Fall 2008, Vol. 11, No. 2

Quick Links

Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Region Matters

The Postville Raid

FLDS 1, Texas O

Is the Dalai Lama Slipping?

Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah

Women's Ordination Revisited

Having it All

Twilight of the Religion Writers

New books

Letter to Editor


From the Editor:
Region Matters by Mark Silk 

It is sort of an article of faith at the Greenberg Center that region matters. In 2001, we embarked on Religion by Region, a project designed to explore the place of religion in America’s regional cultures. What ensued were edited volumes on religion and public life in each of eight regions of the country, followed this summer by One Nation, Divisible, written by Andrew Walsh and myself.

This final volume is meant to summarize the project as a whole; to make useful comparisons among regions; and to incorporate region into the story of religion in America since World War II. It also seeks to show, as the subtitle announces, How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics. Among the ways this happens is via the performance of presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

Take the case of John F. Kennedy.

When, in his famous appearance before the Houston ministers in 1960, Kennedy strongly opposed the influence of religious leaders and beliefs on political behavior, he was not only seeking to calm Protestant anxieties about having a Catholic in the White House. He was also speaking out of his experience as a politician in New England, where a history of bitter conflict between Irish and Yankee had, by the middle of the 20th century, led to a tacit agreement that religion was a private matter that should be off the table when it comes to partisan politics.

In the current election season, every regional religious culture with the exception of New England has helped shape the outlooks of the four politicians running for national office.

Joe Biden, who grew up in a working class Irish Catholic community in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is Middle Atlantic all the way. Ever since the arrival of colonists from Europe, the Middle Atlantic states have been characterized by a robust religious pluralism of distinct communities. Religious tensions there have been, but in the main, the region has been a place where individuals understand themselves as belonging to one or another swatch of an ethno-religious tapestry made more worthwhile by the presence of others.

Biden, expressed this point of view precisely when asked on Meet the Press how he would explain to his running mate when life begins.

 I’d say, “Look, I know when it begins for me. It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths—Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others—who have a different view.”

 In the Middle Atlantic, religion is a multiple thing, and the differences need to be acknowledged.

John McCain, a Navy brat if ever there was one, may have grown up in the Washington, D.C., area, but he now personifies the religious culture of the Mountain West, whither he betook himself to practice politics in 1981. This is a region marked (like the rest of the West apart from Utah) by low religious affiliation rates. It is a world of enclaves—a far flung archipelago distinguished by a libertarian sensibility: You leave me alone and I’ll treat you the same.

McCain’s instincts seem libertarian as well. On the hot button issues of gay marriage and abortion, he prefers to let each state decide—the federalist approach championed on the Supreme Court by his fellow Arizonan, Sandra Day O’Connor.

But the Mountain West has hardly been unaffected by the religious politics of the past generation. Conservative evangelicalism has made advances in various parts of the region, led by the emergence of Colorado Springs as the Vatican (or perhaps the Salt Lake City) of the religious right.

One might say that McCain’s religious lack of focus—his maintenance of an allegiance to the Episcopalianism of his youth even as he attends (but does not belong to) his wife’s Baptist church, the secular outlook he conveys not only by his support for embryonic stem cell research but also in his obvious lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the moral values agenda—reflects the competing impulses that beset the region.

Sarah Palin is likewise a Westerner, from that least churched of American regions, the Pacific Northwest. Alaska differs from the region’s other states, Oregon and Washington, by being a throwback to the days when extraction industries drove economic life. Ideologically, it’s frontier libertarianism all the way, so long as you don’t think about the huge government subsidies to which the population has become addicted. It is among the least religiously committed states in America, with 60 percent of its population unaffiliated.

Palin’s committed evangelicalism is thus atypical of the Alaskan religious scene. Indeed, it reflects the influence of immigrants from another region of country—what we call the Southern Crossroads (Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, and Arkansas)—who brought their religious habits with them. As the New York Times recounted on September 14:

In the past three decades, socially conservative Oklahomans and Texans have flocked north to the oil fields of Alaska. They filled evangelical churches around Wasilla and revived the Republican Party. Many of these working-class residents formed the electoral backbone for Ms. Palin, who ran for mayor on a platform of gun rights, opposition to abortion, and the ouster of the “complacent” old guard.

The Crossroads has a higher proportion of Pentecostals than any other region of the country, and foremost among the Pentecostal dominations is the Assemblies of God, headquartered in Springfield, Missouri, which Palin belonged to for most of her life. Religion in the Crossroads is something of a blood sport—an arena of contention not just between the dominant Protestants and the large Catholic minority, but among and within the Protestant denominations themselves. An us-against-them attitude prevails, as well as a certain impulse to go out and remake the world in your own image.

From what one can tell, Palin’s public career reflects the kind of tension that comes from embracing Crossroads-style evangelicalism in a state in which evangelicals constitute a small minority unable to work their will easily upon the public at large.

When she decided to run for statewide office in 2002, she left the Assemblies of God and joined a more low-key, nondescript Bible church. In her 2004 gubernatorial election campaign, she charged her pro-choice opponent with using abortion as a wedge issue against her. After firing her public safety commissioner, her choice to succeed him was “a rising star in Alaska’s conservative Christian movement,” in the words of an Anchorage Daily News op-ed September 20. Crossroads-style activists have to pick their spots in Alaska.

Finally, there’s Barack Obama, another hybrid character, who made his way from the farthest reaches of the country’s Pacific region to higher education in California and the East Coast, to seeking his public destiny in the capital of the Midwest.

Fluid religious identities are the hallmark of the Pacific, and Obama’s early years in Hawaii (with time in Indonesia) reflect that region’s characteristically diffuse, institutionally disconnected spirituality. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama describes the process by which he embedded himself religiously at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. What he took away, both from his experience of that African-American church and his study of the civil rights movement, was something of the black civil religion of the South: a distinctively Southern sense of messianic potential, but portrayed (most famously in the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.) as transcending race.

In his political self, however, Obama is, finally, a Midwesterner who embodies a Midwestern sense of the importance of the community as a unified whole pulling together. This is pluralism not in the Middle Atlantic sense of separate entities doing their own thing in relative harmony, but as the kind of common cause where everyone lends a hand to raise the barn.

To many observers, the onetime community organizer’s soaring rhetoric has seemed to lack substance. But in the Midwest, it’s a call to a known and admired way of life.

How the presidential race turns out will, as in the past, open the door to regional religious influences. Will it be a libertarian/evangelical ethos out of the West, or a species of Midwestern communitarianism? And how, after eight years of George Bush’s Southern Crossroads, will the country react?


Check out Spiritual Politics Mark Silk's blog
on religion and the 2008 election.


Hit Counter