Since its founding, the United States has been composed of a diversity of religions, making religious tolerance and the separation of church and state necessary for the maintenance of a peaceful coexistence. It is inscribed in the First Amendment of the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nonetheless, despite a clear institutional differentiation between religious and nonreligious spheres of society, the United States has remained, on the whole, a devout nation. In 2016, 89 percent of Americans reported that they believe in God and 72 percent said they believe in angels (“Most Americans Still Believe in God,” 2016). These facts create an apparent paradox: Americans, as a whole, fundamentally believe in a separation of church and state, yet religious imagery often pervades political discourse. Furthermore, the emergence of the Religious Right as a powerful political force would appear to contradict the premise that politics and religion occupy separate spheres in American society. However, the group’s evolution over the past 30 years and integration into mainstream society ultimately underscores the value that most Americans place on the separation of church and state and the fact that religion is able to influence American politics only insofar as it reflects the expression of individual political opinions as motivated by religious belief.

Author information: Tess Saperstein is a senior government concentrator at Harvard University. Her interests include the politics of religion and the media.



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