About 26 million people, nearly a quarter of the total vote in the presidential election, call themselves evangelicals, according to some estimates, giving rise to hysterical shrieks that the country is in the hands of faith-healing, tongue-talking holy rollers. In fact, evangelicals occupy a small portion of Protestant Christianity. According to One Nation Under God, by Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, considered one of the most thorough examinations of religion in America, 86.2 percent of the population claims to be Christian. (The biggest groups are Catholics and Baptists.) Most people think of themselves as being religious—meaning a belief in God, belonging to a denomination, but not necessarily joining and becoming an active member of a church. Christianity is widely viewed as a cohesive force in maintaining the social order. And religion is a common bond that cuts across all racial, ethnic, and even social divides. As a result, there has always been a sort of consensus or “commonality” in seemingly opposing religious views.
All politicians must identify themselves as religious, part of the code that makes them acceptable. Some 40 percent of the mainline Christian church members are Republicans, only 25 percent Democrats. Religious people are generally conservative, but that is not to say they are crackpots or hew to the line of such evangelicals as James Dobson.
Why do differing religious groups flourish in American society? Max Weber argued that religion laid the foundations for modern capitalism, in part because the engine of capitalism was not greed but “dedication and commitment to work.” As Kosmin and Lachman wrote, “For Calvinists and Puritans and, later, Methodists as well, work was to be seen not as penance but as a means to glorify God, who demanded a unified system of life as a means to salvation.”
Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte, Laurie Anne Agnese, and David Botti