Is a secular America a worse America?

Abandoned church

After centuries of being more religious than other Western societies, the United States in the 21st century is becoming more secular, with attendance and membership in most mainline churches plummeting. Many secularist writers have lauded this development, arguing that a less religious America will be a more open and tolerant – in short, more liberal – one. But in a fierce, tightly-argued online op-ed, Atlantic editor Peter Beinart raises the question of whether this decline in traditional religiosity might be, well, backfiring for liberal goals. Rather than paving the way for a tolerant, cosmopolitan utopia, free from religious bigotry and irrational commitments, the collapse of institutional religion may be causing Americans to fall back onto ethnic and other “tribal” affiliations – thus exacerbating our cultural polarization. Is he onto something here?

Beinart’s points are good ones, if somewhat counterintuitive. He blames the rise of the alt-right, in part, on the decline of Christian affiliation among conservatives. White nationalist writings, Beinart points out, are usually pretty thin on Christian references, instead reverencing mythologized European ancestors. One particularly influential essay-cum-manifesto for the Alt-Right (published – surprise! – at Breitbart.com)* contains, according to Beinart, “five references to ‘tribe,’ seven to ‘race,’ 13 to ‘the west’ and ‘western’ and only one to ‘Christianity.’” Beinart goes on:

For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.…(W)hen cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation.

This is a chilling observation. But the problem isn’t limited to the conservative right. Beinart warns of an increasing radicalism and inflexibility among the activist left, and blames it, in part, on the bottoming out of religious participation among progressives – including young black activists. While the 1960s-era Civil Rights Movement was steeped in Christian narratives and symbols and led by pastors, the Black Lives Matter movement is notably secular. In fact, some of its leaders are gravitating toward older, more specifically African religions:

Patrisse Cullors, one of (Black Lives Matter’s) founders, grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness but says she became alienated by the fact that the elders were “all men.” In a move that faintly echoes the way some in the alt-right have traded Christianity for religious traditions rooted in pagan Europe, Cullors has embraced the Nigerian religion of Ifa. To be sure, her motivations are diametrically opposed to the alt-right’s. Cullors wants a spiritual foundation on which to challenge white, male supremacy; the pagans of the alt-right are looking for a spiritual basis on which to fortify it. But both are seeking religions rooted in racial ancestry and disengaging from Christianity.

Secular People Are Tribal, Too

On both the right and the left, then, tribalism doesn’t seem to be obviously retreating in the face of advancing secularism. It may even be retrenching, as people scramble to find group identities that provide meaning and a sense of belonging. After all, we aren’t really the autonomous atoms that Enlightenment philosophers said we are. We’re “groupish” animals, built for collective identity and in-groups. When one source of identity and membership is taken away, we’ll try to find another.

Abrahamic religion was a limited and flawed source of identity and membership for Americans of many colors and backgrounds. But it was common to many different colors and backgrounds. Now that it seems to be collapsing in what Matthew Arnold called a “long, withdrawing roar,” Americans may be finding meaning and membership elsewhere instead – and discovering that they have even less in common than they thought.

Our Problems Are Complicated. Really.

Our society is facing a lot of problems right now: political polarization, increasing ethnic nationalism, and growing inequality. Beinart’s op-ed presents a welcome challenge to oversimplified beliefs about where and why these problems are arising. Some progressives assume that oppressive social forces, including racism, sexism, nationalism, militarism, and Christian hegemony, are all basically the same problem at root – all symptoms of a monolithic patriarchy, for example. Beinart’s observations raise questions about this unifying diagnosis. In reality, American religiosity causes some problems and ameliorates others. Some of the most jagged stalks of “the patriarchy” are growing in the weeds of secular, not Christian, white America. And while religious belief is often linked with racism, militarism, or other sources of social problems, those links aren’t all in the same direction.

In other words, things are complicated. To slightly restate what I said above, we’re facing a lot of different problems, many of which have unique causes and call for specific – rather than universal – solutions. Some of those solutions may involve deciding how to be tribalistic, rather trying to escape tribalism altogether. Do we want bigger, more inclusive tribes – like Abrahamic religions or liberal civic culture – or narrower, more clannish ones?

As the journalist Michael Fitzgerald wrote in his article on my team’s work (discussed here last week), “We often think of religion as divisive, forgetting it plays an important role in bringing different people together.” He’s right about that. We also forget that the large-scale traditions we call “world religions” have universalizing as well as parochial effects. In his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul wrote that, in the budding Christian church, “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” He didn’t mean that Greeks and Jews weren’t welcome in the new Christian religion. He meant that, within Christian communities, older ethnic identities were less important than a shared commitment to the faith. Similarly, the founders of Buddhism and Islam explicitly articulated that their messages applied to everyone, not just members of a particular ethnic group.

As Christianity wanes in the West, then, it’s not surprising that older, more parochial founts of identity might be bubbling up. We’re team animals. We humans need a sense of belonging and membership to understand how to act, to structure our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and to orient our life goals. Let’s call those things, collectively, “moral programming.” Without the moral programming that comes along with world religions, many people may instead be tapping into mythologized ethnic identities, blood-and-soil nationalism, and partisan bellicosity for their moral worldview. In a fracturing scenario like this, we shouldn’t be a bit surprised when, politically, things get chaotic.

* Link goes to the actual manifesto.