Christianity in America has never depended on government sponsorship. American culture after independence remained imbued with Protestant beliefs and values. Politicians invoked God in their speeches and, when public school systems were created, children began their school day with a Christian prayer. Citizens were proud of the political separation of church and state, yet most thought that harmony between the republican government and the Christian culture of most Americans was only natural①.
But early America was, in religious as in ethnic terms, fairly homogeneous, making such harmony easy. Most Americans were of British ancestry and continued to follow British forms of Protestantism. This continued till the 1840s, when 80 years of intense European immigration began, endowing America with substantial populations of Roman Catholics, European-type Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Jews. Muslims and Buddhists appeared on the scene after World War II.
Today the US population is overwhelmingly Christian: 30% Roman Catholic, 1-2% Eastern Orthodox and the remaining 60% or more (apart from the 1-2% each of Jews, Muslims and Buddhists) Protestant in belief or at least in culture. Children no longer recite Christian prayers in public schools, but parents are free to educate their offspring in private schools sponsored by religious groups.
In a society with many minorities, how far can politicians go in using their private religious beliefs to justify their public stances on various issues? One trend is for politicians to keep silent about the impact of their beliefs on their political views. John Kerry is an example: apparently a committed Roman Catholic, yet now in trouble with Catholic bishops because he will not vote for limits on abortion. He is reluctant to discuss his religious beliefs in a public forum. Cartoonist Tom Toles no doubt approves.
It is politicians like George W. Bush that Toles objects to. Bush has openly allied himself with the millions of Protestants who in America are termed "evangelical"; found in several different denominations, they are a powerful force in modern American Christianity. Bush appears to be quite sincere in his beliefs, which reportedly helped him to overcome a drinking problem that was threatening to wreck his marriage and his career. (His opposition to abortion has also won him the favor of many Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Orthodox Jews.) The link with politically active evangelical Protestants is crucial to Bush's hopes of re-election. Unlike many Americans, these people vote. They will gladly cooperate in getting like-minded people to the polls on election day. So George Bush strives to keep them on his side. His speeches are peppered with phrases taken from the special language of evangelicalism, and many observers think he opposes homosexual marriage largely to fire up religious conservatives. Tom Toles, as we see in today's cartoon, finds this strategy disturbing.