Politicians and pundits have once again this election cycle discovered that the United States is awash in religion. Results from the usual polls are used to prove the case: More than 9 in 10 Americans say they believe in God, nearly as many report that they pray every day, and about a quarter go to church on Sunday.

Meanwhile, campaign managers and journalists imply, often ominously, that religion is a wild card that can decide winners and losers by meting out rewards and punishments to candidates who either agree or disagree with various religious positions. Among the issues most often mentioned as carrying political weight in the current campaign, for example, are gay marriage and abortion.

Yet this is a faulty conclusion built upon a facile analysis. America may be brimming with religion, but it is a kind that generally has little to do with the traditions and teachings that underlie it. It has become, for the most part, yet another servant of the economic and social order that sets the real priorities: success and material comfort. The prophets Jeremiah and Amos, who regularly scolded ancient Israel for crushing the poor, have been sent to the woodshed.

In the process, Christianity has become a private concern, a rescue squad to revive those crippled in free enterprise combat. It has taken on the functions of therapy and self-help, preaching its own version of self-centeredness that leaves political matters such as "justice" far behind. Religion hasn't been booted out of the public arena by mean-spirited secularists; it has largely quit going out in public to bring the full message of its heritage.

Rather than looking critically at social policy, in the manner of the prophets, Christians ignore or passively accept it at a time when prophets are so urgently needed. Examples abound. Prominent CEOs sing in the choir on Sunday and rob their corporations on Monday; physicians say their morning prayers and bilk Medicare for unnecessary surgery; Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle in worship in locker rooms before breaking the bones of their foes. Many American Christians simply find ways to feel good in Sunday pews and then get on with the real business the next day.

This monumental collapse of public religion into individualism and self-seeking was dramatized two decades ago by Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart. Bellah claimed that among Americans, commitment to concepts of the common good--the welfare of others and the community--was being undermined in the face of a growing consumer mentality that increasingly used religion to attain personal ends. God had been increasingly cast as Therapist, for example, giving harried Americans "permission" to do most anything. The trend was so vast and deep, he said, that it was virtually unstoppable. Many would argue now that, if anything, Bellah's analysis might even have been understated.

As the land of freedom and opportunity, America has always been a nation of people bent on success and improvement. No period of the nation's history was governed purely by religious precepts. But it could be argued that before the industrial revolution dawned in the 19th century, religion provided a frame of reference for public policy, a canopy over its proceedings. This mindset was undoubtedly flouted more often than it was honored, perhaps, but it was at least a set of standards deemed worthy of serious consideration.

Christianity has always been prone to captivity by the culture since it fell to the lures of the Roman Empire and began to benefit from its position as the official state religion. But the church has not always ignored its message for the sake of gaining favor. Two examples: One was the religious uprising against a segregated America, led by Martin Luther King Jr., when large numbers of church people marched into the teeth of armed defenders of racial bigotry. Their actions came with a price--for some, their lives--and made an enormous difference with the passage of civil rights laws.

Another example was the "People's Church" movement in Latin America, which linked Bible study with political and economic goals to advance fairness for the poor. Much of it followed liberation theology and brought great hope and real progress, though a nervous Vatican saw people exercising their own authority as Catholics and condemned the movement as "Marxist." The Pope issued two strongly worded messages warning against the movement, and disciplinary action was taken against liberation theologians such as Leonardo Boff. Nonetheless, it spread across the continent. At one point, Brazil alone had as many as 50,000 of these "base communities."

So Christianity can be practiced in the public square and obviously has, though rarely.

But in America, Christians will go to the polls with choices formed far more by their secular attachments than their religious consciousness. The division between the two goes deep, to the chagrin of many leading Christian thinkers. Harvey Cox, the Harvard theologian, wrote a book four decades ago called The Secular City in which he saw the secular realm as the sphere of God's activity while institutional religion withered. At the same time he deplored "secularism," or worshipping the secular for its own sake. For most Americans calling themselves religious, worldly concerns are likely to soundly trump broader matters of faith once they enter the voting booth.

Both liberal and conservative churches have borne out such forecasts. With some exceptions (I think of Sojourners), churches have stood aside while the gap between rich and poor has widened, as public schools in poor neighborhoods rot, as more than 40 million Americans go without medical insurance, as the United States invades Iraq on fraudulent grounds, as gambling juggernauts wreak havoc on countless households, as the nation refuses to go all out fighting AIDS, and as workers suffer poverty wages--to cite just some ills. The "What-Would-Jesus-Do?" slogan seems never to raise that very question.

Even when religious leaders try to steer the vote, they lose. Roman Catholic bishops, for example, have generally failed in efforts to steer their people toward anti-abortion candidates and the attempt to deny John Kerry communion for his pro-choice stance has only depleted their authority. If religious leaders themselves can't influence their own people on these topics, then politicians don't need to worry much the impact of religious groups. The laity increasingly believes that religion is indeed a private affair that has no business challenging their "other lives."

I hear a loud protest: What about the religious right? Don't they have clout? They demand prayer in schools, a ban on abortions, laws against gay marriage and "under God" in the Pledge. Aren't politicians dancing to their jig?

The priorities of the religious right are in fact more cultural than religious. Take this lobby's strong support of capital punishment. It received supporting arguments from religion, but it is grounded in patterns of social control that includes racist lynching and vigilantism. It is deeply cultural, coming from a long tradition of southern militarism and frontier justice.

The religious right, to the extent that it is political, is merely a creature of the political right itself rather than a movement that gave rise to the right. As an appendage and supplicant, it has been used and abused by the political right wing in its quest for power. For all the ballyhoo over its alleged power, most evident in Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition or Jerry Falwell's earlier Moral Majority, such campaigns have been confined to those issues on which it already finds consensus with the larger secular conservative movement, such as its opposition to gay rights.

In any case, religion loses its soul when it morphs into a set of rules such as the religious right is now pressing, from prayer in schools to a ban on abortions.

Since the time of Roman Emperor Constantine, the church was always absorbed within the empire or was made into a "state church." Our nation's founders made it possible for religion to enter the public square freely for the first time in 1,500 years. The U.S. Constitution insisted on separation. That gave religion a chance to do things differently, the freedom to speak its conscience. How tragic if that blessing were squandered in idolatrous pursuit of the American Dream.

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