What Role Does Religion Play in Modern American Politics?

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Religion is deeply embedded in America’s history. We are a nation of immigrants, many of whom fled for the sake of religious freedom, and as such, our laws are carefully engineered to safeguard these freedoms. Our government is also sprinkled with reminders — ancient and modern alike — that religion plays a large role in the lives of many Americans and many politicians. Examples range from the controversy over the ten commandments in courtrooms, to the star spangled banner, to nearly half of the speeches politicians give.

This is where things get tricky and controversial, because of course the separation of church and state is another historic and key aspect of the United States government. Arguments have come up time and time again about the presence of religion in the political decisions of America’s leaders, about religious agendas influencing health policy, and about the potential for discrimination in politics based on religion.

Let’s look at three important areas where the political and religious intersect: leadership, legislation, and of course, voter partisanship.

Allah in Congress?

When President Barack Obama was elected, he constituted not only the first black president, but also the first Catholic one, as most other presidents across history have identified as Christian, Unitarian, or unaffiliated (but never openly atheistic). If one looks back on Obama’s election campaign, they’ll remember that his religious affiliation did come up, and it was notable enough that it sparked conversation over whether or not it would lose him votes. The fact that Catholicism — a religion that falls under the umbrella term of Christianity — is a potential risk factor for political office is telling.

Though clearly divergent from the Protestantism that makes up the majority of American’s religions identities — 51 percent, according to Pew Research — it’s far from a minority religion; 1.7 percent of Americans identify as Jewish, .6 percent as Muslim, .7 percent Buddhist, and 16.1 percent identify as unaffiliated. Catholics make up 23.9 percent of American’s religious affiliations. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which either party would risk backing a candidate with an even less common religious affiliation, which is basically comparable to a diversity filter and points to clear religious prejudice in America.

When one looks at the make-up of Congress, it’s encouraging to see that religious affiliation is improving in representation in terms of how it aligns with America’s religious populations. Some 56 percent of Congress are Protestant, 31 percent Catholic, 6.2 percent Jewish, 2.8 percent Mormon, and three total members are Buddhist, with two members identifying as Muslim, according to a Congressional Research Service Report published August 26, 2014. However, while 98 percent of Congressmembers are Christian, only 78.4 percent of Americans say the same. That’s actually a pretty significant gap, although one that’s improving, according to Pew Research, which points out that the 113th Congress is the first to have a Buddhist lawmaker and member self-describe as having no religion.

It also notes that only fifty years ago, almost 75 percent of Congress was made up of Protestants and that, “Due in part to electoral gains in recent years, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus now are represented in Congress in closer proportion to their numbers in the U.S. adult population.” Still, closer to the appropriate proportion does not mean diversity has hit the perfect pitch, especially considering America’s changing demographics. An increasing number of America’s legal immigrants are from Asian countries whose religions are not predominantly Protestant. Yet, interestingly, the largest reported divergence in representation comes for those “unaffiliated” individuals with no specific religious identity, which make up 16 percent of the American population but are only represented by a single lawmaker. This is of particular relevance to the the next consideration: legislation.

Religion as It Reflects on Major Issues

Whether it’s appropriate or not, many legislative subjects are considered with a religious edge by politicians and voters alike. This is sometimes done under justification of the protection of religious freedom, as we see with the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling in which Justices argued that coverage of certain contraceptive measures violated religious freedoms as it are applied to businesses.

Many of the most controversial topics in American politics — abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, stem cell research — are, or have been, made so by the religious involvement they lead to. For this reason, it is particularly significant that non-religious individuals are underrepresented in America’s legislature.

Some politicians are careful to separate out religion from their policy choices; this is increasingly the case with Republicans and same-sex marriage. Others are more open about the advisory role religion takes in their examination of issues. Still others, such as Hillary Clinton, are open about the large role religion plays in their lives — her speech to Methodist women as an example — but do not necessarily draw that into their political lives.

Trends in Party Affiliation

Religion also correlates strongly with political party, according to a Pew Research poll that looked at Evangelical identification. It found that 49 percent of non-Hispanic white evangelicals self-identified as Republicans, and that Independents had the highest percentage of religiously unaffiliated individuals, perhaps helping to explain their underrepresented position in Congress.

Fifty percent of unaffiliated individuals were Independents, 32 percent Democrats, and 12 percent Republicans. White Catholics also leaned toward Independent at 39 percent, with 30 percent Republicans, and 28 percent Democrats. No examination was made of Hindu, Muslim, or a more minority religion, possibly because accurate data would be difficult to acquire in such smaller numbers.

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