Introduction to “Religion and Politics in America”

Published May 2, 2005

[From Religion and Politics in America.]

Martin Marty, the dean of American religion historians, remarked several years ago that there is “almost no major news in the world today that does not have a religious dimension or component underlying it.” His observations are confirmed by research sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In a report commissioned by the Center, Robert Lichter and his colleagues at the Center for Media and Public Affairs conducted a study of “Media Coverage of Religion in America 1969-1998,” a random sample of 2,365 stories that appeared from 1969 through 1998 in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and the ABC, CBS, and NBC newscasts.

One of the results unearthed in this study was that religious news stories have nearly doubled in the mainstream press from the 1980s to the 1990s. However, the researchers also found that there was very little understanding of theology or religious belief in religious news. Only 1 story in 14 mentioned any religious beliefs or doctrines. This figure dropped to 1 in 20 for stories about Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Lichter and his colleagues drew the following conclusion from this study:

In recent years, religious faith and its institutional expression have commanded greater attention in the national media newsrooms that set the tone for their profession. If this intensely personal yet inextricably communal sphere of human experience is to play a great role in the national dialogue, journalists need to be aware of the content and consequences of the narrative they craft. The ephemeral events and deadline pressure that define their profession do not encourage self reflection.

In a column devoted to these same survey results, Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor at The New Republic, reiterated this claim:

Journalists seemed comfortable discussing the politics and scandals of religion but not what people believe—though what they believe, and why they decide to believe it, is in many ways the most important issue. Important for individuals, anyway; perhaps still too complicated for the big media.

As religiously grounded moral arguments have become ever more influential factors in the national debate—particularly reinforced by recent presidential elections and the creation of the faith-based initiative office in the White House—journalists’ ignorance about theological convictions has often worked to distort the public discourse on important policy issues. Pope John Paul II’s pronouncements on stem-cell research, the constitutional controversies regarding faith-based initiatives, the emerging participation of Muslims in American life—issues like these require political journalists in print and broadcast media to cover religious contexts that many admit they are ill-equipped to understand. Put differently, these news events reflect subtle theological nuances and deep faith commitments that shape the activities of religious believers in the public square. Inasmuch as a faith tradition is an active or significant participant in the public arena, journalists will need to better understand the theological sources and religious convictions that motivate this political activity.

The current national discourse has brought faith and its relationship to public policy to the forefront of our daily news. Since 1999, the Ethics and Public Center, through the generosity of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has hosted six conferences for national journalists to help raise the level of their reporting by increasing their understanding of religion, religious communities, and the religious convictions that inform the political activity of devout believers. This book contains the presentations and conversations that grew out of those conferences.

In chapter 1, historians Nathan Hatch and Grant Wacker discuss the roles, both political and cultural, that conservative Protestant evangelicals have played in American history. Nathan Hatch, professor of history and provost at the University of Notre Dame, discusses the origins of evangelicalism in America starting in the colonial era. Grant Wacker, professor of the history of religion at Duke University Divinity School, gives a “cultural profile of evangelicals in modern America,” defines their beliefs and identifies what accounts for their success. Rejecting the notion that God no longer acts in special ways toward people, Wacker argues that evangelicals continue to believe in the miraculous power of God to change common people. Hanna Rosin of The Washington Post responds to Hatch and Wacker by pointing out that the faith of evangelicals is surprisingly less concerned with broad societal transformation and has become more therapeutic, domesticated, and focused on individual reform.

In chapter 2, papal biographer George Weigel describes the diversity of Catholics in America and how it is at odds with the black-and-white terminology used in reporting them. The categories of “liberal” and “conservative” often over-simplify the larger discussion. Respondent Kenneth Woodward, veteran religion reporter of Newsweek, disagrees with Weigel about the state of American Catholicism and is less hopeful about the future of American Catholicism. He points to the decline in those studying for the priesthood and expresses concern over Catholics who do not take their positions into the public arena.

In chapter 3, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, discusses the contributions that Judaism has made and is making to American society. He argues that the importance of Jewish citizens to America is twofold: they play an influential role in society in professions, media, academia, entrepreneurial endeavors; and they are a model ethnic and religious minority for others in similar situations. Today, however, he says it is not totally clear what a Jew in America really is, and thus Jews are preoccupied with “fitting in.” David Brooks, at the time a senior editor of The Weekly Standard and now a columnist for the New York Times, observes that as a result of outside intellectual pressures, there has been a return recently to serious Judaism as “self-created religions” have proved insufficient. But this new turn has been characterized by what he calls “flexidoxy,” a merger of flexible orthodoxy and this causes him to question its durability.

In chapter 4, Yale law professor Stephen Carter notes that religion and God-talk tend to increase in presidential election years. But he sees it as shallow and superficial if the candidates do not give us an indication of how their faith matters in their policies. The electorate tends to see religion as a proxy for a candidate’s morality, but too close a relationship between religion and politics can have negative ramifications for religion, especially if people put too much faith in a candidate whose religious views seem closer to theirs than others. In response, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer argues for continued religious talk in politics. He notes that former vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman’s appeals to civil religion had an appeal that crossed denominational lines. Krauthammer also argues that the use of “God language” has been central to the American political experience. Historian Leo Ribuffo of George Washington University, the second respondent, highlights the religiosity of numerous presidents in American history. Nonetheless, he expresses ambivalence and caution about too much religious talk in politics.

In chapter 5, political scientists John Green and John DiIulio look at how different religious groups voted in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections. John Green gives an overview of his survey that measured the influence of religion on voting behavior. He notes that white evangelical Protestants have become the dominant religious group in the Republican party. Both religiously observant blacks and Hispanics, and less observant religious groups tend to vote Democratic. John DiIulio responds by addressing the remaining race variables and importance of party identification, since non-white religious groups vote mostly Democratic. He also doubts the degree of influence of Christian activist groups.

In chapter 6, Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School and William McGurn, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, discuss the use of religious and theological language in public discourse. Elshtain borrows heavily from Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations about the religious basis of American culture and politics. Tocqueville observed that there is an unabashed mixing of religion and politics in America even while there is a clear tradition of separation of church and state. Elshtain argues that while every political issue does not have an explicitly Christian response to it, Christians should not resign themselves to operating merely on the world’s terms. McGurn emphasizes that all of our political concerns must go back to first principles. For “human rights” to have substantial meaning, they must be rooted in religious authority.

In chapter 7, historian Leo Ribuffo surveys the history of the rise of the new Christian Right in American politics. After World War II, there was a spiritual revival in America. However, the evangelical and fundamentalist culture that grew out of it has been updated from the conservative Protestantism of the 1920s and 1930s: they are less legalistic, they are far less anti-Catholic, and they use modern technology well. In the future, the Christian right will be an important factor in American politics, but journalists should realize that the “pious” should not lumped together in one religious pot. The picture is much more complicated than that. In response, David Shribman observes that religious conservatives are now at the center of our politics and have “changed the American conversation.” “Values” have now become the language of politics, and religious conservatives have become an indisputable part of the political process.

In chapter 8, law professors Stephen Carter and Jeffrey Rosen discuss the proper relationship between religion and politics in American society. Carter points out that compromise is good for political organizations but dangerous for religion. He is concerned that religious believers not compromise their deeply held doctrinal convictions in favor of political expediency. Rosen is encouraged that both strict separationists and religious supremacist views have been rejected in the legal community but this has yet to find great resonance in the larger public.

In chapter 9, eminent historian Mark Noll gives a summary of the history and tenets of American evangelicals. In the last twenty-five years he notes that diversity, pluralism, and political activism have become much more important to evangelicals. Evangelicals today tend to worry more about secularism and postmodernism than they do about liberalism. Respondent Jay Tolson of U.S. News and World Report argues that there are a variety of doctrinal interpretations within evangelicalism which can potentially lead to confusion for those seeking to understand it. He suggests that greater theological clarity will aid the discussion about evangelicals, especially as it pertains to issues of literalism, women’s roles, the sanctity of life, Israel, and problems related to international politics.

I would like to thank several colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Senior editor Carol Griffith, with her usual consummate skill, did a masterful job of both editing the papers and retrieving the most important comments buried within the many pages of transcript. Laura Fabrycky provided invaluable assistance in numerous ways. She handled all the details concerning conference arrangements, did heroic work in transcribing tapes, and always provided thoughtful timely assistance on matters great and small. The Ethics and Public Policy Center has always been blessed with talented interns; Anna Kaufmann came along at just the right time to render indispensable service. Ian Corbin and Kirsten Hasler, both students at Gordon College, generously gave of their time to proofread the final manuscript.

“Disagreement is a rare achievement,” said the great Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray, “and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” You will find considerable disagreement within these pages but we trust many points of clarification. At all of these conferences it was our express purpose to have diverse viewpoints expressed and argued. We trust the reader will find that this purpose was achieved in the discussions preserved in this book.

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