"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Decline Of The Religious Right

So-called ‘Nones’ are the fastest growing ‘religious’ group in the United States; and those who profess no religion or no belief in God are now slightly more than twenty percent of the population.  Except for atheists who, in the codification of their disbelief are as religious as members of any traditional faith (“Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.” (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy), for most Nones religion simply has no relevance and it plays no role in their lives.  The most noteworthy characteristic of Nones is their tolerance, for since they are not intellectually, emotional, or passionately committed to any divine belief and have nothing to defend, they have little interest in attacking those who do.

Tolerance is what is completely lacking within the Christian fundamentalist community, whether Catholic or Protestant.  There is an unwavering, absolute, intractable, and unshakeable belief in the rightness of their vision.  There is no room for debate, no two sides to the question, no possible room for compromise.  The words of the Bible, say fundamentalists, are the words of God – not interpretations nor reconstructions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John well into the 1st Century; nor words modified by the context of translation.  No interpretation is needed, no post-modern parsing of text and meaning required.  The words are absolute and almighty.

Catholicism, on the other hand is rooted in the logical exegesis of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and less dependent on the Bible and claim that it is indeed open to interpretation:

Catholics, on the other hand, recognize that the Bible does not endorse this [absolute fundamentalist] view and that, in fact, it is repudiated in Scripture. The true "rule of faith"—as expressed in the Bible itself—is Scripture plus apostolic tradition, as manifested in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, to which were entrusted the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles, along with the authority to interpret Scripture correctly (Scripture and Tradition, Catholic.com

Nevertheless Catholics are no less doctrinaire and insistent when it comes to the absolutism of their belief.  The Vatican, despite some Papal murmurings about ecumenism and an exoneration and forgiveness of the Jews for their role in the persecution and crucifixion of Christ, have remained adamant that when all is said and done, the Catholic Church is still the true church.

Both Protestants and Catholics have of course interpreted their sources of faith, whether scripture or the written tradition of Catholic teaching, liberally.  The Bible offers no specific injunctions against abortion, and even in one case condones it:

Numbers 5:12-28: which explicitly authorizes abortion in the case of a married woman who becomes impregnated by a man other than her husband. This passage says that if a man suspects his wife to be pregnant by someone else, he can take her to the priest who will prescribe the "bitter water" (the known abortifacient produced by combining pennyroyal with black cohosh) to terminate the unwanted pregnancy

Yet Christians have chosen to disregard these Biblical passages and see the “Thou shalt not kill’ Commandment as covering abortion, or the ‘murder’ of the unborn child. This interpretation upon interpretation has led to the current moral and political stance.

Both Protestants and Catholics have come to the same interpretive conclusions about the death penalty.  The Biblical injunction against killing, they say, does not apply to the execution of criminals; nor does it apply to just wars.  In both cases there is more than enough room for interpretation.  Religions do not have to be consistent in their beliefs to hold them deeply.

The point is, for those with a deep religious commitment there is very little if any room for compromise.  The fact that interpretation has always been a part of their faith and should, in principle allow for some flexibility or at least tolerance for others who do not see things in the same way, it does not.

In past elections the Religious Right has been an outspoken and unremittingly staunch supporter of Republicans because they, as a party, have stood strongly against abortion and other social issues such as gay marriage; and for traditional social values which they say have strong Christian precedents.  In this election more than ever the Catholic Church has been loud and muscular in its opposition to abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, and has joined forces with Protestants in a conservative coalition to defeat Obama.

Things have not turned out they way religious conservatives had hoped.  The Republican nominee was roundly defeated, same-sex marriages were approved in four states and the legalization of marijuana in three more.  The more liberal social agenda prevailed.  This is not to say that the fundamentalist vote was any less committed to the Republican cause – it wasn’t – just that white fundamentalists are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the US electorate; and they face continuing defeat at the polls.

Jonathan Merritt has written about the decline of evangelical political support in the Atlantic (11.14.12) and begins with the facts:

Seventy-nine percent of white evangelicals voted for Romney on Tuesday. That's the same percentage that Bush received in 2004, and more than Senator John McCain received in 2008. The evangelical vote was 27 percent of the overall electorate -- the highest it's ever been for an election.

Their support wasn't enough. Not only did Obama win soundly, but four states voted to allow same-sex marriage.

Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said that the country was undergoing a "seismic moral shift in culture".  While this is true, the loss of political clout, says the author of the Atlantic piece, has many more understandable and practical reasons. 

First, while white evangelicals comprised a quarter of the electorate, other religious groups that lean Democratic have grown substantially. Hispanic-American Catholics, African-American Protestants, and Jewish-Americans voted Democratic in overwhelming numbers.

Second, evangelicals' influence is waning. Conservative Christian ideas are failing to shape the broader culture. More than 3,500 churches close their doors every year, and while Americans are still overwhelmingly spiritual, the institutional church no longer holds the sway over their lives it once did. The sweeping impact of globalization and the digital age has marginalized the church and its leaders.

Third, evangelical leadership is wanting. A quarter-century ago, Christian mobilization efforts were rising, Christian advocacy groups were sprouting, and charismatic Christian leaders were popping up in every corner of the country. This is no longer the case.

Merritt, however, does not ask the more important question: “What are evangelicals going to do about this?”.  Looking only at the phenomenon of the decline of fundamentalist faith in terms of numbers and cultural shifts is not enough.  Religious fundamentalists have not changed their beliefs; and in their eyes those who voted for Obama and for social liberalism are still just as wrong as they were before the election. In other words, the country is still divided, just that the numbers favor liberals and Nones.

One would hope that fundamentalists would look around them, see the remarkable shifts in religious and moral beliefs around them, and wonder if they – the fundamentalists – might have missed something.  Just a flip through history would quickly show that this transformation is nothing new.  Religious empires come and go, expand and contract, and religious beliefs – far from set in stone as we are led to believe – change with the times.  One would hope that they might now reflect on the nature of morality and concede that even those with little or no faith can act rightly and with principle.

Survival instincts are alive in well in both the fundamentalist community and in the Republican party.  Just as the GOP will quickly shift to a more moderate center and accept the fact that the party will become extinct if it doesn’t adapt to the times, so will fundamentalists.  Their party has already abandoned them as it looks forward to 2016, and they must deal more than ever with the changing world around them.  At first, they are likely to stop flexing their increasingly weak political muscles, turn their attention to their first and most important calling – ministering to their own – and then perhaps take a more tolerant view of other less fundamentally devout neighbors.

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