankfurt 1997) 113ff.

{15} To the following see M. Brocker, Die Christliche Rechte in den USA, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte B 6 (2007) 24ff.

{16} See Brocker (note 12).

{17} See Cl. Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics (Boulder, Col. ²2000) 45ff.; J. Cochran, New Heaven, New Earth, in: Congressional Quarterly of 17th October 2005, 2773.

{18} See also M. Brocker, Europäische Mißverständnisse über die öffentliche Präsenz von Religion in den USA, in: Politische Religion u. Religionspolitik, edited by G. Besier and H. Lübbe (Göttingen 2005) 145-166.

{19} J. C. Murray, We Hold These Truths (New York 1960).


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