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.
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.
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.