June 27, 2005


You ain't seen nothing yet: Christian America's political arm is more complex and more dynamic than it first appears. And it will be hard to stop (The Economist, Jun 23rd 2005)

Why is the religious right as powerful as it is? The question puzzles even Americans. Their country, as a whole, is not getting more religious. The gap between it and European countries has increased, but largely because of Europe's growing godlessness. Most Americans say that religion is very important (60%) or fairly important (26%) in their lives, but Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that the figures were 75% and 20% in 1952.

What has changed is, first, the make-up of Protestant America and, second, the realignment of religious America's politics. The generally liberal mainline churches have declined, while harder outfits like the Southern Baptists have spurted forward. White evangelicals, who see the Bible as the literal truth (or darned close to it), now make up 26% of the population.

It is not just a matter of numbers but of confidence. Born-again Christians are no longer rural hicks; they are richer and better educated than the average American. There are now 500 Christian colleges in America and evangelical chapters at the Ivy Leagues. Go to one of the 1,000 gleaming megachurches and the people stepping out of the four-wheel-drives in the Wal-Mart-sized car parks are software engineers, doctors and teachers.

Take, for instance, Mr Bush's friend Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptists' public policy arm. He has stern views on moral issues; but this Princeton and Oxford-educated preacher can happily discuss the Indian economy and the flat tax. Mr Land claims that one in three of the baby-boomers now identify themselves as evangelical.

Nor, to lose another stereotype, are all the righteous white. There are some 25m black evangelicals, who seem to be moving slightly more to the right; and new immigrants, too, provide plenty of recruits. Larry Eskridge, of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, guesses there may be 8m Latino evangelicals. A huge number of Asian-Americans are fervent Christians, too.

The religious right also represents more than just evangelicals. At the last election Mr Bush won the Catholic vote by snaring 72% of self-styled traditionalist Catholics. Private polls also suggest that he won significant numbers of Orthodox Jews. Rather than being split between the parties, religious people of all faiths are now pretty anchored in the Republican Party. A Zogby poll last November put the national figure for “religious traditionalists” at 29%, but they accounted for 58% of Republicans.

The power of organisation

Religious America's switch to the right is rooted in two things: liberal over-reach and conservative organisation. The consistent whinge from the Christian right about “liberal activist judges” exceeding their mandate contains a kernel of truth. In the 1960s and 1970s, judges changed America from a country where every school day began with a prayer, and abortion and pornography were frowned on, to a country where school prayer was banned and both abortion and pornography were protected by the constitution.

The fact that the courts were running so far ahead of public opinion in a generally religious country bolstered the religious right in two ways. It provoked white evangelicals to join the political fray. And it persuaded all religious types to bond together. Protestants and Catholics, who used to be at loggerheads, have now found common ground, especially on abortion.

But conservative organisations have also created their own momentum. Take Focus on the Family, a sprawling empire that employs 1,400 people in Colorado Springs and claims a global audience of 220m people for its TV and radio shows, books, mass e-mails and counselling. Its founder, Jim Dobson, a former child-psychology professor, points out that the focus of his ministry's considerable energy remains family life, but its public-policy arm is growing. Focus set up a political action committee last year that spent $9m on the election, and it hurled another $1.2m at the filibuster issue earlier this year.

Focus exemplifies two of the movement's hallmarks: innovation and competition. This sophistication also extends to politics. On abortion, social conservatives have had much more success now they have stopped screaming for the practice to be made illegal (which few Americans want) and tried to limit it (which most want). There are now laws in 34 states requiring parents to be notified when a minor applies for an abortion. And Congress is considering requiring doctors to tell any woman having an abortion after 20 weeks that it will cause the fetus pain.

“You eat an apple one bite at a time,” argues Mr Land, who points out that with both gay marriage and abortion the religious right's current position is to leave decisions to state legislatures, as they are left in Europe. Messrs Land and Dobson both personally oppose gay civil unions; but their planned federal marriage amendment does not ban them because, in Mr Land's words, “it could then become a civil-rights issue rather than a marriage issue.” Mr Land enjoys turning civil-rights language back on the left, accusing the American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, of “anti-religious bigotry”. [...]

Yet if the polling numbers on matters of faith carry some warnings for the Christian right, they carry many more for the Democrats. If the last election proved anything, it was that middle America found an overtly religious party much less weird than an overtly secular one. Few lines got Mr Bush a bigger cheer on the stump than jeering at Mr Kerry's “Hollywood values”.

Some liberal types now want to claim the mantle of the religious left. Hillary Clinton recently made a speech complaining about the number of abortions. The new Clintonite Centre for American Progress has a faith and progressive policy project. Jim Wallis, a chummy anti-war evangelical who wrote the best-seller, “God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left doesn't Get it”, points to the huge audiences he gets around the country as evidence that many Christians want a more varied version of moral politics than just abortion and gay marriage.

There is probably something in this, but it is hard to see the Democrats seizing it. The pro-life Mr Casey in Pennsylvania is a far less typical Democrat than Mr Dean, who casually located the Book of Job in the New Testament when he ran for president. If the Republicans are the party of the over-pious, an aggressive secularism pervades many of their rivals' policies.

It seems that the religious right cannot fail to win. Either the Democrats continue to get more secular, in which case middle America will continue to vote Republican, or they will embrace religion a little more fully, and then the religious right will get a little more of what it wants.

Add in the fact that the secular don't reproduce at replacement level while the religious do and you've got some really ugly trends for the Democrats.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2005 10:34 AM

This isn't a Marxist country. Seizing control of the apparatus of state coercion lets you appoint the Postmaster General, it doesn't let you change the meaning of words. When you try to wield state power in the European fashion, you waken the sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.

Note how the Catalinarian wing jumps to analogize baby-murder or gun-grabbing with protecting the civil rights of Black people. The idea seems to be that all change is good because it is change--it is all "progress," don't you know. It turns out that that dog won't hunt.

The initiative has passed to the Right, particularly what the article calls the relkigios right. Now the other side are the reactionaries, fighting to hold on to what scraps of power they can. The Right is shaping the battle, picking the points of decision and channelizing the opposition into the killing zones.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 27, 2005 6:09 PM

"The fact that the courts were running so far ahead of public opinion in a generally religious country bolstered the religious right in two ways."

But don't worry, comrades. Someday public opinion will catch up. History demands it.

Posted by: David at June 27, 2005 6:55 PM

The consistent whinge from the Christian right about liberal activist judges exceeding their mandate contains a kernel of truth.

Yes, just a teensy-weensy, itsy-bitsy, if-you-look-real-hard-you'll-find-it kernel of truth. And Mrs. Clinton muses that a few million abortions a year may be a tad too many. Why do I keep thinking of the uptight Anglo parents in My Big Fat Greek Wedding trying to do their multicultural duty while shuddering at all the barbarity around them?

Posted by: Peter B at June 28, 2005 7:11 AM