Religion in American Politics: A Short History

Religion in American Politics: A Short History

Religion in American Politics: A Short History

Religion in American Politics: A Short History


The delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention blocked the establishment of Christianity as a national religion. But they could not keep religion out of American politics. From the election of 1800, when Federalist clergymen charged that deist Thomas Jefferson was unfit to lead a "Christian nation," to today, when some Democrats want to embrace the so-called Religious Left in order to compete with the Republicans and the Religious Right, religion has always been part of American politics. In Religion in American Politics, Frank Lambert tells the fascinating story of the uneasy relations between religion and politics from the founding to the twenty-first century.

Lambert examines how antebellum Protestant unity was challenged by sectionalism as both North and South invoked religious justification; how Andrew Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" competed with the anticapitalist "Social Gospel" during postwar industrialization; how the civil rights movement was perhaps the most effective religious intervention in politics in American history; and how the alliance between the Republican Party and the Religious Right has, in many ways, realized the founders' fears of religious-political electoral coalitions. In these and other cases, Lambert shows that religion became sectarian and partisan whenever it entered the political fray, and that religious agendas have always mixed with nonreligious ones.

Religion in American Politics brings rare historical perspective and insight to a subject that was just as important--and controversial--in 1776 as it is today.


From the birth of the republic, religion and politics have operated most of the time in separate spheres. Fearing sectarian strife in a society characterized by religious pluralism, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 opted against a federal religious establishment, giving the government no power over religion and religion no official role in the state. Indeed, one of the exceptional features of the American Revolution was the separation of church and state. Separation did not, however, mean that religion was regarded as unimportant in the new nation; on the contrary, many deemed it to have a mission far more important than that of politics. Samuel Williams, pastor of the First Church in Bradford, Massachusetts, discussed the proper place of religion and the delicate relationship between the church and civil society in a 1779 sermon. He declared that “religion is a private thing.” It was, in his words, a “personal transaction between God and a devout soul,” and he added, “society can have nothing to do with it.” Until 1965, Jerry Falwell, the Lynchburg, Virginia, Baptist minister who helped make the Religious Right a political force in the 1970s, expressed similar sentiments. “Preachers are not called upon to be politicians,” he insisted, “but soul winners. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals.”

However, religion does have, and always has had, a public dimension. In that same sermon in 1779, Williams asserted that . . .

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