When Barack Obama ran for the United States Senate in 2004, his Republican opponent was Alan Keyes. Both candidates were committed Christians, but they interpreted their faith in very different ways.
Obama thinks that Democrats’ reluctance to speak of ethics and religion has been a mistake. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he devotes a chapter to the significance of faith for him and for society as a whole.1 Moved by his experience in the black churches of Chicago, Obama has come to identify with their progressive Protestant faith, their ministry serving people’s spiritual and material needs, and their willingness to work with others − nonbelievers and followers of other religions − to promote peace and social justice.
Keyes, a conservative Catholic identified with the politicized Christian Right, attacked Obama’s openness as heretical. The Christian Right is engaged in a culture war against secular humanism and liberal Christianity. This aggressive movement, Obama explains in his book, promotes the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. It maintains that following Roosevelt’s New Deal, Ameica has been subjected to the power of secular elites, Supreme Court decisions and federal laws: these forces have secularized society, destabilized the family and violated people’s personal freedom, burdening them with heavy taxes and regulations.
Religion is an important dimension of American culture. Sociologists have proposed different theories to explain why the spread of industrialization, which has secularized European societies and Canada, has not had the same effect in America.2 Religion in America is a multiple thriving enterprise. To gain a better understanding of the contest between Obama and Keyes, I wish to locate it within the evolving landscape of American Christianity since the 1930s, an exercise that reveals diversity within a single religion.
Religions are constituted by a set of sacred texts that are read and reread by the faithful in different historical contexts from a variety of perspectives. In other words, religions create hermeneutic communities that interpret the sacred texts in the changing conditions of history. Even secular classic texts, like the Shakespearean plays, are reinterpreted generation after generation, each time offering new messages. Students of religion still treasure Max Weber’s famous essays, written almost a century ago, demonstrating that the same religion is lived differently and sustains different values, depending on the social location of its practitioners.3 All religions are inhabited by an internal debate and relate in diverse ways to the society to which they belong. Christianity has produced warriors and pacifists, capitalists and socialists, monarchists and democrats, liberals and reactionaries − all of whom have cited biblical texts in their support. Like all world religions, Christianity has many faces.
The progressive Protestantism embraced by Obama was the dominant orientation of the American mainline churches in the 1930s. They supported Roosevelt’s New Deal and his opposition to fascism, and welcomed the leadership of Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential theologian and political ethicist. Niebuhr had left the Christian socialists because of their pacifism and utopian idealism and now offered a realistic political reading of the Gospel, summoning Christians to support democratic institutions and promote freedom, participation and accountability. This Christian realism, seconded by similar theological developments in Europe, determined the orientation of the World Council of Churches, founded in 1948. The National Council of Churches, bringing together the mainline churches of the United States, was founded two years later with a similar orientation. The two church councils offered Christian arguments in support of democratic freedoms and the welfare state; yet they also honoured the egalitarian aspirations of communism, thus restraining the Cold War rhetoric of the United States and its allies.