As to the second assumption, far from retreating into the private sphere, religion in America has reasserted its public role. This has been a crucial dimension of the political landscape of America since the early 1980s, when the Moral Majority burst onto the scene. In the ensuing decades, we have seen Christian fundamentalists exert an extraordinary influence on the Republican Party, while grassroots fundamentalist activists have gained power in local politics and school districts. Public education has been a particular target, because from the 1940s to the 1960s, American public schools were the objects of a vigorous secularizing effort that had prohibited religious exercises and Bible reading. Recent years have witnessed repeated efforts to roll back these measures, bring prayer back into the schools, and offset the teaching of Darwinian evolution with instruction in creationism. George W. Bush supported these campaigns in various ways, including his controversial faith-based initiatives, which allowed religious organizations to compete for government money without a strict separation between their religious activities and their social-service programs.
The reinvigoration of religion’s public role has not been the sole preserve of the Christian Right. Progressive movements have drawn heavily on religious themes, most prominently the civil-rights movement. Barack Obama’s eloquence is often leavened by biblical resonances, and his message of hope taps the veins of religious yearning and expectation that marble the bedrock of American oratory. Moreover, even though Obama has reversed some of Bush’s religiously driven policies, such as the restriction on human embryonic stem-cell research, he has continued Bush’s willingness to partner with faith-based social organizations. What separates the two administrations is Obama’s promise to refuse to endorse employment discrimination based on faith within religious organizations receiving taxpayer dollars. This in turn signals one of the most important departures of the new administration, namely Obama’s much stronger emphasis on the inclusiveness of America as a land of faith. “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” he said in his inaugural address. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews, and Hindus—and nonbelievers.”
Obama speaks in the tongue of America’s civil religion, and here “religion” means more than just a metaphor for love of flag and country. True to Obama’s claim, Christianity may have provided the predominant frame in this country, but it is remarkable that the American civil religion seems capable of drawing all the major faiths into its ambit. Indeed, it seems that America is a machine for generating faith—studies have found that immigrants of all faith traditions often become more, not less religious as they steep in the melting pot. That is, perhaps, not as surprising as it might sound. Alexis de Tocqueville, after all, had already described the potent link between religion and democracy in America. To this day it is difficult to overlook the paradox that in a land that prides itself on the constitutional separation of church and state, religion nonetheless provides crucial ligaments that tie many people to their civic identity. (Witness a 2006 survey that suggested that Americans consider atheists the least trusted minority in American society. In light of that, Obama’s inclusion of nonbelievers was not incidental.)
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