Public Expressions of Faith
By Anonymous, December 29, 2010 in Editors' Picks, Outside the Classroom

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.


Image credit: Billy Hathorn at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tags: Religion, American Politics

Lee Trepanier on Jan 1, 2011 at 6:18 am

Excellent post, but I wonder whether we can continue the conversation by exploring the eventual acceptance of Catholicism in America in the 1960s and the questionable status of Islam today. To some extent Catholicism modified its stance towards democracy and freedom of religious worship with Vatican II, making it more amenable to American religious culture. But political leaders also changed their rhetoric as Catholics grew in number in this country and became an increasingly potent voting bloc. Has Catholicism been successfully integrated into American Protestant culture; or has it modified it to such an extent that an American national religious culture is no longer recognizable? And how does Islam fit into the American national religious culture (if one still exists) today?

Verlan Lewis on Jan 4, 2011 at 7:04 am

This is a thoughtful post that gets many things right, and appropriately calls our attention to the important relationship between various religious faiths and American political thought. In his comment, Lee Trepanier appropriately calls our attention to the status of Catholicism over the course of American political history. The author of the original article, in closing remarks, specifically mentions Mormonism and Islam in his speculations about the future relationship between religion and American politics, and I will take this opportunity to clarify a couple points about this interesting speculation. The author correctly discusses the important place of Protestant revivalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries--as seen in the First and Second Great Awakenings--in the development of American political and religious thought. One of the important religious movements that emerged amidst the revivalism of early nineteenth century America is Mormonism, which the author later discusses in relation to contemporary politics. However, contrary to the author's assertion, former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney is not the first Mormon presidential candidate. There have been others, including Romney's own father in 1968. What is interesting about the former Massachusetts Governor's candidacy, however, is how much was made of Romney's Mormonism in 2008--much more than was made of his father's Mormonism in 1968--and how many more people viewed this as a negative aspect of his candidacy. The author identifies Mormonism as being "outside the Christian tradition," but I will offer a quick clarification for anyone who might be confused by this. The Mormon Church claims to be a restoration of Christ's original Church from the first century A.D. So, although Mormonism is outside the "Christian tradition" in terms of being outside the creedal claims of the fourth century A.D. and outside the developments within Christianity during the Middle Ages, it is important to realize that Mormonism is very much inside the "Christian tradition" in terms of the Christianity established by Christ in the first century as recorded in the New Testament. The Mormon Church, officially titled the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claims to be Christ's own church re-established in latter days. This article is insightful to show the importance of Christianity--particularly Protestantism--in the history of American political thought. It is interesting to see how Christian faiths that fall outside the "Protestant tradition" are treated in American history "by a population that largely identifies itself as Christian." For example, it has been interesting to observe how Catholicism has been viewed in American political history--from Charles Carroll to Al Smith to JFK to Robert George. It is similarly interesting to observe how Mormonism has been viewed in American political history. Mormonism's continuities with Puritan theology about the special nature of America, its emergence amidst early nineteenth century revivalism in America, its relationship with other Christian denominations and its relationship to American political thought over the past two centuries are fascinating aspects of American history that the author appropriately brings to our attention.

Lee Trepanier on Jan 4, 2011 at 8:19 am

Verlan Lewis' comments about the difficulties Mormons have being accepted into mainstream American culture is typical of the challenges that religions outside mainline Protestantism confront in America. Lynita Newswander and I actually have a book specifically on this topic - the place of Mormons in American civilization - that will be coming out in the fall with Baylor Press. What we find that practically all religions are fully accepted in America today except for Islam and LDS. The fact that Mormons have to continually defend their Christian credentials is telling not only about religion in America today but what constitutes acceptable religion in the public square.

John Steely on Jan 15, 2011 at 8:12 am

What caught my attention was the mention of the difficulties of putting religion into public life in the next to last paragraph. We have all seen the events where religious beliefs (particularly those of the Christian or Jewish persuasion) have been removed from the academic campus. The recent Supreme Court case about the Californian Christian Fellowship comes to mind.

My concern is that this trend of using the courts to remove religion from public facilities, and particularly universities, will be combined with the move towards called some speech "hate speech." If "hate speech" is thought to be that bad (a cause of violence and so on), and if the courts assume the responsibility of removing such bad influences from public sites (and, again, this includes universities), does this not lead to judicial review of academic speech? Would the principle of "academic freedom" stand up to the application of "hate speech"?

Lee Trepanier on Jan 29, 2011 at 7:24 am

John's point is spot on. How one defines "hate speech" is often at odds at the idea of academic freedom. What is interesting is that liberals often will defend academic freedom until such speech challenges their own core assumptions. A good example of this is Nussbaum's Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law.