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.

American Protestants

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.

In the sixties, under the influence of Third World liberation theology, the two councils moved to the left, interpreting Christian faith as a summons to struggle against oppression and exploitation and resist the logic of the two competing superpowers; they also supported the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and other Third World liberation movements. Yet from the eighties on, the National Council of Churches has once again moved closer to the centre.

During this entire period, conservative Protestants or evangelicals, in particular the fundamentalists among them, presented themselves as nonpolitical: their mission was simply the salvation of souls. They claimed that the mainline churches, by entering the political arena, had distorted the Christian message and become heretical. When the National Council of Churches held its assemblies, representatives of the Christian Right would march in protest, carrying signs saying “Take politics out of religion.”

Members of the Christian Right are conservative Protestants who gladly call themselves evangelicals. In the United States, they tend to constitute their own churches, though they also exist as minorities in the mainline churches. Evangelicals claim that their faith is based exclusively on the Bible, yet they read the Scriptures without reference to the so-called higher criticism or historical-critical method. A minority of evangelicals are fundamentalists: they believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture, interpret it in a naive and literalistic manner, and refuse to dialogue with Christians who disagree with them. Since developments in other world religions have given fundamentalism a very bad name, Christian fundamentalists no longer freely admit their religious ideology, which means that researchers are unable to offer a reliable estimate of their numerical strength.

The Christian Right also includes members of Christian and post-Christian sects as well as ultraconservative Catholics such as Obama’s Senate opponent Alan Keyes. These Catholics emphasize papal teaching on marriage and procreation, while remaining indifferent to papal teaching on justice and peace.

American Catholics

In the 1930s the Catholic minority, largely working-class and of non-Anglo immigrant origin, tended to support the Democratic Party. Yet they became dramatically divided when Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest and radio preacher and an early supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal, changed his mind and attacked Roosevelt’s social and economic policies. Coughlin, who denounced bankers and Jews as responsible for the country’s economic plight and had words of praise for the new European fascism, had an enormous following, even though his ideas did not have the approval of the Catholic bishops. After the start of the war in Europe in 1939, new broadcasting regulations prohibited Coughlin from giving his political sermons on the radio.

In contrast to Coughlin, another Catholic priest, social scientist John A. Ryan, was a vigorous defender of Roosevelt’s New Deal and democratic vision and an ardent supporter of labour unions in their struggle for greater justice. His campaign had the blessing of the bishops. Wrestling against Marxist influence in the labour movement, Ryan willingly employed the church’s vehement anticommunist rhetoric. During the Spanish Civil War, American Catholics sided with General Franco, the leader of the Nationalists. When the respected Catholic journal Commonweal decided to back the Republican side in Spain, it lost more than half its subscribers. After the war, Catholics continued to vote for the Democratic Party and, in line with the church’s social teaching, favoured laws supporting social welfare and the rights of labour. Yet following the lead of some of their bishops, Catholics were ardent supporters of the Cold War.

Radical Catholics in the United States were affected by the anarchist tradition. Dorothy Day, pacifist, egalitarian, in solidarity with the poor and excluded, founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933. She remained a pacifist during World War II. Yet because she chose to be poor and live with the poor who came to her from the street, she was admired and few criticized her. Today, more than 185 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism and violence in all forms.

Most Catholic radicals in the United States went through the school of the Catholic Worker. This was true of the peace activists Daniel and Philip Berrigan and many of their associates, who opposed the Vietnam War and America’s military involvement in general. These activists entered government buildings and destroyed draft files (pouring blood on one occasion and homemade napalm on another), and spent many years in federal prisons. Catholic Worker radicalism also urged priests, sisters and laypeople to extend their solidarity to the poor of Latin America by living and working with them in their villages. Over the years, many have been killed by right-wing squads. Radical Catholics also organize protests in front of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which teaches Latin American personnel the use of force and torture to keep the poor in their place.

Evangelicals right and left

Abandoning its earlier nonpolitical stance, the Christian Right became political in 1979 when Jerry Falwell, reinterpreting evangelicalism, founded the Moral Majority to offer support to Republican candidates in the 1980 election.4 Vast numbers of conservative Christians, Catholics among them, now became politically active, organizing opposition to the liberal and secular values of American society. The new Christian Right became an influential force in the Republican Party. When the Moral Majority was dissolved in 1989, Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition to promote “family values” and “patriotism,” offering support for aggressive American foreign policy and the expansionist aspirations of the state of Israel. Robertson favoured the Christian Zionism founded by Christian fundamentalists who believed that the return of the Jews to the land of Israel was a signal announcing their impending conversion to Christ, followed by Christ’s glorious return and the end of history. After enormous success in the early and middle nineties, the Christian Coalition lost some of its momentum in subsequent years. Following the reelection of President George W. Bush in 2004, a new organization, the Moral Majority Coalition, was founded to use the momentum of that year’s election to promote the evangelical revolution.

Some writers claim that the secular right and religious right, working together, have successfully transformed American culture and politics. In her recent book Hijacking America,5 Susan George argues persuasively that the secular and religious right have created foundations, think tanks, lobbies, publications, university programs, activist organizations and groups of lawyers and politicians that have taught America to think differently. According to her, the right’s long march through the institutions has created a new common sense, hostile to liberal values, be they secular or religious. She thinks that whatever the outcome of the 2008 election, the country’s commitment to neoliberal and neoconservative ideas is unlikely to change.

Susan George has studied conservative secular and religious leaders, the institutions they direct and the publications they produce. What is puzzling is that this dark picture has not been confirmed by empirical research investigating the political and religions opinions of the American people. It has often been pointed out that the two sides involved in the so-called culture wars do not represent the attitudes of the majority of Americans.6 In particular, opinion research does not confirm the idea that evangelicals hold political views that differ drastically from those held by Christians in the mainline churches.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life7 is a research institute that publishes detailed reports of the opinions on public life held by Christians of different denominations. According to its Winter 2007 report, among evangelicals 38 per cent support the Republican Party and 24 per cent the Democrats, while among mainline Christians 29 per cent favour the Republican Party and 31 per cent the Democrats. The difference between them is not startling. Nor is there a significant difference of opinion in regard to several political and social issues. It is only on abortion and homosexuality that there is a drastic divergence between evangelical and mainline Christians. The empirical evidence does not seem to confirm the view that the religious culture produced by the Christian Right is as pervasive as estimated by observers who study its organizers and opinion leaders.

The Religious Landscape Report of June 23, 2008, found on the Pew Forum’s website, includes reports, articles and debates dealing with the involvement of Christians in the 2008 election campaign. Most observers argue that the Christian Right has lost considerable steam. Since some well-known evangelical preachers have addressed previously disregarded issues, such as the war, unemployment and ecology, evangelical activists have become divided and lost some of their certainty. At the same time, religion is being discussed at length in the campaign, probably because Barack Obama is willing to talk about it – and do so with theological sophistication – more than any previous Democratic presidential candidate. Several observers regard as significant influential evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s invitation to the two presidential candidates to engage in a public forum in his church on August 16. No Democratic candidate had ever before been invited to address an audience of evangelicals.

Not all American evangelicals belong to the Christian Right. Conservative Protestants are distributed over the entire spectrum of American politics. There are even evangelicals of the left, famous among them the Sojourner Community8 in Washington, founded in 1975 by Jim Wallis and his friends, which denounces the social sins condemned in the Bible such as injustice, oppression, exploitation, violent aggression and the idolatry of wealth and power. In 2004, Rabbi Michael Lerner, unhappy that progressives in America do not speak about matters spiritual, founded the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP),9 cochaired by the Protestant philosopher Cornel West and the Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, which has attracted several thousand members. Following Barack Obama’s wish, the 2008 Democratic Convention included a faith caucus, attended by Jim Wallis, Michael Lerner and a great number of party members committed to religious or spiritual values. On the NSP website, Rabbi Lerner complained that speakers at the caucus were concerned with attracting the votes of religious people, not with committing the Democratic Party to a more consistent ethic on matters of peace and justice.

A Sweden glued on an Indonesia

Europeans and Canadians are amazed at the social space occupied by religion in the United States. While the intellectual climate at American universities tends to be secular and American political and social scientists pay little attention to religion in interpreting their world, the majority of Americans are involved in religion in one way or another. The contrast between the academic world and the larger American society has prompted the sociologist Peter Berger to say that America appears to him like a Sweden glued on an Indonesia. The possessive individualism and technoscientific rationality promoted by industrial capitalism have been unable to undermine the vitality of religion in the United States. The ever-changing religious landscape of that country demonstrates in dramatic fashion the pluralism within the same religion and consequently the impossibility of making a general statement about religion’s impact on society.


1 Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Rivers Press, 2006), pp. 195–226.

2 Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation (Ottawa: Novalis, 2006), pp. 125–142.

3 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston : Beacon Press, 1964), pp. 80–137.

4 John C. Green, The Value Campaign: The Christian Right in American Politics (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003).

5 Susan George, Hijacking America (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, 2008). The title of her book reminds me of Khaleb El Fasl’s The Great Theft, showing that radical Islam has transformed the religious practice and the self-understanding of Muslims.

6 Scott Kline, “Culture Wars in the USA: Real or Imagined?”, The Ecumenist: A Journal of Theology, Culture and Society, Summer 2002, pp. 12–14.

7 www.pewforum.org (retrieved August 25, 2008).

8www.sojo.net (retrieved August 25, 2008).

9 www.spiritualprogressives.org (retrieved September 25, 2008).