The right hand of God and the left hand of God

Marion Maddox, Macquarie University

Frank Lambert, Religion in American Politics: A Short History, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008 (304 pp). ISBN 9-78069112-833-7 (hard cover) RRP $39.95.

How many authors does it take to explain the relationship between Christianity and the state in modern America? Lots, if publication rates over the last decade and more are any indication. Preparing student reading lists, I find myself musing as to how long it can be before output of religion-and-politics titles in the United States approaches one for every man, woman and child. So prolific has the field become that it now falls into a series of substantial subgenres. Polemical essays aimed at a general readership include Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming (2006), Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy (2006) and Chris Hedges’s American Fascists (2007), to pick out just a few. Specialists can read sober legal and philosophical analyses, of which just the first half of 2008 has yielded well over a thousand pages from such heavyweights as Nussbaum (2008), Greenawalt (2008) and Juergensmeyer (2008). Some authors emphasise religion’s political impact (Green 2003; Diamond 1998; Olson 2000; Martin 2007) while others (Burlein 2002; Kintz 1997; Burack 2003) adopt a literary or cultural studies angle.

Historian Frank Lambert has already done his bit for the national average, through his The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (2003), as well as his history of the Great Awakening (1999) and study of evangelist George Whitefield (1994). Yet Princeton University Press invited him back to the keyboard. And, yes, he did have something new to say—in a style accessible to a general readership. The book’s fine scholarly grain allows several sides of the story to shine through at once, yet Religion in American Politics: A Short History also paints a welcome big picture.

When they deal with history at all, accessible accounts from both sides of the political divide often leap straight from the founding fathers to the modern religious right—arguing, with normative intent, either that the founders really thought of America as a Christian nation, or, conversely, that they wanted religion and state to remain sternly separate. Lambert reiterates his argument from The Founding Fathers that America’s church-state arrangements reflect a dramatic shift, from Puritan ‘planters’ who wanted religious freedom so their communities could live out their (often inflexible) doctrine unmolested by the state, to the Enlightenment-influenced ‘founders’ who valued individual religious liberty.

But, in a welcome contrast to many debaters’ exclusive historical interest in the founders, Lambert lingers over some less-remembered phases of American religious history. And, in contrast to some authors’ concentration on the religious right, Lambert introduces religious activists on both sides of the political divide. We read about the Gospel of Wealth propounded by Andrew Carnegie (1889) and his more explicitly Christian imitators who argued that making money is a religious duty. And we read about America’s home-grown version of Christian socialism, the Social Gospel movement, enunciated most famously by theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1912).

Lambert lingers over some less-
remembered phases of American religious history.

While giving due attention to the Cold War era’s anti-communist Christianity and Billy Graham’s revivalism revival, Lambert points out that they were not the main religious game at the time. Rather, they represented evangelicals’ and fundamentalists’ struggle to win back the place in the mainstream that they had lost with their humiliation in the infamous courtroom battle over the theory of evolution, known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Not until the Reagan era, however, did conservative evangelicals succeed in unsettling the mainline churches’ proximity to power. The hallmarks of the mainline churches’ period of influence were their advocacy of peace, social justice and (after overcoming some initial reluctance) civil rights—a confluence of liberal theology and liberal politics. Lambert reads the ‘re-emergence of the religious left’ associated with Barack Obama’s presidential nomination campaign and the Democratic Party’s cautious embrace of progressive evangelicals like Reverend Jim Wallis as at least partly an attempted reversion to the mid-century religion-and-politics status quo.

The book’s most encouraging aspect is its sensitive treatment of diversity within religious traditions. To Lambert, ‘church and state’ encompasses not just the intentions of the founding fathers but also the lobbying and counter-lobbying of rival Protestant groups—for example, those wanting the Sabbath honoured by disallowing Sunday mail deliveries and those advocating economic advancement, with mail deliveries, like everything else, harnessed to the cause. He takes readers through black church leaders’ involvement in the civil rights campaign, but also the complaints of black leaders who lamented both black and white churchmen’s slowness in joining the struggle.

Perhaps it is not to be expected that a self-declared ‘short history’ could catch all of the multifarious fractures and frictions in US religious politics. Lambert’s preferred division, between ‘mainline’ churches and the rest (evangelical, Pentecostal, nondenominational), tends to gloss over the fact that the main political division among American Christians has, for the last three decades, lain less between denominations than between conservative and progressive, even if they happen to belong to the same denomination. Anti-abortion Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anti-abortion Catholics and Pentecostals outside women’s clinics, and feel little in common with the anti-war members of the same denominations linking arms outside military facilities.

The book’s most encouraging aspect is its sensitive treatment of diversity within religious traditions.

Without attention to such divisions, the picture loses some of its sharpness. For example, Lambert quotes ‘Mark Tooley, director of the United Methodist Committee at the Institute on Religion and Politics’ criticising left-wing evangelical pastor Jim Wallis for accepting a spot as the Democratic Party’s invited respondent to President Bush’s weekly radio address. Readers might conclude that Tooley’s was the voice of the Methodist mainline. But Tooley’s institute (actually the Institute on Religion and Democracy) is itself a highly-partisan player, with the avowed goal of overturning the mainline denominations’ social justice positions and persuading them to adopt neoconservative-aligned positions on such matters as climate change, abortion, sexuality and the Middle East conflict. The institute, funded by billionaire Republican Richard Mellon Scaife, hired Tooley, a former CIA employee, to organise its campaigns to have its endorsed delegates elected to denominational conferences and decision-making bodies (see Howell 2003; Swecker 2005).

Within the broad categorisation of religious right and religious left, Lambert seems equally fascinated by both sides. But by the end of the book, his fascination seems to have left him calling down plague on both their houses. Lambert concludes: ‘Two hundred and twenty years after the new republic’s birth, critics of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left think the delegates [to the 1787 Constitutional Convention] were wise to keep religion out of national politics’ (p. 250).

Well, they kept religion out of the founding documents. Keeping it out of national politics is a taller order altogether. Lambert implies that the principle of separation of church and state means that churches, or their representatives, should not be politically active. He sums up a dilemma he sees facing liberal clergy: ‘On the one hand, they embrace the doctrine of separation of church and state that constrains their involvement. On the other, they are loath to allow the Religious Right to define the national moral agenda’ (p 247).

The idea that separation means keeping religiously-framed activism out of politics is a strong (though hotly-contested) strand in American political philosophy. Its most famous proponent is Robert Audi, whose Religious Commitment and Secular Reason (2000) built on the philosophy of John Rawls to argue that, though religiously-committed citizens may take part in public debate like everyone else, the principle of church-state separation means that they should do so only using secular grounds.

Does separation of church and state preclude clergy’s political activism?

Critics of Audi’s view have argued that it places an unfair burden on the religiously-committed. If their reason for espousing a particular political position is motivated by their religious commitment, Audi’s proposal requires them (but not their secular colleagues) to seek out, and articulate, grounds for their arguments in addition to the ones which actually move them. Some have also suggested that the requirement to find additional, secular grounds invites dissimulation on the part of religiously-committed citizens, pretending to be motivated by arguments other than the ones that really drive them—hardly the standard of transparency toward which democratic debate supposedly strives (for example, Weithman 2002; Wolterstorff in Audi & Wolterstorff 1996).

Such philosophical problems are just the start. A host of practical questions arises in their wake. Does separation of church and state preclude clergy’s political activism? And if clergy, what about religiously-active lay people who are also closely identified with their church? What level of political involvement does the principle constrain—organising a demonstration? Marching in a demonstration? Distributing leaflets announcing a demonstration? Praying for the participants in a demonstration? And if these kinds of political involvement are precluded, what about voting? This is just one place where attempts to institute a sharp religion-state division become impossible to police—and one reason why the nation which first described a ‘Wall of Separation’ has such a long and involved history of litigation to determine just where that wall might stand.

Australia has tended towards a more ad hoc, make-it-up-as-we-go approach to religion-state relations and to the relationship between religion and politics. Occasional attempts to codify the boundaries show up the difficulties. Think of Australia’s Charities Bill, put forward in 2003 by the conservative government of John Howard, tired of repeated criticism from church and non-government organisations on its welfare, refugee, Indigenous and environmental policy. The Bill sought to distinguish between charities that deliver what it called a ‘public benefit’, and those which engage in political advocacy or attempt to change government policy. Dispensing a public benefit would entitle the charity to continue to enjoy tax exempt status. Criticising or trying to change government policy would be deemed political rather than charitable, and organisations with that as their primary purpose would no longer qualify. More than just religious charities were thrown into uncertainty by the proposal, since many (from the Australian Council of Social Services to Greenpeace) attempt to change government policy as a significant component of their mission.

Championing the Bill, then Treasurer Peter Costello issued a press release specifying what would count as a ‘public benefit’. He explained that the new definition of charities could include closed and contemplative religious orders, even if their members never meet a member of the public, because their regular ‘prayerful intervention’ on behalf of the wider society amounted to a public benefit.

What if a contemplative order prayed for a change in government policy?

But, hold on. What if a contemplative order prayed for a change in government policy? Could the Bill’s backers be sure that no closeted nuns were praying for a more welcoming policy towards asylum seekers or tighter restrictions on abortion? And how would they check? Costello’s example, which reads like a stab at finding an extreme instance of non-political charity, only highlighted the contradictions which bedevil attempts to erect a sharp divide between ‘religious’ and ‘political’ activity.

Such difficulties of codification have led some international observers (for example, Monsma & Soper 1997; Bader 2003), to conclude that Australia’s more usual, laconic, make-it-up-as-you-go approach to religious involvement in politics has much to recommend it. On the other hand, it can also mean that some important debates simply don’t take place. The increase in Federal government funding to religious schools during the Howard era, and proportional decline in Federal support of public schools, raises questions about, for example, whether tax-payers’ funds are being used to teach scientifically dubious theories (like creationism), or to promote potentially religiously intolerant doctrines (like the idea that all non-Christians are destined for hell). Without some guiding principle such as the Jeffersonian Wall of Separation, it is hard to see how such questions are to be broached. But with such a principle, we risk falling into an Audian vision of a rigidly secularist society in which the democratic freedoms of the religiously committed are constrained in a way that those of their secularly-minded compatriots are not.

Lambert does not lead us to an answer as to whether it is better to have such debates, or not to have them; though his inclinations lie on the secularist side. Yet to read his history is to sense how much poorer American public culture would be without the active participation of people of faith. Imagine the civil rights movement without the spirituals.


Audi, R. 2000, Religious Commitment and Secular Reason, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Audi, R. & Wolterstorff, N. 1996, Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, Rowman and Littlefield, New York.

Bader, V. 2003, ‘Religious diversity and democratic institutional pluralism,’ Political Theory, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 265–294.

Burack, C. 2003, ‘Getting what “we” deserve: Terrorism, tolerance, sexuality and the Christian Right’, New Political Science, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 343–346.

Burlein, A. 2002, Lift High the Cross: Where White Supremacy and the Christian Right Converge, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Carnegie, A. 1889, The Gospel of Wealth [Online], Available: [2008, May 15].

Diamond, S. 1998, Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right, Guilford Press, New York.

Frank, T. 2004, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Metropolitan Books, New York.

Goldberg, M. 2006, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, W.W. Norton, New York.

Green, J.C. 2003, The Christian Right in American Politics: Marching to the Millennium, Georgetown University Press, Washington DC.

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Juergensmeyer, M. 2008, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda, University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Kintz, L. 1997, Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Lambert, F. 1994, ‘Pedlar in Divinity’: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 17371770, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Lambert, F. 1999, Inventing the ‘Great Awakening’, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Lambert, F. 2003, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Martin, W. 1997, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right, Broadway Books, New York.

Monsma, S.V. & Soper, C. 1997, The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies, Rowman and Littlefield, Oxford.

Nussbaum, M. 2008, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, Basic Books, New York.

Olson, L. 2000, Filled with Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics, State University of New York Press.

Phillips, K. 2006, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, Viking, New York.

Rauschenbusch, W. 1912, Christianizing the Social Order, Macmillan, New York.

Swecker, S. (ed) 2005, Hardball on Holy Ground, Boston Wesleyan Press, North Berwick.

Weithman, P. 2002, Religion and the Obligations of Citizenship, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Marion Maddox is Director of Macquarie University’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion. Her most recent book was God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics (Allen & Unwin 2005). A review of this book by Carole M. Cusack is available here.

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