A Little Bit of Heaven

Back in graduate school at Duke, long ago, it was always a treat to head on down the road Saturday afternoon to spend some time in Chapel Hill. Durham is kind of scruffy and Chapel Hill calls itself a Little Bit of Heaven in the South. And it is, with the shady streets lined with magnolia and whatnot, and the big white houses with the neo-classic columns and all, and a central village with quiet shops and galleries full of lots of neat stuff.

But it’s a secular heaven – the word is used as a metaphor. There’s no Pearly Gate with Saint Peter or twee winged angels flitting about. And like Durham, Chapel Hill is a university town – the prestigious University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is there. And you know what Rick Santorum said about such places – they’re full of “liberal college professors” trying to “indoctrinate” students. And he later told Glenn Beck that “sixty-two percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it.”

No one knows where he got that figure. He just asserted it. No one had yet found any study that shows any such thing. There’s no research. But it sounded right to Glenn Beck, and the media let it pass. No one really checks those sorts of things these days. Twenty-three percent of retired English teachers living in Hollywood smoke a pipe. That sounds about right too. It’s not scientific, but it sounds right.

But it is a problem, really, and US News and World Report explains the new research on such things:

It’s not just the vitriol surrounding this year’s upcoming election: More conservatives than ever distrust science, according to a report released Thursday.

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010, a 28 percent decline since 1974, when 48 percent of conservatives – about the same percentage as liberals – trusted science. Liberal and moderate support for science has remained essentially flat since 1974, according to Gordon Gauchat, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He published his findings in the journal American Sociological Review.

About 41 percent of Americans identify as “conservative,” according to an August poll by Gallup, up from 37 percent in 2008.

And that growing group of people just doesn’t like studies of this and that. Gauchat says this seems to be part of a larger conservative rebellion against the “elite” – sure, the role of science in society has shifted a bit, but he suspects that the intensely conservative minority (for now) has rebelled against science in the same way it has decided it is fed up with the media and higher education itself:

“It kind of began with the loss of Barry Goldwater and the construction of Fox News and all these [conservative] think tanks. The perception among conservatives is that they’re at a disadvantage, a minority,” he says. “It’s not surprising that the conservative subculture would challenge what’s viewed as the dominant knowledge production groups in society – science and the media.”

In short, if the majority is for it, they’re against it. And he also argues that science itself has changed – in the middle of the twentieth century, when we were all watching Ozzie and Harriet and Mister Wizard, science was all about with creating things for the Department of Defense and for NASA – amazing hydrogen bombs to rid the world of communists and rockets to the moon – things Gauchat says “easily built a consensus.”

But no more:

“Since then, science has become autonomous from the government – it develops knowledge that helps regulate policy, and in the case of the EPA, it develops policy,” he says. “Science is charged with what religion used to be charged with – answering questions about who we are and what we came from, what the world is about. We’re using it in American society to weigh in on political debates, and people are coming down on a specific side.”

It’s not about neat gizmos anymore – it got more serious. But there is dissent:

Jeremy Mayer, a professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, disagrees with that notion. He says science was used in politics long before global warming was an issue, and that Gauchat’s assessment “ignores the role that science played in supporting political views throughout American history. Segregationists relied on science for years to support their views that whites were superior. The fact that it was pseudo-science is obvious to us today. It was not so obvious then. Evolution was a political issue long before the space race, and so on.”

Mayer co-authored Closed Minds: Politics and Ideology in American Universities – and says the “anti-intellectual” populist vote used to be the southern Democrats and is now a Republican thing – “Ever since the George Wallace types joined the Republicans, they have gradually moved against science in increasingly open ways.” These things are always with us.

So now we have Obama telling the National Science Foundation that “the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation and our values as a nation are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.” And Santorum has called climate change a “hoax,” and “patently absurd” – and of course has said that teaching evolution “promotes atheism.” That’s quite a contrast. And thus Chapel Hill really isn’t a little bit of heaven in the South. One of their professors is looking into this.

But there’s an odd detail in the report:

Conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time… In addition… conservatives with college degrees decline more quickly than those with only a high school degree. These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.

And Kevin Drum comments:

In other words, this decline in trust in science has been led by the most educated, most engaged segment of conservatism. Conservative elites have led the anti-science charge and the rank-and-file has followed.

This is presumably part of the wider conservative turn against knowledge-disseminating institutions whose output is perceived as too liberal (academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood) in favor of institutions that produce more reliably conservative narratives (churches, business-oriented think tanks, Fox News). More and more, liberals and conservatives are almost literally living in different worlds with different versions of consensus reality.

And there’s Chris Mooney, whose new book is The Republican Brain – a follow-up to his bestseller, The Republican War on Science – with this comment:

Graduate degrees are now much more numerous among liberals and the graduate education gap between left and right is widening. This factor – reflecting liberals’ greater openness to scientific information and new ideas, as well as unending conservative attacks on academia (and recourse to ideological think tanks to take its place) – is a key structural force involved in driving conservatives away from science.

Mooney has also written about the “smart idiot” effect – which is “conservatives becoming more factually wrong – or, in this case, more distrusting of science, which to me is basically the same thing – as their level of education advances.”

This is very odd, and David Atkins sums things up this way:

The modern world does not lend itself to the conservative ethic. If conservative ideas ever were decent solutions to major problems in the past (and that’s being very generous), they’ve become increasingly anachronistic.

Conservatives understand this. If climate change is real and caused by humans, it means that something is deeply flawed within conservatism itself. There is no “free market solution” to a problem like climate change, caused by overconsumption of resources, and with a lag time of disaster that current consumers won’t psychologically understand or address of their own volition. There is no “free market solution” to drug-resistant bacteria in a world where “healthcare consumers” will always demand antibiotics for even minor infections. There is no “military solution” to geopolitical problems in an economically interconnected world armed with nuclear weapons.

Faced with a world in which his values and beliefs have become irrelevant, the conservative’s only answer is to divorce himself from it entirely.

That may be unfair, as they do have their values and beliefs, which they think are relevant – they’re just religious beliefs. And Tim Noah has an interesting take on that – as he found himself listing to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and a discussion of that new movie October Baby – a young woman finds that she was adopted after her birth mother underwent a failed abortion, a pro-life Christian movie, with ten percent of the film’s profits donated to an anti-abortion charity. And the NPR item was all about what might be a new trend out here – Hollywood now doing “Christian” films:

Jon Erwin, who co-directed the film with his brother Andrew, told NPR that he was “raised in the South in a Christian home and family,” and that the values of many contemporary Hollywood films felt alien to him. Quoting The Hollywood Reporter’s Paul Bond, NPR observed that “Hollywood doesn’t like to leave money on the table,” and noted that Fox and Sony have set up subsidiaries to serve the niche “Christian” market.

Well, it’s all about chasing the market, whatever it is. You just need to find a demographic with spare change for movie tickets. But this troubles Noah:

Christian? Christians aren’t some twee boutique demographic. Christians represent the majority. About 78 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. What NPR and Fox and Sony mean when they say “Christian” is “Christian right” or “Christian conservatives,” terms that adherents don’t like because they think they’re pejorative. “Fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are imperfect substitutes because a) the two categories, though they overlap a lot, aren’t precisely the same; and b) some of these folks consider themselves political liberals. (The worldly Cold War liberal Reinhold Niebuhr called himself an evangelical Protestant.)

What conservative Christians really like to be called is “Christians” – hence “Christian rock” and “Christian college” and now “Christian film.” This strikes me as terribly presumptuous. Bruce Springsteen was raised Catholic but he doesn’t perform anything these folks would accept as Christian rock. Wesleyan was founded by Methodists and named after John Wesley but evangelicals would never call it a Christian university. “Christian” has become a euphemism for “acceptable to the type of Christian (in most instances Protestant) who frowns on homosexuality and wishes Saul Alinsky had minded his own business.”

And this is a small demographic:

According to Pew, only about one-third of Christians call themselves “evangelicals.” That’s about 26 percent of all Americans. The other two-thirds self-identify as Catholics (23 percent) and with either mainline (18 percent) or historically black (7 percent) Protestantism. (A smattering of Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and other tiny subgroups make up the remaining 4 percent.) To suggest that conservative Christians are the only Christians is like saying Hasidic Jews are the only Jews. It’s a cartoonish misconception that the Christian right has managed to sell to a largely secular news media that’s too sensitive to accusations of anti-religious bias.

It’s also a considerable disservice to an entirely different strain of Christianity.

And Noah cites the Bill McKibben 2005 essay for Harper’s, The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong:

A rich man came to Jesus one day and asked what he should do to get into heaven. Jesus did not say he should invest, spend, and let the benefits trickle down; he said sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me. Few plainer words have been spoken. And yet, for some reason, the Christian Coalition of America – founded in 1989 in order to “preserve, protect and defend the Judeo-Christian values that made this the greatest country in history” – proclaimed last year that its top legislative priority would be “making permanent President Bush’s 2001 federal tax cuts.”


McKibben is a political liberal, but in times past not even conservatives necessarily thought that Christianity was principally about sexual abstinence, smaller government, and preparing for the End Times. Frank Capra, whose films express Christian themes of solidarity with working people and contempt for the pampered, indifferent rich was a lifelong Republican. …

Plenty of Christian films have been made in the past, but a lot would be unacceptable to today’s “Christian” market. Just about every film that Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese ever directed comes heavily weighted with Christian themes, but these are typically expressed in the context of violence, cruelty, and psychological disorder, and often have scenes featuring nudity, sexual intercourse and/or (especially in Scorsese’s films) foul language. John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is, like the novel, remembered mainly as a rabble-rousing depiction of the hard life of farmers driven off their Oklahoma land to the false Eden of California. I wouldn’t guess that Focus on the Family would approve. But The Grapes of Wrath is steeped in Christian imagery. (One of the characters, for instance, is named “Rose Of Sharon.”)

Noah just wants people to keep their terms straight:

Broadly speaking, of course, nearly all of contemporary western culture is rooted in Christianity and the Bible one way or the other, if you trace it back far enough. So the idea that Hollywood needs to create small subsidiaries to attend to some niche it calls “Christian” seems absurd. What Hollywood is really doing is creating small subsidiaries to attend to Christian conservatives. And why not? Conservatives like movies, too, and maybe some of these will be good. But let’s call them Christian conservative films, because everyone knows that’s what they are. Evangelicals shouldn’t get to claim one of the world’s great religions as their exclusive property.

But they do, and Kevin Drum adds this:

I suspect this is a case where, like it or not, we’ve developed a sort of tacit agreement among all Christian persuasions about this. I think media folks are willing to use “Christian” as a descriptive phrase not just for Christian right films and music and books, but for anything where overt Christianity is a key theme, not merely a subtext and not merely present by allusion. The problem is that the vast bulk of films and music and books that have overt Christianity as a key theme are, in fact, aimed at the Christian right. Mainstream Protestants have pretty much ceded the market.

What’s worse, this actually seems to work for everybody. We all want labels that tell us whether we might be interested in something. Marketers want them and consumers want them. It saves time – so the use of “Christian” as a marketing term for “Christian right” works for marketers because it lets them target an audience. It also works for evangelical consumers, who want to make sure they’re spending their entertainment dollars on the kind of Christianity they like. And in a way, even though there’s a price to be paid for this, I have a feeling it works for mainstream Protestants as well, who’d just as soon be warned off that stuff.

Well, that’s fine for stultifying earnest movies and soft-rock Jesus tunes, as warnings about those are always welcome, but all this talk about how science is crap, and about how everyone is always picking on this group of Christians who claim to be the Real Christians, should come with special warnings. No matter what Rick Santorum says, the cleverly unified forces of all-powerful secularism are not forcing believers out of the public square, as Patrick Caldwell has noted:

When I first read Santorum’s comments though, I was mostly struck by how off base his statement is from the actual reality of our political class. People who lack a specific faith are the ones typically closed out from government service. Out of 538 members of Congress, California Rep. Pete Stark is the only self-avowed atheist. For as much as Republicans opine about the secularist goals of Obama’s presidency, he has stocked his cabinet with Catholics and other gentiles. The highest court of the land has six Catholics and three Jews.

A Gallup poll last December had 15 percent of Americans list their religious preference as none, atheist, or agnostic, though another Gallup poll from earlier in the year found that 7 percent claim to have no belief in God. By either measure, Americans lacking allegiance to an organized religion are vastly underrepresented among public officials.

And that leads Julian Sanchez to write a long piece on Undercover Atheists:

Santorum’s complaint is not so much about religious people being somehow hounded from public office, but about the secularism of mainstream political discourse. Which is just to say that we generally expect political actors in a pluralistic country to offer justifications for their preferred policies that do not hinge on one’s sharing a particular interpretation of a particular sacred text. Santorum thinks it should be perfectly sufficient to say: “It should be illegal because the Bible condemns it,” and he’s irritated that even believers mostly feel obligated to focus on religiously neutral “public reasons” that could be accepted by people who don’t acknowledge the authority of (that reading of) the Christian Bible. He’s not empirically wrong about this (and a good thing!) – he just has a repugnant, medieval vision of how things ought to be.

But Sanchez recognizes the landscape now, and suggests there are a good number of atheists who just won’t come out of the closet:

Previously faith could more or less be taken for granted – maybe the candidate makes a passing reference to the church they regularly attend – and that’s all there is to it, really, because of course everyone’s a believer of one stripe or another. Increasingly, isn’t so – that there are actually quite a lot of unbelievers, many of them effectively operating in stealth mode. This was probably always the case, but outside the academy and a few urban enclaves, nobody was terribly vocal about it – you certainly didn’t have anything like a visible public “movement.” Suddenly, if you’re someone who thinks of faith as a minimal prerequisite for decency, what was previously tacitly understood has to be signaled with extra vigor.

In essence, you talk a good game, and carefully hide what you don’t believe – as you probably don’t really believe that science is crap and a very angry Jesus is coming soon.

But Kevin Drum is on this too, with these points:

Membership in religious organizations had gone steadily up over the past century, from roughly 40% of the population in 1900 to 70% today. Lack of belief was more common and more public in 1900 than it is today, even if it was called “freethinking” or “skepticism” or some related term.

Conservative Protestant denominations have also been growing very steadily over the past century. It wasn’t a sudden boom that burst onto the public scene when Jerry Falwell became famous. The Pentecostal movement started up in 1906 and it’s been growing ever since. Ditto for evangelical sects, which have grown steadily from perhaps a third of all Protestant denominations in 1900 to something like 60% of them today…

If you put these two things together, here’s what pops out: A century ago, something like 10% of the country belonged to a conservative Protestant denomination. That’s grown steadily ever since, and today it’s around 30%. So there’s really no mystery to explain here. Conservative Christians have become more outspoken and more politically powerful simply because they’ve grown more numerous. Sometime in the 70s, their numbers finally passed a threshold where they became a serious voting bloc, and they’ve been growing more powerful every year since then.

And Drum thinks maybe they’re right in feeling threatened:

America really has become more secularized. No, religion isn’t under assault, and a lot of the rhetoric from the Christian right is grotesquely over the top. Still, it’s simply a fact that liberals have engineered a growing separation of church and state over the past few decades. Classroom prayers led by teachers have been outlawed. Your local city hall can’t put up its traditional Nativity scene. Christmas assemblies focus on generic songs without any religious content. Judges can’t festoon their courtrooms with copies of the Ten Commandments. Religious schools are denied federal funding. Etc.

I make no bones about the fact that I think this is all just fine. I prefer a broadly secular America. But I sometimes think that we liberals pretend to a level of mystification about this stuff that’s disingenuous. We’ve been chipping away at traditional religious expression in the public square for decades. At the same time, conservative Christian denominations have grown steadily. Put the two together and you have a substantial segment of the population that feels like it’s under assault. I don’t agree with them, but it’s not really all that hard to figure out why they might feel the way they do.

Maybe that is so, but there is the new data on the growing dismissal of science as anything useful – along with the ongoing dismissal of education and all the rest. That is troubling. But of course that data comes from a godless university. But then that university sits in the middle of a little bit of heaven.

But then there is no heaven. Undercover atheists know that.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to A Little Bit of Heaven

  1. Madman says:

    What Santorum and the so-called “religious right” don’t appear to apprehend is that the two parts of the First Amendment complement each other PERFECTLY. The “disestablishment clause” prohibits ANY “official” religion, keeping ours a Secular state. Such a prohibition is vitally necessary to ensure the Freedom OF Religion — that no sect gains power enough to outlaw nor restrict members of other sects. Why is it so hard to get that a Secular State is what ENSURES Freedom of Religion?

    Santorum is clearly a latter-day Puritan — demanding a free hand for HIS coterie of believers, but eager to condemn and restrict those of less “enlightened” beliefs. To make matters worse, he has pledged allegiance to the Vatican — considering that JFK’s clear separation from Rome makes Rick regurgitate. He appears to be running for American Pope, rather than a secular political office.

    This sheds new light upon Santorum’s statement that if he is not the nominee, there is no point to replacing Obama. From the point-of-view of someone committed to creating an American theocracy, this makes perfect sense. Neither Romney nor Gingrich nor Paul appear to have any interest in moving toward a theocracy — they are far more interested in economic policy. So is Obama — therefore, why bother with anyone else but True-Believing Rick?

    Depending on how many fright-wingers share his long-view yearn for an American theocracy, Santorum MAY have just virtually ensured Obama’s re-election. Right now, only God knows!

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