The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics

Oxford Handbook of American Politics
Oxford Handbook of American Politics

Corwin E Smidt, Lyman A Kellstedt, James L Guth
OUP, hb, £95.00

Few commentators today doubt the importance of religion in American politics. This new survey of the field shows that this has not always been the case. Until the 1960s historians and political scientists tended to overlook the influence of religion on voting behaviour. By 1970 the so-called ‘ethnocultural’ or ‘ethnoreligious’ interpretation of American history had led to considerable research on the way religion had influenced elections in nineteenth century America. Even if there was debate about the best ways to measure this, there was little disagreement about the importance of religion as a factor.

A significant development in recent years has been the change in the way in which religious influences are exercised. As John Michael McTague and Geoffrey C Layman point out in their contribution to this book, the ethnoreligious cleavage has been replaced by one based on differences over moral and cultural issues such as gay rights and abortion. According to the same authors, the shift in voting patterns among frequently attending Catholics has been almost as impressive as the shift among evangelicals. Although devout Catholics are not yet clearly aligned with the Republicans, their allegiance to the Democrats is much weakened.
But religion is not only a factor in politics when it comes to voting. Mark Noll shows the influence religion played in the foundation of the American Republic. Until the 1740s, Protestant theology concentrated on divine grace rather than human initiative, on God’s providential rule rather than human freedom. After the French War of the 174Os a greater stress emerged on the link between liberty and Christianity, a link strengthened by the Great Awakening. Religious change helped prepare the way for the War of Independence.

Other chapters in this book look at the role of religion on political thought , religion and foreign policy, religion and socialization, religion and political participation, religion and economic and social issues, religion and social movements, and religious, and religious interest groups. Surprisingly there is little about religion and the environment, an area where a change of mind among many evangelicals could prove significant. Darfur goes unmentioned as does the increase in foreign aid under the Bush government, an increase probably due to religious influences. Reinhold Niebuhr receives only one mention.

Looking at the strength of religion in America, Kenneth D Wald and David C Leege mention both the need of immigrant groups for fellowship and support and the diversity and lack of state funding leading to a ‘free market’ in religion. But they also refer to theories that see American religious vitality flowing from the absence of a welfare state. Proponents of these theories argue that religion appeals most strongly to people who experience stress and insecurity in their lives.

Another chapter refers to data showing that evangelicals are strongly in favour of measures to help the poor, they just do not want the state to be involved. Traditionally Catholics have been more inclined to a liberal position on economic issue thought this may change when government uses public funding as leverage to secure compliance to rules about discrimination on grounds of sexuality. Catholic laity are less liberal on economic issues than the clergy.

On four great issues that have concerned the churches in America – evolution, abortion, school prayer, and sexuality — it seems to be sexuality that has seen the greatest change of opinion. Age and education appear to be major factors in influencing opinions about sexuality but it is not clear why they are a factor in this one case but not in the others.

A chapter on religion and the Presidents deals with the old issue of Ronald Reagan’s personal religion. He went to church very little as President but apparently was more regular before and after his time at the White House. His lapse in office is put down to worries about security. It has to be said this did not deter Hillary Clinton who even enrolled Chelsea in a Methodist Sunday school.

Every chapter is supplied with a comprehensive bibliography. Some contributors are addicted to the kind of language thought appropriate for political scientists but most general readers with an interest in American religion will find much stimulating material in these pages.

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