Faith-Based History

Christianity and American Democracy by Hugh Heclo (Harvard University Press, 299 pages, $25.95)

The idea that the United States is a "Christian country" is at the heart of the religious right's program for reconstructing America's constitutional and cultural order. For if this is a Christian country, religious conservatives reason, their beliefs rightly dominate the three branches of government, public schools, and public observances. Thus, they would re-institute prayer in public schools, permit posting of the Ten Commandments in any government building, and applaud crèches in both locations.

Despite a great deal of press coverage, however, Christian conservatives have not made a great deal of progress. In its 2005 decision in McCreary County v. ACLU, the Supreme Court implicitly addressed the relationship of Christianity and the Constitution. The local government in McCreary County, Kentucky, had passed resolutions declaring that Christianity is the sole source of American law and, therefore, the Ten Commandments belonged in the courthouse, but a majority of the Court was not persuaded and declared that posting the commandments was unconstitutional.

Likewise, after receiving much public attention, the movement for faith-based social programs has foundered. Despite support from the White House, the initiative has hit the shoals of Establishment Clause challenges amid charges that the government is providing funds only to a select group of religious organizations.

These conflicts over religion's relation to government form the backdrop to Hugh Heclo's new book, Christianity and American Democracy, which contains a lecture that Heclo delivered at Harvard in 2006 along with lively responses by Mary Jo Bane, Michael Kazin, and Alan Wolfe. Heclo, who is a political scientist at George Mason University, takes the popular claims about America's Christian foundations and grounds them in a sophisticated historical argument. Indeed, this is the most interesting defense to date of the conception of America as a Christian country -- though, in the end, it is no more convincing than other versions of the case.

In tracing Christianity and democracy from America's founding to the current day, Heclo identifies two critical eras for his thesis. The first, which he calls The Great Denouement, marks the "hard-won achievement" following the Protestant Reformation. That achievement consisted of the "'twin tolerations' that we can now see are essential for modern democracy anywhere in the world -- the political freedom of elected governments from control by religious authorities, and the religious freedom of individuals and groups from control by the government." The second critical era, the 1960s, marks the end of religion, at least in some sense, according to Heclo, as a result of a crisis brought on by the very principles that he attributes to Christianity -- equality and autonomy. In short, Christianity's influence gets erased by the forces it sets in motion. Other historical periods are something of a blur, though he does make some interesting observations about them in the course of his reflections.

The purpose of Heclo's historical account is to explain how Christianity has been good for American democracy, while American democracy has not been so good for Christianity. To explain their relationship, he envisions American Christianity and American democracy as "a double helix of mutual influences." This helix image mirrors the popular assumption that conservative Christianity is intimately related to American democracy by neatly excluding competing religious traditions within the United States. The image suggests there has been just one source of religious influence on democracy -- Christianity, indeed, Protestantism alone.

But the complexities of American pluralism get lost in Heclo's story. As Wolfe puts it in the title of his response to Heclo, "Whose Christianity? Whose Democracy?" In fact, there has never been anything close to a unified Christian sentiment in the United States; religious division and diversity were with us from the start, but Heclo does not even acknowledge the deep religious differences among Protestants that characterized the nation's founding. Congregationalists and Baptists in Massachusetts may have each believed in Christ, but they felt deeply estranged from one another: Congregationalists viewed Baptists as heretics, while the latter looked upon the former as petty tyrants. Anne Hutchinson certainly did not feel any unified Christian sentiment with those who ousted her for her religious beliefs. And if religious groups have felt divided from their religious neighbors, they cannot be responsible for a unified approach to Christianity that would then translate into a uniform effect on American democracy. Kazin puts the point nicely when he criticizes Heclo for failing to take into account the "ongoing tension between religious Americans … about whether their faith is being practiced in a way that promotes democracy" because his "focus is more on Christianity than on Christians."

In a similar vein, Bane rightly takes Heclo to task for failing to take into account the contributions of Catholicism to American politics and government. Catholics have been a vibrant presence, especially during the latter half of the 20th century. Including Catholicism, though, would undermine his arguments about Christianity's role in furthering religious liberty and social equality, as Bane points out.

There are equally difficult problems raised by Heclo's conception of democracy. The United States has had a wide spectrum of democratic ideals and institutions, from the framers' vision of a limited federal government with a limited franchise to the bureaucratic representative democracy now in place at the national level to the Western states' direct-democracy initiatives. Each and every one is "American democracy," though they are wildly different.

Repeatedly, Heclo credits Christianity with inserting the concepts of equality and individual autonomy into the political context, but he fails to show the connection between these understandings of equality and autonomy and a specific form of democracy. There are times when he seems to be referring to an idealized democracy envisioned by the framers, while at others he apparently means direct democracy, or the actual rule of the people.

Though I am unpersuaded by Heclo's approach, his essay is nonetheless a positive step away from the contemporary, simplistic, self-assured insistence that this is a Christian country. He does not see a happy union of Christianity and democracy from the beginning until now. Nor does he use "Christian country" as a way to mask religious triumphalism. Instead, he worries that the political order that emerged in the 1960s may well have undermined Christianity and that it may not have the capacity to recover.

Yet I was mystified by some of Heclo's reasoning, especially the credit he gives Christianity for the growth of equality. Broad statements like the following are hard to decipher: "Every effort to ally Christianity with human structures of rank and privilege has had to fight against the religion's insistence on a thoroughgoing equality among human beings." He then turns to theology to argue that this equality arises from the Christian believer's sense that, first, all humans are equal before God and, second, all are equally fallen away from God. While his theological references are defensible for many Protestants, his factual claim that Christianity has led ineluctably to equality is hard to square with history. Monarchs, tyrants, and slaveholders have all used Christian theology to justify their domination. Christianity and its principles were at the very foundation of the British monarchy and its system of rank and privilege. The religious and political leaders of the American South invoked Christian precepts to justify slavery, and those precepts trumped the abolitionist movement for a long time. In South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church grounded apartheid on its Christian principles. Yes, defined broadly, Christianity was the common element among dominant religious groups when the American constitutional experiment began, but the Founders gave no thought to making women equal to men. Heclo might respond by saying, as he does, that sometimes Christians do not fulfill their Christian principles, but the historical record indicates that, in practice, Christian theology often opposed the principles he is touting.

Wolfe congratulates Heclo because his essay "represents a huge step in the much-needed direction of reminding political scientists never again to ignore religion the way we had done for far too many decades." Heclo attributes the political scientists' lack of interest in religion to secularism, implicitly accusing them of an anti-religious bias. This point is an echo of the persistent complaint by conservatives that the academy is now filled with secular liberals who are hostile toward Christianity.

But there is another possible explanation for academic neglect of religion -- pressure from religious groups themselves, which have encouraged the myth that they become engaged in politics only for disinterested reasons. To be sure, some religious leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. have acted in support of high ideals, but that is not the whole story.

Ten years ago, when I first started working on issues involving religious organizations in politics, I used the term "religious lobbyist" and was called to task by a minister for my supposedly disrespectful comment. The message was that it was unseemly for me to treat religious organizations as though they were part and parcel of the often unseemly political process. But, in fact, religious groups have frequently argued for special privileges in the legislatures (and the courts) even though, if permitted, their actions would harm others. For example, states have permitted faith-healing parents to be immune to liability or even prosecution for the serious harm done to their children as a result of medical neglect, and Congress has exempted churches and other religious organizations from land-use laws, thereby allowing them, for example, to build structures that rob a neighborhood of its residential character.

A potent taboo against conceiving of religious groups as interest groups has affected the academy as well as the rest of society. Recognizing the cultural inclination to defer to, respect, and revere religion turns the secularism argument on its head. Instead of being biased against religion, academics have shied away from discussing the self-interested activities of religious organizations for fear of stirring up a hornet's nest of protest.

To see religion in politics this way is to emphasize the role of changing religious groups, organizations, and coalitions rather than the role of a supposedly unified mass of believers. It implies that the term "Christian country" simply cannot do justice to the religious diversity and division present at the time of America's founding and today. Instead of a faith-based account of religion's role in democracy, we need one based on the evidence -- all the evidence -- including the profane realities of politicized religion, as uncomfortable as that may make some Americans feel.