"Throwback Thursday": Politics and Religion in the United States


by Michael Walzer

Throwback Thursday:  Approximately once a month, we hope to offer a blog post that features an article from past editions of Religious Socialism. This week (May 19, 2016), our “Throwback Thursday” article is by Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, and co-editor of Dissent magazine. Though written more than a decade ago, much in the article still rings true. – Editorial Group of “Religious Socialism” 


Politics and Religion in the United States

by Michael Walzer (originally published in the Religious Socialism Journal, Volume 29, Issue 4, Fall 2005)


The United States is the most religious country in the Western world, if we judge by the number of people who say they believe in God, the number who say they go to church regularly, and so on. Researchers doubt the accuracy of these self-reports, but they are all we have. Has the number of affirmative responses increased? Yes, but not by any great amount; relative to European believers and churchgoers, there is a dramatic gap, and the gap may have grown; it has certainly grown relative to our expectations about the secularizing tendencies of modernity—what we expected, after all, was a steady decline in both belief and ritual practice. The theory of secularization was for many years the common sense of liberals and leftists. Because the decline didn’t happen, because the secularization process never reached its expected end, we really can’t be in the post-secular age that is so much talked about in Europe. Looking at the strength of our churches in everyday American life, you would have to say that we never had a secular age.

But there has been a change in the last decades: evangelical, fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics have been politically mobilized in ways that have significantly affected our politics. This sort of thing isn’t entirely new: the campaign for Prohibition was a Christian social movement; the civil rights struggle was organized out of black Baptist churches and led by Baptist preachers. But the scale seems different now, and the range of issues is wider, for it includes virtually every aspect of family life: abortion, gay marriage, adoption by gay couples or by interfaith or interracial couples, the role of women in the home, the rights of parents over the education of their children—and there is probably more to come.

But in the struggle over these sorts of questions, it is hard to separate out the influence of religious fervor from a more generalized cultural conservatism—and both of these from anti-elite resentments. The cultural wars that began in the 1960s are widely viewed in the United States as an attack by the liberal vanguard on the rear guard of ordinary Americans. The vanguard thought that it was leading the country in a new direction and didn’t notice how many people were not following. Still, religious preachers and evangelists have played a large part in providing an ideology of resistance to changes in social roles and practices. Perhaps another way of expressing their importance is this: many working-class Americans who once took their political cues from their unions now take their cues from their churches.

At least with regard to the United States, the theory of secularization was simply wrong—which means that we live not in a post-secular age but in a post-secularization age. We need a new theory. Of course, it is also possible to adopt a new time frame for the old theory—as Marxist theoreticians have done again and again. And that may be the right thing to do in this case. After all, people live very comfortably with the technologies made possible by modern science, and so it seems right to ask, For how long can they sustain a pre-scientific worldview? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I worry that cognitive dissonance has more staying power than we might think.

Assume that the worry is right and that there isn’t going to be a demobilization of religion or a secularization of our society in the near future. How should we, on the American left, respond to a politicized fundamentalist Christianity? (That’s our problem; politicized fundamentalist Islam is a problem in many parts of the world, including Europe; politicized fundamentalist

Hinduism is a problem in India; politicized fundamentalist Judaism in Israel, and so on.) Separation is the standard American liberal response, first worked out in the eighteenth century by people who looked back to the politicized religions of the seventeenth century. I am a committed separationist. Is this a secular doctrine? In the United States, at least, it has been entirely compatible with a great flourishing of religion in civil society; indeed, I would argue that it is a key reason for the flourishing of religion. The United States has not experienced a fierce anti-clerical politics because we have kept our clerics focused on communion, salvation, and good works. And we have not experienced inter-religious conflict because no religion has had any hope of using political power against the others. So, for the sake of religion as well as democratic politics, we have to defend the “wall” between church and state. Here, as in other areas, left politics is defensive these days. And that’s a hard politics; we need to be very clear about what we are defending.

Defending the Wall of Separation

The “wall” makes for an institutional separation, not a doctrinal one. We can insist on denying to all religions the coercive power of the state—which also means protecting all religions from the coercive power of the state. But we can’t prevent citizens from drawing on their religious beliefs to shape their politics. There are liberal theorists who argue that the Rawlsian doctrine of “public reason” or its Habermasian equivalent, “ideal speech,” excludes religious argument from the political arena. Neither Rawls nor Habermas believes this, but the argument is common nonetheless. On this view, no politicians or political activists should appeal to authoritative religious texts or make arguments that hang on religious dogma; they must always speak in universally accessible ways.

That strikes me as a dubious claim; indeed, I don’t remember anyone on the left making it when Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted, for example, that we were all created in the image of God, or when abolitionists mobilized Protestant opinion against slavery, or when preachers of the social gospel provided support for progressive policies, or when the American Catholic bishops issued their critical statements about nuclear deterrence and economic justice. It isn’t possible in a democratic society to censor political speech or to rule out citations of favorite texts. Maybe the design of the electoral system can push politicians toward more widely accessible arguments (this may be an argument against proportional representation, which encourages the mobilization of ethnic and religious communities). There is no other way, however, to narrow the range of legitimate argument. And, in any case, that’s not what separation requires.

What we want to avoid is any establishment or entrenchment of a particular religion, or of religion in general, in our public life. But we can’t avoid the enactment of legislation inspired by particular religious doctrines, any more than we can avoid the enactment of legislation inspired by a particular ideology. Democratic politics makes both these enactments possible. Consider the ideological analogy: a political party with, say, a socialist or laissez-faire ideology can win an election and enact its program. But it can’t make its program into a public school catechism any more than it can make the date of its founding into a state holiday. For those latter moves would represent the “establishment” of an ideology. Similarly, a Christian Democratic Party can win an election and enact its program, which may be inspired in part by religious doctrine, but it can’t teach its doctrine in the public schools. It can’t use its temporary hold on state power to repress or discriminate against other political parties with other doctrines. I don’t mean to suggest an analogy between parties and churches, because parties are political from the beginning and churches are not. But it is useful to point out that we separate religious doctrine from state power in roughly the same way as we separate ideology from state power. We can protect ourselves against religious or ideological establishments, but we can’t bar either religious or ideological speech from political debates.

No More “Village Atheists”

Instead, we have to join the debates. This is possible because even orthodox religious arguments—or scholastic philosophical arguments or sectarian ideological arguments—don’t necessarily take the form of a simple ipse dixit: this is what God said, or Aristotle, or Marx. We will indeed be told what these notables said, but we are commonly also given some sense of why they were led to say it. And the arguments that supposedly appealed to them may, or may not, appeal to us—in any case we can engage with them. Specifically, we have to engage these days with religious arguments, and when we do that we will find that the politics of the “village atheist” is not a smart politics. Over the long span of history, it is almost certainly true that religious institutions have been a force for a cruel and reactionary politics, but religious values have as often inspired radicals and revolutionaries as conservatives.

Even when we imagine religious doctrine as a conservative force, we can recognize that some of the things it aims to conserve are indeed worth conserving. We have recently carried in Dissent magazine a series of articles arguing that leftists should embrace a politics of “family values”—in our own way, for our own reasons. The family is, after all, a little welfare state, where human beings first learn to make sacrifices for the sake of other people and to contribute to the common good. “Familism” can be a parochial doctrine, but it can also be the basis for an expanding solidarity—which of these two wins out will depend, in part, on how the family itself is supported by the larger society. We will have to disagree with many fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics on, for example, issues of gender equality, but our disagreement is more likely to be respected, to get a hearing, if we are seen to be committed to fostering strong and coherent families. A leftist counter-culture that sets itself against the “bourgeois family” may look very radical—but it is more likely to be radical in an individualist and libertarian way than in a socialist way. The truth is that the values attached to family life by religious men and women, which include mutuality and commitment to others, overlap with our values in ways we should be ready to acknowledge—just as much as we are ready to criticize religious conceptions of patriarchal authority.

So there are agreements and disagreements here, and we have to express them openly, without the usual leftist sense of intellectual superiority and contempt for religious belief. But when we see an effort to establish religion, to use the power of the state to foster belief, then we have not only to disagree but to resist.

What Room for “Creationism”?

Here’s a quick example from the American debate about teaching “creationism” and evolution in the public schools. A colleague of mine at the Institute for Advanced Study, a scientist, said that he didn’t object at all to teaching the biblical story in the classroom, so long as students were also taught the story to which geologists and biologists are committed. After all, he said, scientists really don’t have the faintest idea how life began. That is perhaps an exaggeration; if scientists don’t know exactly what happened on the first day, they have pretty strong ideas about what didn’t happen. Still, they live with a kind of uncertainty that creationists refuse: they know what they don’t know. And that state of mind produces the tolerance that my colleague was displaying. I also see nothing wrong with teaching the biblical story in the public schools, but I would stress the necessary precedence of the scientific story—for a reason hat might be persuasive even for religious believers. With some exceptions, all the believers that I know (or know about) drive cars, fly in airplanes, use computers, go to hospitals when they are sick, and enjoy the standard of living that modern science has made possible. So they implicitly accept the fact of science as a common good. And, therefore, it seems to me, they must accept that our children, all of them, need to understand how science works.

So, teach the book of Genesis as the creation story that most people in the Western world took to be the literal truth for many centuries—so long as you also teach, first, that the vast majority of scientists now give a different account and, second, that this account is the product of a certain method, a way of finding and using evidence, that has given us many other products of great value. It is critically important for the common good that our children be scientifically literate. And for the sake of that literacy, science has to be taught as a subject separate from religion, an approach to knowledge that has its own value and integrity. To refuse to do that—in the creationist case, to give scientific legitimacy to the biblical story—is to use the coercive power of the state to advance a religious agenda. And that is exactly what the doctrine of separation is meant to avoid.

In public institutions like schools, which exercise coercive power, religious causes cannot be advanced. But in public space more generally, in civil society, believers should be welcome and their arguments should be treated like anyone else’s. There are, however, conditions on this welcome. Believers must accept the risks that all the rest of us accept in civil society: they may lose some of the arguments; they can’t escape challenge and criticism; they can’t drive their opponents out; they can’t entrench themselves in public space (because nobody can do that). We should view these conditions as equally necessary for religion itself, which has prospered in the United States precisely because it is separated from coercive power, and for our common life as democratic citizens.


Michael Walzer is a political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study, author of numerous books, and co-editor of Dissent magazine. This article was first given as a talk at a symposium in Italy sponsored by Reset magazine and has been published in Italian in Reset.