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Woodward Downplays Religion in American Politics

Former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward argued that religion is no longer a significant factor in presidential politics in a lecture titled “Religion in the White House” that he gave at Boston College on Thursday.

Woodward first argued that there is no connection between presidents’ religious faith and their foreign and domestic policy.

“Religion in the form of moral rhetoric is almost always invoked to sell or justify a decision reached by real politics,” he said.

In cases where people have said religious faith alone was responsible for policy, Woodward has found that there are better explanations that stem from politics. He gave the example of President WIlliam McKinley’s annexation of the Philippines. There were commercial, political, and geopolitical reasons for the annexation, but to sell the idea to the American public, McKinley needed to adopted a religious rational, Woodward said.

“The notion that American presidents were, or should be, religiously convicted is a relatively recent vintage,” Woodward said.

Many Americans imagine that the United States is Christian in its origins, but there weren’t many churches or clergy members in the 13 original colonies, Woodward said—sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke believe that only 17 percent of Americans were people of the church in 1776.

The Founding Fathers did not have strong religious faith, and only a handful could be considered Orthodox Christians, Woodward added. At the time of the Enlightenment, the writers of the Constitution wanted to “avoid the religious words of Europe by separating the realm of the minister from that of the magistrate,” he said.

“[George] Washington saw religion as a necessary moral prop of democracy,” Woodward said. “John Adams believed religion helped mold the kind of conscientious citizens that the U.S. Constitution required.”

Woodward did note that there are a few rare cases where there is religious influence on presidential policy. He said there is a correlation between the way people receive their religion and how it influences their policy.

“You cannot understand the new Democratic party that emerged in 1972 without viewing this transformation through the lens of American Methodists,” Woodward said.

In reading the 1972 Democratic party platform, Woodward found a “striking” number of its domestic and foreign policy planks almost word for word matched resolutions adopted by the Methodists three months earlier. He emphasized that the Democrats who wrote the platform approached the political sphere much like how the Methodists did—with identity politics.

Woodward pivoted to discussing the voting habits of religious constituents, or the “religious vote.”

No one would describe President Donald Trump as a religious person, Woodward said, but shortly after his election, an Evangelical pastor claimed that Trump underwent religious conversion to Evangelicalism after being raised Presbyterian. White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the Christian Broadcasting Network a few months ago that “[God] wanted Donald Trump to become president.”

The exit polls taken in 2016 showed that four out of five Evangelical Christians voted for Trump and did so despite no evidence of his religious beliefs, behavior, or belonging, according to Woodward. Evangelical Christians, who include Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and Mormons,  are the most diverse religious group in the United States, because “they do not know what these words mean as social identifiers,” he said.

Woodward said he is wary of exit polls because they can be imprecise. They can show who voted for Trump, but not why they did so, he said. There are reasons that have nothing to do with religion for why white Evangelicals voted for Trump, he said, which included a distrust of Hillary Clinton and economic disparities between white-collar and blue-collar workers.

No more than 17 percent of Americans place religion at or near the center of their lives, while 35 percent of Americans claim to have no religious identity, according to Woodward. For millions of Americans, he said, politics functions as their religion.

“I really do think that for a lot of engaged Americans, partisan politics has absorbed the kind of passion, commitment, group identity, and social boundaries that were once characteristic of American religion,” Woodward said.

Featured Image by Jess Rivals / Heights Staff

March 24, 2019