By James A. Haught
In the classic movie “Citizen Kane,” a ruthless newspaper tycoon runs for high political office. In advance, his publishing chain prepares two possible alternative headlines for the morning after the election. One crows: “Kane Wins.” But that doesn’t occur, so papers switch to the other: “Fraud at the Polls.”
Well, I have two possible headlines ready for after Tuesday’s election. My hoped-for one says: “White Evangelicals Fail to Re-Elect Trump.” But if the dismal alternative happens, the other says: “Bigotry Prevails.”
For four decades, born-again whites have tipped many American elections to Republicans. I fervently hope this pattern finally is ending. Religion is collapsing rapidly in America. Southern Baptists have lost two million members since 2005. Overall church membership has fallen 20 percent in two decades, according to Gallup. In a forthcoming book, researcher Ronald Inglehart says supernatural faith is dropping faster in America than in any other western democracy. Both Barna and LifeWay surveys find that two-thirds of youths raised in church drop out in their twenties.
In contrast, there’s a rising flood of educated young adults who say their religion is “none” – and they tend to hold compassionate political views, making them a bulwark of the Democratic Party. They began surging in the 1990s, then soared. The Cooperative Congressional Election Study, released Oct. 4 by Harvard University, says “nones” grew three percent more in 2019, becoming one-third of the adult population. They’re larger than any specific church.
“Nones” vote at low rates, but I hope their general support for progressive values – approving women’s right to choose, backing gay marriage, endorsing free college, supporting universal health care, etc. – will swing America leftward. Maybe exit polls will show how much they affect Tuesday’s outcome.
Actually, the well-known white evangelical embrace of the GOP contradicts their faith’s founder. Jesus was a liberal who taught: help the poor, feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, aid the underdog. That mirrors the public “safety net” supported by Democrats. Yet born-again fundamentalists strongly back Republicans, who want to slash the safety net to give the rich a tax break. In a sense, such believers renounce Jesus.
President Trump has sought to make born-again white religion a political machine for the GOP. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne says he has “weaponized religion in a very aggressive way” – choosing an evangelical vice president, filling his cabinet with fundamentalists, constantly catering to Bible-thumping preachers as linchpins of his base.
But that base is shrinking. And this year’s pandemic hindered the ability of churches to meet and pursue politics.
Of course, many other factors besides religion sway an election – but religion is a big one.
Keep your fingers crossed and wait to see which headline works after Tuesday’s election.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He has written 12 books and 150 magazine essays. As a blogger at a dozen websites, he has 1,200 essays online.)