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II. Evidence the United States Is Different
III. Why Does It Matter?
IV. What Makes Americans Different?
V. Accommodationists Versus Separationists
VI. The Rise of the Evangelicals
VII. Future Directions
One could easily make the argument that too much attention is paid to the United States by political scientists. If so, it is not as bad as it used to be. There was a clear ethnocentrism to early comparative political science. The effort apparent in much of that normative research was to try and build up what was great about American politics and see what the other nations had to do to be more like “us.” Political scientists today take a more empirical approach to studying the world. Still, a disproportional amount of attention continues to be paid to the United States. This may just be a function of the availability of data in the United States for political scientists to analyze. If this is the case, then recent attempts to expand the collection of public opinion and other data from around the world should help level the field. Regardless, it is easy to say that in many ways, a very stable political system in the United States has been overanalyzed, and many more dynamic political systems around the world have been significantly understudied.
In the field of religion and politics, the extra attention paid to the United States is definitely warranted. The United States is the outlier, the exception to the rule in many ways. It is a modern, rich, and developed nation that is remarkably religious. Why is the United States unique in this regard? This research paper reviews the significant literature produced over the past century attempting to answer this complex question. First, this research paper provides evidence that the United States is indeed unique and shows why this fact is important. Then the paper works to understand some of the specific characteristics of religion and politics in America that attract researchers to this field.
II. Evidence the United States Is Different
Are Americans really different than Europeans? Is the United States a significantly more religious country than most of the modern nations of the world? The United States certainly does not present itself to the rest of the world as a religious nation. A proper way to think about a nation’s core values might be to consider the reasons the people would be willing to go to war. Americans have shown a willingness to fight for democracy, capitalism, human rights, and other secular concepts. Would Americans go to war for Christianity? As of the writing of this paper, the United States is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. To some Americans, the purpose of these conflicts seems unclear, while some see Americans fighting for democracy or other noble cause. However, the consensus is clearly that Americans are not fighting on behalf of Christianity against Islam. These are not religious wars to Americans.
In addition, many Americans cannot conceive of the United States fighting a religious war. The Islamic extremists Americans are fighting do see it as a religious war, however. Interestingly, they do not see it as a war against Christians, but a war against infidels, or secularists, that spread capitalism and threaten their traditional religious values. From this perspective, it would seem that the United States is perceived by much of the world as a secular nation.
The irony here is that by all measures, the United States is a relatively religious nation. From a macroperspective, the importance of religion on politics in the United States is easy to see. Public debates over social issues take on a much more religious tone in the United States than they do in Canada, England, or many of the other modern nations. Religion provides the foundation for mainstream arguments on political issues such as abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, and many others (Brewer & Stonecash, 2007). Religion plays a significant role in electoral politics, especially in recent decades (Layman, 2001). The importance of religion in American politics may be intuitively clear, but the political scientist is not satisfied with mere observance. Political scientists must provide evidence to support their intuition. Only then can they begin to explore the causes and implications of a phenomenon.
The first step in measuring the religiosity of the American culture is to measure the religiosity of the American people from a microperspective. Traditionally, the most common measure of religiosity has been weekly church attendance. Although this number has been declining slightly in recent decades, still between 35% and 40% of Americans attend church at least once a week. This compares to an average of about 5% to 10% in many European countries. This statistic definitely supports the observation about Americans being religious, but caution is advised in reading too much into this number.
There are two main issues with this statistic: Is it accurate, and what does it mean? In terms of accuracy, there is evidence that church attendance numbers in the United States tend to be inflated (Presser & Chaves, 2007). The church has motivation to inflate attendance numbers, and the congregants may say they go more frequently than they really do because they want to look good. The causes for this motivation will become clear later, but evidence also suggests this motivation to inflate numbers does not exist to the same degree in other developed countries (Jelen & Wilcox, 1998). As a result, the difference in church attendance figures between these other nations and the United States may be overstated.
The other issue is what this statistic represents. It is definitely a very convenient measure. It has commonly been used in election studies and values surveys in the United States and around the world for decades, but does it illuminate what scholars want to know? At the basic level, the assumption that a religious person would go to church regularly and that the irreligious person would not go to church seems logical. However, this issue is more complex.
Does a person go to church because of a deep spiritual yearning, or is it a culturally accepted place for social congregation? Is this person truly engaged in the organized religion of his or her choice, or are people just so-called pew potatoes who attend services out of habit or a sense of responsibility but are not engaged beyond that? Political scientists are realizing that the church attendance variable may be a good place to start, but it clearly has limits (Green, 2007). These days, it is often combined with variables measuring a person’s beliefs (such as belief in God, heaven, or hell) or his or her willingness to attend church meetings outside of services to get a more complete picture of an individual’s religiosity. Still, even with these other variables included, the United States still ranks among the most religious of the developed nations. Although belief in God has declined slightly (like church attendance) in the United States in recent decades, the number is still much higher than in much of Europe. No matter how one analyzes it, it seems religiosity is higher in the United States, setting it apart from most of the industrialized world.
III. Why Does It Matter?
To understand the current state of the literature in the field of religion and American politics, it is helpful to begin with the influence religion can have on individuals. It goes without saying that religion has always been important to people and has the capacity to influence how they live their lives. For many, religion is a cornerstone of who they are and plays a big part in many of the decisions they make. There is evidence that religion has been losing influence over the past 400 years and that this pattern continues today, although the extent to which this fact is true is up for debate. In any case, religion has always had, and continues to have, a very personal connection to many people and can therefore be used in many ways as a powerful motivator (or manipulator).
The fundamental importance of religion to an individual can have many manifestations in a society. One way to study it is how religion affects the institutions of the government. This institutional approach can focus on the structure of the institutions (whether a nation has a church-state or not) or how the politicians incorporate religion into the way they represent their constituents in a democracy. Another way is to examine the political behavior of the citizens, or the political culture of the nation, as represented by public opinion. In a pluralist nation like the United States, which has a strong civil society, religion can play a significant role in the exchange of ideas.
Religion has a unique ability to promote civil society and social capital (Smidt, 2003) and use these things to its advantage. First, religion has a deep meaning to many people. Therefore, a message delivered by a religious leader or given in a religious context can have a strong impact on individuals, causing them to change their behavior. Religions, to varying degrees, promote evangelism, or the idea of sharing the good news with others. In addition, organized religions have a formal structure in place for regular meetings and the exchange of ideas. These factors combine to put religion in a unique position to influence the public.
Religion’s role as a catalyst for social change is as old as religion itself. The power of the exchange of ideas that drove the Protestant reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries would soon move beyond religion and inspire the Enlightenment. This movement of liberal philosophers spanned the 16th and 17th centuries and represents an important turning point in our history. Although John Locke and many of these thinkers still wrote in a religious context, to not alienate their potential readers, they conceptualized a more secular world. Locke and Montesquieu envisioned a world where commerce was central to people’s lives and secular education was to be of vital importance. They felt people had the ability to reason; therefore, they should be given freedom to run their own governments (via democracy) and invest themselves in science, commerce, or both, as they see fit. These philosophies, first incorporated by the founders of the United States and since throughout most of the world, have led to industrial revolutions and centuries of unprecedented advancement in science and technology. However, what does all this mean about the role of religion?
Religion had begun to lose its absolute authority in many societies. In addition, science and technology were beginning to provide answers to questions that could previously be answered only by religion. Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher critical of the Enlightenment, went as far as saying that he envisioned a world where God would be dead. Science may not answer all the questions, but if commerce is there to keep people preoccupied, then they may lose their drive to delve into deep issues where religion could still provide guidance. The importance of religion to people would eventually be marginalized.
The dominant paradigm with regard to religion and politics through most of the 20th century centered around the idea that religion was headed toward extinction as a political force. Eventually, this idea was formalized into the secularization theory. Peter L. Berger (1999), one of the leading proponents of the theory, said that reason, scientific development, and bureaucratic specialization were among the factors that would eventually destroy religion as a political influence. Since this grand theory was the dominant paradigm for so long, not much was written about religion and politics for decades. Western Europe was becoming less religious by the decade, and the pattern of secularization worldwide, at least in more developed nations, seemed to confirm Berger’s thesis.
This pattern never took hold in the United States. Religion continues to have a significant influence on American culture (Wald, 2003) and on how American institutions operate (Oldmixon, 2005). The United States has arguably led the world in industrialization, modernization, and advancements in science and technology. Locke’s idea of commerce becoming a central focus and taking people’s attention off of deeper issues is as true in the United States as it is anywhere else. Despite all this, Americans are still as religious as much of the less developed world. How could this be?
IV. What Makes Americans Different?
This is one of the most explored questions in political science literature in recent decades. For a long time, since the secularization theory dominated the literature, researchers felt the United States would eventually secularize also. Americans were just running behind for some reason. Events in American politics between 1980 and the present, with religion reemerging as a political force, obviously show this to not be the case. This leads to political scientists wanting to know why.
A number of hypotheses have been submitted and tested. One possible explanation is that the secularization theory is still accurate; it just needs a revision to explain the United States. Norris and Inglehart (2004) have a theory as to why the United States is still as religious as much of the third world that has yet to modernize and replace religion as the focal point of their society. Basically, the authors apply Inglehart’s postmaterialist theory to the role of religion in the world. They posit that developed nations become more secular as they get more secure. As a result, postindustrial countries have less religious alignment and lower church attendance. The other part of it is that birth rates are lower in these countries; therefore, they see religion actually growing in the world because population rates are increasing faster in the non-postmaterial world, and this intensifies the line of conflict between the secure world and the third world. They try to explain the anomaly that is the United States by saying that the American minimal social welfare system fosters enough economic insecurity in cities and rural areas to cause religiosity similar to that in areas of the third world. This explanation seems problematic because one could easily argue that the homeless person living in a shelter in Los Angeles has a more comfortable life than half of the population of a country like Bangladesh.
One of the best developed theories in the literature concerning the religiosity in the United States is a supply-side model. Although many political scientists have contributed to this theory (Iannaccone, 1990; Jelen, 2000, among others), the most complete work is The Churching of America, 1776–1990 by Finke and Stark (1992). It is a supply-side or market-driven model because the theory states that the religiosity in American culture does not come from an inherent demand for religion among the American people; it comes from the competition among the diverse suppliers of religion in the open marketplace.
The focus of this theory is the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. At the most fundamental level, this clause guarantees a free marketplace for religious ideas. As a result, churches publicly compete for members, and this overt competition creates a religious fervor in the community. Ironically, in many cases today, churches do not compete for membership using differences in interpretation of scripture or other doctrinal differences. Instead, the competition takes a more secular form, as the churches advertise location, service times, opportunities for children, or the quality of their choir or other programs. This competition brings people in the doors, and then the messages they hear reinforce the religiosity in the culture.
An interesting side effect of this competition is the relatively high percentage of self-proclaimed atheists or irreligious people who live in the United States. Just as the free market allows individuals to be whatever religion they want, it also allows them to choose not to be any at all. Depending on the poll, usually between 15% and 20% of Americans claim to be atheist, among the highest rates in the world. So although the market model has been shown to promote religiosity, it can also work to promote an aversion to organized religion.
The other manifestation of this phenomenon to note is that many of the fastest growing churches in the United States today are nondenominational churches. These people are religious, but they are averse to the traditional denominations, so they have stepped out of the box in a different way that the market allows. This phenomenon in American culture seems to go beyond religion as well. Although Americans used to take pride in certain labels, they now seem to take pride in not being labeled. An example of this outside of religion would be partisanship. Polls have shown a decline in partisanship among Americans over the past 40 years. Political scientists are studying, however, whether this reflects actual changes in people’s voting behavior or if it is just that Americans are less willing to claim to be a Republican or a Democrat although their voting behavior remains distinctly partisan.
Finke and Stark (1992) support the market model by reviewing the history of religion in America. It is important to note that for most of American history, the religion was Christianity. It was not until the mid- to late 20th century that significant minorities of other religions and irreligious people began to form. Finke and Stark show that at times in American history when one sect of Christianity grew stronger, resulting in a decrease in competition, overall religiosity in the culture decreased. However, when religious competition increased, so did religiosity.
There are many reasons for this. During times of greater competition, churches are willing to try different things and be more aggressive pursuing congregants. There is excitement in the air as different denominations vie for membership. When one sect gets the upper hand, the leaders of that group tend to get comfortable with their position. They put less energy into bringing people in and more energy into managing the people they already have. The energy around religion decreases, and the smaller sects, at a significant disadvantage, feel less able to try and compete.
Finke and Stark (1992) demonstrate that churches that have generated the most religious energy throughout our history were, ironically, the churches that expected the most commitment and energy from their constituents. As a general rule, when groups form and try to expand, the natural tendency is for them to make engagement as easy as possible to lure more people in. This example shows the error in that thinking. Many of the rapidly growing religious groups were new denominations. As they struggled to get started, the leaders and the followers had to make a deep commitment to get it to work. In other cases, the denomination’s approach to religion required a stronger commitment from the congregant. An example of both of these would be the Methodists. Methodism developed in the mid-19th century as circuit riders traveled from community to community evangelizing and preaching the Word. It was a very energetic approach to religion that required a lot from the lay leaders when the minister was not there. Over time, the Methodists have developed into a mainstream Protestant denomination and, arguably, have lost some of their energy. They, like other mainline Protestant denominations, have actually seen their membership shrink in recent decades while groups that require a greater personal commitment, such as Southern Baptists and Mormons, continue to grow.
The strength of this market model is not limited to Christianity or the United States. Islamic nations around the world tend to form church-states. However, the growth of Islam in recent decades in the United States is another example that if an active commitment is required, a religion can do well in a free-market system. Attempts to apply the market model to other nations in Europe have met with limited success (Jelen & Wilcox, 1998), while recent attempts to apply this model to Latin America have proven more successful (Gill, 1998). Although the market model seems to fit the United States very well, scholars today are studying the theory’s generalizability.
There are a number of aspects of this market theory worth exploring. First, it is important to recognize that this is a top-down, elite-driven theory. Again, religiosity is driven by the church leaders, not the people. Although this is a solid theoretical assumption, and one that often fits the facts, it clearly is not always true. As long as a country has a strong civil society, there will always be opportunities for issues to rise from the bottom as well as trickle down from the top. Americans are a communal people, willing to develop a strong civil society and to allow religion to play a role in that process. The fact that this is true was first observed by Alexis de Tocqueville (1966) in the 1840s and continues to be observed today. Although some see signs that civil society is breaking down in America today (Putnam, 2000), the tradition remains a strong part of the culture.
Second, using this top-down approach allows political scientists to use a rational choice model to explain the behavior of churches. This was a difficult adjustment for political scientists. For a long time, the idea of combining rational choice and religion was considered inappropriate, to say the least. Religious people, by their very nature, are assumed to be not rational, since their behavior is driven by a belief in something mystical. Over the years, political scientists have begun to realize that religious people do act rationally and that religions in an open market can definitely be seen as acting rationally. Gill’s (1998) study of the ability of evangelical Protestants to gain ground in Catholic Latin America is a strong example of this use of the rational actor model.
Another aspect of this theory that has garnered a great deal of research over the past decade is the ability of the church to act as an agent of socialization and manipulate people’s views. This is fundamental to the market theory. The competition may get people into the churches, but that only matters if the church is then able to have an influence on its congregation and make them more religious in their worldview and, potentially, in their politics. Scholars have taken a number of approaches to this question.
The first step is to look at the clergy. In some religions, the opinions of the individual giving the message matter less than in other religions. Catholicism, for example, has traditionally been a more centrally run church, with the Word coming from God, through the pope, to the local priest. This would not give the local priest much opportunity to deviate from Catholic doctrine. The fact is that even in Catholicism, scholars have seen a split in recent decades between more orthodox Catholics and less orthodox Catholics. Approximately half of American Catholics support the Democratic Party, which has a prochoice platform, while the Vatican clearly takes a prolife stance.
If there are opportunities for deviation in the Catholic Church for local priests and congregations, there are certainly opportunities for Protestant clergy. Protestants lessen the role of the church and focus more on the individual’s relationship with God. Therefore, there is much more room for individual interpretation by local clergy and congregations, both among Protestant denominations and within a denomination. If the split within a denomination is severe enough, members can form another denomination, as the Lutherans are currently doing over the gay clergy issue.
One thing this research paper has already established is that many of the fundamental differences among religions and denominations do not seem to be the focus of sermons one might hear on Sunday, because of the market system. One is unlikely to hear a sermon from a Methodist pastor outlining the doctrinal difference between them and the Lutherans, for example. From this perspective, the politics of the individual clergy matters, since they have some leeway in how they deliver the message. Guth, Green, Smidt, Kellstedt, and Poloma (1997) and Smidt (2004) are two examples among many of political scientists recognizing the importance of the politics of the individual clergy. Both recognize patterns showing clergy of the different denominations having different political views. Political views of clergy are important, and there are definite patterns in partisanship and other things to be recognized among Protestant clergy in particular.
The next question concerns clergies’ ability to pass their views to their congregations. They do have a certain authority and influence over many people as men or women of God. At the same time, however, they are limited in their ability to engage in politic issues for two main reasons. The first reason is their desire to maintain tax-exempt status. For a church to be tax exempt, they cannot engage in politics in any direct way. They must remain neutral. It seems like every election year, there are churches in different communities trying to test the boundaries of these laws, but the limitation is considerable.
The other main limitation is their desire not to offend potential congregants. In an effort to grow, many mainstream churches need to be willing to expand their acceptance of diversity of opinion. They cannot be too specific in support of a party or an issue if they want to appeal to a broader audience. This limits a church’s desire or ability to take a strong stand on any social or political issues. Whether trying for the broadest possible appeal is a good idea for a church is a debate for another time. As a result of this goal, however, people who attend church regularly will answer collectively about their belief in God or the need to love their neighbor (whether they actually do this is another subject), but the ability of the clergy to socialize on specific social issues is very limited.
Another part of the issue with clergy getting political is the fact that the core messages sent from churches do not line up well with the American party system and political ideologies. For example, churches are, by their nature, communal organizations that promote collective responsibility. A church might feel it needs members to work together to help the less fortunate. This sense of collective responsibility is a more liberal approach to problem solving as opposed to a more conservative approach focused on individual responsibility. At the same time, many churches promote more socially conservative issues, with stands against abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, and others. If the church is sending messages that do not easily align with a certain political ideology or political party, the congregant is left to rationalize what message they choose to receive, allowing for a level of selective perception.
The other limitation is the extent to which the congregant is engaged enough to receive certain messages at church and have these messages change their opinions on a subject. Many political scientists continue to explore this issue (Layman, 2001;Wilson, 2007). This issue ties back into the previously explored idea about the level of expectation the religion has for its members. Generally, the higher the expectation, the more the member is engaged and the more likely the message from the clergy will have a significant impact on the actions of the congregant.
This market model has many aspects and implications that political scientists continue to explore. The main cause for this open competition among religions is the establishment clause. Although the clause seems simple enough, one of the big issues political scientists continue to explore is the controversy over how it is to be interpreted.
V. Accommodationists Versus Separationists
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (1787) contains a freedom of religion clause (the free exercise clause) and a freedom from religion clause. The free exercise clause does not generate much controversy. The fact that people can be whatever religion they want to be, or no religion at all, is almost universally accepted. Even in nations around the world that have church-states, many of them have freedom of religion clauses in their constitutions (Americans may wonder about the legitimacy of those clauses, but it works for them).
The only controversies that come up here usually concern one of two questions. First, what constitutes a religion? If religions qualify for tax-exempt status and other benefits, there needs to be some standard for this. Certainly Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and all the main world religions would qualify. However, one can think of an example of a group that some consider to be a religion and others do not. What qualifies as a religion?
The other question that the courts address from time to time is this: What can be done in the name of a religion? Generally speaking, people cannot violate laws in the name of religious practice. This has been more controversial in the past, but an occasional issue will still come up today. The fact is, however, the free exercise clause does not generate much attention from political scientists.
The establishment clause is different. The clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” (U.S. Constitution, 1787, First Amendment). The fact that this clause prohibits the United States from establishing a church-state like many other nations have is clear. The United States was founded in part by religious refugees. Granted, they represented minority Christian sects trying to escape majority Christian sects, but still they were outcasts. Banning a church-state was a very important part of religious freedom to them.
Still today, the idea of a church-state in the United States does not have any wide appeal. Around the Western world, many nations that have church-states are moving away from them. Besides, if the United States were to establish a state-church, which religion or denomination would it be? It would certainly be Christian, given that almost 70% of Americans are Christian. However, they are split among multiple Protestant denominations and Catholics. Remember, the United States also has a relatively large percentage of atheists that have a significant say in the American pluralist political system.
In any case, this is not the controversy. The controversy centers around the extent to which church and state should be separated. This debate centers around two groups that political scientists have labeled accommodationists and separationists (Jelen, 2000).
Separationists interpret the establishment clause to mean there should be a complete separation of church and state in the United States, or as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “a wall of separation.” Separationists fight for no prayer in schools and for keeping the Ten Commandments out of public buildings. In recent years, a separationist appellate court in California decided that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance should be taken out if kids are asked to say the pledge in school. This decision was set aside and not enforced, but it provides a good example of the goals of separationists.
Irreligious people are naturally going to be separationist. If one does not like religion, why would one want religion to be engaged in some way with government? On the other side, however, there are many religious people who are separationists. The reason for this is that they believe religion and government to be fundamentally incompatible. After all, religion is about right and wrong, and democratic politics is about compromise. These separationists fear that government will corrupt their religion or at the very least water down its message. They find examples in Europe, where the church-state governments there take relatively liberal positions on many social issues.
The American law of the land is currently separationist. The current court precedent, Lemon vs. Kurtzman (1971), says that the government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose, it must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and it must not excessively entangle government with religion. This precedent has been narrowed and defined by the courts over the years, but it remains the legal foundation for all establishment-clause issues.
Accommodationists, on the other hand, want government’s approach to religion to be one of so-called positive neutrality (Jelen, 2000). The idea is not to pick one religion over another but to recognize that general religious values can be used to support government and provide a stronger foundation for government action. An example of an accommodationist would be former president George W. Bush. He is a very religious man who was not shy about using his faith to guide his decisions about the so-called right thing for government to do. He also pursued a number of faith-based initiatives, including allowing students to go to religious schools with government money and allowing churches to distribute government social welfare money in local communities. The idea is that religion can provide a deeper meaning for what government does and more motivation for citizen engagement.
There is a fundamental aspect of this debate that cannot be ignored. The accommodationist position implies that it is acceptable for a religious people, Christians specifically, to engage their faith in politics. Mohammed was a spiritual leader, a military leader, and a political leader, leading to the belief that the Islamic state is a natural fit for Muslims. Jesus was a spiritual leader, who made a point of saying his followers should respect God and the state and keep them separate. As such, many Christians have been reluctant to engage their faith in politics.
VI. The Rise of the Evangelicals
In the past, studies of religion and party politics in the United States focused on the differences in the religious sects. Traditionally, Protestants were viewed as more likely to be Republican, and Catholics and Jews as more likely to be Democrats (Green, 2007, calls this the “old gap”). A number of historical, economic, and social theories were put forth to explain this division, focused largely on the New Deal Era in American history (Layman, 2001). With the partisan realignment surrounding civil rights beginning in the 1960s and the emergence of the Christian Right in the 1980s, there is a debate as to whether this traditional approach is still appropriate (Green, 2007).
Increasingly, scholars are taking the view that what religion a person subscribes to is less important in determining partisanship than how religious they are. More and more, evidence shows that more religious people, regardless of religion, tend to support Republicans, and less religious people (and irreligious people) tend to support Democratic candidates (Green, 2007, calls this the new gap). This new gap became a significant force in presidential elections beginning in 1992 and has remained consistent or grown bigger since then, causing many to see it as a possible partisan realignment (Fiorina, Abrams, & Pope, 2006).
There are a number of possible reasons for the alignment of more religious people with the Republican Party. It may be as simple as a shift of the Republican Party platform over the past 25 years toward Christian positions on a variety of issues. To say that Republicans better represent religious interests and Democrats better represent secular interests may be generally accurate at this time, but it does not tell much of the story. It also does not explain how or why this convergence between religious values and Republican issues has taken place.
One way to explain the convergence of traditional religious values and the Republican Party in recent decades is as an elite-driven rational choice model. The theory states that the religious elites found an opportunity to expand their influence by entering politics through President Reagan and the Republican Party in the 1980s (Layman, 2001). This also gave Reagan an easily identifiable base that could be targeted and mobilized for his reelection bid in 1984 (Holbrook & McClurg, 2005). What began as a marriage of convenience for ambitious elites continued to progress as Republican positions began to further align themselves with Christian values, and Democratic positions, in response, tended toward secular positions.
Interestingly, the Christian Right entered politics in the 1980s very aggressively talking in religious terms about what people needed to do and what would happen to the people if they did not do it. They struggled with this approach in a culture that sees itself as secular. As a result, they modified their approach and began speaking of things like family values. Although this has proven to be more effective for them politically, it has created a dynamic where the Christian majority in our country feels it has the same freedom of speech discrimination issues that might be encountered by an oppressed minority (Wald, 2003).
Some have gone so far as to suggest Americans have a culture war in their country as religious people align with the Republican Party against secular Democrats over cultural issues (Brewer & Stonecash, 2007). Others say this culture war is a myth perpetuated by the political elite designed to motivate people to participate in elections (Fiorina et al., 2006). In any case, the role of religion in politics has definitely increased since Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980.
VII. Future Directions
The field of religion in American politics is very dynamic and exciting. Most of the research has been done within the past 30 years, and there is a lot more to do. The theories outlined in this research paper are by no means complete, nor do scholars know their full implications.
The possibilities for future research are limitless. After September 11, 2001, the recognition of the importance of religion in politics continues to grow. There are two areas this section points to specifically, however, as avenues for continued research.
The first is the effect of Federalism on religion and politics. The state is an important unit of analysis for electoral purposes. After all, American elections take place at the state, district, or local level. Americans have only one national election, and even the presidential election is decided on a state-by-state basis because of the Electoral College. Therefore, states are very important units of analysis for voting behavior.
However, is there something distinct about a state that would lead it to have a unique red or blue culture? This is a federalism argument, and there is extensive debate on this issue in the literature. In arguing for state importance, a core concept is that all politics are local. It is argued that local and state politics drive the federal system and that the national government is at its core a sum of the state governments (Chibber & Kollman, 2004). Most of the laws that affect Americans’ daily lives are made at the state and local level, and there is considerable variation among the states in laws regarding important social and economic issues. From this perspective, the states could easily develop independent red or blue identities.
The other side of the argument is that our states have been overrun by the federal government over the past 200 years and have little if any real power left. In this case, maybe the variation in culture seen across the country is not on a state-by-state basis but better defined in a regional context as Green (2007) does. In many cases, the neighboring states share a similar history and appealed to certain groups of immigrants and business interests that helped define a regional culture. It is easy to recognize that the United States is made up of a number of subcultures. For example, it is easy to see a general cultural difference between the Northeast and the South. The question remains: Does one define these differences in terms of states or regions?
The Federalism issue is one political scientists have been debating, and there is a long way to go. The other issue that is ripe for future research has been recently framed by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld (2009). The same man that drove the secularization theory and contributed to its demise has recently given a new framework to consider religion and politics. In Praise of Doubt (Berger & Zijderveld, 2009) is a theoretical book where the authors discuss the relativism that is perceived as fundamental to modernity. The authors point out that the absolutism that is often applied as a criticism of religion can also be found in relativism. Therefore, relativism should not get credit for modernization, but the key instead is the mere capacity to doubt. Although the existence of doubt may change religions’ role in a culture, it does not eliminate religion as a significant cultural force. This may provide a new paradigm with which to look at the role of religion in politics. The bottom line is this: Although scholars have made some progress understanding the affect of religion on politics, there is still much work to be done as they continue to develop and test new theories.
In many ways, the study of religion and American politics is relatively new. The market model goes a long way toward showing why the United States is not cooperating with the secularization theory, but there is much work to do. In addition, the dynamic political scientists are endeavoring to study is constantly changing. From the rise of the Evangelicals in the 1980s to September 11, 2001, events continue to challenge their understanding of the relationship. Once they begin to conceive of a party realignment around religion (the Republicans centering around more religious people and the Democrats centering around a more secular approach), then comes the election of 2008 where the Republicans nominated a candidate unappealing to religious conservatives and the Democratic candidates were openly discussing their faith on the campaign trail. Political scientists need to try and understand the basic theories in the field as quickly as possible before they change again.
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