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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.”
Fueled by the energies of the first and second Great Awakenings, most Americans eventually did embrace some form of Christianity, including new religious movements of their own devising like the Disciples of Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Latter-day Saints. But they still did not demand of presidential candidates proof of church membership.
Can it be shown that any policy, foreign or domestic, of any president, bore a direct relationship to that president’s religious beliefs and commitments, or lack of the same? In his two large volumes on the religious lives of the U.S. presidents before Donald Trump, historian Gary Scott Smith finds that exactly half of the first forty-four were sufficiently religious to merit detailed examination of how their faith impacted their lives—and their policies. In his meaty second volume, Religion in the Oval Office, which seems to record every time a president responded to a cough with “God bless you,” Smith cites a number of presidential policies that he believes derive from the influence of religious faith on the character or “worldview” of the president himself. This approach allows for many degrees of causal separation between religious conviction and public policy. For instance, one could argue that the streak of moral perfectionism in the Scottish Calvinism of Woodrow Wilson—as evidenced by his insistence that only those “with clean hands and a pure heart” should participate in democratic politics—helps explain why he refused to tolerate any compromises in the Treaty of Versailles. But not every Calvinist is as unyielding as Wilson was.
In any case, nowhere does Smith demonstrate that religious faith alone was responsible for a presidential policy. Indeed, in every example he mentions I find that there are better, mostly political explanations, and that religion, in the form of moral rhetoric, is almost always invoked to sell or justify a decision determined by realpolitik. For example, Smith cites various reasons why, after the United States defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, President William McKinley chose to annex the Philippine Islands. There were commercial, military, and geopolitical reasons, but in selling annexation to the American public, McKinley advanced a religious rationale: “After much prayer,” he declared, almighty God had led him to see that the United States was called to “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ died.” Never mind that the Filipinos had been Catholic for more than three hundred years.
There have been only three presidential elections where a candidate’s religion was a consequential factor, all of them in the twentieth century. Two of them occurred when a Roman Catholic headed the Democratic ticket.
The first to do so was Al Smith in 1928. A major issue that year was Prohibition and Smith was a “wet.” The Methodist Church was so fearful that a Democratic victory would lead to the repeal of Prohibition that four years earlier the church moved its Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals from Topeka, Kansas, to a newly constructed Methodist headquarters in Washington D.C.—still the only non-governmental building on Capitol Hill. Not only was Smith a wet from New York, he was also a Catholic. And so the Methodist building was designed to house the Washington offices of other Protestant denominations as well—thus forming a kind of Maginot Line against the rising political influence of American Catholics.
On the other hand, voters in 1928 felt no qualms in electing a Quaker, Herbert Hoover, as commander-in-chief. Hoover was an accomplished and popular public servant. The pacifism inherent in his religious tradition was simply not an issue. It was enough that he was a Protestant.
Like the assumption that the nation was Christian at its founding, so too the idea that God had deliberately set the American continent aside as a place where Protestants could create a righteous nation has deep historical roots. FDR himself alluded to this tradition when, on one occasion, he sharply reminded his close Jewish friend and cabinet officer, Henry Morgenthau, and a Catholic appointee, Leo Crowley: “You know this is a Protestant country, and the Jews and Catholics are here under sufferance.”
Under Roosevelt, Jews and Catholics became constituencies to be courted. During the Cold War they gained parity with Protestants as religious partners in the nation’s struggle against godless Communism. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who saw no need to join a church until he decided to run for president, assumed a kind of priestly role once he was in the White House. Not even the Democrats complained when the Republican National Committee declared in 1955 that Eisenhower “in every sense of the word, is not only the political leader, but the spiritual leader of our times.”
Five years later, the possibility that a Roman Catholic might be elected as the political—never mind spiritual—leader of the country was still so threatening to Evangelical Christians that evangelist Billy Graham secretly tried to organize Protestant clergy to oppose John F. Kennedy from the pulpit. The plot is worth recalling because if it hadn’t been discovered, it’s very likely that Kennedy would not have been elected President.
In the summer before the election, Graham told his friend Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s running mate, that although Graham was going to vote for his even closer friend Richard Nixon, he would remain publicly neutral in the race—in fact, he would sit out the campaign in Switzerland. Privately, however, Graham urged Nixon to play the religion card because Catholics were likely to turn out in huge numbers to support one of their own. When Nixon refused, Graham decided to do it himself. In Switzerland, he convened a meeting of conservative Evangelical leaders, including those from the National Association of Evangelicals, Protestants, and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the editor of his own magazine, Christianity Today. The plan, to which Graham alerted Nixon, was to brief 150 other Protestant leaders at a closed conference in Washington D.C. and then announce to the press the creation of an organization called, ironically, “Citizens for Religious Freedom.” Graham remained in Europe, as he had promised, and asked the popular preacher Norman Vincent Peale to front the initiative.
A pair of reporters who managed to observe the closed-door session from a projection booth heard several speakers compare Catholicism to Communism and Peale warn that “the future of American culture is at stake.” Peale, the champion of positive thinking, subsequently took such a drubbing in the press that he went into a deep depression and offered to resign from his position as pastor at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, from the editorship of his magazine, Guideposts, and even from the New York Rotary Club. But he never revealed that Graham was the organizer of the group, nor did Graham ever acknowledge his pivotal role in it.
After reading the story in the Washington Post, Kennedy decided to accept an invitation he had received to address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Without that powerful and historic speech, it is unlikely that he would have won the election. Even then, his margin over Nixon in the popular vote was less than 2 percent.
What Graham and Protestants like him feared, irrationally but honestly, was that, through Kennedy, the pope in Rome would take control of this democratic society that Protestants, with God’s help, had created. What they failed to understand is that whatever influence Catholics had on U.S. politics was no longer exercised by the hierarchy—that era had died decades earlier. The way American Catholics influenced politics was now chiefly through two mediating structures: the labor movement and the Democratic Party, in both of which Catholics came to play a dominant role.
But the tight bonds between Catholics and the Democratic Party did not survive the raucous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the same Mayor Daley who had helped secure Kennedy’s election became the televised face of police brutality and political oppression. Over the next four years the Democrats’ commission on party structure and delegate selection, headed by George McGovern, thwarted input from union leaders, a great many of whom were Catholic pillars of the party. In opting for the caucus system, the commission stripped the power of selection from big-city and state party leaders, many of whom were also Catholics.
The goal was to attract younger, better educated, and more secular voters from the suburbs to what McGovern, as the party’s 1972 presidential candidate, called a “coalition of conscience.” Thus, many of the people who protested outside the 1968 convention hall were seated inside at the 1972 convention, while Mayor Daley and leaders of white working-class Democrats like him were at home watching on television.
Without the traditional support of white working-class voters, McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts. But the long-term effects have been far more consequential. One was to transform Catholics into the largest swing vote in the country—one that in 2004 failed to support the only other Catholic to run for president, John Kerry. In other words, religious identity is no longer a determinative factor in how American Catholics vote, much less an independent variable. Another long-term consequence is that the Democratic Party eventually lost its white working-class base, which today belongs to Donald Trump.
The transformation of the Democratic Party under McGovern ushered in what, in my book Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Ascent of Trump, I call the party’s “Methodist Moment.” McGovern’s father was a Methodist minister, and like him, George studied for the Methodist ministry and taught at his alma mater, a Methodist college, before turning to politics. On the hustings, McGovern came across as an earnest, upright prairie preacher—which he was. But it was the party platform McGovern ran on that best reflected Methodism’s ethos of high-minded moralism. Months before the Democratic convention, the United Methodist Church held its quadrennial General Conference, where delegates from left to right spent weeks fighting over resolutions on a wide range of social and economic issues that would guide the church’s agencies and congregations until the next General Conference. Significantly, when the Democrats later published their 1972 platform, it mirrored closely—in some places word for word—the Methodists’ 1972 Book of Resolutions. When I interviewed Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1994, she told me she still kept a copy of this book in her private quarters.
This is the background for understanding the campaign of 1976—the next and last presidential election in which a candidate’s religion had a significant impact. Jimmy Carter’s Baptist faith was of the South and it bore an important modifier: born again. In the five previous presidential elections, no Democrat had won a majority of what we today call “the white Evangelical” vote. Carter knew that, which is why he wanted it known across the South that as a born-again Christian, he was one of them.
Talking about his born-again faith up North was something else. Carter placed supporters at his press conferences to ask questions about his religious faith that would allow him to affirm it without coming off as the pious Sunday School teacher that he was. “Why, everyone in Plains is Born Again,” he liked to say, “even the Methodists.” (His wife Roselynn is a Methodist.) He even allowed in his famous Playboy interview that, as a good Navy man, he had often “lusted in my heart”—a Biblical phrase most of the magazine’s readers had probably never heard before.
Ironically, identifying as a born-again Christian turned out to be a boon for Carter in the North as well as the South. About the time he won the Democratic nomination, former Nixon aide and convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson published his spiritual autobiography, Born Again, which went on to sell more than a million copies. Suddenly, the media was full of celebrity conversion stories like Colson’s, from former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver to stripper Candi Barr. Carter’s mother, brother, and evangelist sister all appeared on the cover of Newsweek, and that September I wrote a long piece on Evangelicals. The words “Born Again!” were emblazoned on the cover of that issue, and the magazine proclaimed 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” To judge by the letters to the editor, Colson wasn’t the only Evangelical who believed that the Newsweek cover story was God’s own answer to Time’s iconic “Is God Dead?” cover story, published ten years earlier.
Paradoxically, Carter’s awakening of the white Evangelical vote soon gave rise to the Religious Right. Until his campaign, most Protestant fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals—especially those belonging to independent and non-denominational churches—voted in presidential elections but abjured party politics as too worldly. Journalists and political commentators often lose sight of the fact that the Religious Right was not the creation of Evangelical Christians themselves. It was essentially the work of two Catholics and a Jew: the direct-mail wiz Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, and Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus. Seeing how a born-again Democratic governor from the South had energized fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals, this trio of conservative political operatives determined to win them over to the GOP. They interviewed likely movement leaders, then picked Jerry Falwell to lead an organization they named “The Moral Majority.”
In short, the Religious Right represented the deliberate politicization of a previously apolitical segment of the population, and when they finally entered the political arena, they did it with cleats on. Lacking mediating secular institutions like those the Catholics had, the Evangelicals put to political use the only institutions they knew: their own churches, schools, radio stations, television programs, and evangelistic associations.
The emergence of the Evangelical vote—or at least the white portion of it—would appear to contradict my contention that religion is no longer a significant factor in presidential politics. After all, exit polls taken in November 2016 showed that four out of five white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump—and did so despite his long history of philandering, his manifest lack of character, and his equally manifest disinterest in religion. As more than one newspaper editorial asked: Does this vote not demonstrate the moral hypocrisy of white Evangelical voters?
Not necessarily. As any political scientist will tell you, exit polls are notoriously crude instruments—crude both in the questions they ask and in the hiring of those who ask the questions.
To begin with, white Evangelicals are the most religiously diverse group in this country. They include not only your standard-brand, born-again Baptists and most non-denominational Protestants, but also many Methodists, southern Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Quakers, and a whole lot of Pentecostals—plus a hefty chunk of Catholics who self-identify as Evangelical or Born Again when pollsters ask. (Political scientist Corwin Smidt of Calvin University puts them at 20 percent of those who answer to the “born again” label.) Once a movement and for a time a subculture, Evangelism today is better understood as an imagined community of post-denominational Christians in which almost anyone who chooses to can claim membership. For example, I suspect that most of the 42,000 members Joel Osteen claims for his mega-church would identify as Evangelicals, even though the self-improvement and prosperity gospel Osteen preaches is not easily reconciled with Christian beliefs and practices.
More to the point, although exit polls can give us an early snapshot of how many who identify broadly as this or that voted for a candidate, they do not tell us why. A category like “the Evangelical vote” is misleading precisely because it presumes that being Evangelical is why a citizen voted the way she did. But there are several plausible non-religious reasons why a white Evangelical might vote for Donald Trump. As social scientists like to say, their vote was overdetermined.
One of those reasons is habit. Beginning with the transformation of the Democratic Party in 1972, and especially since the rise of the Religious Right four years later, conservative white Evangelicals have grown accustomed to pulling the Republican lever—just as from FDR to McGovern, most Catholics were mortised into the Democrats’ New Deal coalition. And the Republican Party has returned the favor: if not exactly giving white Evangelicals a place at the table, the GOP has at least allowed them to say the blessing. Conversely, it’s not as if the Democratic Party has put out the welcome mat for white Evangelicals—or, for that matter, for pro-life Catholics.
Geography and demography also play a role. White Evangelical voters skew older than most Democrats, and most of them live in red states. One does not expect white Evangelicals in Alabama or Arkansas to vote for a Democrat for president any more than one expects Irish Catholics in Boston to vote for a Republican.
Even more relevant is the economic factor. As I wrote in Commonweal in May 2018 (“How Religion Got Trump”), a third of white Evangelicals earned less than $30,000 a year in 2016—at a time when the poverty line was $24,250 a year for a couple with two children. And more than half (57 percent) earned less than $50,000 a year. Like most blue-collar workers, they hadn’t seen a real-wage increase since the 1970s. When Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” a large number of white working-class voters—especially in Rust Belt states—heard more jobs and better pay.
This view is supported by a survey of white Evangelicals conducted by LifeWay Research, an Evangelical organization, in November 2016. Asked what one issue they considered paramount in the election, nearly half of respondents named the economy or national security. A similar poll by Pew found that the paramount concerns of most white Evangelicals were terrorism, the economy, and immigration. By contrast, the issues most important to the white Evangelical pastors polled by LifeWay were the personal character of the nominee and Supreme Court appointments. In sum, most white Evangelicals voted their pocketbooks, and the difference between their concerns and those of their pastors says a good deal about how unimportant church pulpits can be in presidential politics. When a significant segment of the working-class population feels that they can’t provide their children with the kind of future they see other people’s children enjoying, a candidate can muster a politics of resentment—which is exactly what the Trump campaign did.
At the same time, of course, some portion of the white Evangelical community heard Trump promising to make America white again. But why limit the race card to Evangelicals? A majority of white mainline Protestants also voted for Trump, though not by nearly as wide a margin; and among Catholics, non-Hispanic white voters chose Trump over Clinton by a whopping 56 to 37 percent.
Yet another factor to account for is social class. In an essay on elitism in the Democratic Party published last January in the New Republic, Democratic labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan reminds us that we are a nation of high-school graduates, not college graduates, and that close personal ties across the educational gulf separating one class from another are as rare for Democrats as they are for Republicans. As Geoghegan notes, only 30 percent of Americans aged twenty-five and over have degrees from a four-year college, even though 70 percent of high-school graduates enroll in one sort of college or another. Whatever a student may actually learn in four years of college, a diploma still determines one’s economic prospects. The lack of a college diploma also defines what one is likely to suffer. Among the not-so-hidden injuries of social class are early deaths from suicide, alcoholism, and drug use—what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call the “deaths of despair” that now characterize the lives of so many in the white working class.
If, as I have argued, white Evangelicals had reasons other than religion to vote for Trump in 2016, how should we reckon with “the religion factor” in this year’s race for the White House? Beginning in the 1980s, John Green, Corwin Smidt, and two other social scientists from Evangelical backgrounds began refining the data on Americans who identify as Christians, distinguishing, for example, Southern Presbyterians, who are typically conservative in both their beliefs and their politics, from their more liberal fellow Presbyterians in the North. Green and his colleagues also established a useful spectrum of religious commitment—from the totally uncommitted, through the 50 percent of Americans whose commitment ranges from somewhat relaxed to vaporous, to the religiously committed. In a similar fashion, the folks at Pew have been experimenting with fresh categories like “the Diversely Devout” and “the Relaxed Religious,” to capture the various modalities of what the British scholar of religion Paul Gifford calls the “hollowed-out” nature of American Christianity.
Green estimates that no more than 17 percent of adult Americans now qualify as “religiously committed.” We’re not talking about Mother Theresas here. We’re talking about Christians and Jews and Muslims who place religious belief, behavior, and belonging at or near the center of their lives. By contrast, Green estimates that roughly 20 percent of adult Americans identify as Nones—meaning they claim no religious affiliation or identity. Although many of these say they are “spiritual,” and some say that they believe in God, it is unclear what sort of god they are talking about or what being spiritual means. In any case, it is not clear how, for example, following a spiritual regimen of morning meditation and afternoon yoga correlates with—much less inspires or explains—political preferences.
If it’s true that only about 17 percent of adult Americans are religiously committed, then we find ourselves, two decades into the twenty-first century, about where we were at the end of the eighteenth. Obviously, there are important religious differences between that era and ours. But the similarity should alert us to the peril of assuming that religion can be politically significant in a society that isn’t all that religious in the first place.
Religion, like politics, is inherently institutional because it is inherently social, and for the one to influence the other requires the kind of social networks that institutions provide. But the Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell disappeared decades ago, and so did Pat Robertson’s political network. Among Trump’s better-known Evangelical supporters, Billy Graham’s son Franklin has neither his father’s charisma nor his following, while Jerry Falwell Jr. recently resigned in disgrace from his position at Liberty University. As a force in politics, the Religious Right now exists mainly as a bogey for fundraising letters from NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and Emily’s List.
And the churches? A plurality, perhaps even a majority, of white Evangelical congregations are non-denominational and thus lack the sort of institutional structure—like the United Methodists’ quadrennial conference—that can hammer out a common stand on social and economic issues. More to the point, a great many Evangelical pastors tend to be individualistic religious entrepreneurs, building up church membership the way salesmen build a customer base. This gives them a professional affinity with free-enterprise capitalism, and therefore with classic Republican principles. But for that very reason they are wary of preaching politics: they do not want to divide their congregations.
Even if religion is not a determinative factor in presidential politics, politics plays a determinative role in how American religion finds expression in our public life. Well before Donald Trump entered the White House, social scientists began studying the causes of our increasing political polarization, which is now overflowing its proper institutional channels and flooding other sectors of our life.
In a 1967 study at Stanford University, respondents were asked to rate a number of characteristics that might displease them in the person their son or daughter chose to marry—including things like religion, race, level of education, and income potential. Only 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be displeased if a child married someone from the other major political party. In 2008, a similarly worded study found that 27 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats would object to their child’s marrying a supporter of the other party. And by 2010 the percentages had leapt to 40 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats.
What is going on? According to the political scientist Alan Abramowitz, part of the answer is an increase in “affective polarization,” meaning that how we feel about the opposite party is more salient than any actual ideological or policy-based differences. A related phenomenon is “negative partisanship,” which means, as Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute explained in the fall 2019 issue of National Affairs, “it’s not so much that we love our own party as we detest the other.” And what we detest we fear. Here’s how the political scientist Lilliana Mason explains this phenomenon in her 2018 book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity:
The American political parties are growing socially polarized. Religion and race, as well as class, geography, and culture, are dividing the parties in such a way that the effect of party identity is magnified. The competition is no longer between only Democrats and Republicans. A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preference—as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.
In short, partisan politics now melds our other identities into what Mason calls a “mega-identity,” which defines our own sense of self in contrast to the mega-identity we ascribe to those of the opposite political persuasion. From this perspective, “white Evangelical” is a synecdoche rather than a political category to be reckoned with on its own terms. And so is its polar opposite: the collection of agnostics, atheists, and the religiously non-affiliated that pollsters identify as “Nones”—which helps explain why they are the largest single constituency in the Democratic Party.
The 2020 presidential election provides a welcome opportunity to reexamine received assumptions about the relationship between religion and American politics—and to discern how political polarization distorts whatever influence American religion has on our public life. To do this, we need to jettison references to “the white Evangelical vote” and other usages that aim, as George Orwell warned, to “do the thinking for us.”