Compass: A Journal of American Political Ideas

Compass: A Journal of American Political Ideas has launched! Check out the first featured article by Tess Saperstein of Harvard University on religious pluralism in the United States and a conversation between founding editors of the journal about the need for this sort of outlet for aspiring young scholars.

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In God We Trust: Reconciling Religiosity in a Secular Nation

Tess Saperstein, Harvard University, October 12, 2017


Since its founding, the United States has been composed of a diversity of religions, making religious tolerance and the separation of church and state necessary for the maintenance of a peaceful coexistence. It is inscribed in the First Amendment of the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nonetheless, despite a clear institutional differentiation between religious and nonreligious spheres of society, the United States has remained, on the whole, a devout nation. In 2016, 89 percent of Americans reported that they believe in God and 72 percent said they believe in angels (“Most Americans Still Believe in God,” 2016). These facts create an apparent paradox: Americans, as a whole, fundamentally believe in a separation of church and state, yet religious imagery often pervades political discourse. Furthermore, the emergence of the Religious Right as a powerful political force would appear to contradict the premise that politics and religion occupy separate spheres in American society. However, the group’s evolution over the past 30 years and integration into mainstream society ultimately underscores the value that most Americans place on the separation of church and state and the fact that religion is able to influence American politics only insofar as it reflects the expression of individual political opinions as motivated by religious belief.

Throughout the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary era, America developed a coherent set of values distinct from its European contemporaries. Among these values was an emphasis on individual rights and equality. This, combined with the plethora of religious denominations that comprised the colonies, would lead to the institutionalization of religious tolerance. The establishment of an official religion was simply not practical in the American case. Therefore, if the new government was to maintain both authority and legitimacy over the various religious communities, it couldn’t establish a state religion.

The First Amendment’s establishment clause and the Constitution’s prohibition of religious tests attest to the uniquely secular nature of America’s founding documents. Furthermore, the “refusal to invoke any form of divine sanction, even the vague deistic ‘Providence,’ [meant that] the Constitution went even farther than Virginia’s religious freedom act in separating religion from government” (Jacoby 2004, 29). Although many people, particularly religious leaders, were incensed by the secularism of the Constitution, citizens were remarkably quick in accepting pluralism and tolerance as fundamental values. As the religious makeup of the country increasingly diversified, “the perceived need for interdenominational harmony during [the Revolutionary War] and political unanimity afterward placed an even higher premium on the respectful treatment of other citizens’ beliefs” (Beneke 2009, 175).  Absolutist claims about the inerrancy of one denomination over another quickly became unacceptable in mainstream society. Therefore, what subsequently developed was a thin line between the constraint of religion to private life and extreme insularity. Although individuals were expected to be religious within their private lives, insularity was viewed as an elitist rejection of the American civil religion.

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Tess Saperstein is a senior at Harvard University concentrating in Government. Her interests include the politics of religion and the media.



Banner Image for Compass's lead article