THE NEW DIVIDE IN AMERICAN POLITICS

First Things | 6/1/2017 | Mark Movsesian
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In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed something about American politics that astonished him: A divide between religious and non-religious parties did not exist. In France, he wrote, everyone understood that religion and republicanism were political adversaries, and that one had to choose sides between them: “Among us … the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions.” In America, by contrast, the need for choice did not arise. “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds,” Tocqueville explained, “that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.” For Americans, religion and republicanism were entirely compatible; in fact, they were mutually supportive. Religion, as such, did not have partisan implications.

To be sure, Americans had religious differences. “An innumerable number of sects” existed in the country. But no sect seriously challenged the broad consensus that religion was a good thing. A politician could criticize particular religions, and of course many politicians did attack Catholicism vociferously. But for a politician to attack religion in general would have been unthinkable. Everyone would “flee” from such a politician, and he would “remain alone.”

Observations - Tocqueville - Assessment - Politics - Time

Like many of his observations, Tocqueville’s assessment of American politics has proved true over time. Americans have never had religious and non-religious parties in the way that many European countries have had. True, sectarian political divisions have existed. For most of the twentieth century, Catholics and Jews voted Democratic; Protestants (except in the South) voted Republican. But both parties, historically, endorsed the public influence of religion in general. Over time, American religious culture shifted from a generic “Christian” one to an even more generic “Judeo-Christian” one—one might call it a “Biblical” culture. But the political consensus Tocqueville identified survived.

That situation may now be changing. Last month, the Pew...
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