More and more, the religion vs. nonreligion conflict seems to be driving American politics.
An intriguing recent article in The Atlantic, a left-leaning U.S. magazine, offered the following take on the trend, which should be viscerally alarming to Republican believers:
“[T]he liberal politics of young people brings us to the first big reason to care about rising [religious] non-affiliation. A gap has opened up between America’s two political parties,” Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson wrote in September. “In a twist of fate, the Christian right entered politics to save religion, only to make the Christian-Republican nexus unacceptable to millions of young people—thus accelerating the country’s turn against religion.”
This story begins with the rise of the “religious right” in the 1970s, when devout Christians were panicked by a sudden growth-spurt in secular American cultural transformations. Thompson explained that the momentous changes included the “sexual revolution,” a spread in no-fault divorce laws, legalization of abortion with the Supreme Court’s seminal Roe v. Wade decision, and the government’s termination of tax-exemptions for Bob Jones University, a private Christian institution, because it banned interracial dating.
This wake-up call drove Christians into massive political activism, Thompson explains, jump-starting the expansion and surging influence of such right-wing evangelical Protestant groups as Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and, most spectacularly, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
Republicans embraced them.
Evangelical Christianity’s superb organizing and fundraising expertise, and a heightened sense of purpose, then thrust conservative, religion-friendly Ronald Reagan into the presidency in a landslide election in 1980 and re-election four years later (and subsequently Bush ’41 in ’88, plus a lot of local and state elections). Reagan won on a platform of muscular nationalism and reactionary Christian values on sex, abortion and school prayer.
By the 1990s, it was then liberals’ turn to be alarmed.
Besides conservative Republican political successes, two other factors galvanized religiously unaffiliated or unconcerned Americans, primarily young adults, according to Thompson.
During the Cold War against the godless, Communist Soviet Union, being nonreligious was seen as being almost treasonously un-American. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, it was suddenly, if not okay, not unpatriotic to be a heathen again.
“After that,” Thompson wrote, “‘nones’ could be forthright about their religious indifference, without worrying that it made them sound like Soviet apologists.”
A second political booster to secularists was the arrival of a god-fearing U.S. adversary, the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda, which in September 11, 2001 (9/11) crashed two commerical jetliners into New York’s Twin Towers complex and another into the Pentagon, killing 2,977 people, injuring 25,000 others and inflicting at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage.
“It would be a terrible oversimplification to suggest that the fall of the Twin Towers encouraged millions to leave their church,” Thompson said, referencing research by Notre Dame sociology and religion professor Christian Smith. “But over time, al-Qaeda became a useful referent for atheists who wanted to argue that all religions were inherently destructive.”
Then, during George W. Bush’s presidency, liberals grew anxious about increasing linkage between Christianity and unpopular Republican policies pursued by his administration, Thompson contends. Concurrently, the so-called “New Atheists,” including acerbic gadflies such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, grew more prominent and influential in the country, as “liberal voters — especially white liberal voters — detached from organized religion in ever-higher numbers. … In the 21st century, ‘not religious’ has become a specific American identity — one that distinguished secular, liberal whites from the conservative, evangelical right,” he wrote.
Where churches were once the main avenue for finding existential purpose and solace when the Christian Right held more sway, newly nonreligious Americans are finding comfort and purpose from spiritual ideas they encounter online. In America’s new paradigm of widespread divorce and the complex reality of children of divorce, plus a surge in single-parent families, going to church offers less and less allure — for families and singles, Thompson suggests.
It appears to be a harbinger of the U.S. future.
“The rise of the nones shows no signs of slowing down,” Thompson wrote. “In fact, the religious identity that seems to be doing the best job at both retaining old members and attracting new ones is the newfangled American religion of Nothing Much at All.”
He contends that conservative Christians, in a move that may in the end prove decidedly counterproductive, have “turned to a deeply immoral and authoritarian champion to protect them—even if it means rendering unto an American Caesar whatever the hell he wants.”
This toxic dichotomy risks turning American politics into an all-or-nothing “war of religiosity versus secularism by proxy,” where each side views the other as an existential threat to the nation, Thompson warns.
Indeed, we may already be there.
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