I’m sure most readers recognize this quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Our government,” Ike famously remarked, “makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith – and I don’t care what it is.” Scholars often use this quote to illustrate religion’s place in American society. Americans respect religiosity (unlike Western Europeans, for example) and see it as a mark of good character. We think our politicians should express spiritual commitments. We like religion.
On the other hand, we don’t much care for sectarianism, something Tocqueville recognized long ago. America tends to flatten differences among religions. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell demonstrate in their recent study, American Grace, Americans have an expansive view of religious truth and are unwilling to say that any one religion is the “right” one, even their own. “A majority of Americans,” they write, “believe that members of other faiths can go to Heaven, and this is true even in religions that explicitly teach that salvation is reserved for their own adherents.”
A recent poll from Religion News Service gives more evidence of this essential fact of American life. In the poll, 56% responded that it was important for a presidential candidate to have strong beliefs – even if those beliefs differed from the respondents’. In other words, it isn’t what the candidate believes, but that the candidate believes. I’m sure there are limits to this principle. Americans aren’t going to elect a Satanist anytime soon. But the RNS poll reveals once again that most Americans do not insist that politicians believe the same things they do. Politicians just have to believe something. — MLM