Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The God Strategy: The Rise of Religious Politics in America *

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The God Strategy: The Rise of Religious Politics in America *

Article excerpt

For good or for bad, God has always been a part of American politics. (1) Religion formally entered the American presidency at its inception, when George Washington in his 1789 Inaugural Address declared that "it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe." (2) Since that time presidents have regularly spoken of a higher power, prayed and been prayed for, sought divine favor for the nation, and expressed gratitude for providential outcomes. This confluence of religion and politics has commonly been called "civil religion," a phrase coined in the 1960's by sociologist Robert Bellah. Building upon ideas of earlier philosophers and thinkers, Bellah defined civil religion as "a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals" through which a society "interprets its historical experience in light of transcendent reality." (3) In general, civil religion in America has been perceived--by many scholars, at least--to be a benignly symbolic practice, without distinctly partisan motivations or implications; (4) however, something profound has changed in recent decades.

In 1960 John F. Kennedy became the only Catholic to be elected president of the United States, but he first had to overcome concerns that his administration would be a Vatican tool. In a pivotal address in September, 1960, Kennedy assured a collection of conservative Protestant clergy that "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President--should he be Catholic--how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote." (5) It was a welcomed message then; it would be a voice in the wilderness today. Consider that during the 2004 presidential campaign Jerry Falwell declared, "For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable." (6) James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, whose theologically conservative radio programs (the most extensive in the world, religious or secular), magazines, videos, and books reach more than 200,000,000 people worldwide, broke with his traditionally nonpartisan ways to endorse Bush. (7) Further, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.) decreed that priests could withhold communion from Catholics in public office who dissent from Church teachings, claiming that politicians "have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws"--those which allow abortion, in particular--"lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good." (8)

It is not only conservatives and conservative causes. In October, 2004, more than 200 U.S. seminary and religious leaders signed a statement condemning what they called a "theology of war" in the Bush administration's rhetoric in the campaign against terrorism. (9) That same month the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents roughly 30,000,000 Americans in a range of Protestant churches and denominations, issued an "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility" that, for the first time, decreed that Christians had a responsibility to care for the planet and to work toward a sustainable environment. (10) In the summer of 2005, Rabbi Michael Lerner launched the Network of Spiritual Progressives with a founding conference in Berkeley, California, that drew more than 1,300 religious leaders, politicians, and activists. (11) One headliner was Jim Wallis, the founder and editor of the progressive religious magazine Sojourners, who was fresh off a forty-nine-city book tour for his best-selling God's Politics--a tour during which he appeared on the Comedy Central network's "The Daily Show" and consistently drew standing-room-only crowds. (12) Also, in the spring of 2006, the U.S.C.C.B. again waded into the political arena--this time with a "Justice for Immigrants" campaign that directly challenged some in Congress who planned to make it a crime to provide food and shelter to undocumented immigrants. …

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