It Turns Out That a Less-Christian America Might Be a Worse America

by David French

Months ago Ross Douthat wrote a prescient piece arguing that if the Left disliked the religious right, it will positively loathe the post-religious right. In other words, the absence of religion does not necessarily or even likely lead to the growth of tolerance and moderation.

Yesterday, Rod Dreher pointed readers to a hearty amen from The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart. Religious engagement is fading on the Right, but that does not mean that the Right is becoming kinder, gentler, or more acceptable to the Left. Here’s Beinart:

Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

Yes indeed. In fact, Donald Trump owes much of his success in the primary to the GOP’s less-religious voters:

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.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

But Beinart doesn’t just look at the Right. He makes an interesting comparison between the very Christian traditional civil rights movement with the largely post-Christian Black Lives Matter:

The decline of traditional religious authority is contributing to a more revolutionary mood within black politics as well. Although African Americans remain more likely than whites to attend church, religious disengagement is growing in the black community. 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’s conclusion is correct:

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.

But this should surprise exactly nobody. If you marginalize and sideline people on both sides of the aisle who believe they should speak the truth, love their enemies, and focus their efforts on lifting up the least-advantaged Americans (however imperfectly they lived up to their ideals) in favor of those who have less regard for the truth, despise their enemies, and seek victory for their side above all else, then politics will get truly ugly, fast.

Yet white progressives shouldn’t spare themselves their own long look in the mirror. Think of the domains they dominate, like the academy. It’s a lovely, warm and welcoming place for like-minded Americans, but if you’re a dissenter you’re on a very short leash. While a few conservatives have done well on campus, the world of speech codes and bias response teams is overall the most aggressively intolerant community in the entire United States.

There’s one other factor at work. For the vast majority of American Christians, politics is hardly the chief priority in their lives. Indeed, I’d argue (contrary to flawed media perceptions) that most Christians haven’t paid sufficient attention to politics and consequently allowed through their inaction and apathy a number of pernicious political and cultural developments. But when politics moves from one aspect of life to the main or most important aspect of life then it raises the stakes political debate considerably — and not in good ways.

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