The role religion has played in politics throughout American history has changed depending on the time and the circumstances, according to Dr. Daryl Black and his wife, Dr. Andrea Becksvoort, two historians who teach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Wind the clocks back to the founding of the nation and, according to Dr. Black, and you would find founders who wanted to separate church from government. And with good reason, he said.
Strong ties between the church and the government had dominated European political culture for thousands of years.
“The founders really wanted to make sure that people had the liberty to make choices in their everyday lives,” he said.
At the same time, churches in the Revolutionary War era were used to bring people together and keep people in line. Fast forward to the 19th century and the Whig Party had become the evangelical political party and evangelism became a larger part of political life. The Whigs saw the United States as a “redeemer nation” and saw its progress as a march toward the second coming of Jesus, Dr. Black said.
Simultaneously, the limits on voting were changing and it wasn’t just white landowners anymore.
“You see a push for a more inclusive political system,” Dr. Black said. “That means white men, but by 1820-1825 (all) white men could vote for their political leaders. This was going on at the same time as the Great Awakening, and the ideas get linked together.”
Fast forward a bit more and by the 1850s, the Republican Party was the inheritor of much of the Whig ideals. Abolitionism, the movement to free slaves, became a religious argument. Dr. Black said that prior to the Civil War the separation between religion and politics in the South was more pronounced than it is today.
By the early 20th century, the evangelism was swept into progressive politics and the idea of a social gospel not tied to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Partially this is because literal interpretations of the Bible were used to defend slavery, Dr. Black said.
Equal and opposite reactions
According to Dr. Becksvoort, fundamentalism in the 20th century was a direct response to this progressive religious movement. She said around this same time, scientific knowledge reinforced this split. Charles Darwin’s theories questioned the idea of the divine creation of man and new scientific evidence showed the earth is millions of years old, not thousands.
“What seems to happen is some people take the anti-science route while other Christian groups embrace a nonliteral interpretation of these scientific findings,” Dr. Becksvoort said.
Fast forward a few more clicks and America fell on hard times. There’s World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. People turn to faith. After World War II, people moved into an age of “almost heavy secularism,” Dr. Becksvoort said. People started buying TVs and cars. But the Cold War also adopts a religious argument, as America defined itself in a struggle against the “godless” communists.
“American nationalism starts becoming conflated with a kind of belief,” Dr. Becksvoort said. The Rev. Billy Graham started his revival meetings, known as crusades. It was not long before other religious leaders adopt a nationalist religious message.
In the ’60s and ’70s, the rise of the counterculture movement, from the hippies and Black Panthers, led to another backlash. The civil rights movement also was infused with religious rhetoric, but Dr. Becksvoort said even the black churches circled the wagons with white churches to defend against the perceived cultural threat. The Christian right began to rise in the ’70s, as presidents like Jimmy Carter were perceived as weak and unable to deal with the crises of the day.
“Ronald Reagan comes in and says it’s all going to be OK and comes in with a religious message,” Dr. Becksvoort said.
Dr. Becksvoort and Dr. Black declined to predict whether religion will continue to play a prominent role in local and national politics.
Continue reading by following this link to a related story:
Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...