Religion, Legitimacy, and Government in America, A Just-So Story

by Bill Benzon

I don’t remember when it was, but it was years ago, before religion had become such a prominent factor in American politics. Perhaps it was during my graduate school years, the mid-to-late 1970s. Whenever, it came as a shock to learn that America was more religious than Europe. It’s not so much that I had thought the reverse. I rather doubt that I’d thought much about it one way or another. The shock, I suppose, was simply that America was such a religions nation.

Religion has been much more visible in American politics of the last two decades and America remains more religious than Europe. This would come as no surprise to readers of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but I hadn’t read it and, to be honest, still haven’t (though I’d read The Ancient Regime and the Revolution years ago). I have, however, read The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism, by the economic historian and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel. Fogel argues that American society and culture has been driven by cycles of religious revival. The first three cycles, starting in roughly 1730, 1800, and 1890, have been recognized in standard religious history, while the Fogel himself has proposed the fourth, dating it to the 1960s. He characterizes it as a “return to sensuous religion and reassertion of experiential content of the Bible; rapid growth of the enthusiastic religions; reassertion of concept of personal sin; stress on an ethic of individual responsibility, hard work, a simple life, and dedication to family.”

I rather doubt that either Tocqueville or Fogel would have predicted that one day the United States Capitol Building would be stormed in the names of a recently defeated President, Donald Trump, and God, with many of the belligerents believing Trump to be God’s instrument. They would have found that shocking. I did, as did many other Americans.

To put the question in its starkest form: How is it, then, that religious belief can be both foundational to American democracy and a profound threat to it?

A Story of Legitimation

Let us begin by taking a look at political doctrine, albeit of a rather ceremonial kind. Consider the opening of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In Jefferson’s formulation the government gains its power by grant from the people. The people, in turn, gain their power, their unalienable rights, from their Creator. This reverses the logic of legitimization prevailing in traditional European monarchies. In those governments the rulers got their legitimacy from God and their subjects, in turn, got their rights and obligations through their relationship to the ruler. In that scheme democracy is implausible. Jefferson, and the new nation, emphatically rejected that scheme in favor of a different one.

In this new system the separation of church and state secures two ends, religious freedom and, even more fundamentally, the state itself. The first is obvious, and has occasioned much discussion. The second seems obvious as well, but is somehow more subtle. How can the people legitimize the state unless their authority is itself independent of that state? The only way to guarantee that independence is to guarantee the separation of church and state.

And that, I suggest, may be why religion has been so important in American society. For a large fraction of the population, though not for all, it has been the ground of capital “B” Being on which their sense of themselves-in-the-world depends. To understand this, however, we need to push beyond political doctrine, which is mere abstract theory, perhaps not even that. It is ideology. We need a sense of concrete social practices that make such ideology real.

That Old Time Religion

I got a glimpse of those practices from Deborah V. McCauley’s Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (1995). This religion is an intense fundamentalist Christianity organized into small congregations housed in modest churches. These churches protect and promote a mode of religious experience that is foreign to highly educated secular humanists comfortable with the impersonality of urban life. The services are intensely emotional and promote an intimate and personal fellowship between the participants.

The central experience in these mountain churches is salvation through conversion, which has been the central experience of Protestant revivalism since the seventeenth century. In McCauley’s view “conversion breaks through the dominant status order by moving those who become part of a new or separate membership group beyond the control of the prevailing power structure at a basic level of identity.” That “dominant status order” is simply the network of public and private institutions that impinge on the local group from the outside. For someone who has been saved, identity is purely a function of the local religious community. Christian doctrine and stories couple this identity to the larger rhythms of the cosmos while local fellowship gathers the those rhythms to the sensible world.

The Appalachian churches McCauley studied make up a relatively small portion of America’s churches. But many of their attitudes and organizational motifs are quite common elsewhere. In particular, their centrifugal and strongly localist organizational style is  wide-spread among fundamentalist denominations. This contrasts to the strong hierarchical structure characteristic of the Catholic or Episcopal churches. The world of Protestant fundamentalism is one of local congregations of varying scope cross cut by an extensive but loose web of revivals, conferences, and loose affiliations with Bible schools and colleges. As such, these congregations can serve as a concrete social mechanism for the bottom-up legitimization Jefferson’s doctrine demands.

How We Live Now

Note McCauley’s focus on identity, which is central to current socio-political discourse. For the religious right, America is fundamentally a God-fearing Christian nation.

But identity is as important to the woke left as it is to the religious right. Thus The New York Times has sponsored The 1619 Project, which aims to transform our sense of America, seeing racism as foundational. And, while this argument is a secular one, a recent article in The Economist has noted that the woke Left is dominated by religious themes and, as such, “more focused on purity and atonement within the liberal tribe … than making society less discriminatory.” This is a theme that John McWhorter explores in a book he is currently serializing on Substack, The Elect: The Threat to a Progressive America from Anti-Black Antiracists. These people are more concerned about affirming one another than actually changing society.

But then the contemporary world is very different from Jefferson’s, isn’t it? We are now an urban nation, not a rural one, so that many overlapping localities are crowded into a given region. The mass media have radically altered our awareness of the world. In particular, social media on the web has transformed the way we communicate with one another and scrambled the relations between elites and the rest of us.

In Jefferson’s day it would have taken days, if not weeks, for news of an attack on Manhattan to reach the Appalachian hinterlands. When the World Trade Center was bombed people watched that event across the country in real time. Nor could Jefferson have imagined a President communicating with the entire nation on a daily basis, sending messages on Twitter and observing the effects of those messages on television.

In Jefferson’s time it was easy for Christian fundamentalists to live in a world dominated by fellow travelers on the pilgrim’s way. They were your neighbors and co-congregants. You may have known that there were others with different beliefs, but they did not come into your home day after day through the media, nor did you have to mingle with them on a daily basis. In particular, your children did not have to go to school with their children – if your children and theirs went to school at all. In Jefferson’s day it was easy for many people to live a local life. That is far more difficult now.

At the same time social media allow people across the nation and even the world to band together in common cause. Social media were central to the 1/6 assault on the Capitol Building, as they are to so-called cancel culture in which citizens attack journalists, businessmen, politicians and others and, in some cases, remove them from positions of power and influence. Could the Founding Fathers have imagined a world in which private corporations, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google, arguably have more power over speech than national governments? Thus Martin Gurri has pointed out that “the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system: the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration.”

Is the World Upside Down?

Let me end elliptically.

In Angrynomics, Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth argue that the rise of rightwing authoritarian movements such as Trumpism and Brexit is best seen as a protest against economic elites by the economically disenfranchised. In a recent conversation with Glenn Loury, political scientist Daniel Bessner has made a similar argument about the woke Left; despairing of exerting any real control over the world, they elect to affirm one another by policing identity however they can. All too many on both the Left and the Right experience the nation as being captive to an oppressive elite.

Whatever the underlying economic and social issues, the problem has become fundamentally metaphysical or, if you will, theological in nature. The world no longer makes sense. There is no longer a coherent relationship between one’s hopes and desires and the actions one can take to advance (toward) them. And so they grasp at whatever sense-making narrative they can, whatever narrative that brings them into community with others. What is lost is any sense of a larger world, of a common nation in which we can negotiate our various ways in the world.