The Secularism Gap

Well, after giving Newsweek the big send-off, and counting another scalp for The Onion, I stumble across this editorial at the Daily Beast:

The GOP’s Secularism Problem

Do you know how long I’ve waited to read a headline like that? Dammit, Newsweek, couldn’t you have published this one before you were on your deathbed?

There’s been much angst on the right over the Republican Party’s growing demographic problems, most memorably by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said the party was running out of “angry white guys.” But conservatives may be facing another demographic threat as well: declining religiosity, especially among the young. The latest sign came in a Pew study released last week that found that one in five American adults now claims no religion, and that 34 percent of those younger than 30 consider themselves irreligious.

The GOP’s own base may be partly to blame. The data echoes a landmark 2010 study, “American Grace,” by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, which linked the new chilliness toward organized religion to the rise of the religious right. Other recent studies bear out their hypothesis: in March, Pew found that a majority of the electorate, including nearly half of Republicans, is uncomfortable with the amount of religious talk in political campaigns. (As recently as 2006, the majority tipped the other direction.)

Every political movement creates a counter-movement. The most influential political movement of my generation has been the Religious Right. Therefore, it stands to reason that there would inevitably be a strong reaction against it. I’ve been waiting for it to coalesce for years now.

As the religious right reached its zenith during the Bush administration, even young evangelicals rebelled against the politics of their parents. That reaction came to a head in the 2008 election, when 32 percent of white evangelicals under 30 voted Democratic for the first time to support Barack Obama, twice as much support from them as John Kerry had in 2004.

Some evangelicals are openly worried about the trend. “We made a big mistake in the ’80s by politicizing the gospel,” the late Chuck Colson, a religious-right leader, said before his death. “Now people are realizing it was kind of a mistake.”

If the problem is so great that Chuck f’n Colson recognized it, then the party is not just over, but the lights are out, the booze is gone and even the police have left.

Obviously this is just an opinion piece by David Sessions and shouldn’t be taken as (heh) gospel, but it matches the observations of our neighbors like Brian McLaren:

A young man introduced himself, explaining that he had heard me speak several years earlier at his Evangelical college. “Of all of my fellow students who were in the ministry track at my school,” he said, “I’m basically the only one who still even goes to church, and I’m only hanging on by my fingernails.” I asked what it was that had driven his peers — all preparing for ministry work — not only from the careers in ministry that they planned on, but from even attending church at all.

“It’s just what you spoke about tonight,” he explained. “Hostility to ‘the other.’ People don’t want to have to side with the church and against their friends who are Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic.”

The Religious Right has long defined itself as a movement to take back America from the godless liberals and their gay, feminist, Muslim, etc. allies. As McLaren points out, it’s much easier to form a group identity through shared opposition than through mutual agreement or shared vision. Hence Francis Schaeffer’s description of the various components of the Religious Right as “co-belligerents”; not really allies but separate groups all opposed to the same things.

But that comes at the cost of requiring constant negativity, and the group polarization effect has heightened that negativity. In addition, part of the Religious Right’s success came from combining religion in politics to the point where many Americans now seem to believe that you can’t be a Democrat and be a Christian. That has resulted in people leaving their denomination largely because they no longer agree with the majority’s political stance.

If large numbers of the Evangelical sub-culture are slipping away, then a lot of the beltway common wisdom may be headed for the round file. Soon there may be no more talk of the Democrat’s “religion gap,” and a lot more talk on the virtues of secularism.

I guess the best thing to do is talk this up. Politics is what Garrett Hardin used to call “an information-mutable science.” The perception shapes the reality. Talking about how the Republican party can’t appeal to the religiously diverse modern America with its secular-minded young people may be what it takes to break up the current GOP coalition.

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  • Kristen inDallas

    I’m confused, if the GOP is facing the problem of declining religiocity, wouldn’t that mean a rise in secularism w/in the party? As in, both parties getting pretty secular… so what’s the “gap?”

  • Bart Mitchell

    I think the rumors of the demise of the Republican party are greatly exaggerated. There are a great many secular business people (like myself) who admire the policies and politics of republicans of the past. We need pro-business people in Congress to keep the bleeding hearts from killing our industry.

    I’ll give a good example of what I’m talking about from my own industry, construction. The environmentalists identified a serious problem, contractors were irresponsibly working in homes that contained lead paint. Sanding, cutting, etc, created poisonous environments for the residents, and in some years the contamination level exceeded 60k people. They then worked with sympathetic lawmakers (Democratic Liberals) and passed sweeping regulation of our industry to combat the problem.

    Sounds good so far, right? The Republicans fought the legislation, tried to keep it from passing. They failed, and the bill went into effect. The result is a real job killing bill that sends the price of remodeling any home older than 1978 through the roof. The cost comes from a ton of required paperwork that every contractor mus fill out, and most of the punitive measures for the law come from not doing your paperwork correctly. Some fines for not turning in the correct form can exceed $35k. These fines are so prohibitive that many contractors in my area are just refusing to work on any home older than 1978 (to be clear, you have to fill out ALL of the lead contaminate paperwork if the home is older than 1978, irregardless if there is lead in the home.)

    In my perfect world, with my perfect republican party, I would have loved to see the pro-business legislators say “Yes, you’ve found a serious problem in this industry, we need to find a solution. I think your paperwork heavy bill will make the cost of remodeling older homes skyrocket. We should put the punitive measures not on contractors who can’t fill out forms, but on contractors who actually poison peoples environments. Instead of such a paperwork heavy system, we should keep your education portion of the bill (they had an excellent class that all contractors had to take to understand how to properly clean up lead contaminates), but put the punitive measures in with building inspections. Our building inspectors already enforce many environmental laws, and they could easily add this task to their list.”

    My problems with our new lead laws parallel the problems with climate change regulation. The only people proposing new bills are mainly people with little understanding of industry. We need a party like the Republicans used to be, to help craft legislation that will not only solve the problem being addressed, but keep business healthy.

    • Shay

      Hi Bart, I have to say that is one of the most level headed and reasonable explanations of a persons political stance I have heard lately. I am a democrat and I honestly see your argument and think both parties should work to solve problems like this one. After all seeing things differently, and working at a problem from more than one angle, well to me thats a truly american ideal. Anyway we are not all “crazy liberals” just different people with different thought processes.

      Wishing you the best Shay

      • Bart Mitchell

        Thanks Shay. For the record, I’ve made a long swing from an Ayn Rand toting libertarian in the 1980′s to a full fledged progressive liberal today. I still think that the market is the best way to set the price of commodities, but have come to the conclusion that some things simply shouldn’t be commoditized. I think that long swing gives me a healthy view of both sides of our political mess, and helps me to see clear solutions to our gridlock.

        • FO

          It’s a very good position, it allows you to change it to fit facts.

    • Brian K

      This is a very rational and clear headed post!

      I work in local government permitting. While my employer deliberately tries to be business friendly (we hear horror stories from applicants about other cities), inevitably paperwork can be a challenge for smaller businesses.

      Sadly, too many regulations seem to primarily create work for consultants who do studies which are ultimately of quesitonable value. At the same time, I’m not sure there is any easy answer, as the current “conservative” approach seems to be to deny the problems exist or mouth platitudes about the free market.

  • Sunny Day

    Hire a specialist who’s practiced at filling out the paperwork correctly for you.
    Then scoop up all the jobs that the other contractors don’t want.

    • Bart Mitchell

      If the specialist gets it wrong, I still pay the fine. Honestly, the idea of someone else doing the paperwork scares me even more than doing it myself. If they set up the system so that you could put the blame on an independent paper pusher, then that kind of defeats the purpose of the regulation.

      I’m rare among contractors, not only am I a progressive liberal, I’m also literate. I have little problem doing the paperwork correctly, but the prices I charge to do this work are too high for the market to bare. Homeowners of properties older than 1978 are either differing their maintenance, hiring unlicensed contractors, or just doing the work themselves. These options are just as likely to poison their homes with lead, if not more so.

      But your’e missing the point. This isn’t about my company, this is about my industry. I’m not worried about myself, we’ve had a stellar year. This is about a skyrocketing price for a service. Homeowners can no longer afford to have the work done. This puts people out of a job, and leaves homes un-maintained.

      • Sunny Day

        How is hiring the wrong paperwork specialist any different than hiring the wrong foreman?

        The prices you are charging are too high for the market to bear, yet you are having a stellar year? You have the vision to see a problem coming in the future but are complaining that you will have to do something different eventually.

        Maybe I’m missing the point but I don’t think it’s my fault.

        • Bart Mitchell

          The prices I am charging for remodel work on homes older than 1978 is too high for the market to bear. Hiring someone to do this paperwork would only increase the cost of these jobs, making the price even more out of reach for the homeowners.

          Since you are a layperson, ill lay out something that I thought was obvious. There are homes in my market area that are newer than 1978, and there are also commercial contracts that aren’t effected by the law. I am predominantly a commercial contractor, and the homes I work on tend to be the ‘McMansion’ large homes that wealthier people buy. That is why I’m having a stellar year, rich people are still rich and continue build new buildings and to have their properties painted (I also do a fair bit of government work, which is also well funded right now).

          The point I think you are missing is not that I want this work, or that I would do this work if the regulations weren’t so prohibitive. What I wrote wasn’t about my business at all, but about my industry. Homeowners, as I mentioned, are getting quotes for work from licensed contractors, and they are finding all the quotes to be out of their price range. Adding more staff to do nothing but paperwork won’t bring that price down. It will do the opposite, and inflate the price even more.

          Hiring a good foreman brings me dividends in increased production and quality. Hiring another paper pusher for this job is just a drain on my capital, which would cause my prices to rise.

  • PsiCop

    Re: “Dammit, Newsweek, couldn’t you have published this one before you were on your deathbed?”

    They didn’t have the time. They were too busy helping a guy publish an article declaring “heaven is real,” the “proof” of which is, essentially, “I’m a doctor, and I say heaven is real, so it is, and no one is allowed to disagree.”

    In other words … Newsweek basically behaves like any other media outlet; 9 times out of 10 it’s going to cater to religionism or “New Age”-ism or paranormalism or buffoonism, because those are the stories that sell. Stories that are thoughtful, clear, and based upon critical thinking don’t sell, so they trot them out rarely, if ever.

  • kenneth

    I don’t think the news about nones is as old as some would hope. The “anti-fundamentalists”/theologically liberal folks of the early 90s or early 2000s are not quite equivalent to what we’re seeing with today’s “nones.” Today’s nones, especially the younger ones, are not simply political liberals who happen to be lukewarm religionists, or vice versa. They are, en masse, abandoning organized religion as a viable route to spirituality. They are doing so in very large part because Republicans politicized Christianity. This conflation of the social conservative agenda and religion began in earnest in the 1980s, about the time these folks were born.

    Throughout their formative years, they’ve gotten the message loud and clear that you can’t be Christian, a real Christian, unless you vote Republican. And not just Republican, culture war conservative Republican. You had to toe the line on aggressive legislation against gay marriage and other rights. You had to favor outlawing abortion in all cases. You had to be against teaching evolution. You had to get behind a highly aggressive foreign policy and subscribe to pre-emptive war. Conversely, they got the message that you couldn’t be a real Republican unless you were that “right sort” of Christian conservative. You could not design a worse losing strategy for both institutional religion and the GOP where young people are concerned. They are almost universally pro-LGBT marriage and don’t fall in line with most of the rest of Culture War conservatism. They are not mostly hard atheists. They are spiritual and religious on their own terms, but their main experience of organized religion has been one of political demagogues and hypocrites. Men (usually), who were forever demanding chastity up to the very moment they got caught with their own pants down. Their experience of religion as a political power game drove them out of religion. The conflation of that sort of religion with Republican politics also drove them out of that party. They are not by any means all political liberals. A slight majority of them in fact express support for small government and related economic policy preferences that should make many of them the natural constituency of the GOP.

    This is not old news. Nones have always been here, but where they used to be a tiny sliver of academic and anti-establishment elites, they are now a mainstream and very determined secularist movement. The Protestant-Catholic consensus in civic life and politics has unraveled, and it has done so in a very short period of time. The Tony Perkins and Chuck Colsons have had much more to do with that unraveling than have the Richard Dawkins of our country. Many Republicans and religious authorities desperately want to believe there is nothing new to see here because they’re writing the nones off and redoubling the policies and philosophies that made them.

  • kalim


    • Yoav

      Copypasta of some religious BS instead of making an actual argument make you look like a moron, copypasting the same piece of religious BS into 3 different treads make you a spammer (and still a moron).

      • Brian K

        I couldn’t finish his screed. It’s all such a mish mash of bland truisms and meaningless claims. Hence…religion.

      • Custador

        Is this the same guy I kept having to thread-lock on the forum? It reads like him.