In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a group of prominent atheist scholars dubbed “The New Atheists” set about demonizing religion, and Christianity in particular. Books like The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and God Is Not Great argued that “religion poisons everything,” inspiring hatred, intolerance, war, you name it. Yet as America has become more secular in the last two decades, partisan rancor has increased, not decreased.
U.S. church membership held roughly steady at 70 percent or higher from 1937 through 1976, according to Gallup. The average dropped slightly — to 68 percent — from the 1970s through the 1990s. Yet in the past 20 years, church membership has dropped precipitously. While 77 percent of Americans identify themselves with an organized religion, only 50 percent say they are a member of a church or synagogue.
Fewer Americans identify as Protestant (43 percent) or Catholic (20 percent) than in previous decades. Meanwhile, the “nones” — atheists, agnostics, and those claiming no religious affiliation — have grown rapidly, hitting 22 percent.
The New Atheists may have partly achieved their goal, but declining church attendance and religious affiliation haven’t exactly translated into more peace and rational discourse. A rising “woke” orthodoxy among secularists has even targeted “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins himself for excommunication — over one tweet.
In the past few decades, America has gotten more polarized, as conservatives and liberals increasingly talk past one another. It seems as if we inhabit two different worlds, believing in worldviews at loggerheads with one another.
As Shadi Hamid recently noted in The Atlantic, “American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.”
Both conservatives and liberals claim the American label, and accuse the other side of being “un-American,” heretics to the American ideal. The problem isn’t just that the other side is wrong, it’s that it appropriates the language of America’s lofty ideals while twisting them out of recognition.
We conservatives — rightly, in my humble opinion — see the Left as hostile to America’s very foundations. Leftists claim that modern American society is “institutionally racist,” sexist, homophobic, transphobic, you name it. They want to remake the Constitution in their image in order to achieve their supposedly righteous agenda.
Meanwhile, leftists see conservatives as the American heretics. If Republicans don’t want to add new states, add seats to the Supreme Court, abolish the Senate or its rules, or reject the Electoral College, it’s because they oppose the Will of the People. Even Republican demands for basic election integrity measures like voter ID are considered “voter suppression” or “Jim Crow on steroids.”
The Left and the Right both view America as a noble ideal that their ideological opponents have betrayed. Sadly, we increasingly can no longer agree on the basic terms of debate. I would argue that the best science contradicts climate alarmism, transgender identity, and the idea that abortion does not involve the killing of a human individual. I’d also claim that some medical concerns arguably weigh against extreme precautions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Yet Democrats see all these claims as not just a disagreement on matters of policy but an opposition to science and life. Leftists claim that if you disagree with transgender identity, you are responsible for contributing to the suicide of people who suffer from gender dysphoria. Leftists claim that abortion is empowering, even life-saving. Leftists also claim that — despite the repeated decades of climate predictions failing — the upcoming fallout of the “climate crisis” is as certain as the sun rising in the East.
Meanwhile, conservatives like me want to defend the innocent lives of the unborn. We warn that kowtowing to transgender identity will open the floodgates of social dysfunction: from biological males in women’s restrooms and in women’s sports leagues to children and adolescents mutilating their own bodies in pursuit of a gender identity that will always conflict with their biological sex. We warn that climate regulations will hurt the economy and damage the prospects of the less fortunate — those who most need cheap energy to survive and find a leg up in the job market.
These aren’t just policy disagreements — they’re worldview divides that concern practical decisions in the here and now. Because these beliefs often go to a person’s very understanding of identity, his desire to protect the vulnerable, and his concern for justice, they take on a religious significance and lead to social cliques — a new tribalism.
Religion has similar social and cultural effects, but it also carries the potential to defuse concrete tensions in the here and now. As a Christian, I place my ultimate hope in the Resurrection from the dead, not in the present world. No matter how good or bad things get here in America, this country is not my home and my ultimate allegiance is to God, not politics.
Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths encourage a similar otherworldly holiness, to one degree or another. While bad actors have used each of these faiths as a pretext for war or political oppression — yes, even Buddhism — these religions also have the potential to deescalate political concerns in the here and now.
However, the more secular Americans become, the more we tend to immanentize the eschaton. Materialism and consumerism naturally lead us to see the world in terms of progress — we enjoy more comforts and prosperity than our ancestors did, and we want the world to keep getting better for our own children. But we see our political opponents as the enemies of progress, so we must defeat them in order to secure the forward trajectory.
If we become so focused on the pleasures of this world that we abandon the pursuit of otherworldly holiness, that gives an increased weight to every political decision. Policies are not just a matter of wealth or poverty or even life and death — they become cosmic forces of good and evil.
Thus, when President Donald Trump reversed the Obama rule that gender dysphoric people could serve in the military according to their transgender identities, leftists cried that Trump was “erasing” people, as if he had committed an act of ethnic cleansing. Democrats on the 2020 presidential circuit broke out their “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Climate God” sermons, predicting the apocalypse in a matter of years. Joe Biden promised fewer fires, floods, and hurricanes if he prevailed — as though he were a Mesopotamian king whose gifts to the gods could fend off disaster.
After the death of George Floyd, protesters took to the streets, and many engaged in violent rioting, looting, and arson. Some were merely agitated after months in lockdown, and some had merely taken advantage of the situation, but others seemed to view the moment as a kind of spiritual reckoning — an opportunity to throw out America’s supposedly racist heritage and build a new foundation.
I must confess that we on the Right had our own excesses as well. Donald Trump pledged to “Make America Great Again,” a vague promise to restore the country’s inherent greatness. Trump, ever the man of hyperbole, painted a heroic picture of himself slaying the Deep State and rescuing Americans from China. I support his policies and agree with much of the rhetoric, but I have to admit that his self-declared grandiosity also made him something of a religious leader.
When it became clear that Trump’s challenges to the 2020 election would not prevail, a portion of the crowd that protested the Electoral College certification on January 6 violently broke through the Capitol Police lines and stormed the U.S. Capitol. These riotous lawbreakers were partly comical — a man wearing a horned hat carried an American flag like a spear and howled inside the Capitol.
Yet these rioters represented a movement of existential hopelessness in the face of electoral defeat, a movement not entirely dissimilar from the Black Lives Matter and antifa agitators who engaged in violent rioting after the death of George Floyd. To the Capitol rioters, Trump could not have lost, because that meant the end — a kind of Ragnarok. The loss wasn’t just political, it was existential. The forces of evil had prevailed, and a new dark age would descend upon America.
To the other side, the rioters represented another kind of Ragnarok — the end of democracy. Americans could no longer accept the results of an election in which their side lost. Democrats have attempted to use the specter of right-wing terrorism to destroy the Republican Party. Thankfully, GOP leaders rightly condemned the Capitol riot and nipped this Ragnarok spirit in the bud. Trump rightly conceded the election, ending any potential threat.
As Hamid put it, Christianity has always been “intertwined with America’s self-definition.” It was part of the common heritage of our culture, even though non-Christians have strongly influenced America from the beginning. As the influence of a “mere” Christianity wanes, politics becomes more nasty and divisive.
Christians can put temporary political losses in perspective. After all, the Jews lost their freedom time and time again, and Christianity first grew amid Roman persecution. This world is not our ultimate home, and our human efforts cannot bring about heaven on earth.
Of course, Christians can be part of the problem, as well. The LGBT movement is constantly targeting religious freedom, and Christians are right to fight back, so long as we can do so without compromising the hope and joy of the Christian gospel.
While Biden promised a kind of bipartisan “unity,” his presidency has only stoked the fires of division. The partisan rancor is only likely to get worse, but Christians can and should keep things in perspective.
Christianity can be a powerful calming agent in these turbulent times, enabling us to love our enemies, strive for peace with our neighbors, and ease our angst by looking to God for our ultimate satisfaction. Increasing secularism is not helping Americans come together, but a revival might set us straight.