Let us posit a hypothetical: that I am trying to run a race for public office (I wouldn't, because I'd lose a one-man race for dogcatcher. Trust me on this.). But I'm running, and the subject of my religious beliefs comes up. Let's say my blog posts become campaign fodder for my opponent. I'd lose. Not because I'm an atheist, but because I might as well be, in the eyes of some.
Now, has it always been this way and only now it is changing? Hardly.
Jefferson was slammed in his campaign for the Presidency with the allegation he would destroy Bibles and close churches (or something on those lines; I'm too lazy to search even my own archives, though I know I've mentioned this before). He was what, our third President? Washington wasn't much more religious than Jefferson or Franklin, yet those two are revered figures whose religious beliefs really don't count for much, even today. Jack Kennedy was only nominally a Catholic, and it was a problem for him only because of the anti-Papist sentiment that still runs through American culture (a gift from the Puritans, who really can't be blamed directly for that much, but can for this). Did LBJ even go to church while he was in office? Nixon claimed to be a Quaker, but no one really believed him. Jimmy Carter was very publicly a Southern Baptist (almost refreshing after Nixon), but I think it was Reagan who taught us all politicians must wear flag lapel pins and say "May God Bless America" at the end of every speech. I think Trump has ended both those conventions, which may be the only contribution to American life he makes (everything else he does is a subtraction from American life).
So when atheists complain that they can't be elected in America, they are imagining the America of Paige Patterson, which started in the '70's and put Reagan in office in the '80's, is still a thing. But if it was, Paige Patterson would still have his position and his income and the respect of the Southern Baptist Convention. Instead, he's the Southern Baptist Harvey Weinstein.
Patterson's rise to power, and the rise of "conservative" (read: ultra-montane) Protestant Christianity began in the '70's, and now it is declining in power and influence rapidly. Trump's kowtowing to them is the blush on the cheek of a dying age. And good riddance to it. In the '50's everyone went to church and the differences between them were only in how enthusiastic you were in worship (from Frozen Chosen to Holy Rollers, or bells 'n' smells for Catholics and Episcopalians). Religion was a matter of anti-communism more than anything, because all Commies were Godless. That's why we put "One nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 (Lincoln coined it in his Gettysburg Address) and "In God We Trust" on the money in 1956. In the '60's, I daresay religion affiliation didn't matter all that much (I don't know what denomination LBJ claimed membership in). Reagan made it seem important in the '80's, although he didn't claim a church membership either, that I remember. It was always more a cudgel than a statement of sentiments, but even that cudgel is broken now. The "authority" of the ultra-montane Protestants lasted about 50 years, and its time has now ended. Good riddance to it. But to those who grew up in it and rejected it, it still seems like the only game in town.
Understandable; it is our youth and experiences then that set our perspective on the world. I grew up in Baptist East Texas, one of the many "buckles" on the "Bible Belt." I didn't grow up Baptist nor a holy roller nor an uninterested party. I was reading Kierkegaard in high school, which drew me back from an imagined dalliance with Hinduism (because it didn't have a culture of evangelizing) and just giving up on Christianity altogether (which I was never quite able to do). I read, and I questioned. I discarded hell as a concept by my junior year in high school, never really thought only Christianity was the "true" religion, and generally put a capstone on my efforts by attending a "liberal" seminary where my New Testament professor was a member of the then infamous Jesus Seminar. I have no doubt even my childhood friends would, upon hearing some of my religious beliefs/convictions, consider me a lost soul (no, no one who comments here; other dear friends who went more conservative as I went more "liberal" in such matters, and probably politics, too).
I have always, in other words, been a religious stranger in a religiously strange land. So what? It's not a mark against me, or society, and I don't expect the world to change to accommodate me. I learned how strange I was in parish ministry, where I failed for reasons of temperament as well as religious conviction (mine are flat weird). Life goes on.
Although for some, it doesn't:
And yet, for a person like me who was somewhat recently born-again into faithlessness, they are a stark reminder that I’m now part of a minority demographic in the United States.Jefferson had the same problem as Gayle Jordan; and Abraham Lincoln was "religious" in a very vague, 19th century sense; more akin to Whitman's "religion" than Christian abolitionists. Yeah, Gingrich denounces atheists; again, he'd probably denounce me as an atheist. Deal with it.
America is a country where Senators, Representatives, and even the U.S. Navy, repeatedly, actively, and formally discriminate by rejecting the chaplaincy applications of secular humanists who want to serve our non-believing military.
America is a country where few open atheists can successfully run for office. And when they do, they are labeled “dangerous” and anti-faith, as was the case in Tennessee, when Lt. Governor Randy McNally opposed Democrat and atheist, Gayle Jordan’s run for state senate. America is a country where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich can score points by demonizing atheists as “an equally or even more dangerous threat” than Muslim terrorists.
America is a country where the theology of our president’s evangelical influencers manifests itself in his policies on Muslim immigrants, women’s healthcare, or the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans. Even the EPA’s Baptist head, Scott Pruitt, dangerously rejects the consensus on anthropogenic climate change, making policy based on theological positions rather than sound scientific facts.
“The biblical world view with respect to these issues,” Pruitt once told The Christian Broadcasting Network, “is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind.”
And America is where school shootings are first followed up with “thoughts and prayers” and putting “In God We Trust” in schools, rather than in crafting serious and nationally comprehensive reform. (By the way, non-believers view “thoughts and prayers” the way the NRA sees “Gun-Free Zone” signs.)
As for the evangelical influence, that's all about power, not religion. Pruitt doesn't feel called by God to protect the coal industry or exploit natural resources; he attaches God as an easy way to shill the rubes. It's the same device for the Salem witch trials, or the Red Scare, or the Japanese internments: find an excuse the rubes will support. And yeah, "thoughts and prayers" is offensive, even to believers. Surprise! We don't all think like the evangelicals you ran away from.
Withrow went on a road trip where he saw things like this:
On this trip, for example, sex-shaming messages along the South, warning that “fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of God,” reminded me of a conservative sex-education partially delivered to me by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.
Yeah, I grew up with that before James Dobson was a dot on the horizon of the public consciousness. He learned it from the people who taught it to me. Old news, and you learn to ignore it the way I learned to ignore all the earnest students I knew who, in high school suddenly learned their salvation depended on their evangelization, and set to asking me "Are you saved?" Which meant did I believe in their theology (although they'd insist they had no theology, only the "truth of God." The word "hermeneutic" would have bewildered them. Today critics dismiss hermeneutic as "post-modernism," yet Christianity has known about it for millennia. So it goes.). The world doesn't exist to make you comfortable. I find it offensive, too; but I also find it ridiculous. Deal with it. But this gets back to the point of the history lesson:
When I was younger, I was a soldier in the still ongoing evangelical culture wars. Today, however, I see that conservative Christian enthusiasm in the United States as showing some signs of weakness. As it did once with me, I believe it too will one day lose its grip on the American psyche.
As I say, that "grip" is maybe 50 years old, and it was only as strong as W. let it be (he toyed with evangelicals, he didn't really employ them). Pruitt is really no more nonsensical than James Watt, Reagan's Interior Secretary (who wondered by we were preserving the national parks since Jesus was coming soon. Not soon enough, apparently). I think Pruitt and Watt are idiots, but I don't think they're a sign of anything except bad Presidents. Trump, remember, speaks of "2 Corinthians," but he serves the power desires of evangelical leaders, so they forgive him all his sins. Those "signs of weakness" were always there. Being a soldier in the "evangelical culture wars" can convince you they were earnestly fought on many fronts: but they weren't. And they are being exposed as sexist and racist and xenophobic, not just as matters of God's law. That was never about religion anyway: it was about power.
The abolitionist movement was, in large part, Christian. Dr. King's civil rights effort was Christian (Malcolm X led one, too; his was not Christian. I make the point just to distinguish, not to denigrate.). The effort to free the slaves captured on the Amistad, led by John Quincy Adams, was on the grounds of Christianity (not the legal argument, but Adams' involvement). It was about power only tangentially. Conservative Christian enthusiasm, which in the public (i.e., governmental sphere) is all about power, will lose its grip on the American psyche. Actually, it pretty much already has (see below).
There is, of course, the obligatory nod to statistics here:
Regardless of the America I experienced on the road, there are signs for a different kind of religious American landscape on the horizon. Because—also in America—“the Nones,” those who are spiritual (but not religious), atheist, or agnostic, are now roughly 24% of the U.S. population, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. America has never been as religiously diverse as it is now. Recent numbers from an ABC News/Washington Post poll even show that “Evangelical white Protestants’ share of the total adult population has gone from 21 percent in 2003 to 13 percent last year. Non-evangelical white Protestants have gone from 17 to 11 percent.”
Additionally, a new report in January from Barna Group shows that being an atheist for Generation Z is “no longer a dirty word.” In fact, “the percentage of teens who identify as such is double that of the general population (13% vs. 6% of all adults).” Similarly, according to a new study from Pew Religion, while nine in 10 Americans “believe in a higher power,” only a “slim majority” (56 percent) say they “believe in God as described in the Bible.” Young adults—those under the age of 30 (43 percent)—are less likely to believe in a biblical God.
Meh. Lies, damned lies, and statistics. As recently as 2014:
Around 95 percent of Americans say that they believe in God, 90 percent pray, 82 percent believe that God can perform miracles, and over 70 percent believe in life after death. It’s striking that only 50 percent believe in hell, which shows a certain lack of consistency.I quoted that from an article on a website; it must be true! But there is history here, too:
As recently as the 1920s, church membership was routinely inherited and implied obedience to a set of behavioral rules. Over the years, church membership became elective and behav ioral rules lost their importance.That would be the end of the last century. Sure, there are still billboards in the South about "fornication." But the power of those sentiments is fading fast. And my favorite statistic of all, via the U.S. Census Bureau, is that 41% of the population considered themselves a member of a religious organization, in 1906. That number rose to 70% at the end of the century (1998). I don't know how many of those in the 59% group didn't "believe in a biblical God," but I'm guessing it was more than 30% of those then under 30 (i.e., a larger percentage of the population as a whole). As I often say: when we get back to 1906, wake me up.
American religion lost much of its authoritative character. The mainline Protestant churches no longer applied their traditional sanctions against fornication, illegitimacy, divorce, homosexuality, suicide, and blasphemy. The majority of Catholics favored and practiced birth control, contrary to church doctrine.
The growth of evangelical denominations committed to biblical literalism can be interpreted as a reaction against this general trend, as the 1999 figures in the two charts suggest (see page 108). But even in that conservative sector of the religious spectrum, some old prohibitions—including those against fornication, illegitimacy, drinking, dancing, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, and illegal drug use—often appeared less enforceable by the end of the century.
As for offensive signs in the South, frankly I'm more bothered by statutes honoring the Confederacy, most of which were put up in the 1920's and 1950's, in response to civil rights movements. Those billboards will eventually be replaced. Removing those statutes will take governmental action; and they are far more offensive symbols, even to me, a white Christian aging male, than signs about "fornicators." Those I can get over; government sanctioned memorials to an effort to protect "the peculiar institution" are far more troubling; or at least they should be.