As Religious Influence Ebbs in America, Incivility Increases
The Right embraces populist nationalism, the Left embraces identity politics.
Is a post-Christian America a kinder, more tolerant America? It would not seem so.
For decades angry progressives have attacked religion as the source of most social ills and demanded every last vestige of Christian influence be purged from the public square.
It seems progressives are seeing their wish realized. Though America has long been a religious nation, the level of religious observance has been declining. According to data from Pew Research, in recent years, while the overwhelming majority of Americans say they believe in God, the number of those with no religious affiliation has skyrocketed from 6% in 1992 to 22% in 2014. Among Millennials, 35% have no religious connection.
While the political Left is more apt to shun religion in general and Christianity in particular, this disturbing trend is showing up among an unexpected demographic: white Republicans. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has almost tripled since 1990.
If one accepts the Left’s premise that religion is a negative influence in public life (what, with its opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, etc.) then one would think a waning influence of Christianity would make America a more tolerant society, correct?
As religious observance on the right and the left has eroded, studies show Christianity has been replaced not by a benign, tolerant multiculturalism, but increasingly polarized forms of tribalism. The Right embraces populist nationalism, the Left embraces identity politics. Absent the tempering influence of Christianity, which preaches love for fellow man, forgiveness and charity, the non-religious on both sides take a darker view of America’s future, and increasingly see each other as not decent people with differing opinions, but as fundamentally bad people.
Why is this?
As Peter Beinert writes this month in The Atlantic, “Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful.”
Beinert notes the political Left is not exempt from such dystopian thoughts, noting, “White Democrats who are disconnected from organized religion are substantially more likely than other white Democrats to call the American dream a myth.” Likewise, the Black Lives Matter movement shuns peaceful protests like those led by black Christian clergy such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which was so successful in changing the hearts and minds of Americans during the civil rights movement.
While the causation of the ebbing of Christianity can be debated, the effects are quite clear. Politics is too often a zero-sum game — we win, you lose. And with politics infecting every aspect of American life, and religion on the decline, is it any wonder Americans have become more factional, more confrontational, and more polarized?
The political Left sees the populist nationalism of Donald Trump as a scary, dangerous development, claiming his supporters seek to harm and subjugate all who don’t share their views or pigmentation. Yet leftists don’t seem to grasp that the Trump phenomenon is in many ways a push-back against the Left’s hypocritical demonization of its opponents. The irony of insulting and assaulting people as you lecture them on how dangerous their views are is lost on the Left.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking election upset, progressives around the nation poured into the streets, rioting, assaulting Trump supporters, breaking windows, looting, and setting cars and buildings on fire. On college campuses, the bastions of leftist orthodoxy and indoctrination, students and even faculty routinely give tacit approval, and outright encouragement, to the sentiment that physically harming those with whom they disagree is justified.
George Washington called religion and morality the “indispensable supports” of the American republic. John Adams declared the Constitution “wholly inadequate” to govern any but a moral and religious people. And British statesman Edmund Burke warned, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Without the peaceful influence of religion, Americans gravitate toward a darker view of their country and their fellow man. Trust, civility and goodwill recede, replaced by a lust for power to secure to each the enforcement of his or her worldview.
Beinert closes his analysis by saying, “Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum. For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ‘70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”
Christianity in America is certainly not dead, but its influence has lessened and, as a result, the public discourse has become less civil. A restoration — a revival, if you will — of the Christian spirit is sorely needed.
As Dennis Prager put it, “If you want a good world, the death of Judeo-Christian values should frighten you.”