Many posts have discussed the role of religion in American life.
In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he famously said of the Union and the Confederacy, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” That was true most dramatically in the Civil War, but it’s been true in countless conflicts before and since.
In fact, in the present day, it’s still true. As Republicans and Democrats hate each other with increasing ferocity, both parties utterly depend on the two most churchgoing demographics in America to attain and hold power. While Democrats are more secular than Republicans, it’s a rump party without the black vote, and black voters are among the most devout and churchgoing citizens in the United States of America. Republicans of course depend on the white Evangelical vote, and white Evangelicals attend church and believe in the God of the Bible at rates similar to black Protestants.
And what of America’s religious past, the good old days that so many Republican Christians seem to remember and long for? Reality is far more messy. One can make a good argument that white Protestant religious power may well have reached its American apex during Prohibition. A religiously infused temperance movement was so powerful that it succeeded in passing a constitutional amendment essentially imposing morals legislation throughout the United States.
Yet what else was happening in the United States during that era? Well, the entire southern United States (the Bible Belt, by the way) was essentially an apartheid sub-state within the larger United States. It brutally oppressed America’s black citizens, including its black Christian citizens. The Tulsa Race Massacre happened in 1921, at the peak of white Protestant power.
Here’s a challenging reality: America has become more just—and thus closer to the ideals one would expect of a Christian nation—as white Protestant power has waned. The United States of 2022 is far more just than it was in 1822 or 1922 or 1952 or even 1982. And while white Protestants have undeniably been part of that story—they were indispensable to the abolitionist movement, for example—the elevation of other voices has made a tremendous difference.
In the civil rights movement, the sad reality is that all too often the person wielding the fire hose and the person facing the spray both proclaimed faith in Jesus and both went to church, but only one of them was acting justly. And any account of American civil rights has to include the vital contribution of the American Jewish community.
Once again, the same theme pops up: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”