Politics and Piety

Politics and Piety

America is a secular society nervous with its secularism. Since the nation’s founding, that nervousness has manifest itself in periodic redrawing of the boundary between church and state and in practices that compromise the “wall of separation.” Today, however, the conventional wisdom about religion in public life goes like this: because of an absolutist division between pulpit and public square, pew and polling place, religion is everywhere on the defensive. It is tolerated, even lauded, as a personal or private matter, appropriate for the home, the church, the synagogue, or mosque, but (regrettably) considered inappropriate for the public spaces of civic life. In contemporary America, religion is marginalized and prevented from playing its beneficent role by a misguided, overly zealous commitment to separation. Stephen Carter, the Yale Law School professor, articulates this lament: “In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometime privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them.”

This conventional wisdom is flat-out wrong. Far from being excluded from the public square, religion is ubiquitous in American life; it permeates our politics now as it has in the past. There is a long history in America of religious influence on public life and policy. No one excluded religious discourse from the debate over slavery. No one excluded religion from influencing temperance legislation, or from shaping the social conscience of the Progressive movement, or from justifying each and every instance of American imperialism. Religion was a crucial force in molding our cold war mentality and in convincing America in the 1950s and 1960s to rid itself finally of Jim Crow.

Americans today, compared to Europeans, are pious in public and proud of it. Most city councils across the country begin deliberations with an invocation, as does the U. S. Senate. In the South, many public schools still begin with prayer. And is there a baseball, football, or basketball team left in America that doesn’t before or after its game bow heads and join hands? Is there a presidential address from the Oval Office that doesn’t conclude by invoking God? Public piety may be the only thing that connects liberal African-American Democrats with conservative white Republicans.

We know from every cross-national opinion poll that Americans are the most religious people in the industrialized world. Some 94 percent of Americans say they believe in God; in Britain the figure is 68 percent. Seventy percent of Americans say they pray daily; 20 percent of the English say they do. Approximately 40 percent of Americans claim to attend a religious service weekly; in Britain and Germany the figure is 10 percent; in France, 15 percent. When asked if they find their religious beliefs important t...