US coins were inscribed with 'In God We Trust' following the US Civil War (image taken from

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents the government from making laws designed to regulate the establishment of any religion, or that would prohibit the free exercise of religion. Yet the US remains a decidedly "Christian" nation. Nearly all US Presidents have professed to follow some form of the Christian faith. Only Presidents Lincoln and Jefferson have claimed no religious affiliation.

Historically, the sitting president's personal faith has been reflected in the overall populace. The Public Religion Research Institute notes that 70 per cent of Americans identify as Christian, and 5 per cent identify with non-Christian religions. Nearly a quarter are religiously unaffiliated.

Given the preponderance of US citizens who claim to be Christians, how is this ideal of the separation of church and state enacted within the public square? Rob Boston, editor of Church & State Magazine and senior adviser to Americans United, a nonpartisan educational and advocacy organisation dedicated to advancing the separation of religion and government, explains that while the United States operates under the separation of church and state, “there has always been something of a carve out for what scholars call ‘civil religion’ – that is, the tendency of government and political leaders to use religion (usually in a generic sense) to buttress perceived national goals.”

Perhaps the most explicit recent example of this came during the Trump administration. Throughout his time in office, Trump displayed a politicised version of Christianity that contained a toxic mixture of conservative white evangelicalism, prosperity gospel preaching, and Christian nationalism. His policies were not reflective of the will of the majority of Americans but instead tended to reflect his Christian nationalist policy goals.

Upon initial glance, the Biden administration may present itself as less outwardly "religious" than Trump’s. For instance, as reported at Religion Dispatches, during the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast, President Joe Biden offered a bipartisan message of national unity and faith in light of the January 6 Capitol insurrection, with even Fox News highlighting Biden’s call to end “political extremism.”

Yet Biden’s endorsement by progressive faith leaders, as well as events like the virtual Catholics for Biden voter outreach campaign and the rise of organizations like Evangelicals for Biden and The New Moral Majority point to the continued infusion of faith and politics within the US administration. It may manifest in a somewhat kinder, gentler expression, yet the ongoing problematic practice of “civil religion", in which an administration’s national policy agenda is influenced by its religious orientation, remains in place. 

Politicians, prayer and "God talk"

For decades, American civil religion has been seen most visibly through the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of US politicians, pastors and industry leaders. Despite the fact that it is sponsored by a secretive private Christian group titled The Family (aka The Fellowship Foundation), invitations are issued on congressional letterhead and the press secure their access via the White House. Ever since President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the inaugural address in 1953, every US president has addressed this gathering.

During the Eisenhower era from 1953 to 1961, Christianity became identified as the country's overall civil religion. “Under God” became part of the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” was added to the US paper currency (and to US coins after the Civil War). Politicians regularly employ “God talk” in speeches, call on Americans to pray during times of crisis or uncertainty, and offer prayers before meetings of local, state, and federal governments.

The Supreme Court of the United States has issued rulings in favour of church and state separation, including banning prayer in public schools or permitting the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to deny tax-exempt status to institutions whose policies are “contrary to established public policy,” even if those policies are based on religious beliefs. However, as Rob Boston has noted, US Courts have also ruled that certain forms of “civil religion" are legal. This can be seen in court rulings granting individuals exemptions based on religious beliefs to, for example, the government-mandated Covid-19 vaccine. "Given the current conservative cast of the Supreme Court, that is not likely to change anytime soon," Boston says.

Christian pastors and leading faith-based institutions can, according to Boston, endorse candidates for public office in their private capacities. However, they are not legally allowed to use the resources of their houses of worship or faith-based nonprofit to support or oppose a political candidate, nor are they permitted to issue statements of support or opposition from the pulpit. All the same, the IRS has not, in a number of years, penalised those churches who use their pulpit for political purposes. The last attempt by Congress in 2007 to force ministries to provide greater fiscal accountability failed to garner traction.

While political candidates and elected officials can and should hear from faith communities about their concerns and views on social issues, public officials should be careful to include diverse faith and secular voices in discussions on public policy. Boston cites as one example former President Trump's creation of an Evangelical Advisory Board that was not inclusive of the full spectrum of faith and nonreligious communities in America.

Despite now being out of the presidency, Trump's public support among white evangelicals continues to rise in part due to his ongoing support of faith-based issues that matter to evangelical leaders, such as abortion and religious freedom. White evangelicals in the pews also remain attracted to Republican positions on the economy, national security, and immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, 77 per cent of this demographic supported Trump in 2016, a number that increased to 84 per cent in 2020.

The rise of the irreligious US voting bloc

While these debates continue to rage, the religious composition of the US continues to grow more pluralistic. “Nones” – people who profess no religious affiliation - represent 24 per cent of US voters. As the Pew Research Center has noted, Biden's win can be attributed in part to the fact that more atheists and agnostics voted for him in 2020 than they did Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Most politicians remain entrenched in their old patterns, and despite a 2019 survey finding that there are as many nonreligious Americans as there are Catholics or evangelicals, they continue to engage in efforts to reach the faithful in the pews. To date, neither the Democrats or Republicans have launched any significant initiatives to target the growing voting block that professes no religious affiliation.

The US electorate is changing. It’s time the political establishment took note and responded to the will of the people and not their faith-based funding streams.