A Nation Without a Soul? A Response to Sarah L. Houser’s “Accountability Nationalism”

Photo Credit: Colby College, Anthropology of Contemporary Issues

[NOTE: This piece first appeared in Starting Points, a Journal of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy]

Nationalism and religious life are intricately intertwined in the United States. A “civil religion of the Nones,” if it comes into existence, could portend significant changes in American nationalism.

In her recent Starting Points essay, Sarah L. Houser urges revision to our conception of national identity. Her piece redefines it as a shared “sense of accountability for one’s country,” rather than a common set of beliefs or creed. For several reasons, both internal to the essay and due to differing interpretations of scholarship, I disagree. This essay first offers some critiques of Houser’s “accountability nationalism,” then suggests how a “civil religion of the Nones” may be a more desirable future of nationalism in America.

Houser’s case has three parts. The first is that current conceptions of national identity—either cultural or creedal—are insufficient bases for national attachment. The second is that a common sense of accountability, rooted in citizens’ beliefs that they share in America’s successes and failures, is not only more accurate but also more appropriate. Finally, Houser suggests various implications for individuals joining (or leaving) the American narrative.

There is much to appreciate in Houser’s essay. To begin, attachments based on a common culture do tend toward “us versus them” politics. “They couldn’t possibly understand our way of life! They are licentious, violent, drunkards!” National identities based upon creed may be similarly troublesome: not every citizen agrees with his or her nation’s conception of nationalism, and not all citizens of a nation have the same definitions. Accordingly, a specific and unifying creedal nationalism is difficult to sustain.

After these critiques, Houser puts forward her own theory—accountability nationalism—defined as a shared “sense of accountability for the actions of one’s country. To identify as an American,” she writes, “means to take some sort of ownership in the collective actions of its people, to understand those actions as in some way one’s own.”

Houser argues we should view nations as corporations, entities of which individuals are simply one part. Here her argument is quite procedural: corporations, which choose representatives by established rules, govern in accordance with the rules of the institution. I ought to view America’s successes and failures as my own because national, state, and local institutions have been duly elected and govern in my name.

Yet Dr. Houser adds further parameters, suggesting that accountability nationalism requires government edicts be “recognized as the actions of the whole vis-à-vis other wholes.” National identity is, after all, an imagined community—at some point we must be concerned with how the community is viewed.

By making this move, necessary though it may be, the essay deals not with what is but what should be. In so doing, Dr. Houser must deal more thoroughly with the question of political legitimacy.

It is one thing to argue that the United States Congress acts on behalf of all Americans; it is quite another thing entirely to suggest that when Congress acts I must view myself as in some part responsible for these actions. The first is an objective evaluation, the second is a subjective one.


For individuals from historically disenfranchised groups—from African Americans, to Latinos, to LGBTQ Americans—institutions seldom look like them or advocate the sorts of policies they prefer; and often, these institutions legalize discrimination against these minorities. A theory of national attachment that not only invalidates disaffection with institutions that have historically justified discrimination but also turns such criticisms into un-American behavior is, to say the least, problematic.

Why do these groups exhibit low levels of political trust? In large part because they are not equal authors of the American narrative. When mistakes have been made, these vulnerable populations inevitably pay—the majority seldom suffers. We must not mistake the subjects of an historical narrative for its authors. For many Americans who belong to these groups, there was no real “choice” at all.

It is choice, however, that Dr. Houser places at the center of her concept of accountability nationalism. Here Houser glosses over the fact some Americans are freer than others to enter or exit the community. In fact, the problem is more than just entry/exit, but control over the narrative itself. What happens when America’s narrative shifts, changing what it means to be an American? If we are not all equal authors of our collective narrative, then such shifts may continually “leave” some Americans—whether they choose to exit or not.

An historical example illustrates these points. Prior to the Civil War African Americans were in bondage. After emancipation, the narrative shifted: African American men were given the right to vote. Yet after Reconstruction the narrative again shifted, disenfranchising that population. In each case, government was run by White Americans: the extent to which African Americans were brought into and out of the American narrative was, largely though not entirely, out of that population’s control.

Can we really argue that African Americans in the Jim Crow south were equal authors of national identity, while they were being lynched and terrorized for trying to exercise political rights? These Americans may have been the subject of a narrative, but they were not free to choose another. Similar questions may be posed of women, homosexuals, and immigrants today.


Houser worries that some citizens may not view American actions as their own, bringing about a deep sense of impotence. At least equally dangerous—and, I fear, more likely—is the risk that those with political power may use myths of choice and authorship to disregard critics of American action, as well as the criticisms themselves, as “insufficiently patriotic.”

Let’s return to the claim that neither culture nor creed are sufficient bases for national attachment. While American history is replete with the dangers of a cultural nationalism, ought we to abandon creedal nationalism so quickly?

Houser argues that the greatest fault with creedal nationalism is its lack of specificity. Take equality: does it mean equality “before the law,” “of opportunity,” or “of outcome”? Reasonable Americans can and will disagree. If so, Houser asks, are we truly united? One is reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s suggestion that the sheep who is saved from a wolf and the wolf denied a tasty sheep “plainly . . . are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”

Witticisms aside, Dr. Houser’s argument is clear: a common creed requires shared definitions. Creedal nationalism encourages—or at least does not prevent—disparate definitions of crucial terms. Yet later, when she argues that common celebrations and rituals help educate and integrate individuals into the American way of life, she does not comment upon the similarly vague interpretations of said rituals and symbols. According to her logic, vagueness in symbols and imprecision in defining beliefs should be similarly troublesome. She cannot have it both ways.

Common symbols inevitably contain various meanings. Ditto for practices and rituals. Not only is it unavoidable, it is desirable. Take the Constitution: is it a living or a dead document? Does the second amendment protect group or individual rights to firearms? The answer to these questions is simple: there is no “one” answer.


Rather than condemn creedal nationalism for non-specificity, I would like to suggest an alternative: that such vagueness is the heart of its power. It is an argument that brings us back to, of all places, where Dr. Houser began: G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton observed that Americans latch, almost religiously, onto the principles of the founding documents. From the catechistic precision with which we are taught to recite the Preamble to the Constitution, to the tabernacle housing the Charters of Freedom, American political culture is palpably religious. Scholars from Daniel Elazar to Jaroslav Pelikan to Pauline Maier to Michael Kammen have noted this phenomenon.

Over the last 100 years, American religiosity has changed drastically. At the start of the 20th century Americans thought of themselves as a Christian nation; by mid-century, a Judeo-Christian one. Come the 1990s, change continued apace. Robert Putnam and David Campbell suggest that, following the conservative backlash to feminism and abortion rights, secular and agnostic Americans came to identify Republicans with the conservative ranks of the culture war, and so moved further left.

We are living in the so-called “rise of the Nones.” It is a time when “spiritual but not religious” Americans have become an increasing portion of the electorate. For context: Pew reports that between 2007 and 2014 the proportion of “Nones” rose—from 16.1% to 22.8% of the adult population. Over the same period of time all Christian denominations saw decline.

If, as Robert Bellah suggested in his 1967 article “Civil Religion in America,” American nationalism structurally mirrors the majority’s Protestant religious life, is it even possible for this Godless country to have a nationalism that is recognizably American?

I believe it is. Recently I have been focusing on the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Rather than viewing Occupiers as secular political agitators, I suggest that OWS camps were hotbeds for non-traditional religious practices and beliefs. Far from causing division, the emphasis upon pluralism of religious practice at OWS camps both made sense to Nones and ultimately formed a cohesive, if non-traditional civil religion.

According to one participant, the OWS camp at Zuccotti Park was “a hodgepodge of symbols left by protestors, a place for people to think, mediate, pray, wonder, and talk.” Religious iconography from various religions were on display. As another interfaith organizer put it, services weren’t about preaching one version of religiosity, but “about creating a space for theological, moral and spiritual differences to coexist in solidarity with one another in a respectful AND meaningful way.”


Remember: nationalism and religious life are intricately intertwined in the United States. Such a “civil religion of the Nones,” if it comes into existence, could portend significant changes in American nationalism.

One possible source could be spiritual environmentalism, or what Bron Taylor calls Deep Green Civil Religion. The belief system would be expressed within “those social spaces where diverse groups encounter and mutually influence one another” as we attempt to come to terms with the increasing environmental crisis. Sound like OWS?

Occupy Wall Street’s vision of attachment is creedal much like Chesterton’s was. And what’s the creed? Simple: we’re all in this together. Whether it’s the nation, the hemisphere, or the world, we only succeed if we work with one another and appreciate our shared humanity. Differences do not make you a “them,” it makes you an “us.”

A politics that not only accepts but requires appreciating differences is more than “kumbaya” politics. It is, in fact, distinctly American.

As Debbie Schildkraut writes about the protests to Donald Trump’s immigration order:

“Over time, and in fits and starts, a fourth component of American identity [has] gained acceptance. I call it ‘incorporationism,’ and it celebrates our diversity and provides a forum in which such celebrations can take place. It suggests that America’s unique identity is grounded in its immigrant legacy and in its ability to convert the challenges immigration brings into thriving strengths.”

I join Schildkraut and others who argue that differences—even fundamental political ones—need not prove creedal nationalism is insufficient. They needn’t weaken our common national creed. In fact, if we are committed to recognizing and respecting these differences and making them the centerpiece of our national character, they may form the strongest national identity yet.


The Constitution: An Owner’s Manual Without Instructions

Credit: Kalabai Yau/Shutterstock

NOTE: This originally appeared on my personal profile through Huffington Post Contributor’s platform.

When I teach my introduction to Political Science class about the Constitution, I tell them to think of it like an owner’s manual to an engine.

This owner’s manual breaks down the machine of government for us to understand: the three branches and how they relate; the bill of rights that protect our liberties; and the essential principles  of federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances.

Think of them like the pistons, valves, spark plugs, and other parts of an engine. The manual sets out our “constitutional specs,” as it were.

It tells us what our machine is capable of: how fast it can go (e.g. how quickly legislation moves); what type of fuel is most beneficial for its upkeep (e.g. civic participation); and still other parameters. As James Russel Lowell put it, the Constitution is a “machine that would go of itself.”

But there’s a catch: the constitutional owner’s manual doesn’t tell us how to use our machine.

It doesn’t advise against drunk driving. It doesn’t remind us to use the blinker when changing lanes. It doesn’t chastise us for not changing the oil every 3,000 miles. It doesn’t tell us that riding the clutch is a terrible idea, or that speeding is a great way to get us all killed.

We call these “best practice” many things: upkeep tips, the rules of the road. Common sense.

In politics, we call them political norms. They are the unwritten, but equally vital components, of a properly functioning government.

For now, the engine of government seems to chug along just the same as it always has. We have a president, a Congress, and (more or less) a Supreme Court. The president makes appointments and the Senate advises and consents. The federal system still stands. From a mechanical standpoint, we’re AOK.

But our political norms are in tatters.

We’re driving erratically: the current president tests policy through Tweets. He floats trade wars, civil liberties violations, and conspiracy theories with reckless abandon.

We aren’t getting regular tun-ups or inspections: appropriations bills (the budget) are rare in Congress, and bipartisan legislation is rarer still. Partisan redistricting makes the latter increasingly unlikely.

We are riding the clutch: the Supreme Court still only has eight members, mostly because the Senate defied its own culture of affording President Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee a hearing—even if it only would have been to vote him down. President Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, if confirmed would still not hear cases until October.

Political cultures are vital to the proper functioning of a constitutional democracy. They may be hard to describe, but they are harder still to build and maintain. And almost impossible to replace.

In Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis underscores just how fragile political cultures are. Only through dint of the Founders’ characters, and a heavy dose of good luck, did we come out with a deep commitment to the political principles we take for granted today.

The constitutional framework is a great bulwark of freedom, but it alone cannot protect American liberties. AS I have said elsewhere, institutions are only as resilient as the people who staff them. Officials that do not abide by political norms may, intentionally or not, undermine effective government.

In short, we may still be moving forward, but we’re tearing our engine apart. The longer this goes on, the more damage we will do. Some of it may be irreparable.

Machines can only take so much neglect. The same goes for government institutions. One day, the nation will slam on the brake pedal expecting to prevent a genuine political crisis—only to realize that the bakes went long ago.

Bernie Sanders’s Religion Problem

U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Senator Sanders leads a hearing on "The State of VA Health Care" on Capitol Hill in Washington
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at a Senate hearing in 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

There is a spectre haunting Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, but it isn’t the one you’re thinking. I’m talking about the other “S” word—not socialism, but secularism. It is a facet of the Sanders candidacy that has garnered recent attention, but the depths of which have not really been plumbed.

Below I lay out an argument for why the religion question is a difficult one for Sanders to answer. This requires several steps: first, establishing that Sanders is himself non-religious. Second, it argues that from a strategic standpoint Sanders will want to adopt a non-religious identity as well. Not only does this energize his millennial base, it also seemingly addresses the likely barrage of coded attack ads that opponents will air.

Ultimately, I suggest that even if it makes sense for Sanders to engage such a strategy, it would likely hurt him more than help. To do so I use polling data, along with established political science research. While these data do not demonstrate a causal relationship, taken together they are nonetheless illustrative. Most importantly, they show that Sanders risks ostracizing the most loyal Democratic base—African Americans—even as he tries to integrate appeals to the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Is Bernie Sanders Jewish? Or is he non-religious?

The answer to this question depends upon how we define what it means to be Jewish. There is a religious definition and a cultural one. To start, Sanders grew up in the Jewish faith. He went to Hebrew School, was bar mitzvahed, and even worked on a kibbutz in Israel. Insofar as Judaism is a religion, Sanders was Jewish in his youth.

Yet as an adult he has fallen away from Jewish practices, eschewing organized religion. When Lester Holt recently asked Sanders whether he reflects on the possibility of becoming the first Jewish president, his cagey response is telling: “In terms of religion I am very proud of my Jewish background. And it has had a significant influence on me.” Let us also not forget that on Rosh Hashanah this year, when observant Jews were taking the day off from work, Bernie Sanders was at Liberty University delivering a speech about his non-faith.

If we take Bernie’s word for it, he is what Americans have come to know as “culturally” Jewish. While there is no single definition, there are constellations of beliefs and sympathies that constitute “cultural Judaism.” One of these, as Mark Leibovich’s profile in the New York Times explains, undoubtedly affected the young Bernie Sanders:

Sanders’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father, Eli, a struggling paint salesman who saw his family wiped out in the Holocaust, worried constantly about supporting his wife and two sons. His mother, Dorothy, dreamed of living in a “private home,” but they never made it beyond their three-and-a-half-room apartment on East 26th and Kings Highway. She died at age 46, when Bernie was 19. “Sensitivity to class was imbedded in me then quite deeply,” Sanders told me.

So while Sanders grew up Jewish, was influenced by forces that affected the Jewish community in New York specifically, and shares many identifies we associate with Jewish Americans, he would not identify as religiously Jewish.

Should Bernie run as Jewish, or as non-religious?

Grasping Sanders’s cultural, rather than religious, Judaism is vital to understanding his prospects in the coming election for one reason: in elections it does not matter what a candidate believes (about God or anything else), but what the electorate thinks he or she believes.

Public opinion data show there would likely be a difference between “Sanders the Jewish Democratic nominee” and “Sanders the Atheistic Democratic nominee” (which, after all, is what Sanders would be branded for many). Let’s unpack why.

To begin, a Gallup poll from June of last year shows that Americans were less likely to support an Atheist for president than almost any other type of candidate. Only 58% of respondents said they would consider voting for a qualified Atheist, versus 40% that said they would not. (For the record, the only identity that garnered lower support for Atheists was—you guessed it—Socialists, with a 47/50 split). This same poll suggests that Americans would overwhelmingly consider backing a Jewish presidential candidate, with a full 91% of respondents supporting such a candidacy (only 7% say they would not).

On the face of it, then, Sanders’s tactic would seem simple: pay enough homage to his Jewish background that he can plausibly be conceived of publicly as a Jewish candidate. This strategy would have the added benefit of offering Sanders some cover from religious attacks: it is difficult to imagine an “anti-Jewish” ad not being met with accusations of Anti-Semitism. Yet there are a few difficulties with Sanders adopting this tactic.

First, it would risk seeming disingenuous. For a campaign built around honesty, not only would such a claim be an uphill PR battle (given his public speeches outlining what could charitably be portrayed as his loose religiosity) but also there is every chance that Sanders would not feel comfortable endorsing the strategy. This would arguably be a non-starter.

Second, even pretending that Sanders adopts a more observantly Jewish public persona, as opposed to being non-religious, it is not clear that this would help him achieve his get out the vote strategy. To begin, it would not win over those already opposed to his candidacy (e.g. conservatives that would be immediately turned off by the Socialist label). More importantly, there is a real danger that back peddling on his avowed non-religiosity would hurt Sanders among his base. Again, to the numbers:


Again, initially it would seem Sanders actually does better, from the vantage point of damage control, by highlighting his Jewish background. But this would be to forget that his base—which he needs to activate in the primary to beat Clinton, and (potentially) the general to beat whoever the GOP nominates—is narrower still.

Go to any Sanders rally or visit just about any college campus, and it becomes clear that Sanders’s target demographic is not so much Democrats as it is the young. They are buying his “Feel the Bern” merchandise and posts about him dominate their social media networks. As one article put it recently, Sanders is “their Cool Socialist Grandpa.” Accordingly a substantial amount of reporting has focused on Sanders’s ability to appeal to millennials, and with good reason: in some polls he is neck-and-neck with Clinton among 18-29 year olds, and in others he leads her.


The Sanders strategy is therefore to increase youth turnout. And as the Gallup data above suggest, this potential edge among the young may come not from highlighting his Jewishness but from highlighting his non-religiosity. A full 75% of young respondents would support an Atheist. Recent polling from Pew confirms this belief that Sanders is the preferred candidate among non-religious Americans.


But this is exactly Sanders’s problem: he does well with millennials (and non-religious Americans) in large part because he is non-religious himself. These secular Democratic activists, Geoffrey Layman argues, sound eerily like Sanders supporters:

They are strongly attached to their respective parties, but their political activity is motivated less by a commitment to party and more by a commitment to particular ideological goals than is the participation of their fellow partisans. . . . [The] evidence suggests that in a choice between compromising ideological goals to enhance the party’s chances of electoral success or remaining steadfast in ideological principles even at the expense of partisan electoral defeat, secular Democratic activists and committed evangelical Republican activists are more likely than their fellow partisans to choose the latter (Layman 2001, 148).

While one cannot claim that Sanders would definitely lose his base if he were to temper his non-religiosity, it could potentially turn off some of his most fervent proponents.

To understand why this is a problem, we need to take a brief detour: to what political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell call the “first” and “second aftershocks” of the sexual revolution. The first aftershock sent many Americans—those concerned over moral laxity and spiritual decay—to the Right in the 1970s and 1980s. The second aftershock, caused by the first one, was a pushback against the Religious Right:

For many Americans raised in the 1980s and 1990s [i.e. today’s millennials], religion as they saw it around them seemed to be mostly about conservative politics and especially about traditional positions on issues of sexual morality, like homosexuality. In effect, many of these Americans, who might have been religiously inclined, but were liberal on moral issues, said ‘if that’s what religion is all about, then it’s not for me.’ Thus, the second aftershock, during the 1990s and 2000s, thrust a substantial number of Americans, especially young Americans, in a decidedly nonreligious direction (Putnam and Campbell 2010, 81-82).

The result is the so-called “God gap,” where the Democrats are increasingly secular and Republicans increasingly religious.

Bernie Sanders appeals to a sizable contingent of the Democratic base for several reasons. He has consistently held progressive beliefs, has a public persona of honesty and integrity, and can claim “outsider” credentials at a time when trust in public institutions (again, especially among the young) is at an all time low. In sum, 2016 is a good year to be Bernie Sanders. Millennials are attracted to his candidacy for policy reasons (e.g. free college tuition), as well as his personality.

That said, this article has been laying out a more fundamental reason for that appeal among millennials: Bernie Sanders, simply put, looks like them. In everything but age Sanders is the perfect millennial candidate, beginning with his “spiritual but not religious” mantle. He may not be the first politician to try appealing to an increasingly secular Left, but he is the first candidate in whom the growing numbers of non-religious likely see themselves reflected. And it is clear that Sanders does not want to jeopardize that status.

Ultimately this strategy cannot prevail, for a very simple reason. Bernie Sanders’s energized base is white. Very, very white. One recent Monmouth poll indicates that Clinton has a 50-point advantage over Sanders among Black and Latino voters—71% to 21%.

Sanders supporters may counter, claiming that this is an artifact of name recognition: that Hillary Clinton polls well with reliably Democratic voters, in particular African Americans, because they know her and they do not know Sanders; and that once Sanders gets his message out, his poll numbers among African Americans will rise.

There is undoubtedly logic here, but a plausible claim does not a persuasive argument make. If we look at demographic data, it becomes increasingly clear that Sanders’s “secular” strength with one constituency is the ultimate liability with the rest of the Democratic base.


The data demonstrate a clear divide: Pew found that between 2007 and 2012, the population of “nones” in America grew, but to a far greater extent among the white population. “When it comes to race,” the Pew report says, “the recent change has been concentrated in one group: whites.” Only 13% of the African American population self-identified as nones in 2007; by 2012 that number increased to only 15% (an overall population increase of just 15.4%). Compare that to the white population, which saw an overall increase of 33% (from 15% to 20% of overall population).

The data would also suggest that much of this growth came from millennials: between 2007 and 2012, two populations that contain significant numbers of millennials (B.A. or less, and B.A. grad) increased significantly. The likely explanation is not that older Americans (either with or without bachelor’s degrees) became non-religious, but rather that a new cohort matured into those categories.

In fact, this is precisely what Pew reports:

One important factor behind the growth of the religiously unaffiliated is generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. Among the youngest Millennials (those ages 18-22, who were minors in 2007 and thus not eligible to be interviewed in Pew Research Center surveys conducted that year), fully one-third (34%) are religiously unaffiliated, compared with about one-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (9%) and one-in-twenty members of the World War II-era Greatest Generation (5%). Older Millennials (ages 23-30) also are substantially less likely than prior generations to be religiously affiliated.

If Sanders is going to succeed in motivating the young, he cannot risk turning them off by “finding religion.” By emphasizing youth turnout, Sanders seems to have committed himself to a strategy of running as non-religious.

Why Religion May Be the New Race in 2016

How did Obama win? Can Sanders repeat his feat? It all comes down to identity: in 2008, Democrats promised to make history by nominating either the first woman or first African American for the presidency. In their book Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears demonstrate how one of these two identities determined which candidate voters supported in the primary.

First some background: during the 1960s and 1970s, Civil Rights legislation became the primary fault line in American politics. While the overall sorting process is complex, the take home point is this: “racial conservatives,” those with traditional views on race (e.g. against interracial marriage) were consolidated into the Republican Party, and “racial liberals,” whose policies were pro-Civil Rights, came to dominate the Democratic Party. In general this holds true today.

Yet as Tesler and Sears show, the sorting was incomplete: the Democratic Party still contains a major cleavage along racial lines (Tesler and Sears 2010, 19). The result was that during the primary campaign in 2008, some Democratic voters were more likely to vote for Obama (racial liberals) and others were more likely to vote against him (racial conservatives).   Tesler and Sears’s analyses suggest that Democratic primary-goers were not voting for Hillary, necessarily, but against Obama.

In the 2008 Democratic Primary election, race was the predominant factor: even though gender mattered to voters, it simply did not matter as much. This observation is important not because a candidate’s race will be as important in 2016 as it was in 2008, but because it demonstrates an important truth: votes are never cast in isolation. The real question is which identity will be given primacy.

This is obvious in 2012, with Mitt Romney’s supposed “Mormon Problem.” Since Romney emerged as a potential presidential nominee in 2008, some have speculated that his Mormon faith disadvantages him with the GOP base. Polls from 2008 and 2012 indicate an interesting political divide. While overall support for a Mormon candidate remains constant over time (about 80% of respondents say they would consider voting for a one), a considerable shift occurred along ideological and political lines in 2012. In 2008, liberals were more likely to consider voting for a Mormon (77%) than were conservatives (66%). Just four years later, when Romney is the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination, Democrats were more tepid (70%) and Republicans overwhelmingly willing (90%) to vote for a qualified Mormon. As of 2015, Republicans remain more willing than Democrats to vote for a Mormon, though both groups have returned closer to the average (79% of Democrats are willing, whereas 84% of Republicans are).

Part of this story is one of acclimatization. Republicans became accustomed to the idea of a Mormon president and growing numbers of Democrats (no doubt fueled by the maturing millennials who aver religion and its connection to political conservatism) viewed Romney—and Mormons more generally—as threatening politically. But as I have said elsewhere, Republican voters may have softened on Romney because he was running against Barack Obama. As with 2008, Obama’s race affected opinions of other political actors around him: as the more extreme “other,” the prospect of Obama winning a second term normalized Romney’s more exotic qualities for the GOP base. To put it crassly, it came down to whether voters were more comfortable with a Mormon or a Muslim.

The 2008 primary shows that when cleavages remain within a political party, latent identifies may be primed to great effect. In the Democratic Primary that year, the identity was race. Mitt Romney’s 2012 prospects show that political and religious cleavages still exist, and that they may affect voter willingness to back a presidential candidate.

Conclusion: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

This will be the first presidential election in eight years where a candidate’s race is not the most salient political primer. Both Clinton and Sanders are white, and for political reasons the GOP candidates—even the Latinos Cruz and Rubio—are tied to conservative policies on immigration. In essence, neither race nor ethnicity look as chronically accessible in 2016 as they were in 2008 or 2012. So what will fill that gap?

As I have outlined here, I believe it will be religion: for much the same reason that race was politically salient in 2008. Bernie Sanders’s strengths are deeply rooted in his non-religious appeal. It is a sizable—if isolated—portion of the Democratic base. There is reason to believe that many in this base, especially the millennials, derive an emotional benefit voting for a non-religious candidate that echoes the jolt that racial liberals got supporting Obama. For some insight, think back to Geoffrey Layman’s analysis back in 2001 of secular Democrats behaving increasingly like the Religious Right in their rigid ideological purism.

These individuals arguably would not gain the same benefit voting for a “Jewish” candidate, even one whose Judaism is more cultural than religious. Furthermore, given the politically dicey ground that Sanders would have to navigate if he emphasized his Jewish identity while at the same time refusing to support Israel over Palestine, the secular identity just makes more sense.

To be clear, these Jewish and secular identities are not, in reality, mutually exclusive. At the same time, in an election it is entirely likely that one message will come to dominate the other. Sanders’s non-religiosity would inescapably color how Americans view his Judaism. In short not only is there pressure on Sanders to run as non-religious from his base, but from a political messaging standpoint it is clear that it will be the chosen angle of attack, should it come to a general election. In short, there is little reason to believe that Sanders’s non-religiosity would remain on the sidelines of the debate.

This is where Sanders’s path to a general election win is severely hampered. It is one thing to win a primary as a non-religious candidate. But for a Democrat to win a general election by relying on a strategy that ostracizes African Americans—one of the most steadfastly Democratic voting blocs—seems unlikely in the extreme. As the recent Pew poll highlighted earlier finds:

Fully half of religiously unaffiliated registered voters (51%) think Sanders would be a successful president, while four-in-ten (42%) think Clinton would be a good or great president. Among black Protestant voters, about six-in-ten (62%) think Clinton will be a “good” or a “great” president, while 36% say this about Sanders.

It is important to remember that these numbers are soft: Sanders’s religion has yet to be made an issue in the campaign. Whether he could gain among religious African American Protestants after being labeled an Atheist is an open question. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine that such an ad blitz would have no effect. A halfway effective media campaign would not have to convince cross-pressured African Americans to vote against Sanders in significant numbers (they likely would remain loyal Democrats), it would only have to dampen African American turnout in November.

The take home from this article is simple: that any discussion of “Sanders’s religion” (or lack thereof) represents perhaps the most difficult hurdle for the former track champion to jump over. This is not to say that Sanders is a bad candidate, or that his policies are wrongheaded. I also do not to mean to denigrate the sincerity of his or his supporters’ convictions. Sanders’s problem is one of practicality.

In many ways Sanders is a candidate strangely ahead of his time. His campaign’s strength comes from playing to a future demographic: one that is far less religious than its predecessors. Whether they turn out in this election, or in future ones, is a question that only time can settle. Given impressive growth in that demographic, however, it is difficult to imagine a future where non-religious Americans do not exert greater influence on the Democratic platform—and even potentially national elections.

The only problem with Sanders is that he—and even we—may not see that swing in our lifetimes.

Nation with the Soul of a . . . Nondescript Religious Establishment

Across the nation, fewer Americans are firmly identifying with a religious tradition.  Picture courtesy, Christopher Gregory of The New York Times.
Across the nation, fewer Americans are firmly identifying with a religious tradition. Picture courtesy, Christopher Gregory of The New York Times.

Last week I had the privilege of having my Op-Ed, “The Rise of the ‘Nones,'” published in the Providence Journal.  The piece can be found at the paper’s opinions website, or read here in its entirety.

The Rise of the ‘Nones’

The claim that 23 percent of Americans identify as “nones” in a survey on religion might raise eyebrows. “I knew there were a lot of Catholics,” I can imagine the reply, “but still: that seems like an awful lot of nuns.”

Last week, the Pew Research Center released its findings that more Americans than ever before claim no religious affiliation — the so-called nones. As importantly, the data suggest that fewer Americans call themselves Christians. Only 70.6 percent self-report as Christians, down from 78.4 percent in 2007.

The focus has so far been upon the “rise of the nones” — and understandably so. Between 2007 and 2014, the percent of Americans self-identifying as atheists nearly doubled (from 1.6 percent to 3.1 percent), as did those calling themselves agnostic (2.4 percent to 4 percent). Those describing their religion as “nothing in particular” grew from 12.1 percent to 15.8 percent.

Surely these demographic shifts are important, indicating a less conventionally religious America. For several reasons, however, we need to carefully disentangle the cultural ramifications from other, more significant lessons.

First, as Pew correctly highlights, religious categories are dynamic. Americans move between faith groups all the time. Called “switching,” this phenomenon is especially important when discussing nones. The study doesn’t track these frequent movements, just the final difference as of 2014.

For that reason, its conclusion that nones have gained the most from religious switching (four gains for every one loss) is factually accurate but must be taken with a grain of salt. As striking as it seems, trends are not one-way streets: periods of diminished religiosity preceded the Great Awakenings of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Second, the increase in atheists and agnostics requires qualification as well. While it certainly speaks to the increasing acceptability of nonbelief, it doesn’t necessarily indicate an increase in those populations. As long as there have been Americans there have been American atheists and agnostics. Remember: Pew is only measuring self-reported belief. It is impossible to tell from this study whether some Americans adopted nonbelief between 2007 and 2014, or if they simply felt more comfortable disclosing it (or, as with younger millennials, were simply too young to have participated in the 2007 survey).

My final point is the most important of the three. What are the actual consequences of the rise of the nones?

In one sense, not a whole lot. It’s like politics. Countless polls tell us that 40 percent of Americans are political independents. Yet actual political behavior remains predictably partisan. The difference is between “avowed” and “functional” independents. An examination of voting records indicates that only 10 percent of us are truly politically independent. We care about this 40 percent not because they necessarily sway elections, but because they indicate general reluctance to identify with a major party.

We should adopt a similar mindset when thinking about the nones. Nones — many of whom believe in God, pray occasionally, and think of themselves as spiritual — represent more of a pushback against religious labeling than against religion itself. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, connects them to the second aftershock of the cultural revolution. The first aftershock, in the 1970s and 1980s, sent many Americans to the religious right; the second, in response to the growing alliance between the religious and political rights, sent others to the secular left.

What Americans believe is, and ought to be, entirely their own business. As ever, the problem is perception. The danger is that political hands — both left and right — will try to capitalize on these alleged differences to gain an edge: that they will treat us as more different than we are. After all, this is election season.

But that is exactly the wrong message. If anything, Pew’s report underscores what brings us together: how America remains a nation aspiring to embrace pluralism. We are a nation of belief, nonbelief and everything in between.

G.K. Chesterton said that America was a nation with the soul of a church. Just because that soul is different doesn’t mean it’s gone. Americans are simply changing how they relate to it.

Prayer Breakfast Primer

Dwight Eishenhouer

The National Prayer Breakfasts began as anything but national.  Founded by a Norwegian methodist minister, Abram Vereide, they offered Seattle businessmen spiritual support during the depths of the Depression.  The prayer breakfast movement spread like wildfire, and after Vereide met Billy Graham at a rally the two became close.  Eventually their efforts came together in the Senate prayer breakfasts, held throughout World War II.  In fact it took nearly a decade for the president to get involved.  It was not until Senator Frank Carlson (R-Ka.) reached out to the new president, Dwight Eisenhower.

Evolution Over Time

Over the years the Prayer Breakfast has gone through several other evolutions.  First is the name: it changed in 1970, from the “Presidential” Prayer Breakfast to (the potentially less taboo) “National” Prayer Breakfast, reflecting Americans’ general aversion to overt Church/State violations.  A second change–less material, though still noteworthy–is the change in venue.  After being held successively at the Mayflower, Shoreham, and Sheraton Park hotels, it was permanently relocated to the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel (again, in 1970).

These first changes are somewhat superficial.  Yet the last change to which I would like to call attention had profound social ramifications.  Until 1969, the meetings were segregated by sex.  There are at least two possible explanations for this.  First, John Kennedy was openly–and frequently–critical of this practice.  As he said in 1961,

It seems to me that in the true Christian spirit next year we should all sit down together, and that we should have gentlemen and ladies pray and reason together, and not confine them in different rooms.

And the next year:

Last year I expressed some concern that instead of having been separated at these breakfasts–the pharisees and the publicans and the sinners and the saints–that the separation occurred on the basis of sex and not on those who should have been in the front room and those who were in the back room.

While it would be nice to believe that the breakfasts were integrated at JFK’s insistence, this does not seem to be the case.  The Breakfasts continued segregated meetings years after his death, and coincidentally integration occurs the same year that the president first directly addresses the audience listening at home.

Why bring up the inclusion of women?  More than its importance in the evolution of the speeches, it demonstrates a central truth: that presidents use the National Prayer Breakfasts as platforms to level social critiques.  Kennedy believed that separate addresses betrayed the unifying spirit of the meetings.  (And, in particular, the Christian message.  But more on that later.)

So when Barack Obama warned Americans not to “get on their high horse,” it was a social critique not entirely without precedent.  In fact, one common leitmotif in these addresses is the exhortation away from hubris and toward humility–in fact, Jimmy Carter’s whole 1977 address is about humility.  He draws on Micah’s admonition against hubris.  And his speeches continually warn against believing Americans are virtuous simply by their birth and not their actions.  Nixon asks the nation to be humble, as does Bill Clinton.

The Prayer Breakfast at a Glance

Before wrapping up, it is helpful to see what Prayer Breakfast speeches–in general–address.  A quick word query in NVivo reveals the ten most common words throughout NPB addresses:


These speeches, this illustration suggests, exemplify the “president as priest” model to which scholars in civil religion refer.  In a nation where the populace is wary of transgressing the Church/State divide, NPB speeches provide a vehicle for presidents to overtly discuss religion as president.  

More importantly, religious words like “God,” “prayer,” and “faith” come alongside words like “nation,” “people,” and “one.”  One can deduce, of course, that presidents are underscoring the view that religion unites the nation (though naturally presidents differ in emphasizing pluralism or more specific religions).  Again, scholars in civil religion suggest we are likely to find this pattern in American political discourse.

It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that this snapshot captures all of the nuances that exist in these speeches.  To begin, presidents differ: as I will demonstrate, presidents focus on particular themes.  Kennedy gravitates toward pluralism.  Nixon toward national greatness.  Jimmy Carter talks about national humility.  Ronald Reagan relies upon more “down home” Christian stories.  I will get to the intricacies of these in time.  For now, it is only important to know that these nuances risk going unnoticed if we do not subject the NPB addresses to a more fine-grained analysis.

Forthcoming: Discussion of Prayer Breakfasts

President Barack Obama delivering his 2015 National Prayer Breakfast address, 5 February. Photo courtesy of the LA Times.

Last month, President Obama delivered–what turned out to be–a somewhat controversial address.  The majority of the speech condemned religious violence, in particular ISIS, in the strongest possible language.  At one point he called the militant group a “brutal, vicious, death cult.”  Yet the Prayer Breakfast address dominated the news cycle because Obama, ruminating on the dangers of perverting faith, warned his audience not to forget the terrible acts committed in the name of either Christianity or the United States.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

On the Right, pundits cried “Christianity-bashing.”  Others, on the Left and in the center, admitted the validity of Obama’s historical parallel.  Some came unabashedly to the president’s aid, while others questioned his wisdom in his potentially patronizing tone.

The forthcoming posts will not rehash the validity of the differing interpretations.  Rather, they reveal what I believe is the faulty logic underlying them all: that Prayer Breakfast speeches ought to be compared with official statements of policy.  After all, Obama’s comparison of ISIS to crusading Christians touched a nerve precisely because it purportedly indicates he lacks the moral certitude to win.   Now it can be argued that any address is a public (and therefore official) statement by a president.  Yet this is at odds with what the Prayer Breakfasts have been in the past.

Prayer Breakfast speeches are a special class of address.  They resemble major addresses–like States of the Union, or Inaugurals–in that they recur at regular intervals.  At the same time they are informal.  Presidents have not historically used them to outline major policy initiatives.  That simply is not what presidents do here.  At Prayer Breakfasts the president is far more like a pastor than a politician, and his rhetoric has historically reflected that distinction.

Will 2016 Be as Kind to Romney as 2012?

2012 GOP Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney, courtesy: Politico 

There are a lot of reasons why 2016 could be Mitt Romney’s year.  At least he thinks so.  And he has, I would say, at least a few things going for him.  First, as Pew highlights, by some measures Americans’ opinions of Mormons softened.  Respondents were more likely to describe Mormons with positive words (such as “good person”), and they also saw themselves as less unlike Mormons than in the past.

Then there is always that, having run for president in the past, Romney may have learned from his mistakes.  It is in this spirit that Romney is now focusing more concretely upon his Mormon faith as an advantage, not disadvantage.  Compare the two stories from the New York Times.

The first in 2012:

“[A]s the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mr. Romney speaks so sparingly about his faith — he and his aides frequently stipulate that he does not impose his beliefs on others — that its influence on him can be difficult to detect.”

And the second just this month:

“[Romney’s] speech this month at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting offered an early glimpse of how he might run differently in 2016. Mr. Romney openly mentioned his leadership roles in his church, as ‘a pastor for a congregation and for groups of congregations.’”

The story is simple: Romney did not highlight his religion in 2012, and he is now.  Even if the Governor did not bring up religion, however, the media did.  The result?  While at the beginning 39% of Americans knew Romney was Mormon, by the end of the campaign 65% could identify his religious beliefs.

So, will talking about his religion help Romney?  It’s difficult to tell.  Yes Americans, from 2011 to 2012, became more accepting of Mormons.  This is especially true among Protestants, who moved up six points (from 25 to 31%) in the “a lot in common” between themselves and Mormons category.  But if John Zaller taught us anything, it is that public opinion is fickle, open to priming and top-of-the-head processing.  And two polls does not a trend make.  There is one big difference between 2012 and 2016: Romney’s opponent (should he get so lucky in 2016) will not be Barack Obama.

This matters a lot.  Remember that for many Americans, religious background is an easy way to delineate “us” from “them.”  And for many, Barack Obama was the ultimate other.  He’s a socialist, he’s Black, and he’s (depending on their mood) either a militant Black Christian a-la Jeremiah Wright or “Barack Hussein Obama,” a secret Muslim.

Given this, what is more likely: that some Americans became permanently more accepting of Mormons in a year, or that they identified someone who could beat a “still-more-other” other?  By comparison, Mitt Romney was less of an other than Barack Obama.  This is borne out in Pew’s data, where we see that there is a distinctly political tinge to changing moods about Mormons:

This warming of attitudes about the Mormon religion is concentrated among Republicans and independents who lean Republican. Among Republicans and people who lean toward the GOP, a third (32%) say their own beliefs and Mormon beliefs have a lot in common, up from 25% in November 2011. Views among Democrats and people who lean toward the Democratic Party have stayed about the same.

Now it is of course possible that these changes are genuine among the Republican and Republican-leaning population.  In the absence of crunching data, we can sit back and watch Mitt run.  If he somehow gets the nomination, he may have the chance — like Kennedy — to get a non-Protestant president into the Oval Office.  But if he does, it will have to be (in part) because those same conservative Americans genuinely see him as like themselves and not simply “more like themselves than Obama.”

Mario Cuomo: Why He Got Civil Religion Right, and Why It Matters

Mario Cuomo delivering DNC Keynote Address, San Francisco, CA 16 July 1984.  Credit: ABC News
Mario Cuomo delivering DNC Keynote Address,  16 July 1984. Credit: ABC News

When Mario Cuomo passed away a few weeks back, almost every remembrance highlighted his “Tale of Two Cities” DNC keynote speech.  Several of these — NPRHuffington Post, and Politico — fixate upon his political rhetoric.

Attention to Cuomo’s stylized rhetoric is warranted.  The Governor himself famously quipped that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose.  But Cuomo was more than a poet — and his death marks more than the loss of America’s poet laureate.  NPR’s Ron Elving hit the nail on the head:

In a darkened hall, Cuomo loomed on the stage above, bathed in a shaft of light. He appeared as a tough-talking prophet bringing his testament from on high — a jeremiad against the regime and worldview of President Ronald Reagan.

That night, Cuomo was indicting Reagan’s vision of America as a “Shining City on a Hill.”  It is a metaphor that is, usually, uncomplicated.  From John F. Kennedy, to Ronald Reagan, and even today with Barack Obama, it indicates America’s virtue.  If we shine it is because we have — as a nation — fulfilled our destiny as a beacon to other nations.  When our proverbial streets are filled with grime and dirt, it is because we have further to go.  These are mutually exclusive states.

Mario Cuomo saw something different.  In his hands, the “shining city” was more than something aspired to.  It became a symbol not of national unity — that we shine together or not at all — but evidence of the most profound injustices.

[T]he hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages. . . . In this part of the city there are more poor than ever. . . . There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.

More than anyone before or since, he echoed that other Old Testament prophet of the American civil religion: Abraham Lincoln.  It was Lincoln who warned us that the nation could not exist half slave and half free.

Cuomo’s speech was poetry, yes, but only incidentally.  We remember it not because of how it was written or delivered, but because of what it told us about ourselves.  We remember it because it reminded us that even as the nation prospers — even as we shine as that city upon a hill — that gleam is not universal.  In fact that gleam can blind us from the realization that the work of perfecting the Union must go on.


It seems only fitting that my first post for this site be about APSA!  Heading down to DC this morning, and preparing for a wonderful weekend catching up with colleagues and listening to the best new research out there.