Friday, August 25, 2006


Religion and Politics

Since some Hog readers don't make it to BlueOregon:

Religion and politics have always mingled in American life, generally uneasily. Periodically, populist ferment fuels a Christian revival and a re-entry into the political realm before burning itself out on its own inflexibility. As a response to the Gilded Age, prairie populists led by William Jennings Bryan used the language of Christ to stand up to corporate power and usher in the progressive era. Said Jennings famously at his 1896 presidential nomination: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Christians have lately been animating the other team, the wire-rimmed accountants from an earlier era banished from the party. But as with the 20th-Century's Bible-fueled populists, the current crop may have run up against a ceiling of support as they push their inflexible agenda relentlessly forward. Bryan's sometimes brilliant career ended ignobly,on the losing side of the Scopes "Monkey" trial. Since Bush's re-election, Christian fundamentalists have found themselves defending creationism, Terri Schiavo, and absolutist views on abortion. But is the tide really turning?

According to findings released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the answer may be yes.

The most blunt measures don't show much of a change: 67% of respondents consider this a "Christian nation" (up from 60% a decade ago, but down form 71% last year), and slightly more people think religion's influence on government is shrinking (45%) than growing (42%). Perhaps most strangely, fewer people today think the GOP is friendly to religion (47%) than last year (55%).

But drill down into the numbers and a pattern emerges: the heretofore cohesive Christian voting bloc is now fracturing into three groups--evangelical Protestants*, mainstream Protestants, and Catholics. The slip in support for the GOP is happening among Catholics and evangelicals (both down 14%), but not among mainstream Christians (down just a single percent). While Pew hazards no guess as to why support is slipping, it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that evangelicals are feeling dejected after failures by the all-Republican government to repeal Roe, add intelligent design to school curriculums, and so on.

Further evidence of this fracturing coalition appears in a fascinating series of questions Pew asked about science. Only 28% of evangelical Protestants believe in evolution as compared with majorities of Catholics (59%) and mainline Protestants (62%). A large majority of Americans believe global warming is happening (79%), but evangelicals are the most skeptical that it is caused by humans--just over a third as compared with mainline Protestants (48%), Catholics (52%), and "seculars" (62%). Hard to say where Buddhists, like me, fit in--not to mention Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and so on--but I think I get the picture. (Statistical insignificance is an apt description of just about all the groups I belong to.)

It's still early in the game. Pew looked for evidence of an emerging "religious left," but couldn't find many people who identified themselves this way (7%). Part of the problem seems to be that while the "conservative" in "conservative Christian" might modify either one's theological or political orientation equally well, there's less coherence among "liberal" Christians. Some are poltically liberal but theologically conservative and vice versa.

Whether a religious left is emerging as an identifiable group or not, this study may be documenting the first stages of the fracturing of the religious right. Already Republicans have begun rolling out the usual religiously-divisive wedge issues. We'll see in November whether those newly-disenfranchised evangelicals turn out again to vote against gay marriage.

*Pew links and uses interchangeably "Biblical literalists" (those who believe the Bible is the actual word of God) and evangelicals. While there is strong overlap, not all self-described evangelicals are Biblical literalists.

1 comment:

Mick said...

The fracturing was inevitable, both in the religious right and the political right (I predicted it 2 years ago) because both sections of the right are currently controlled by extremists and:

1) Americans, while sheep, don't like extremes and will eventually turn away from them, leaving the various factions fighting over a shrinking constituency;

2) Once extremists have achieved a measure of power, they always start scrapping and clawing amongst themselves in an effort to get more, at which point the united effort gets sandbagged and it's every sect for itself.

The right especially thrives on fear and for good, solid fear-mongering you need a formidable enemy. The religious left being all but destroyed after the last 20 years of virulent fundamentalist attacks, they more or less have to turn on each other - who else is left?