Tag Archives: politics

All Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter?

Lately my husband and I have been attending an Episcopal church in Cincinnati. One of the appeals is that it’s a racially mixed congregation–white, African American, Latino (mostly Guatemalan immigrants). There’s a strong progressive social consciousness: they host a transgender support group; they help immigrants navigate the legal system; a couple Ash Wednesdays ago, the priest led a service calling corporations to repentance; etc.

So it was not surprising when we arrived at church this past Sunday to see a “Black Lives Matter” banner (bilingual, English-Spanish) hanging outside the building. What was surprising to me was the way that the church seemed to feel the need to explain, in a little leaflet tucked inside the program of worship, why they had chosen “Black Lives Matter,” rather than “All Lives Matter.” The reasoning was what you’d expect: Of course all lives matter, but at this particular moment there’s a need to affirm the value of black lives in particular.

What surprised me was the impression the leaflet gave that there were people in the congregation (more specifically, I would assume, in the lay leadership, i.e., the folks who would be deciding to hang the banner) who had voiced reservations about “Black Lives Matter” and had favored “All Lives Matter.” If that is the case, it drives home to me the range of political diversity that exists in this on-balance progressive congregation. That is to say, there would appear to be people in the congregation who favor a color-blind discourse and don’t subscribe to the kind of hermeneutic that sees that discourse as obscuring racial privilege. We’re not all consciousness-raised Berkeley progressives here. And that’s probably healthy. Though I’m glad that “Black Lives Matter” prevailed.

A couple relevant links:

#BlackLivesMatter: Why We Need to Stop Replying ALL LIVES MATTER (Adam Philips) – A blogger with Sojourners critiques the “All Lives Matter” meme.

Black and White; All Lives Matter (Ashley Pratte) – A Christian Post commentator exemplifies what Philips objects to: using the meme to critique and redirect the discourse away from the anti-racism protests. (For her, “All Lives Matter” becomes a plea for empathy for Darren Wilson, a condemnation of black rioters–and an opening to condemn abortion.)

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Ferguson clergy call police to repent

I was leafing just now through a free copy of USA Today, and this headline in particular caught my eye: “Clergy, activist arrested in ‘Ferguson October’ march.”

“Moral Monday,” as the activists called it, began at Wellspring Church in Ferguson. The demonstrators walked two blocks to the police station in heavy rain as leaders with bullhorns read the names of people killed by police nationwide….

Clergy members then faced the police officers and asked them to confess their sins and repent for the deaths of black youths.

“We are saying that these officers are members of our society and that they are part of a racist and sinful system,” [Rev. Osagyefo] Sekou said. “We are offering them the opportunity to repent and to be reconciled into our community.”

Sekou and Cornell West were subsequently arrested for crossing a police line.

An open-ended question (not a rhetorical one, though obviously my posing the question implies that I see the possibility for a certain answer): The non-violent black civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s prominently featured participation from ministers, rabbis, nuns. Does Sekou’s call to repentance carry today the same level of moral/rhetorical force that, I presume, the nuns at Selma carried? If not, why not?

Nuns marching at Selma, 1965

Nuns marching at Selma, 1965

Clergy protesting in Ferguson, Sept. 29, 2014

Clergy protesting in Ferguson, Sept. 29, 2014

Cornell West marching in Ferguson with clergy, Oct. 13, 2014

Cornell West marching in Ferguson with clergy, Oct. 13, 2014

I just found this article in The Guardian which speaks to the question I posed: Ferguson activists reject religious leaders’ platitudes.

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Evangelical Protestants and Secular Conservatives Form a Political Alliance

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


A Rocky Relationship: Evangelical Protestants and Secular Conservatives Form a Political Alliance in Spite of Ideological Differences
By Matthew Durot

If you are at all like me, a 22-year old college senior with a merely casual interest in politics, it is unlikely that you have given much thought to the complex inner-workings of the Republican Party. However, if you paid any attention to the most recent presidential election, I would assume that you are at least vaguely familiar with a group commonly referred to as the Religious Right. Berated by Democrats and embraced by Republicans, the group appeared to command the media’s constant attention.

Lacking any historical frame of reference, it seems logical to assume that the Religious Right’s relationship with the Republican Party has been longstanding and mutually beneficial. However, as you will soon find out, the series of events that strategically bound these two allies together occurred more recently than you might think. Furthermore, despite their public expressions of commitment to the alliance, each party has suffered a series of disappointments that have led them to reconsider their support of one another.

Origin of the Alliance

For the first hundred years of the Republican Party’s existence, an alliance with the white evangelical Protestants that make up the current Religious Right was unfathomable. As Robert Booth Fowler points out in his book Religion and Politics in America, “the traditional Republican party promoted business interests” and had been responsible for ending slavery. This legacy placed it at odds with a group primarily made up of poor southerners. Furthermore, Fowler notes that “evangelicals long viewed with distaste political participation, which they saw as an engagement with the sinful world from which god wished them to abstain”.

The 1960’s counterculture was viewed by evangelicals as a threat to their traditional values.

The 1960’s counterculture was viewed by evangelicals as a threat to their traditional values.

However, this all changed with the arrival of the countercultural 1960’s. A postwar increase in affluence described by Fowler resulted in the movement of many evangelicals to cities and suburbs where they could no longer avoid what they saw as an “increasingly secular and intrusive culture that threatened their traditional values”.This led evangelicals to mobilize politically through a series of successful grassroots movements. Among the most significant achievements of these campaigns was the defeat of a 1977 gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.

Having suffered consecutive electoral defeats in 1974 and 1976, the Republicans took notice and sought to embrace this energetic and previously unaccounted for demographic that made up 35% of the American population (Gallup Poll).

Compromising on Priorities

In his book Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald describes how secular Republican strategists “offered assistance in the form of financing and political infrastructure to the emerging leaders of the evangelical conservative movement”. In return, these leaders were expected to “embrace a more comprehensive conservative program”. Although traditional social issues remained the priority of evangelicals, they agreed to dedicate their resources to a wide array of secular conservative causes. In order to justify this arrangement to their followers, evangelical leaders framed initiatives like increased defense spending “as a way to keep the nation free for preaching of the gospel”.

Together, the allies would launch what Wald describes as a “a full-frontal attack on big government as a threat to traditional religious and economic values”. Having, at least in principal, entered into this mutually beneficial alliance, the parties set out to retake America from their liberal opposition.

The Elections of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan consults with Jerry Falwell, founder of evangelical political organization the Moral Majority

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan consults with Jerry Falwell, founder of evangelical political organization the Moral Majority

During the 1980 presidential election, the Republican Party’s efforts to appeal to its new constituency were on full display. According to Wald, “the leaders of the GOP granted considerable symbolic recognition to the Religious Right, featuring the group at its national convention and adding to its platform a constitutional amendment to restrict abortion as well as legislation to legalize prayer in public schools”. In return, the Religious Right mobilized for the GOP’s candidate Ronald Reagan, “encouraging pastors to sign up churchgoers to vote and to impress upon them the necessity to express their religious convictions in the polling booth”.

Due in large part to the unprecedented number of votes cast by evangelicals, Reagan went on to win the presidency in a landslide. The fact that evangelicals were so united in their support of Reagan is symbolic of their newly steadfast commitment to the Republican Party. After all, Reagan who is described by Fowler as “a divorced Hollywood veteran and intermittent churchgoer” had been opposed by an evangelical in Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Evangelicals remained politically active throughout Reagan’s successful reelection campaign as well as that of his successor George H.W. Bush. During his first campaign, Bush gave limited emphasis to conservative cultural themes. However, facing reelection with a struggling economy, Wald observes that “Bush pushed evangelical’s pro-family agenda much more aggressively”. Although he would go on to lose, Wald argues that Bush’s defeat can be attributed primarily to “the concern of moderate voters about the Christian Right’s capture of the party”. Therefore, it should not be viewed as an indication of diminishing evangelical support, but instead a sign of the group’s influence within the GOP as perceived by both party elites and the American public.

Unfulfilled Promises While in Office

Despite twelve consecutive years with a Republican White House, the Religious Right failed to secure any significant policy reform. In his article “Dead Wrong”, conservative columnist David Frum argues that many within the Republican elite viewed the Religious Right as nothing more than “a nuisance to be managed.” Evangelicals could not have been fully aware of these ulterior motives purportedly held by many of their supposed allies. However, Wald argues “it was clear to them that neither Reagan nor Bush had made social conservative issues clear priorities of their administrations”.

The proposed amendment to legalize prayer in public schools was voted down in the Senate. Additionally, a tuition tax credit championed by evangelicals for religious schools was never implemented. Yet the Religious Right did not turn away from the Republican Party. Instead, Wald argues that they reasoned their failed efforts had merely been the product of an American political system “whose fragmented structure and multiple centers of power were designed to resist radical policy change”.

A Change in Strategy

Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition, is featured on the cover of Time Magazine

Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition, is featured on the cover of Time Magazine

Having experienced the difficulty of achieving major policy reform at the national level, the Religious Right underwent a significant strategic shift in the years that followed. According to Wald, many leadership positions previously held by ministers were turned over to “seasoned political operatives recruited from secular conservative organizations.” Under the direction of these campaign veterans, newly created organizations such as the Christian Coalition were able to expand their outreach and fundraising capabilities through streamlined networks of local chapters and churches.

However, while these new leaders proved to be valuable from an operational standpoint, their secular influence was increasingly pervasive. All of a sudden, expansion had become the top priority. In an attempt to garner votes from outside of the evangelical community, Wald notes that the Religious Right “modified its agenda to include a broader set of issues appealing to other religious and secular conservatives”. Similarly, the language with which evangelical groups communicated their message was fundamentally altered. In his book The Evolving Politics of the Christian Right, Matthew C. Moen argues that in order to avoid alienating this new target audience, religious messages were disguised and replaced with “the liberal language of rights, equality, and opportunity”.

By placing the secular conservatives in power, the Religious Right risked losing its own identity. Having done more than their fair share to promote the alliance’s success, evangelicals expected to be repaid for their loyalty this time around.

The 1994 Midterm Elections

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich outlines the Republican’s “Contract with America”, for which the Religious Right lobbied enthusiastically

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich outlines the Republican’s “Contract with America”, for which the Religious Right lobbied enthusiastically

Despite how you may feel about this secular shift in evangelical politics, there is no denying that the new leaders of the Religious Right transformed the movement into a well-oiled political machine. Wald notes that “during the 1994 congressional election, the Christian Coalition alone distributed thirty-five million voter guides and made telephone calls to three million voters”. Such efforts played a pivotal role in a sweeping Republican takeover of both houses of Congress. However, in what was becoming a recurring nightmare for evangelicals, these elected representatives again proved unreceptive to their needs once in office.

The Religious Right had lobbied aggressively for the Republicans’ “Contract With America”, which Wald describes as “a legislative program emphasizing secular policies such as welfare reform and a balanced budget amendment”. However, in spite of their support for the plan, evangelical priorities such as “a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration” were absent among the legislation ultimately enacted. Furthermore, major components of the Religious Right’s own “Contract with the American Family, including traditional calls to restrict abortion and shield Christian schools from state regulation” were repeatedly put off by the Republicans and ultimately ignored.

According to Wald, this was the last straw for many of the movement’s most influential activists, prompting them to call for “an evangelical retreat from politics”.

George W. Bush: One of Their Own

President George W. Bush speaks at a gathering of fellow evangelicals

President George W. Bush speaks at a gathering of fellow evangelicals

This may very well have signaled the end of the Religious Right’s alliance with the Republican Party had it not been for the candidacy of George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election. Frank Lambert’s book Religion in American Politics argues that “in George W. Bush, the Religious Right found a born-again Christian who, unlike Jimmy Carter, spoke their language and subscribed to their views.”

According to Wald, Bush was not shy about declaring “that he regularly talked to God for political guidance”. Furthermore, Lambert notes that in addition to his belief in “the right of religious groups to a fair share of public funds”, Bush framed his policy in distinctively Protestant terms. For example, in promoting the War on Terror following the attacks of 9/11, Bush described America as a nation “called on a mission to root out radical Islam”.

If there was ever a candidate well-suited to promote the interests of the Religious Right, George W. Bush was certainly it. In spite of their past dissatisfaction with the GOP, evangelicals proved willing to give the Republicans one more chance. According to Fowler, Bush would go on to win the presidency “in large part thanks to a surge in conservative religious voters”.

Abandoned By Its Golden Child

President Bush looks on as his pro-life candidate, Samuel Alito, is sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

President Bush looks on as his pro-life candidate, Samuel Alito, is sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

During his Presidency, George W. Bush, made a concerted effort to provide evangelicals with what appeared to be unprecedented access to power. Wald notes that “in order to signal to evangelicals that his candidates belonged to pro-life churches, Bush made opposition to abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court appointees”. Furthermore, he “appointed a large number of evangelical stalwarts and approved their appointments of fellow activists to lower-level positions”. According to Wald, the evangelical presence within the Bush administration was so pronounced that it led Jimmy Carter to “alarmingly announce the Christian Right’s capture of American public life”. However, evangelical support for Bush would eventually sour.

Reflecting on his time in office, evangelicals found that like Reagan and his father before him, the younger Bush had not made their goals a priority. Wald argues that “secular goals central to the GOP agenda got all of the administration’s resources and generally secured legislative approval”. Meanwhile, Bush gave only a “half hearted effort to cherished goals such as faith-based federal programs and the ban on gay marriage”. These policies were either victimized by severe compromise in Congress or were voted down all together. The candidate who had provided the Religious Right with so much hope ultimately proved to be as disappointing as his predecessors.

Future of Evangelical Politics

Decades of disappointment with the Republican Party have left many evangelicals questioning their involvement in politics altogether. Whether due to a system resistant to radical change or an abusive ally concerned only with electoral gains, the Religious Right has been largely unsuccessful at accomplishing its social goals through the political process. Furthermore, in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank argues that by aligning themselves with the Republican Party, “less affluent evangelicals have effectively promoted economic policies that further undermine their life chances”

Additionally, Wald notes that many evangelicals worry “involvement in politics, an inherently messy business, has compromised the integrity of evangelicalism”. In addition to the secular influence examined previously, a number of infidelity and corruption scandals involving evangelical politicians have angered a religious group for whom morality reigns supreme.

Does the GOP Even Want the Religious Right?

On the other hand, its experience with the Religious Right has a faction of the Republican elite wondering if an alliance with conservative evangelicals might no longer be in its best interest. In fact, Wald argues that many within the party have long opposed the courting of a group whose agenda contradicts their libertarian stance on social issues. These same Republicans attribute the party’s recent string of defeats to the alienation of its traditional base in response to an increasingly intrusive social agenda. Despite the size of its evangelical constituency, the Republican Party cannot obtain a national majority with the support of the Religious Right alone. The question is, can the GOP survive without it?

Conclusion

Having become increasingly integrated into mainstream American society, it is no longer possible for evangelicals to abstain from the political process that dictates how they live their lives. Furthermore, the Republican Party simply cannot afford to lose the support of a religious group that as recently as 2012 made up 39% of the American electorate (Pew Research Center). Therefore, in spite of their growing disillusionment with one another, it is likely that evangelicals and secular conservatives will continue to co-exist as a political alliance moving forward.

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Protestant View on Immigration Reform Debate in America

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestant View on Immigration Reform Debate in America
By Allie Serna

Immigration reform is an issue that almost everyone in the United States has an opinion on. In the last thirty years, changes in federal immigration policy have created an unprecedented rise in the number of immigrants admitted to this country every year (Federation for American Immigration Reform). Issues surrounding immigration policy are complex and opinions on it can be difficult to determine. For example, the “Protestant view” on immigration policy is a difficult concept to pin down. There are many factors to consider when explaining how Protestants feel about immigration, but by reviewing how the group feels about past race relations and looking closer at specific denominations of the group, a conclusion can be reached.

What is Immigration Reform?

Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) is the notion that Congress needs to conduct a review and change the entire immigration system to better reflect the needs of The United States and that of immigrant families.

  • creating legal avenues for people to enter the United States
  • allowing people already here to earn the opportunity to adjust their status
  • addressing the multiyear backlogs in family and employment based immigration
  • creating and implementing a smart border security and enforcement regime that respects core principles of due process

These are just some of the issues brought up during conversation about comprehensive immigration reform. According to a Gallup poll in June of 2011, 43% of Americans believe that immigration to the U.S. should be decreased, 35% believe that it should be remain at its present level, while only 18% believe that it should be increased. (Federation for American Immigration Reform) The question is, however, what is the Protestant view on comprehensive immigration reform.

Protestant View

One way to determine how Protestants view race relations in the form of immigration policy is to look at past feelings and opinions on issues like it. One particular example that this issue can be compared to is the civil rights movement in the 1960s. During this time Protestant groups were generally supportive of the efforts and made it a point to become involved with furthering the movement. Some particular ways Protestants did this were joining protests and demonstrations, advocating for the rights of African-Americans, and the creation and involvement of Black churches (Lambert). Many Protestant denominations use the scripture ideology of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself” when looking at immigration issues. Just as Protestants responded positively to reforming the issues surrounding race relations in the 1960s, so too do many Protestant denominations desire to help immigration reform in present day.

Protestantism is a large Christian faith with thousands of denominations with different ideals. To claim that there is one single “Protestant view” on immigration reform is oversimplifying and generalizing the subject. To truly understand how Protestants view immigration issues, it is necessary to look at some of the largest and well-known denominations.

 American Baptists

During October 2013 the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and American Baptist Churches USA attended the Church World Service’s Global Summit on Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. At this summit, the American Baptist’s stance on immigration reform could be clearly seen with its input. At one point during the summit, ABCUSA General Secretary A. Roy Medley recited a prayer that called upon legislators to have the moral courage to empathize with the poor and immigrant. The prayer also asked that legislators’ hearts be filled with compassion and courage to bring freedom for immigrants (ABCUSA). From this event and its accompanying prayer, the American Baptist view on immigration reform is definitely positive.

Episcopal Church

In New Jersey and New York on Ash Wednesday of 2013, a faith-based, community and immigrant rights groups held an entire day of actions aimed to repent the sins of immigration policy. In attendance was presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori who shared her view on the topic of immigration policy. During the vigil she stated “Citizens of these United States share some responsibility for those undignified and unjust practices, and our prayer today must be that hearts and minds are opened to the need for justice.” Also during the event, a call for a transformation of the system into a humane one was brought up. Bishop Schori stated that an immigration reform that focused on discerning the difference between people who enter the United illegally to do harm and those who enter illegally because of the long, complex system the United States currently has in place. From this event, it appears that Episcopal Church has a positive view for immigrants who enter the country for harmless purposes. (ENS staff).

 United Methodist Church

On its website, the United Methodist Church has an entire page dedicated to its views on immigration policy. On the webpage, it describes how the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act severely restricted the opportunities of immigrants. The page then goes on to say that this particular law has not worked and that the current immigration system is broken. One statement on the page urges local congregations “to oppose unjust local and state ordinances that seek to deprive undocumented persons of basic social services including the access to adequate housing and protection under the law” (Call for Comprehensive Immigration Reform – The United Methodist Church). The motto of the United Methodist Church is “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” The statements put forth by the church follow this ideology by calling for the just treatment of foreigners in the United States.

 Presbyterian Church USA

As early as April of last year, the Presbyterian Church in the United States was actively supporting a bill for comprehensive immigration reform. In an address about comprehensive immigration reform, Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, claimed that “our church and country have been built by new immigrants who have worked in partnership with those already here. We want to continue this legacy so that others may be blessed as we have.” (Parsons) It seems that while the Presbyterian Church is interested in helping immigrants, it is also interested in recruiting new members into the church. The Presbyterian Church is also interested in family unity as a cornerstone of their beliefs. Because of this, it is focused on maintaining family unity as the foundation of their immigration policy. (PC(USA) OGA)

 Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, like all other Protestants, draws heavily on scripture when looking at debatable issues. The Church uses the Bible and “the experiences of Lutherans in America as an immigrant church in a country of immigrants. The basic themes are grounded in the call to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35) together with the commitment to justice that advocates for fair and generous laws.” (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

 National Association of Evangelicals

Immigrants are the fastest growing part of the evangelical church in America. Most immigrants are strong supporters of traditional family values and traditional family values are a cornerstone of evangelical beliefs. The National Association of Evangelicals turn to scripture as most Protestants do and state that “discussion of immigration and government immigration policy must begin with the truth that every human being is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28).” Because of this particular passage and others in the Bible, they believe that immigrants are made in the image of God and have value that can contribute to the betterment of society. In October 2009, the National Association of Evangelicals Board of Directors passed a resolution supporting comprehensive immigration reform; and in June 2012, the National Association of Evangelicals joined the Evangelical Immigration Table. The Evangelical Immigration Table is a broad coalition of evangelical organizations and leaders advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical values. (Immigration 2009)

Conclusion

While the “Protestant view” on immigration policy is a seemingly difficult concept to pin down, after analyzing the ideology of a few different denominations, it is mostly clear how Protestants view immigration policy. It is surprising to see all the support for positive comprehensive immigration reform from the various Protestant denominations- at least in policy. This is because it is common for Christian persons to identify with the political right. Because of this trait it could be seen that these Protestants may side with their political party’s views and oppose comprehensive immigration reform. However, when focusing on family unity, scripture passages, and recruitment for their church, Protestants support comprehensive immigration reform at least in policy. During the 1960s civil rights movement, Protestants aided in settling race relations and helped African Americans gain rights. Many denominations (including mainstream and evangelical Protestants) have similar views on immigration reform, and that is that all people, including undocumented people, deserve respect and dignity.

Works Cited

ABCUSA. “American Baptists Continue Immigration Reform Advocacy Efforts.” American Baptist Churches USA. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

“Call for Comprehensive Immigration Reform – The United Methodist Church.” The United Methodist Church. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

ENS staff. “Episcopal Church joins immigration-reform push.” Episcopal News Service. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

“Immigration.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

“Immigration 2009.” Immigration 2009. National Association of Evangelicals, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

“Immigration Issues.” Home. Federation for American Immigration Reform, n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

Lambert, Frank. Religion in American Politics: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2008. Print.

“Office of the General Assembly.” PC(USA) OGA. Presbyterian Church (USA), n.d. Web. 09 May 2014.

Parsons, Gradye. “Addressing Immigration Reform: A Statement from Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.” Presbyterian Church (USA). Presbyterian Church (USA), 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

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Protestant Ideals and the Know-Nothings

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestant Ideals and the Know-Nothings
Eddie Evans

Most Americans are acutely aware of the increasing Spanish populations in the southwestern United States. The inclusion or exclusion of this group is a platform issue for major political candidates. Even those of a more inclusive mindset debate the benefits that they should receive and the extent to which they can participate in American democracy. American Protestants of the first half of the 19th century were asking similar questions due to the arrival of Irish Catholics and other western European immigrants. This essay will examine the basis of nativist thought in America, and look at how the most famous nativist political organization, the Know-Nothings, was so influential.

History of Nativist Thought

Nativism is a response to increasing cultural pluralism that has repeated throughout American history. To better understand the environment in which 19th century Nativist groups flourished, one must go back to the Colonial Period and the Puritan establishments. In his 1992 article, sociologist Michael W. Hughey points out that both inclusive and exclusive values were fused in the sociopolitical systems of the Puritans. The democratic ideals of open government, egalitarian democracy, and the unalienable rights of man were cornerstones of Puritan republican government. However, these rights were not for everyone. Women and religious minorities were seen as “unsuitable” to uphold democratic and Protestant ideals, and therefore were excluded from practicing in the open form of government.

One specific religious minority that was seen as “unsuitable” was Catholics. In colonial Massachusetts, while Catholics were tolerated in communities, their Protestant neighbors could drive them out if they did not uphold certain moral standards. Even the morally suitable Catholics could not hold positions of public power since they did not belong to the state affiliated church.

The implicit link of Protestantism and democracy only became stronger during the revolutionary period. In the French and Indian War, “the battles were interpreted as cosmic contest between God and Satan.” Protestants believed that “Satan’s French Papist legions were committed to religious and political tyranny.” Since the Protestants and America prevailed “surely Liberty must be the cause of God.” This belief was confirmed a few decades later when the colonists defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. Hughes claims “liberty was thus elevated to sacred status and identified with the Kingdom of God, which in turn was identified with the American Republic.”

In the New Republic, Protestants continued to uphold their religious and political values. It is at this point that Hughes coins the term “Americanism”, to describe the entanglement of Protestant and Democratic values. Never before in history had a nation been built upon ideals more than geographic boundaries, and Americanism was this principal ideal.

As the Republic grew, it became increasingly difficult to orchestrate these ideals in every facet of a functioning democracy. John Adams confessed, “he never understood a republican government and no man ever will.” Hughes points out that throughout John Adams’ political career, politicians struggled to with the manifestation of Americanism in specific policies. Instead of defining “Americanism” explicitly, it became easier to define Americanism as what it is not. Groups that have, at some point, been labeled “un-American” include: Mormons, Jews, Freemasons, communists, and most important for our purposes, Catholics.

Political Landscape of Antebellum America

Preceding the Know Nothing party was a two party system composed of Democrats and Whigs. The rivalry between the two parties was known as the Second Party system. Southern farmers made up a large portion of antebellum democrats. They opposed government spending and wanted to keep intervention at a minimum. The Whig Party consisted largely of pro-business New Englanders (the decedents of the puritans) who wanted to see government regulate morality while still favoring market interests.

The collapse of the Whigs has historically been attributed to different opinions among party members about slavery. However, not all share this view. Historian Bruce Levine feels that “the Whigs disappeared in the early 1850’s because they failed to echo with sufficient force and unanimity the antiforeign and anti-Catholic sentiments of their native-born Protestant constituents.” Further evidence that slavery was not the most decisive factor: old Whig voters appreciated the creation of a party “whose focus was on Catholics, immigrants, and unresponsive politicians, not the slavery issue.” In this failure of the Whigs, rises the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans. They will form a political alliance and become nicknamed “Know-Nothings” because of the secrecy of their leadership. When asked to explain their political views or agendas, members would simply respond, “I know nothing.”

Early Political Momentum

1854 in New York City marked the first time a Know-Nothing affiliated candidate received significant attention. Lawyer and nativist, Daniel Ulmann received over 25% of the votes in New York City and State and was named a congressman. In fact, that year, over half of the New York congressmen aligned themselves with Know-Nothing principles. The group was growing, and fast. In 1846, The Order of United Americans had 2,000 members in New York City alone. By 1851, that number had grown to 7,000. By 1855, there were 30,000 men officially initiated the organization.

A Leader Rises

The Order of United Americans (official name for the Know-Nothings) most prominent member was Thomas R. Whitney. From a middle class background, Whitney was the son of a New York City watchmaker and followed in his father’s trade. During his apprenticeship, he inherited a disciplined work ethic and had access to his father’s wealthy network of clients. One of who was important Whig member and OUA charter-member, Mayor Harper. Whitney joined the OUA, and quickly gained recognition for his energy and work ethic. He attended a national nativist convention in Philadelphia in 1845 and became the editor of republican and nativist magazine, The Republic. In 1856 Whitney published his most influential piece of Know-Nothing literature, A Defense of American Policy.

The Know-Nothings’ America

The aforementioned 400-page Know Nothing Bible is an insightful look into the collective minds of the leadership of the organization. Interestingly, Whitney’s ideal America sounds very reminiscent to the Puritan society. Whitney and the Order believe that men “are entitled to just such privileges, social and political, as they are capable of employing and enjoying rationally. Since human beings exhibited this capability to differing degrees, they were naturally entitled different rights and privileges.” This is re-manifestation of Hughey’s theory about American democracy; a mixing of democratic and Protestant ideals that are simultaneously inclusive and exclusive.

The Puritans took this idea for granted. They had the privilege of establishment and few religious minorities to challenge their dominance. Whitney and other Know-Nothings were not in the same circumstance. Irish Catholic immigrants were arriving in massive numbers and flexing their political muscles. Unlike the Puritans, Whitney is acutely aware of the problems that exist while trying to promote both nativism and democracy. He writes, “I take direct issue with democracy. As I understand the term, I am no democrat. If democracy implies universal suffrage…without regard to the intelligence, the morals, or the principles of man, I am no democrat.”

Whitney’s character attacks could fall on any non-white, non-Protestant person living and working in America in the 1860’s. However, nativists had the harshest disdain for Irish Catholics. The vast majority of Irish immigrants brought their Catholic religion with them. In the eyes of a 19th century Protestant, Catholics were “hierarchical, philosophically monarchical, virulently antirepublican, aimed to subvert self government and individual freedom everywhere.” In other words, it is inconceivable to be both Catholic and democratic at the same time. This is a standard, Protestant critique of Catholicism that can be traced back to the Reformation, and the narrative was only strengthened in Colonial America.

Catholicism was not the only concern Know-Nothings saw in the Irish immigrants. The Irish were crammed into the poorest urban centers where they worked the most undesirable, and unskilled jobs. Overpopulation and crime were only a few of the side effects of the deplorable living conditions in major American cities such as New York. This led to the Irish being branded as “lazy, thieving drunkards, poor material for either a labor force or citizenry.”

The nativist groups that were able to gain so much momentum eventually declined due to the emergence of the Republican Party and the Civil War. Irish Americans were able to prove their allegiance to the nation by fighting in the war, and this helped alleviate some of their struggles. Though the Know-Nothings have long vanished, the nativist thought that fueled their rise to power still remained in America. Whether it was the Red Scare, or our current Spanish immigration policy, one can find remnants of the sociopolitical nativist background dating back to the Puritans.

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Compromise and the Religious Moderate

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


American Protestants Respond to Secularization: Compromise and the Religious Moderate
By Kyle Bush

The history of the United States of America is one of its settlers–of religious refugees in search of freedom. The discussion of how that religious freedom would come to play itself out in the formation of a fledgling nation would set many a man’s blood to boil in its time.

After the boil would come the spill, as America’s religion (protestant Christianity) would soon tie in to its revolution, and later, it’s Civil War. Many political leaders of that time were hell-bent on creating a Christian nation, but the argument of how to do so would split the State–and the protestant church in America–in two.

Over time, the split grew to a chasm, with mainline and evangelical Protestants fighting for political power in a Christian dominated culture. There are several times in American history where the conflict reaches a climax, the latest being during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. While similar tensions exist today, they are less tight, as Protestant Christianity is holistically conforming to the post-modern society it has created.

I set out to research this essay with one question guiding my efforts; where do the ties between political and religious (mainly, protestant) affiliations in America stand today? However, a seemingly simple question, at least as it seemed to me in my naivety, led to many more questions needing answers, and a very broad essay topic.

I have looked at the history of the relationship modern and fundamental Christians have had with each other, as well as the political affiliation each interest group has traditionally displayed. I’ve examined the levels of activism each “side” has illustrated throughout the United States’ maturation.

One of the challenges I ran into was finding sources both current and pertinent to my topic. But what I have come to conclude is this–it is difficult to ascribe a political group a religious affiliation, or inversely, a religious group to a definitive political affiliation. The theme of individualism, seen throughout Protestantism, has the final say.

395726943History

Nine of America’s original thirteen colonies employed a state church, with multiple denominations represented. As the Revolutionary War began, and the colonies began to unionize, there was a decision to be made about the freedom of and from religion. The founders, when drafting the constitution, “realized both the uniquely religious underpinnings of American identity, brought forward by the justifications for most early settlements in America, and their desire to create a nation centered on equality, freedom, and common values of virtues,” according to Lippy’s The Encyclopedia of Religion in America.

Ushered forward by the work of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, religious freedom was secured for America in its newly formed constitution. However, while religious freedom had been instilled as a right to U.S. citizens, the cultural influence of protestant Christianity was equally as strong.

In Religion and Politics in America, Fowler would ascribe this to the Puritan Temper. As emigrants leaving England, this religious group settled in to the New World with the hope of establishing a “pure” nation of their own. Their beliefs and culture pervaded the American culture and continues to do so today:

The Puritans bequeathed to Americans strong civic institutions, a sense of national mission, and a reformist impulse that continues to American society and political culture.

As the United States was being molded, it was subjected to this widespread “reformist impulse.” However, how to carry out the national mission would be much disputed, and Protestants would slowly divide into conservatives and liberals, both religiously and politically.

The Religious Right

The right side of the political spectrum is generally referred to as conservative, but how that word is interpreted varies greatly. To those that share the conservative beliefs, they see themselves as standing for something and point to what they see as flaws in liberalism. The Right is passionate about right-to-life advocacy (or the overturning of Roe v. Wade), promote fiscal conservatism, and fighting to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

Conservative Evangelicals tend to side here politically, fearing that the rise of modernist, liberal Christianity will eventually dissolve Protestant influence in America completely. As Fowler eloquently suggests:

As modernity advances, secularism spreads in its wake, eroding the social and cultural significance of religion. With religion’s gradual decline, theorists conclude, we can expect to see religious involvement in politics decrease in the long run.

Evangelicals see mainline, or liberal, Protestants as too passive; if one claims to be a Christian, how can he/her sit back while their country is riddled with disbelief and modernity?

The Religious Left

The left side of the spectrum (liberals) takes a different approach to the relationship between religion and politics. Policies that limit choice (or freedom) are seen as against God; free will is a gift, and those who have it should not be penalized or marginalized for believing differently. The righteousness of God should not be imposed on the nation’s citizens; rather, citizens should choose to receive it.

In his book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, Lerner diagnoses America with a certain stupor brought on by, as he claims, the Religious Right. He continues to speak on the oppression of the political Left by the Right, whom he accuses of acting antithetically of their bible-based beliefs. Lerner writes, “there is a radical split between the caring that gets shown on the personal level and the hostility some of the Religious Right manifest toward those in wider society who do not share their political beliefs.”

Liberals are puzzled by the opposition from conservatives at government funding for the needy, as generosity is a seemingly apparent virtue in Christianity. Other issues they are passionate about include healthcare, affirmative action, and environmental protection.

The Compromise

In his book Moral Politics, author George Lakoff spells out most of the qualms that the Right has with the Left, and vice versa. For example, he points out that liberals don’t understand how conservatives can support capital punishment but advocate against a woman’s right to abort. Inversely, the Right does not understand how liberals claim to support the welfare of children, but vote for the rights of criminals (which include kidnappers, sexual harassers, etc.).

The Religious Moderate has emerged in recent decades as a response to such questions, and is the result of an overarching compromise between the religious right and lefts. For the sake of furthering the protestant influence, conservative and liberal Christians are slowly lowering their weapons in order to find agreement in mission and regain political power as one holistic proponent of Christianity.

This has led to compromise–as a result, we see more “progressive conservatives,” as well as “traditional liberals.” America is witnessing a turn from argument to discussion on these issues, with vehemently held pillars on each side being laid down to find more inclusive alternatives. An example of this thinking would be a voter who considers themselves politically liberal, but socially conservative; one who votes for the legalization of marijuana, but crusades against its recreational uses.

This individualistic thinking, which is a uniquely protestant trope, has decreased the polarity of the conservative/liberal divide for the sake of the national mission described by the Puritan Temper. President Barack Obama summed up this mission, combined with the present political context, in his 2006 speech at Sojourners:

If progressives shed some of their biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country…We might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.

Return to Mission

In short, America was born of religion. Protestant emigrants arrived from Europe in hopes of settling and creating a “chosen” land. With this hope (and the diversity amongst settlement groups) came the ideal that the people must have the freedom to choose their belief system- thus, the first amendment.

Furthermore, the freedom of religion allowed for freedom from religion, and protestant forces were made uneasy. The question arose as to how to fix the spiritual crisis of disbelief in the Christian God. How to answer that question became a major stumbling block in Protestant America’s mission- to advance the kingdom of God.

The protestant Church in America began to split–those who were more modern, and advocated choice, became the liberal, mainline, leftist Christians. Those who desired to impose Christian values into politics became the conservative, evangelical Right.

As the divide grew to a chasm, both sides began to lose power, as America itself became more secular. Modernity is often a symptom of this, and as the nation developed, it began to move away from religious politics.

In response, the Protestant American Church has begun to compromise with itself- as President Abraham Lincoln said, “A nation divided cannot stand.” As a result, we see the individual religious moderate emerging- whose political/religious affiliations are more loosely defined than most of those the past three centuries–quietly crusading for the sake of the Protestant national mission.

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Protestant Foreign Missions and Secularization in Modern America

That’s the title of a three-day event which begins today at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, for which I received a quite elegant promo in the mail a couple weeks ago. Ugh, I wish I could be there. David Hollinger’s giving two lectures: “How the Foreign Missionary Experience Liberalized the Home Culture,” and “Liberalization, Secularization, and the Dynamics of Post-Protestant America.”

I’m sitting here drooling over those titles. Podcast, people! The Danforth Center certainly gives the impression of rolling in money. So let’s see some savvier investment in media outreach here.

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God in America: Of God and Caesar

v07739acrasLast spring, I began posting reviews of the 6-episode Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. I realized recently that I never reviewed episode 6, “Of God and Caesar.” So let’s do it:

Summary: Unlike most other episodes, this one doesn’t divide neatly into “acts.” But the general storyline is this: In the wake of the 1960s, conservative evangelicals become politically mobilized: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, George W. Bush. At the same time, though, the religious landscape is becoming more diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Latinos–both Catholic and evangelical. More Americans are religiously unaffiliated or “spiritual, not religious.” A new generation of evangelicals is paying more attention to the environment, AIDS, and poverty. There’s disillusion in the evangelical right–did we sell our souls for political gain? Meanwhile, Democrats are discovering God and reaching out to values voters, which brings us up to Obama.

Over a hopeful soundtrack, the documentary wraps everything up with Stephen Prothero saying that Americans continue to value the notion that they’re a special people with a special connection to God, but what that means and who’s included are still subjects of ongoing debate.

Likes: This episode covers topics that I include in the final, post-1960s, unit of my introductory American religious history survey: Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims, Latinos, and the culture wars. Since my life is contemporary with the emergence and development of the religious right, I suspect that I assume students know more about that movement and its history than they do; this episode gives a reasonably nuanced overview. The documentary-makers had plenty of footage to work with, of course, including clips of Francis Schaeffer’s films, which I’ve read about but never seen–that was interesting. Players in the religious right appear as talking heads: Pat Robertson, Ed Dobson, Frank Schaeffer, Richard Cizik.

Dislikes: Apart from a nod to Catholics as the originators of American anti-abortion activism and the final presentation of Obama as reaching out to some nebulous group called “values voters,” religion in politics is portrayed in this episode as basically synonymous with evangelical activism, as represented by Francis Schaeffer, Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition more specifically. Granted that the evangelical right stands at the center of “culture war” conservatism. Nevertheless, I favor in my teaching Robert Wuthnow’s model of a conservative-liberal divide that cuts across the entire religious landscape, resulting in the formation of new interreligious coalitions on both sides of the line–and pressing some religious groups to awkwardly straddle the faultline. Examples: Catholics pursuing a politics based on the “seamless web of life,” which doesn’t transpose well into the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” as conventionally used in American politics today; or socially conservative Muslims who agree with conservative evangelicals on many issues but are alienated by “Christian America” rhetoric and evangelical Islamophobia.

Basically, I want students to understand that “conservative-liberal” has become a very important axis for understanding American religion today, but I don’t want them thinking just “evangelical” when they think “conservative,” a tendency that this documentary would reinforce.

In the final moments of the documentary, Prothero says: This moment in American religious life is about pluralism. We’re making the space bigger, extending the sacred canopy over more people. But we don’t have a narrative for this yet. Will we come up with one? What’s the story going to be? To Prothero and the makers of this documentary, I would say: Certainly God in America doesn’t give us that new, pluralistic story; it’s good that you appear to recognize that. May I (bitchily) suggest that part of the reason we don’t have a new narrative yet is that documentaries like this one continue to place Protestants at the center of the story, with other religious groups, when they appear, orbiting around the Protestants? If you want a narrative about religious pluralism in America, then a more radical decentering is needed than anyone involved in this project was evidently willing to hazard or creative enough to imagine.

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God in America: Soul of a Nation

v07739acrasA continuing review of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. This post looks at part 5, “Soul of a Nation.”

Summary: This episode is about religion and politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Act I: Billy Graham promotes Christian revival as America’s defense against Communism. Patriotism and religion are married, e.g., in the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Act II: Resistance to the marriage. Humanist and Jewish parents insist that religious education and religious exercises in public schools is unconstitutional; the Supreme Court agrees (McCullom and Engel). Act III: A good marriage of religion and politics in the black civil rights movements. Martin Luther King, Jr., is at the center of this segment, but Graham is woven in here as well, along with John F. Kennedy’s presidential election.

Likes: Everything covered in this episode works for my introductory survey of American religious history. I cover all these topics: Christian revival and “Judeo-Christian” civil religion in the Cold War; Engel as a landmark in a new approach to church-state relations by the courts; Kennedy’s election in the context of the long history of Protestant anti-Catholicism in America; religion and the black civil rights movement.

There’s some great historical footage here: Graham revivals; Nixon pontificating at a Graham revival (delish…); a period TV interview with the father leading the suit against the school board in Engel; footage of schoolchildren reciting the prayer at issue in Engel; Kennedy delivering the Houston address; various speeches of King, including amazingly sharp footage (restored?) of “I Have a Dream.”

Talking heads include my former teacher Grant Wacker. Sarah Barringer Gordon is on hand to explain the constitutional issues in McCollum and Engel. We’re recent enough in time that we can have some of the historical actors as talking heads, including Terry McCollum, the schoolboy who was at the center of the 1948 case against religious instruction.

Dislikes: I got annoyed that the narrator and the talking heads kept talking about “religion” in politics when historical actors (e.g., Graham) were talking more specifically about Christianity–or at the most expansive, “Judeo-Christianity.” My annoyance on this count is related to the realization that this series isn’t going to attempt to widen the story of religion in America beyond Christians, Jews, and, oh yeah, Native Americans at the beginning of the first episode. The series title ought to have prepared me for that; and yes, I know, you can only do so much in 6 episodes. But still… it’s a limitation of the series that looms large for me given my own priorities in teaching (which include highlighting the experiences of religious minorities as necessary for understanding how power operates in American society).

There’s a fairly clear, if not quite explicit, framing in this episode of: Graham’s fusing of religion and politics is bad because he becomes an insider to the political establishment and tends to equate  national interests with God’s interests, whereas King’s fusing of religion and politics is good because he remains an outsider to the establishment and condemns messianic notions of America’s chosen status among nations. Also–this is quite explicit at the end, at least in how picture is matched to text–Graham represents a religion focused on personal salvation, while King represents a social gospel.

Ehh… Whatever. It’s an overly simplistic framing, of course, which wouldn’t necessarily be a mark against it if I thought it were useful. But what’s the use of it, except for promoting a particular kind of normative vision for how religion and politics ought to interact in America? I don’t do that in my classroom, thank you; and yes, I’m snooty about it because if you’re serious about wanting to teach your students to think critically, then you really shouldn’t be trying to propagandize them, even if you’re acting on the side of the angels.

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Religion and gun control

Tomorrow (Feb. 4) is Interfaith Call-in Day to Prevent Gun Violence. It’s not entirely clear to me who is spearheading this initiative–it has a very simple website, at faithscalling.org–but my guess would be Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. That group has publicly called on Congress to support universal criminal background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on high-capacity weapons for civilians, and criminalization of unlicensed gun trafficking. Their letter to Congress is accompanied by several pages of signatories, representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh organizations. (I didn’t see any Buddhists, a striking omission.)

As soon as I heard about this initiative, I was intrigued to know what kind of religious mobilization may be occurring on the other side of the issue. The NRA website wasn’t acknowledging the Interfaith Call-in Day, at least not that I could see when I visited today; nor did I find any kind of “Voices of Faith” showcase in favor of gun rights. This press release from the National Association of Evangelicals reports that nearly 3/4 of respondents to a December survey of evangelical leaders favored increased government gun regulations. (The press release didn’t specify what regulations were favored.) Richard Land, speaking for the Southern Baptist Convention, issued a public letter to Barack Obama on the same day as Faiths United’s letter to Congress, supporting two of the recommendations made by Faiths United (universal criminal background checks and criminalization of unlicensed gun trafficking; he didn’t support the high-capacity weapons ban, and he advocated regional variation in gun control measures).

This is to say that in places where I might have expected to see religious mobilization occurring on behalf of gun rights [my use of that term is meant to be neutral]–I’m not seeing it. I’m sure I could find religious pro-gun voices (conservative Christian voices, specifically) by casting a broader net online; but in terms of high media profile, religious anti-gun voices seem to be dominant.

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