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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion, Class and Politics in the United States

Templeton Lecture Series

Seymour Martin Lipset
School of Public Policy, George Mason University

Date: April 19, 2001
Location: 5th Floor Lounge McGuinn Hall

Event Recap

On Thursday, April 19, 2001 Professor Seymour Martin Lipset presented on "Religion, Class and Politics in the United States" as the final speaker in the Boisi Center's 2000-2001 Templeton Lecture Series. Professor Lipset, a renowned political scientist and sociologist, is the Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

Professor Lipset's talk centered on religion and American exceptionalism, in particular the ways in which Protestant sectarianism has influenced American life. Lipset noted that "religion in America is qualitatively different from religion in the rest of the developed world." Focusing on the moralism characteristic of Protestantism, Lipset showed how this "exceptionalism" has influenced domestic and foreign policy. He cited domestic examples such as the abolition, civil rights, and prohibition movements being cast in moral terms. Moral purpose and language have also permeated U.S. foreign policy, Lipset argued, recalling President Reagan's "Evil Empire” language and the country's hesitations about doing business with China. Anti-war movements and conscientious objection are mostly American phenomena, he noted. "Americans always go to war because the other side is morally wrong in our conception," Lipset observed, in contrast to the interest-driven policies of most European nations.

Even with the continued rise of religious pluralism in the U.S., Lipset argued that these fundamental features have remained unchanged throughout American history. He noted, "While the U.S. is no longer entirely Protestant, major elements of Puritan values have permeated and survived.”

Responding to questions from the audience, Lipset spoke about the basic trends in religious and political affiliations. He noted a shift from certain religions generally voting within one party (Jews and Catholics voted Democrat and Protestants, Republican), to a link between religious and social conservatism that has split religious groups in their voting tendencies (the theologically conservative Jew, Catholic and Protestant alike voting Republican, for example).

Along with many other distinctions, Lipset is the only person to have served as president of both the American Sociological Association (1992 1993) and the American Political Science Association (1979 1980). A prolific writer, his major books include Union Democracy, Political Man, Agrarian Socialism and The First New Nation. His most recent publications are It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States and American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.