(Getty/Mandel Ngan)

(Getty/Mandel Ngan)

American presidential politics are in the midst of a strikingly ecumenical, if not interfaith, moment. Both parties are fielding primary candidates with widely divergent spiritual commitments. The GOP contenders include a former Mormon among several Catholics, a Seventh Day Adventist and a Southern Baptist, and a Presbyterian who has shown little interest in church or creed. The Democrats have a Methodist and a secular humanist from a Jewish background. At least to this point, and at least in public, the campaigns have taken this diversity of belief and unbelief in stride; acceptance of religious difference almost seems like the new normal of presidential politics. But, in this same moment, Republican candidates have waded deep into the weeds of anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry. The 2016 election poses a paradox of tolerance and intolerance, and in so doing reveals tectonic shifts in the religious configuration of American partisan politics.

The leading Republican candidates, hoping to turn anxiety about political violence and immigration into primary votes, have thrust anti-Muslim paranoia into the middle of the 2016 elections. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have proposed that only Christian refugees from the Middle East be allowed into the United States. Donald Trump says that he will close mosques, require all Muslims in the country to register under a federal database, and impose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Marco Rubio counsels a less drastic approach, yet suggests that he also favors closing mosques and building walls. Tapping into anti-Muslim prejudice has been part of American politics at least since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. But Republican presidential candidates have taken anti-Muslim rhetoric to a new level, marking an ominous turn.

This, of course, is not the first electoral campaign in which partisans have exploited religious prejudice. In the late nineteenth century, Catholics, much as today’s Muslims do, often bore the brunt of intolerance and xenophobia. Anti-Catholic paranoia poured forth from Republican newspapers and Protestant pews. The “spread of Romanism,” editors and ministers warned, threatened Christian civilization and American institutions, as a tide of immigrants washed ashore paupers and radicals with the attendant dangers of crime and political violence. In broad partisan terms, the Republican Party made use of such anti-Catholic messages to mobilize voters against the Democratic Party and its Catholic and immigrant constituencies.

Candidates understood that pandering to religious prejudice meant playing with fire. In 1884, James Blaine, the Republican presidential nominee, got burnt. On October 28, six days before the election, Blaine met with a group of Protestant ministers in New York City. The Rev. Samuel D. Burchard delivered a welcome in which he linked the Democrats with “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” meaning the ravages of liquor, the faith of Catholicism, and the disloyalty of secession. During this era, Protestant ministers could be heard making such anti-Catholic slurs on any given Sunday. The problem was that Rev. Burchard did so standing next to Blaine, who failed to challenge him. A Democratic reporter took note, and Burchard’s words were publicized in Catholic parishes across the city and the country. Three days later, Blaine put out a statement to reassure Catholic voters that he was “the last man in the United States who would make a disrespectful allusion to another man’s religion.” Nonetheless, when ballots were cast Blaine lost New York State by less than 1,200 votes, and thereby lost the national election.

“Rum, Romanism, and rebellion” had driven Catholic voters into the arms of the Democrats, or that was the conclusion Republican strategists drew from Blaine’s defeat. In future election cycles, Republicans continued to tap the partisan advantage of anti-Catholic prejudice, but they were usually more careful about publicly embracing religious bigots. Their friends in the churches and newspaper offices continued as before with their attacks on immigrants, the pope, the saloon, and radical “dynamite fiends,” while the nativist American Protective Association (APA) worked to poison political debate with crude anti-Catholic vitriol. At the same time, Republicans competed more effectively for Catholic votes, keeping a degree of separation from the anti-Catholic agitation of press and pulpit and from the APA. This firewall strategy was part of nearly a half-century of mainly Republican victories in presidential campaigns. Even in 1928, when anti-Catholic agitation contributed to the defeat of Al Smith—the first Catholic presidential candidate—Republican strategists mainly left it to Protestant ministries and the Ku Klux Klan to fan the flames of bigotry against the Democratic contender.

Here it needs to be kept in mind that Gilded Age partisans navigated a highly complex religious terrain of porous boundaries, fractured orthodoxies, and spiritual innovation. James Blaine’s life reflected this complexity. Although he had attended both Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches, critics attacked Blaine as a “crypto-Catholic” because his mother and sister were Catholics. And yet, Blaine the politician knew the value of exploiting anti-Catholic sentiment. In 1875, as a member of the U.S. Congress, he sponsored what would be called the Blaine Amendment to the Constitution, which if passed would have prohibited the use of public funds to finance religious schools—a transparent device to gain favor among Protestant voters who resented Catholic parochial schools.

The Blaine amendment also appealed to citizens who were skeptical about the role of religion in public life and wanted to reinforce the barriers between church and state. One such citizen was Robert Ingersoll, a corporate attorney who was a powerbroker in the Republican Party and who, at the GOP’s 1876 convention, boosted Blaine as a candidate for president. Ingersoll’s nominating speech describing Blaine as a “plumed knight” in the cause of his country would be studied by generations of school children as a model of political oratory. But Ingersoll was even more famous for his anti-religious views. Known as “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll packed theaters and opera houses from Maine to Texas with men and women eager to hear him expose the fallacies of the Bible and expound on his freethought philosophy. Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eugene V. Debs, and Andrew Carnegie were among Ingersoll’s followers in his anti-religious mission. In 1884, however, Blaine would keep Ingersoll at arm’s length from his campaign. Perhaps he did so to not offend religious voters; instead, he offended with “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.”

Besides insulting Catholic voters, another problem with Blaine’s flirtation with intolerance was that a considerable number of Republicans had more sympathy for Ingersoll’s humanistic message than for the sectarianism of Rev. Burford. The Republican Party was a big-tent coalition that included religious liberals, social Christians, secularists, and other spiritual innovators. The social reformer Jane Addams, for example, was a liberal Presbyterian and a prominent figure in the progressive wing of the GOP. She devoted her life to “universal fellowship,” and vigorously defended immigrants and refugees from nativist prejudice and police hostility. The GOP also sought to accommodate Baptists and other evangelicals who carried memories of their repression as dissidents and who at times viewed with alarm political expressions of religious intolerance. Republican presidential candidates may have exploited anti-Catholic prejudice for partisan advantage, but they usually did so with a firewall of deniability that allowed them to appeal to voters across sectarian divides and to keep intact the GOP’s own diverse constituency.

In 2016, the leading Republican candidates have abandoned the firewall. The same bigotry articulated by partisan ministers and talk show personalities is the new normal on the presidential campaign trail. But this has been long in the works. It is the culmination of shifts in the religious configuration of the GOP that have been underway at least since the early Cold War. These changes made headlines in the 1980s, when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority mobilized conservative Christian voters behind Republican election victories. Since that time, the GOP has steadily evolved in the direction of a conservative party steeped in Christian nationalism.

The dominant factions of the GOP have adopted a set of ideological and political commitments that define the frontiers of their perceived Christian nation. They begin with the notion of American exceptionalism and the unique place of the United States in God’s plans. This belief correlates with their conviction that the country was born on the principles of free market capitalism, and that social reforms can interfere with those principles. They also understand that as a Christian nation the United States must adhere to a set of patriarchal rules about the family and sex, proscribing abortion and homosexuality. The keystone to what they view as Christian foreign policy is a commitment to Israel, thereby giving Jews, mainly unwittingly, a privileged place in their Christian project. In recent years they have increasingly defined Christian nationalism by the sectarian divide against Muslims.

Paradoxically, the further the party has gone in defining itself in Christian nationalist terms, the more ecumenical it has become. Creedal differences in the ways of baptism or worship no longer have the salience they did in the past when the political doors to national office were shut to all but members of certain privileged denominations. And, increasingly, the usual measures of personal piety—church attendance, prayer, family life, or knowledge of scripture— have become poor measures of the religious qualities expected of GOP leaders. Trump, as a casino magnate and TV personality, shows even less piety in his personal conduct than Ronald Reagan did. Yet, he has gained the support of partisan evangelicals, including Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr, who perceive Trump as a strong Christian nationalist. An unabashed American exceptionalist, a billionaire embodiment of free enterprise, Trump promises that as president he will be “the greatest representative of the Christians they’ve had in a long time.”

Of course, there are conservative Christians who disagree with the GOP’s Christian nationalist turn. Some evangelicals believe that the faithful must focus on spiritual conquest rather than political goals, and thereby reject the entire notion of enlisting Christianity in a nationalist cause. Others disagree on the specifics, protesting the efforts of GOP governors to bar entry of Muslim refugees, for example, because it violates the Christian principle of helping strangers in need.

Moreover, as was the case with Blaine in 1884, some Republican leaders know that pandering to religious prejudice is a dangerous gamble. But most of them also know that it can also win elections. In recent state and congressional races, GOP candidates have ridden into office on a wave of anti-Muslim paranoia about the so-called Ground Zero Mosque and the menace of Sharia law. The blunt bigotry of Trump and other GOP presidential candidates reflects this reality.

The Republican Party’s steady evolution towards Christian nationalism has corresponded to its successful attraction of many white and conservative church members. But in this process, African American church members have completed their realignment from the party of Lincoln to the party of Obama. Other religious constituencies have also moved away from the GOP to more welcoming environments. Today’s GOP provides less space for the likes of Jane Addams and the reform-minded liberal evangelicals and social Christians of her day. The same goes for freethinking secularists and religious iconoclasts.

These constituencies of belief and unbelief have also reshaped the religious configuration of partisan politics, evidenced in the two Democratic frontrunners—one a liberal Methodist, the other a secular Jew. Hillary Clinton serves as a reminder that many liberals are religious, too. In many ways, Clinton’s path to liberal activism resembles the path taken by Jane Addams a century before. She grew up studying Scripture as the child of Republican and evangelical parents. Methodist Sunday school introduced her to the ways of the Social Gospel, taught her about the civil rights movement and racial tolerance, and kept her busy caring for the children of migrant farmworkers. Ever since, as she has explained, she has stuck to her Methodist church and its teachings of service to those in need. Jane Addams and many likeminded reformers aligned themselves with the GOP in a time when it had a vibrant progressive wing. With that option closed, Clinton joined cohorts of other liberal evangelicals who have found a Democratic political home.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has brought unbelief out from the political shadows. Sanders departs from the usual script by calling himself a democratic socialist. But no less unusual is the fact that, Jewish by birth, he is a secular humanist by conviction. His humanism calls to mind Robert Ingersoll and another of his freethinking followers—Eugene V. Debs—whose picture hangs on the wall of Sanders’s Senate office. In the 1890s, Debs was a Populist union leader who later ran for president five times, and was accused of being an infidel for his lack of religion. The radicalism of Debs would never have found a place in one of the two main parties, so in that political sense, Sanders is no Debs. But in religious terms, Sanders shares Debs’s creed of human solidarity. And that suggests something important about today’s partisan politics of religion: As Christian nationalism gains strength in the GOP, from within the other party a secular humanist from a Jewish background is making a competitive run for the presidency.

The politics of the 2016 election cycle are as unpredictable as they are potentially explosive. The Democratic side is offering a candidate that is committed to a liberal Christianity with deep roots in America’s political tradition. This is a tradition that has placed value on fellowship across religious and sectarian divides. This commitment will be put to the test in coming political trials. The other Democratic candidate’s lack of religion also has deep historical roots, but his competitive bid for the White House is crossing into unchartered political territory. Meanwhile, the GOP is fielding the most spiritually diverse group of presidential candidates in its history. At the same time, these candidates are appealing to religious paranoia and intolerance in ways that are both familiar and unknown. The GOP may relearn the lessons of 1884 about the hazards of embracing bigots. Or it may forge ahead down the perilous path of sectarian intolerance. The only thing certain is that the GOP candidates are playing with fire.

Charles Postel is associate professor of history at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Populist Vision.