Robert Burns is really irritating. At midnight each New Year’s Eve everyone sings his Auld Lang Syne – and no one knows what the hell the words mean. Well, a Scotsman would know, but there’s his cute little poem about that intense little critter – To a Mouse – with a line that was easier for the rest of us to figure out. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” That passed into general usage as a useful cliché – the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Clever plans never seem to work out. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is about how the best-laid plans of free-market capitalism didn’t work out for two particular guys, and by extension didn’t work out for America. It was 1937 – the Great Depression was the issue. Steinbeck found Robert Burns useful, but anything that has lasted long enough to become a cliché has lasted that long precisely because it is useful. You have a foolproof plan? Bully for you! We’ll see how that works out.
The Republicans have a foolproof plan to retake the White House. Forget Obamacare. That’s in place and working well enough, and ending it would leave about seventeen million people, who just got health insurance for the first time in their lives, once again without health insurance. Not only would that seem catastrophically cruel, those people vote, as do others who find gratuitous meanness appalling. And forget Benghazi. All the questions have been asked and answered, and Hillary Clinton is still standing. She did the best she could in a chaotic situation. Policies and procedures have been changed. Everyone else has moved on. More and more Republican strategists seem to know that, and opposing all immigration reform is dangerous. Minorities are still allowed to vote in America, for now, and the business community, which funds the Republican Party, wants extensive immigration reform – cheap labor that’s actually legal means far higher profit margins for them. And forget Israel. Obama may have his problems with Benjamin Netanyahu but Hillary gets along with Bibi just fine – and now most Americans think Netanyahu is a total jerk, and a dangerous one at that. Israel is out. None of this can be part of the foolproof plan to retake the White House.
The foolproof plan to retake the White House has to be based on something less ambiguous, and since America is a Christian nation, or at least a nation of Christians, mainly, or nominally, the foolproof plan to retake the White House seems to be to show that they are the party that will defend Christianity, which is under attack, everywhere. Religious freedom is under attack everywhere. Republicans will allow Christians to be Christians once again.
That plan got underway this year. Indiana and Arkansas passed bills that are nothing like the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act or like the subsequent religious freedom restoration acts in many other states – which exist to keep the government from unduly burdening the harmless eccentricities of this religion or that. Indiana and Arkansas decided their versions should set up protections for any party, not just religious organizations and certain corporations, to claim they don’t have to follow any law that makes that party uneasy. Anyone could claim the right to not provide goods and services to gays, or maybe black folks, or maybe Muslims, or maybe Jews, and the right to fire them now and never hire another. These two new religious freedom restoration acts were clever – they gave these folks automatic standing in court. The government would have to prove, on a case by case basis, that there was a compelling and overwhelming public interest in forcing these folks to follow the same laws as everyone else. It was a license to discriminate, not that anyone would, but it was official state permission to do so, with specific protections for anyone who said the law didn’t apply to them.
Everyone saw the implications. This was going too far, and these acts were modified. Others, in other states, were abandoned. But every Republican who wants the party’s nomination has now come out and said they see it this way – Christianity is under attack – and this is about more than pandering to their anti-gay base. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage. No one under thirty has a problem with gays at all. Even a slim majority of Republicans just don’t give a damn. Gay folks aren’t an issue to them. Every Republican who wants the party’s nomination knows the gay issue is over, but these religious freedom restoration acts actually change the issue. This is about everyone picking on good Christians just trying to do the right thing – casting out and humiliating sinners. What would Jesus do? He’d do that.
That’s the message. Now it’s time to be outraged, about the government’s war on Christians, and corporations’ war on Christians, and Hollywood’s war on Christians. The secularists are out there trying to wipe out Christianity. They’re everywhere, and this calls for heroic resistance. That’s the narrative that will win back the White House. There are a lot of Christians out there. Make ’em worry.
That’s the plan, and Paul Waldman notes that Jeb Bush is finally onboard:
While the rest of the Republican presidential candidates were at the South Carolina Freedom Summit this weekend, Jeb Bush traveled to Virginia to give the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. While a speech like that will of course be full of praise for God, Bush’s speech went farther than one might have expected, both in its blunt sectarianism and its embrace of a narrative of victimhood that has grown increasingly popular on the religious right.
Waldman finds this odd:
While lots of people remember Jeb Bush’s brother as an evangelical Christian, he actually isn’t – George W. Bush is a Methodist, a non-evangelical denomination (Jeb himself is a convert to Catholicism). And throughout his presidency, despite some occasional (and probably unintentional) slips like referring to the war on terror as a “crusade,” Bush was carefully inclusive when he talked about religion. It would have been surprising to hear him extol the superiority of Christianity as his brother Jeb did on Saturday. “Whatever the need, the affliction, or the injustice, there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action,” Bush said.
It seems Jeb went all-out with this:
No place where the message reaches, no heart that it touches, is ever the same again. And across our own civilization, what a radically different story history would tell without it. Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it’s all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence.
That’s a far cry from what Mitt Romney said eight years ago when he gave his big speech on religion – at least in that case, Romney argued for the essential place of religion broadly, and not just his own. I should note that near the end of the speech, Bush did acknowledge that non-Christians can be good people, too. But if you aren’t a Christian, the idea that without Christianity life on earth would inevitably be a nightmare of oppression and meaninglessness is something you might find absurd, or even offensive.
And you might think Bush would step a little more carefully given the trends in religious affiliation in America. While Christians are of course the majority, that majority that is declining steadily. The groups that are increasing their proportion of the U.S. population include Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and most importantly, the “unaffiliated,” people who don’t consider themselves part of any organized religion. According to the Pew Research Center, the unaffiliated were 16 percent of the population in 2010 and will be 26 percent by 2050; over the same period Christians will decline from 78 percent to 66 percent.
That’s a long-term trend; for the moment, Bush seems to think that the way to the hearts of the conservative Christians who make up such a large part of the Republican primary electorate (particularly in Iowa, where over half of GOP caucus-goers are evangelicals) is to embrace a narrative of victimhood that has become so prevalent on the right.
And Jeb went there:
Fashionable opinion – which these days can be a religion all by itself – has got a problem with Christians and their right of conscience. That makes it our problem, and the proper response is a forthright defense of the first freedom in our Constitution.
It can be a touchy subject, and I am asked sometimes whether I would ever allow my decisions in government to be influenced by my Christian faith. Whenever I hear this, I know what they want me to say. The simple and safe reply is, ‘No. Never. Of course not.’ If the game is political correctness, that’s the answer that moves you to the next round. The endpoint is a certain kind of politician we’ve all heard before – the guy whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he refuses even to impose them on himself.
The mistake is to confuse points of theology with moral principles that are knowable to reason as well as by faith. And this confusion is all part of a false narrative that casts religious Americans as intolerant scolds, running around trying to impose their views on everyone. The stories vary, year after year, but the storyline is getting familiar: The progressive political agenda is ready for its next great leap forward, and religious people or churches are getting in the way. Our friends on the Left like to view themselves as the agents of change and reform, and you and I are supposed to just get with the program.
There are consequences when you don’t genuflect to the latest secular dogmas. And those dogmas can be hard to keep up with. So we find officials in a major city demanding that pastors turn over copies of their sermons. Or federal judges mistaking themselves for elected legislators, and imposing restrictions and rights that do not exist in the Constitution. Or an agency dictating to a Catholic charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, what has to go in their health plan – and never mind objections of conscience.
Jeb is now with the plan, which Waldman says was the inevitable plan:
It’s been building for years, not only as gay rights have advanced but also as a result of the steady diversification of American society. If you grew up with your religious beliefs being the default setting for society at large – when it’s your prayers being said in public schools, when only people who share your religion are elected president, when your holidays are everyone’s holidays – then a growing inclusiveness can feel like an attack on you. It seems like you’ve lost something, even if you can’t admit that it was something only you and people like you were privileged to possess.
I don’t doubt that there are Christians who are sincerely affronted when they walk into a department store in December and see a sign reading “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” even if I might find their taking offense unjustified. It’s the people who find in “Happy Holidays” the evidence of their oppression that Bush is reaching out to, saying that he’s every bit with them as are the likes of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum.
The Christian share of adults in the United States has declined sharply since 2007, affecting nearly all major Christian traditions and denominations, and crossing age, race and region, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center.
Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007.
The Christian share of the population has been declining for decades, but the pace rivals or even exceeds that of the country’s most significant demographic trends, like the growing Hispanic population. It is not confined to the coasts, the cities, the young or the other liberal and more secular groups where one might expect it, either.
“The decline is taking place in every region of the country, including the Bible Belt,” said Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center and the lead editor of the report.
No one expected this, and the Republicans certainly didn’t, but it is what it is:
The report does not offer an explanation for the decline of the Christian population, but the low levels of Christian affiliation among the young, well educated and affluent are consistent with prevailing theories for the rise of the unaffiliated, like the politicization of religion by American conservatives, a broader disengagement from all traditional institutions and labels, the combination of delayed and interreligious marriage, and economic development.
Politicize anything and people leave, particularly in an age where people find institutions and label useless and stupid:
The ranks of the unaffiliated have been bolstered by former Christians. Nearly a quarter of people who were raised as Christian have left the group, and ex-Christians now represent 19 percent of adults.
Attrition was most substantial among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, who have declined in absolute numbers and as a share of the population since 2007. The acute decline in the Catholic population, which fell by roughly 3 million, is potentially a new development. Most surveys have found that the Catholic share of the population has been fairly stable over the last few decades, in no small part because it has been reinforced by migration from Latin America.
The number of evangelical Protestants dipped only a tad as a share of the population, and actually increased in raw numbers, but that might not matter. They’re outnumbered, and there’s no stopping this:
There are few signs that the decline in Christian America will slow. Although some might assume that young people will become more religious as they age, the Pew data gives reason to think otherwise.
“It’s not that they start unaffiliated and become religious,” Mr. Cooperman said. “In fact, it’s the opposite.”
At the same time, every new cohort has been less affiliated than the last, with even the youngest millennials proving less affiliated, at 36 percent, than older millennials, at 34 percent.
Cohn points out the obvious political implications:
Mitt Romney received 79 percent support among white evangelicals, 59 percent among white Catholics, 54 percent among non-evangelical white Protestants, but only 33 percent among nonreligious white voters. But others argue that the relationship between politics and religion might work the other way: The declining number of self-identified Christians could be the result of a political backlash against the association of Christianity with conservative political values.
The Republican message was simple – if you love Jesus, you simply have to vote Republican. The growing response is not what they expected – if I simply have to vote Republican, it may be time to rethink the whole Jesus thing. He was a Republican? Who knew? Screw that.
Of course Rush Limbaugh has a different take:
Limbaugh on Tuesday explained that Christianity was facing a sharp decline in the United States because Americans were leaving churches that had not “fallen prey to the dark side” and embraced same-sex marriage. …
On his Tuesday radio show, Limbaugh explained that the drop in self-identifying Christians could be explained by “homosexual marriage.”
Limbaugh noted that many churches already performed same-sex weddings and ordained gay clergy.
“And in some cases female and lesbian ministers, which you might think in some cases could cause people to leave those churches,” he opined. “Those denominations – the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans – dropped a lot of members.”
“They have left their churches because of social issues and the evolution of their churches to social areas they didn’t want to go and don’t feel comfortable being in,” the conservative host continued. “If you look at the evangelical churches, they haven’t lost anything. Their membership is holding pretty steady. Where the message has remained, where the mission has remained the same, where the members of the church don’t think any corruption is taking place. They’re still hanging in there.”
“Some might say, the churches that haven’t fallen prey to the dark side. All of this silly social evolution.”
This is not right:
Limbaugh argued that “less than 1 million gay activists” were able to “bully and steamroll an entire country.”
“How is it that 70 percent of the population can be bullied and silenced and coerced into accepting societal evolution with which they disagree because of their religious beliefs?” he asked.
Mary Elizabeth Williams – whose book Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream is rather interesting, as the housing market in America is a bit of a joke – respectfully disagrees with guys like Limbaugh:
I live my life according my values and spiritual beliefs. I have in my neighborhood a community that includes my local church, a place that gives my family and me support and personal satisfaction, and that I hope we in turn can contribute something meaningful to. We also live in a bigger world, full of people who are different than we are, who believe – and disbelieve – different things. Diversity: it’s just plain common sense.
She’s not happy with the Republican plan:
We at a moment in American history when issues that should be pretty basic rights – you know, like access to reproductive health service and the freedom to marry the person you love – are being thrashed around on entirely religious grounds. As Think Progress reports just this Tuesday, “More than half of Texans have faced at least one barrier to getting the reproductive health services they need.” We are still, right now, dealing with teachers in public schools peddling a Noah’s Ark version of life sciences. That’s all about inserting God, in particular a very narrowly defined vision of God that a diminishing number of people believe in, into public policy. It’s stupid; it’s dangerous and it’s patently unpatriotic.
Williams has that other view of patriotism:
Our constitution is supposed to protect us from living in a theocracy. One of our original founding fathers, Roger Williams, was a deeply religious man – who first espoused the notion of the separation between Church and state. You can totally practice your beliefs without imposing them others. You can – and must – respect and observe the distinction between personal convictions and common good. And the more people who can pipe up and speak to the reality that Jesus did not create the United States of America, the better. Because I am really, really tired of old white dudes hiding behind a cross and to screw over everybody else.
Then she adds her message:
I want those of us who look at the world one way to understand… that we are not the default. I want people who are questioning and skeptical and straight up non-believing to not feel invisible. As Pew points out, “The United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.”
So you know what? We’re fine here. We don’t need to fear being wiped out in some secular apocalypse. And while sure, there are blowhards and bigots on all sides, an America in which people who don’t subscribe to a religion don’t feel the need to pretend they do is a better and more balanced America for all of us. And because I value not evangelicalism but coexistence, today I just want to say, thank God for nonbelievers.
Rush wouldn’t say that. Republicans aren’t saying that. That’s not the plan, but in 1785, Robert Burns was ploughing in his fields and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest that the wee thing needed to survive the winter, and he got poetically philosophical. Plan all you want, but these things happen to all of God’s creatures, to mice and to men. And it’s going to be a long cold winter for Republicans.