The Atlantic reports on a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute with an eyebrow-raising finding:
Almost half of Americans say discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including blacks and minorities. Three-quarters of Republicans and Trump supporters said this, and so did nearly eight out of 10 white evangelical Protestants.
Nearly 80% of white evangelicals say that “discrimination against Christians” is as big a problem as racism and other prejudices. The PRRI survey adds detail after detail: 70% say that American culture has “changed for the worse” since the 1950s. And in just the last four years, the number who say the U.S. is “no longer a Christian nation” has shot up eleven points, from 48% to 59%.
As the Atlantic article points out, “religious liberty” has become the chief concern of the Christian right. It was the number-one topic at their meeting with Donald Trump last month. It can also be seen in the rash of red-state legislatures trying to pass “license-to-discriminate” bills that would allow Christian bigots to surround themselves with a bubble of private law.
Yet in a way, even this is a fallback. It wasn’t long ago that the religious right had much grander aspirations: not just trying to protect their right to discriminate, but trying to force discrimination to be the policy of all society. There was never any question that they wanted to ban abortion, same-sex marriage, adoption by gay couples, and a hundred other things. Their sudden rediscovery of “conscience” as a vital right in need of protection is an admission that the culture war isn’t going well for them.
We can (and should!) mock the oblivious, privileged arrogance that declares Christians are being “discriminated against” in America. It takes colossal self-centeredness to think that having to bake cakes for same-sex weddings is as urgent or as pressing a problem as black people being beaten or shot dead by police.
However, this isn’t solely a crisis of their own imagination. Although they’ve filtered it through a prism of victimhood, they’re reacting to something real. But what they’re seeing isn’t the advent of anti-Christian discrimination. Rather, it’s the end of Christian hegemony in America.
There was a time when white Christian conservatives were the dominant cultural force in America, when they could expect to be treated as the mainstream view and handled with respectful and undivided attention. But the culture changed, and they failed to adapt. The up-and-coming generations slipped away from them, and in a more diverse and tolerant America, they’ve dwindled to just one belief among many. Now they’re finding that they’ve lost the power and influence they once enjoyed.
For the culture-war crusaders of the right, this has been a rude awakening. They’d long ago convinced themselves that they were God’s chosen people, that their righteousness was unassailable, and that their victory was foreordained. Now the culture no longer heeds them, and they’re facing the prospect of becoming a permanent minority, if not extinction. It feels as if they’ve been cheated of something they thought they were owed. I’ve written about the coming secular era, and this is how it looks from the other side.
This feeling of dismay and alienation has been cemented by a string of high-profile defeats at the Supreme Court. They’ve lost major cases on abortion, on same-sex marriage, Obamacare – all changes that they fought as hard as they could, but still lost in the end. Most of all, there was the death of Antonin Scalia. To religious conservatives, I’d imagine, this felt like a symbolic moment marking the beginning of the end and the inevitable decline to come – especially given the likelihood that Hillary Clinton will choose his replacement.
This doesn’t mean that the religious right is completely moribund. For all their lamentations over their supposed persecution, they still have great power to make non-conforming people’s lives miserable. Their decline is like the shifting of tectonic plates – rapid on a historical scale, but ponderously slow on a human scale.
But while the change may be slow, there’s enormous momentum behind it, which makes it all but unstoppable. And when they fight against progress and enlightenment, it only accelerates the decline. The next time you hear about some outrage perpetrated by Christian fundamentalists, you can take comfort in the knowledge that whatever happens today, they’re on a long, slow slide into demographic irrelevance.