Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

By Alan Wolfe; Ira Katznelson | Go to book overview
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Chapter 11


WHEN THE principal association of political scientists in the United States convenes a Task Force on Religion and American Democracy, the action suggests that religion matters in American public life. This assumption, reinforced by an outpouring of published research over the last thirty years, has not always been widely accepted by political scientists. Indeed, the prevailing attitude toward religion in the discipline has traditionally been characterized by indifference, a tendency to regard religion as a minor political force that arises occasionally and often with baleful consequences for the political system (Wald and Wilcox 2006). In terms of scholarly attentiveness to religious issues in American politics, this volume and others of its kind attest that we are living in something of a golden age (see, e.g., Layman 2001; Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2006; Campbell 2007; Wilson 2007).

The waxing and waning salience of religious influence in American political life naturally raises questions about the conditions and circumstances that encourage the political mobilization of religious forces. How are religious values, organizations, and communities mobilized in American politics? How do religious issues reach the political agenda in the United States? These questions assume that religious engagement in politics is problematic, that religious controversies or religious communities are not inevitably part of the political agenda. Part of our task in this chapter is thus to examine the processes by which the religious factor has gained political relevance in the contemporary United States. In addition to that goal, we also want to confront the widespread fear that religion is a particularly dangerous and divisive political force, a toxic element with the capacity to undermine stable polities and democratic governance. Therefore, apart from attempting to explain how religious issues are politicized, we further assess how such an upsurge in religiously based politics has affected the tenor of political life in the United States. What are the normative consequences for American public life of the engagement


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