Christian nationalism is testing American secularism like never before

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The message is ubiquitous: “Christian nationalist” T-shirts sold by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Fla.); Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis conjuring up biblical images during recent speeches in Florida; and the band of Christian symbology supported by insurgents January 6, a response to former President Donald Trump’s continued policy of responding to the views of white evangelical christians.

The politicization of religion in the United States is increasingly found in the highest places of power and persuasion. And – at least along party lines – there is also significant public support for abandoning the separation of church and state and just going with, literally, the church.

According to a Political pollmost Republicans are in favor of declaring the United States a Christian nation.

Yet this stands in stark contrast to the religious beliefs and practices of the American mainstream, which is abandoning organized religion in record numbers.

This is especially true for Christians, who make up 64% of U.S. citizens but are now more than ever leaving Christianity for atheism, agnosticism, or “nothing in particular,” according to a recent study. Pew Research study.

The reason? Organized religion in the United States is becoming a place of partisanship and political leverage, said Art Blecher — a retired rabbi, current atheist and author of “The New American Judaism: The Way Forward on Challenging Issues from Intermarriage to Jewish Identity.” “.

That religion has been about control is nothing new, Blecher said. “Religion has always been about power and how power is maintained,” Blecher said. But the confusion of religion and politics has reached new heights in the past decade. “Now it’s part of the tribalism of blue versus red – blue religion and red religious groups. It’s more of a voting bloc than a congregation.

And there’s growing evidence that for the first time, peoples’ politics are dictating their religious choices — not the other way around, said David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political science professor who specializes in democracy. and American secularism.

Grid spoke with Campbell about the growing overlap between religion and politics in America. Text has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: For people who follow a religion, this relationship with politics is fundamentally changing. How?

David Campbell: Basically, until just a few years ago, we always thought that someone’s religion came first, and their politics flowed from that. For example, opposing the death penalty or abortion because of one’s religious beliefs.

But increasingly, we see plenty of evidence that things are going the other way – that people have their political attitudes first, and then they take religious views based on their politics. The religious opinions they express are in reality only an extension of their politics.

This has all kinds of implications. This can cause people to split between congregations, depending on the politics of the people there. It can even cause people, of course, to leave religion altogether. You think about people defecting from religion, it’s really because they don’t like the politics of religion, right? So they put their politics before their religion.

In the case of evangelicals and their support for Donald Trump, it’s a classic example of many people who are very happy to twist their religious views in order to align themselves with Trumpian politics.

G: Republican politicians are embracing Christian nationalism like never before. How and why do they use it?

CC: If we define Christian nationalism as the belief that America was set aside by God for a particular purpose, that resonates deeply with many Americans, as this type of message has been quite common on both sides of the aisle since many years. And so, when people today hear political or religious leaders use this kind of language, it sounds familiar.

What is different in the way it is used today is that it has a very marked partisan side and leads to public policies of exclusion such as very strict immigration, the construction of a wall, this kind of stuff. In the past, this kind of language was rather an expression of a vague form of patriotism, compared to a motivation or a justification of specific public policies which have a very hard side. And it also provides religious or quasi-religious justification for policies that might otherwise be considered outright racism. If you are someone who shares these views, you much prefer to express them through religious means.

G: How does that boil down to everyday devotees?

CC: We don’t mean to mischaracterize American religion, broadly speaking, as one party against the other. There are still many religious democrats in the country. President [Joe] Biden himself speaks quite often about his Catholicism.

However, it is true that on average the faithful are more likely to be conservative and are more likely to support the Republican Party. This is especially true among white Americans, and much of it happens at the congregational level – people fall into congregations that they find politically coherent.

It’s not because people are actively going out and looking for a Republican or Democrat congregation. Instead, people go out and look for a congregation that has people like them. They look for commonalities when shopping at church. Increasingly, as they search for commonalities, they find themselves with people who actually have the same political views as them.

And there’s just a lot more of that happening on the right, because they’re just more conservative in the church. People increasingly find a community largely based on politics, with a bit of religion sprinkled in, because it’s politics that draws them there.

G: Throughout these midterm elections and looking ahead to 2024, can we expect to see more layers of religious and political messaging? What about the longer term?

CC: In the short term, I foresee that religion will continue to be divisive, and perhaps become even more so, due to the tendency of many people to leave organized religion for political reasons.

In the long run, we must always remember that prediction is difficult and always be wary of trying to project too far.

There were times when America seemed to be secularizing – this actually happened in the 1970s when evangelicalism emerged as a major cultural force when they were largely isolated. And we’re in one of those times right now. At the time, a lot of people were like, “OK, this is it, America is going to continue to be a highly secular country. And then, there you go, there is a religious revival. So religion comes and goes and it has followed the course of American history.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for writing this article.

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