Prudes and Libertines: Politics, Religion and Polarization

Prudes and Libertines: Politics, Religion and Polarization

Platform address by Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County

April 1, 2012

My title this morning comes from an important, indeed superlative, book, entitled American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. The book, published in 2010 and co-authored by Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, is an exhaustive on-the-ground survey of American religion and its relation to social trends and politics.

A central concern of the authors is trying to explain the degree of religiosity expressed by the American people and how religion is changing. Among the points they document is that since the end of World War II, how religious Americans are has waxed and waned generally and has done so among different sectors of the populations and within different denominations.

The authors assert that over the past 50 years, American religion has undergone a shock and two aftershocks. The Eisenhower years were conservative ones and masses of Americans went to church as a matter of probity. It was what patriotic Americans did, especially in the face of godless communism. Though it is now hard to believe, in those years the majority of Americans in the pews were Democrats and many Republicans were unchurched, a condition that hardly exists today. We’ll get to how religious affiliation, or the lack of it, has become aligned with each of the major political parties later on.  But at this point, it is best for the authors to speak for themselves.  They write:

“Our argument in brief is this: While change and adaptability have long been the hallmark of American religion, over the last half-century the direction and pace of change have shifted and accelerated in three seismic phases. Since the 1950s, one major shock and two major aftershocks have shaken and cleaved the American religious landscape, successively thrusting a large portion of one generation of Americans in a secular direction, then in reaction thrusting a different group of the population in a conservative religious direction, and finally in counter-reaction to that first aftershock, setting yet a another generation of Americans in a more secular direction. Just as an earthquake and its aftershocks can leave a deep fissure in physical terrain, so too this religious quake and its pair of aftershocks have left a deep rift in the political and religious topography of America.”

And after the quiet of the Eisenhower years, what was that initial earthquake that started American religion listing and reeling and quaking? As you might have guessed, it was the 1960s, which culturally extended itself into the early 70s. It was the age of drugs, sex and rock-and-roll. It was also, as you might remember, the era when some religiously radical theologians ushered in the “Death of God” movement, and the query “Is God Dead?” made its stark appearance on the cover of that venerable American icon, Time magazine.

Diminishing religion: The impact of the 1960s on American religion was, indeed, seismic. While in the 1950s, religious seminaries were booming, by 1971, 40 percent of all clergy surveyed said that they were considering changing their profession. Sale of religious books dropped by one-third. Mainline Protestant churches became demoralized. In the Catholic Church, American trends were supplemented by the liberalizing effects of Vatican II. Though the number of Catholics remained constant, the number of people attending Mass dropped off precipitously in the 1960s. 

While church attendance in the ‘60s didn’t change much for people over 50, the drop-off among young adults was very great. Among those 18 to 29, those who went to church weekly was 51 percent in 1957. In December 1971, it was 28 percent. The drop-off figure among black youth (and African-Americans are the most devout ethnic group in America) was even greater than for whites. In 1952, 75 percent of Americans said that religion was “very important” to them personally. By 1978, that figure had fallen to 52 percent.

The crisis in confidence in religion that people experienced in the 1960’s encouraged many people to go it alone. And so we saw a variety of religious experiments from the Age of Aquarius to Jesus freaks, Scientology, Zen, est, Esalen, Transcendental Meditation and the Unification Church. That was the religious shock.

The first aftershock has lasted for more than 40 years and is as close as the current presidential campaign. From the time of the Scopes Trial in the 1920s, the huge evangelical Protestant subculture was for the most part quiescent and apolitical. Whatever political influence existed at the time was carried forward by a few national notables, Billy Graham being the most well-known, but he was the exception. There were sermons given by Jerry Falwell in the early ‘70s commending his flock to stay away from political action on the grounds that the secular world was corrupting and was the realm of the devil. Though it is hard to believe that, even back then, there were evangelical ministers who supported a woman’s right to have an abortion. Most evangelicals were Baptists, and historically Baptists have had a pretty good history of supporting church/state separation, harkening back to Roger Williams of Rhode Island.

Growth of evangelicals: But in the late ‘70s, with the founding of the Moral Majority, evangelicals came out of their apolitical closet, and the American political landscape since then has moved very far to the right—so far to the right that what we previously thought of as the lunatic fringe now occupies the base of the Republican Party. As evangelicals became politicized in the 1970s and flexed their political muscles through the ‘80s, the evangelicals also grew numerically.

This growth was due to demographic factors such as a high birthrate, and by the success evangelicals had with regard to keeping their children in the fold and by winning converts. Growth, then, came to evangelical churches in part because they were shrewd organizers and marketers of their faith. But beyond these factors, evangelicals have long found the general culture to be threatening, especially the culture of the ‘60s. Elements that disquieted them have been the legacy of Great Society liberalism, the Civil Rights Movement, and in particular efforts during the Carter administration to remove government tax exemptions from all-white “academies” and colleges. Some argue that changing gender roles have upset the patriarchy, which is deeply embedded in conservative religious theology, and we need also cite Supreme Court decisions that widened the gap of church/state separation and removed prayer from the public schools. All these trends have no doubt played their part in augmenting and politicizing the evangelical subculture in America.

But the one area of concern that was no doubt most powerful in creating this aftershock was what evangelicals perceived as the moral decadence and sexual permissiveness of mainline society. Abortion, pornography, non-marital sex and homosexuality were all hot-button issues in the 1960s. And as the majority of the society moved in a more liberal direction, conservatives felt more challenged and more threatened, if not besieged. But within the context of sexual issues, Putnam and his co-author, David Campbell, have been able to document that the issue that was most upsetting to evangelicals was not homosexuality, or even extramarital sex. It was the sanctioning of premarital sex, which quickly became almost normative in the culture. As the authors state:

“…the norm regarding premarital sex does encapsulate an astonishingly rapid change in intimate mores, as a well-defined  cohort of young people, four-fifth of whom accepted sex before marriage, charged into a population of their elders, four-fifths of whom rejected that principle – literally a revolution in traditional moral views at a pace certainly unprecedented in American history.”

It was the collision of tectonic plates along the fault line of premarital sex that created the first great aftershock coming in the wake of the 1960s and thereby generated the evangelical backlash with all the reactionary politics it has brought with it.

Religion in politics: If opposition to premarital sex is a main factor in the growth of evangelical Protestantism and its political power in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, it is not the factor that has sustained it. Rather, since the mid-1980s it has been opposition to abortion  and a supreme anxiety over homosexuality as most pointedly expressed politically through opposition to gay marriage. But something else has changed on the religious-political landscape in the past 25 years. And that is that these central political issues have also become the basis of the division of religious identity around our two major political parties. In other words, religion has become partisan.

Throughout American history, Americans divided themselves trenchantly along religious lines. Protestants hated Catholics and feared Catholic power, and Catholics hated Protestants, and both pretty much hated the Jews. Many Americans saw Catholicism as a dark cult in which the pope conspired to dominate American society. As a young boy, I can personally remember when John Kennedy, our first Catholic president, had to bend over backwards, over and over again, to tell the American people that if he were elected president of the United States his highest loyalty would be to the Constitution and not to the pope in Rome. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, before the evangelical Christian Right came to the fore, Democrats opposed abortion in greater numbers than Republicans in that a large number of Democrats were Catholics and the Catholic Church had long been opposed to abortion, whereas evangelicals were Johnny-come-latelies to the issue.

But these antediluvian religious boundaries in American society began to dissolve in the mid-1970s and political loyalties became radically reshuffled. Today, the very religious are part of a coalition that unites conservative Protestants with conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews. On the other side of the divide are mainline religious moderates, liberals, secularists and people professing no religion at all. But as abortion and opposition to gay marriage became pivotal issues the Democratic and Republican parties became identified with one position or the other.  And so, the more deeply religious you are the more you identify with the Republican Party and if you are mildly religious or a secularist, you identify with the Democrats. In other words, religion has become politically partisan with greater polarization than at any time in American history, at least since the Civil War. The only exception to this, and it is a considerable exception, are African-Americans, for which the opposite pertains. By most religious indicators, blacks are the most devout. But they are also the most reliably members of the Democratic Party. However, as it pertains to the white majority, as the polarization has gone on longer and has become more entrenched, on the Republican side it has become more extreme.

Though it hasn’t fully formed yet, what we are starting to see on the right is the resurgence of misogyny. A centerpiece of all conservative religion, whether it be Christian, Jewish or Muslim, is patriarchy, which travels fist in glove with a yen for hierarchy, tradition, order and control. For conservative religionists, control over women, and especially control over women’s sexuality, harkening back to times when women were property, has been a major preoccupation. We see glimmers of it.

Contraception as a cause: The several attacks we have seen on contraception, which had been a closed issue and part of the culture for half a century, were ignited by the Catholic Church and defended in particular by Rick Santorum. It was the Obama administration’s initiative to require religiously affiliated institutions, but not churches, to cover contraception for their employees that opened the door to this retrograde condemnation of birth control. Though 99 percent of all women have used birth control, Santorum’s position is that it is immoral. While he can claim fealty to his church’s position one senses that behind this birth control fracas is, again, a discomfort with women’s sexual freedom. It is women’s sexuality, never men’s, that becomes the focal point of political and social concern. Rush Limbaugh may be a crude and boorish media clown, but he wouldn’t take the liberty of calling a decorous young law student who supports contraception a “whore” and a “slut” unless he felt that there was an audience, perhaps a large one, ready to receive such defamatory drivel.

Behind this assault on women’s sexuality, I again see looming a long-deferred discomfort with the cultural aftershock of the 1960s. It is as if those who felt assaulted by the changes of that period took their discomforts and went underground to have them resurface 45 years later. Indeed, those who constitute the hard core of religiously conservative Republicans are overwhelmingly white and older. As hideous as it is, I don’t believe that this new misogyny will go very far. The horse is long out of the barn, and the status and freedom of women too deeply entrenched in our culture for there to be a reversion to early times and previous norms.  But as Thomas Jefferson so wisely and correctly warned us, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

The unholy alliance of the Republican Party with religion of a very conservative kind has caused the Republican Party to hemorrhage, as I believe it should. I do not think that this crazy marriage of extremist politics and extremist religion will last for much longer. Though the moment looks dark, and indeed menacing, there are reasons to believe that the future will be brighter because it will be more moderate. Beneath the din and the racket we hear coming from religion and politics, undercurrents are aborning that don’t make the news but that, I believe, will soon emerge to transform the landscape in a more benign direction.

This brings me to the second great aftershock. If the first aftershock was the emergence of the Christian right in reaction to the earthquake of the 1960s, then the second aftershock is the reaction of the younger generation, the so-called millennials, to the fusion of religion and politics that lie at the heart of the Republican Party, as we have been discussing. It is this reaction and other dynamics on the religious landscape that I now want to look at.

In the 1950s, when surveyed, 95 to 97 percent of Americans stated that they belonged to a specific religious denomination or tradition. Inversely, in the ‘60s, only 5 to 7 percent said they had “no religion,” and this number remained static until the early 1990s. Then something began to happen. The number of people claiming to have no religious affiliation began to rise meteorically, so that today, more than 16 percent of the American population claims to have no religious affiliation. The number of so-called “nones” is larger than the African-American population, or larger than the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist populations put together.

Non-religious sector growing: The major explanation for this explosion of people declaring “no religion” is generational. For those young people coming of age in 1990s and 2000s, the numbers are staggering, now hovering around 25 to 30 percent of this cohort. What is also interesting is that as they age, they seem not to become more religious, using affiliation with a denomination as the benchmark of religiosity. This means that as the population ages, those older people, only 5 percent of whom say they have no religion, are being replaced by a cohort of which more than 25 percent say they have no religion, thus massively driving the entire American population in the direction of no religion.

At the same time, evangelicals, who increased their ranks in the 1970s and ‘80s, began to slow down to the point where evangelical Christianity has stopped growing. In the mid-1980s evangelical 20-somethings outnumbered people of the same age group by a ratio of 2 to 1. Today, those figures have almost been reversed, so that today’s “nones” in their twenties outnumber evangelical youth by a ratio of 1.5 to 1.

Politically speaking, the new “nones” are drawn from the center and the left of the political spectrum, and their growth corresponds to the strength of the Religious Right when it reached its high-water mark, indicating that the rise of disaffection from organized religion is a backlash against the Religious Right. Indeed, when asked, such millennials state that they are turned off to religion because of its identity with right-wing politics and its issues, finding religious people judgmental, hypocritical and insincere. In other words, they conclude that “if this is what religion means, then I don’t want any part of it.”

Comfortable with homesexuality: Once we look at issues, we find, perhaps surprisingly, that the new “nones” are somewhat more conservative than the Baby Boomer generation on the issue of abortion. They have not backtracked on premarital sex. But the issue in which there is a real shift, in fact an issue that almost defines this generation is their comfort with homosexuality and their support for gay-marriage. This may not only be backlash against the homophobia of the Christian Right, but may reflect that this younger cohort came of age when gays have been depicted positively in the media through much of the popular culture.

One can never predict the future, but we may provisionally conclude that as this younger generation ages, they will mitigate the political power of religion, especially the Christian Right, and integrate greater tolerance and less extremism into our political life. This demographic shift, as implied, is a source of hope.

As a footnote, I need mention that those declaring “no religious affiliation” does not mean that this growing cohort of the population is comprised of atheists or agnostics, who remain no more than perhaps 4 percent of the population. Indeed most “nones” still retain religious feelings, may see themselves as “spiritual” and may occasionally even go to church. But by definition, they do not identify with organized religion. But the payoff, again, is their relationship to politics and not the texture of their belief or none-belief.

Other dynamics that loom on the horizon can inspire us with hope about a more benign future. Though they get drowned out in the cacophony of religious polemics, some quiet changes on the religious landscape are very worthy of our consideration.

The prevailing reality is that American society is fluid and America is becoming more pluralistic. Here is what I mean: Traditionally, religious identity was a matter of inheritance. Your religion was the religion passed down to you by your parents. This age-old reality has radically changed in our lifetime. Increasingly, inheritance has become a matter of choice. Surveys have found that today at least one-third of all Americans–and that number is rising–identify with a religion other than that they were born into. In other words, they have switched. This means several things. As religion increasingly is based not on the authority of tradition, but on personal autonomy, religious affiliation and identity have become more unstable, and the religious marketplace has become more fickle and more volatile. Rather than doing one’s duty to God, the causes of religious affiliation are more grounded in personal needs and wants. Hence, on the supply side, churches and their clergy have to become more entrepreneurial in order to attract and retain members. Perhaps they must be as much producers and entertainers as purveyors of the word.

Religious tolerance: This may make religion a more superficial affair, but my point is that the great increase in religious switching has also made people more tolerant of religious difference, and more tolerant of people who hold to a different religion. In short, religious boundaries are not as important as they used to be. This tolerance is reflected in religious attitudes. When asked, 89 percent of Catholics, 82 percent of mainline Protestants, and 100 percent of Mormons say that non-Christians can find salvation and go to heaven. Perhaps closer to our theological interests, 87 percent of Americans agree that people without a religious faith can be good Americans. This is despite the marginalization of atheists. And in a finding that takes 2,000 years of ingrained hatred and stands it on its head, when Americans are asked which is their favorite religious group, the response is “Jews.”

But perhaps even more consequential than religious mixing is the contemporary reality of inter-marriage in American society. Studies show that roughly half of all married Americans are married to someone who came from a different religious tradition. What this means is that extended families have become increasingly religiously pluralistic. Two out of three American families have at least one extended family member who is of another religion. Adding to the diversity of religious acquaintanceship, the average American reports that he or she has at least two close friends with a religious affiliation different from theirs. The result is that Americans increasingly have gotten to know people who are religiously different from themselves, have been able to develop warm feelings about them, and have been able to accept them into the tapestry of our national community.

The payoff of all this religious pluralism should be clear. It is much harder to be a bigot toward people who are not of your religious persuasion if your best friend is one, or your favorite cousin is such, or if you are married to one, and your child carries with her, at least in part, your spouse’s religious heritage. The result of all this inter-religious mingling, marrying and friendships is a more tolerant society and a less hostile one.

I will close my address by citing the words with which the authors I have relied on end their magisterial study. Putnam and Campbell write:

“How has America solved the puzzle of religious pluralism–the coexistence of religious diversity and devotion? And how has it done so in the wake of growing religious polarization? By creating a web of interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths.

This is America’s grace.”

And may I add, may it be our future.

Dr. Joseph Chuman, April 1, 2012



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