Does God Have a Political Party? Civil Religion and Party Politics in American History

June 2, 2016

Does God have a political party in the United States? Actually, God appears to have at least two major political parties, and therein lies the dilemma for Christians. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are steeped in Christian values and civil religion, but their theological traditions differ. One party is an amalgamation of mid-twentieth century mainline Protestantism and late twentieth-century evangelicalism, and the other is a party of liberal Protestantism infused with Catholic social teaching and African American Christianity.

The Republican Party: The Party of Mainline Protestantism and Evangelicalism

The Republican Party has always been a majority-Protestant party, and for much of the twentieth century, its preferred brand of Protestantism was distinctly mainline. From 1920 through 2008, every Republican presidential nominee was affiliated with a mainline Protestant denomination – usually Episcopalian or Methodist, but with a handful of Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Northern Baptists, and Disciples of Christ members also thrown into the mix.

The Republican Party’s political positions therefore reflected the priorities of white, northern, mainline Protestants, which meant that the party supported public expressions of civil religion and moral regulation that adhered to the values of the middle class. In the early twentieth century, the GOP supported Prohibition, and in the late twentieth century, the party led the way in implementing harsher anti-drug laws. In the early years of the Cold War, Republican politicians (with the endorsement of Billy Graham) were at the forefront of a national civil religious revival to unite the nation against atheistic communism.

In the 1970s and 1980s, millions of conservative evangelicals who were alarmed about secularization and who were attracted to Republicans’ historic support for civil religion and moral regulation entered the GOP and pushed the party to the right on social issues. They made opposition to abortion rights (which many Republican politicians had supported in the 1970s), along with opposition to gay rights, a central priority. By 2008, white evangelicals comprised 40 percent of Republican voters, giving the Christian Right a controlling interest in the GOP. Republican presidential candidates also began winning a narrow majority among white Catholics, a demographic that had remained mostly Democratic until the late twentieth century.

For many conservative evangelicals and theologically conservative Catholics, the Republican Party’s position on abortion and other social issues made the GOP an obvious choice. But for numerous other Christians, the Democratic Party – whose values were also shaped by Christian principles – offered an alternative venue for the realization of biblical mandates.

The Democratic Party: A Party of Liberal Protestants

In the view of many conservative evangelicals, the Democratic Party is the party of secular liberalism, but its current values are actually the product of three Christian traditions – Catholicism, African American Protestantism, and especially, white liberal Protestantism.

Catholic social teaching influenced the New Deal, and African American Christian ministers shaped the party’s rights-based liberalism. But white liberal Protestant ministers who preached the Social Gospel may have exercised an even greater influence on the Democratic Party, because liberal Protestant support for economic justice, the rights of racial minorities, and a multilateral foreign policy became Democratic Party orthodoxy. The Democratic Party lost the support of some theologically conservative Catholics and evangelicals when it endorsed abortion rights and gay rights in the late 1970s and 1980s, but it won increasing support from liberal Protestants who supported these causes.

Today the Democratic Party depends on the votes of several groups of Christians in addition to white liberal Protestants: African American Christians (whose concerns about civil rights and social and economic justice make them loyal Democrats), Hispanic Catholics (who generally oppose the Democrats’ stance on abortion, but who would never vote for Republican candidates who oppose immigration reform), politically liberal white Catholics, and the 25 percent of white evangelicals who do not identify with the Christian Right.

Like most liberal Protestants, Democratic politicians are usually strong advocates of religious pluralism, and as a result, the Democratic Party platform avoids the overtly Christian references that are a hallmark of GOP campaigns, but many Democratic politicians nevertheless believe that their party’s principles reflect the ethical teachings of Jesus and the social justice proclamations of the Hebrew prophets.

Does God Really Have a Political Party?

If both parties are supposedly rooted in the principles of Christianity, why do many Christians feel that neither party represents their values?

Many pro-life Catholics, along with some evangelicals, appreciate the Democratic Party’s stances on immigration, the environment, and economic justice, but bemoan the party’s support for abortion rights – a position that makes it impossible for many of them to vote Democratic, no matter how much they might like the party’s views on other issues. Similarly, many conservative evangelicals who consistently vote Republican are angry with the GOP for paying only lip service to the moral issues that they care about, and some feel betrayed. For some Christians, the choice at the voting booth appears to be either a party of corporate greed and hawkish foreign policy or an endorsement of secularism, cultural liberalism, and abortion rights.

If the platforms of both parties are based in part on Christian theological traditions, those platforms are also distortions of Christian orthodoxy. Two recent cases demonstrate how such distortions can easily occur: A Republican administration’s nuclear arms buildup in the late twentieth century (which many Catholic and Protestant clergy condemned as immoral) grew out of Christian opposition to atheistic communism, and the Democratic Party’s current championship of abortion rights developed because of a concern for individual rights that was grounded in the Christian-based civil rights movement and a concern for human dignity. Indeed, most of the seven deadly sins – especially greed, lust, gluttony, and pride – can easily be spotted in the platforms of the nation’s political parties, often masquerading as Christian values.

When Christians become frustrated with the existing political system, it is a reminder that the kingdom of God should not be equated with an existing political order. Both conservative evangelicals and liberal Protestants have made the mistake of believing that they could spread Christian values and regenerate the nation through politics. Christians have a word for such misplaced trust: idolatry.

The failure of America’s two major parties to faithfully adhere to Christian principles should not surprise anyone who knows that we live in a sinful world. But the fact that both parties have been shaped by Christian traditions should also be encouraging to discerning Christians who have the wisdom to look past the election-year rhetoric and determine which parts of each party’s platform to accept – and which parts to reject.

About the Author
  • Daniel K. Williams is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia. He is the author of two books on religion and American politics published by Oxford University Press: Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade and God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.

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