From the Editor:
by Mark Silk
sort of an article of faith at the Greenberg Center that region matters. In
2001, we embarked on Religion by Region, a project designed to explore the
place of religion in America’s regional cultures. What ensued were edited
volumes on religion and public life in each of eight regions of the country,
followed this summer by One Nation, Divisible, written by Andrew
Walsh and myself.
volume is meant to summarize the project as a whole; to make useful
comparisons among regions; and to incorporate region into the story of
religion in America since World War II. It also seeks to show, as the
subtitle announces, How Regional Religious Differences Shape American
Politics. Among the ways this happens is via the performance of
presidential candidates on the campaign trail.
Take the case
of John F. Kennedy.
When, in his
famous appearance before the Houston ministers in 1960, Kennedy strongly
opposed the influence of religious leaders and beliefs on political
behavior, he was not only seeking to calm Protestant anxieties about having
a Catholic in the White House. He was also speaking out of his experience as
a politician in New England, where a history of bitter conflict between
Irish and Yankee had, by the middle of the 20th century, led to a tacit
agreement that religion was a private matter that should be off the table
when it comes to partisan politics.
In the current
election season, every regional religious culture with the exception of New
England has helped shape the outlooks of the four politicians running for
Joe Biden, who
grew up in a working class Irish Catholic community in Scranton,
Pennsylvania, is Middle Atlantic all the way. Ever since the arrival of
colonists from Europe, the Middle Atlantic states have been characterized by
a robust religious pluralism of distinct communities. Religious tensions
there have been, but in the main, the region has been a place where
individuals understand themselves as belonging to one or another swatch of
an ethno-religious tapestry made more worthwhile by the presence of others.
expressed this point of view precisely when asked on Meet the Press how he
would explain to his running mate when life begins.
“Look, I know when it begins for me. It’s a personal and private issue. For
me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church.
But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional
faiths—Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others—who have a different view.”
In the Middle
Atlantic, religion is a multiple thing, and the differences need to be
John McCain, a Navy brat if ever there was one, may have grown up in the
Washington, D.C., area, but he now personifies the religious culture of the
Mountain West, whither he betook himself to practice politics in 1981. This
is a region marked (like the rest of the West apart from Utah) by low
religious affiliation rates. It is a world of enclaves—a far flung
archipelago distinguished by a libertarian sensibility: You leave me alone
and I’ll treat you the same.
instincts seem libertarian as well. On the hot button issues of gay marriage
and abortion, he prefers to let each state decide—the federalist approach
championed on the Supreme Court by his fellow Arizonan, Sandra Day O’Connor.
Mountain West has hardly been unaffected by the religious politics of the
past generation. Conservative evangelicalism has made advances in various
parts of the region, led by the emergence of Colorado Springs as the Vatican
(or perhaps the Salt Lake City) of the religious right.
One might say
that McCain’s religious lack of focus—his maintenance of an allegiance to
the Episcopalianism of his youth even as he attends (but does not belong to)
his wife’s Baptist church, the secular outlook he conveys not only by his
support for embryonic stem cell research but also in his obvious lack of
enthusiasm for the rest of the moral values agenda—reflects the competing
impulses that beset the region.
Sarah Palin is likewise a Westerner, from that least churched of American
regions, the Pacific Northwest. Alaska differs from the region’s other
states, Oregon and Washington, by being a throwback to the days when
extraction industries drove economic life. Ideologically, it’s frontier
libertarianism all the way, so long as you don’t think about the huge
government subsidies to which the population has become addicted. It is
among the least religiously committed states in America, with 60 percent of
its population unaffiliated.
committed evangelicalism is thus atypical of the Alaskan religious scene.
Indeed, it reflects the influence of immigrants from another region of
country—what we call the Southern Crossroads (Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri,
Louisiana, and Arkansas)—who brought their religious habits with them. As
the New York Times recounted on September 14:
In the past
three decades, socially conservative Oklahomans and Texans have flocked
north to the oil fields of Alaska. They filled evangelical churches around
Wasilla and revived the Republican Party. Many of these working-class
residents formed the electoral backbone for Ms. Palin, who ran for mayor on
a platform of gun rights, opposition to abortion, and the ouster of the
“complacent” old guard.
has a higher proportion of Pentecostals than any other region of the
country, and foremost among the Pentecostal dominations is the Assemblies of
God, headquartered in Springfield, Missouri, which Palin belonged to for
most of her life. Religion in the Crossroads is something of a blood
sport—an arena of contention not just between the dominant Protestants and
the large Catholic minority, but among and within the Protestant
denominations themselves. An us-against-them attitude prevails, as well as a
certain impulse to go out and remake the world in your own image.
From what one
can tell, Palin’s public career reflects the kind of tension that comes from
embracing Crossroads-style evangelicalism in a state in which evangelicals
constitute a small minority unable to work their will easily upon the public
decided to run for statewide office in 2002, she left the Assemblies of God
and joined a more low-key, nondescript Bible church. In her 2004
gubernatorial election campaign, she charged her pro-choice opponent with
using abortion as a wedge issue against her. After firing her public safety
commissioner, her choice to succeed him was “a rising star in Alaska’s
conservative Christian movement,” in the words of an Anchorage Daily News
op-ed September 20. Crossroads-style activists have to pick their spots in
there’s Barack Obama, another hybrid character, who made his way from the
farthest reaches of the country’s Pacific region to higher education in
California and the East Coast, to seeking his public destiny in the capital
of the Midwest.
religious identities are the hallmark of the Pacific, and Obama’s early
years in Hawaii (with time in Indonesia) reflect that region’s
characteristically diffuse, institutionally disconnected spirituality. In
his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama describes the
process by which he embedded himself religiously at Chicago’s Trinity United
Church of Christ. What he took away, both from his experience of that
African-American church and his study of the civil rights movement, was
something of the black civil religion of the South: a distinctively Southern
sense of messianic potential, but portrayed (most famously in the speeches
of Martin Luther King, Jr.) as transcending race.
political self, however, Obama is, finally, a Midwesterner who embodies a
Midwestern sense of the importance of the community as a unified whole
pulling together. This is pluralism not in the Middle Atlantic sense of
separate entities doing their own thing in relative harmony, but as the kind
of common cause where everyone lends a hand to raise the barn.
observers, the onetime community organizer’s soaring rhetoric has seemed to
lack substance. But in the Midwest, it’s a call to a known and admired way
presidential race turns out will, as in the past, open the door to regional
religious influences. Will it be a libertarian/evangelical ethos out of the
West, or a species of Midwestern communitarianism? And how, after eight
years of George Bush’s Southern Crossroads, will the country react?
Spiritual Politics Mark
on religion and the 2008 election.