Religion and Politics in the US

Welcome to RelPol, a student peer reviewed online magazine. This magazine is part of the assessment for the module "In God We Trust" @ the University of Hull.

In God 76% of us Trust: The Decline of Christianity in the United States and its effects upon Religious Rhetoric

In God We TrustImage from Atheist Meme Base

Adopted as the official motto of the United States in 1956, ‘In God we Trust’ has been ingrained into the American psyche since the origination of the phrase during the War of 1812 and has even made its way onto the nation’s currency. But recent survey statistics suggest that more and more Americans are becoming disengaged with the Church and its teachings. Despite this, leading politicians, in an attempt to gain the favour and votes of the public, constantly use religious rhetoric. But why do the nation’s leaders feel the need to keep referring to God in such a diverse country with a seemingly increasing number of unaffiliated citizens?

The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) was published in 2009 with the statistics drawing attention to the decline of Christianity in the United States. In 1990, 86.2% of Americans identified themselves as being Christian; however, over the next 18 years the number reduced by 10% meaning that by 2008 one in five Americans were unaffiliated with any religious group. The downwards trend does not make pleasant reading for the Church. The ARIS findings suggest that the country is repudiating from the Church and it highlights Christianity’s weakening hold upon American civilisation and culture.

Unfortunately for people of faith, the ARIS findings do not appear to be an anomaly. Similar studies carried out by the political and religious research institute, the PEW forum, supports the trend, painting an even darker picture for the future of Christianity in the United States (shown below).

Long-Term Trends in Religious AffiliationSource: The Pew Forum

As seen in the graph, Protestant affiliation has been steadily dropping while those with no affiliation has been rising at a similar pace.

Although this seems to make for bad reading for the Church, in his article for Christian Today, author and missiologist Ed Stetzer remains unfazed. He believes that ‘this current cultural shift is bringing clarity that will assist in defining who we are as Christians…the Church is not dying. It is just being more clearly defined.’ True, the Church is going through a cultural change, as is the entire United States, however this optimism seems misplaced when paired with the damning statistics from the PEW forum and ARIS findings. From a political viewpoint it would also seem that the Church is losing its power. With the introduction of more liberal policies such as the much discussed and debated Obamacare plus with 37 states now legally allowing same-sex marriages, the general traditionalist, right-wing and conservative ideologies of the Church appear to be losing their influence. In spite of this, Christianity is still incredibly influential over all aspects of American life, particularly within the country’s traditions, governance and politics, this alone justifies Stetzers claim. The close link between religion and politics is easily visible through any presidential campaign and is especially prominent during inauguration speeches where the eyes of the world are upon America’s new leader.

In his classic essay ‘Civil Religion in America,’ Robert Bellah explores this link between presidency and religion: ‘the inauguration of a president is an important ceremonial event…it reaffirms the religious legitimation of the highest political authority.’ While delivering the plan for their presidency they seem to take the role of theologians, almost as if reading their new sermon to the nation. There is constant religious rhetoric, during their first inaugural address, God was mentioned five times by Obama, three times by George W. Bush and twice by Bill Clinton. It seems it has also become procedure to sign off the address by referring at least once to God; ‘God bless you and God bless these United States of America’ have somewhat become the official way to end the speech. Considering all of this, it seems that religion is even more relevant now than it was twenty years ago. Writer of the 2013 essay ‘Religious Rhetoric and American Politics: The Endurance of Civil Religions in Electoral Campaigns,’ (2013, Cornell University Press, Ithaca) Christopher B. Chapp furthers Bellah’s thinking and concludes that ‘religious rhetoric is a central force responsible for shaping the American political culture… [religious rhetoric] is remarkably consistent in it’s ability to stir the emotions of the mass public and to engender a sense of shared spiritualised identity.’  But how can it still remain so prominent within politics when the country’s biggest religious group has a declining following?

The fact is that Christianity in America is not declining at all.

From further research from the PEW forum, although unaffiliated with any Christian denomination, 46 million adults described themselves as religious with 68% of them saying they believed in God. Most of these Americans also believe that churches and other religious institutions benefit society as they strengthen communities and provide charity. So although it appears to be declining, Christianity in America is still highly influential.

Statistically it is the younger generation (18-29 year olds) who are much more likely not to have faith whereas adults over 50 tend to still associate themselves with a religion. Compare this with the fact that younger people are much less likely to vote than older generations, 21% of 18-24 year olds voted in the November 2010 election compared to 61% of people aged 65 and over, justifies why religion is so prevalent during a presidential campaign.

So it is now understandable as to why politicians are constantly using religious references in their speeches. By doing so they are able to unify the country and rally for support; and by only referring to God they can unite the entire religious and spiritual population without differentiating between the different religious faiths. American culture and religion it seems are so closely bound together and until this is no longer the case, it is likely American politicians shall continue to use religious rhetoric.

May God bless you

…and the United States of America.

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This entry was posted on December 3, 2014 by in A Christian Nation?, Uncategorized, Vol 2, 2014/15.
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