The Atlantic has a new article available online by contributing editor Peter Beinart titled “Breaking Faith” which argues that the decline in religious participation rather than leading to lessening of the “culture wars,” has instead made possible a much more vicious cultural struggle rooted in race and tribal affiliation with little common ground on which to build reconciliation and renewal.
Beinart begins by wondering why so many self-identified evangelicals could have supported a presidential candidate who so clearly had little understanding of Christianity and whose lifestyle and commentary exhibited almost the complete opposite of evangelical values. What he found was that there was a significant gap in Trump support between evangelicals who regularly attended church and those who didn’t. Drawing on other research, he also found that conservative evangelicals who disengage form church life tend to be more racist and xenophobic and that it was Trump’s blatantly racist rhetoric that they found most appealing.
“But non-churchgoing conservatives didn’t flock to Trump only because he articulated their despair. He also articulated their resentments. For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.”
Why this should be isn’t completely understood by social scientists and is certainly counter to the narrative that it is religion itself that breeds intolerance.
“Although American churches are heavily segregated, it’s possible that the modest level of integration they provide promotes cross-racial bonds. In their book, Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown reference a different theory: that the most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.”
Beinart then also examines the change in religious participation among Democrats, where church attendance is declined even more precipitously and found that it also correlated with support of either Clinton or Sanders.
“Secularization is transforming the left, too. In 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent. And if conservative non-attenders fueled Trump’s revolt inside the GOP, liberal nonattenders fueled Bernie Sanders’s insurgency against Hillary Clinton: While white Democrats who went to religious services at least once a week backed Clinton by 26 points, according to an April 2016 PRRI survey, white Democrats who rarely attended services backed Sanders by 13 points.”
Their seems to be a clear correlation between one’s religious participation and one’s political perspective, whether conservative or liberal; what isn’t clear is which is the cause and which is the effect.
“Secularism may not be the cause of this dissatisfaction, of course: It’s possible that losing faith in America’s political and economic system leads one to lose faith in organized religion. But either way, in 2016, the least religiously affiliated white Democrats—like the least religiously affiliated white Republicans—were the ones most likely to back candidates promising revolutionary change.”
Beinart is also clear that this affect transcends race as well, noting that Black Lives Matter is not rooted in or led by the African-American church. In some cases, the leaders of BLM have a largely negative view of church, seeing it as too complicit in African-American oppression.
“African Americans under the age of 30 are three times as likely to eschew a religious affiliation as African Americans over 50. This shift is crucial to understanding Black Lives Matter, a Millennial-led protest movement whose activists often take a jaundiced view of established African American religious leaders. Brittney Cooper, who teaches women’s and gender studies as well as Africana studies at Rutgers, writes that the black Church “has been abandoned as the leadership model for this generation.” As Jamal Bryant, a minister at an AME church in Baltimore, told The Atlantic’s Emma Green, “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the Church.””
Beinart sees parallels between some on the alt-right who have taken up pre-Christian religious ideas and symbols and some in BLM who have also rejected Christianity in favor symbols and ideas drawn from African religions.
“In a move that faintly echoes the way some in the alt-right have traded Christianity for religious traditions rooted in pagan Europe, [Patrisse Cullors, one of the BLM movement’s founders] has embraced the Nigerian religion of Ifa. To be sure, her motivations are diametrically opposed to the alt-right’s. Cullors wants a spiritual foundation on which to challenge white, male supremacy; the pagans of the alt-right are looking for a spiritual basis on which to fortify it. But both are seeking religions rooted in racial ancestry and disengaging from Christianity—which, although profoundly implicated in America’s apartheid history, has provided some common vocabulary across the color line.”
In this embrace of tribal religiosity and identity, Beinart sees potential for a far greater conflict than any we’ve ever seen before in American history.
“Black Lives Matter activists may be justified in spurning an insufficiently militant Church. But when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.”
In essence it this retreat into identities without common language or perspectives that he sees as being the potential undoing of our civil society. Whatever the failings of the Christian church in American history; its near hegemony did provide a common framework and language for cultural cooperation and reconciliation. Clearly, thriving in this new multi-cultural and multi-religious world will require a new foundation for communal identity and conflict resolution. Without it, we may face increasing conflict and strife.
“In his book Twilight of the Elites, the MSNBC host Chris Hayes divides American politics between “institutionalists,” who believe in preserving and adapting the political and economic system, and “insurrectionists,” who believe it’s rotten to the core. The 2016 election represents an extraordinary shift in power from the former to the latter. The loss of manufacturing jobs has made Americans more insurrectionist. So have the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and a black president’s inability to stop the police from killing unarmed African Americans. And so has disengagement from organized religion.
Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.
For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”
image: Dutch Reformed Church of Second River in NJ damaged in hurricane Sandy, RNS