The election and inauguration of the second-ever Catholic president of the United States was notable, in that his Catholicism was essentially a non-issue. In a diverse Democratic primary field—up against candidates who were women, non-white, Jewish, and openly gay—Joe Biden’s Catholic identity didn’t seem to make much of an impression either way. Yet his faith—and the faith of politicians generally—may still play a significant role in American politics. Religion—Christianity especially—continues to be a major force in American political life, even as traditional worship is on the decline nationwide. The current U.S. Congress is more religiously affiliated than the U.S. population on the whole. More than a quarter of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, but only one member of Congress is, Arizona’s Senator Kyrsten Sinema. How does religion shape U.S. politics today?

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal and the co-host of the podcast Know Your Enemy, “a leftist’s guide to the conservative movement.” Sitman sees religious affiliation as connected with more general polarization around party politics and culture-war concerns. To be on the Christian right today, Sitman says, is less about opposition to gay marriage than about fighting “wokeness” or perceived extremism on the left. But Sitman, a Catholic social democrat, sees a positive place for religion in liberal and left politics. While the religious left isn’t, he explains, a mirror image of the politically united and organized religious right, progressive religious leaders and ideals can offer moral guidance to movements and politicians alike. The value of a religious left, he says, is not found in specific policies, but in “serving as a reminder that there are things of importance that go beyond the next election.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What is happening with the role of religion in contemporary American politics?

Matthew Sitman: I hate to say this, as someone who is a religious person myself, but my first, instinctive response is to say that religion, like everything else in America, seems to be breaking down along polarized lines.

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