Christian Nation vs. Secular Country?

AS WE SWING into the 2016 presidential campaign, we Americans can be certain of at least one thing: We will be treated to another round of very public arguments about the role of religion in our republic. If this were a boxing match, and if past patterns persist, the title of the bout would be Christian Nation vs. Secular Country. The sides, more eager to mobilize their own than have a conversation with the other, will happily seek to bludgeon one another.

Thankfully, a number of writers have set out to complicate this picture in a way that adds both color and hope. Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods and Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran are beautifully written accounts of our interfaith country. By interfaith, I mean both that there were people of different faith persuasions present from our earliest days, and that they constantly bumped into one another as they established their communities and sought to build up this country.

That interaction often went badly—the Salem witch trials, the anti-Catholic Know Nothing party, and present day anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are just some examples. As Manseau writes, “The story of how a global array of beliefs came to occupy the same ocean-locked piece of land is more often one of violence than of toleration.”

But there are inspiring threads of pluralism in the American tapestry as well. As Manseau puts it, “the repeated collision of conflicting systems of belief, followed frequently by ugly and violent conflict, has somehow arrived, again and again, not merely at peaceful coexistence but at striking moments of inter-influence.”

Both of these books display the full fabric.

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5 Things to Watch as the 2016 Campaign Gets Underway

Photo via REUTERS / Jim Young / RNS

A barn painted with an image of the Statue of Liberty and a U.S. flag in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Photo via REUTERS / Jim Young / RNS

As presidential candidacies multiply and campaigning accelerates, we can expect much tawdriness to occur. These are difficult times in American democracy.

Money will pour into negative campaigning and ideological posturing. Lies will become the norm. Every word will evoke counterattack, and facts will lose their currency. Barbed sound bites will be mistaken for wisdom. Bullies claiming to be “Christian” will be among the loudest. On both sides.

What are people of faith to do?

We can assume, first of all, that truth-telling will be absent all around. We, then, need to be truth-seekers, reading beyond the sound bites and toxic jabs for actual insights into what candidates stand for and what is their character.

We can assume, second, that God’s name will be taken in vain by everyone. Every candidate will tell stories of personal faith, maybe even dramatic conversion. They will quote Scripture and claim to be promoting God’s work.

In fact, to judge by candidates’ behavior, their words will be insincere and their faith a concoction meant to satisfy the sweet tooth of religious leaders. We, then, need to do our own work of discerning whether they have any functional familiarity with Scripture and any real concern for Christian ethics.

The Prerequisite of the Common Good

Common good concept, Gunnar Pippel /

Common good concept, Gunnar Pippel /

The day after the 2012 election brought a great feeling of relief. Most of us, whether our candidates won or lost, were so weary of what elections have become that we were just glad the process was over. Many were disappointed that dysfunctional and bitterly partisan politics in Washington, D.C., had undermined their deep desires for “hope” and “change.” Politics has severely constrained those possibilities by focusing on blame instead of solutions, and winning instead of governing. And, as the most expensive election in American history just showed, the checks have replaced all the balances. 

But the election results produced neither the salvation nor the damnation of the country, as some of the pundits on both sides seemed to suggest. 

The results of the presidential election showed how dramatically a very diverse America is changing; people are longing for a vision of the common good that includes everyone. As one commentator put it “the demographic time bomb” has now been set off in American politics — and getting mostly white, male, and older voters is no longer enough to win elections, as the Romney campaign learned on Tuesday.

Campaigns’ Faith Outreach Centers on Economy

RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Mark DeMoss, Sr. Advisor to the Romney campaign, speaks about faith outreach by both campaigns. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

BETHESDA, Md. — With voters focused intently on pocketbook issues, both Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are framing their faith-outreach efforts around the economy as the presidential campaign enters its final weeks.

That marks a shift from previous election cycles, campaign advisers say.

“That’s a major difference between this election and the last. The economy is the single issue that transcends every demographic, every coalition, every interest group,” said Mark DeMoss, an evangelical who has led Romney’s efforts to rally conservative Christians  a key Republican voting bloc  around the GOP nominee, who is a Mormon.

“Evangelicals are no less interested in the unemployment rate and the cost of living than non-evangelicals,” DeMoss added.