She Begat This: America’s religious origins speak to its modern political landscape
When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in the 2020 Democratic primary back in April, an exasperated sigh could be heard throughout the left-leaning electorate across the nation.
For many, Sanders’ signature policy proposals and fervent dedication to low-income and working class individuals represented a much-needed shift toward socialist values in United States politics. However, once it became evident that the less galvanizing and more moderate former Vice President Joe Biden would likely take Sanders’ place, running against President Donald Trump in the general election, rhetoric quickly shifted from a socialist revolution to settling for the “lesser of two evils.”
Graphics circulating throughout social media pointed out a list of striking similarities between the two supposed presidential nominees, referring to Biden as “just Trump in blue.” Frustrated by their lack of choice, some began to question the significance of electoral politics as a whole, resolving that if they were unable to vote for someone they actually believed in, it was better not to vote at all.
This disheartening yet familiar position is often referred to as the product of bipartisan politics. Compared to other economically-developed democracies such as the United Kingdom or France, the United States’ political landscape seems to be far scarcer. Although voters can register in the American Independent, Green, Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties, there is a commonly held and statistically-supported belief that votes outside of the established Democratic or Republican parties don’t really count in elections. Coupling this with the highly conservative political homogeneity displayed in the 2020 presidential race, many people don’t see a viable way to communicate their views and have them be reflected through the current system of electoral politics.
Part of the reason why this center-right ideological monopoly has held true in the United States has much to do with the religious origins of this nation. As you may recall from a grade school history lesson, the first European colonizers to settle on the rightfully-Indigenous land of Turtle Island (now commonly known as the United States) were Puritan Protestants fleeing Europe after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Departing from the Anglican Church of England in favor of the religious freedom to practice greater piety, spiritual purity and adherence to the ideals of the Protestant reformers, many seperatist Puritans sought to create a “spiritually pure utopia” in The New World.
In 1776, 150 years after the first colonizers founded the Plymouth colony, 75% of Americans were Protestants. Nearly 400 years later, 2014 statistics reflect that 71% of Americans identify as broadly Christian and nearly half of Americans still identify as Protestant. This religious affiliation demonstrates an aberration in American politics wherein the United States’ political landscape remains comparatively religious-conservative even as its economically-developed democratic peers have become increasingly secular-liberal. This is a result of a phenomenon referred to by scholars as cultural inertia, meaning that “the earliest communities of an emerging society exert a disproportionate influence on the culture’s fundamental nature.”
However, what makes the United States a particularly interesting case study in cultural inertia is the fact that parallel to its persistent conservative and religious adherence, the United States has also become widely known and criticized for its markedly hedonistic culture and hyperconsumerism. Although few American Protestants identify themselves as specifically Puritan, the beliefs and values of this particular sect of Protestantism have had an indelible influence on American culture and politics due, in part, to a concept called implicit social cognition.
While an individual might not credit their conservative or moderate beliefs to a Protestant upbringing, simply being socialized within U.S. society tends to impart Protestant values such as individualistic meritocracy and an association between work and divine salvation. This may lead not only to the endorsement of conservative positions on politically-defined moral issues but also to an absolutist view of the very nature of morality. Distinct from moral relativism and a hallmark of Puritanism, moral absolutism is defined as “belief that there are absolutely clear guidelines about what is good and evil. These always apply to everyone, whatever the circumstances.” This is part of the reason why issues like abortion and the death penalty are so polarized within U.S. politics; moral absolutism could also be the cause behind the United States imprisoning more people than any other country in the world.
While college-educated Americans are known to display more publicly liberal views than their non-college-educated peers, purportedly rejecting moral absolutist or socially unacceptable conservative ideals on topics such as homosexuality or promiscuity, studies have shown that they implicitly endorse these same conservative views due to something called “hedonic ambivalence” — or “tension between their implicit and explicit moral beliefs,”
These conservative views ultimately play out in the arena of U.S. politics. Because of the majority-rules, winner-take-all electoral system instituted in the United States, rather than being proportional to the voter base, political representatives reflect only the largest share of voters — which, in the case of the United Statesis moderate or conservative. Many political scientists oppose this method of electoral politics because of its tendency to obscure and suppress non-dominant political views. Instead, they favor proportional systems such as a party list or alternative vote system, which are widely used by other economically-developed democracies.
Under our current system, congressional and local elections go to the candidate who gets the largest percentage of votes. Whereas in presidential elections, the candidate who wins a total of 270 electoral votes, regardless of whether they have the popular vote, wins. However, if the United States implemented a party list system and, say, 50% of votes for Congress were Democratic, 25% were Republican, 10% were Green Party and 15% were Peace and Freedom in a given election, those would be the percentages of politicians from each party represented in Congress. This way, minor political parties could still get a voice and elected officials would actually reflect the bodies of constituents they represent.
Today, our nation’s 116th Congress is 78% white, 75.8% male and 88.2% Christian; this description sounds a lot more like an antiquated picture of the Framers than a present-day image of the burgeoning diversity of the United States.
Until we can come up with new electoral processes that ensure everyone’s voice is heard, the United States is doomed to remain stuck in the 1700s, repeating the same unrepresentative center-right elections that we’re seeing in 2020, for centuries to come.
Endiya Griffin is a freshman writing about current events through the lens of social justice and feminism, race and culture. Her column, “She Begat This,” runs every other Friday.