Most of us have heard the military admonition against “fighting the last war.” The point is obvious: generals and political actors need to evaluate and respond to the reality in which they live; getting stuck in the past–fighting the last war– is a formula for failure.That admonition also suggests one way of analyzing America’s current political situation.
Much of our contemporary political and cultural polarization is between people I have previously described as Puritans and those I have dubbed Modernists.
America’s Puritans still see liberty as “freedom to do the right thing,” defined as behavior consistent with their particular theology. They still believe, with the earliest American settlers, that government should have the authority to weigh in on the side of “Godliness” as their theology conceives it.
Modernists–in and out of religious communities–accept the post-Enlightenment notion that liberty means personal autonomy, your right to do your own thing, so long as you aren’t harming anyone else and so long as you are willing to grant an equal right to your fellow citizens.
The shorthand for modernism is “live and let live.”
Conflicts over recognition of same-sex marriage and bathroom use by transgender individuals, and efforts to allow “religious” merchants to refuse service to LGBTQ customers are really conflicts between America’s Puritans and its Modernists. Puritans believe that government should throw its weight behind their theological beliefs; Modernists understand the importance of separating church and state, of preventing particularized religious doctrines from marginalizing or disadvantaging otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Even in the churches, the Modernists are winning. As the Religion News Service reports,
In no U.S. religious group does a majority think it’s acceptable for businesspeople to invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays.
This finding from a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey is a first, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonprofit research group.
The change in opinion among even conservative religious adherents has been relatively rapid: In 2015, more than half of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons surveyed approved of merchants who cited religious belief to deny service to LGBT customers; in the 2016 survey, the percentage of white evangelical Protestants who expressed approval had dropped to 50% from 56% the year before.
The percentage of white mainline Protestants who approved of businesspeople who withhold services to gay people dropped to 30 percent in the recent poll, down from 37 percent in 2015.
Overall in 2016, twice as many Americans disapproved than approved of those who refuse service to a gay person based on religious beliefs (61 percent to 30 percent).
PRRI’s findings corroborate a more dramatic overall shift in attitudes about same-sex marriage and LBGT Americans in the past decade.
Most religious groups today support same-sex marriage, Jones noted. “The religious groups in which majorities oppose same-sex marriage make up less than 20 percent of the public.”
Despite the diminishing number of Puritans, state and federal legislators continue to support discriminatory measures aimed at the LGBTQ community, just as they continue to support a variety of measures disadvantaging women–all piously justified as “protecting religious liberty.”
They are fighting the last war. And thankfully, they’re losing.