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The church of the poisoned mind
Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of poll results that suggest people are getting less religious. Like this June Gallup result:
The vast majority of U.S. adults believe in God, but the 81% who do so is down six percentage points from 2017 and is the lowest in Gallup's trend. Between 1944 and 2011, more than 90% of Americans believed in God.
Interesting subset: “Belief in God has fallen the most in recent years among young adults and people on the left of the political spectrum (liberals and Democrats). These groups show drops of 10 or more percentage points comparing the 2022 figures to an average of the 2013-2017 polls.”
This seems understandable for a lot of reasons — I mean, look around! — and, as you might expect, rightwingers leap to insist it’s not because of any of those those.
At Fox News, for example, David Marcus says the kids are less likely to believe because liberals took God out of classrooms and the public square so they don’t even know how great God is. Marcus holds out to Fox’s senile audience hope that since “a case the Supreme Court is set to decide on may swing the door back open to more public displays of religion and faith” — he refers to Kennedy v Bremerton School District, which the wingnut wing of the Court decided for Jesus last month — it’s a cinch “God will operate a bit more openly” and the young will get to know and love Him through forced exposure.
Marcus also mentions that it’s liberals who mostly disbelieve, and the belief numbers look better if you remove those people — which is strongly reminiscent of many rightwing observations I’ve seen that Americans really agree with them if you just take out the black people (e.g. “Trump wins by a near landslide margin among white voters, a majority of the electorate”).
This notion that liberals should be segregated from any consideration of America’s religiosity is pretty popular among conservatives, and it’s worth thinking about why. In a recent post David French — a longtime rightwing God-botherer who enjoys thoroughly unearned cachet among moderates because he says bad things about Trump — refers to the “God gap” as revealed in an older Pew poll; the newer Gallup numbers were available, but they don’t really hit the point French wants to make, which is that “in their beliefs about God, nonwhite Democrats more closely resemble white Republicans than white Democrats.”
This excites French, who hauls out his usual complaints about how godless white liberals are (“Ever since I first set foot on Harvard Law Schools’ campus more than 30 years ago” ugggh) and reads into the record that recent Times/Sienna poll that I talked about the other day, which French (like the hot-takists at Axios) takes to mean Republicans have a chance with black people because they and white people both go to church — just not the same ones! Which French admits is too bad but he’s cagey-maudlin about why that is (“It was white identity politics that separated the church, and its lingering legacy is a roadblock to unity today” huh, you don’t say, any idea why that legacy lingers, brother-in-Christ?).
Though French spills some crocodile tears about how badly America need Democrats to “get” religion (har har), mainly French spins the “God gap” as good for his conservative cause because it’s all liberals (white liberals, in this reading!) going non-religious, so that just means more Americanism for the godly people, and as soon as they sort out their policy differences (i.e. nearly everything else) it will be New Jerusalem.
If you think about this for even a minute, you’ll see the basic problem: However else you chop them, the numbers show religious belief — which, again, such as Marcus and French strongly associate with conservatism — is not gaining but losing. And if you look at these charts from Ryan Burge, author of 20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America, you’ll see more stark numbers from surveys of that concomitant phenomenon, church-going:
This comports with a 2021 Gallup poll that finds membership in houses of worship sinking for the first time to a minority of Americans — though, interestingly, they see that decline among older as well as younger people. (The younger cohort still tends more strongly toward “no religious affiliation,” though.)
Now, as Burge himself has noted, this doesn’t mean religion is going away — in fact, while “it’s true that mainline Protestantism and liberal Catholicism are in an absolute free fall right now,” Burge says, “…devout, conservative religions are doing well by comparison and actually might be growing over time.”
But it’s an open question as to with whom those conservative religions — the megachurched and the holy rollers — are going to replenish themselves as more young people grow up unchurched and without affection for the bigotries that seem essential to that kind of religion.
Here we may see belief, as in political, affecting belief as in spiritual. As Burge also points out, on issues like gay rights, where not only liberals but also moderates and even some conservatives have shifted to tolerance, evangelicals remain strongly anti. Given that trend, how likely are even religiously-inclined young people to want to associate with such churches?
But there’s a possible answer in what constitutes a church’s — or a sect’s — concept of Christianity. As we’ve been hearing, a growing number of churches are going full Christian nationalist. From Vice:
Pastor Ron Tucker took the stage one weekend in early July at Grace Church in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights to deliver a sermon on Romans.
In the first 15 minutes, Tucker railed about antifa, Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, feminism, gun laws, abortion, protesters disrupting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s dinner at a D.C. steakhouse, and promoted the baseless claim that the Capitol riot was a hoax…
But according to some of his congregants, it’s a stark departure from his old preaching style.
“It’s honestly weird because it never used to be like that,” said Emily Lynch, 33, whose family joined Grace Church when she was 5 years old. “I can remember the sermons growing up, and they never spoke about politics. It was a quote-unquote ‘feel-good’ church.”
And as I have covered here, the religious assemblies that gathered in Washington before January 6, 2021 had a heavy rightwing, Trump, even insurrectionist vibe. (One such rally I missed was led by Sean Feucht, who I learn has raised millions singing the praises of the former president.)
It seems to be the coming thing in Christianity, the 20s equivalent of folk masses: MAGA worship. Why wouldn’t it be? After all, these days it seems the people most likely to identify themselves as Christians tend to be Republicans as well the most vicious, hateful, un-Christian sons of bitches you’d ever want to meet. Sorry, Commonweal Catholics and social justice protestants, but you know those guys have a higher profile than you — and, as we have seen, they don’t seem to acknowledge you as Christians at all, probably because your help-the-poor protect-the-weak thing has so little to do with what they think church is about.
Since conservative Christianity has so little to do with the actual Christ, why wouldn’t they just swap in Trump or whatever neo-Nazi replaces him in the shitheels’ affections? They’d still have all the things they like about church, like the prosperity gospel — heck, isn’t Trump like a prosperity preacher, a rich guy who lives the high life off the fleece of his flock? Plus their services and media ancillaries serve as an alternate culture to which they can cleave instead of the mainstream variant the heathens like — really, who needs Ben Shapiro’s family entertainment when you’ve got the New 700 Club for anti-woke entertainment? And, best of all, for the elect: Tax breaks!
This will be the new church. Such as believe will go for it; such as do not may seek out what will in that environment seem to be “alternative” churches, but many will just do what they’re doing in the current environment, which closely resembles it, and pass it all by.
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