I think a lot of Europeans don’t realize how religious American society is. It results from many things but it seems to me the most important is that America has religion and religious identity very deeply embedded in its roots. The first colonists who settled in North America in the 17th century were in large part persecuted in Europe because of their religion. They fled from persecution to the colonies.
Additionally, American settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries were often simple, uneducated people. They lived in difficult conditions, and sought comfort and support in religion. It was easiest to find consolation in religion and God. That is why religion was always deeply embedded in America.
From Movies We Only Know the America of Big Cities
The America we know from the movies—the America of Los Angeles and New York—is much more left-wing and progressive. Thus Hollywood isn’t religious, which means the movies we’re seeing, and drawing our understanding of America from, are inaccurate. They don’t show religion to the extent it really exists in America. Just go outside of any big city and you’ll see that churches and religious congregations of all kinds are thriving and very important to people.
At this time, it seems impossible for a man who declares himself an atheist or an agnostic to become president of the United States. But it will likely happen in the future. In recent decades there have been at least a few presidents who didn’t have much to do with religion or the practice of religion in their private lives. Of course a politician’s public image and his or her private life are two different things.
Mormonism an Issue for Romney
I think religion will play a big part in this year’s election campaign for a couple of reasons. First, Romney is a Mormon, which is a problem. On the one hand he is obviously religious and believes in God—he’s a member of a religious community—but on the other the Mormon Church isn’t held in especially high regard in the U.S. A lot of people consider it, correctly or not, a cult. Even Catholic Church officials have referred to Mormons as a cult.
It’s a problem for Romney, so he must emphasize his piety. It’s not an accident that he has chosen a Catholic—Paul Ryan—as his candidate for vice president. What’s interesting is that Joe Biden is also a Catholic. It’s the first time in U.S. history that both vice president candidates have been Catholics.
Religious Right Claims Obama’s Policies at War with Religion
Secondly, a very large part of the American religious right believes that Obama is championing progressive social policies, and presents it as a war with religion. In Poland, they talk about the war with the Church, but in the U.S. they never talk about the institution. They talk about war with religion. This war will surely appear many times in the election campaign.
Romney’s television ad, in which Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II appear, begins with exactly such an expression—that Obama has declared war on religion. Health insurance reform is presented as evidence. The White House wants all employers, including Catholic organizations, to include contraception in employees’ health insurance coverage. This is contrary to the Church’s doctrine, but if insurance is financed by the State’s budget, the White House wants contraception included. In the U.S., it’s the subject of a large public debate.
There are many additional factors fanning the flames, for example the conspiracy theory that Obama is a Muslim. Thus Romney, the Republican challenger, emphasizes that as a Mormon he is a member of a religion that is much closer to Protestants and Catholics than Islam. Romney also says Obama may have something to do with Islam, that one can’t be completely sure, which works on the more crazy part of the U.S. religious constituency.