There’s been a lot of ink spilled about the increasing political polarization in America, which is at historically high levels. There are a lot of reasons for it, including changing demographics, women’s growing empowerment, the internet, the economy and cable news. But religion and religious belief plays an important role as well. There’s no way around it: America is quickly becoming two nations, one ruled over by fundamentalist Christians and their supporters and one that is becoming all the more secular over time, looking more and more like western Europe in its relative indifference to religion. And caught in between are a group of liberal Christians that are culturally aligned with secularists and are increasingly and dismayingly seeing the concept of “faith” aligned with a narrow and conservative political worldview.
That this polarization is happening is hard to deny, even if it’s harder to measure that political polarization. The number of Americans who cite “none” when asked about a religious identity is rising rapidly, up to nearly 20% from 15% in 2007, with a third of people under 30 identifying with no religious faith. Two-thirds of the “nones” say they believe in God, suggesting that this is more of a cultural drift towards secularism than some kind of crisis of faith across the country.
But even this may underrepresent how secular our country really is getting, as many people who say they belong to a church don’t really go to church much, if at all. While Americans like to tell pollsters they go to church regularly, in-depth research shows they are lying and many of them blow it off, putting our actual church-going rates at roughly the same level of secular Western Europe.
Even when people identify with a label like “Catholic” or “Methodist”, that doesn’t mean they consider it an important part of their identity in the way that people used to. Take, for instance, the way that weddings have quietly changed in this country. It used to be that you had a wedding in a church, and only people who were eloping got married by someone other than a minister. Now, outside of very religious circles, it’s more common to see weddings on beaches or at country clubs, and very often officiated by friends of the couple rather than clergy. Indeed, state laws are slowly beginning to change to reflect this reality, allowing more flexibility for people to have the secular weddings they increasingly desire.
But of those who remain religious, being affiliated with a fundamentalist or conservative religion is becoming a little more common. The same Pew research that found while all Christian faiths are slowly receding, mainline Protestant churches are shrinking a little faster and have fewer followers, at 15% of the country, than white evangelicals (19%) or Catholics (22%). This comports with other research that finds evangelicals have a bigger piece of the shrinking pie called “Christianity.”
On top of that, there’s reason to believe that conservative Christians might also be getting more conservative. After all, the political polarization that we’re seeing lately is driven solely by the right, with conservatives getting more frantic and repressive by the minute. Much of this is due to dramatic surge in reactionary ideas rooted in religion. While public opinion on reproductive rights has stayed roughly the same, conservative Christians who make up the anti-choice movement have grown more extremist in recent years, not only dramatically surging in the attempts to wipe legal abortion out of red states but also expanding the war on women’s rights to include attacks on contraception access, as recently seen in Burwell v Hobby Lobby. Anti-gay sentiment is quietly becoming more extremist as well. While most of the country is coming around on gay rights, conservative Christians have expanded beyond just opposing same-sex marriage to backing laws that would allow restaurants and hotels to refuse gay people service.
That some people are becoming more fundamentalist as others become more secular is hardly a coincidence. In a sense, the trends are feeding into each other. That’s easy enough to see when it comes to the rapid expansion of secularism. As the word “religious” increasingly gets coupled with an image of intolerance and hatred, more and more people, regardless of their belief in God, are downscaling the impact religion has on their lives, or in the case with the “nones,” giving up the idea of religion altogether.
But there’s also good reason to believe the increasing conservatism on the right is a reaction to secularism. People who have long believed that Christianity should be the dominant cultural force in the country see all these secular weddings and people grocery shopping on Sunday and they want to crack down and somehow force the rest of us to fall in line. We know this to be so because, to be blunt, that’s exactly what conservatives are telling us.
Take Fox News host Gretchen Carlson in an interview with WorldNetDaily, where she explained why she felt the need to participate in a Christian right movie called “Persecuted” that laughably posits that there’s some kind of attack on the right of American Christians to practice their faith. Carlson argued that Christians are being persecuted by not being able to foist their faith on others, complaining about “petitions at state governors’ offices during the Christmas season to put up a ‘Festivus pole’ – from the made-up holiday of ‘Festivus’ from the ‘Seinfeld’ TV show – next to a Christian crèche on public lands.” She also bemoaned the disappearance of crèches around town during Christmas, implying that her neighbors have an obligation to decorate for Christmas so that she and her kids feel satisfied that their beliefs are still dominant.
That’s the idea that’s animating the Christian right: They really do believe everyone else owes them, that we are obligated to tithe to their churches and pray to their God and if we don’t want to do that, we should somehow be treated as less than fully American. You may think you’re just exercising personal choice when you get married in a park or choose not to hang Christmas decorations, but as Carlson’s interview demonstrates, conservative Christians see this as an attack on their “right” to live in a society that flatters their beliefs everywhere they go.
And since the rest of us heathens aren’t cooperating, they’re going to force it on the rest of us through government means, such Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad throwing the finger to the First Amendment to declare a special Christian repentance day for the whole state or, of course, by trying to make us live by their beliefs by restricting abortion or gay rights. And now, with Hobby Lobby v Burwell, there’s a new means to try to force you to pay fealty to their beliefs, by giving employers the ability to manipulate your workplace conditions or compensation package to punish you for doing things their faith forbids.
In her dissent in Hobby Lobby, Justice Ginsburg argued that the decision “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith,” suggesting there might be a wide expansion in businesses demanding the religious right to control and punish employees for not following their religious dictates. Sure, the government may not be able to make you please Gretchen Carlson by putting a nativity scene in your front yard, but we may be looking at a future where your boss forces you to in order to protect his “religious freedom”.