Election Day is November 6, 2012. Over the past 18 months, Americans have debated immigration and health care policy. We have confronted marriage equity and homosexuality, welfare and taxes, foreign policy and foreign aid. Yet, one topic curiously underrepresented, ignored even, is religion in American public life. On October 11, during the vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan declared of all public officials, “Our faith informs us in everything we do.” Barack Obama is Christian, and Mitt Romney is Mormon. Both are religious, and both have stressed past community involvement. Yet, neither candidate highlights religious leanings often in civic discussion.
Two obvious causes come to mind: perhaps both candidates avoid religion in fear of alienating voters. Or, both act out of sensitivity to differing religious beliefs in society. While political strategy and social fragility may be contributing factors, I do not believe that either fully accounts for religion’s omission in the 2012 presidential election.
If religion were truly an effective wedge issue against either candidate, it would be employed … by the candidates directly, by non-affiliated super PACs, by supporters. As it stands, the presidential election is far too close for polarizing issues to be deliberately ignored. Racism in America is equally divisive, yet one hears accusations of both candidates “playing the race card” repeatedly. If anything, sensitive issues in society are exploited in politics to garner support.
Rather, I believe religion has not received prominent attention in the 2012 presidential election because most voters already accept religion’s role in American public life. Broad religious appeals are not effective in American politics because the place of religious values in culture and among political ideologies is already widely known and accepted.
Robert Bellah, the Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, writes extensively about religiosity in American society. In the article “Civil Religion in America,” Mr. Bellah endorses the concept of civil religion as “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.” Religious differences still permeate society, yet only at a concrete level. The broad implications of monotheistic religion contribute to societal norms.
Religion looms large in various aspects of American popular culture. The national anthem is played at sporting events, and presidents are sworn in on Bibles. God is referenced both on American money and in the American Pledge of Allegiance. Civil religion is active within various political ideologies as well. Two opposing schools of thought, Communitarianism and Revisionist Liberalism, recognize the benefits of a unifying, cohesive force in society; their agreement suggests religion may be ineffective in politics as a means of building and broadening support.
Communitarians emphasize the role of groups and shared identity in society. As Ronald Thiemann, a former professor at Harvard Divinity School, notes in his book, Religion in American Public Life, Communitarians seek to invoke religious morals and reasoning in civic discussion to help people identify a shared heritage and common history. In contrast, Revisionist Liberals prefer religion be kept separate from public discourse. Yet, according to Mr. Thiemann, many Revisionist Liberals concede that moral disagreement requires “a fundamental consensus … never simultaneously and universally called into question.” Both ideologies call for a unifying, centripetal force in society.
Therefore, given broad political support, what is the most effective unifying force around which a democratic polity can coalesce? The “ethical principles” Mr. Bellah endorses must come from religious precepts for pragmatic causes: to preserve civic legitimacy, ensure social stability, and instill republican virtues. Other outlets for public passion—mainly, patriotism and sports teams—may also serve as cohesive factors, yet none enjoy similar cross-cultural appeal in American society. Religion’s historical and modern legitimacy in American life is significant; in fact, many discuss American culture in terms of Judeo-Christian values already. Emphases on religiosity in society would not cause social or political disruption.
In addition, mainstream religions preach virtues beneficial to democratic society: nonviolence, mutual respect, and compromise. The Ten Commandments explicitly preclude murder, theft, and adultery. The Koran preaches similar ideals. Unlike some nationalistic appeals to patriotism, religion may help stabilize many societal institutions and relations among individuals.
Finally, religious principles introduce a philanthropic impulse in society. Supporting sports teams or bolstering a nation serves narrow purposes. In contrast, religion can appeal to a broad audience and through various forms. Active citizens can improve their communities, support their families, give to charity, etc. Selfless values disconnected from religious divisiveness would serve to promote goodwill and harmony in society.
Ironically, Communitarian and Revisionist Liberals’ potential embrace of civil religion indicates the increasing secularization of American life. According to a Christian Post poll recorded on October 9, 2012, 1 in 5 Americans identify as non-religious. Generally speaking, fewer Americans have identified as religious every year since 1948!
Yet, civil religion offers a third option; American society does not need to be either religious or secular. Rather, the American public should welcome the secularization of religious values. Religious precepts can inspire and help others at a national level. Efforts by President Obama and Governor Romney to avoid specific religious doctrine in civic discussion allows for a more temperate and policy-driven 2012 election. Similar values embraced by all in society could allow for a more civil and cohesive national dialogue as well.
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