“When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the Dogma lives loudly within you,” Senator Dianne Feinstein grilled Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett during her confirmation hearing. “And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for, for years in this country.”
Of particular concern to Senator Feinstein was Barrett’s 2012 comment that a “legal career is but a means to an end,” and “that end is building the Kingdom of God.” During the confirmation hearing, Barrett responded emphatically that her dogmatic persuasions, however deeply held, would not interfere with her duties as a judge. When the vote came, it was 52-48. Not a single Democratic Senator could bring themselves to vote for Barrett’s confirmation.
Stories like this abound, especially during confirmation hearings. During Russell Vought’s 2017 confirmation hearing, Bernie Sanders chafed the Office of Management and Budget nominee on the basis that he once wrote that Muslims “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
Dumbfounded, Sanders asked, “In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?” Vought did not answer to his satisfaction. Given an opportunity to clarify Senator Sanders’ comments, his spokesperson doubled down: “Racism and bigotry—condemning an entire group of people because of their faith—cannot be part of any public policy,” he said. “Such strong Islamophobic language . . . is simply unacceptable.”
What makes the Vought confirmation fiasco noteworthy is that such a major point of contention for Sanders – and 48 of his colleagues – was Vought’s milquetoast religious exclusivism. Because he explicitly believed and taught what most orthodox Christians, both here and abroad, have always believed about the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and the fate of people who reject him, he was passionately deemed unfit to deputy direct the Office of Management and Budget. Russell Vought was too Christian to handle rote money management issues.
Maybe, reading over the anecdotes given, you find yourself in agreement with Feinstein, Sanders, and their co-belligerents in both major parties. If that’s your take, you’re certainly in the majority. Pew recently reported that “63% of Americans say churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics, and 76% said religious congregations should not make political endorsements.” Americans have spoken – or, at least, the Americans that the Pew people talked to – and they want the church house to vacate the state house.
There’s a problem, though: American politics are deeply religious, and they always have been. Remove religion from American politics and there isn’t actually much left of American politics. The dogma has never not lived loudly in us.
There are plenty of examples we could point to that illustrate the importance of religion in our public institutions. To pick the lowest hanging fruit available, consider the way that the U.S. described itself in the binding international treaties into which it has enter through the years.
It’s true that the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli famously says that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,” but that language has been directly contradicted by nearly every other treaty that touched on the subject: “The President of the Congress of the United States of America,” according to the 1797 Treaty of Tunis, is “the most distinguished among those who profess the religion of the Messiah, of whom may the end be happy.” Again: “If we shall be at War with any Christian Power and any of our Vessels sail from the Ports of the United States, no Vessel belonging to the enemy shall follow untill twenty four hours after the Departure of our Vessels,” declares the 1786 Treaty with Morocco, “And the same Regulation shall be observed towards the American Vessels sailing from our Ports – be their enemies Moors or Christians.” More than that: As Harold O.J. Brown, director of the Rockford Institute’s Center on Religion and Society, notes: “When the Treaty of Tripoli was renegotiated under President Thomas Jefferson, the above-quoted language was omitted.”
As a matter of fact, Jefferson is a helpful case study. He rejected orthodox Christianity – famously, he mutilated the new testament by removing all references to the divinity of Jesus, instead cobbling together his own personal Bible in which Jesus Christ is essentially an agrarian philosopher. Nevertheless, he seemed to presuppose that he was governing a Christian nation, even explicitly declaring in his second inaugural address that:
“I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.”
Perhaps most fascinating is the discovery by Nathan Chapman from the University of Georgia that Jefferson continued President Washington’s policy of federally funding Christian missionaries. The policy outlasted Jefferson. It also outlasted the Union, as the missionaries continued to receive funding “through the Civil War.” It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that American political history is American religious history.
It bears repeating: If you remove religion from American politics, there isn’t much left of American politics.
That claim shouldn’t be read as some sort of triumphalist “Gotcha!” point, because the irreducibly religious character of our national politics gives us roughly as much cause for lament as it does celebration.
One particularly startling example of Christianity’s deep embeddedness in the American system is the prevalence of landmark Supreme Court cases, like Johnson v. M’Intosh (21 US 8 Wheat. 543), which officially hinge on the Doctrine of Discovery, the now long-repudiated injunction rooted in a papal pronouncement from the 15th century. Pope Alexander VI called for “barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith.” What is shocking about this is that, when the U.S. was only a few decades old and functioning essentially as a White Protestant Empire, the highest court in the land would inscribe the idiosyncratic ruling of a long-deceased pope into the foundations of American law. “Discovery is the foundation of title, in European nations, and this overlooks all proprietary rights in the natives,” ruled SCOTUS. “Discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it Was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.”
What should not be shocking, though, is that SCOTUS would officially frame our particularly vicious land-grab as an essentially religious conflict between native pagans and Christian transplants. The “Holy War” narrative baptized in the M’Intosh ruling had roots that were Protestant as much as Catholic, and we had been laying this religious groundwork for multiple centuries by this point.
The 16th century Oxford professor Joseph Mede had popularized the notion that the great battle of Armageddon would play out in the New World, America. The Devil was rallying pagan tribes throughout the world to fight for him against the people of God and the nations which they governed. After years of Christendom’s expansion and conquest of faraway lands, Mede wrote, the Americas were the Devil’s last harbor.
This was no fringe doctrine, and its applications were hardly confined to the academy. Mede’s Armageddon thesis echoes throughout the writings of the earliest European settlers to the New World – that is, the people who laid the foundations of the United States by acquiring the charters, writing the laws, and setting the incipient nation on its course. William Cranshaw’s sermon to the Virginia settlers is broadly representative. To emigrate to the Americas was to volunteer to wage literal war against the Devil, he bellowed forth: “We go to disinherit him of his ancient freehold and to deliver out of his bondage the souls which he hath kept so many years in thralldom.” Unsurprisingly, relations between settlers and Natives were predictably sabotaged by the deeply ingrained belief that the Natives were in league with the devil. One result was that the aggressively Protestant inhabitants of early America ultimately inscribed the Doctrine of Discovery into American law.
“Remove religion from American politics and there isn’t actually much left of American politics.”
To put it simply, the interweaving of religion – and the Christian faith in particular – within the American system frequently gave birth to tragedy, as did the interweaving of Islam in the Middle East, Confucianism in Asia, and militant secularism throughout the Soviet bloc. But to acknowledge this is very simply to acknowledge that the American settlers had an ideology, as all communities do, and that this ideology sometimes provided the ammunition necessary to justify violent outbursts, as all ideologies do. It also provided the moral and philosophical framework within which we now rightly judge the wicked deeds of the American founders to have been damnable.
This principle is perhaps most clearly visible in the theo-political language of the Civil Rights leaders of the mid-20th century: “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust?” Martin Luther King Jr. posed the question from a jail cell in Birmingham. His answer would make us blush if we ever actually read it:
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.”
In response to such unabashedly religious calls to action, Arch-Segregationists like Georgia Senator Richard Russell complained:
“I have observed with profound sorrow the role that many religious leaders have played in urging passage of this bill, because I cannot make their activities jibe with my concept of the proper place of religious leaders in our national life.”
The segregation caucus, which had never been shy about employing twisted-verses and half-sentences from the Holy Bible in service of Jim Crow politics, suddenly objected to religious activists “imposing their religious convictions” on the general public. But in this sense, the segregationists were innovating, not the Civil Rights leaders.
Long before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had arrived on the scene, radical abolitionists like John Brown had picked up the mantle once directed at the extermination of the Native population and repurposed it towards the extermination of the residual paganism found in the American system – like slavery. The battle between slavers and liberators was not an intramural political struggle, he insisted. It was a stepping-stone toward ushering in the millennium. America was Egypt. God was beckoning her to abandon her Pharaohism.
Lincoln further drew from that particular well, employing the apocalyptic language of Revelation to describe the struggle over slavery. “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution,” he preached. “Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it.” It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Lincoln framed the Civil War in evolving religious terms:
“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove.”
He ultimately came to see the Civil War as God’s tool to bring the American slave system to an end, recognizing himself as a pawn in the hands of the Almighty amidst the American Exodus, and taking pains not to sleepwalk into the role of Pharaoh. Thus he repeatedly proclaimed official days of “fasting and prayer” to be observed by the people of the nation.
It’s important not to rush past the fact that such proclamations were issued by the sitting American President operating in official state capacity. These were not perfunctory utterances of “God bless you, and God bless America” capping off an otherwise secular State of the Union address. These were active – and coercive – impositions of Lincoln’s deeply held (if erratic) religious convictions upon the general public.
Perhaps the most explicit modern example of the profound debt that American politics owe to Christian social thought – though rarely discussed because the Religious Right has effectively monopolized Christian political engagement in the mainstream of American culture – is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s essentially religious presidency. The New Deal represented the implementation of a borderline theocratic political agenda. “This is a history and a sermon on the subject of water power,” he once opened a speech. “I preach from the Old Testament. The text is ‘Thou shall not steal.” The oft-ignored reality is that FDR saw his presidency as part of a broader project of religious revival:
“No greater thing could come to our land today than a revival of the spirit of religion—a revival that would sweep through the homes of the Nation and stir the hearts of men and women of all faiths to a reassertion of their belief in God and their dedication to His will for themselves and for their world. I doubt if there is any problem—social, political or economic—that would not melt away before the fire of such a spiritual awakening.”
Not unlike the early colonial settlers and Lincoln after them, Roosevelt framed his response to the Great Depression in theological terms. God had given America the Christian religion, he argued, to enable Americans to embody the “peace on earth” that Jesus pointed towards:
“He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world. So we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly—to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for all our fellow men—to the achievement of His will to peace on earth.”
Perhaps reductively, he framed his administration’s social programs as rather straightforward applications of Christianity’s transformative ethos:
“We call what we have been doing ‘human security’ and ‘social justice.’ In the last analysis all of those terms can be described by one word; and that is ‘Christianity.”
FDR’s almost embarrassingly evangelistic rhetoric would have made little sense if it hadn’t resonated deeply with the American people. A truly secularized community would likely recoil at the kind of pulpiteering that Roosevelt indulged from the presidential podium. Instead, America elected him to the presidency four consecutive times. The reason is profoundly simple: Christianity is baked into American politics Every major political movement from the 17th through the 19th century and beyond couched its policy program in explicitly Christian terms. That’s not a revisionist David Barton myth. It’s very straightforwardly how all of American politics worked until about ten minutes ago.
So, then, what now? We don’t live in the days of Roosevelt. Since the late 20th century, overtly religious politicking has become profoundly taboo – in the early 80s, Ronald Reagan was publicly reciting the Nativity story to children in the White House. In the late 2010s, a would-be budget bureaucrat was deemed unfit for office because he believed that some people go to hell and a SCOTUS nominee was nearly iced out because she believed that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
But as the above history lesson ought to remind us, if you remove religion from American politics, there isn’t much left of American politics. We’ve been applying Christian beliefs with the force of law for as long as there has been an America. The fact that religious politicking has now been largely taken over by hucksters is not, in fact, a sign that religion should be excised from public life. It’s the opposite: Americans have lived, for several decades now, in a market dominated by bad religious politicking; the only way out of the tunnel is a renaissance of Christian politics in the Lincoln-MLK-FDR tradition – not unlike what the folks at places like AND CAMPAIGN, Solidarity Policy Center – and, we hope, The American Commons – are up to. That means it’s time to start building new institutions.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.