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Religion in American politics

Created date

August 8th, 2016
Sitting President Dwight Eisenhower shaking hands with President-elect John F. Kennedy.

Sitting President Dwight Eisenhower shaking hands with President-elect John F. Kennedy.

Compared to some other parts of the world, the United States stands out for two things in particular: freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. A brief discussion about religion’s role in American politics illuminates this Constitutional balance between our nonsecular electoral process and our secular government.

Recently, the Tribune spoke with historian Bruce Schulman of Boston University on the history of this topic in the United States.

Tribune: Has religion always had a place in American politics?

Schulman: Yes. Nineteenth-century elections were largely about mobilizing an army of supporters through religion.

For instance, religion was central in the 1800 race between Jefferson and Adams. Adams’ camp denounced Jefferson as godless because he was a deist [one who believes that God doesn’t intervene in our daily lives]. 

Adams’ supporters claimed that, if elected, Jefferson would assail the traditional role of religion in American life. So the deeply religious voters supported Adams’ Federalist Party.

Tribune: Did religion define political affiliation in the nineteenth century?

Schulman: It did to an extent. Until the late 1800s, native white Protestants were mainly Republican, and Roman Catholics were overwhelmingly Democratic. 

But it wasn’t only religion that distinguished the two parties. You also had regional factors at play. For example, even in the South, a white Protestant would have most likely been a Democrat, just as there were ethnic immigrants in the heavily Republican North who were Democrats. 

I think, in part, the division between parties was also due to geography and the interests that were inherent to those regions.

Nonetheless, religious affiliation was very important. 

The early- and mid-nineteenth-century political model was one in which parties were the main way that politicians communicated with and mobilized voters. In an era before rapid, mass communications, the way you were going to rally support was by going out and talking to people. 

Back then, a party’s local headquarters doubled as a social support center. They were places where men went to smoke, drink beer, and hang out with their friends. They would take care of your family if someone got sick or died; they would cover funeral expenses if you couldn’t afford it.

The party headquarters was the principal intermediary between a politician and an ordinary voter, and they often shared religious affiliations. Gradually, from the 1890s into the 1930s, that nineteenth-century model was replaced with the modern politics of interest groups and mass media, much like what we have today.

Tribune: And this is when the regional/religious divide dissolved?

Schulman: Yes, it began to blur in the 1890s with the wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. These people were mostly Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish.

They were also predominantly urban Democrats, so Republicans started to see the writing on the wall. If they continued mobilizing exclusively native white Northern Protestants, they wouldn’t win elections.

When Republicans reached out to these other groups, the clean geographic and religious divide between parties started to break down.

Tribune: Does religion ever fall to the wayside?

Schulman: No, but there was a period from the 1930s until the 1970s when it was encouraged to keep your religion to yourself. Dwight Eisenhower famously said that he thought everybody ought to have a religion and he didn’t care what it was.

Of course, many thought religion would be decisive in the Kennedy-Nixon race because they believed that anti-Catholicism would be strong enough to affect the vote for Kennedy, especially in the South. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Kennedy carried all of the South, in large part because his running mate Johnson helped him there.

Tribune: When did religion reenter prominently in politics?

Schulman: Almost certainly with born-again Christian Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976. From then on, it seemed as though it was practically required of candidates to talk about their religion. 

And those who weren’t particularly religious would essentially fake religious enthusiasm when they thought it could benefit their campaigns. 

Tribune: Where is religion today in presidential politics?

Schulman: It’s an interesting subject because if you look at the last several election cycles, religion has been very prominent. You have Obama’s controversial relationship with preacher Jeremiah Wright and Mitt Romney’s Mormonism.

Hillary Clinton isn’t particularly religious, but being an openly religious Arkansas politician’s wife, she has to "talk the talk" of faith when it behooves her. And Donald Trump has done a little bit of "God talk," but it isn’t central to his campaign either. I think a lot of voters motivated by their religious concerns don’t know what to do this go-around.

Tribune: Is this the start of a new trend, or is it an anomaly? 

Schulman: I think it’s an anomaly because if Cruz or Carson had won the primary, religion would have been more prominent. Future elections will tell.