The role that religion plays in American politics has received a lot of national media attention as long as most people our age can remember (The coverage concerning Obama and Islam, Whether or not Romney can be seen as credible if he is mormon, Issues over Stem Cell Research, discussions over Roe V Wade, etc). In light of this past week’s Tocqueville reading, I decided to pose the topic for discussion.
Tocqueville highlights the importance of Christianity within the domestic life of American citizens during the early 19th century. The political utility of Christianity is derived from its inculcation of a strict moral code or, as Toqueville phrases it, an “austerity of manners.” Tocqueville observed that Christian Americans share a “love of order,” and a world view wherein “every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate.” (354)
With respect to politics and politicians, this austerity of manners has the effect of keeping a man’s impulses in check. More specifically, the “habits of restraint” indoctrinated through Christianity prevents a politician from conceiving or implementing policies thought of as “rash or unjust.” (355) Tocqueville then relates that, within every rank of society, Americans hold the austerity of manners corresponding with Christian belief “to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” (355) Tocqueville then notes that men are afraid of being suspected of disbelief in God, and demonstrates why in his anecdote about a witness whose testimony was destroyed because he declared he did not believe in the existence of God. If one admitted that they were a disbeliever it could dismantle their credibility within society.
Tocqueville’s analysis regarding the role of religion in American Politics during his lifetime had me wondering about its role in our lifetime. More specifically, is a declaration of religious belief necessary to establish oneself as a credible candidate for office and, by extension, a legislator? Do Americans still view a declaration of religious belief as the primary means for a candidate to demonstrate they adhere to a moral code of conduct? Based upon my observations, I think it is absolutely necessary for a candidate to affiliate himself with a religious denomination. Whether or not a candidate can be trusted to act in accordance with a moral compass still seems to be linked to whether or not faith plays a prominent role in their life. I’m not arguing that all American’s think this way, that would be stupid, but a large percentage do. Check out the Newt, he definitely thinks this way:
Everyone is perfectly entitled to judge a candidate based on whether or not they hold the existence of a God, and the immortality of the soul, to be true. I do not mean to advocate in any way that I think it is reasonable for one to do so, in fact, I really don’t think it makes any sense to link someone’s character, and their ability to implement effective policies, with “who they pray to or how they pray.” (The Newt, Republican Primary Debate) However, arguing against using a candidate’s religious beliefs as a basis to judge them was not what I intended to accomplish with this post. I am merely wondering the degree to which people think religion still plays a role in the election of candidates. Does anyone think that it would be possible for a publicly declared Agnostic or Atheist to be elected to the Presidency? Also, building upon Tocqueville’s logic, is there still a link between the “austerity of manners” and policy implementation? By this I mean is the policy agenda still affected, or controlled to a degree, by religious morality?