Blogs > HNN > Aziz Huq: Review of Frank Lambert's Religion in American Politics

May 15, 2008 9:25 pm

Aziz Huq: Review of Frank Lambert's Religion in American Politics

Religion remains a problem in American politics. But what kind of problem? In January 2008, Nancy Pelosi sworn in Keith Ellison as a new member of the House of Representative for the 110th Congress. Ellison’s decision to swear the oath on Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the Qur’an provoked a predictable uproar. (Perhaps if that particular book had been bowdlerized like Jefferson’s Bible the reaction would have been more tempered). The debate about Ellison’s decision represents two countervailing views of the problem: the accusation of lapsed fidelity to America’s distinctive Christian heritage and the repeated attempt to impose sectarian values on the secular political sphere.

Neither side of this debate has prevailed. As late as the 1950s, Cold War imperatives provided a stage for Congress to enact America’s Christian heritage into law. Or at least into the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto, thereby casting aside the motto “E pluribus Unum” chosen by Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court was engaged in piecemeal battle to remove religion from the public schools, banning school prayer and severely limiting the funds that flow to sectarian educational institutions. In the last decade, both the Pledge of Allegiance and the question of state funding for sectarian education have returned to the Supreme Court. Tilted more to the political and cultural right than at any other time in the last century, the Court has found new space for religion in the public sphere—a trend that doubtless will accelerate with the Roberts Court.

If Frank Lambert’s brief and accessible survey “Religion in American Politics” demonstrates anything, it is the pervasive character of such debates across American history. The sermons of Calvinist minister Ezra Stiles Ely in the Philadelphia of the 1820s and the televised perorations of Rev. Jerry Falwell during the last half century both harken back to an edenic vision of Christian America, and exhort listeners to enter the political battlefields in service of that vision. And equally fierce and equally persistent has been opposition to Falwell’s and Ely’s views, an opposition grounded in Enlightenment beliefs in rationality and the centrality of science. Lambert appears to be on the second side of the balance. Laudably, however, he keeps editorizing at the margin and then only in the closing pages.

Yet what is telling about this dance of religion and politics is not so much the familiar stories that Lambert retells of the Great Awakening, the debate between Patrick Henry and James Madison over religious freedoms, or the Scopes trial: It is what is absent from the history. Nowhere to be found are the pogroms, massacres, and outright conflicts so familiar from European and other histories. To be sure, anti-Catholicism has played a powerful role in molding a particular view of church-state separation. There is a powerful argument that late twentieth century Supreme Court jurisprudence on separationism has as much to do with keeping Catholics out of the public schools as does with Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. (Lambert gives this history short shrift; the Blaine Amendment, for example, gets no mention).

Lambert does not consider why religious conflict did not break out to the degree that it did in other parts of the world. Surely no explanation can be entirely satisfactory. But several are worth exploring. Chief among them, in my view, is the role of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is not, however, the Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom that has done the work. Rather, it is the original, and too often forgotten, consequence of the Establishment Clause, which insulated the federal government from formal capture by any sect. State establishments, by contrast, persisted until 1833. It was only the Reconstruction Amendments that extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to the states and thereby rendered state establishments beyond constitutional bounds. But by placing the national policy beyond religious demarcation at the very inception of the American project, the Framers wisely extinguished a source of potentially catastrophic conflict. The common emphasis on religious freedom or the propriety of religious arguments in the public sphere misses this key point.

The absence of catastrophic religious conflict yields a polity in which there is no reasonable prospect of a theocracy. Nor can there be any reasonable expectation, á la Christopher Hitchens, that religion can be kept out of the public sphere. Religious movements have pushed for abolition, for temperance, for civil rights, and for a nation without abortion. Whatever one thinks of each of these movements, it is hard to gainsay their proper place in American political debate, and in American history.

Lambert does not make as much of these social movements as he could: The religious roots of abolitionism and temperance receive too little attention. His account is like a funnel. Beginning with a wide-angle lens, Lambert picks out disparate pieces of the American religious landscape for the century or so after the Founding without fully explaining their connection. As the account nears the present-day, the focus sharpens nicely: The best chapters of the book concern the role of black churches in the Civil Rights movement and the rise of the Religious Right. And then, at the tip of the funnel, Lambert confronts social phenomena on which he lacks critical distance. Hence his decision to include a chapter on “the Religious Left” to balance his chapter on the “Religious Right.” While the latter is surely a proper subject of historical interest, the former seems animated more powerfully by wish-fulfillment than by any estimate of its impact on national politics.

The relation of church (and mosque and synagogue and temple) to politics remains deeply contested. Lambert’s is but the most recent of a series of books re-exploring America’s religious foundations. And little agreement obtains either about the meaning of that history or the best present course forward. Even liberal commentators and philosophers such as Noah Feldman and Martha Nussbaum diverge vigorously on the appropriate role of faith in the polity. If Lambert’s account is any guide, this is a debate that will not come to a close any time soon.

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Randll Reese Besch - 6/2/2008

Instead they wish to institute a theonomy in our country. They wish to return to the theocracies of the 1600's which they find more to their liking than the 'enlightenment' which they find to be the opposite. Hence their need to take over the gov't and also to rewrite history to make the myth of the 'shining city on a hill,'to be invoked and to be evoked as a reality. Such is the danger we are in now from their incroachments into all aspects of our formally secular gov't.