View a conversation on religion and the 2020 election with James Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, and E.J. Dionne, Visiting Professor in Religion and Political Culture at HDS. This event was moderated by Catherine Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at HDS, and was sponsored by the Council on the Study of Religion, the Committee on the Study of Religion, and Harvard Divinity School.
Let me take this opportunity to welcome everyone here. I am so glad to see this crowd assembled. My name is Catherine Brekus. I'm a professor of American religious history at Harvard Divinity School. And I'll serve as the moderator for this conversation today on religion and the 2020 election.
This event is sponsored by the Council on the Study of Religion at Harvard, which is an interdisciplinary group of faculty with research interests in religion, and also Harvard Divinity School's new initiative and degree program on Religion and Public Life, which has been established to advance the public understanding of religion in service of a just world at peace. You can find a link to more information about that program in the chat.
So the Council on the Study of Religion usually brings people together on Harvard's campus to talk about an interesting topic. But this year, since we can't gather in person, we decided to open the conversation to the larger public. And given the enthusiastic response-- so we have more than 400 registrations. And apparently, there are 500 people watching us in addition to that, that EJ knows about. And we also have people watching livestream on Facebook.
I think that given this level of interest, we will try to do this again. Because it's clear that people are hungry for intelligent and informed conversation about religion in American public life. So I'm delighted that I will be serving as the moderator for a conversation between Jim Kloppenberg, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, and EJ Dionne, Professor of Government at Georgetown University, a visiting professor in Religion and Political Culture at Harvard, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, and, of course, a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC, and MSNBC.
So welcome, EJ and Jim. Thank you so much for being here this afternoon. I'm so glad to see you. Our format today is that I will ask you some questions. So EJ, I think I'm going to start with you because you are an expert on all things related to polling. And I just wondered if you could start us off by giving us an overview of recent polling data on the religious affiliations of American voters.
Yeah, thank you so much. First of all, it's great to be here with two of my very, very favorite people at Harvard. And Catherine has blessed my classes by coming in on a number of occasions. Jim and I taught together last year. And I just can't tell you how happy I am. And I can't resist joking that this is a little bit like the US Supreme Court because we're all Catholic on this particular call, just to let people know.
And I have to say this. One of my students, Linda Dakin-Grimm's mom, Gloria Dakin, lives at the Mary's Woods community in Lake Oswego, which is in or around Portland, Oregon. And I am told there are up to 500 people there watching us. So I want to welcome all the folks out in Portland to this chat.
Yeah. I think when we think-- those of us who care a lot about religion sometimes have to bow to the gods of political science. And when you're trying to explain what is going on with the, quotes, "religious vote," you often simply have to retreat to race, class, and region. And I think that is a lot of what is going on here.
Let me first talk about what is the biggest change in American political and religious life, I think, in the last generation, which is the rise of the Religious Nones. That's N-O-N-E-S, not the nuns who taught people like us. And they're people who, when pollsters ask, "what religion are you?" say nothing, or none, or I don't belong to a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque. They are religiously disaffiliated.
Among younger Americans under 40, we are now up to 40% who are Religious Nones. And they're about a quarter of the electorate. This is unprecedented. It's sort of the Europeanization, if you will, of the United States. We always have had a much higher level of religious affiliation.
Now, it doesn't mean that all these people are unspiritual. It doesn't mean they don't have an interest in religion. But that is a very important fact. And that fact makes coalition building around religion in the Democratic Party particularly difficult because Democrats are a coalition that includes the most religious people in the country by a number of measures, who are Black Americans, and the least religious people in America, who are the Nones. The Nones vote overwhelmingly Democratic. And Black Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
But what we're hearing a lot of talk about are white Catholics and white evangelicals. And I had Pete Wehner to my class today, my Div School Kennedy School Class. Pete Wehner is a dissident anti-Trump conservative and a devout evangelical. And he came up with a wonderful word that I hadn't heard before, talking about how the politics of-- he is an evangelical himself-- how there is no Christian distinctive in their politics, increasingly, he argued. And that's where race, class, and region come in.
Donald Trump got about 81% of the white evangelical vote in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. He's in the 70s now against Joe Biden. But I don't think you can explain that without first noting that word, white. They are white. They are older than other Americans, which means they are more traditionalist than other Americans. They are not uniformly, but they are disproportionately southern.
And so when you think about people who are older, who are white, who are more southern, it is not shocking that they are Republican. But their margins are enormous. Among Catholics, it's going to be very interesting because I think the striking thing about the Catholic vote is in 2016, white Catholics voted like most white people did. They voted for Trump. And Latino Catholics, the Latinx Catholics, voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, like most Latinx people did. You talk about no Catholic distinctive or no Christian distinctive there.
I think one of the interesting questions is whether Joe Biden will be able to flip the Catholic vote. There is some evidence in a PRI poll this week, for example, that Joe Biden might actually win not only the Latino Catholic vote by a large margin, but he may actually pull off a victory in the white Catholic vote. And I think that's partly because of the same disillusionment with Trump that other groups are feeling, the fact that older people are moving away from Trump because of his handling of the virus and just maybe because Joe Biden looks like that older guy who used to sit in the pews with a lot of Catholics around the country.
And so I think that-- and the last point I want to make is Donald Trump has done something interesting, which is he has discredited a lot of what he has touched. And I've been struck by the number of pro-life, anti-abortion Christians who are actually coming out for Biden. Now, they won't be a majority. But they are saying that the life issues are more than just abortion.
A dear friend of mine, John Carr, who runs the initiative for Catholic social thought in public life at Georgetown, for the first time in his life came out and endorsed a candidate, Joe Biden. And he is about as anti-abortion as anybody I know. But he made the point that if you are pro-life, it is not just about what happens before birth. It's not just about what happens in the womb.
And I am hearing this language, which is traditionally liberal Catholic, liberal Christian language now coming from an awful lot of more conservative, anti-Trump Christians. And I think it's going to be very interesting if that has a lasting effect on the dialogue within these traditions and among quite conservative people.
So you should know we're already getting some comments in the Q&A. And someone has written in, if this is the Supreme Court, I object.
Me too, by the way.
Me too. So it would be really extraordinary if Joe Biden did win the white Catholic vote. Because I don't think that a Democrat has won the white Catholic vote since 2000. So Jim, I'd like to turn it over to you for a minute and ask you to help us get some historical perspective on this. First of all, how did white evangelicals and white Catholics end up so firmly associated with the Republican Party?
Thank you, Catherine. And it's a pleasure, a treat to be here with you and with EJ. Catherine and I, along with David Hollander, running, co-directing a Warren Center seminar at Harvard this year. So Catherine and I have been talking about these issues for quite a while.
And as EJ mentioned, I taught with him last year, and we've been friends for a long time. Much of what I know about American religion and public life I learned from EJ. So it's so great to be here with both of you.
I think it's important to acknowledge that the divisions that EJ talked about have been present in America since before there was a United States. The settlement of the British colonies was divided between a largely Puritan-- what we now call congregationalist New England-- largely Anglican or Episcopalian South, and the Middle colonies-- New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania-- which were a hodgepodge of all sorts of different religious denominations.
So Americans had to learn to live with diversity. And that diversity carried over into the new nation. And so seeing the divisions that we see across liberal and conservative blocs is nothing new. But the one enduring feature of American public life, I would say, has been it's racism. And that's one of the features that we see playing out in our own day and that we've been watching play out for as long as there's been a United States.
And it may well be that the white versus non-white divide will become the most salient divide in the parties in the foreseeable future. One can go back to what was called in the Republican Party in the 1972 election the Southern strategy to identify the flipping of the parties in the regions of the nation. Prior to that time, for much of the 20th century, the South had been solidly Democratic and had been a central part of the New Deal coalition.
But starting with the election of 1968 when George Wallace pulled 13.5% of the vote for an explicitly segregationalist policy, Republicans realized that they had a chance to win the southern states by resisting the Civil Rights movement and the move toward racial integration. And once that happened, the Republican Party took control of the South and has remained in control of the South-- with the exception of Jimmy Carter's election in '76-- ever since.
So the divide that we see now is not as long-standing as some other divides. But I'm going to make a longer point before we get back to the present. And that is that the divisions in American politics, as James Madison pointed out in his contributions to the Federalist Papers, don't necessarily line up according to race, or according to class, or according to religion, that they're a shifting set of more complicated affiliations that people have.
People vote sometimes, as EJ pointed out, according to race, sometimes according to class, sometimes according to region. But they also, Madison pointed out, sometimes vote because of what he described as an irrational attraction toward a particular leader. And he argued that that's been true throughout history, from the ancient world up to the present.
And so I think we might simplify or overstate it if we say that any one of these half a dozen variables that Madison identified is the most salient at any moment. And I certainly wouldn't consider religion to be the most salient factor right now. It might be race. for some people, it might be class For others, it might be region. For others, it might be a cultural affiliation with a whole constellation of either progressive or conservative values that lead them toward either the Republican-- I'll just say the more conservative-- or toward the more progressive of the parties.
Thank you for that. It's really helpful. Oh, I'm sorry, EJ. I'll come back to you. I think I was going to ask you later about how important you thought religion was as a kind of single variable. And of course, it intersects with all of these other variables. EJ?
Oh, yeah. I'm just so glad. And we can't let you off the hook. You know this history as well as anybody, Catherine. So we want you in here too.
I just am very glad Jim said what he said. Just to shout out a book, my friend Robbie Jones' recent book, White Too Long, about the role of racism in the Christian church across the board, Catholic and Protestant, is very important. And I am also glad that Jim went back to Wallace. You could also even go back to Strom Thurmond in 1948 when the Democratic coalition began to fracture around race and civil rights.
It's really important to understand that a lot of the voters we now think of as white, evangelical, and defined by religion had already shifted toward the Republican Party because of race and civil rights starting in 1948 with the Dixiecrats, going through Goldwater in '64, Wallace, and the Nixon Southern strategy so that the Christian Coalition-- and before that, more majority-- came along in the late '70s to kind of organize many of the same voters along religious lines around religiously inflected issues.
Although even those issues had a connection to race, because in some cases, it was a rebellion against the federal government for regulating Christian academies which were often used to get around federal orders to integrate the schools. So there is this intersection of race and religion that we just have to be aware of constantly. So I'm very glad Jim went through that history.
I was trying to think, who could you possibly think of when you were thinking of irrational attraction to a leader? But I won't ask you, Jim. [LAUGHS]
I saw you smiling, EJ. I figured you were having thoughts at that moment. This is actually-- I'm really appreciating your attention to race here because I think the common narrative is that evangelical Protestants became Republicans and became, really, sort of solid Republican voters because of issues around abortion. And that clearly is an important issue, was an important issue, and remains an important issue. But I think you're suggesting that there are also issues around race that are crucial to this coalition.
Right. And Randall Balmer, in his writing, has made the point that if you go back to when Roe was decided, Catholics were far more upset by it than evangelicals. There were a lot of evangelicals who were not, who just put that in their olds category of church-state separationism. And it was only later that this became a central issue.
Now, I'm not saying this is a fake concern. I don't like reading other people's hearts or pretending that I can. And I think it was a real issue for a lot of people. But it came later. I think that's an important piece of it, that the school prayer decisions of the Supreme Court, obviously, were part of the shift.
But again, I think that while a general sense of cultural displacement that a lot of white evangelicals felt, a backlash against academia, against television, against Hollywood, against the way they were treated in the media going all the way back to the Scopes Trial, I think all of that played a role. But still, the underlying deep American division around race can never be ignored in the conversation.
I think, actually, the polling data suggests that Catholics are not that different from Protestants or Nones in their attitudes toward abortion, that there is about a 2/3 majority of Catholics who think that abortion should be legal. If they are opposed to it personally, it should be legal under in some circumstances even if they oppose it themselves. And that's not very different from the numbers for Protestants. So I think the notion that, overwhelmingly, Catholics are making their decision based on their opposition to abortion, is not borne out by the data.
And as EJ pointed out, there is an increasingly large group of pro-life Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who are pointing to other issues besides the question of abortion. In Nicholas Kristof's op-ed in The Times this morning, he interviewed several of those people who EJ had in mind. And it's really striking to see. I mean, from point of view of a progressive Catholic, this is long overdue. This is more consistent, I think, with social Catholicism that EJ and I both have written about for quite a while.
But starting in the late 19th century, there is an emphasis in papal encyclicals, in a number of documents coming out of Rome and also out of US Catholic Bishops Conference, that issues of economic and social inequality should be as important as any other issues. And so the way that abortion has risen to the forefront has seemed to many of us to be a kind of myopia because there's so many other issues that also command our attention.
So I'm going to ask you the question that I get asked all the time, that I find incredibly difficult to answer. And that's, people-- because I study evangelicalism-- always want to know, why is it that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump? And why is it that he has been able to maintain such high rates of allegiance?
And I'm saying white evangelicals because I think it is important to emphasize that there are Latino evangelicals and black evangelicals who share a lot theologically with white evangelicals but differ quite a bit politically. So EJ, I think you spoke a little bit about this, about just the sense that white evangelicals have of being beleaguered, that things have changed in this nation in a way that makes them feel as if the nation has really declined.
Well, this story can be told with more or less sympathy. And you hear the versions of the story told with different sort of accents, if you will, or with different moral resonances. But what is clear is that for an awful lot of white evangelicals-- as, again, Pete Wehner who came to my class today said, they're basically grateful that Donald Trump brought a gun to a culture war knife fight.
And they believe and the metaphor you hear among some of the pro-Trump evangelicals is he's Cyrus of Persia. He may not be one of us, but he's saving us. He may not behave the way we think someone should behave, but he's standing up for us. In Twitter's terms, they vote for him because he owns the libs day after day after day. And I really think that that is a lot of it.
And you hear it-- for example, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, who was now-- actually, I had to just learn this-- a regular commentator on Fox News but was one of the earliest Trump supporters. And he spoke very openly about evangelicals wanting somebody who was tough enough to fight in this battle that they are waging against what they see as the rising forces of secularism, and socialism, and people who are against the values they uphold.
Now, again, you can also tell this story in terms of a group that felt it was once culturally dominant that is losing its cultural dominance. You can tell this story in terms of race, white evangelicals in a country that's becoming increasingly diverse. And how you tell the story probably depends on how much sympathy or empathy you want to have with this group of people.
But I think what it comes down to is a deep conservatism that has had them-- or Republican and conservative-- for a long time. Trump's share was not much different than Mitt Romney's share against Barack Obama. And it wasn't much different than John McCain's share. And it was a little higher because Barack Obama in 2008 sort of did better across almost all groups a little bit better than most Democrats.
But I think this idea of a strong man who will fight their fights is the most important reason why Trump gathers this support. Does that square with your understanding as an evangelical scholar? [CHUCKLES]
Yes. A scholar of evangelicalism, yes. Yeah. I mean, I hear a lot of concern about America used to be a Christian nation and is no longer, and that the Democrats, with their pluralism, want to take away some sort of hegemony that white Christians used to have. I mean-- and I think that Trump, who never seemed to really have any particular Christian sympathies before he got elected, he has really been a very skillful, attentive listener to this sort of rhetoric. And so he puts it in very bald terms.
And I thought it was pretty humorous, actually, when he announced at a rally that if Joe Biden was elected, he would hurt God, which suggests that Joe Biden has incredible supernatural power. [LAUGHS]
That's right. I had the same reaction. I said that no one has ever given Joe Biden that much power.
You know, what was fascinating is he said he would hurt God, he'd hurt guns, and he'd hurt energy-- our kind of energy, Trump said. And I thought, what a revealing little package that is, God associated with guns in that way in particular.
So Jim has written about Barack Obama. I wonder if the two of you could reflect on how both the Obama administration and now the Trump administration have shaped national policies or national conversations about religion?
I'm happy to do that. But before I do, both EJ and Catherine are too polite to correct me directly. But I misspoke when I said that there was no difference between Catholics and evangelical Protestants and others on the question of abortion. Any of you who want to-- and I suspect your chat is lighting up over this, or the Q&A-- can check the Pew Research page on the internet. There's a terrific report on exactly this question. And there is a big difference between people who have no religious affiliation, who are much likelier to say that abortion should be permissible in all circumstances. So I'm sorry for racing through that and muddling it as I did.
One of the striking things to me about Obama's approach to Christianity is how frank he was about having been raised in a non-religious household and about his conversion experience when he was working in Chicago for a Catholic Social Services agency, of all things. But it was then that he decided to start visiting Jeremiah Wright's church. And it was during one of those services, he reports, that he felt the spirit of God beckoning him.
And he refers to himself consistently as a Christian and a skeptic, which I think is a striking formulation that resonates for me, at least, with the earliest beginnings of Christianity when people were not so dogmatic in their beliefs-- at least, if we believe some scholars of early Christianity. And that the focus on hierarchy comes, actually, later, and that the focus on caritas, on charity, was the central issue for those early Christian communities.
But Obama himself, I think, because he was raised in what we might call an ecumenical household in which every religion was taken seriously, and his mother made it clear to him that it was important to understand all different religious beliefs-- he himself held the first Seder at the White House, the first Easter ceremony at the White House. And I think he's tried quite openly to express the sense that America has, for centuries, been a place of plural religions and that we should view it that way going forward.
And the notion that I think many Americans have, that this has been from the start a Protestant, Christian nation and that everyone else is an interloper has fed that sense that EJ just mentioned of people feeling that their America was being taken away from them by others. And I think Obama both personally embodied that sense of being different from the presidents who had come before him and the welcoming sense that there was something precious about the American tradition of welcoming difference and embracing difference. And so I think the signals he was sending out really were about as antithetical to the signals that we've gotten from the Trump White House as is possible to imagine.
I have never forgotten-- I think it was Obama's first inaugural-- And. Jim, you can correct me because I'm sure you know both texts well-- when he said we're a nation of believers and non-believers.
First time ever.
Yes, that was the first time that any president had acknowledged that there were people in the United States who are not affiliated with any religion at all. And it was absolutely an astonishing moment because I think the United States has made room for a variety of religions. But there are many Americans who are still very uncomfortable with the idea of no religion at all.
But as EJ made clear, the landscape is shifting to these Nones, N-O-N-E-S, especially among younger people. Although I think it is important to acknowledge that many of those Nones-- I know a lot of them at Harvard Divinity School. They're coming from religious backgrounds that they have left behind. So when they're surveyed, they'll say, I don't belong to any church, I have no religious affiliation. But what they're really saying is they don't want to belong to any kind of institutional form of religion. So some of them still have a sort of spiritual but not religious vibe.
EJ, do you want to say something about this current administration and how they've shaped conversations about religion and policies about religion?
What I like to do is go back to Obama and get to them. Because I think Obama is, in some ways, a tragic figure in this fear because I think no one was more interested in healing religious divides in the country than Barack Obama. And I teach it-- and I commend it to everybody who is interested-- the speech that Barack Obama gave in 2006 before he ran for president at Jim Wallis' Call to Renewal meeting.
It's an extraordinary document. And many of my conservative friends who didn't vote for Obama agree that it is one of the best takes on religion ever offered by a working politician. Because it was this powerful speech of respect, calling on respect and what the obligations were of believers toward unbelievers and the obligations of unbelievers toward believers. And he really criticized the Democratic Party for, at times, exhibiting prejudice against religious believers.
He talked about an exchange he had with a pro-life voter and how even though it didn't change his position on abortion, it changed the way he talked about it, and how religious people were often at the forefront of movements for social reform including abolition and civil rights. But at the same time, he said that the country included many people, first, who were not Christian but also many people who were not believers, and that the essence of the First Amendment of our national commitment was that we did not declare ourselves a Christian nation or any kind of nation, that we were open to others. And it was an extraordinary piece of work, that speech. And it laid out a genuinely pluralistic and open view of America's religious landscape.
It didn't quite work out the way he wanted it to. And I always said that, in a way, Obama's attitude toward religion should have been the same as Job's. Because whenever he touched religion, something went wrong. And so at first, Barack Obama was a fake Muslim and he was lying about it. Well, no, he wasn't a Muslim. Finally, people said, OK, he's not a Muslim, but he's really a defective Christian because he went to that guy, Jeremiah Wright's church. And Wright believes all these crazy things.
And so I think in some ways, Obama spoke less about religion as time went on, even though he spoke at Prayer Breakfast and he would say some interesting things. But he didn't engage in it as much as he had started to. And then there were particular fights around the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which I think we could revisit that. But nobody really wants to revisit that. I think they mishandled that at the beginning, which created a culture war backlash that was going to happen to some degree, but I don't think it had to be that bad.
And we get back to the intersection of race and religion where a lot of the people who were stirred up by Donald Trump when he was a birther-- some of them were conservative Christians. And I don't think it's all about race. I think it's a mistake to attribute everything. But I also think it's a mistake not to acknowledge that.
And there was just a general sense, for example, when the Obama White House lit up in the gay flag colors after the court decision in Obergefell. That sent a cultural message to people. And so by the end, a guy who really had the possibility of bringing us together couldn't pull it off the way he had hoped.
Now what you've got with Trump is weaponizing religion in a very aggressive way. And my friend, Melissa Rogers, and I put out a report yesterday on how the next president should deal with religion, called A Time to Heal, a Time to Build. We'd like to get that unifying project yet, damn it-- if I may say "damn it" in this context.
But what you have on the right-- and the Trump administration does this to a really large degree-- is there are two halves to the First Amendment. There is non-establishment and there is free exercise. If liberal mistakes tend to be underestimating the free exercise side of it, conservative mistakes tend to be to use free exercise to roll over all sorts of other rights. And if you look at the executive orders and the things Trump has done, he has really gone heavily in that direction.
Last thing-- interestingly, George W. Bush set up the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Obama kept it going with the name Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Note that both had a name that emphasized the civil society role in religion-- community initiatives, neighborhood partnerships.
Trump actually abolished that office. So paradoxically, Barack Obama did better by George W. Bush than Donald Trump did. We recommend that that office be recreated but being very conscious of the fact that the country is more secular now than it was when Obama took over and, certainly, when George W. Bush took over. And so we think of it more as partnerships with civil society as much as faith-based partnerships.
I am interested. When you say that if liberals are erring, it's on the side of trying to limit free exercise. And I wondered if both of you would like to say a little bit about the debates over religious freedom. Both Democrats and Republicans argue that they care deeply about religious freedom. But they seem to have very different definitions of what they mean by that.
Go ahead, Jim. I want you to-- just by the way, limit free exercise-- I don't want to accuse liberals or Democrats of doing that. But if they have to err, they will err on the side of separation, which doesn't appear in the Constitution but was Jefferson's phrase to the Danbury Baptists in that there is a concern that if religion enters public life in any way, and particularly government in any way, it becomes dangerous.
And it can be. They're not wrong about that. The Danbury Baptists were not wrong about that. On the other hand, the history of the United States is one where there have been a lot of partnerships that have worked between government and religious social service organizations, charities, educational institutions, that have been carried out in ways that I think did not get us into trouble on establishment grounds.
But I just want to be clear. I'm not that liberals are against free exercise. They're not. They're just tend to worry much more about church-state separation issues than about free exercise issues.
Jim, who knows Madison-- the guy wrote the thing better than I do. He should talk about this.
Right. I was actually going to go there, EJ. I think it is important. Because I think people on the left often misunderstand what Madison and Jefferson were getting at with the doctrine of separation of church and state. Both of them had the conviction that one's loyalties, one's commitments to one's creator, whoever that might be-- and they were not conventional Christians-- were precedent to, took priority over one's secular or commitments to politics or to the state.
And so it wasn't to keep religion out of the public sphere, but simply to acknowledge that religion has a really crucial place in every polity, but that no religion should be established. And that was really the point they wanted to make, that there should be free exercise of religion. Madison has a really fascinating passage on this. He was a student at what was then the College of New Jersey, now Princeton.
And he was struck by how vibrant the political life in the middle colonies was in the years leading up to the revolution. And he argued that it was because of the plural religious denominations that people were actually engaged in the public sphere, in what we would call civil society. And he compared that with his native Virginia where the Anglican faith was the established religion. And he said that leads to a kind of somnolence, that people fell asleep. They didn't care. They were as uninterested as they were when they went to church.
And so this competition for believers, for putting people in the pew, Madison thought, actually created a kind of vital public sphere that was going to be necessary for self-government. And so I think that people on the left sometimes miss the role of religion in what Tocqueville, when he came in the 1830s, described as voluntary associations that he thought were central to American public life.
And there's a brand new book by Robert Putnam called The Upswing in which he updates his argument in Bowling Alone, which I expect many people with us today are familiar with, that there's been a disaffiliation among Americans from the high watermark in the 50s and 60s toward what we have now as solitary, isolated lives. People not only have stopped bowling in bowling groups, which was his earlier image. They also belong to fewer religious congregations. They belong to fewer clubs of all kinds. They're less active in politics. They're locked into themselves. And that has been, Putnam argues, something really serious for us.
And this is going to go off in a slightly different direction than you had in mind, Catherine. But I'm going to let myself go on this for a minute, and then we'll get back to EJ on the question at hand. One of the striking things in Putnam's new book, in The Upswing, which he co-authors with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, is that all of the movements for progressive reform in the 20th century-- the progressive movement, then the New Deal, then the new frontier of the Great Society-- all had a very significant religious component. And they were driven forward, Putnam and Garrett argue, by people's engagement in the public sphere.
What happens in the late '60s is that with that disaffiliation, people retreat from the public sphere into various kinds of individualism. There's an individualism on the left. There's an individualism on the right. And they point out that that has happened at exactly the same time, that what we often call the Reagan revolution has transformed America from a culture of joiners and a culture of solidarity to a culture of rugged individualism.
And they argue that Reagan is not really responsible for that because it dates back to the late 1960s and that the '60s revolution is really responsible for that. So the argument is that we can renew the impulse towards solidarity if we recover that sense of belonging to something bigger than the self.
Now, the problem as I see it is that the big stumbling blocks in those earlier upsurges had to do with race and gender. And if race and gender remain as serious obstacles to progressive initiatives as they have been through the 20th century into the 21st century, I'm worried, I guess-- I'll put it that way-- about whether it can be restored in the way that it was in the earlier periods of progressive activism.
That's a long excursion away from the question you asked, Catherine, and I apologize for that. But I think it is worth putting on the table because I think it is central to this question of the relation between religious affiliation and public engagement.
Well, then, maybe could we table the question I initially asked for a moment? Because I want to follow up on this. Because you wrote this wonderful book, Toward Democracy. I just heard you quote Tocqueville. And I was going to bring this up later.
You make a compelling argument in that book. Those of you out there, if you haven't read it, it will take you a little while. It must be 800 pages.
But it is well worth reading. It is a very capacious study of democracy. You argue that religion played a positive role in the creation of democracy. And I think there are some Democrats out there who are now so hostile to religion, which they associate with a certain kind of conservatism, with hostility toward climate change, to LGBTQ issues, toward reproductive freedom. So I'd just to hear you reflect more on the role of religion in sustaining a democracy, both historically and what you see the potentials for that today. I mean, it sounds like you're worried about that.
Right. I think-- I mean, the central part--
I couldn't resist going to my bookshelf and getting the capacious Toward Democracy to plug Jim. So it was sitting right there.
Thank you. EJ is my press agent. So I appreciate that.
You have a publicist on this call.
Yes. I have, yes.
PT Barnum is my hero.
All right. Well, thank you for that. But one of the arguments in the book-- and I think a lot of people who have criticized the book think I'm cheerleading for religiosity, and I'm certainly not. But my argument is that democracy rests on a cultural foundation that is often missed. The institutions are important. We couldn't do without the rule of law, without majority rule, without elections. But unless you have beneath those a commitment to what I call the culture of reciprocity, which enables you to lose to your worst enemy and let that person take power, unless you have that culture of reciprocity, democracy is too fragile.
And we see all over the world places where democracy was not deeply rooted, places like Turkey and Hungary where there is no tradition of Democratic rule, where it has proven to be extremely fragile, where autocracy is on the horizon.
What I think made democracy work where it did work were these cultural underpinnings of democracy. And it's hard to find in any place in the ancient world anything like a culture of reciprocity or what we think of as the golden rule before we get to the Rabbi Hillel and Jesus Christ. And central to the Christian ethic is the notion that all men are brothers, that we owe something to each other. And that conviction, that solidarity is crucial to social and political life. It's what I think drives democracy forward.
Religion has also served as a reactionary force in many places in the world and many times in the Western world. But starting with the Protestant Reformation, I think this notion of the priesthood of all believers pushes forward the notion that common people can exercise power. And so my argument for both Western Europe and for the United States is that we really missed something, that we missed the role that religion played. Just looking at the American side, you don't have abolition without evangelical Christianity. You don't have a progressive movement without-- so many of the progressives were sons and daughters of ministers.
You don't have a Civil Rights movement without the Black evangelical church. Without the energy and the conviction that people of religious faith brought to progressive pauses, American history would be dramatically different. And I think it is true that many people on the secular left today are disinclined-- because of the amount of attention that's been paid to conservative evangelicals in recent decades-- to acknowledge just what a crucial, what a constitutive role the religious left has played throughout American history. And I could tell that story for Britain and even for France as well, but we'll leave it there.
Let me just say real quick on Jim, when I was what watching the Democratic Convention on Zoom, it came to mind-- they were trying a little bit to say Joe Biden's a pretty religious guy. And what came to mind is when Teddy Roosevelt's progressives walked out of the Republican convention and Teddy Roosevelt essentially accepted the Bull Moose Party nomination and was off to the races as a progressive, the last line of his speech was, we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.
And I was thinking on my little Zoom screen, I wonder what would happen if somebody said that right now at this Democratic convention? Can I be forgiven to put an absurdly hopeful thought on the table in light of what Jim just said? It is premised on the idea that Trump will lose the election on Tuesday. And obviously, if that doesn't happen, everything I say is, as Richard Nixon used to say, inoperative. But I think that--
We'll erase the tape.
[LAUGHS] --that there are a couple of things that may have come out of this era that could partly-- in large part in reaction to Trump-- that we might begin to see as why we enter a period of rebuilding. Thing one is political mobilization itself. Our colleague, Theda Skocpol, has done some wonderful work showing that between them, the Tea Party and the anti-Trump movement mobilized a lot more people into political action.
And Trump in particular has created a backlash that has led to an extraordinary increase in participation. The midterm elections of 2018 had the highest turnout since 1914, so over 100 years. Republicans got 10 million more votes. Democrats got 25 million more votes than they did four years earlier in 2014. So there is something happening where people are understanding that participating, activism matters.
Second, I think there's a realization that democracy is more fragile than we thought and that's not just true in the United States. You're seeing it in Poland. You're seeing it in Hungary. You're seeing it in a lot of other places. An awareness of that fragility-- thank you, Danny Ziblatt and Steve Levitsky an awareness of that fragility, I think, is very important to saving democracy itself.
Third, I think some of the backlash against Trump is leading to a lot of reconsideration among people who were attracted to him or are part of movements-- and I'll bring it back to our discussion-- like the evangelical church. I think there will be a reckoning-- one might even call it a come to Jesus moment-- after this is over, which I think could be very useful to our religious traditions.
So I'll stop being absurdly hopeful now. But I think all those things are possible coming out of this era-- depending on the outcome of the election, I should quickly add.
I appreciate the hopefulness. We all need some hopefulness. I'm going to start reading some questions from the Q&A because they're just so thoughtful. So this is a longer one, but here it goes. I'm an alum, also a pastor at UCC. And I'm a parishioner who grew up Southern Baptist, who says evangelical theology derives from the lost cause ideology of post-Civil-War religion in the South. It abandons the social covenant for individual salvation and has promoted abortion as the greatest sins, in direct contradiction of Jesus's teaching of the great law.
This is a long question. The erosion of understanding of Christianity as a movement, a flock, a social covenant has been overwhelming. Biden seems able to thread the needle here, but who will lead us as a public theologian in our time? EJ, do you have any ideas?
Well, I can't resist just putting in a brief plug for Pope Francis, who's actually been doing some very interesting work as a public figure in this area-- yesterday with civil unions, which is quite extraordinary in the Catholic church. But his recent encyclical on politics, which is a very communitarian, sort of inclusive kind of approach to politics, and obviously his encyclical on climate change. So he is certainly a figure like that.
I want to sort of pause and try to think of, who would I think of as a theologian? Because I've thought a lot about how public theology is treated in our society. And whereas Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillach made the cover of Time magazine, it is hard to think of a theologian in this era who would make whatever the new equivalent of the cover of Time magazine is in our time. Even though there are some-- we all know we could name a lot of-- our friends are extraordinary thinkers in the religious sphere. But public religion of that sort does not have the purchase.
So bail me out, Catherine and Jim. Who would come to mind on that? I took the easy one.
I think the issue is less theologians than activists, right? William Barber.
Yeah, Barber is a good one.
But theologians of a sort of Reinhold Niebuhr stripe, that's a lot more difficult.
One of the things that I think has happened in the last five decades is that the media that we all pay attention to pays less attention to religion. And perhaps that's in some ways a reflection of the divide between the left and the right within as well as between denominations. But I'm reminded of the gripes that some of my colleagues issued when Drew Faust was not on the cover of The New York Times every week.
She wasn't saying anything outrageous. And if you don't say something outrageous, you're not going to be covered as much as you are if you're at one of the fringes. And I think part of what has happened to theology is that there are fewer people operating at the fringes and more people operating in the quiet center. And during the 1940s and 1950s, Niebuhr could have that kind of significance because it was a moment when-- at least from the point of view of the majority of people in the United States-- there was a kind of coming together in America after World War II.
Now, we know from a new book by Casey Blake and others that at the center, beneath that, the rebellions of the '60s were all beginning. But there was a sense that America was-- and this was the American century, as Luce called it. This was America triumphant. And a public theologian could claim to speak for that united center. Whereas now I think we are more polarized than we have been probably at any point during the 20th century for a variety of reasons that EJ knows better than most people do.
And I think because of that polarization, it would be very hard to nominate anyone who would speak across that divide. And that's what Niebuhr was able to do, what John Courtney Murray was able to do for Catholics. And I think we're just in a moment where it's difficult both because of the sort of sensationalism of our media and because of the polarization for anybody to play that role-- except for Pope Francis, I agree with you. He's the leading figure.
Just quickly, I'm getting myself at best a C minus for my answer here. You know, I teach about Niebuhr, Abraham Heschel, and Martin Luther King as three kind of prophets in their way, and King as a thinker, not just as an activist, but both coming together. You could think of-- I think of my friend David Sapperstein as an incredibly important voice like Heschel's but without Heschel's prominence.
I think of my friend Jim Wallis as reflecting a sort of progressive evangelical tradition. Obviously, the Reverend Barber is a perfect example. And so there are folks like that out there. But I feel like this question is going to drive me back to try to get a good answer to this question. But like the person at the exam where the exam shuts down, I'll fail and only think about it after this session is over. So thanks for the good question.
So one of our HDS students would like to hear your reflections on Robert Putnam's work on the God gap. Putnam is a sociologist here at Harvard who's argued that the religious polarization that we see today has not been an enduring feature, necessarily, of American politics, and that Republican leaders have tried to ally themselves with the cause of religion itself so that the Republican Party has become the party of religion and the Democratic Party has become the party of-- I'm not sure what, to non-religion, secularism, opposition to religion? Do you agree with him? And if so, how did Republicans manage to do this?
Well, I think they've made a serious effort in doing it. But if you think of the Democrats who ran for the presidential nomination this spring, Elizabeth Warren often talked about the time she spent teaching Sunday school, Methodist congregation. Pete Buttigieg was, maybe, as forthright as anybody else about his religious convictions and said that was what drove him into politics. Biden, as EJ has mentioned, is a practicing Catholic.
Even AOC and Stacey Abrams have made no secret of their religious upbringing and their religious convictions. So I think, again, this is simply a kind of blindness on the part of much of the left, that people don't realize that there is a pretty serious commitment. And I could go back down the list, including Corey Booker and some others, who were quite forthright this time in speaking about their religious convictions.
Why don't we pay attention to that? I'm not sure why we don't. EJ, what do you think?
I think there are several things going on here. Thing one is the Republican Party is quite homogeneous. It is overwhelmingly white Christian. That means that the Republican Party's message is quite clear and directed to white Christians. And so there's not a lot of ambiguity there. And they have used this at times to their political benefit.
The Democrats, as I mentioned at the beginning, had this coalition management problem on religion because they are not a white Christian party. It's about a third of Democrats are white Christian. They are the party of African-American. And Latino Christians are the party of Jews, and Muslims, and Hindus, and Jains, and they're the party of secular people.
So there has often been a reluctance in the Democratic Party in recent years to speak in religious terms. Hillary Clinton did not speak as much about her religion as she could have because her Methodism was critical to everything. She thought about politics, but it's a harder coalition to keep together. So I think that's one piece of this story.
I think the second piece of the story, in terms of the larger God gap, is you've had a kind of polarization where until the last 10 or 15 years when their numbers had finally stabilized or started to go down a bit, the rising force within the Christian world was, in fact, evangelical and more generally nondenominational-- you know, mega churches and the like, which was, on the whole-- not uniformly, but on the whole-- a more conservative form of faith and politics. On the other end was the rise of the Nones, the rise of the secular people. And so I think a lot of the conversation was had between those two poles, which changes the conversation.
Lastly, I think the identification of religion with conservative politics-- particularly, I think an anti-LGBTQ politics-- has been devastating for the churches among younger people. It's driven them out. It's made them not identify with religion at all. The secession of young people from religion means that progressive traditions within our churches are missing a successor generation. Because a lot of those younger people who have left religion would themselves have been the successor generation to progressive Christians. And I think that's a real crisis for progressive Christianity.
You're actually answering a question that's come up a couple of times in the Q&A about the future of younger Christians who have become very disillusioned with their churches. And I think that's really a question not only for those churches but for the Republican Party, which has really been depending on evangelical voters for support.
We have a question from our colleague here at Harvard, Jim Engle, who just wants to hear you talk a little bit about religious pluralism. So religious pluralism is often portrayed by some conservative Christians as a negative. And he asks, can't one argue that countries with an established church or a state church-- the two not being exactly the same-- have actually hindered some Democratic impulses and narrowed cultural richness, and that religious pluralism, including the presence of nonbelievers, has promoted democracy and cultural richness? What do you think?
Amen to that. I want Mr. Madison up in the corner here to speak to that.
Yeah, I certainly-- Hello, Jim. I couldn't agree more with that. I think that has been--
Answer the question.
No, the reason that France has this, I think, secular-religious split has a lot to do with the fact that Catholicism was the established religion, and that after the French Revolution, the Ultramontaine Church basically said no to everything that smacked of any kind of popular political movement. And so you had this increasingly brittle ancien regime that kept coming back versus a radical reform of republicanism. And I think we see that playing out now.
The French have a very hard time because of the depth of their convictions about being a lay state. In accepting the existence of people who are genuinely religious, it looks to them to be anti-Republican or anti-French. And it does seem to me as though in America, we have had less trouble accepting the persistence of religion alongside the emergence of the Nones than a fair number of nations in Europe with formerly established religions have done-- or still established, as in the case of Great Britain. But EJ, what do you think?
Yeah. During the George W. Bush administration, they had fun one day when the French were having the whole controversy over girls wearing the scarf in schools. And the French didn't like the headscarf. And of course, the Bush-- I can't remember which office of the government. But it basically expressed good old American religious pluralism views that the headscarf should be acceptable and that we accept religious pluralism in the United States. Interestingly, I'm not sure the Trump administration would say what the Bush administration said about that. But that's another story.
But I think there's no question that our pluralist situation, and the First Amendment and what it encouraged, has been very good for religion throughout our history. It creates a vibrancy. It creates, as our conservative friends might say, a vibrant competition among sects. But I also think immigration, being an immigration country, has led to vibrancy of religion in America.
Because I think one of the hidden reasons why we have tended to be a more religious country than other industrial countries, other wealthy countries, is because for many immigrants, maintaining their faith, maintaining a connection to their religious tradition, was a way of connecting to who they were before they came here. And so I think there has been a vibrancy to our faith because of pluralism, and because of the pluralism created by immigration, and because of the connection to religion that being an immigrant country, I think, has encouraged.
You certainly saw that in the Catholic community. I think-- I had an Indian friend who said, I never was religious until I got to the United States. And being Hindu was part of a way to preserve an Indian identity. But I think we should embrace this pluralism. And anybody who is very religious who does not like religious pluralism, I think, is making a mistake if they care about the health of religion. So I'm very much in sympathy with this comment, as Jim is.
So we have a number of questions about a divide that we really haven't talked about much yet, and that's the gender divide. This is a huge gender gap in polling. And so I'd be interested in your reflections on how that intersects with religious affiliation and whether you think that Biden is going to be able to make any inroads among evangelical suburban women, those housewives out there in the suburbs.
You know, I feel like Jim and I should, on moral grounds, cede this question to you and have you give the first answer. I couldn't agree more.
So, yeah. There clearly is a huge gap at this moment. I haven't seen enough polling about evangelical women. I've actually been looking for it because I know some evangelical women who have turned away from Trump, who are speaking as if there is a kind of wave that's coming or that has come. But I don't think that there's really reliable polling data to show us that.
Billy Graham's granddaughter came out to say that she cannot vote for Trump even though she is pro-life, that she understands pro-life as being also about protection of immigrants, and anti-death penalty, and making sure that people have health care. So women's suffrage has made a difference in some elections. But I think this election might be, perhaps, the biggest gender gap.
There was certainly a gender gap in the Clinton election. But it looks like this one might be even larger. EJ, have you seen any polling that's specifically about evangelical women?
No. I think there is a little bit of departure. By the way, my favorite gender gap poll ever, the finding-- and I may have the numbers off by a few points. 80% of men said they and their wives voted the same way. 49% of women said they and their husbands voted the same way. So something really interesting is going on in an awful lot of American households.
I think there is-- the gender gap-- I think Trump is suffering from two different historical gender gaps. Before Reagan, the gender gap really started rising. The Republican-Democratic gender gap started rising with the Reagan election in 1980. And since then, women have been consistently a number of points more Democratic than men have been. And in some elections, it's been quite large. In this one, it's through the roof. And that is the traditional Democratic-Republican gender gap with Trump aggravating it.
But there is another gender gap that predates the 1980 gender gap, which is that women were often somewhat more conservative, but in a small-C way, which meant that women tended to reject authoritarian candidates and extremist candidates, that women often voted more moderate than men did. The reason women got the vote in Italy is because they were more likely to vote against the communists and for the Christian Democrats. So it was actually conservatives in Italy who wanted to get the vote to women.
There is some evidence that women were more inclined to vote against Hitler than men. There's a lot of evidence women were much less inclined to vote for George Wallace than men. And so I think Trump suffers from the Democratic-Republican gender gap, which he aggravates. But then I also think he aggravates that more or longer tradition of women being more resistant to extremism or authoritarian candidates than men. And I think both those things are going on in this election.
Yeah. The study that EJ referred to earlier that Theda Skocpol and Laura Putnam did of the 2018 elections that resulted in the blue wave, it was middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated women in the suburbs who drove that wave. And I think it is the case that this is simply the continuation of that trend that we saw picking up the day after the inauguration back in 2017.
So Jim, here's a question for you. You all seem to be--
I guess I told that gender gap story at the beginning because I bet in some evangelical households, there will be women going in and quietly voting for Joe Biden and not for Donald Trump. And we'll figure this out. But I think there is something of a gender gap. I just haven't seen a huge one.
Yeah. I mean, I'm not clear-- Will people admit it if they don't vote for Trump? It's another question. So Jim, here's your question. You all seem to be believers in American democracy, amen. But there is a lot of recognition right now that the United States has never been a democracy for all people and that it has increasingly become an oligarchy. How do you come down on these debates? Jim, I would love to hear you talk about the title of your book, Toward Democracy, which I think acknowledges exactly this issue.
Yeah. That's exactly right. I mean, I think of democracy as a horizon. Like John Dewey, I think that democracy is an ethical ideal. And like any other ethical ideal, we're never quite going to arrive there. So I take the questioner's point that America has never had the kind of equality that I see as being central to democracy. It's always been exclusionary rather than inclusionary, as those of us, at least, on the left would like for it to be in the 21st century.
But if you look at American history over time, it has become increasingly inclusionary. And with the exception of recent attempts to shrink the electorate, it has become more and more open to more and more people. So it's true that if we measure it against our ideal of a democracy, we're not close. If we measure it in relation to either the way the United States has been in the past or the way that other nations were when the United States was established, we have been the most Democratic nation.
If you look at the size of the electorate in most European nations, it was not until after World War II that it began to approach the size of the electorate that America-- the percentage of people who vote in the United States-- first among men, but then after 1920, among women as well. So no, it's not what we would like to see. Yes, there are aspects of oligarchy. And Citizens United makes it even likelier that those will continue and perhaps even be exacerbated by the continuing infusion of big money on a scale that we've never had to deal with in American history up to now.
But once Biden is elected and once the Supreme Court expands to 13 justices and we can do away with Citizens United, then perhaps all of this will begin to change.
Amen, Jim. I want to read one of the only-- I rarely get a chance to teach Jim anything. And I actually told him that Vaclav Havel had his idea when he came to speak to Congress. So I want to read the Havel quote and then briefly answer the question.
Havel-- I think it was 1990-- said, as long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always be no more than an ideal. One may approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense, you-- meaning we Americans-- you, too, are merely approaching democracy. And I always loved that.
I agree with the premise of the question, that I think at various points in our history, we have approached, as it were, oligarchy and then pulled away from it through periods of reform. And when you look at the Supreme Court, one of the things that angers me the most about this conservative Supreme Court is the twin effect of the Citizens United decision, which was aimed at empowering the already powerful, and the decision basically gutting the Voting Rights Act, which undercut the power of those who had less power as it was.
And so I do think that there are elements of our politics that are in that direction. Again, to be a hope monger-- it's a word Barack Obama invented-- I would point out that one of the astonishing things about this campaign is how much money is being given not by the big money people but by average citizens. Jamie Harrison down in South Carolina did not raise $58 million from Wall Street. I mean, there's probably some Wall Street money there because there's Wall Street money everywhere. But that was small contributions from all over the country.
So I think that there is a lot of pushback going on against oligarchy. And I think we're going to have, by the way, a new debate about anti-trust and the power of how-- a lot of new thinking what happened. Even this Justice Department is doing with Google-- I think that portends a big 10-year debate we're going to have about concentrated economic power.
So on the one hand, I think we we're in a period that's problematic. But there is some evidence that we are also responding to that problem. And we'll see if we respond effectively.
So somebody would like to know-- and I think this would be good education for the largest group. Somebody asks, was the US really not a Christian nation? And specifically raises the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. How do you talk about Christianity in the early Republic?
I think the fact that no religion is established in the United States is the crucial point to make. I mean, there are too many diverse forms of Christianity for any one of them to become the national-- the state religion of the sort that you have in most European nations. And that really was a crucial decision that was taken with people's eyes open. And I tried to explain how Madison saw it. And Jefferson agreed with him about that.
As E.J said, that kind of pluralism is actually very helpful for the vibrancy of religion. So it's true that there was a very small number of non-Christian people in the United States. But many of the founders would not have described themselves as members of any of the standard denominations even if they were believers in God. Neither Franklin nor Jefferson nor Madison would have thought of himself that way.
So I think it is the case that-- I mean, the colony of Maryland was founded by Catholics for Catholics. So if by Christian one means Protestant Christian, they were certainly the vast majority. But it was a very deliberate decision not to establish a state church.
Yeah. I think it's really important to distinguish between a nation with huge numbers of Protestant Christians-- so when people say Christian nation, they're really referring to Protestants because Catholics were a smaller minority. And as immigrants started to arrive, they were persecuted. There were Catholic churches that were burned. And there were lots of controversies over public schools and whether Catholics had to read the King James version of the Bible.
But-- so it's true that large numbers of Americans in the post-revolutionary period were Protestant. And it is true that you can find documents here and there where somebody with some official title says that America is a Christian nation. But there is nothing actually in the Constitution. And I think, actually, perhaps the greatest sign that people on the ground didn't think that the United States was a Christian nation is that there were repeated attempts to create a constitutional Amendment to say that America was a Christian nation. And those amendments failed.
The Confederacy, when it was formed, actually did have a piece of their Constitution saying that the Confederacy was a Christian nation. And there were some conservative Protestants in the North who were afraid that the Civil War was God's punishment on America for not putting God in the Constitution and for not making any kind of explicit identification. So these arguments about how to understand the United States have been going on, really, since the 19th century. EJ, do you want to add to that?
Yeah. I have two historical theories, which is very dangerous since I'm the only non-historian on this panel. Just point one-- the Constitution was written at a moment when the dominant influence on the founders was an enlightenment influence. I think that's fair to say-- Jim can correct me-- that the, really, more evangelical Protestant inflection of our politics didn't really come until the Great Awakening. And I do think there was some kind of shift in national self-understanding to some degree between the founding and that period. So that's theory one. I want your response, briefly.
Theory two is we've always-- I think we were, for a very long time, a country in which there was, effectively, cultural establishment of Protestantism as the dominant religion in the country. And I used to tell my friends in the Vatican when I covered the Vatican for The New York Times that every American is a little bit Protestant-- that includes atheists, Jews, and Muslims, and Catholics-- because that founding culture is so strong.
And I think we went through a long period of cultural establishment of Protestantism. I think that really broke up with Al Smith and the New Deal where the immigrant generations sort of really began grasping political power. I think then that got codified in the third stage in the court decisions that finally said there could not be prescribed prayer in public schools and the like. And then we entered a period of reaction against that.
And so you can also view the rise of the religious right as a backlash against the cultural disestablishment of Protestantism as the dominant influence on the country. I'm curious. As historians, does that square at all with your understanding of the story?
I think you're right on both counts.
Yes, I agree. Someone in the Q&A wanted more information about state establishments. So there was no established religion for the United States. There was no state church like there had been in England. But individual states were allowed to make their own decisions about whether they wanted to establish a church. And it's no surprise that in Massachusetts, the home of the Puritans, was the last state to disestablishment its church, which was in 1833.
It's important to know that before that, dissenters could get certificates. So let's say you were a Baptist or you were a Quaker. You could petition the Massachusetts state government to have your state taxes sent to your church rather than to the congregational church. So what happened in 1833 is that people were allowed to just not pay taxes anymore to support any church at all. And that was really the-- that was following the lead of the national Constitution, which made it possible to believe anything you wanted or not to believe at all, not to be a part of any church.
So we're almost out of time. So I just want to ask you one last question, and that's whether you can imagine someone without any religious affiliation at all becoming the presidential candidate for one of the major parties. Are we moving to a world where religion might start to matter less or not?
I always-- you know, that question comes up a lot. And I always like to say, maybe it's already happened since we don't really know what the actual beliefs were of a lot of our presidents. Two things on that-- my favorite poll fighting-- same survey, same group of people. 70% said they would prefer it if the president is religious. And 51% said they didn't like it when candidates talked about how religious they are.
Now, that seems to be a contradiction. How do you know that they're religious if they don't talk about it? And it made me think what they're really saying is, we want somebody religious. We don't want them to be too publicly pious about it.
I think the answer to that question is yes, but not for about 30 years. In other words, if I extrapolate-- but maybe sooner-- but if I extrapolate from the numbers of where the Religious Nones are, I think it will be easier. You're seeing a slow ticking up of the members of Congress willing to say they're not religious. But it's still a very small number. But I think it will be a while.
Yeah. I would say it has already--
But again, I think we-- what might happen is a candidate-- unless it's already happened. Yeah. Go ahead, Jim.
I was just to say, I think it has already happened. And I think the current incumbent in the White House is a perfect example of that. No matter what he says, he's clearly a man with no principles at all, whether they're religious principles or any others. But I think it is only a matter of time before someone is elected who professes no religious belief. And if the percentage of Nones among the rising generation continues to grow as it has in the last 20 years, it'll be, I think, before 30 years from now. But you and I won't be around to see it, EJ. So we won't know.
Yeah, we will.
I have always been fascinated that when you look at Colonial laws in various states-- for example, in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania was one of the most liberal states. But they did have a religious test for office holding. And the office holding-- the religious test was that you had to believe in God and a future state of rewards or punishments. So in other words, you had to believe that you could go to hell.
Right. Which is-- I mean, and I think a great many people believe that religion is-- I've always thought that answer of, we want somebody who believes in God-- I do think it becomes a placeholder for morality for a lot of people when they answer that polling question. And yeah, the notion of going to hell is a pretty powerful incentive for better behavior. And that's why it's been a powerful idea for a long time.
Yeah. I-- whoops, here comes the cat. I think it would be, perhaps, something we should reinstate. Who are you accountable to?
Well, thank you to both of you so much for this conversation. I set this up because I really wanted to eavesdrop on a conversation between the two of you about religion and the election. So I have really enjoyed this today. And I appreciate your taking the time.
And thank you to all the people who have come from all over the country to hear this conversation today. So thanks, everybody.
Bless you. Thank you so much.