Why America Can't Separate Religion and Politics on the Edge | boston university (2023)

Historian Bruce Schulman explains why and what this means for the 2016 election

December 2, 2015

  • Julie Butter


Why America Can't Separate Religion and Politics on the Edge | boston university (1)

If he were running for President today, Thomas Jefferson would not be elected.If you strip out glaring anachronisms like slave ownership along with his poor oratory skills, Jefferson would still be struggling in the polls. The reason would be clear from the current field of candidates: Jefferson was an ardent critic of organized religion, he says.Bruce J. Schulman, William E. Huntington Professor of History at Boston University College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).

Jefferson's unusual religious views — he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus and advocated a strong separation of church and state — were a sticking point in the 1800 election, when the opposition "said fundamentally that every Christian must vote against this essential atheist," says Schulman , but was elected anyway and is revered today as one of the founders.

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More than two centuries later, presidential candidates must publicly demonstrate strong faith if they are to win. An incident at the 2016 race shows how times have changed. In May 2015, Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, walked into a South Carolina bakery on her campaign trail and struck up a conversation with a customer about a passage she was reading in her Bible. Their talk won Clinton's support. The former foreign minister's biblical knowledge was "important in my world," said the Baptist preacher laterExplainer for CNN🇧🇷 "I wonder if my President has a religious belief in God."

Clinton may not flaunt her faith as much as some candidates, but she knows how to use it to connect with people.

Today, Schulman says, "it's almost impossible to win the presidency without demonstrating serious religious devotion."

How did we go from a nation that could ignore Jefferson's criticism of religion and elect him president to a nation that would not tolerate it? Religion, which has long been an "indispensable part of American public life," is "perhaps more central than ever to American politics," Schulman and his co-editors writeFaithful Republic: Religion and Politics in Modern America(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). The book offers new or underexplored perspectives on the relationship between religion and politics from the early 20th century to the present, from church-state responses to the New Deal to the rise of the religious right in the 1970s. "Recent polls show that the fastest growing religious groups are non-believers and those who identify as 'spiritual but not religious,'" the editors write -- Religion is becoming increasingly secular.

"In 2012, unrest over Mitt Romney's Mormonism continued among both liberals and conservatives," the editors write, and "in 2008, Rev. Jeremiah Wright's controversial liberation theology sermons threatened to undermine the candidacy." by Barack Obama ( while a small minority of Americans doubted Obama was even a Christian).

loyal republicIt is an example of historians paying more attention to the crucial role of religion in shaping the history and politics of the United States. another isReligion in Early America, aSmithsoniannext exhibition - the first on the subject. The exhibition for whichEsteban Prothero, a CAS religion professor who served as an advisor, will present documents, images and artifacts such as George Washington's christening gowns and the Bibles of Presidents Jefferson and John Quincy Adams.

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Exploring the changing influence of religion helps explain America's current political landscape, why presidential candidates talk so much about God, why parties clash with American exceptionalism, and provides insight into what the country can expect in the 2016 election.

Why America Can't Separate Religion and Politics on the Edge | boston university (2)

pray for votes

When Jefferson ran for President, the election was very different than it is today. Suffrage was severely restricted (mainly for wealthy white males) and political parties were not as established as they are today. "You don't have candidates speaking all over the country," Schulman says, "so personal beliefs don't belong in political campaigns."

One issue that brought candidates' personal confidence into the election spotlight was immigration. Religious tensions boiled over as waves of Catholics arrived from Europe in the early 19th century. Protestants believed that Catholics' loyalty to the Pope to other authorities rendered them unfit citizens. That suspicion waned over time and with restrictions on mass immigration, Schulman says, but it was still strong enough to compel John F. Kennedy (Hon. '55) to openly disclose his Catholicism in a soothing 1960 speech to a nervous to appeal to the audience. Accused of being unpatriotic and a Catholic communist, Kennedy downplayed his faith, assuring his audience of Protestant ministers that he "believes in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

But candidates didn't really start speaking out about their personal beliefs in office until after the 1970s, Schulman says. Resistance to 1960s secularism, abortion, and policies that established a clearer separation of church and state, such as a ban on school prayer, mobilized the religious right. Evangelicals would advance the campaigns of Republicans such as Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush (Hon. '89), and George W. Bush. Now, "the role of evangelical Protestants is very strong," says Schulman, who is "designing the entire process of the presidential election."

Most Americans today want a faith president. in a 2014Pew Research CenterPoll found 53 percent of Americans less likely to support a presidential candidate who doesn't believe in God. As the recent elections have shown, they too expect the presidential candidates to speak out about their personal beliefs.

"The rise of the religious right has changed the landscape so that," in most of the United States, overt religious expression is an expected part of our politics, Schulman says, "and overt irreligion or no religion is something" that it's become more or less less unacceptable.”

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Playing the cards of faith

While religion is helping Republicans win the White House, Democrats have tried, with varying degrees of success, to convince Americans that they have the spiritual skills worthy of the Oval Office.

"There was a pretty common belief that one of the reasons John Kerry lost in 2004 was that he just couldn't get the American people to believe," says Prothero. "He passed for a layman, and people didn't like that. [It wasn't so much] that he was Catholic, it just seemed like he had no mercy. Democrats have learned from that now and are talking a lot about religion." He notes that the strategy of "Hillary Clinton and Obama was to co-opt Republican efforts, to claim the mantle of Christianity, and to assert [their efforts]. that there is only one kind of Christianity".

We can assume that the candidates will continue to play the faith card in 2016. Clinton "will talk more about [religion] as the election progresses," he speculates.

Why America Can't Separate Religion and Politics on the Edge | boston university (3)

If the challenge for the Democratic Party is knowing when to talk about faith, the challenge for the Republican Party is knowing when to stop talking about it. A lineup that includes Mike Huckabee (an ordained Baptist minister) and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson (both sons of ministers) provides strong testimonies of faith and many references to God and morality. But such candidates need to be careful: talking too much about religion and morals could cost them the Oval Office. Prothero, his new bookWhy Liberals Win Culture Wars (Even If They Lose Elections)which HarperOne will release in January 2016, he jokingly says that the Republican primary may be in the best interests of the Democratic Party.

"Culture war policies have been very successful on the right in state and local elections, but have not been successful on the national level," he says.

Speaking out against issues like abortion and gay marriage in primary elections may embolden some GOP members, but it can make candidates "look like fringe candidates to others," let alone voters outside party lines, Prothero says.loyal republicHe cites Republican Rick Santorum's failed presidential bid in 2012 as an example: the Catholic favor, which opposes abortion and gay marriage, but not by opposing contraception; he lost the nomination to Romney.

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Prothero hopes 2016 won't be too different because, he says, "to win the Republican nomination you have to appeal to the cultural conservatives."

ugly politics

The boost that the culture war gave to right-wing politicians after the 1970s contributed to the partisan politics we see today, Schulman says. as he wroteBound to Right: Making America Conservative in the 1970s(Harvard University Press, 2008) the “ingrained individualistic morality and black-and-white apocalyptic worldview” of right-wing evangelicals like Jerry Falwell “had more appeal than the nuanced perspective of evangelicals focused on social justice issues. in the ambiguities and pitfalls of party politics". Over time, both parties politicized other issues, from history and education to environmental and foreign policy. Today, Prothero says, "we're fighting these culture wars not just over abortion and same-sex marriage, but over all of those areas."

"Religious terminology, language, and ways of looking at the world will be rife during this presidential election."– Bruce J. Schulman

One argument we can expect to see in the 2016 election concerns America's state of emergency: the notion that the US has a unique role to play in history and in the world. The state of emergency pops up in debates on almost everything from economics to foreign policy. Prothero says these arguments "can be read quite directly, almost like theological debates about how covenant theology works": Is God our critic or our smuggler? Christians of both parties believe in the idea of ​​America as a special "promised land," an idea that dates back to the Pilgrim and Puritan settlements. But sometimes they disagree on what it means to be a chosen people and the rhetoric to use to speak about it. Republicans, Prothero says, emphasize U.S. pride as the world's largest country and want the U.S. to demonstrate "moral superiority" -- a reason for negotiating with Iran over its nuclear capabilities was a sticking point. However, Democrats often speak presciently about how the nation needs to improve to live up to its ideals of equality, justice, and so on.

Together, for better or for worse

In the end, the politicization of religion could plague politicians and church leaders. In fact, polls of young people show that this is a factor contributing to the rise of independent religions, says Prothero. These so-called "nobodies," predicted to grow to about a quarter of the population by 2050, do not want to be associated with any party or politicians they may disagree with. "I think the vitality of American religion has been really sapped by the recent push towards more religion in the political space," he says. "And there are some evangelicals who say, 'You know, we made a mistake. We need to get out of this political game because our brand will be damaged.'”

But the tangle of religion and politics can be harnessed for good, as was the case in the civil rights and abolitionist movements. And while voters in more secular countries are stunned to vote for a candidate who speaks about Jesus, the phenomenon is in some ways a reflection of our nation's history of religious freedom. Because the United States "didn't have a state church, religion really thrived here," says Prothero. Religion has freed itself from the official political ties that paralyzed it in times of upheaval such as the French Revolution.

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For better or worse, the continued prominence of religion in American elections also shows that Americans still have a soft spot for faith, even if they are less likely to be found in the pews. In 2013, more than half of Americans said religion was "very important" in their lives and that it "can solve all or most of today's problems."

Historians get the message. Whether through new grants or exhibitions like the one at the Smithsonian, they work to integrate religion more deeply into their understanding of the country's past and present. "I think part of the reason for the renewed interest among scholars in the role of religion is the obvious question of how one tries to explain the world we live in today," says Schulman. He and Prothero point out that religion is key to understanding a wide range of recent events, from 9/11 to the success of Walmart, a company shaped by the Walton family's religious beliefs.

"The events overlooked worldly prejudices among historians," says Prothero. It's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore "the importance of religion in American history," he says.

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Why religion cannot be separated from politics? ›

Mahatma Gandhi said that religion can never be separated from politics. It does not mean that he was not a nationalist, it simply signifies that interests of religion and country are interrelated according to him.

Why is it important to separate religion from the state question answer? ›

It is important to separate state from religion to prevent domination of the majority religious group and violation of Fundamental Rights. Every individual has the freedom to embrace other religions and has the freedom to interpret other religions differently.

Why is it important to separate religion from politics? ›

The concept of a “separation of church and state” reinforces the legal right of a free people to freely live their faith, even in public; without fear of government coercion. Free exercise means you may have a faith and you may live it.

What is the relationship between religion and politics? ›

Religion plays a powerful role in modern politics, and the relationship between the two is ever-changing. The governing of a state cannot be separated from the religious views of its people that affect the leaders and lawmakers of a country. Law mirrors society.

Who separates religion from politics? ›

John Locke and the Enlightenment

The concept of separating church and state is often credited to the writings of English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Roger Williams was first in his 1636 writing of "Soul Liberty" where he coined the term "liberty of conscience".

What did Mahatma Gandhi mean when he said that religion and politics can never be separated? ›

Gandhiji used to say that religion can never be separated from politics. He said that he didn't mean religion as any particular religion like Hinduism or Islam but moral values that inform all religion is actually a real religion. He believed that politics must be guided by ethics drawn from religion.


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