The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Religion is not overpowering our politics

Log trucks and tourists drive by the God's Ten Commandments Park, just north of Kalispell, Mont., in August. (Tony Bynum for The Washington, Post)

A fine essay by Nate Hochman in the New York Times makes a compelling argument and should not be missed.

Its thesis, in brief, is this: “The conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian,” Hochman writes. “This new politics has the capacity to dramatically expand the Republican tent. It appeals to a wide range of Americans, many of whom had been put off by the old conservatism’s explicitly religious sheen and don’t quite see themselves as Republicans yet. As the terms of the culture war shift, Barack Obama’s ‘coalition of the ascendant’ — the mix of millennials, racial minorities and college-educated white voters whose collective electoral power was supposed to establish a sustainable progressive majority — is fraying, undermining the decades-long conventional wisdom that America’s increasing racial diversity would inevitably push the country left.”

Hochman, a fellow at the National Review, wrestles mostly with what it will mean for conservatism as the dominance of religious conservatives recedes inside the movement. That has probably already begun.

This drift, Hochman likely knows, will continue long after the elections in November bring a broad Republican wave into office in Washington and elsewhere. All the GOP must do is not face-plant before then.

But there is one error in his assumptions: that Republicans were ever dominated by the religious right. Even in 1980, the first presidential election year of the Moral Majority, the GOP was a secular political party made up of various factions, only one of which identified as “religious right.” Still is. That doesn’t make it the party of organized religion. It has long been common for political reporters to extrapolate a party’s outlooks from its most common denominational affiliations. Nowadays, it’s a dart thrown blindfolded and over the back.

My experience is very different. I have no idea how my fellow congregants at my two church homes (one Roman Catholic, one Presbyterian) feel about politics. The twin spheres of life — religious and civic — are distinct, and I’m certain that neither sanctuary tilts more red than blue. Christians are, above all, obliged to testify to their faith. Not always and everywhere, but certainly, there ought to be enough public evidence, as the saying goes, to convict one of being a Christian.

As a Roman Catholic, I’m far more concerned about the message sent to the American church by the new cardinals named by Pope Francis than I am about what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says on Issue A or Issue B. I pay little attention to the bishops’ political statements for they are to politics what I am to golf: amateurs, and bad ones at that.

As a citizen, I deeply hope — and pray — for a huge rebuke to the political left that has seized the Democratic Party, but that is a political judgment informed, but not dictated, by faith.

What Hochman missed is that religious expression in the public square has been loud for brief and intense periods, but it comes and goes and never approaches a constant. I don’t believe anyone got into their pew or left it because of politics, or vice versa. There is very little consensus within American Christianity on much of anything! Any attempt to impose a political order on the spiritual landscape is doomed; we are a country that tends to splinter. Too often, we over-generalize — currently, the fashion is to call any Christian who is not a Democrat a “Christian nationalist.” That lens is grossly distorted. It doesn’t even work on a grossly simplified basis.

The only “political” homilies I’ve ever heard at Mass have been on the dignity of life from conception until natural death. I’ve heard many calls from Presbyterian and Catholic pulpits alike to inclusion and reminders that the colors of the kingdom include every shade on the spectrum. Most pulpits stress care for the poor, and if there is one underlining bit, it is that the taxes one pays don’t substitute for the tithes one owes.

So, if you are close observer of both faith and politics, try your best to understand that these two realms are different worlds and the crossover you see because of some very rare voices is an exception, not the rule. While daily Mass attendees might very likely be Republican voters, there’s a good slice of them who are aligned with the progressive Catholic Worker movement. Presbyterians now come in more varieties than ice cream in the supermarket.

The dissolution of the dominant Protestant culture in the 1960s and 1970s is long past debating. America is less faithful but far more political. The average voter by contrast concerns himself or herself with the country’s political leadership, and very few take their voting cues from any pulpit — if any are to be had. That isn’t “The Way.” And it never has been in my 66 years.