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Exploring Religion

Session 12: Overview

Religion and Politics

Learning objectives

  • Understand how religion and politics are intertwined in the U.S.
  • Explore how religion is connected to politics on both the right and the left

Religion and politics have long been intertwined. Most forms of government until the 18th century demonstrated some fusion with religion, and governments around the world continue to demonstrate favoritism towards a particular religion. Increasingly, and especially in democratic and highly educated societies like the U.S., religion and politics may be officially separate but still highly intertwined as political leaders employ religious language and political conversations and activity often occur in religious congregations. In this module, we will explore how religion and politics intersect, focusing primarily on the U.S.

Religion and politics intersect in several ways. First, religion also is a coordinating and motivating force for more indirect or “outsider” involvement such as protests, strikes and public awareness campaigns. During the Civil Rights era, Black churches played a central role in organizing for political change. Religious involvement in social movements is an important avenue for political activism, as we saw in a previous module. 

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Second, religion often is a coordinating and motivating force for direct political involvement—political party affiliation, voting, running for political office, lobbying and promoting political candidates. In the most recent survey of religious congregations across the U.S. (part of your reading in this module), researchers found that 26 percent of congregations distributed voter guides, 24 percent held get-out-the-vote drives, and 23 percent registered new voters. Congregations were much less likely to host a candidate as speaker or engage in lobbying. The emphasis on voting has increased over the past 20 years, as have nearly all forms of political involvement. While there has been a gradual increase in political involvement since 1998, there has been marked increase for Black Protestant congregations since 2012, perhaps in response to mobilization for racial justice. Recent controversies over whether the U.S. should keep tax laws prohibiting religious organizations from partisanship and over to what extent religious groups can assist in increasing voter turnout has only highlighted the complicated nature of religious involvement in politics.

Finally, though these two ways that religion intersects with politics see the two as distinct, religion and politics can also be fused together in a religious nationalism or national religion. This is the oldest form of religion in politics as until the idea of the separation of church and state became prominent, most forms of government exhibited this fusion of religion and politics. The idea that the U.S. should reflect Christian values is as old as the Declaration of Independence, with differing interpretations often marking shifting political alliances over time. From the earliest days of the new republic, Black voices such as Frederick Douglass called on the U.S. to live up to its Christian ideal of equality. Recently, greater attention has been on the proportion of the white population that draws on the country’s religious history to motivate conservative political change. By highlighting what some have called “Christian Nationalism,” there is now more attention to the close connection between religion and politics in the U.S. Though church and state are officially separated, many are now assessing the tight links between religion, particularly Protestantism, and U.S. politics. In a video by Andrew Whitehead, you’ll learn more about this particular strain of research.

Photos provided by Christopher Scheitle and Roger Finke. For more information on the photos, see Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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