- Why No Religious Party in the United States?
Most democracies worldwide possess religious parties. The United States does not. By many measures, the United States is a highly religious country. Yet, it shows no interest in the creation of a religious party. Perhaps separation of church and state prohibits through the U.S. Constitution the formation of a religious party? But no such prohibition exists. Are there deeper structural and political reasons why a political party is discouraged? Presidential democracies may be less fertile ground than parliamentary democracies for the planting of a religious party.
Alternatively, the notion of "exceptionalism" associated with the reasons why socialism never took root in the United States might also apply to the explanation for the absence of a religious party. But the arguments for "exceptionalism" do not easily transfer to the religious sphere.
For a country so religious in its practices, and in the professed faith of its citizens, the lack of a religious party requires considerable reflection. This essay explores the various arguments and circumstances that might account for the absence of a religious party in the United States. Ultimately, this essay comes to the conclusion that appeals most to the pragmatic American mind. Unlike the citizens of many other countries, Americans have decided individually and collectively that the principal reason they do not support a religious party is that, in political and in religious terms, Americans do not feel that they need a religious party. [End Page S-123]
Religious political parties are common worldwide. Among contemporary nation-states, over one hundred Christian parties participate in government, such as the Christian Democratic Party (Catholic and Protestant) in Germany and the Christian Unity Party (Lutheran) in Norway. Among countries with large Muslim constituencies, Islamic parties are numerous and are growing in size and influence.1 India's governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is Hindu. Cambodia has established Buddhist political parties such as the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party. Israel has a number of small religious parties such as United Torah Judaism. Every major religion is represented somewhere by a political party. Every principal region in the world features democracies in which religious parties are prominent. Yet the United States has never had a prominent religious party. Why has the Unites States not been fertile political ground for the emergence of religious parties?
The mystery deepens when one realizes that American political culture is regarded as decidedly religious. This makes the absence of religious parties in the United States even more puzzling. Whether we measure religiosity by faith in God, attendance at religious services, or belief that religion is important, Americans rank high amongst believers. Government leaders in the United States commonly finish their political speeches with references to faith and to God. Since Thomas Jefferson's era, politicians have often found themselves having to explain their relationship to religion in a society that has traditionally leaned in the direction of mainstream Protestantism. Yet while American society has been religiously diverse, it has not always been broadly and thoroughly tolerant of political identity.
Americans believe that religion is important to politics and to their own political choices. Although non-affiliation is growing fast in some quarters of the population, Americans, unlike contemporary Europeans, are scarcely indifferent to religion as a factor in how they look at life, including political life. It is true that Americans recently have asserted that religion is not important in their choice for President. Yet all candidates for the Presidency or VicePresidency (except for John F. Kennedy and Joseph Biden, each a Catholic) were Protestants. A Jew has never run successfully for the Presidency. A Muslim has only recently been elected to Congress. In the opinion of many political analysts, an atheist would face a hard struggle to reach the nation's highest political office unless highly popular on other grounds. So while religion is thought to be very important to Americans politically, and while Americans regard themselves as being very religiously and politically tolerant, the door to holding office is still not widely open in terms of religion. Every political candidate must take religion seriously as a factor in politics. Despite this, there is...