Religion is important for American politics because religion is important for Americans. Yet, there are factors in American political life that amplify the role of religion in a way that is not seen in other developed countries.
For a developed country, the U.S. is extraordinarily high on religion. Thus 65 percent of Americans say that religion is important in their daily lives compared to just 17 percent of Swedes, 19 percent of Danes, and 24 percent of Japanese.
Why America is more religious than Europe
There are several likely reasons why Americans say that they are so much more religious than Europeans. One may be that they exaggerate their own religiosity in the same way that they claim about twice the attendance rates relative to people actually showing up in church.
There is also a large immigrant population, many of whom hail from countries that are poor and comparatively religious. Immigrant groups that happen to be linguistically isolated may remain quite religious even if the broader society becomes increasingly secular.
Life is more difficult in the U.S. than in Europe by several measures even though Europe is currently in an economic decline. Problems here range from health problems and lower life expectancy, to higher crime rates, and relative lack of involvement in the community. All of these problems are bound up with inequality - with a chasm between the living conditions of rich and poor. This gap has widened in recent decades and reveals holes in social safety nets relative to Europe.
So Americans feel far less secure economically, and in relation to their health and well-being than the overall wealth of the country in terms of GDP per capita would predict. This existential insecurity provides a fertile ground for religion.
Historians are fond of attributing American religiosity to historical factors such as the Puritan founders. Yet history counts for little in these matters given that virtually every country has a devout past -- specifically the currently secular countries of Europe.
Why religion is emphasized in American politics
Religion influences American politics to a degree not seen in other developed countries. Despite the constitutional firewall between church and state, national politicians hardly ever give a major speech without invoking religion.
The president is forever asking God to bless America, sending his prayers to victims of disasters, hosting religious leaders, and extolling religious values. Such advocacy of religion is unheard of in Europe but that may be because the majority is no longer religious and because voting members of the native population (as distinct from immigrants) are not very devout.
In America, religion is much more a part of public life whatever the constitution says. There are various reasons for this. One is that evangelical Christians under the banner of the Moral Majority made a determined push to influence political leaders since the 1970s and to inject religion into political debates. This broad agenda animates contemporary right-wing media including talk radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and TV channels such as Fox News.
The religious propensities of immigrants mean that they are receptive to the conservative religious message and can be induced to vote across class lines. In doing so they support an agenda that favors the wealthy and makes them even poorer.
Given this threat from the religious right, Democrats feel pressure to emphasize their own religious credentials, or risk losing a chunk of the poorer immigrant population who make up their natural constituency.
So religion is embroiled in American political life and that magnifies the apparent significance of religion in people's everyday lives. According to wits, U.S. conservatives went to war in Afghanistan to separate religion from politics abroad while striving to unite religion and politics at home.
American politicians talk a lot about religion. Yet, they have no more in common with theocrats like the Taliban than ordinary Americans have with the religious fervor of ordinary Afghanis.
Many poor people in America undermine their economic interests by voting for Republican politicians who are interested in further concentrating wealth in the hands of the affluent. They do so, in part, because the Republicans appeal to their religious propensity.
That religious propensity is strengthened by increasing insecurity in the lives of the poor because difficult living conditions are associated with increased religiosity. So the worse their living conditions become, the more likely they are to follow a self-defeating voting pattern. That seems like another great reason for really separating church and state.
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available here.
2. Gallup (2010). Religiosity highest in world's poorest nations.
3. Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.
4. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
5. Huffington, A. (2010). Third World America. New York: Crown.