Becoming Religious in American Political Landscape

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Constantino Brumidi, Study for the Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol Building, ca. 1859-1862 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Reza Maulana Hikam
(M.A. Student, Department of History, University of Hawai’i at Manoa)

HONOLULU-KEMPALAN: Taking the courses Religion and Conflict in American History (AMST 345), I found that there are lots of interesting things about the position of religious discourse in post-Independence American politics. In this course, we are taught by Professor Kathleen M. Sands who wrote a book entitled America’s Religious Wars: The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life published by Yale University Press in 2019. Here is a view of my discussion with Professor Sands.

We started the discussion from the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints established by Joseph Smith. The church was an innovative form of Christianity with distinctly American features.. As the discussion progressed, we had a broader discussion about how U.S. citizens view the connection between government and religion.

R: Do you consider the Mormons or the LDS Church as  millennialism, messianism, or a new religious movement? If yes, why, and if not, why?

K: The LDS church is generally considered to be a millennial movement in that (like other millennial movements), it anticipates a 1000-year reign of peace in connection with the return of Christ (pre-millennialists, like the Latter-Day Saints, believe that Christ will return before the 1000 years; post-millennialists believe that Christ will come only after the 1000 years.) “New religious movements” is a relative term. “Movement” is used as an alternative to the disparaging term” “cult”, and “new” usually refers to the period since around the mid-20th century. Smith’s movement is not “new” in that sense. It’s not a messianic movement other than in the broad sense that, like the rest of Christianity, the LDS church sees Jesus as the Messiah. Smith is considered a prophet but definitely not a messiah.

R: Do the tenets and principles of Christianity (either Protestant or Catholic) ever mention religious freedom? (I don’t mention other smaller denominations because usually, if not always, from your courses, they are persecuted, so they do believe in religious freedom, and it’s been a bit hard for me to understand the Bible)

K: When we speak of “religious freedom” in the U.S., we are usually thinking of it as a legal and constitutional concept. In that   sense, religious freedom in the U.S. begins with the first amendment of the constitution (passed by Congress in 1789; ratified by states in 1791). But it was prefigured by the movement in various early modern European nation-states to increase religious tolerance and minimize the political force of religious differences.

As a theological concept, though, religious freedom has a much longer history in Europe than it does in American law. In Christianity, Protestant religions developed an appreciation for religious freedom due to their belief in the necessity of an individualized experience of faith and salvation. (Catholicism did not really accept religious freedom until the 20th century). In Islam, there is the well-known Quranic verse “there is no compulsion in religion”. Historically, too, Islam has had special regard for the “religions of the book” (Christianity and Judaism). 

In heritage-based religions, such as Judaism and indigenous religions, religious freedom means not being compelled to join the majority religion or to hide one’s religious identity in public. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that each community member must make an intensely personal decision about whether to be religious.

For minority traditions generally religious freedom means being as free as possible from government interference. Based on the same principle, minority religions in the U.S. have generally supported religious freedom for others. Nonetheless, they may hope their religion will ultimately prevail over society and government. That was very much the situation in the Mormon movement of the 19th century—they demanded religious freedom for themselves and supported it for others, yet ultimately hoped that people would freely choose what Smith called “theodemocracy”.

R: In your book, I found a lot of contradictions in the history of American religion. What is the cause of that?

K: There are many contradictions in the history of American religions, but I assume you’re pointing to the major contradiction I trace in America’s Religious Wars. That’s the contradiction between the idea of religion as separate, private, diverse, and politically irrelevant (the separationist or “wall” concept) and the idea of religion as public, common, and essential to the political order (the foundationalist concept). There are many reasons for this, including the wars of religion, colonialism, and the history of the concept of religion. Another key reason was the American constitutional principle that government should be strictly limited. My book spells these factors out in detail.

R: After reading and reflecting on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I have another question. Was there any effort from any U.S. citizens, either individually or in a group, to change (or erase) the First Amendment and try to establish a law concerning religion? If not, why do you think so?

K: Yes, especially in the period after the Civil War, there were movements on both sides of this question. One, called the National Reform Movement, tried to get an amendment that would describe the U.S. as a “Christian Nation”. The other movement, led by the Liberal League, wanted an amendment to add the expression” “separation of church and state” to the constitution.

Both movements failed, first of all because the U.S. Constitution is, by design, very hard to amend. Beyond that, the majority of Americans did and still do believe in the principle of limited government. The idea is that government, in sharp contrast to religion, is not supposed to cover the whole of life. That would be considered totalitarian and tyrannical. Americans disagree, of course, on just what things government should or shouldn’t do. But there is a consensus that the government should not do everything.

On the other hand, the phrase “separation of church and state” is generally understood to imply the kind of secularism that is unfriendly to religion. And that, too, is off-putting to many Americans, who tend to be favourable toward religion in the broad sense. In my book, especially Chapter 5, you will find lots of critical discussions of secularism.

Of course, even today, these two positions—Christian nationalism on one hand and strict secularism on the other—have lots of credence among the American populace. Christian nationalism is growing, but many consider it a dangerous movement—for instance, it is deeply Islamophobic. The U.S. today is very religiously diverse, and about 25% of Americans have no religion at all. Pluralism is a fact about America, and those of us who are not Christian nationalists find the rejection of religious pluralism perilously divisive.

Secularism also continues to have a strong constituency (particularly in academic circles). But studies indicate that the majority sentiment in the U.S. is still that religion, broadly understood, is good for society. For that reason, many or most Americans feel that there is an important role for religion in public life.[1]

[1] See websites of the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Center for studies of religion in American public life.

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