The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The religious right isn’t doing much for religion

The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Secularization of America, as in all Western democracies, has been a long, gradual process. That said, to a degree not seen in Europe, the United States has retained a robust, primarily Christian, faith tradition with high numbers of Americans who confirm to pollsters their belief in God, practice of praying, attendance at religious services and other indications of religiosity. Nevertheless, at a time when a great many evangelical conservatives have abandoned any pretense of concern for ethical behavior or religious values in exchange for political influence and power — when their political influence is arguably the highest ever — the state of religion continues to slide.

Pew Research reports:

Currently, 55% of U.S. adults say they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, including 46% who see it as more of a religious holiday than a cultural holiday and 9% who celebrate Christmas as both a religious and a cultural occasion. In 2013, 59% of Americans said they celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, including 51% who saw it as more religious than cultural and 7% who marked the day as both a religious and a cultural holiday.
To be sure, while the public’s commemoration of Christmas may have less of a religious component now than in the past, the share of Americans who say they celebrate Christmas in some way has hardly budged at all. Nine-in-ten U.S. adults say they celebrate the holiday, which is nearly identical to the share who said this in 2013. About eight-in-ten will gather with family and friends. And half say they plan to attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, little changed since 2013, the last time Pew Research Center asked the question.

Christians didn’t need President Trump’s permission to say “Merry Christmas.” In fact, a great number apparently don’t attach much religious significance to it at all. For all the whining about the issue, the gripe seems to be just another front in the culture wars rather than some sign of religious devotion. Secularism marches on:

For instance, while two-thirds of Americans continue to say that Christian displays like nativity scenes should be permitted on government property during the holidays, the share who say these displays should be allowed on their own (unaccompanied by symbols of other faiths) has declined by 7 percentage points since 2014. Meanwhile, the share of Americans who believe no religious displays should be permitted on government property has grown from 20% to 26% over the past three years. . . . Today, fully half of the U.S. public (52%) says that a business’ choice of holiday greeting does not matter to them, while roughly a third (32%) prefers for stores and businesses to greet customers with “merry Christmas” during the holidays.

So how does the continuing secularization interact with the rise of politically powerful, if morally bereft, “values voters” who continue to defend Trump and Roy Moore?

Facebook Live host Libby Casey talks to Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey about how Donald Trump appealed to white, evangelical voters. (Video: The Washington Post)

To begin with, as we have written about frequently, white Christian Protestants are for the first time a minority in the United States. They are losing ground culturally and religiously. In a sense, the hyperpoliticization of evangelicals and the willingness to toss principle and standards to the winds in search of political influence can be seen as the last gasp of a shrinking, displaced population that no longer dominates American society.

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And it may also be true that as religious leaders act less like religious leaders and more like Republican hacks, those looking for “spirituality” turn away from organized religion. When Jerry Falwell Jr. stumps for Trump, those looking for spiritual uplift understandably may see him — and his political and religious operation — as a scam. That would be consistent with numbers released in September:

About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.

What these politicized clergy have done, however, is make the word “evangelical” toxic and divisive, The Post reports:

Discomfort with the term “evangelical” began in some quarters with the Moral Majority in the Reagan years, which helped make “evangelical” synonymous with the Republican Party. Ever since, evangelicals have disagreed with each other about mixing faith and politics.
Such debates intensified last year when President Trump was elected with the overwhelming support of white evangelical voters after a vitriolic campaign that alienated many Americans. Most recently, after Senate candidate Roy Moore drew strong majorities of white evangelicals in Alabama despite reports of his pursuit of teenage girls when he was in his 30s, some Christians across the country said they weren’t sure they wanted to be associated with the word anymore.

Peter Wehner, a prominent #NeverTrump conservative, has disowned the evangelical label. He says that the “support being given by many Republicans and white evangelicals to President Trump and now to Mr. Moore have caused me to rethink my identification with both groups. Not because my attachment to conservatism and Christianity has weakened, but rather the opposite. I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical — despite its rich history of proclaiming the ‘good news’ of Christ to a broken world — has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness.”

The close association with Trump has alienated nonwhite and women who have identified in the past as evangelical, the New York Times reports:

Many women have expressed the broader concern that overlooking accusations of sexual misconduct against favored politicians sends a dangerous message that women who come forward can be dismissed in the service of a political agenda.
“We’ve let evil overtake the entire reputation of Evangelicalism,” one prominent evangelical author, Beth Moore, wrote on Twitter.

Now, we are NOT saying that Christians should refrain from participating in the political life of the country, nor are we saying that Trump and this particular generation of evangelical leaders are solely responsible for the decline in religiosity. However, what we are saying is that obsession with political power and cult-like followings of secular political leaders do not preserve faith or create a religious revival. To the contrary, this breeds anger, resentment and obsession with politics, not faith. The notion of Christians as victims in America, martyrs in a culture war, is both at odds with reality and an example of blame-shifting. To cultivate a more religious society and one more in tune with their own values, faith leaders might consider spending less time licking envelopes for Roy Moore and more time tending to their spiritual flocks.