Tracing Religion, Politics and the Press

Feb 6, 2018

USC professor Diane Winston speaks at the Chautaqua Institution in New York, August 17, 2017.
Credit C-SPAN

Americans have debated for nearly three centuries the relationship between church and state. The question has never been settled in a way that satisfies every political and religious faction. This doesn't surprise University of Southern California professor Diane Winston.

From her position analyzing media and religion, she sees common threads that date to the beginning of the country.

"Religion and politics have never been separate," she told WUOT's Brandon Hollingsworth. "People like [George] Washington felt that you could not have a virtuous republic that did not have people who were religious, because religion gave people morality and virtue."

Church and state weren't especially cozy until the 20th century. Just before the Great Depression, a coalition of business leaders and political conservatives began to unite behind the idea of a more public form of faith. The message found support through World War II and into the Cold War, where the U.S. sought to be opposite, in every way, from the officially religion-free Soviet Union.

In 1979, Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell established The Moral Majority, a conservative Christian group whose explicit purpose was to influence governmental policy and law. The group set its sights on Republican candidates it hoped would be allies in a cultural battle that involved issues including abortion, LGBT rights and religion in the public sphere. The following year, they found one.

"[Ronald] Reagan made it very clear that he sought the support of the religious right," Winston says. "He definitely helped boost Falwell and [televangelist] Pat Robertson's popularity and he made them integral to his administration, as sort of his surrogate religious spokesmen."

Thirty-six years after Reagan's election, conservative Christians again felt a cultural tide threatening to swamp them. They coalesced, somewhat uneasily, around Donald Trump, whose personal faith appeared inconsistent, but who promised the political victories cultural conservatives sought.

"For that reason, they've been able to excuse his personal failings and basically say, the messenger may be flawed but the message is sound," Winston says.

So far, Winston says that's exactly what the president has done - not in a way that Reagan or Falwell would recognize, but in a way that's generally satisfied a unique slice of the complex American pie.

Diane Winston delivered the University of Tennessee Department of Religious Studies' annual David Dungan Memorial Lecture on Tuesday, February 6.