Tag Archives: fundamentalism

A Persuasive (And Scary) Analysis

Kevin Drum has published a lengthy, very thoughtful and well-documented article in Mother Jones, investigating the sources of America’s anger.

As he points out, Americans aren’t indiscriminately angry: we’re angry about politics–and “way, way angrier” than we used to be. The question, of course, is: what accounts for the degree of animus that characterizes today’s partisan divide?

Drum points to survey research showing that partisan ire is significantly higher than in the past. He then– meticulously–examines the “usual suspects”–the villains identified by the chattering classes as likely causes. Spoiler alert: he finds them wanting.

I’ve been spending considerable time digging into the source of our collective rage, and the answer to this question is trickier than most people think. For starters, any good answer has to fit the timeline of when our national temper tantrum began—roughly around the year 2000. The answer also has to be true: That is, it needs to be a genuine change from past behavior—maybe an inflection point or a sudden acceleration. Once you put those two things together, the number of candidates plummets.

Drum goes through both those “usual suspects” and the data, eliminating conspiracy theories (as Hofstadter in particular made clear in his Paranoid Style in American Politics, a “fondness for conspiracy theories has pervaded American culture from the very beginning.”) and providing several examples equivalent to the nutty QAnon beliefs with which we are familiar.

He also deconstructs the effects of social media, despite acknowledging many of the concerns about it.

Social media can’t be the main explanation for a trend that started 20 years ago. When you’re faced with trying to account for a sudden new eruption on the political scene like Donald Trump, it’s easy to think that the explanation must be something shiny and new, and social media is the obvious candidate. This is doubly true for someone whose meteoric rise was fueled by his deranged Twitter account. But the evidence simply doesn’t back that up.

Drum even considers the possibility that our national anger has been triggered by reality– by things in the country getting worse: manufacturing jobs disappearing, middle-class incomes stagnating–and for conservatives, the steady liberalization of cultural norms. But as he points out, with examples–contrary to conventional wisdom, a lot of things have gotten better, not worse. Even racism has declined.

So–if the “usual suspects” aren’t the cause, what is? Why has American trust in government plummeted and hostility toward political opponents skyrocketed?

To find an answer, then, we need to look for things that (a) are politically salient and (b) have changed dramatically over the past two to three decades. The most obvious one is Fox News.

When it debuted in 1996, Fox News was an afterthought in Republican politics. But after switching to a more hardline conservatism in the late ’90s it quickly attracted viewership from more than a third of all Republicans by the early 2000s. And as anyone who’s watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times—from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory—but it’s always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America, usually with a large dose of thinly veiled racism to give it emotional heft. If you listen to this on a daily basis, is it any wonder that your trust in government would plummet? And on the flip side, if you’re a progressive watching what conservatives are doing in response to Fox News, is it any wonder that your trust in government might plummet as well?

The anger generated by Fox has demonstrable political consequences.

Rage toward Democrats means more votes for Republicans. As far back as 2007 researchers learned that the mere presence of Fox News on a cable system increased Republican vote share by nearly 1 percent. A more recent study estimates that a minuscule 150 seconds per week of watching Fox News can increase the Republican vote share. In a study of real-life impact, researchers found that this means the mere existence of Fox News on a cable system induced somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of non-Republicans to vote for the Republican Party in the 2000 presidential election.

Finally, Drum notes that the political effects of Fox News have been magnified by religion–more specifically, its decline.

 This decline has been felt acutely by Republicans in particular. White evangelicals may have been the political stars of the Reagan era, but since their peak during the ’90s, Republicans have watched despondently as the reach and influence of conservative Christians has fallen even within their own party….

We’ve seen the impact of this increasingly powerful combination over the past several months, climaxing in the insurrection of January 6. But the insurrection itself was merely the most dramatic moment of a long campaign—and the campaign continues. How, we wonder, can so many people believe what Trump says about election fraud? How can they be willing to jettison democracy in favor of a demagogue? The answer comes into focus when you look at the past couple of decades. Thanks to Fox News, conservative trust in government is so low that Republican partisans can easily believe Democrats have cheated on a mass scale, and white evangelicals in particular are willing to fight with the spirit of someone literally facing Armageddon.

I think he’s right–and I have no idea what we can do about it.

 

Fundamentalism

A couple of years ago, I came across a fascinating article in a legal journal comparing constitutional and biblical cherry-picking. I no longer recall the journal, the title or the authors, so no link, but I do recall the thesis: certain personality types have a need for bright lines and a profound discomfort with ambiguity, leading to the use of selected passages from religious and legal texts to confirm their pre-existing biases.

When evangelical Christian denominations embraced Trump–some pastors insisting he’d been chosen by God– it was tempting to describe religion in general as a big con. Like most generalizations, that characterization is both under and over-inclusive. The problem is not religion per se, but fundamentalisms of all sorts. As the referenced article made clear, religious dogma isn’t the primary problem (although some certainly is very problematic), it is fundamentalists’ insistence on its inerrancy.

In other words, there’s a great deal of similarity between Second Amendment absolutists and fundamentalists of all religious persuasion–and I do mean all religions. American Jews provide just one example. Pew recently published a study of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs. Unsurprisingly,  the study found that a majority of Jewish Americans lean politically liberal and currently favor the Democratic Party. However, Orthodox Jews (our fundamentalists), were “a notable exception.”

The survey, which was conducted in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, finds that 71% of Jewish adults (including 80% of Reform Jews) are Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party. But among Orthodox Jews, three-quarters say they are Republican or lean that way. And that percentage has been trending up: In 2013, 57% of Orthodox Jews were Republicans or Republican leaners.

There is further evidence that the content of belief is less troublesome than the intensity of that belief.

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an essay asking whether politics has become the new religion. The article featured examples of Americans for whom politics has become an identity and a quasi-religion–suggesting that the waning of traditional  faith commitments isn’t leading to a reduction of conflict, as many of us had fondly supposed; rather, those for whom lines must be bright and beliefs should brook no dissent have simply transferred their fundamentalist passions elsewhere.

The United States has long been known for what some sociologists call “civil religion” – a shared, nonsectarian faith centered on the flag, the nation’s founding documents, and God. But the God factor is waning, as so-called nones – atheists, agnostics, and those who self-identify as “nothing in particular” – have risen to one-third of the U.S. population, according to a major 2020 survey out of Harvard University. 

From MAGA devotees on the right to social justice warriors on the “woke left,” political activism that can feel “absolute” in a quasi-religious way is rampant. At the same time, American membership in houses of worship has plummeted to below 50% for the first time in eight decades of Gallup polling – from 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

The article points out that Americans have been moving away from organized religion for several years–and notes that–rather than easing intergroup tensions– the shift has dovetailed with the rise of an intense form of partisan politics. For personalities that need certainty about “righteousness,” political ideology provides a sense of “devotion, belonging, and moral certitude” they might once have found in a religious congregation.

The problem isn’t Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other theology. It’s the certitude motivating adherents’ intransigence and unwillingness to live and let live.

 

Good Religion, Bad Religion

There’s a yiddish word that describes today’s post: chutzpah. 

Chutzpah is gall of the “how dare she” variety. It’s sometimes illustrated by an anecdote about a person who kills his mother and father and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Today’s post is about Christianity, and the reason I acknowledge my own chutzpah is because I am neither a Christian nor a believer. I come from a tradition that emphasizes behavior over belief–works over piety–and has co-existed pretty comfortably with science and secularism. (Minorities tend to flourish in more open, secular societies.)

What prompted this post was an article I came across in–of all places–Marketwatch, asking  why approximately half of Catholics and a majority of Evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump. The basic answer to that question, according to the article, is continued resentment of the First Amendment’s separation of Church and State.

To this day, there are many people who would like to put religion back into the center of public and political life. This is presumably what U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a deeply conservative Catholic, meant when he denounced “secularists” for launching an “assault on religion and traditional values.”

Of course, a preference for putting “religion” back in the public sphere raises a question that becomes more and more relevant as the country diversifies: whose religion? 

The article also referenced the relationship between a certain kind of Christianity and racism. It noted that Protestants had been supportive of Separation of Church and State so long as they remained culturally and racially dominant.

This changed after the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s, which alarmed many white Christians, especially in the southern states. Today, evangelicals, like Catholic conservatives, are among President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. They, too, believe that family and faith are under siege from liberals and secularists…

The attempt by contemporary Catholic conservatives and Protestant evangelicals to infuse politics with their religious beliefs obviously runs counter to the ideas of the French Revolution, which sought to uphold freedom from religion, but also of the American Revolution, which instituted freedom of religion. Both groups are targeting the carefully erected barriers between church and state.

This is dangerous, not only because it fosters intolerance, but also because it challenges, in the spirit of de Maistre, the idea that political argument should be based on human reason.

Once political conflicts become clashes of faith, compromise becomes impossible. A believer cannot bargain over a sacred principle.

You can’t argue with God. (Or your version of God.)

The article reminded me of Robert Jones book The End of White Christian America, which probed the anxieties–and rage– of white Christian men, as the racial, religious, and cultural landscape continues to change in ways that erode their previously privileged position.

When I was researching my 2007 book God and Country, I came across the very useful categorization of the nation’s founders into “Planting Fathers” and “Founding Fathers.” The Puritans were Planters. They came to the New World for “religious liberty,” which they defined as freedom to worship the right God in the right church and establish a government that would require their neighbors to do likewise. One hundred and fifty years later, the Founders who drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights defined liberty very differently–as the right to follow one’s own beliefs, free of government interference.

What had intervened was the Enlightenment.

Our legal framework may be based on Enlightenment understandings of liberty and the role of government,  but America is still home to lots of Puritans who reject that understanding– along with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, evidence and empiricism.

The continuing culture war between our contemporary Puritans, secularists, and adherents of  non-fundamentalist religions raises some important–and too often neglected–questions: what good is religion? do modern societies still need it? what separates “good” religions from harmful ones? what’s the difference between a religion and a cult?

My youngest son has suggested a useful distinction between good and bad theologies: If a religion makes you struggle with the hard questions–what does it mean to be honorable, to act humanely, to treat others as we would want to be treated, etc.–it’s probably good.

If, instead of helping you confront the questions, it provides you with the answers, it’s bad.

To which I will add: if your religion leads you to support a leader whose behavior is contrary to everything you profess to believe because he promises to erase the line between Church and State and restore White Christian male privilege, you are a flawed person embracing a deeply flawed theology.

 

 

A Different Kind Of ‘Great Awakening’?

Religion News recently headlined the closing of every one of Lifeway Christian Resources brick and mortar stores.There are 170 of them. They will go entirely online.

The digital shift comes amid declining customer traffic and sales, according to LifeWay.

And it follows the closure of other major Christian retailers, such as the United Methodist Church’s Cokesbury stores, which closed in 2012, and Family Christian Stores, which closed its stores in 2017. At the time, Family Christian was considered the world’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise.

LifeWay had acquired another chain, Berean Christian Stores, in 2013.

LifeWay adhered to a fundamentalist Christian approach, and dropped several popular authors’ books  over ideological differences. It banned author Jen Hatmaker’s books after she expressed support for LGBTQ Christians, and it threatened pastor author Eugene Peterson when it appeared that he was going to officiate a same-sex marriage. It also dropped Rachel Held Evans’ book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” in 2012 after a similar dispute over the book’s content.

In other words, its approach to Christianity had a lot in common with Mike Pence’s.

Fortunately, it’s an approach–and a religiosity– that is rapidly diminishing.

A number of recent polls have documented a significant reduction in the number of Americans who are religiously affiliated; so-called “nones” are now 35% of the population. Among younger Americans, the percentage is greater.

For Millennials and even GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all. The Nones claim 44% of the 18–29 age group, and nearly that (43%) among those who are 30–44.

This is more than twice their market share among Americans older than 65, just 21% of whom say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. However, even that 21% is a five-point rise from where the over-65 group was in 2015, when just 16% identified themselves this way.

Other findings: Barely a third of Americans believe it’s important for married couples to share the same religious affiliation (36%), but majorities do believe that couples should share the same social values (76%) or feelings about children (81%). And it will come as no surprise to learn that Republicans are much more religious than Democrats.

In school, most of us learned about the Great Awakenings of early U.S. history. (Great Awakenings were a series of religious revivals in the then-British colonies and the early days of the country during the 17th and 18th Centuries.) These were episodes of religious fervor that swept through the country before eventually abating. A number of religion scholars have also dubbed the late 20th Century rise of Christian fundamentalism from which we seem finally to  be emerging as a latter-day “Great Awakening.”

America has been fertile ground for these periods of excessive and ostentatious piety, and a number of sociologists have attributed the outlier religiosity of the U.S–we are far more religious than other Western democratic countries– to the personal insecurities that characterize societies with an inadequate social safety net. (Scholars have documented a significant correlation between personal insecurity and religiosity.)

Since our social safety net hasn’t improved, I don’t know how they might explain the current declines in religious affiliation. I personally attribute it to  the excesses of judgmentalism and appalling lack of humanity displayed by the Christian Taliban. The religious right makes religion look pretty repellent.

Whatever the cause, if I were choosing nomenclature, I’d save the label “Great Awakening.” for the current rise of the “nones.”

 

“Mother” Has Many Meanings…

More from the theocrats…

By this time, most politically-aware Americans have read about Karen Pence’s new job.

“Mother” is once again teaching at the Washington, D.C. school where she worked when Mike Pence was in Congress. The Huffington Post describes that school, noting that everyone isn’t welcome there.

In a “parent agreement” posted online, the school says it will refuse admission to students who participate in or condone homosexual activity, HuffPost learned through an investigation into discriminatory admissions policies. The 2018 employment application also makes candidates sign a pledge not to engage in homosexual activity or violate the “unique roles of male and female.” …

The application says that the school believes “marriage unites one man and one woman” and that “a wife is commanded to submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ.” The application asks potential employees to explain their view of the “creation/evolution debate.”

Not only did Mrs. Pence (aka “mother”) previously teach at the school for 12 years, the Pence’s daughter Charlotte attended, according to the school’s website.

JoeDee Winterhof, who is a senior Vice President for policy at the Human Rights Campaign,  had an excellent response.

“Why not teach at a school that welcomes everyone, instead of choosing one that won’t serve LGBTQ kids, kids of LGBTQ parents? The Pences never seem to miss an opportunity to show their public service only extends to some.”

Mrs. Pence is certainly entitled to believe that gay people are sinners, that women should submit to men and that there is actually a “debate” about evolution. (Although–forgive the snarky aside–according to people who worked in the statehouse when Mike Pence was governor, she doesn’t seem to obey that “submission” directive. Quite the contrary.) The fact that a Congressman’s wife chose to work at a school with this philosophy might raise eyebrows, but there are a lot of Congressmen and a lot of wives, and so far as I know, their choice of employment is rarely seen as sending a political message.

The spouses of Presidents and Vice-Presidents, however, are judged by a different standard; at least they were  before this disastrous and embarrassing administration.

When the wife of a Vice President–even an accidental and smarmy Vice President–chooses to work for an institution that labels a significant  proportion of Americans sinful and unworthy, that’s not only a statement of her values, it’s a deliberate message of exclusion that is directly at odds with important American principles.

That message is underlined by its hypocrisy.

If “mother” and Pastor Pence really disapproved of all the forms of sexual immorality described by the school, they wouldn’t even enter the same room with Donald Trump. Since they agreed to be part of the Trump Administration, it’s pretty obvious that they are willing to be selective about the sorts of “immoral” sexual behavior they condemn.

Pussy-grabbing and other assaults on unwilling women, serial infidelity, and consorting with prostitutes–those things are evidently minor transgressions. What must be condemned are relations between people of the same sex who love each other–and who may even be married to each other.

This is bigotry (barely) masquerading as piety, and it’s nauseating.

These people are vile.