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Sen. Eugene McCarthy, one of the few theologically sophisticated men ever to seek either party’s presidential nomination, liked to say that only two kinds of religion are tolerated along the Potomac: “strong beliefs vaguely expressed and vague beliefs strongly affirmed.” McCarthy had two particular presidents in mind: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. But he could have been describing most of the men who have occupied the White House. Franklin D. Roosevelt would have understood what McCarthy meant. When he decided to run for president in 1932, his press secretary asked him what he should tell the press about his religious convictions. Roosevelt could have justly claimed that he was a warden of his Episcopal parish, prayed often, and regularly attended Sunday services. But all he said was: “Tell them I am a Christian and a Democrat, and that is all they need to know.” And it was. And so, with rare exceptions, it has always been in presidential elections.
Having written about religion and its relationship to American culture and politics for more than half a century, I am not inclined to minimize the effects of religious belief, behavior, and belonging on American public life. But I think it’s abundantly clear that religion has rarely been a significant factor in our presidential politics, and isn’t likely to be in the upcoming election. On the contrary, to treat religious identity as an independent variable, as many journalists, academics, and pollsters do, inflates the influence of religion on our politics and masks the ways in which politics has come to shape American religion, rather than the reverse. Still, after the returns are in next November, the media will carry stories about how Catholics, liberal Protestants, and Evangelicals—especially “non-Hispanic white” Evangelicals—voted. Why do we insist on connecting presidential choices with religious identity?
One reason has to do with the way we have come to imagine our national story. Because of the powerful role the Puritans and Plymouth Rock have played in how we tell that story, many Americans have imagined that our country is inherently Christian in its origins. Certainly Christianity, mostly of a Protestant sort, was in the nation’s founding cultural mix. But there weren’t a lot of churches in the thirteen original colonies, and not a lot of clergy either. Like continental Europe, colonial America was officially religious—ten of the thirteen colonies had state churches—but in the piquant phrase of Church historian Franklin H. Littell, the religion practiced by most colonists is better described as “baptized heathenism.” Writing in 1962, Littell estimated that, at the nation’s birth in 1776, no more than 5 percent of Americans were “churched.” That estimate is probably too low. More recently, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have put the number at 17 percent, extrapolating from data that wasn’t available to Littell. But that still leaves 83 percent of the country “unchurched.”
The Founding Fathers were not particularly religious either. Only a handful could be described as orthodox Christians in any sense. George Washington, for example, attended church with some regularity but rarely mentions Jesus Christ in his personal or public writings. He preferred to talk about Providence, “the Great Ruler of Events,” and other deistic abstractions. This was, after all, the era of the American Enlightenment, and what the framers of the Constitution—agnostic, Deist, and Christian alike—wanted to avoid were the religious conflicts that plagued Europe. They did so by separating the realm of the minister from that of the magistrate, which had been joined at the hip in Puritan New England.
In the Founders’ view, religion’s value lay mainly in its positive social function: Washington saw religion as a necessary moral prop of democracy; John Adams believed that religion helped mold the kind of conscientious citizens that the U.S. Constitution required; and Madison thought that citizens of the new republic ought first to see themselves as “subjects of the Governour of the Universe.” In 1848, the visiting French Catholic aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how the American republic had devised an arrangement in which a multiplicity of old and new religious “sects” could flourish without intervening institutionally in government. In this way, he wrote, religion served as “the first of the [Americans’] political institutions”—what we call today “civil society.”