To the atheists who supported Donald Trump – I know there are some of you out there – hang your heads in shame.
The U.S. State Department website is currently promoting a talk by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “Being a Christian Leader” that’s drenched in god-talk and nakedly sectarian language.* It’s the sort of speech that would be inappropriate for a sitting officeholder in any case, but to have it advertised by the official website of an American government agency is an egregious breach of the church-state wall.
There’s also an even more hair-raising speech given by Attorney General William Barr, in which he blamed “secularists and their allies” for depression and mental illness, suicide, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence. He accused us of being bent on the destruction of all morality and the overthrow of society, while comically suggesting that Christians risk “a figurative burning at the stake” just because people might ostracize them or criticize them on social media for promoting openly fascist views. Bear in mind that the man holding these views is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. (American Atheists’ response is a good one.)
Of course, Republican officeholders who are openly hostile to secularism and pluralism isn’t a new thing. During the George W. Bush years, we had John Ashcroft, among other pernicious promoters of Christian nationalism. But this doesn’t mean that the mingling of religion and government isn’t a threat; it just means it isn’t a new threat. Would-be theocrats have always been out there, clutching at the levers of power, and it takes a constant effort by good people to do the work to oppose them and keep them at bay.
So on the political side, with our government infested by Trump lackeys, fascists and fundamentalists, things don’t look promising. On the other hand, there’s reason to believe that all this favoritism is turning people off from Christianity and accelerating the decline of religion in America. I wrote recently on NBC News about this, and there’s more evidence in this feature article by FiveThirtyEight, “The Christian Right Is Helping Drive Liberals Away From Religion“.
Polls and social observers have been pointing out for a while that the U.S. has gotten less religious since the 1990s. This is a trend that’s both dramatic and recent, and it’s especially pronounced among liberals:
…[S]ince 1990, the share of liberals who never attend religious services has tripled. And they’re less likely to believe in God: The percentage of liberals who say they know God exists fell from 53 percent in 1991 to 36 percent in 2018.
This demographic tide was noticed before anyone understood the causes driving it. At first, social scientists were in disbelief that a merely political controversy could have such a dramatic effect on people’s most sincerely held beliefs:
At first, it wasn’t clear why so many Americans were losing their faith — and of the available explanations, politics wasn’t high on the list… Social scientists were initially reluctant to entertain the idea that a political backlash was somehow responsible, because it challenged long-standing assumptions about how flexible our religious identities really are.
This reluctance stems from the view that religion should float above politics, untethered to merely temporal concerns. It assumes that people’s religious beliefs begin with lofty abstract beliefs about God, which descend step by step until finally arriving at mundane conclusions about how government should be organized or who should wield political power.I think this gets the causation backwards. As I’ve written in the past, religion has always been first and foremost about tribalism and power. That’s why the specific pet issues of Christians have changed so radically over the decades – from Sunday blue laws and Prohibition, to anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, to opposition to communism and racial integration, to creationism and aid to Israel, to LGBTQ rights, contraception and abortion – because the issues have only ever been important as boundary markers, defining who’s in or out of the tribe. The creedal statements about God aren’t the locomotive pulling the train, but the caboose, dragged along in the wake of everything else.
But gradually, those social scientists started coming around. For one thing, the timing works: Americans started abandoning religion at the same time that white evangelicals were becoming an increasingly powerful and visible part of the Republican party, shaping its agenda to center culture-war issues like opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Surveys also showed that people’s political identities were remaining stable as their religious identification changed.
More importantly, further evidence came in that backed up this theory. 538 cites studies which found that rates of nonbelief rose the most in states that are more Republican-dominated, or in areas where the intrusion of religion into politics was especially visible. One study found that merely reading a news story about a Republican who spoke in a church made Democrats feel less religious.
Unfortunately, the article closes on a sour note, quoting David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame:
…Campbell warned that this shift is already reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together and break down partisan barriers. That, in his view, threatens to further undermine trust in religious groups and make our politics more and more divisive. “We have very few institutions left in the country where people who have different political views come together,” he said. “Worship was one of those — and without it, the list is smaller and smaller.”
This assumes that churches were formerly able to “bring a diverse array of people together” – which is only true if you don’t count atheists (or LGBTQ people!) as human beings who ought to be included in that roster of diversity. The rosy view of churches as havens of broadmindedness requires a flexible reading of history to say the least.
I would put it a different way: with a few rare exceptions, churches have always been enemies of moral progress. Their dogma-based worldview guarantees that this is so. What we’re witnessing, I would argue, is liberals realizing this fact and acting accordingly, severing their vestigial attachments to churches that will never treat them as equals. And we have every reason to expect that the gleeful cruelty and unapologetic racism of Trump and his Christian fascist cronies will kick this trend into overdrive.
Some people might find it discouraging that the trend of religious rejection is concentrated among liberals, rather than an across-the-board change affecting everyone equally. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, it’s the only way I could imagine it happening.
Liberals are at the forefront of moral progress. From abolishing slavery to democracy to women’s suffrage to ending colonialism, every revolutionary new idea that eventually becomes common sense begins with us. Those ideas began as reformers’ dreams, but ultimately swept the world and triumphed despite initial violent opposition. There’s every reason to believe the downfall of religion will follow the same pattern.
* For the record, in his speech, Pompeo hypocritically denounces Iran for persecuting Christian pastors and China for imprisoning Uighur Muslims in concentration camps, while turning a blind eye to his own administration’s eagerly committing these very same atrocities. It’s a real tragedy that America’s ongoing brutality toward refugees and asylum-seekers is depriving us of credibility or moral authority to condemn human-rights abuses elsewhere in the world.