Donald Trump's feud with the Khans, a Muslim-American family who lost a military son serving in Iraq, highlights a demographic problem facing the Religious Right in years to come: Life as a minority. When that happens, perhaps they’ll have greater empathy against the anti-Muslim bigotry permeating our political culture through Trump’s rhetoric.
For decades, Protestant and Catholic activists have controlled the Republican Party, but the rise of decidedly secular Trump — despite his awkwardly transparent, inauthentic embrace of Two Corinthians — is a manifestation of the Religious Right’s demise. While currently many Religious Right leaders are simpatico with Trump (think Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his wife grinning in Trump’s office next to Trump’s framed Playboy cover shoot), including on this issue of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, these religiously-motivated activists can’t guarantee that will always be the case with either Trump or future politicians. And for that reason alone, aside from just basic human decency, they should be playing nice with secular Americans as our country generally becomes less religious and less rigid in our beliefs.
And the feeling should be mutual—we’ve yet to hear an urban, hipster Millennial recognize his privilege emboldens his xenophobia toward a Christian from Arkansas. Somehow slurs against low-income, rural Americans of “redneck” and “Jesus freaks” are still allowed in that hipster’s “safe space.” Tolerance ideally flows both ways.
American Christians are certainly still the majority, but the religious propensity and intensity of Christianity in the United States is on the decline, and secularism and non-Christian faiths are rising.
Pew reports that the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans grew to 23 percent in 2014 from 16 percent in 2007—a 42 percent increase in just seven years. Meanwhile, the percentage of Mainline Protestants fell from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent in the same period (19 percent drop); Catholics fell from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent (13 percent drop) and Evangelical Protestants fell slightly to 25.4 percent from 26.3 percent (3.4 percent drop).
Aside from the numerical shifts away from Christianity, Pew reports that American Christians are also becoming more ethnically heterogeneous. This is another problem for the old-school Religious Right, which has exacerbated a notorious diversity deficit within the Republican Party.
At the Democratic convention in Philadelphia last week, Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father, gave an impassioned and inspiring portrait of his immigrant experience and the devotion of his hero son—which would have been impossible under a Trump Muslim ban.
A progressive veterans group, VoteVets, released a statement from 11 Gold Star families rightfully demanding an apology from Trump for attacking Khan’s wife and for saying building his real estate empire equated to a family’s ultimate sacrifice.
"Your recent comments regarding the Khan family were repugnant, and personally offensive to us. When you question a mother's pain, by implying that her religion, not her grief, kept her from addressing an arena of people, you are attacking us. When you say your job building buildings is akin to our sacrifice, you are attacking our sacrifice. You are not just attacking us, you are cheapening the sacrifice made by those we lost ... We feel we must speak out and demand you apologize to the Khans, to all Gold Star families, and to all Americans for your offensive, and frankly anti-American, comments."
Khan describes himself as politically independent would be willing to speak at a Republican event if invited; don’t hold your breath he’ll be getting any invites from Trump. But Khan did get support from House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, among other GOP leaders. If this crew was smart, they’d bring Khan in their midst. As conservative activist Grover Norquist (whose wife is Muslim, incidentally), has argued: Muslims are a natural GOP constituency—generally culturally conservative, religious, hardworking and family-oriented.
After all, a remarkably high 78 percent of American Muslims voted for Republican George W. Bush in 2000. But today, just 11 percent of American Muslims say they “lean toward the GOP,” according to the Pew Research Center. As I’ve reported elsewhere, Pew’s data show Muslim countries overwhelmingly take a negative view of ISIS. The Islamic world shares Trump’s antipathy toward radical jihad, especially since Muslims are also more likely to die in a jihadist attack than a Westerner.
Considering these religious demographic trends, it would be smart for religious conservatives to begin to approach the broader Center-Right movement through an additive lens rather than a detractive one. Otherwise, they risk sitting on the sidelines as a marginalized minority in the decades to come.