Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Growing Isolation of the Republican Religious Right

For those who fear and loathe the constant attempts by Republican religious thugs to use legislation to bludgeon us all into conformity with their radical views, take heart, there is hope for the future. There is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam: God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both. These authors present data that suggest these radical Republicans are marching off to battle without noticing that the army they thought was behind them has begun to evaporate.

The authors provide us with some necessary background.

The cultural tumult of the 60s produced dramatic shifts in attitudes towards authority and sexual mores that had traditionally benefited from strong religious underpinnings.

"By 1970, fully 75 percent of Americans surveyed concluded that religion's influence in American life was waning. Collapsing church attendance confirmed their view. Yet even then, religiosity did not skew more to the right than the left; neither during the religious boom of the 1950s nor in the religious bust of the 1960s was religion linked to partisan politics."

It was assumed that the populace was trending in the secular direction, but a significant minority moved in the opposite direction.

"....among more conservative Americans, the moral earthquake triggered a return to religion, or at least a particular type of religion. Beginning in the mid-1970s, in an aftershock to the 1960s, conservative forms of religion, especially evangelical Protestantism, expanded. At the same time as liberal Protestantism and churchgoing Catholicism were virtually collapsing, many Americans who sought a reaffirmation of traditional norms, especially when it came to sex and ‘family values,’ found what they were looking for in evangelical Protestantism."

At the same time this growing evangelical wing was also becoming politically active.

"The new evangelicals also broke free of the self-imposed cultural exile of their fundamentalist forebears. They did not shun a sinful world but instead sought to change it, including its politics."

The authors then provide us with an absolutely stunning insight.

"With the rise of the religious right came the much-discussed God gap between Republicans and Democrats. Each year, fewer and fewer Americans identify as secular Republicans or religious Democrats. What happened to those who once did? Did they adjust their politics to fit their religion, or vice versa? Surprisingly, politics has mostly determined religious practice. Formerly religious Democrats (except among African Americans) have drifted away from church, and formerly unobservant Republicans have found religion."

The emphasis is mine. People turn to or from religion in order to find emotional support for their political views? Politics trumps religion? That is absolutely fascinating!

The political activism on the religious right has not yet run its course but the underlying dynamic has definitely changed.

"The first aftershock to the 1960s thus had two components: one religious (the rise of evangelicals) and the other political (the rise of the religious right). The political movement continues, but the religious dimension ended in the early 1990s. As a fraction of the total population (and, even more dramatically, as a fraction of Americans under 30), the number of evangelicals has been declining for nearly 20 years and is back to where it was at the beginning of the 1970s."

The Republican right retains a vocal religious base, but it is one that has long been in decline, particularly among the young. The authors suggest that an unintended consequence of mixing religion and politics has been "an unprecedented turning away from organized religion."

"Consider the growth in the number of people whom sociologists call ‘nones,’ those who report no religious affiliation. Historically, this category made up a constant 5-7 percent of the American population, even during the 1960s, when religious attendance dropped. In the early 1990s, however, just as the God gap widened in politics, the percentage of nones began to shoot up. By the mid-1990s, nones made up 12 percent of the population. By 2011, they were 19 percent. In demographic terms, this shift was huge."

The youths of any population will have countercultural tendencies, but the authors maintain the rate at which young people are turning away from religion is greater than traditional attitudes can explain. They provide this perspective.

"Politically moderate and progressive Americans have a general allergy to the mingling of religion and party politics. And millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined. To them, ‘religion’ means ‘Republican,’ ‘intolerant,’ and ‘homophobic.’ Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves -- or wish to be seen by their peers -- as religious.

Again, the emphasis is mine. How quickly are young people moving away from organized religion?

"The millennials' movement away from organized religion has recently accelerated. Between 2006 and 2011, the fraction of nones in the population as a whole rose modestly, from 17 percent to 19 percent. Among younger Americans, however, the fraction increased approximately five times as much. Similarly, over the same five-year period, the fraction of Americans who reported never attending religious services rose by a negligible two percentage points among Americans over the age of 60 but by three times as much among those 18-29. And younger millennials are even more secular than their slightly older siblings; our 2011 survey showed that a third of Americans in their early 20s were without religion, compared with a quarter of those who were that age when we surveyed them in 2006."

Perhaps most ominously of all for the Republican religious standard bearers, their evangelical base is beginning to recognize the unintended consequence of dabbling in politics.

"Rather than signaling the certain death of religion, our 2011 nationwide survey found hints that, feeling the heat from their too close association with partisan politics, religious leaders are beginning to pull back. Indeed, one of the most significant differences between our 2006 and our 2011 data was the drop-off in political activity within U.S. religious congregations....Presumably, clergy across the country have sensed what we see in the data, namely, Americans' growing aversion to blurring the lines between God and Caesar. So they have opted to stick to God."

One can only hope that the Republicans do not cause too much damage before their entire operation collapses like a hollow house of cards.

In addition to their present document, these authors also provided an article for the New York Times that addressed their findings with respect to the Tea Party adherents. They concluded that Tea Party members were more likely to be theocracy-seeking Christians than small-government seeking libertarians. The results were discussed in The Tea Party Unmasked.

"DAVID E. CAMPBELL is John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C. Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. ROBERT D. PUTNAM is Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. This essay is adapted from the paperback edition of their book, American Grace (Simon & Schuster, 2012)."

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