Religion and politics in the United States
Religion in the United States is remarkable both in its high adherence level compared to other developed countries as well as its diversity. The First Amendment to the country's Constitution prevents the government from having any authority in religion, and guarantees the free exercise of religion. A majority of Americans report that religion plays a "very important" role in their lives, a proportion unusual among developed nations, though similar to other nations in the Americas. Many faiths have flourished in the United States, including imports spanning the country's multicultural heritage as well as those founded within the country, and have led the United States to become the most religiously diverse country in the world.
The majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians (76%), while non-Christian religions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and others) collectively make up about 4% of the adult population. Another 15% of the adult population identified as having no religious affiliation. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, religious belief varies considerably across the country: 59% of Americans living in Western states report a belief in God, yet in the South (the "Bible Belt") the figure is as high as 86%.
The United States has more Christians than any other country in the world.
Politicians frequently discuss their religion when campaigning, and many churches and religious figures are highly politically active. As important as religion is in politics, Jefferson, the third president of the United States, had to fight his way into office due to his controversial thoughts about religion. His writing was often seen as anti-Christian. It is argued that Jefferson’s win can be linked to him changing the election’s narrative from one about his own religious beliefs, to one about his tolerance of religious freedom (Lambert).
However, to keep their status as tax-exempt organizations they must not officially endorse a candidate. There are Christians in both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but evangelical Christians tend to support the Republican Party whereas more liberal Christians and secular voters tend to support the Democratic Party.
Every President and Vice President, with the exception of the current president, Barack Obama, was raised in a family with affiliations with Christian religions. Only former President John F. Kennedy, and current Vice President Joe Biden were raised in Roman Catholic families. Two former presidents, Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover, were raised as Quakers. All the rest were raised in families affiliated with Protestant Christianity. However, many presidents have themselves had only a nominal affiliation with churches, and some never joined any church.
There has never been a Jewish President or Vice-President. The only Jewish major party candidate for either of those offices was Joe Lieberman in the Gore-Lieberman campaign of 2000 (although John Kerry and Barry Goldwater both had Jewish ancestry). Lieberman's faith is Orthodox Judaic. Some sources indicate that Jews constitute only 1.4% of the U.S. population, although others indicate that Jews comprise as much as 2.1% of the population (a significant decline from over 3% in the 1950s, chiefly due to the relatively low birthrate among Jewish Americans and high rates of out-marriage to non-Jews).
While fundamentalist religious people are less likely to have information collected about who they will vote for, they “tend to engage mainstream political activity at higher rates than the average American". Voter Gap between Surveys and Voting. Sociology Of Religion, 68(1), p. 93 Retrieved from EBSCOhost.While there is a common belief that religious voters will always vote republican that is not necessarily the case. Whether the vote is made for one party or another is noticeably based on socioeconomic status. For low income religious people, there is almost no correlation between their religious beliefs and their voting decision.George W. Bush, a Methodist, earned a slim victory over John Kerry, with voters who cited "moral values" (a commonly used term among religiously-inclined voters) playing a crucial part in the election. Bush’s clear victory has been directly attributed to fundamentalist Christian groups.
In 2006 Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the federal government, as the representative of Minnesota's 5th congressional district. When re-enacting his swearing-in for photos, he used the copy of the Qur'an once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
A Gallup Poll released in 2007 indicated that 53% of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist as president, up from 48% in 1987 and 1999.
Separation of church and state
The separation of church and state is a legal and political principle derived from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". The phrase "separation of church and state", which does not appear in the Constitution itself, is generally traced to an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, where Jefferson spoke of the combined effect of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. It has since been quoted in several opinions handed down by the United States Supreme Court.
Robert N. Bellah has argued in his writings that although the separation of church and state is grounded firmly in the constitution of the United States, this does not mean that there is no religious dimension in the political society of the United States. He argued that in effect there is an American civil religion which is a nonsectarian faith with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. Bellah's 1967 article analyzes the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy: "Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word 'God' at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension."
Catholics represent the largest Christian denomination in America with over 68 million members. 85% of these Catholics found their faith to be "somewhat" to "very important" to them. In recent national elections Catholics cast 25 to 27 percent of the ballots.
Members of the Catholic Church have been active in the politics of the United States since the mid 19th century. The United States has never had an important religious party (unlike Europe and Latin America). There has never been a Catholic religious party, either local, state or national.
In 1776 Catholics comprised less than 1% of the population of the new nation, but their presence grew rapidly after 1840 with immigration from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, and elsewhere in Catholic Europe from 1840 to 1914, and also from Latin America in the 20th century. Catholics now comprise 25% to 27% of the national vote, with over 68 million members today. 85% of today's Catholics report their faith to be "somewhat" to "very important" to them.
From the mid-19th century down to 1964 Catholics were solidly Democratic, sometimes at the 80%-90% level. Religious tensions were major issues in the presidential elections of 1928 when the Democrats nominated Al Smith, a Catholic who was defeated. Catholics formed a core part of the New Deal Coalition, with overlapping memberships in the Church, labor unions, and big city machines, and the working class, all of which promoted liberal policy positions in domestic affairs and anti-communism during the Cold War. Since the election of a Catholic President in 1960, Catholics have split about 50-50 between the two major parties in national elections.
Religious tensions arose once again in 1960 when the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy, a Catholic who was elected. In 2004, with the nomination of John Kerry by the Democrats, who was at odds with the Church in the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, his Catholic religion failed to attract significant votes, as slightly more Catholics voted for George W. Bush than for him.
With the decline of unions and big city machines, and with upward mobility into the middle classes, Catholics have drifted away from liberalism and toward conservatism on economic issues (such as taxes). Since the end of the Cold War, their strong anti-Communism has faded in importance. On social issues the Catholic Church takes strong positions against abortion and same-sex marriage and has formed coalitions with Protestant evangelicals.
The Church has been a fierce opponent of liberalized abortion laws, has formed coalitions with evangelicals to oppose abortion and has inspired political resistance to such legislation in several Western countries.
Currently, 24 of the 100 U.S. Senators are Catholics (15 Democrats, 9 Republicans). 132 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives are Catholics. The Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner of Ohio, is Catholic. Vice President Joe Biden is also a Catholic, the first ever to be elected to the Vice Presidency.
The Know Nothings
Although there has never been a Catholic or religious party in the United States similar to Christian Democratic parties in Europe and Latin America, there have been nativist, anti-Catholic movements in the United States. Most prominent was the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, so called because members of the parties involved were told to answer all inquiries with "I know nothing." The movement had electoral successes across the country in the fall of 1854, and the American Party was formed as an official representation of the movement. Crippling divisions over slavery, however, and the rise of the Republican Party caused the movement to collapse within a few years.
Labor union movement
The Catholic Church exercised a prominent role in shaping America's labor movement. From the onset of significant immigration in the 1840s, the Church in the United States was predominantly urban, with both its leaders and congregants usually of the laboring classes. Over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-unionism coalesced in Republican politics, and Catholics gravitated toward unions and the Democratic Party.
The Knights of Labor was the earliest labor organization in the United States, and in the 1880s, it is estimated that at least half its membership was Catholic (including Terence Powderly, its president from 1881 onward).
Yet the organization came under scrutiny from some of the church hierarchy because of its similarity to other “secret societies” (e.g., the Masons) that the Church forbade its followers to join. Others believed that unions could promote better lives for workers. The matter was resolved in 1887 when Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore interceded in Rome against a proposed condemnation of the Knights.
This was the context in which Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical letter that articulated the teaching of the Church with a view to the “new things” of the modern world. In Rerum novarum (1891), Leo criticized the concentration of wealth and power, spoke out against the abuses that workers faced and demanded that workers should be granted certain rights and safety regulations. He upheld the right of voluntary association, specifically commending labor unions. At the same time, he reiterated the Church’s defense of private property, condemned socialism, and emphasized the need for Catholics to form and join unions that were not compromised by secular and revolutionary ideologies.
Rerum novarum provided new impetus for Catholics to become active in the labor movement, even if its exhortation to form specifically Catholic labor unions was widely interpreted as irrelevant to the pluralist context of the United States. While atheism underpinned many European unions and stimulated Catholic unionists to form separate labor federations, the religious neutrality of unions in the United States provided no such impetus. American Catholics seldom dominated unions, but they exerted influence across organized labor. Catholic union members and leaders played important roles in steering American unions away from socialism.
While earlier Jewish immigrants from Germany tended to be politically conservative, the wave of Eastern European Jews starting in the early 1880s, were generally more liberal or left wing and became the political majority. Many of the latter came to America with experience in the socialist, anarchist and communist movements as well as the Labor Bund, emanating from Eastern Europe. Many Jews rose to leadership positions in the early 20th century American labor movement and helped to found unions that played a major role in left wing politics and, after 1936, in Democratic Party politics. For most of the 20th century since 1936, the vast majority of Jews in the United States have been aligned with the Democratic Party. Towards the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century, Republicans have launched initiatives to woo American Jews away from the Democratic Party.
Over the past century, Jews in Europe and the Americas have traditionally tended towards the political left, and played key roles in the birth of the labor movement as well as socialism. While Diaspora Jews have also been represented in the conservative side of the political spectrum, even politically conservative Jews have tended to support pluralism more consistently than many other elements of the political right.
There are also a number of Jewish secular organizations at the local, national, and international levels. These organizations often play an important part in the Jewish community. Most of the largest groups, such as Hadassah and the United Jewish Communities (UJC), have an elected leadership. No one secular group represents the entire Jewish community, and there is often significant internal debate among Jews about the stances these organizations take on affairs dealing with the Jewish community as a whole, such as antisemitism and Israeli policies. In the United States and Canada today, the mainly secular UJC, formerly known as the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), represents over 150 Jewish Federations and 400 independent communities across North America. Every major American city has its local "Jewish Federation", and many have sophisticated community centers and provide services, mainly health care-related. They raise record sums of money for philanthropic and humanitarian causes in North America and Israel. Other organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel, B'nai B'rith and Agudath Israel represent different segments of the American Jewish community on a variety of issues. J Street was set up in 2008 to advocate for American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution and a broader regional, comprehensive peace. Hillel caters for Jewish students in universities.
Muslim political organizations lobby on behalf of various Muslim political interests.
- The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is the United States largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, originally established to promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America. CAIR portrays itself as the voice of mainstream, moderate Islam on Capitol Hill and in political arenas throughout the United States. It has condemned acts of terrorism—while naming no one in particular—and has been working in collaboration with the White House on "issues of safety and foreign policy".The group has been criticized for alleged links to Islamic terrorism by conservative media, but its leadership strenuously denies any involvement with such activities.
- The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is an American Muslim public service and policy organization headquartered in Los Angeles and with offices in Washington, D.C. MPAC was founded in 1988. The mission of MPAC "encompasses promoting an American Muslim identity, fostering an effective grassroots organization, and training a future generation of men and women to share our vision. MPAC also works to promote an accurate portrayal of Islam and Muslims in mass media and popular culture, educating the American public (both Muslim and non-Muslim) about Islam, building alliances with diverse communities and cultivating relationships with opinion- and decision-makers."
- The American Islamic Congress is a small but growing moderate Muslim organization that promotes religious pluralism. Their official Statement of Principles states that "Muslims have been profoundly influenced by their encounter with America. American Muslims are a minority group, largely comprising immigrants and children of immigrants, who have prospered in America's climate of religious tolerance and civil rights. The lessons of our unprecedented experience of acceptance and success must be carefully considered by our community."
- The Free Muslims Coalition was created to eliminate broad base support for Islamic extremism and terrorism and to strengthen secular democratic institutions in the Middle East and the Muslim World by supporting Islamic reformation efforts.
- "U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion". Pew Global Attitudes Project. Retrieved 1 January 2007.
- Eck, Diana (2002). A New Religious America : the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. HarperOne. p. 432. ISBN 978-0-06-062159-9.
- "CIA Fact Book". CIA World Fact Book. 2002. Retrieved 2007-12-30.
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- Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (2009). "AMERICAN RELIGIOUS IDENTIFICATION SURVEY (ARIS) 2008" (PDF). Hartford, Connecticut, USA: Trinity College. Retrieved 2009-04-01.
- "Christian Statistics: Top 10 Largest National Christian Populations". Adherents.com. Retrieved 2010-02-17.
- Lambert, F. (1997). `God-and a religious president... [or] Jefferson and no God': for a voter-imposed. Journal of Church & State, 39(4), 769. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
- Pew Forum: Religion and the 2006 Elections
- "Barack Obama's Religious Beliefs & Background". Retrieved 2009-11-26.
- Obama, Barack, The Audacity of Hope,
I was not raised in a religious household. For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness. However, in her mind, a working knowledge of the world's great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology.
- Sherkat, D. E. (2007). Religion and Survey Non-Response Bias: Toward Explaining the Moral Voter Gap between Surveys and Voting. Sociology Of Religion, 68(1), p.93 Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
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- Exit poll - Decision 2004 - MSNBC.com
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- Jeffrey M. Jones (2007-02-20). "Some Americans Reluctant to Vote for Mormon, 72-Year-Old Presidential Candidates. Strong support for black, women, Catholic candidates". Gallup News Service. Retrieved 2007-12-25.
- Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. United States decision the high court said Jefferson's observations "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment". In the court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state."
- Bellah, Robert Neelly (Winter 1967). "Civil Religion in America". Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1): 1–21. Archived from the original on 2005-03-06. From the issue entitled Religion in America.
- The Official Catholic Directory 2009.
- CARA's New Book Identifies Trends in U.S. Catholic Church, Catholicism USA
- Secular and Security-Minded: The Catholic Vote in Summer 2008, A National Opinion Survey of Likely Catholic Voters, Executive Summary, BELDEN RUSSONELLO & STEWART, August 2008
- Donald T. Critchlow, Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America (2001) p. 196
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- "Rerum novarum - ENCYCLICAL OF POPE LEO XIII ON CAPITAL AND LABOR". Retrieved 2009-04-23.
- Hasia Diner, The Jews of the United States. 1654 to 2000 (2004), ch 5
- The Diversity of Muslims in the United States - Views as Americans - United States Institute of Peace. February 2006
- Muslim Public Affairs Council Official Website
- The American Islamic Congress Statement Of Principles
- Free Muslims Coalition