UNITED STATES: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
The politics of religion in America
, May 29, 2010
Although the separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, there is probably nothing more influential in American politics than religion. And of the diversity of religions in America - and no nation has as many and as varied religions - it is Christianity that has the most influence.
America has the largest number of Christians of any country. Among advanced nations, it has the largest proportion of church-goers. Some 76 per cent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, while non-Christian religions - among them Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam - account for another 4 per cent, with most of the remainder claiming no religious affiliation.
Gallup International found that 41 per cent of Americans attend church regularly, compared to 15 per cent in France, and 10 per cent in the UK. Allowing for those who attend irregularly, other surveys show that only 25 per cent of Americans who identify as Christians never attend church.African-Americans
According to US law, churches cannot endorse political parties, but that does not prevent them from supporting candidates. Especially in the African-American community, church and politics share an intimate relationship. Most black political leaders have been either men of religion or their offspring, or immigrants. Dr Martin Luther King was a minister of religion, as is Jesse Jackson. The first African-American woman to be Secretary of State, Dr Condoleezza Rice, was the daughter of a pastor. In an era when blacks, for various reasons, were often denied a university education, black pastors were the intellectual leaders of the African-American community.
Colin Powell, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest rank it is possible to attain in the US military, and Barack Obama, were the sons of immigrants. African-American commentators account for the prominence of immigrants as leaders in politics and business as being due to the fact that the immigrants were not "beaten down" over generations, as were older generations of American blacks.
From a conservative point of view, most of the news coming from America is bad. But this is only a partial approximation of the actual situation. In the first place, most American Christians are what are called in the military OPDs - Other Protestant Denominations. The Episcopal Church, which is the American church in communion with the See of Canterbury, has just over two million adherents, while in Australia alone, more than three million people are at least nominally Anglican.
The extreme liberalism of the Episcopalian Church, including endorsing same-sex marriages, appointing openly homosexual bishops and having a female primate, misrepresents the majority of American Christians, and also probably misrepresents the majority of American Episcopalians. The truth is that the mainline liberal Protestant churches are shrinking, but the more Bible-based congregations are growing.
Apart from the Catholic Church, which has some 68 million adherents (almost a quarter of the total), the largest denominations are the Southern Baptist Convention (16 million members), the United Methodist Church (7.8 million members) and the Church of God in Christ (5.4 million members). The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) has almost six million members.
The American people, applying the same inventiveness to religion as they have to other social movements, have generated a bewildering variety of religious beliefs and experiences. But there are some constants.
Americans give very generously to religious causes, donating some $100 billion a year to churches, almost a third of all US charitable donations. In terms of a proportion of income, it is the working poor who give the most generously. Stewardship is taken seriously and congregants often make substantial regular payments to their church.
Because American welfare spending is funded less by the government than in Australia, churches play a big role in the alleviation of suffering and mitigation of economic distress.
The constitutionally defined separation of church and state means that Creationism cannot be taught in schools except as science (where this is fiercely contested), among other anomalies.Thanksgiving
American churches are largely racially exclusive. Congregations that are mixed to a large degree are unusual. Thanksgiving, which celebrates the first harvest by the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, is the quintessential American family festival, because it is not religious and is celebrated by Americans of all faiths. Christmas, however, is increasingly stripped of its roots as the birth of Christ and is celebrated as the multi-religious "holidays".
American Christianity has constantly witnessed new modes of expression, such as the Great Awakenings of interdenominational evangelism. Like much else about America, the Christian faith is celebrated with a vigour and enthusiasm that surprises outsiders.
Finally, all American presidents, except the current incumbent, have been raised in the Christian tradition. Some three-quarters of all Americans say they would not vote for an atheist president.
John F. Kennedy is the only Catholic to be elected president, and Joe Biden, the current vice-president, is the only Catholic ever to hold that office. All the rest have been Protestants. No Jew, Muslim or Buddhist has ever held either of the two highest elective offices of the United States.