Last week, an insightful piece came out from FiveThirtyEight, written by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Daniel Fox, “The Christian Right is Helping Drive Liberals Away from Religion.” FiveThirtyEight takes its name from the number of electors in the U.S. Electoral College; it is an award-winning organization that studies and amalgamates information from many different well-accredited sociological surveys done in the U.S. It publishes its results online, and they are available free of charge.
The main thrust of this Sept. 18 piece is that, since the 1990s, the ever-increasing involvement and loud vocal presence of the Christian evangelical right in American politics has had the effect of turning more and more Americans away from religion in general. The authors cite a number of well-executed national surveys done during the past 15 years or so, including the General Social Survey done in 2018 out of the University of Chicago.
In one generation, since 1990, there has been a large shift among those who self identify as “liberals,” a shift resulting in that they also now self-identify as “non-religious” and “unaffiliated” with any particular church. This percentage was only 12% in 1990, but in 2018 this percentage had risen to 40%. Prior to the past 30 years, it was very common for “liberals” to be openly and seriously religious. A few classic examples that come to mind would be Dorothy Day (1897-1980), who was a leader in the Catholic Workers Movement and founded the publication Catholic Worker; another example would be the Berrigan brothers, two biological brothers who were priests highly active in anti-Vietnam War protests and in the Civil Rights Movement; of course, there is the example of the Rev. Martin Luther King; and the list could go on. But something started to shift abruptly by the end of the 1990s.
Two scholars, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, noticed this early on and wrote an important paper in the American Sociological Review in April 2002, “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference.” Their conclusion, after their thorough studies, was that the sharp increase in “no religion” Americans was, in their words, “a symbolic statement (by them) against the Religious Right.” It was exactly in the 1990s that the Religious Right took center stage in America. Hout and Fischer, like the authors of last week’s piece in FiveThirtyEight, have seen this shift toward secularism as a clear backlash against the religion-in-politics thrust of the Religious Right. I think they are absolutely correct.
The fact is, it is obvious to almost everyone that the impact of the White Evangelical Protestant agenda on the GOP platform has increased substantially since the 1990s. In his campaign, and since the election, Donald Trump — nonreligious as he most certainly is — nonetheless has courted and kowtowed to the Religious Right again and again.
But the curious and frightening phenomenon of President Trump just might be the straw that will break the camel’s back — or the back of the Republican Party’s elephant. I’ve always been fond of the rhetorical device known as “reductio ad absurdum,” which goes all the way back to the Greek philosophers. It means “reduction to absurdity,” and refers to the rhetorical technique whereby one can disprove a statement by showing that, in the end, such a statement leads inevitably to an absurd and ridiculous conclusion. Need I affirm that President Trump is an absurd and ridiculous conclusion?
But it also needs to be affirmed that, to a large extent — very likely to the tipping-point extent — it was evangelical right voters that put Trump in office in 2016. Of course, with the aid of the worse-than-useless nitwits of the Electoral College — who were supposed to (by the clear intent of the law) prevent a vacuous populist like Trump from taking office. The Bible beaters beat the American democratic system to its knees, and they got what they wanted. They got their Biblical Cyrus, who would allow them to return to their Promised Land — a land where the Law of the Bible would return to be the Law of the Land. Of course, this was exactly counter to the clearly stated intention of our Founding Fathers, but that was a minor detail far too subtle for evangelical voters’ minds.
Irony and karma are both tough teachers. It is quite likely that, in point of actual fact, the ironic end result of the evangelical right’s push to elect Donald Trump will be a very significant shift in America toward and more and more secular culture — a culture in which religious meaning and dialogue are cast further from the public arena than before. This could well happen, because so many people are thoroughly disgusted by what they have witnessed for the past four years. We could well be headed for a backlash with a bitter bite.
There was always supposed to be, as per Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrasing, a “wall separating church and state” and that was a darn good idea. But that was a far cry from walking away from religion altogether. The purpose of the wall was, and is, that no one religion would gain the upper hand and, with the help of the State, would become a detriment of the rights of the citizenry to practice any particular religion (or not to practice one).
One irony piles upon another in our situation: The religious right wanted Trump because he said some of the “right things” and he would “shake things up,” but in reality they got a man with no religious values or morality at all. Secular liberals, for their part, have finally got a president with no religious values whatsoever and — as I pointed out in a previous column — this thoroughly secular president doesn’t seem to have worked out so well.
I have two words to sum up what I think will happen in the 2020 election: backlash and blowback. The unintended consequences of Bible-beating blindness in 2016 are going to haunt, hound and hollow out the religious right’s ability to sway the election in anything like the way it did in 2016. You and your friends can’t have a party in the Community Center, totally trash the place and then expect to be allowed back in. Our country and our Constitution have been trashed. More and more people realize it every day.
Our elections are not supposed to be about religion, but we can be assured that the 2020 election cycle will — explicitly or implicitly — be about religion. We, as a country, have seen the reductio ad absurdum of the GOP’s partnership with the hypocrisy of White Evangelical Protestantism. We have seen it for the heartless and dangerous absurdity that it is.
I think the country has learned a lesson. Thank God.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.