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Public Expressions of Faith

By Anonymous on Wednesday, Dec 29 2010

Public usage of religious rhetoric by political leaders has been a part of the American experience since the country’s colonial beginnings and, at least in recent decades, it has become a source of controversy and division.  While the practice has varied according to historical circumstance, there remain certain perennial characteristics to the way religion, specifically Christianity, has been appropriated by public officials in the United States.  By and large past public expressions of faith in America stem from a Protestant theological disposition.  In particular, they orginate with the Puritan notion that divine providence secured in the American experiment a kind of sacred purpose unique among the nations.  Fuled by revivalism in the eighteenth century, the notion of being “set apart” or “chosen by God” lingered in the American imagination long after Puritan solidarity collapsed and fragmented the New England theological landscape.  With the coming of the American Revolution and the birth of the republic, however, the Protestant ethos established by the Puritans underwent a transformation that would have dramatic consequences for the future of religion in American public life. 

After the Constitution of the United States was adopted by the various states two important principles bequeathed by the Founding Fathers became part of the American identity:  first, the country would have no established national religion, and second people would have the right to speak freely about religion.  Under this arrangement the confessional or dogmatic Protestantism of the early colonial period, that is the Protestantism born out of the doctrinal controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, slowly ceased to matter in a legal sense to American political life.  No doubt within the denominational contexts (Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, etc.) the theological content of the faith remained important, however in the United States one’s theological convictions would not be a prerequisite for citizenship nor would creedal assent be necessary to participate in American civic life.  Rather, in terms of its public importance, Christianity would be valued for its broad ethical imperatives and its ability to proffer a moral consensus for a free, but otherwise disparate people.  In other words, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, owing in large part to the influence of both revivalistic conversionism and Enlightenment political thought, matters of faith became intensely personal. 

The move toward the privatization of religious convictions did not, however, mean the absolute loss of Christian influence upon American culture, and as the religious climate of the nation changed so too did public expressions of faith by political leaders.    The moral and symbolic capital of Christianity, specifically Protestantism, remained and continued to be used by politicians even after nuanced doctrinal arguments became irrelevant to the legal construction of the American political project.  Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century as the responsibilities of democratic citizenship were increasingly viewed through the lens of Protestant social imperatives, sentimental notions of what it meant to be both an American and a Christian replaced the robust “public theologies” of earlier American life.  These emotional ties were strong, and they provided a shared moral sensibility that united a number of social causes in the early decades of the republic.  Still, they were not strong enough to keep at bay the profound political crises generated by the problems of slavery and immigration, and as these two issues divided the country, public expressions of faith were divided as well.  

After the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, religion continued to matter for public life as long as theological disputes remained on the sideline of political discourse.  As with previous generations both the “idea” of God and the “social teachings” of Jesus were valuable to a democratic and free people, but arguments over doctrinal interpretation—such as the nature of the atonement or the continuity between the two testaments of Scripture—were not.  As the United States grew into a world power the ideals and idealism of democracy assumed a hallowed place in the moral reasoning of many Americans and in language that echoed both the Puritans and Abraham Lincoln, twentieth-century political leaders often described both the domestic and the global challenges facing the country in religious terms. With the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, however, the strained moral consensus forged out of the union of facile Protestant social sensibilities and democratic idealism collapsed. 

Although a conservative cultural reaction continues to keep public expressions of faith at the fore of American politics, the exigencies of pluralism and multiculturalism, and the legal difficulties surrounding the non-establishment clause complicate the place of religion in public life.  Advocacy groups such as the ACLU and the People for the American Way insist that even though it is not legally forbidden, it is nevertheless bad precedent to interject personal beliefs into any aspect of politics, rhetorical or otherwise.  Moreover, the limits of what the electorate will tolerate with regard to public expressions of faith outside the Christian tradition are yet to be fully realized.  Although the year 2007 witnessed the first Muslim elected to Congress, Keith Ellison, sworn into office using a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Koran, as well as the first Mormon presidential candidate, former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, it is not clear how non-conventional religious expression will be received by a population that largely identifies itself as Christian.  

Because many Americans value the cultural accord afforded by a common moral vision the idea of a shared religious heritage carries substantial political cache for those seeking public office.  Even though this alleged religious heritage lacks specific doctrinal commitments, political leaders have successfully integrated it into their public rhetoric for over two centuries.  Still, no matter how frequently God or religion is referenced by a politician certain questions remain.  If God matters to the public square, how does he matter?  If religion is relevant to liberal democracy, how is it relevant?  In the early years of the twenty-first century answers to these questions still remain elusive, but the public usage of religious rhetoric by political leaders continues undiminished.