The affair between religion and politics is far older than the founding of the United States, and yet the cultural and legal circumstances of this nation have created unique conditions for the age-old exchange between the priorities of this world and aspirations for a glimpse of what lies beyond. At times torrid, at times cool, the relationship between religion and politics was a vital part of the American story well before the founding of the republic and has extended into the present day. Early English settlers arrived on “New World” shores in part to escape religious persecution and to establish a “city on a hill”, as they believed God had commanded them to do. Still, the very designation of geopolitical boundaries in charting this divine command betrays deep wells of accord between what was understood to be “religion” and what was understood to be “politics.” More than a century later, the stirrings of the American Revolution were often inflected with religious fervor as the usurpation of the crown extended to other British institutions, not the least among them the Anglican Church. The language of freedom and liberty enshrined in America’s charter documents—in American scripture—is best interpreted within this context of overlapping and intersecting vocabularies, artifacts, and institutions. Important social movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—anti-slavery, temperance, women’s suffrage, labor, and civil rights, to name a few—were frequently debated in religious terms. And the alleged religiosity (or irreligiosity) of Presidential candidates has often been a charged issue, from the Deism of some of our earliest leaders to John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism, Joe Lieberman’s Orthodox Judaism, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, and Barack Obama’s connections with socially-conscious and politically-engaged forms of Christianity. Count the number of times that faith continues to be invoked by politicians campaigning for office, or in which categories of religion are invoked in foreign policy discussion, and you can see one of the many signs of religion’s ongoing importance in our nation’s political culture.
The Center on Religion and Politics is committed to developing a strong foundation for students to understand these complicated intersections—past, present, and future. To that end, we offer students an intellectual entry point that will emphasize methods and knowledge central to the study of religion and politics and welcome their participation in the Center’s ongoing conversations.
The Center sponsors an ongoing colloquium on American religion, politics, and culture, to foster discussion of new scholarship in these broad domains. For more information and a schedule of upcoming presentations, please see here.