Title: Truth, Justice, and the American Way: Political Religions in America, Then and Now

Chair:

James A. Morone: Professor of Urban Politics and Political Science, Brown University

Committee:

Corey Brettschneider: Professor of Political Science, Brown University

Ross Cheit: Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Brown University

Michael Tesler: Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of California, Irvine

Project Description

Uncle Sam in PrayerWe often assume, I believe to our detriment, that the liberal and religious traditions are wholly separate.  Yet anyone paying attention to contemporary politics sees how secular symbols are treated as religious artifacts.  My dissertation seeks to plug this theoretical gap, exploring the religious dimensions of America’s secular politics.  I suggest that Americans create and maintain a moral community: but one whose morals come from both religious and secular sources.  More specifically, this project recasts Robert Bellah’s notion of an “American civil religion” (ACR) as a distinctly political phenomenon.  To illustrate the difference between my conception and Bellah’s, I opt to refer to America’s political religion — borrowing, of course, from Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address in 1838.

Just what are America’s political religions?  They are the political symbols, particularly the Constitution and Office of the President, that frame social movements and American political thought more broadly.  They establish who is a part of the American moral community.  By drawing upon culturally protestant approaches to sacred texts — for instance, the belief that anyone can read the Constitution and can therefore understand it, just as Reformation protestants argued all could read the Bible — these symbols become potent symbols of unification and division.  Through a combination of in-depth case studies from the 1930s and today, as well as an original analysis of presidential prayer breakfast speeches, I qualify how and to what extent political science should reclaim “political religion” as a theoretical concept.

My case studies focus upon three movements: the American Liberty League and Townsend Clubs, both from the standpoint of the 1936 election; and today’s Tea Party.  For instance, the chapter on the Townsend Clubs explores its political religion and moral politics in lobbying for a revolving pension plan for the elderly. In particular it focuses upon two symbols, “Townsend Plan” and Dr. Francis E. Townsend as prophet.  What we discover is fascinating: that political religion, far from unifying, is often the justification for exclusion and moral judgment, even as the language itself preaches tolerance.

 

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