God in America
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Study Guide: Of God and Caesar (Episode 6)

BuddhistsThe religious and political aspirations of evangelical conservatives found expression in a moral crusade over divisive social issues. They worried that the nation was adrift on a secular sea, unmoored from its Christian foundations, and they wanted to change the culture. Their ambitions were large, and they succeeded in transforming the religious and political landscape of the country. Their embrace of presidential politics, though, would ultimately end in disappointment and questions about the mixing of religion and politics. Across America, the religious marketplace expanded as new waves of immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America made the United States the most religiously diverse nation on earth. In the 2008 presidential election, the re-emergence of a religious voice in the Democratic Party brought the country to a new plateau in its struggle to reconcile faith with politics. God in America closes with reflections on the role of faith in the public life of the country, from the ongoing quest for religious liberty to the enduring idea of America as the "city on a hill" envisioned by the Puritans nearly 400 years ago.

"I Endorse You"

After the Scopes trial in 1925, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists sequestered themselves from political engagement. But the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, coupled with the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, persuaded key leaders it was time to step into the political arena. In the mid-1970s, Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. In the summer of 1980, a defining moment in modern American politics occurred when then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan made a speech in Dallas to what was the first National Affairs Briefing of the Religious Roundtable, a caucus founded to involve evangelicals in mainstream politics. The event has been described as nothing less than "the marriage ceremony between Southern Baptists and the Republican Party." Religious and secular conservatives realized the advantage of joining political forces to confront pressing social issues. With Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other prominent evangelicals in attendance, Reagan addressed the crowd of 15,000 Christian conservatives:

Religious America is awakening, perhaps just in time for our country's sake. If we believe God has blessed America with liberty, then we have not just a right to vote but a duty to vote. We have not just the freedom to work in campaigns and run for office and comment on public affairs. We have a responsibility to do so. ... If you do not speak your mind and cast your ballot, then who will speak and work for the ideals we cherish? Who will vote to protect the American family and respect its interests in the formulation of public policy? I know you can't endorse me because this is a nonpartisan crowd, but I ... want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.

With these words Ronald Reagan launched a relationship with conservative evangelicals that reshaped American politics. As Moral Majority leader Ed Dobson observes, "For someone running for president to affirm us was very significant," and evangelicals "lined up behind Reagan en masse." They rejected fellow evangelical Jimmy Carter and helped sweep into office a president who easily summoned the language of faith and freedom. But Ronald Reagan only gave lip service, not presidential authority, to issues of the religious right such as constitutional amendments on abortion and school prayer. By 2000, religious conservatives again believed they had found one of their own in George W. Bush, who spoke of Jesus Christ as his personal friend, and they hoped he would deliver their social agenda.

A New Religious and Political America

At the same time that Christian evangelicals were re-entering the public square and seeking political power in order to restore America's status as a Christian nation, the American religious marketplace was undergoing dramatic changes that would have political implications. Since 1965, amendments to immigration laws had brought waves of new immigrants and with them all the religious traditions of the world -- Hindu and Buddhist, Sikh and Jain, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and more. By the year 2000, for example, Los Angeles County Muslims numbered nearly 500,000, and they came from Sri Lanka to Somalia, from Malaysia to Nigeria. The mostly white Protestant city that had launched Billy Graham's career as an evangelist 60 years earlier has become known for its religious diversity.

Like the other religious minorities that arrived before them, new immigrants are demanding their place in the American religious landscape. Today the largest immigrant group is Catholics from Spanish-speaking countries. Most remain Catholic, but many are also joining Pentecostal churches, one of America's fastest-growing religious groups. These Latino Protestants are changing the face of evangelical politics. As Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, says, "We don't want to be married to either party. ... I see the Hispanic Christian community emerging as the game changers and the powerbrokers politically in America."

"The Art of the Impossible"

A major survey conducted in 2007 and released in early 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that 16 percent of Americans considered themselves "unaffiliated" with any particular denomination or faith tradition. Yet many in this group said religion was "very important" in their lives. Professor Stephen Prothero argues that the rise in the numbers of unaffiliated reflects widespread disenchantment with the entanglement of religion and politics, especially during the Bush years. Over the past decade, younger evangelicals, weary of the hard-edged tactics of the older generation, have begun redefining their mission over the past decade to include such issues as the environment, nuclear disarmament, malaria and AIDS in Africa, and poverty.

At the same time, moderate and progressive evangelicals such as Jim Wallis and others were working to persuade Democrats they could speak the language of faith and still protect the separation of church and state. One person who embraced this new attitude was the party's rising star, Barack Obama. In the summer of 2006, he accepted an invitation from Wallis to address a conference on "Building a Covenant for a New America" sponsored by Call to Renewal, Wallis's faith-based organization. Obama said he wanted to "tackle head-on the mutual suspicion that sometimes exists between religious America and secular America." He argued against the usual Democratic claim that constitutional principles should keep those who are religiously motivated out of the political arena. He also criticized Democrats for neglecting the rich resources of America's religious traditions and for not addressing social problems in explicitly moral terms. To liberals, he delivered the message that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." To conservatives, he argued that they could not expect to impose their religious values and views on others. They also needed "to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice." As journalist E. J. Dionne observes, "Obama has been trying to make a quite consistent argument that separating church and state is not the same as separating religion and politics. That you can respect religious liberty and respect religion itself, and those two things go together."

Read excerpts from Barack Obama's 2006 Call to Renewal address:

If we truly hope to speak to people where they're at, to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own, then as progressives we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse. Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome -- others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends. ... If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the images and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. ... Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal rather than religion-specific values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. ... Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible.

Two-and-a-half years later, in his inaugural address, President Obama acknowledged America's religious pluralism: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers." But in the fall of 2010, plans to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero, a Florida pastor's denunciations of Islam and his threat to burn the Quran, and questions about the president's own personal faith demonstrate that Americans continue to wrestle with the meaning of liberty and struggle to find unity in a land that has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth.

For Discussion

Why did conservative evangelicals reject political engagement for decades, and why did they re-enter politics?

What was fundamentalist preacher Francis Schaeffer's critique of modern secularism? What did he mean by "secular humanism"? What cultural and political trends was he trying to counter?

Ronald Reagan famously spoke of America as "a shining city on a hill," recalling and embellishing John Winthrop's description of the "city upon a hill" he and his fellow Puritans intended to found. The phrase "city on a hill" is from the New Testament. Why do you think Reagan invoked a biblical allusion made by Winthrop in 1630? Does America still understand itself this way? Should it? What do you think Winthrop and Reagan each meant by this phrase? What does it mean in the 21st century for America to be a "city on a hill"? Randall Balmer says Americans "have a sense that America occupies a unique niche in the divine economy. I don't see that abating any time soon." Do you agree?

Compare Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, their religious rhetoric, their outreach to evangelicals, and their policy achievements on behalf of conservative evangelicals. What were the similarities and differences between them?

What role do you see non-Christian religions and new immigrant faith communities playing in American politics and public life? What evidence of their involvement do you observe in your own community? How has the presence of Muslims, Latinos, and Hispanic Catholics in particular influenced the American religious and political landscape?

Has religion in America changed since 9/11? How?

Frank Lambert calls America "this great free marketplace of religion." Describe your own experiences and encounters with religious change, movement, diversity, competition and fragmentation in America.

Do you think America is a Christian nation? In the midst of great religious diversity how does the country find national unity?

Do you think there is a relationship between faith, citizenship, and a sense of political responsibility? How does religion guide your political choices or your thinking about social issues?

Do you see evidence of a "God gap" in American politics? What changes have there been in Democratic outreach to religious voters in the past few years?

Compare John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech in Houston and Barack Obama's 2006 speech in Washington and the way they spoke of church and state, religion and politics, and discuss E.J. Dionne's suggestion that Obama "had a very different take on religion than John F. Kennedy did. He was basically arguing to liberals that liberals had to be open to the idea that, yes, religious people will bring their religions beliefs to the public square." Has Barack Obama articulated "a new political consensus about the relationship between faith and power in America"?

President Obama's inaugural address included the statement that Americans "cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass." Discuss this hope in light of recent religious and political controversies over plans to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero, threats to burn the Quran at a church in Florida, and doubts about the president's own religious faith and identity.

Religion has always been central to the national narrative and to America's sense of mission at home and abroad. How important do you think it will remain to the American story? What religious directions do you imagine the American story might take in the years ahead?

Learn More

With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America by William Martin

God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics by Stephen L. Carter

In God We Trust? Religion and American Political Life edited by Corwin Smidt

Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right by E.J. Dionne Jr.

One Electorate Under God: A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. et al.

What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment? by E.J. Dionne Jr.

God's Politics by Jim Wallis

The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America by Jim Wallis

Under God: Religion and American Politics by Garry Wills

Religion and Politics in the United States by Kenneth Wald

From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism by Darren Dochuk

Religion and the American Presidency edited by Mark Rozell and Gleaves Whitney

Religion and the Bush Presidency edited by Mark Rozell and Gleaves Whitney

Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices by Robert Booth Fowler and Allen D. Hertzke

The Diminishing Divide: Religion's Changing Role in American Politics by Andrew Kohut et al.

Religion, Politics, and the American Experience edited by Edith Blumhofer

A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement by Michael Cromartie

Caesar's Coin Revisited: Christians and the Limits of Government edited by Michael Cromartie

Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics by Clyde Wilcox and Carin Robinson

The Political Meaning of Christianity by Glenn Tinder

Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Colin Duriez

The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial by Robert Bellah

Religion and American Politics edited by Mark Noll and Luke Harlow

Religion and Politics in America by Robert Fowler et al.

The Faith Factor: How Religion Influences American Elections by John C. Green

Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want by Christian Smith

American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving by Christian Smith

The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap by Amy Sullivan

Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion edited by Robert Wuthnow

Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism by Randall Balmer

Religious Pluralism in America by William R. Hutchinson

A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation by Diana Eck

America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity by Robert Wuthnow

The Struggle for America's Soul by Robert Wuthnow

Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society by Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham by D. G. Hart

Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture by R. Laurence Moore

Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion by Wade Clark Roof

The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark A. Noll

One Nation Under God: Christian Faith and Political Action in America by Mark A. Noll

Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by Nathan Hatch

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: U.S. Religious Landscape Survey
Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans, this survey explored the shifts taking place in the United States and found "that religious affiliation is both very diverse and extremely fluid."

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Politics and Elections
News, analysis, and data on religion and politics.

National Association of Evangelicals
Formed in 1942, this association represents more than 45,000 local churches from more than 40 different denominations.

Center for Religion and Civic Culture: The Soul of Los Angeles
Photographer Jerry Berndt has documented the religious diversity of Los Angeles for this University of Southern California research center which supports scholarship "on the civic role of religion in a globalizing world."

Center for Religion and Civic Culture: "Immigrant Religion in the City of Angels" (PDF)
This two-year project studied the role of religion for new immigrants to Los Angeles, a major gateway city and "home to a population where one person in three is foreign born." It found that "immigrants are a potential source of moral renewal at a challenging moment in United States history."

Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals
This research center at Wheaton College sponsors academic conferences and seminars, publishes books, and undertakes research projects on American evangelicalism. Its website includes an evangelical timeline, a biographical gallery of famous American evangelicals, bibliographies, and links to related resources.

An in-depth portrait of the 40th president of the United States.

PBS: FRONTLINE: The Jesus Factor
An examination of religion, the political career and presidency of George W. Bush, and the influence of evangelical Christians.


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Major funding for God in America provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John E. Fetzer Institute, Inc.  Additional funding provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. God in America is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.
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Published October 11, 2010

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