Why Religion Matters in American Politics

Religion has often been viewed by the courts and media as the misguided stepchild of American culture, something to be curbed by erecting a “wall of separation” between church and state.

But the Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District changed all that. Rather than attempting to erect a barrier between state and religion, the court will now assess state involvement in religion “in the light of historical practices and understandings,” ie, whether the activity was consistent with the founders’ understanding of permissible state involvement in religion would agree at the time the Constitution was drafted.

This new emphasis on historical analysis not only forces the judges to reconsider the founders’ understanding of the relationship between church and state, but also allows for a rediscovery of the role that religion played in the formation of the republic. Its influence was so great that religion could not be described as a stepchild but as the progenitor of the constitution.

At the time of the revolution, much of the colonial culture was shaped by religion. Many early settlements were established as religious sanctuaries. The Puritan founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams, the founding of the Quaker settlement of Pennsylvania by William Penn, and the founding of Maryland as a haven for Catholics are testament to the significant role religion played in the formation of colonial culture governments.

But an even more significant influence came from the religious movement known as the Great Awakening and its chief spokesman, George Whitfield. It was Whitfield and the Great Awakening that literally transformed the colonists’ perception of themselves, their relationships with one another, and their obligations to the monarchy.

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This shift in perspective came about under unique circumstances. In the mid-18th century, the colonists experienced a freedom and prosperity that was unique for the time. However, like their English counterparts, they lived in a hierarchical society strengthened by Church doctrine, as can be seen in the sermon of Jonathan Edwards: “Each has his particular office, place, and position, according to his various abilities and talents, and everyone keeps their place and gets on with their actual business.”

Though buffered by wealth, this hierarchy clearly justified the rule of a divinely appointed monarch through his ministers and members of various classes who remained in their stead. But Whitfield’s sermon eventually undermined and destroyed this concept of social order.

At the core of the Great Awakening was a radical social equality, the idea that all of humanity had fallen and needed to be “born again” alike. The implications of these ideas were truly revolutionary. All were equal before God and in need of salvation, king and commoner alike. This concept of radical spiritual equality was repeated over and over in Whitfield’s sermons. Similarly, the emphasis on the need for all to obey God’s law undermined monarchical authority, placed observance of God’s law above secular authority, and subordinated British law to a higher authority.

In a secular age it is difficult to appreciate the impact that one man’s preaching could have. However, contemporary accounts attest to the power of Whitfield’s influence and attest to the fact that he often preached outside to crowds of between 25,000 and 30,000. His sermons were so powerful that listeners often had deep emotional experiences and changes of heart. According to Edwards’ wife Sarah, “He could bring men to tears. . . . It is truly wonderful to see the magic this preacher often casts on an audience as he proclaims the simplest truths of the Bible.”

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Even the deistic Benjamin Franklin could be moved. Franklin recounted attending one of his sermons, noting: “I decided privately that he should have nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistols of gold. As he continued, I gradually softened…and he ended so admirably that I emptied my pocket entirely into the collector’s bowl, gold and all.” Franklin was so impressed with Whitfield that he later published his influential newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. used to promote Whitfield’s work.

In the 30 or so years that Whitfield preached in the colonies, it is estimated that more than 80 percent of the residents heard him preach. He was the best known and most influential figure in colonial America.

Although Whitfield had the greatest influence on the colonies’ common workers, our founders and foreign observers alike were aware of the crucial role of religion in shaping our new institutions. Where else could a self-governing people find the standards that govern their behavior if not in religion?

It is no coincidence that the Declaration of Independence was based on the “laws of nature and the god of nature,” that John Adams declared that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” or that Alexis de Toqueville stated, ” In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty marching in opposite directions. But in America I found that they were closely related and ruled the same country together.”

Whitfield provided a new definition of self for so many colonial rulers, and a redefinition of one’s relationship to government. But he also contributed to a new national identity by breaking down the barriers between denominations. Before the Great Awakening, religious identity was often defined by the conflicting theologies between sects. Now all found common ground and unity in the universal doctrine of equality before God and the need to be born again.

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Given this history, it is difficult to deny the enormous importance of religion in the “historical practices and understandings” of the time.

It is difficult to predict what results these new criteria will produce. But when one reflects on the influence of religion on the formation of our nation, an even bigger question arises. In a therapeutic culture that replaces defined principles and critical thinking with subjective feelings, where else can standards for decision-making come from if not from religion?

The views expressed in this opinion article are those of their author and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by the owners of this website. If you are interested in contributing an op-ed for The Western Journal, you can learn more about our submission guidelines and process here.

https://www.westernjournal.com/op-ed-religion-matters-american-politics/ Why Religion Matters in American Politics

Linh

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