The United States has historically embraced the dichotomy of being both officially secular and culturally religious. But there has never been a period when religion was not a vibrant element of the politico-social milieu.
It has never been an easy fit, and the dissonance has become increasingly strident over the past generation.
The instant history lesson is that religious dissenters of one stripe or another — but uncomfortable with Church of England stringencies — founded many original colonies.
Thus you had Pilgrims/Puritans in Massachusetts; Quakers in Pennsylvania; Catholics in Maryland; and dissenters fleeing from Massachusetts religious rule in Rhode Island. Fleeing from British intolerance, however, did not make American colonists more religiously tolerant. Indeed, some colonies had “established” churches. For example, the Congregational Church was established by the Puritans in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. And the colonies were hard on Catholics and Jews — not permitted to vote in most colonies.
The United States was doubtless fortunate that its Founding Fathers were not Cromwellian warrior-zealots, but relatively benign deists. They believed in God (George Washington is famously depicted as kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge) and the seminal Declaration of Independence refers in its opening paragraph to “Nature’s God” in justifying splitting with England. But they were not proselytizers — and George Washington did not conclude his Farewell Address with “God bless the United States of America.”
Consequently, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, prohibiting an established religion (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”) was designed to prevent the federal government from establishing a national religion rather than overriding the specific religious preferences and restrictions of individual states.
Such a sparse socio-religious framework left much leeway for tolerance — and intolerance. The political litmus test for high office was Protestantism. It wasn’t necessary to be Jimmy Carter “born again” in the 19th century, but no Catholic was nominated for the presidency until Al Smith in 1928, and he was so badly defeated that no Catholic was nominated for the presidency until John F. Kennedy in 1960.
In this generation, religion has played a less defining role. Although Kennedy remains the only Catholic president, John Kerry was nominated for the presidency in 2004, and in 2008, there were 10 Catholics as presidential candidates during the primary campaign.
Nor is strict “mainstream” Christianity a political requirement, for example, Republican 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney (Mormon) and 2000 Democratic VP candidate Joe Lieberman (Jewish). And that leaves open the religious affiliation of President Barack Obama, who clearly identifies himself as a Christian, but may have been a Muslim as a child while living with a Muslim stepfather in Indonesia.
Nevertheless, it is clear religious faith drove U.S. socio-politics during much of our history. The antislavery movement was profoundly rooted in Christianity and sparked the Civil War (listen to Battle Hymn of the Republic for Christian fervor). The “temperance” movement leading to de facto abolition of alcohol through the 18th Amendment was Christian derived. And the 1960s civil rights movement originated in Christian churches.
Thus the political surge and riposte associated with religion and notably Christian activism has been an American political constant. Such is nurtured by Constitutional free speech protection as well as religious freedom.
What one can note, however, is that modern religiosity in the United States reached a high-water mark in the 1950s with adoption of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Subsequently, there was pushback epitomized by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founding head of American Atheists, whose lawsuit, led to a Supreme Court judgment ending official Bible-reading in U.S. public schools in 1963.
In the succeeding generation, U.S. Christianity has sharpened, with the amorphous, ecumenical “mainstream” Christian churches (both Protestant and Catholic) losing membership. Replacing them have been “fundamentalists” of various ilk stressing return to literal-word-of-God Biblical interpretation — for example, denying evolution and anticipating a nearer, rather than distant, Apocalyptic Second Coming.
Militant Christianity has engendered Militant Atheism. Atheists seek to drive manifestations of Christianity from public spaces. There have been lawsuits against commemorative/memorial crosses; Christmas trees in public buildings; prayer at school graduation ceremonies. For the politically correct, the end-of-year salutation is to be “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas.”
So “What would Jesus say?” Each of us must answer the question for themselves.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.