Gene Expression

Populism & public religion

Half Sigma points me to The Legend of a Heretic, which chronicles the close relationship between Robert G. Ingersoll, a prominent American agnostic of the 19th century, and the Republican Party elite of that time. It seems ironic that though we are a nation which explicitly bans formal religious tests, we live at a time where an implicit religious test exists. This despite the fact that Andrew Jackson was probably the first of our presidents who would be considered an orthodox Christian. But even as late as 1908 a Unitarian, William Howard Taft, was president (despite some grumblings about his unorthodox Christianity).

What happened? The past generation has witnessed a massive growth in the number of those who disavow affiliation with an institutional religion, and yet our elected leaders are even more aggressive in testifying to their religiosity. I think this a manifestation of the polarization of religious opinion; while the non-religious increase their share and evangelicals maintain their proportion, the moderates have declined. Since the non-religious are the smallest segment and we live in a democracy so politicians react appropriately. I also don’t think it’s any surprise that when suffrage among males was generally constrained by property qualifications in most states cultural populists such as Andrew Jackson were not elected to the highest office (even political populists such as Thomas Jefferson were cultural elitists).1

The underlying dynamic can be seen more clearly in European politics; limited suffrage which extends to the upper bourgeois benefits parties of the “Left” which we might term liberal. Once the suffrage expands to the whole populace the liberal parties become marginalized and the Left becomes synonymous with more a socialistic orientation; see the replacement of the Liberals and National Liberals in the United Kingdom and Germany by socialist parties as the opposition to the Right. Liberals become bit players & Third Forces defined by their hostility toward both the corporatism of the Right (symbolized by religion) and that of the Left (symbolized by labor organizations). In Latin America there has often been a tension among anti-Rightists between those who are positively anti-clerical and those who might accept a modus vivendi, with the difference often manifesting along class lines. During the Mexican revolution some of the followers of Emiliano Zapata were offended at the extreme anti-clericalism of the other factions, which reflected anti-religious sensibilities in vogue among the elite.


  1. #1 jeffk
    July 23, 2008

    I think that there’s another factor as well, which is that many agnostics, while no longer believing, find the existence of religion comforting, which (to them) is a desirable quality to have in a leader. Their parents were religious, their grandparents were religious, and even if they don’t go to church, they want to look and see that religious person in charge. Here on ScienceBlogs, there we have fire-breathing, unapologetic, intellectual atheists. But I suspect many of those self-reporting agnostics either actually think of themselves as having failed somehow for having lost their faith – and I think since many liberals in particular actively fall over themselves to respect religion even if they don’t believe it, they certainly have no problem voting for it.

  2. #2 bgc
    July 23, 2008

    Could it be as simple as the recognition that (as most surveys suggest – e.g. – and lots more from Roy Guhname) believing, churchgoing Christians are on the whole more moral people than atheists – more altruistic, better-behaved etc.

    If politicians can convince the public that they have the moral characteristics of church-going Christians, then this makes them electorally more-appealing.

  3. #3 Manduca
    July 23, 2008

    The survey bgc cites reports on drug and alcohol use only. How is that a measure of morality?

    Societies with greater religious belief have higher rates of murder, abortion, promiscuity, STDs and suicide.

    Religious people have no monopoly on morality. The “simple recognition” is nothing of the sort – it is a projection by the religious (if their religion motivates them to be moral) that non-believers cannot possibly have any motivation to be moral.

    Atheists (and most people, if you question them deeply enough) base their treatment of other people on empathy, experience and reason, not the bible, and not fear of punishment or hope for reward.