In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion in American Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals, Blogs, and Magazines
  • Biblical Rhetoric in American Politics
  • Puritan Political Thought
  • The Great Awakening
  • The American Revolution
  • The Founding and US Constitution
  • New Nation and Civil War
  • The Gilded Age and Progressivism
  • Mid-20th-Century Religion and Politics
  • Civil Rights Era
  • Church and State
  • Culture Wars
  • Contemporary Issues and Continuing Debates

Political Science Religion in American Political Thought
Jonathan Keller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0105


Since the settlement of the Plymouth Colony in 1620, American political thought has been deeply influenced by religious texts and ideas. As early as the 17th century, there were differences of opinion about the proper role of religion in the “New Israel”—questions that American institutions still find themselves grappling with today. Scholars from several disciplines, including political science, history, American studies, sociology, and theology, have examined a variety of ways in which religion—the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular—has influenced ideas about the meaning of America as well as the political rhetoric of American politics with particular emphasis on the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Although the First Amendment to the US Constitution expressly forbids the establishment of a national church, religion had a profound influence on America’s founders and continued to influence political events at key junctures in American history, including the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Progressive era, the Cold War, and more recently during the “Culture Wars” (see Hunter 1991, cited under Culture Wars). After the first decade of the 21st century, new questions about civil religion and new political struggles have emerged, around such issues as same sex marriage, LGBT rights, and science education in public schools, ensuring that religion remains at the center of debates about America’s origins and future.

General Overviews

The works in this section provide overviews and introductions on the intersection of religion and American Political Thought. Religion is central in Tocqueville 2000, a monumental tome on American political culture. Noll and Harlow 2007 is a collection of essays by leading scholars from several disciplines, from the Puritan era to the present. Lambert 2008 offers a useful framing of the confluence of religion and politics over time in America. Butler 1990 challenges the hegemony of Puritan ideas on the American religious experience. Bloom 1992 argues for a “gnostic” understanding of American religions. Clebsch 1981 explains types of religious concepts that became secularized over time. Tuveson 1980 (originally published in 1968) distinguishes between different types of millennial thinking. McGreevy 2003 reconsiders the relationship between Catholicism and American democracy.

  • Bloom, Harold. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon Schuster, 1992.

    Argues that despite the great diversity of sects in America, there is a common American religion based on shared values. The “American Religion,” masking itself as Protestant Christianity, is really Emersonian, a “religion of the self that is “irretrievably Gnostic” (p. 49). Pays particular attention to Mormons and Southern Baptists.

  • Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

    Challenges tradition that places New England Puritanism at the center of the American religious experience. Despite the failure of Puritan religious models, authority, coercion, pluralism, folklorization of magic, and belief in supernatural interventionism, all caused America to be an extraordinarily spiritual society which far eclipsed the Puritan achievement.

  • Clebsch, William A. From Sacred to Profane America: The Role of Religion in American History. Chico, CA: American Academy of Religion, 1981.

    Tries to capture the contribution of religion to the functioning totality of American culture; focuses on six themes: education, pluralism, social welfare and morality, novelty, nationalism, and participation. For each theme, the author traces the evolution of a religious impulse into a secular (“profane”) achievement.

  • Lambert, Frank. Religion in American Politics: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

    Excellent introduction to formative periods and issues in the confluence of religion and American politics. Covers eight periods: founding, Second Great Awakening, Gilded Age; rise of early fundamentalism; the New Deal, and Cold War, the civil rights era, rise of the Christian Right, and the reply of the Religious Left.

  • McGreevy, John. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. New York: Norton, 2003.

    Amends conventional view of relationship between Catholics and democratic principles as they evolved in America since 1776. Portraits recreate 19th century debates over education, slavery, and nationalism and 20th century disputes about social welfare policy, democracy, birth control, abortion, and sexual abuse of minors scandal in the priesthood.

  • Noll, Mark A., and Luke E. Harlow. Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present. 2d ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195317145.001.0001

    Five of seventeen essays examine the relationships between religious and political ideas. Luminaries Ruth Bloch, Harry Stout, and Nathan Hatch explore how various rhetorical and theological aspects of salvation, providence, and community informed political notions of revolution, liberty, and republican government in the 18th century.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America. Translated and Edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226924564.001.0001

    Tocqueville’s classic work documenting his observations about America contains several chapters on American religious beliefs and practices and their intimate connection with democratic culture. See especially Volume 2, Part 1, chapters 5–8 (pp. 417–428), and Part 2, chapters 9 (p. 504), and 15 (pp. 517–521).

  • Tuveson, Ernest Lee. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    Originally published in 1968. Sample of thousands of British and American writings and sermons. Distinguishes between two types—premillennialists (millenarians), and postmillennialists—the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven to be achieved on earth before Christ’s Second Coming, as a new chosen people given a new “Israel,” with a special destiny.

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