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  • 1  David Lloyd George, quoted in S.D. Chown, The Canadian Methodist Yearbook, Toronto: Methodist Chur (...)
  • 2 Ibid., iv.

1Exploring the links between religion and politics in the early 21st century seems at once both arcane and of pragmatic interest. Certainly, in the United States, the relationship is of practical importance: it has become one of the key elements in deciding electoral outcomes. However, seen from a continental European perspective, still grounded in the French Enlightenment tradition, the growing importance of religion in the American political landscape would seem to be an unfathomable mystery: not only does this seem to be inconsistent with the cardinal principle of the separation of Church and State, but it also challenges the theory of an imperious process of secularisation in modern western societies. David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, understood that the differing perceptions of the correct relationship between religion and politics could give rise to profound misunderstandings across the Channel. For Lloyd George, Evangelical Protestantism was part and parcel of the Anglo-Saxon world view, and this meant that religion was embedded in political life in a way it could never be in continental Europe. He wrote, no doubt with special pleading born of his own religious background, that in Britain “the influence of Methodism upon the realm of government is incalculable”, and went on to conclude that this amalgamation of religion and politics produced a profoundly different political philosophy: “on the continent the prophets of the revolution were Voltaire and Rousseau, in Britain the prophets were Wesley and Whitefield”.1 For Lloyd George, the diverging philosophies that came out of the 18th century were often sources of diplomatic confusion in the early 20th century: “continental nations cannot understand the point of view of Great Britain and America. The reason for this is that they have not had the same training as people subject to the influence of the great Evangelical Revival.”2 If Lloyd George here stressed the gap between Britain and continental Europe, he found common ground between the United States and Britain, and he suggested that this was due to the influence of Methodists in the political realm on both sides of the Atlantic.

2Evoking a non-partisan religiosity and then presenting it as a component of political culture was an integral part of Alexis de Tocqueville’s reflection in his seminal work De la Démocratie en Amérique. Like Lloyd George, Tocqueville attributed great importance to the role of religion in structuring political attitudes. However, for Tocqueville, this was part of a general cultural atmosphere in early 19th century America, a framework within which the political realm could function independently. Moreover, the separation of Church and State allowed clergy to be truly independent, and thereby gain in authoritative prestige. By avoiding the compromised position of an Established Church, the different churches were more convincing in their defence of democratic institutions, allowing the United States to be both modern and religious. In Britain, in spite of the existence of an Established Church, religion also reinforced democratic institutions, functioning primarily as a force that moderated the pervasive individualism of the liberal regime. Religious toleration was a reality within a widely accepted organic model of society. The churches’ role in the wider society was to provide stability and to moderate conflict between groups, a role which required them to refrain from entering the partisan political arena. Until recently, Tocqueville’s characterisation of a non-partisan religiosity that reinforced liberal democratic institutions remained the definitive assessment: political parties from both the left and the right could legitimately blend together their Christian world view and their political philosophy.

  • 3  Irving Kristol, “Taking Religious Conservatives seriously”, in Michael Cromartie (ed.), Disciples (...)

3However, analyses of the post-war years have revealed something new. First, a large gap has developed with regard to the way religion and politics interact in Great Britain and in the USA. Britain, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has followed the continental path of liberal secularisation. The mainline churches, though in decline, have maintained some political influence but, unlike the situation in the USA, this influence has manifested itself from within their traditional role as defenders of national social cohesion. In the USA, the situation is strikingly different. First, the secularisation process has not followed the pattern observed elsewhere in the West. Instead, rates of religious activity remain high in the USA, an observation which is at the heart of contemporary studies on American Exceptionalism. Secondly, far from acting in the name of preserving social cohesion as in the British example, the American Evangelical Churches have been the principal initiators of what has been called the culture wars in present-day America. American liberals face off against their conservative counterparts in an environment profoundly influenced by the Christian Right. This should perhaps come as no surprise. Irving Kristol, the prominent American neoconservative, wrote as early as 1994 that the three pillars of American conservatism were “religion, nationalism and economic growth”. Of these, he said, “religion is easily the most important because it is the only power that, in the longer term, can shape people’s characters and regulate motivation”.3 For Kristol, a secularised intellectual who had little faith in the wisdom of the common man, the shaping of character through religion was not an end in itself as it might have been for conservative pastors. Instead, it was of strategic interest to gain the support of conservative Christians and then try to convince them that other issues like deregulation, a flat tax, or strong support for the military were a logical component of their world view. In response to this overt call to the Christian Right to play a partisan role in American politics, liberals put their faith in the traditional separation of Church and State. The result was to politicise one of the founding American constitutional principles. Once again this provoked perplexity among outside observers. This time, continental Europeans were joined in their perplexity by observers from the other English–speaking western democracies.

4In this environment, the study of the links between religion and politics has understandably attracted increasing interest. The articles presented here are the culmination of a project which began with the organisation of an international conference on religion and politics in the English-speaking world at the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Centre of the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie. The conference allowed scholars from Europe and North America coming from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds to meet and exchange viewpoints. The present set of articles reflects the diversity of the discussions and debates, these exchanges having enabled the participants to enrich their reflection.

5Pierre Lurbe opens the volume by, as he says, “beginning with the beginning” and studying the question of the proper relationship between Church and State as diversely expressed by Richard Hooker and Thomas Hobbes in 17th century England. On one level, Lurbe notes that the writers’ views look remarkably similar, notably in that they both reach the conclusion that power over the Church should be entrusted to the same sovereign who wields power over the commonwealth. However, Lurbe goes beyond the surface level similarities to note a major difference in outlook. Hobbes’s affirmation that the sovereign should also be head of the Church is related to a typically pessimistic view that saw a man’s religious opinions being dominated by his passions; this made Hobbes conclude that control of the Church by the sovereign was essential to ensuring civil peace. Hooker on the other hand sees the sovereign’s role as Head of the Church as one of working harmoniously with the government of the Church in order to assure the more noble mission of taking care of his subjects’ souls. As Lurbe notes in his conclusions, the concerns of both men shed light on current debates, and they illuminate some of the more contemporary studies in the volume.

6Jean-Michel Yvard offers another article from the field of the history of ideas with his study of William Hale White. White is remembered primarily for his works published under the pseudonym of Mark Rutherford in 19th century Britain. But, as Yvard reveals, he can also be seen as a sociologist who provided a subtle analysis of the effects of the 17th century tradition of religious tolerance on religious manifestations in England, seen especially in the presence of such a large diversity of sects and denominations. Yvard also focuses on the historical link made by White between the early Puritanism of Bunyan, Cromwell and Milton and the political radicalism of his own day.

7Contemporary America provides a central focus to this series as witnessed in the six articles devoted to links between religion and politics in the United States. Fréderic Heurtebize opens this section with a valuable study of two recent Supreme Court decisions on questions related to the separation of Church and State. After reviewing the jurisprudence in detail he deals specifically with the two conflicting viewpoints expressed in the majority and dissenting opinions. While Heurtebize considers that it is a relatively simple task to identify the arguments and the points of contention, he notes that it is more difficult to understand why the Supreme Court should render two apparently contradictory decisions in such similar cases. Searching for an answer to the enigma, Heurtebize raises questions about the political nature of the two verdicts and suggests that, though the Court may indeed have maintained social peace by granting a moral victory to both sides, it has reneged on its role of clarifying the law on the fundamental question of the separation of Church and State.

8Two scholars present their work on the theme of the Christian Right and its influence in contemporary America. Josef Braml provides a solid statistical analysis in defence of his thesis that the political awakening of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s represented a significant change in the American political landscape. He goes on to analyse the importance of this trend both in terms of future election results and influence on the policy agenda. Braml suggests that the threat of terrorism was recognised as a means that could be used to mobilize this electorate and thereby to ensure Republican control over Congress and the White House. Taoufik Djebali’s article also delves into the George W. Bush years and focuses on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI), an official executive department created in 2001 to oversee a programme whereby social services traditionally provided by the State are provided by religious groups. Djebali notes the role of ideologues in the development of the programme, a consideration he sees as capital especially in light of the poor results obtained by the program in the fight against poverty.

9Two other academics have chosen tolook at links between religion and politics at the élite level. Stephen Whitfield, focuses on the close relationship established between the evangelist Billy Graham and two of the most controversial presidents in American history, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Billy Graham contributed to the policy agenda of the two administrations through his close personal relationship with the two presidents. For Whitfield, Graham seems to have had an immoderate influence on the two men, raising questions about how the links between religion and politics play out behind the scenes. Anne   Urbanowski has chosen to look at a less prominent politician with her focus on the unsuccessful bid of the Reverend Al Sharpton in the 2004 Democratic primaries. Due to his background as a Baptist minister, Sharpton can certainly be seen as emblematic of the links between religion and politics. However, his strategy in 2004 seemed to consist in downplaying this aspect of his candidacy in order to reach out to a wider audience. Urbanowski suggests this was a poor electoral choice as it required him to cut himself off from what she sees as his strongest political asset, namely a clear association with Christian values.

10Salah Oueslati completes the look at how religion influences American domestic politics with his analysis of the pro-life lobby, seen here as a means of studying the interaction of religiously motivated groups with the American institutional system. After developing a theoretical framework for his study, he notes that opponents of those defending freedom of choice function both as a social movement and as a lobby depending on strategic considerations, or more precisely on what he calls the structure of political opportunities.

11The preceding articles dealt with the influence of conservative Evangelical forms of Christianity in contemporary America. The following three are concerned with understanding how Christian theology has influenced parties from the left of the political spectrum. Jeremy Tranmer provides an analysis of the close links that developed in Great Britain between Christians and Communists in organisations devoted to world peace. Tranmer breaks new ground in his study of the cooperation between the two groups in their opposition to nuclear weapons, and provides an analysis of the motivation on both sides for these joint activities. Andrew Ives focuses on the strong links between the Social Gospel tradition and the emergence of a social democratic party in Canada in the first half of the 20th century. It has long been established that, especially in the Canadian West, Christians versed in the Social Gospel played a leading role in the formation of a viable left-wing political party, but Ives uses previously unexploited election campaign material to show just how strong the links were between the theology of the Social Gospel and the party’s more collectivist political conceptions. The historical perspective reveals how much things have changed in only half a century. Edwige Camp provides a nuanced look at links between religion and politics in contemporary Scotland. Scottish churches actively supported the devolution process, inspired in part by their opposition to the neoliberal policies initiated by Margaret Thatcher. However, for Camp, this early success in helping to carry the referendum on devolution has not been maintained in the post-devolution era, as she observes that the churches have since defended more traditional and conservative positions, and with limited success.

12Not surprisingly the particularly intense relationship between religion and politics in Palestine and present-day Israel inspired much discussion. One aspect of this debate is developed in   Yaakov Ariel’s paper, namely Evangelical Protestant support for the State of Israel. Ariel, who has worked extensively on the history of the Dispensationalist school of Christian messianic thought, shows just how important this current has become in shaping American Middle East policy.

13The present series of articles contributes to a deeper understanding of the links between religion and politics in the English-speaking world bringing together the perspectives of scholars working on 17th century England with those of academics concerned with 21st century America. It moves from Rutherford to Billy Graham, from Jerusalem to Edinburgh, and from the study of conservative Evangelicals and their influence on the George W. Bush administration to analyses of the left-leaning Christians who have played an active role in the political history of Great Britain and Canada. It is hoped that this collection will inspire future research on a theme that promises to generate continued interest in the years to come. I would like to express my sincere thanks to all who participated in this project.

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1  David Lloyd George, quoted in S.D. Chown, The Canadian Methodist Yearbook, Toronto: Methodist Church of Canada, 1922, iii (foreword).

2 Ibid., iv.

3  Irving Kristol, “Taking Religious Conservatives seriously”, in Michael Cromartie (ed.), Disciples and Democracy: Religious Conservatives and the Future of American Politics, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994, viii.

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Andrew Ives, « Introduction »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. IX - n°1 | -1, 1-7.

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Andrew Ives, « Introduction »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. IX - n°1 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2011, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Andrew Ives

Andrew Ives is Associate Professor in North American Studies at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie. An active member of the ERIBIA research group, he has published articles in the fields of political discourse, political culture and national identity.

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