You can't kill the Christian right: Why extremists are thriving even with religion in decline

A record number of Americans consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, but our conservative nightmare won't end

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 13, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Danny Johnston/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Danny Johnston/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)

The news cycle has been busy lately, so I don't know if left-leaning political observers have yet had time to plan their victory dance over the latest Pew Poll on religion. But you can be sure that when they notice some of these numbers, we will soon be seeing another round of "ding dong the religious right is dead," accompanied by the usual patting on the back and self-congratulations that goes with it. After all, something quite significant has started to shift, and at first glance it doesn't bode well for social conservatives: There has been an 8 percent decline in the number of Americans identifying themselves as "Christian" since 2007, along with a 6 percent increase in the number who call themselves "atheist, agnostic, and otherwise religiously unaffiliated," to nearly 23 percent of all Americans.

This is not to say that there aren't many millions of left-wing Christians. There of course are. But the left has good reason to see the growth of non-believers as a welcome addition to their coalition. After all, it's highly unlikely that these people will be welcomed into the party that boasts candidates who say things like Zach Dasher (the nephew of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson), who ran for congress in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre:

“He was made in the image of God,” Dasher said of the shooter [Adam Lanza]. “But somewhere along the way he believed what the atheist says. He reduced humanity to nothing more than a collection of atoms, to be discarded like an old banana peel. I guarantee you, now this is my hypothesis, that even saw himself as nothing more than chemicals.”

This is far from uncommon. Take presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who suggested that atheist government employees should be fired:

"Some of you are frustrated and even upset and angry about America, and I get it. And I say to you, the answer is as simple as it is that the answer to the phones in our hearts that God is ringing. When we register people to vote, when we get them to the polls to vote, when we hire the people that will take our values to this city, and when we fire the ones who refuse to hear not only our hearts, but God’s heart."

Presumed presidential candidate Rick Santorum said the following after some atheists took out a billboard, quoting his call for civil law to be replaced by "God's Law" in America:

“This is a reminder that there are strong forces against the fundamental beliefs that you and I hold so dear. They are organizing with determination to transform the very fabric of our country. The stakes are simply too high for us to sit back and ignore the progress they are making.”

That's not to say that Democrats profess any great love for atheists or agnostics. Members of both parties rank them among their least admired, far below such minority faiths as Islam and Mormonism. But the Democrats tend not to go out of their way to insult them publicly or use them as whipping boys and girls to rally the religious members of their base.

In fact, atheists tend to gather on the left side of the dial for a number of reasons. Unsurprisingly, secular voters are often more scientifically based and see an activist government as a useful tool to solve problems. They are hostile to ideas such as climate change denialism and creationism and are more tolerant of social change such as civil rights and marriage equality. There is no philosophical reason that secularists could not be conservatives -- indeed, history is full of them. But the modern Republican party is so closely aligned with rigid social conservatism and so dependent upon the Christian Right as an organizing institution that most secularists are not at home in the party at all.

So this is good news, right? The secular faction is growing and the Christian right faction is shrinking. It's all downhill from here.

Unfortunately, as Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches ably demonstrates, that's probably not correct. While it's true that many Catholics and mainline Protestants have apparently switched to "unaffiliated" (which could mean many things) the evangelicals haven't missed a beat:

Evangelicals...have seen their share of the adult population drop very slightly (less than a one percent drop, but still around a quarter of the U.S. adult population). But their overall numbers are up because they have experienced net gains from religious switching. Here “evangelical” includes the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, and “0ther evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations.” Sixty-two million Americans fall into this demographic, two million more than in 2007, according to the Pew Survey.

That's two million more people, the large majority of whom are presumably social conservatives than in 2007.

Posner points out that we don't know what all this means in terms of political orthodoxy, because that part of the Pew Poll won't be released until later in the year. It's always possible that the evangelical community has had a revelation and are no longer socially conservative, but I wouldn't count on it. And they may have adopted some more populist economic stances which would be a good thing. But we just don't know at this point.

Posner also draws our attention to a little noticed Pew Poll from last year which shows a "growing appetite" for combining religion and politics:

As I wrote at the time, the poll found “those affiliated with a religion, particularly evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics, ‘have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion.'”

Again, if the idea is that they are following Pope Francis' teachings on poverty, great news. But let's just say I haven't seen much evidence of that, and a lot of evidence that they are very excited by the prospect of "religious liberty" political crusades. Posner points to studies showing that they have actually evolved over many decades of political involvement into a movement based on a “narrative of Christian nationalism.” She also notes that this might be what has driven some people out of their traditional religious homes. Unfortunately, the unaffiliated don't have a shared identity or common institutions the way the Christian conservatives do, so they may not be much of a political counterweight.

Finally, and most importantly, the difference between the unaffiliated, atheist, secularist, "nones" -- whatever you want to call them -- and the Christian Right is the fact that the latter are a highly organized political machine that is controlled by professional political operatives like Ralph Reed, who runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition. It gets it's people to the polls. Posner notes the depressing numbers:

While the percentage of white evangelicals who voted in the 2014 midterms outstripped their share of the population as a whole, as Pew noted in its post-election analysis, “despite the continued growth of religious ‘nones‘ within the population as a whole, the share of the electorate with no religious affiliation also is little changed compared with other recent midterms (12% in both 2010 and 2014)

This group is simply not a coherent political faction in and of itself. And I have no idea how one might organize such a group. It may not even be possible to organize them along the lines of their religiously unaffiliated status. So perhaps it would be best to simply stow the champagne and put away the party hats for the time being, and get back to work organizing voters on political grounds. That will likely sweep up most of these folks anyway, and would be more in keeping with America's traditional understanding of the need for separation of church and state.

Unfortunately, that happens to be one tradition conservatives have completely abandoned.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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