The Role of Christianity In US Politics

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?

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7 Responses to The Role of Christianity In US Politics

  1. brt001 says:

    I find this post interesting. I believe religion plays a pertinent role, still. This article ( http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=1786422&page=1#.TrVkbfQg_U4 ) by ABC News speaks to the distrust of atheism in America. While it does not as specifically cover other religions against Christianity, it does address the xenophobia within religion. As a Christian myself, honestly, I am predisposed to pick someone with like views for high office. Does this say that I hold someone in lower regard as a person? Absolutely not. This means that I would prefer that someone who I know shares my particular worldview to be in a position of guidance and power. I think that people just want a leader of their own particular persuasion.

  2. stephmfarr says:

    This post poses many interesting ideas. I would also argue that is absolutely necessary for a candidate to declare a fairly firm religious belief, and it definitely affects their electability. To me, the idea of an agnostic or atheist running for office is difficult to imagine- and I do not identify with any particular religion personally. The fact that I can’t imagine a non-religious person running for office, even though I myself am, demonstrates how much religion and politics intersect in America.

  3. flitvak says:

    Without a doubt Tocqueville emphasizes the importance of Christianity within the lives of American citizens. His most memorable statement in my opinion is, “thus, whilst the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.” (354-355) To Tocqueville, religion steers people down a path of morality. He also justifies its importance in saying that religion promotes equality.

    In today’s society, religion definitely upholds its importance within the political realm. While the promotion of equality is not religion’s primary role, it still exists. Americans undoubtedly look for a presidential candidate that reflects religious values. These candidates seem most inclined to act with a moral compass. Having a religious background is definitely an implicit requirement for those wishing to run for President of the United States of America.

    In a 2009 Gallup poll of the “Top 10 Least Religious States,” in which constituents were asked if religion was an important part of daily life, those from Vermont, the least religious state, said “yes.” Although it is the least religious state, nearly half of its constituents considered religion important.

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/114022/state-states-importance-religion.aspx

    To further expand on the importance of religion in modern American politics, do we see Tocqueville’s second aspect, the promotion of equality through religion today? Does this constitute part of religion’s importance in politics in the 21st century?

  4. kaschuma says:

    I think it is possible for an atheist or agnostic person to win a high office, but highly unlikely. In addition to the points made above, there is also the reason that so many “big issues” today are rooted in religion. Stem cell research, abortion, gay marriage/rights all have religious roots. It seems to me that a person who had faith based opposition to these issues would not vote for an atheist as they don’t show the necessary devotion to a particular stance.

    This connects to brt001’s stance, since a person’s religion is probably the easiest way to summarize their views and attitudes. A person without a specific religion has a lot of uncertainty.

    I think it could still happen though– it did in Australia

  5. arullis says:

    This post brings up many good points and shows how certain issues are still relevant in America, even since the beginning of the country. I think that a president will always have to identify with religion. Also, that there will not be an Atheist or agnostic president for a long time. Religion plays to much of a role in the government. There are many big issues that regard religion or religious groups have a certain stances on those issues. Religion plays a big role in this country and many people are very attached to religion. Since it plays a prominent role in citizens lives it plays a big role in who they vote for. People want their candidates moral values to align with theirs. I don’t foresee religion being downplayed in government and many candidates use religion to gain votes. Religious groups tend to vote along party lines. Christians with Republicans, Jewish people with Democrats, they both play a role within their party. Politicians will try and hold onto those groups to gain votes. I believe that this country was built upon religious values and it will stay that way. the religious views of a politician hold a large amount of weight.

  6. bkemeter says:

    This post really gave me something to think about. Overall, I agree with the comments above me that for the next foreseeable years that the religion of a person will be a factor in their ability to get elected. Based on the last fourish years (Obama, Romney, Huntsman) it seems to be a large part of the presidential election. I would say an atheist has a fine shot at smaller office like the House of Representatives, more-so in a state like Vermont than Texas, however in a national race I just don’t see it for a while.

    Personally, I would say have a religious candidate would help. I don’t think it would make a complete difference between candidates but it would probably factor, more religious period than has to be “mainstream” christian. It was kind of interesting to try and figure out what I would do in situations.

  7. drullis says:

    I thought this post was very well written and achieved in being thought provoking. While I agree with your personal stance that it is not reasonable to link ones character with who they pray to; I also feel that in politics it may be nearly impossible to be successful without having ties to religion. I certainly feel as if it is achievable to win elections as a declared atheist or agnostic, but it is much more difficult than if that same candidate was tied to a religious affiliation. I also do not advocate that the practice of correlating character to religion is a fair one.

    I feel that, in today’s time as well as when Tocqueville wrote, religious ties are big helps in gaining political positions. I do still feel that a majority of the American people vote or have their vote influenced by some sort of religious factors. Not to mention it has always been clear that Christians and the conservative right always vote republican, while the Jewish population in America seemingly always votes democrat. I do not think it is fair to say that the entire country holds this sentiment that a candidate must have some sort of tie with religion to have a good character, but an overwhelming voting population in the united states does feel this way. The south is notorious for being religious and also older generations, who typically turn out to vote in larger numbers, generally have stronger ties to religion. It just seems as if as a nation we still correlate religious views with good character for politicians. While we do see more of a trend away from this it is still prevalent enough to have major impact on politicians and the election of candidates.

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