The controversy over religion’s role in American politics reached a fevered pitch after a violent pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol on Jan. 6. The resulting mayhem ended the joint session of Congress and led to the deaths of five people. Some carried crosses or sported religious T-shirts. What could this radical assault on the American way of governing mean? Nearly everyone condemned this act, but was religion to blame?
Some Christians thought President Donald Trump was God’s man to restore America. A number of charismatic “prophets” predicted Trump would win the election. Franklin Graham admitted Trump’s faults but supported him without wavering. However, the organization Evangelicals for Biden claimed that Joe Biden’s policies and character were more in line with Christian values than those of Trump. Observant Jewish radio hosts Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro advocated for Trump. A Gallup report claims, however, that the “clear majority of Jewish Americans identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party.” Muslims tended to support Biden, given Trump’s travel ban affecting some largely Muslim countries.
Now that we have a new president — only the second Roman Catholic president in American history — what role might religion play in American politics after Trump’s presidency? What role should it play?
President Biden’s religion
President Biden’s inauguration bore the marks of religion. The invocation was given by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Lee O’Donovan. It was biblical in tone but did not mention Jesus. The homily and benediction were given by the Rev. Silvester Beaman, an African-American pastor. The conclusion to his prayer made a few waves (to those who were listening carefully) — a point to which I will return.
Biden’s speech mentioned God three times. He spoke of America as “one nation, under God, indivisible,” which is taken from the Pledge of Allegiance (if anyone remembers). He also said, “Before God and all of you, I give you my word.” As most politicians do, he ended with God — “May God bless America and may God protect our troops.” He mentioned a Christian philosopher and theologian: “Saint Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” This raises the question of the identity of these common objects — something he did not directly address. He dedicated time for prayer: “Let’s say a silent prayer for those who’ve lost their lives and those left behind and for our country.”
President Biden’s comments harmonize with American civil religion — a nondenominational sense of our need for God and prayer. Presidents appear more religious than they are for the sake of expediency — taking a page from Machiavelli. While Biden’s religious comments make for a weak sermon, civil religion is far better than the establishment of atheism (consider the USSR and China) or any kind of theocracy. But the devil is in the religious details, as we will see. To sort out the role of religion in politics after Trump, we need some American history and civics.
America, religion and politics
After his visit to America in 1921, celebrated British writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote that America was a nation with “the soul of a church.” Unlike Chesterton’s home, religion here cannot be established by the state. The First Amendment stipulates that there will be no national church. But neither shall the state prohibit “the free exercise” of religion. This is part of the genius of what George Washington called “the American experiment” — an experiment that is ongoing and not invulnerable. These principles have made possible the raucous drama of religion and politics in America ever since.
In America, religions compete for adherents. The state can neither help nor hinder them. Distinguished sociologist Rodney Stark claims that this helps explain why religion flourishes in the United States more than in Western Europe, with its history of national churches. When people choose one religion among competitors, they tend to be more committed to that religion than if they were born into a state religion. In America, most religious people identify as Christians, but there is plenty of room for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others. Religious diversity is allowed and encouraged by our founding principles.
American law does not silence or constrain irreligious citizens, since freedom of speech — including irreligious speech — is one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Further, the Constitution declares that “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (ArtVI.C3.1.2). Are we, then, a secular country?
Groups like The Freedom from Religion Foundation understand the phrase “the separation of church and state” to imply that religious principles have no place in public life, although religious belief and behavior is acceptable if left to the private sphere in homes, churches, synagogues, and mosques. The strict separationists speak of freedom of worship, instead of religious liberty, since liberty (the First Amendment word) allows for a wider reach for religion than mere worship. For the strict separationists, religious values have no place in public policy, since America is officially secular in government.
But it isn’t. The phrase “the separation of church and state” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution. Rather, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “wall of separation between church and state” to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Conn., in 1802. The Constitution allows citizens — religious or otherwise — to participate in civil government. Tax money cannot support any specifically religious organization; however, religious people and organizations are free to bring their religious beliefs into politics. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the principles of the American founding and to religious convictions in his pursuit of full civil rights for African Americans. Consult his famous “I Have a Dream” for proof.
Given these American principles, however religion and politics play out after Trump’s presidency, religion should not be restricted to a private realm. Religion belongs in the public square. But what will it look like? Because America is made up of over 300 million people with various religious and political views, it is impossible to discuss how each religion will respond to the Biden administration. I offer some observations, however, and voice some concerns.
The drama of religion and politics after Trump
Because of the storming of the Capitol and the heavy military presence at the inauguration, many Americans fear religious extremism tied to pro-Trump forces. The dust has not yet settled on the details of the Jan. 6 riot — just who was there and why, and what did they want to accomplish — but the concerns about pro-Trump religious extremism are legitimate, even if sometimes overstated. The overwhelming majority of religious Trump voters are not extremists who want to overthrow the government. Further, many Christians who voted for Trump thought they chose the lesser of two evils (which is also the evil of two lessers). They harbored no messianic expectations of Trump, and they accept the election outcome.
Once you screen out QAnon surrealists, white supremacists, the Proud Boys and a few other miscreant groups, you are left with a lot of disappointed conservative evangelical voters, but hardly a teeming mass of political desperados. Politically liberal evangelicals and other liberal religious people are happy. Nevertheless, politically conservative evangelicals lost a president who supported their political passions such as restricting abortion, advocating for religious liberty and supporting Israel. They are profoundly distressed but are more likely licking their wounds than loading for bear.
Some in the alt-right claim that God justifies white nationalism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, some “in the alt right identify as so-called radical traditionalists, people who want to preserve what they claim are traditional Christian values but from a uniquely white supremacist perspective.” Their beliefs have no basis in the Bible, and one hopes their numbers are small and decrease. But they could be aggrieved and energized by Trump’s defeat. The Proud Boys, an alt-right activist group, were among the Capitol rioters.
White supremacism has historically referred to those who believe that whites are intrinsically superior to other races and should thus have power, rights and privileges not afforded to nonwhites. Members of the Ku Klux Klan fit that description as do other aberrational groups and individuals (such as David Duke, whose star has faded) that use religion to promote racism. By the traditional definition of white supremacy, no Christian should be a white supremacist, since the Bible teaches that all people are made in God’s image, without respect to race or religion and because the early church was multiethnic. Moreover, very few Christians are white supremacists by that definition, although the phrase is sometimes used indiscreetly to attack one’s political opponents.
Many evangelicals disliked Trump for various reasons, not least of which was his character. Those enamored of the social justice movement (or wokeness) favor an approach to government drawing on critical race theory. Those in this camp are called “progressive Christians.” They believe that racial and gender problems are rooted in systemic forces of oppression that can only be addressed through radical political means. These include defunding the police and giving reparations to Blacks to compensate for slavery. Evangelicals who are millennials trend in this direction and look past the abortion-rights positions of those who share their basic viewpoint — unlike many older evangelicals, who will not for vote anyone who is not anti-abortion.
A vexing problem for religion and politics after Trump is the politics of gender identity. One of Biden’s first executive orders forbid discrimination based on one’s sense of gender identity. Theologically conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that God assigns gender identity as either male or female and that this is not subject to human alteration. Jews and Christians affirm heterosexual monogamy as God’s norm, while Islam allows for polygamy, but not same-sex marriage. (More liberal adherents of these religions reinterpret their sacred documents to allow for LGBTQ priorities.)
Conservative religious commitments are at odds with the LGBTQ insistence that gender identity is fluid and that sexual relations are not subject to traditional religious norms. Most Jews, Christians, and Muslims in America deem all people to be God’s creatures, whatever their sexual identity. They are not seeking to criminalize consensual sexual behavior they deem sinful. (Pornography is another matter.) However, if it becomes illegal for a religious school, for example, to refuse to hire someone in a same-sex marriage, this could spark civil disobedience or even the closing of religious institutions that refuse to comply with state edicts.
Coming back to President Biden, conservative Catholics who oppose his abortion-rights position or his endorsement of LGBTQ views will accuse him of religious hypocrisy. At the same time, The New York Times celebrates his “liberal Catholicism” as did liberal Catholics. Catholic prelates have urged priests to refuse the president Holy Communion, however, until he adheres to the church’s moral teachings. Biden will maintain the appearance of Catholic devotion, but will frustrate many conservative Catholics. It is unlikely that Biden will explain exactly how his faith informs his policies. Modern politicians usually place their faith in a private realm that never rises to the level of objective knowledge bearing on public policy.
The Rev. Beaman’s closing prayer at the inauguration is significant. He prayed, “In the strong name of our collective faith, Amen.” A traditional Christian prayer ends with something like, “in the name of Jesus.” That is, those with faith offer their prayers, but they do not pray in the name of their faith, let alone “our collective faith.” But the Rev. Beaman’s prayer tried to cover the religious bases by substituting “collective faith” for any specific reference to the Deity.
And there’s the rub. Americans of various religious faiths want to contribute to political outcomes. But their faiths differ, as do their political views. Nevertheless, whoever occupies the White House, the American system can accommodate this raucous affair of religion in politics and politics in religion as long as our leaders and our citizens hold true to our founding principles and ideals.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of 14 books, including, “Philosophy in Seven Sentences.” The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of Denver Seminary.