"God Bless America" - Politics and Religion in the United States: a reassessment

US Religion 2We, as Europeans, are deeply convinced that in the United States religion never stands apart from political life, being an essential component of the latter. From the role of the Christian right in the Republican party's electoral successes to the emergence of a Democrat left-wing religiosity, some have gone so far as to label the United States a “Theo-democracy”. Yet, things often turn out to be much more complex than they appear at first sight. In this respect, Camille Froidevaux-Metterie aims at showing that the U.S. on the contrary, is a firmly secular republic reposing on two deeply rooted constitutional principles: the freedom of religion and State neutrality in terms of religion. Furthermore, this wall of separation has been strengthened by a clearly separatist jurisprudence of the Supreme Court (even if challenged during recent decades).

In order to fully grasp the contradictory dynamics characterizing this curious idiosyncratic configuration, the author suggests we explore the intricacies of American history, from the ages of Puritanism to today’s multidenominational America symbolized by President Barack Obama.

Camille Froidevaux-Metterie’s thesis being, as we shall develop below, that America has managed to maintain an unlikely combination between the spirit of religion and the spirit of secularism.

A not so religious foundation, a not so godless constitution. ..

A first instructive trail lies in the origins of America’s modern state. Although the European puritans were the ones who disembarked from the May Flower, the following colonists showed a real interest in trying to make the different denominations coexist in harmony in the newly-created state. It is important not to forget that many British emigrants came to America for economic reasons. Camille Froidevaux-Metterie underlines a tripartite organization of America, especially noticeable from 1740 onwards: conservatives in the South (where Anglicanism was widespread), puritans in the North (whose expansion was in constantly slowed down), and a religious diversity in the Center carrying the model of toleration which contained the seeds of the future American secularism.

It is noteworthy, in this respect, that even if the first colonists were puritans, the neo-calvinists did not manage to take over power. Their theocratic ambition indeed led them to stay away from the governing authorities. This is how one can easily observe that the Founding Fathers were far more guided by the principles of Reason and the Enlightenment than religious considerations: the constitutional system is indeed meant to define a very secular form of government.

The first amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, establishing therefore both the impossibility of setting up a State religion and the possibility of practicing and professing for all denominations. Together, these two clauses gave birth to an ideal secular system, articulating the public authority’s neutrality when it comes to religious issues and freedom of faith for every citizen. It is to be observed, in this respect, that when the Bill of Rights came into force, five states publicly financed a religion and twelve conditioned the exercise of public employment on religious criteria. This should not, nonetheless, lead us to the conclusion that the Founding Fathers were a-religious but rather to acknowledge an agreement between them on the role religion should play in social life. This is why Camille Froidevaux-Metterie’s deductions are closely similar to Kramnick and More’s own conclusion according to which the creation of a godless constitution “was not an act of irreverence but was an act of confidence in religion”. Such a conciliation was made possible on the basis of two tenets. First, the idea that the moral principles upheld by the Church are identical with those advocated by the State. Secondly, the certainty that religion should play a role in the construction of the ethical edification of republicanism, which is clearly expressed in G. Washington’s famous 1786 farewell address.

The revenge of God? Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and the role of the Supreme Court.

This relatively neutral position was to be challenged by the conservative evangelical movement, whose development was so substantial that the author mentions the advent of a “quasi-national religion” in the 1850’s. This success imposed a reinterpretation of American history through the prism of Protestantism, reactivating the theocratic perspective. In the wake of the latter, a significant fundamentalist movement, which tried to bring religion back onto the political scene, emerged at the dawning of the twentieth century. In their traditional rhetoric, the country is presented alternatively as a “New Israel” meant to shed light upon the world and a “Babylon” corrupted by denominational multiplicity. The specificity of Protestant fundamentalism lies in its being a very strict religious-observant movement without adopting the traditional social behavior linked with such a disposition –namely to retire from the world.

Yet, the discrediting of fundamentalism due to the changes in American society sounded the death knell for the political rehabilitation of religion, relegating evangelization to the charismatic figure of the preacher.

In this context, the Supreme Court is responsible for the permanence and longevity of the American Republic’s secular system. At this stage of the demonstration, It is worth taking into account an interesting point: the first amendment only explicitly considers the federal level. This is why it could be interpreted as the legal frame within which the states were free to sustain the exercise of a religion. Many states will therefore enforce laws favoring Christianity de facto during the nineteenth century. The author acknowledges, in the fourth chapter, a clear tendency towards the reinforcement of the first amendment from the 1940’s up to the 1980’s. Yet, there has been a significant swing in the Supreme Court’s position since this period, notably with the election of William Rehnquist as president of the Supreme Court.

How Americans solved the theocratic-separatist riddle.

Since the 1940’s, the Christian conservative ethos has come into congruence with a spectrum of political values articulated around the notions of family and nation. The radicalization of ethic-religious positions within the context of the 1960’s cultural revolution made the frontier between the two conceptions even clearer: on the one hand secular humanism, on the other hand, moral conservatism. This split partially covers the rift between democrats and republicans, and has significantly structured political life during the last three decades. It is noteworthy, though, that even if powerful protestant lobbies -like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority-have  undoubtedly played a big role in the electoral successes of the Republican Party, the cards have recently been reshuffled. Contemporary progressive evangelicalism has indeed progressively moved into the political sphere, promoting a new, left-wing compatible religious offer. According to the author, all observers agree that the Republican Party is no longer the political pole of predilection for the religious electorate.

Last but not least, Camille Froidevaux-Metterie tries to solve the conundrum of the aforementioned theologico-secular dilemma thanks to the key notion of “civil religion”. After having reminded the reader of the Rousseauist origins of the concept, the author tries to identify its main components. Civil religion appears to be above all a functional term: it aims at supporting democracy by rooting civic duties in a soil of religious feeling that exalts the Republic’s values. In the United States, tis factor enacts the function of providing a national, spiritual basis: this characteristic sets the country apart from all other traditionally Christian nations. The civil religion manages to associate the intrinsic religiosity of the Protestant conception of the nation –inspired by God - and the centrality of liberal ideals. Transcending the contentious dimension of the theocratic-separatist dilemma, it reconciles a secular system institutionalizing the neutrality of the State and America’s historical inclination to combine religion and  public affairs.

Further considerations.

However interesting and hitherto unseen the aforementioned analysis may be, there is no denying that a more thorough examination of the European perception of America’s singularity would prove enriching. In particular, the question concerning the intellectual origins of our improperly religious overview on American history is treated quite cursorily, if not eluded. Yet, the misunderstanding is deeply rooted in our cultural and intellectual heritage. It is worth revisiting, in this respect, two major authors.

Alexis de Tocqueville first, considers that the American puritans incarnated a will to reject any form of religious supremacy and brought the new world a democratic and republican Christianity. Such a conception has been a cornerstone for many analyses up to today. As we have seen before, though, this is quite erroneous since the radical Protestantism of the colonial origins clearly had a theocratic political project.

The second influential thought one could re-evaluate in the light of Camille Froidevaux-Metterie’s work is the traditional weberian conception of a protestant ethos. His quite famous conclusions are the existence of elective affinities between capitalism and the theological convictions of the neo-Calvinists according to whom the work as Beruf (vocation) allows the believer to be assured of his state of grace. From this limited conclusion, the scope of which is defined by Weber, commentators have too rapidly deduced that the latter (neo-Calvinism) was a preliminary to the rise of the former (Capitalism), which is highly questionable. Max Weber has therefore, nolens volens, been used to justify a pseudo-interweaving between religion and liberal politics.

It is also to be observed that our conception of the American politico-religious pattern is necessarily biased by our own history and especially in France where the endemic concept of “laïcité” emerged.  Authors like Jean Boussinesq, Emile Poulat or Jean Baubérot have demonstrated that the project of laicization implied an antagonistic conception of social life, where religious conservatism is opposed to republican secularism: this is why we may well be shocked when we hear or see how interlinked religion is to politics in the United States. This often leads one to suppose a theocratic tendency when, on the contrary, it might rather encourage us to seize the very specificity of the American politico-religious system, so different – though not so totally different as we might have thought– from our own..