Religion & Public Life
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2008 Election: What provided the margin of victory?

Only Barack Obama appealed to civil religion

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

In his first debate with John McCain, Barack Obama said that as president, he would “restore that sense that America is a shining beacon on a hill.”

Obama’s rhetoric was reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s frequently invoked image of the “shining city on a hill.” Reagan attributed these words to John Winthrop, the first governor the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who told his group of colonists in 1630, “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop’s imagery goes back further still to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

As it has been reinterpreted and reinvigorated throughout the centuries, this language forms the cornerstone of a unique tradition in America known as civil religion – a belief system that binds the nation’s deepest-held values with transcendent meaning. In the 2008 election campaign, none of the presidential candidates except Obama applied the language of civil religion. (Although Sarah Palin invoked the image of the “city on a hill” in the context of American exceptionalism.)

book cover

The University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray, takes an in-depth look at civil religion and all of its permutations – from colonial times to the present.

In addition, Murray surveys the development of religious pluralism in America for the past 400 years – from early debates to present controversies, such as the mixing of religion and politics, battles over religious symbols in the public square, the “culture wars,” immigration and faith-based initiatives.

Religious Liberty in America was selected by Choice – a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries – as an “Outstanding Academic Book.”

“This book is a splendid presentation of the First Amendment – ‘with civil religion as a parallel theme’ – especially as presently related to so many issues in American political and religious life. Other books on these issues have been appearing of late, but none as clear and thorough as this one. Bruce T. Murray, a journalist, hopes this book is ’an easy read on a tough topic.’ His hope is definitely realized in this volume, which should be required reading for all journalists who touch on this book’s subject.”
G.H. Shriver, Professor Emeritus, Georgia Southern University

Religious Liberty in America is available at libraries throughout the United States, and it may be purchased from the University of Massachusetts Press.

Read more about the author here.