Even before the nation became the United States, churches founded universities, engaged in social movements, and built political community. They were involved.
Though the word democracy stems from the Greek “demos,” which means people, religion has helped shape marginalism—who was in and who was out, according to Sylvester Johnson, professor of religion and culture and director of the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech. He spoke as part of a panel on Religion and Democracy.
For example, Johnson noted, the United States elected its first, and only, Catholic president in 1960: President John F. Kennedy. He added that American Muslims, despite Islam’s long history in the United States, continue to be treated as outsiders.
It’s often said that churches shouldn’t engage in politics, but they do. “I don’t think that’s going to change, even with the decline in frequency of churchgoing,” said Jamelle Bouie, opinion columnist at TheNew York Times. In the 19th century, he noted, as immigration to the United States swelled, churches and religious groups helped organize the new arrivals. Some of those groups still exist today, especially in major cities. “Churches are also the nexus for black political engagement, or have been, since emancipation.”
At the same time, observed Jalane Schmidt, associate professor of religious studies at UVA, with a rise in authoritarian tendencies, “we’re seeing the privileged position that’s being doled out to white religious organizations, and the elephant in the room, which is whiteness and being able to see it, and how religious identities are marking certain people for belonging.”
This “exclusion” dates to the nation’s founders, guided by the general principles of Christianity, according to Kathleen Flake, professor of religious studies at UVA.
“That caused a lot of national pain over the next 200 years,” Flake said. “They thought Christian morality was unique.”
Christianity helped shape racialization. American politics in the last 10 years has seen this in a dramatic way, including the false “birther” charge that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, according to Bouie.
“He had a different name. He was black. The logic train is that his father was Muslim. . . he must have Muslim sympathies,” Bouie said. “Together those things mark him as foreign and illegitimate. To have the legitimacy of the presidency, you don’t just have to be Christian, you have to be white Christian.”
Similarly, there was a question in 2011 whether evangelicals would accept Mitt Romney, a Mormon, as a presidential candidate.
The United States is headed toward theocracy, Johnson asserted—“the effort to create a state explicitly controlled by religious law, specifically by Christian law.”
This is not a new idea, he noted. “Look at the so-called Puritan Experiment. They were not coming to establish freedom, they were coming to establish theocracy.”
Christianity and whiteness were understood to be a package deal, Bouie noted.
“Groups, and people who fell outside of them, were held in suspicion,” he said.
President Donald Trump, who is not a religious man, nevertheless won the support of the evangelical community because he picked up the extent to which a critical segment of the public understands the supposedly “proper” order of the United States. If the United States is changing demographically, according to that logic, then it must be changing religiously. Those evangelical voters concluded that “white Christianity ought to be the organizing principle for public life, and people who are outside of that have to be turned away, defeated, and de-legitimized,” Bouie said.
“At the same time, you have an equal and opposite anxiety on the part of religion, starting in the 1990s, with the Peyote case, the need to restore religious liberty,” Flake said. Each side believes that the other side is out of control. No one is talking to each other about that. “This isn’t language that is moving us forward.”
Bouie suggested that the solution might lie in reaching for a Jeffersonian ideal.
“Our voices ought to matter in equal measure, in decision making, if you internalize that idea that everyone is politically equal,” he said. “That tempers how you go about doing politics. Even Jefferson was trying to find some basis for shared political equality. There are Americans who do not view other Americans as having the same political rights as they do.”