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How Big Government Enables Big Religion

Benjamin Zeller: Rick Perry may fill stadiums for rallies and he may even win the GOP nomination for President, but unlike Ike he will never be able to claim the mantle of a united Big Religion for himself.

Science and religion do have something in common: they’re both getter bigger. I don’t mean that there are more scientists or more priests, but that Big Science—the corporate and government-financed scientific establishment that emerged during the mid-twentieth century—has provided a template for the growth and development of Big Religion. Most tellingly, both Big Science and Big Religion have become deeply intertwined with state and national governments.

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Rather than exist as an actual institutions, Big Science and Big Religion are a composite number of such institutions, movements, and individuals. The essential nature of Big Religion was, and is, personified by Billy Graham, who called hundreds of thousands to Christ but left particular decisions of which churches to attend to the newly committed Christians. This was one of the hallmarks and strengths of Big Religion during its early days in the 1950s: it permitted diversity within certain limits.

The National Council of Churches (NCC) also embodied Big Religion, with its willingness to serve as a voice of the religious establishment. The NCC delivered pronouncements to government and industry on issues of moral relevance, on deterring communism, on atomic science, and on social welfare issues. The desire of the NCC’s leaders to influence and even shape politics and society were also hallmarks of Big Religion, with its increased entanglements with government.

Big Religion surged in the postwar era because it embodied what Americans thought America should be. Big Religion was modern, professional, middle-class, patriotic, and uplifting. It served as a symbol of American religious unity in the face of the atheism of the communist world. It functioned according to modern technocratic norms within corporations, board rooms, and institutions. Big Religion seemed to represent what it meant to be an American.

Big Religion is still with us today in the twenty-first century. National religious councils and organizations speak with power and influence in the public square, professional religious pundits rule the airwaves, government involvement in faith-based social services is ever increasing, and religious entanglements with government are a perennial feature of American politics. In fact, Big Religion is even bigger today. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) claims forty-five thousand churches and forty denominations as members. Affiliates such as the National Christian Leadership Conference and Mission American Coalition add many more. The NAE is professionally operated by a board of directors, president, vice presidents, CEO, government relations officer, and an executive committee. Its voice carries weight in Washington and state capitals across the country. Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu councils have also joined the NCC and NAE in the American Big Religion landscape. Big Religion’s personal touch lives on in the form of public theologians like Rick Warren and Bishop T.D. Jakes, whose religious enterprises have the ears of politicians, industry leaders, and media moguls.

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The relationship between Big Religion and Government continues to evolve. In the immediate postwar era, Big Religion leaders were more comfortable exerting “soft power,” and politicians were less likely to claim explicit religious mandates to govern. Billy Graham did meet with every living president, as is so often claimed, but as the Watergate Tapes reveal, he tended to support the positions of the presidents and at most provide subtle guidance rather than confront their failings or demand moral action. Politicians trumpeted their religious convictions during this era, but tended not to claim specific religious positions as the driving forces for legislative endeavors. This is no longer true.

Today, Big Religion—at least as it is expressed among those who embody the more conservative side of it—have embraced something more akin to “hard power.” Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry’s recent “Day of Prayer” rally offers an explicit example of Big Religion in its most explicit and governmentally-entangled form. Though proponents and detractors argue over exactly which government resources supported this explicitly evangelical Christian event, the governor did employ his taxpayer-supported press office to announce the event, and literally affixed his seal to the event. The rally epitomized the characteristics of Big Religion; Perry called it “even bigger than Texas,” invited every sitting governor, and explicitly called for a public wellspring of support. It employed the professional technocrats of religion, including directors, chairmen, coordinators, mobilizers, and a legal/finance team. Perry’s “Day of Prayer” was a highly institutionalized, professional, centralized, and governmentally-entangled event.

Ironically, the various forces within Big Religion today are both more fragmented and less willing to respect diversity of religious opinion, meaning that the last characteristic of Big Religion from the Cold War era—massive public support—is also more fragmented. Though evangelicals flocked to this explicitly evangelical event, non-evangelical leaders shunned Perry’s rally. With the exception of Sam Brownback of Kansas, no other governors attended, presumably concerned that they would come across as endorsing a specific religious position.

Whereas in the Cold War era a general sense of American religiosity united the actors within Big Religion—especially in regards to their opposition to Godless communism—today this is not the case. This is not to claim that the Cold War era was somehow perfect in its unity—it was not—but that overall there has been a shift towards greater divisions within Big Religion. Rick Perry may fill stadiums for rallies and he may even win the GOP nomination for President, but unlike Ike he will never be able to claim the mantle of a united Big Religion for himself.

benjamin zeller

Benjamin E. Zeller

Benjamin E. Zeller is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brevard College. He is the author of "Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America" (NYU, 2010).