There’s always that comical moment in “Loony Tunes” when Wile E. Coyote or some other predator thinks he’s nailed the Roadrunner or Tweety, only to discover that he’s standing on thin air over some yawning canyon. At this point Wile E. or Sylvester usually breaks the fourth wall and has time for an unceremonious wave to the camera before plummeting to certain death (or what would be certain death for a non-cartoon). I was reminded of these thin-air goodbyes this week while reading two recent pieces on the decline of religion in America.
Secular rejoicing over Pew Research’s 2015 findings that Christianity is shrinking has barely faded, and already a few sharper writers are feeling the breeze between their toes. David Brooks at the New York Times and Peter Beinart at The Atlantic both seem to realize that the falling-away of organized religion as a normative part of American life hasn’t resulted in a more rational, tolerant, or humanitarian society. Instead, it’s opened the door to a more irrational, factious, and radical kind of religiosity that subsumes the impulses of morality and guilt, as well as the need for salvation, beneath politics.
The growth of the “nones” as an identifiable class coincided with a decline in church attendance overall, even among those who still call themselves Christians. Beinart notes that the share of Americans who reject religious affiliation rose from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. For millennials, it was a whopping 35 percent. And this wasn’t some exodus of Clinton voters. The Public Religion Research Institute reports that the number of white Republicans who indicate no religious affiliation has tripled since 1990. And according to Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia, rates of church attendance have fallen more than twice as quickly among whites without college degrees.
This trend, contends Beinart, is a huge part of what paved Donald Trump’s road to the White House. “During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, ‘Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.’”
Given the nonstop panic that’s wracked secular centers of influence since Trump’s inauguration, you’d hardly know that just months ago, most of them were rejoicing at the decline of organized religion. “White Christianity in America is dying,” declared the Washington Post in a lengthy interview with PRRI CEO Robert Jones. “The Christian faith in America is on life support because far too many of us have simply stopped living like Jesus,” lectured Zack Hunt at the Huffington Post, making it clear that “living like Jesus” means embracing left-wing politics. In the wake of the new statistics, well-trafficked atheist blogs exulted in the “good news” of Christianity’s demise.
This party has been ramping up for some time. As early as 2009, The Center for American Progress lifted up hallelujahs that “demographic shifts have seriously eroded the mass base for culture wars politics and will continue to erode this base in the future.”
What none of them seem to have expected was Beinart’s observation: that once the culture war over religious morality had faded, something much worse would take its place. We’re seeing that something worse, now.
“When cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion,” he writes, “they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation.” It turns out conservatives who disengage from organized religion don’t become more tolerant. Quite the opposite. White evangelicals in an American National Election Studies survey in January 2016 were more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. Beinart tallies similar data showing a negative correlation between nationalistic attitudes and church attendance in Europe.
Skipping church is also closely associated with poor social outcomes among white working-class Americans. Wilcox reports that those who don’t attend regular services are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress, which contribute, in turn, to resentment and a sense of disenfranchisement.
Of course, it could be that all the people with problems are avoiding church. But more likely, it’s the other way around. Church communities offer a kind of accountability structure and social safety net that keep families out of some of these tough spots. And the drop in religious participation could have a great deal to do with our more rancorous public discourse, and with the man whom conservative voters sent to the White House in November.
But Beinart’s analysis doesn’t end with white working-class Americans. He goes on to note how an exodus from religion may be radicalizing politics in the black community, as well. Groups like Black Lives Matter, whose leaders have distanced themselves from organized religion and announced their intention to “disrupt the nuclear family,” strike a sharp contrast with the Civil Rights Movement, which was led and inspired by pastors and practicing Christians.
Identity politics are increasingly taking the place of religion, on both the right and the left. Far from the calmer, more rational climate many seemed to expect in the aftermath of the culture wars, both sides have realigned around irreligious ideologies and begun thundering moral claims with a ferocity not seen in generations. Many cannot even bear to listen to the other side, which is why the dustup at Middlebury College over guest speaker Charles Murray has become an all-too-familiar scene.
But without the categories of Christianity to give shape to our moral outrage, the problem can only intensify. Without Christianity, moral outrage has no end but violence. And without the Christian Gospel, guilt and grievances have no end but enmity.
This is where David Brooks nails it. In what may be one of the most insightful columns of his long career at the New York Times, he argues that the emptying of churches has given way to “an age of great moral pressure,” where religion may be in retreat, but moral claims are still as potent as ever. “In fact, it’s the people who go to church the least—like the members of the alt-right—who seem the most fervent moral crusaders.”
And the reason our political conflicts have grown so frenzied is that they’ve taken on a spiritual dimension. They’ve become, in effect, a new religion, making politics itself a struggle for salvation. And this struggle is distinguished, crucially, by a lack of the freedom and reconciliation offered in the Christian Gospel.
“People have a sense of guilt and sin,” observes Brooks, “but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.”
In other words, the retreat of religion from American political life has prompted a kind of sublimation of religious drives into the voting booth and the protest march. Without the image of a crucified Savior dealing with guilt and reconciling all mankind to Himself and to one another, politics becomes an endgame as it never was before. Only now do we realize that what many thought was the problem—the church—was actually a restraining influence on our immoderate passions. Only now do we realize we’ve run out of cliff, and things can get a lot worse. It’s a long way down, and we’re not cartoons.
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G. Shane Morris is assistant editor of BreakPoint Radio.