Think back to October 1971 and John Lennon’s last wistful cri de coeur of the dying sixties counterculture – “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky” – and imagine no countries – “nothing to kill or die for” of course – “and no religion too” – presumably because religion leads to intolerance, because there can be only one true religion after all, which leads to endless wars and so on. Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything makes a far better case, but then Hitchens wasn’t a rock star. Lennon’s song topped the charts around the world for months – not that it mattered. A decade later the religious right was on the rise in America – the Republicans found them useful. It’s easy if you try, and in 2004 Thomas Frank finally wrote the book on that – What’s the Matter with Kansas?
What was the matter? There was the liberal teacher who turned into a far-right Republican –”Even as Republican economic policy laid waste to the city’s industries, unions, and neighborhoods, the townsfolk responded by lashing out on cultural issues, eventually winding up with a hard-right Republican congressman, a born-again Christian who campaigned largely on an anti-abortion platform.” What did abortion have to do with their lives falling apart? Somehow it didn’t matter. God something – that Lennon song apparently hadn’t been all that popular in Kansas.
But the rest of America isn’t Kansas – the most recent Pew polling shows the percentage of those who say they believe in God, pray daily and regularly go to church or other religious services all have declined. The declines are modest, but real, and if God truly hates gay marriage, America has turned its back on God. Kansas stands alone.
But then there’s Iowa. Iowa is Kansas too, and the odd thing is that the next president will be decided in the Iowa caucuses, or so it would seem given the coverage the day before they were to take place. CNN provided breathless coverage of who was where saying what and the New Yorker covered Richard Dreyfuss, Glenn Beck, Ted Cruz, and Lady Gaga in Iowa – an unlikely quartet. But this is all unlikely. Iowa is a rather white place, with pockets of Hispanics here and there, and it’s as far from urban as can be. Iowa is rural. Its economy and culture are agrarian. It’s not the real America, but the word is that if Donald Trump wins there he will be unstoppable. Sixty percent of the Republicans there are evangelical white Christians, who seem to be very angry. Trump has somewhat positioned himself as kind of White Nationalist. If he can come off as a Christian White Nationalist he’ll be fine. All he has to do is capture this week’s Real Americans.
Think back to October 2008:
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin apologized yesterday for implying that some parts of the country are more American than others, even as similar comments by two Republican congressmen were causing a backlash that threatened their chances for reelection.
In an interview on CNN, Palin said comments she made last week in North Carolina praising small towns as “the real America” and the “pro-America areas of this great nation” were not intended to suggest that other parts of the country are less patriotic or less American.
“If that’s the way it has come across, I apologize,” she told CNN’s Drew Griffin.
Even Sarah Palin once knew better, or the McCain folks shortened her leash that day, but now the epic battle on the Republican side, in Iowa, is for the evangelical vote. Ted Cruz is one – or at least his father is – and Donald Trump says no, Ted isn’t an evangelical – he, Donald Trump is, sort of. The rest of America watches, puzzled. Will the rural God-people in Iowa determine the Republican nominee and maybe the new presidency? On the Democratic side, Hillary has her woes and the charisma of a tree stump, and the charismatic Bernie Sanders, while bold, may be a bit too eccentric for the general public. Their positions on most everything are popular with the majority of American, but each has their flaws. The action is on the Republican side, with the rural God-people in that cat bird’s seat, as they say – and John Lennon is dead.
Slate’s Michelle Goldberg has written an extensive piece on how strange this is:
The fragile truce between Cruz and Trump – and, more importantly, between Trump and the organized Christian right – had abruptly broken down, with religious conservative leaders lining up to stop the avaricious thrice-married billionaire from winning the Iowa caucuses. Leading female anti-abortion activists from organizations including the Susan B. Anthony List and Iowa Right to Life had already released an open letter urging Iowans to support anyone but Trump, writing that they were “disgusted by Mr. Trump’s treatment of individuals, women, in particular.” Christian talk radio hosts such as Michael Brown were lambasting Trump and lamenting the endorsement he received from Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s few major evangelical backers. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, had just endorsed Cruz – on Trump nemesis Megyn Kelly’s TV show, no less – before flying to Iowa for the Des Moines rally. There, the Cruz campaign unveiled Pro-Lifers for Cruz, a coalition with more than 17,000 members; Perkins is its chairman.
“Some were mesmerized by the aura of Trump,” far-right Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert told me at Wednesday’s rally. By now, however, religious conservatives have woken up and realized that Trump doesn’t share their priorities.
And then there’s Bob Vander Plaats, head of the FAMILY Leader, which Goldberg says is Iowa’s most influential evangelical organization:
Speaking at the rally, Vander Plaats invoked his severely disabled son, Lucas, and said he was outraged to see “a candidate for president of the United States openly mocking and insulting people with disabilities.” (He was referring to Trump’s scornful imitation of the disabled New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski.) Vander Plaats recalled that only a week before, at an event in Sioux City, Iowa, Trump boasted that he wouldn’t lose support even if he shot someone. The crowd in the packed hall hissed.
The battle is on:
Soon it was Cruz’s turn to speak. He promised that on his first day as president, he would instruct the Justice Department to open an investigation into Planned Parenthood. Cruz said he’d appoint judges who would overturn last year’s “shameful” and “fundamentally illegitimate” Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage. He asked the assembled to pray. “Father God, please, continue this awakening. Continue this spirit of revival, awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from this abyss,” Cruz said. His cadences were those of a preacher.
Cool, but it might be too late for that:
The outcome of this year’s Iowa caucus may tell us if the American religious right has retained its outsize influence in American politics or if a new populist force has supplanted it. Trump is demonstrating that many grassroots conservatives are far more comfortable with what Ted Cruz called “New York values” than anyone imagined. If the leaders of the Christian right can’t stop Trump, it could mark the end of the movement as we know it.
In short, imagine no religion:
The movement’s ability to channel grassroots rage is being tested. Anti-abortion activists continue to make great strides, but social conservatives have been routed on the other great culture war battle, gay marriage; the issue increasingly fails to move young evangelicals. Meanwhile, the country as a whole is becoming less religious.
Goldberg cites that same Pew Research Center survey and adds this:
Leaders such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson (who has endorsed Cruz) have nowhere near the influence they once did. “Traditional evangelical power brokers are kind of on the way out,” says Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College.
At the Cruz rally, I asked the Family Research Council’s Perkins about the surprisingly strong support for Trump among self-described evangelicals. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 53 percent of Iowa evangelicals view Trump favorably, up from 37 percent in November. “Evangelicals are very much reflective of the rest of the culture,” Perkins said. I asked if that meant they’re becoming more disconnected from institutional authority. “Yeah, I think that’s true,” he said.
One can, however, make too much of that:
For those who abhor the goals of the religious right – banning abortion, overturning gay marriage, injecting Christianity into public schools – this may seem like good news. The rise of Trump, however, suggests that we should temper our satisfaction, as the religiously disconnected are not necessarily urbane secularists. While self-described atheists and agnostics tend to be highly educated, 77 percent of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” haven’t finished college. Many of these people, largely white, aren’t necessarily hostile to religion; they’re simply as alienated from their local churches as they are from other institutions, including political parties and labor unions. Almost half of those who claim no religion but consider religion important earn less than $30,000 a year. These struggling, detached, impious whites are a crucial part of Trump’s base.
There may be more overlap than we realize between them and the self-identified evangelicals who support Trump.
That’s what Goldberg saw in Iowa:
At the veterans’ fundraiser that Trump staged to compete with the Republican debate on Thursday, I sat next to John Jensen, a 70-year-old farmer. He’s an ultraconservative, but when I asked whether he was bothered by Trump’s record on abortion and gay marriage, he said, “That’s Mickey Mouse stuff compared to what’s really going on in this country. We’re $20 trillion in debt. We got aliens all over the place. I harvest wheat out west, and all the little towns are full of aliens.”
He means Hispanics, not little green men, but maybe he doesn’t see that there’s really all that much difference, but others are just confused:
Jenifer Bowen, the head of Iowa Right to Life and a signatory to the anti-Trump letter, says that opposition to abortion has always been the leading issue for conservatives in that state. “Historically, it’s been the caucus process where we pick our most pure candidate on life,” she says. Now, she sees that at least some conservatives have decided that other things – border security, a willingness to defy political correctness – matter more. “All of the so-called rules for how presidential candidacies run seem to have flown out the window,” she says. “He’s just come in and flipped the tables.”
If Trump wins the Iowa caucuses, it will be because he rendered the institutional framework of the modern Republican Party irrelevant. It’s not just his refusal to take part in the final Iowa debate. Part of the lore of the Iowa caucuses is that the citizens of this small state get a chance to evaluate the candidates up close; Cruz, for one, is making stops in each of Iowa’s 99 counties – the so-called full Grassley. But Trump eschews traditional retail campaigning for giant rallies. The voters here can’t get close to him, unlike all the other candidates; he’s replaced one-on-one persuasion with spectacle and celebrity.
And she cites Michael Brendan Dougherty:
What so frightens the conservative movement about Trump’s success is that he reveals just how thin the support for their ideas really is. His campaign is a rebuke to their institutions. It says the Republican Party doesn’t need all these think tanks, all this supposed policy expertise. It says look at these people calling themselves libertarians and conservatives, the ones in tassel-loafers and bow ties. … These people are worthless. They are defunct. You don’t need them, and you’re better off without them.
Goldberg adds this:
Should Trump triumph in Iowa, it will demonstrate that the Christian right, a crucial part of the conservative infrastructure, is similarly losing its relevance. It’s not just that Trump has been married three times; so was Newt Gingrich, who garnered significant religious conservative support four years ago. It’s not that Trump is an entertainer who used to be pro-choice; so was Ronald Reagan. What’s striking about Trump is that he doesn’t even try to speak in the idiom of the Christian conservative movement. At a FAMILY Leader event last year, he admitted he’s never asked God for forgiveness. Speaking at Liberty University, he pronounced 2 Corinthians as “Two Corinthians,” when any regular churchgoer would know that it’s “Second Corinthians.” Even describing his change of heart on abortion, Trump uses rhetoric that’s completely unmoored from that of the anti-abortion movement. Abortion foes talk about life beginning at conception and claim a duty to protect the weakest among us. Trump talks about a friend of his who wanted his wife to have an abortion; she refused, and the child grew up to be what Trump called a “total superstar, a great, great child.” The evangelical author Trevin Wax wrote in response, “If the ‘right to life’ is in any way dependent on what the probable outcome of a child will be, then we are right back where we were a century ago, when the forerunners of today’s abortion industry were advocating eugenics to ‘weed out’ less desirable groups.”
Yeah, but the Trump crowd may be fine with that:
Last Tuesday afternoon, two married couples in their 20s huddled in the biting cold outside a school gym in Marshalltown, Iowa, waiting in line for a Trump rally that would begin three hours later. Eric Struve, a 27-year-old nurse and hobby farmer, said it was his first time going to a political rally since high school, when he’d had to see “that faggot Obama” for class. Despite the slur, Struve says he once supported Obama. Now he and his wife, Valerie Struve, also a nurse, had changed their voter registrations from Democrat to Republican to caucus for Trump. The No. 1 issue in the election, said Eric Struve, is immigration.
“They’re going to corrupt our America is what they’re going to do,” Struve said. “Screw up the economy. They come in; they take over. They’re going to screw up Medicare and Medicaid. They don’t pay taxes. They take our jobs, send them overseas because they can do everything cheaper. It’s all screwed up. So yeah, they need to build a wall. And Mexico can pay for it.”
Goldberg has lots more anecdotes, but they’re pretty much the same. Religion is not playing a part here, but then that’s not all that good:
It’s hard for a liberal not to feel a touch of schadenfreude watching the religious right, once an angry right-wing insurgency, being flummoxed by a new angry right-wing insurgency. At Cruz’s rally I spoke to Jason Jones, a prominent anti-abortion activist and filmmaker based in Hawaii. The rage of Trump supporters baffled him. “I don’t get it. I don’t see where this disenfranchisement comes from, this anger comes from,” he said. “I do get frustration with the establishment of the Republican Party, but then there’s Sen. Cruz, who has actually stood up to the establishment of the Republican Party!”
Other socially conservative leaders were similarly puzzled. “Certainly, there are things that can scare us about the current status of our country, but I don’t understand that anger and that rage,” Iowa Right to Life’s Bowen said. She seemed to have no idea how much she sounded like the Republican establishmentarians that once looked aghast at the rise of the Moral Majority. After all, it’s always been the religious right – a group the Washington Post famously described in 1993 as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command” – that has been seen as representing the irrational, atavistic side of conservative politics.
Cruz’s backers hope that, ultimately, Trump’s people won’t turn out to caucus. … But if it does, we will witness the coming-out party of an American analogue to Europe’s ethno-nationalist right – a right more unified by race than by religion.
That’s not a good thing, and Trump plays that out:
His story is about a once-strong nation beset by dangerous foreigners and the great man who promises to swoop in and save it. His deviations from conservative Christian orthodoxy don’t much matter because it’s identity, not belief, binding his followers together. The lack of emphasis on ideology – not to mention theology – is one of the biggest differences between his movement and the Christian right, and it is one reason conservative elites have such a hard time fathoming it.
So that’s it. Thanks to Donald Trump we’ll have no more religious wars in our politics – the angry religious right has been left behind as a sort of historical curiosity. We’ll have culture wars about race and Makers and Takers and whatnot. People will be just as angry, but God will have nothing to do with it. Imagine no religion. That may not be an improvement.
Or it may. Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections) – and he urges calm:
As a historian, I’m not optimistic that our culture wars will end anytime soon. These angry disputes about the meaning of America, and who is a true American, have been raging since the early days of our nation. We’ve lurched from one cultural conflict to the next. A loss in one battle further convinces culture warriors that our society is going to hell. So they cast about for another grievance – another “them” to blame for what is happening to “us.” In this way, the culture wars are perpetually rising from the dead.
As I investigated America’s culture wars from Jefferson to Obama, I found that they follow a predictable pattern. They tend to start on the right, with conservatives anxious about some cultural change. Yet conservatives almost always lose, because they lash themselves to lost causes. That’s how this latest round in our culture wars is likely to conclude, too. If you fear (as I do) what a President Trump might do, remember that the promise to build a Mexico-financed border wall or to ban Muslims from entering the country are as lost as causes can be.
This happens over and over again:
Many of the attacks on the moral relativism of the ’60s reprised attacks on the multiculturalism of the Roaring Twenties. Many anti-Catholic tropes of the 1928 presidential election, in which a vote for Catholic Democrat Al Smith was said to be a vote for the Antichrist, were recycled from 19th-century smears of Catholic immigrants as shock troops for a foreign despot. Claims that President Obama is a closet Muslim are not novel, either. In the nasty election of 1800, now being staged in the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” Thomas Jefferson’s Federalist opponents accused him of believing in “the alcoran.” [the Koran]
In almost every case, these culture wars have been conservative projects, instigated and waged by people anxious about the loss of old orders and the emergence of new ones. Their anxiety finds expression first as a complaint about a particular policy, and second as a broader lament about how far the nation has fallen from its founding glory and how desperately we need to restore whatever is passing away. Or, to put it in Trumpian terms: The nation has been schlonged, but it will be great again.
Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were right-wing reactions to 19th-century Catholic immigration and Mormon migration, and to the moral, theological, social and economic threats those communities posed to Protestant power. Similarly, the culture wars of the 1920s and 1930s were conservative responses to the rise of the saloon and the speakeasy – and to the cultural pluralism brought on by rapid urbanization and immigration waves. In the contemporary culture wars, conservatives give voice to their anxieties about the loss of the traditional family and a homogeneous society. Cultural politics are always a politics of nostalgia, driven by those who are determined to return to what they remember (rightly or wrongly) as a better way of life.
And that doesn’t work:
Even though conservatives tend to start the culture wars, liberals almost always win them. The “infidel” Jefferson and “papist” John Kennedy become president. Prohibition is repealed. Marijuana becomes legal. Gays and lesbians get marriage rights. Conservatives manage an occasional victory – on guns, for example. But in almost every arena where the contemporary culture wars have been fought, liberals now control the agenda.
Liberals may win our culture wars for philosophical reasons (because the constitutional principle of liberty is on their side) or for practical ones (because the nation is becoming more Catholic or more brown). But the most important reason they win is because their opponents fixate on lost causes. Conservatives instigated the Philadelphia “Bible wars” of 1844 when the Catholic population there was growing too quickly to remain on the margins. They attacked same-sex marriage most fiercely when attitudes toward gays were gravitating toward acceptance. “All conservatism begins with loss,” writes journalist Andrew Sullivan. When it comes to the culture wars, conservatism ends with loss, too.
That’s comforting, but that’s cold comfort. At the moment all eyes are on Iowa, a place unlike the rest of America, where, they say, the angry white evangelicals there will decide the next presidency, if they can figure out what they’re angry about. Imagine no religion. Someone tell John Lennon. That doesn’t help.