When we examine the US’s sociopolitical climate it is very tempting to believe reactionary evangelicalism is a growing trend. Once thought critically endangered, evangelical politics appears to be gaining support. More importantly, it appears to be a driving force. When Jeff Sessions can make DOJ policy decisions using the bible as justification, it’s easy to assume secular politics is now the critically endangered species. But no. Everything we’re witnessing has a) occurred in several societies throughout history to preface the final collapse of the church in politics, and b) been predicted through robust statistical analysis.
Sacred and Secular
The oft-cited 2004 global analysis of religious influence on politics by Norris and Inglehart explains religious politics through the lens of “existential security.” That is, less modernized states tend to be more religious, and more modernized states tend to be less religious. The US is viewed as somewhat of an outlier because it has high modernity and high religiosity. On the other hand, the US is declining both in terms of religiosity and in terms of how much religion should be in politics.
Using statistical methods and historical evidence, Norris and Inglehart predicted a reactionary movement in societies where religion begins to decline. This might be for several reasons. First, it’s pretty difficult to give up power. Watching a younger generation vote in politicians that eschew religious texts when making decisions is nails on a chalk board to some evangelicals. This might cause “forgotten America” to remobilize politically after recent political insecurity leaves them unsatiated. Second, many believe they are being erased.
The US is unique. It has a multitude of ethnic groups, cultures, languages, and religions. But this diversity has been shown to inspire reactionary politics because the mere existence of an other in shared spaces undermines the uniqueness of the dominant identity. Equality means, by its very definition, that divergent identities do not mean some identities are better than others. Evangelical Christians might feel that they must protect their Christian identity from the identities of the others because if the identity of the other is just as valid as the evangelical, then there might be no eternal salvation.
We all fall into ontological traps. When universities first began awarding doctoral degrees to non-medical students, medical doctors responded swiftly. The PhD down the street is just as prestigious as the lifesaving MD. This was unacceptable. It’s in sports fandom as well. Dallas Cowboy fans must constantly go on the offensive when confronted by a Redskins fan, and vice versa. The importance of the Cowboy identity is undermined if Redskins culture is equally valid. [If I get attacked for this post, it will be because of this, which just proves the point.]
It’s ok—they will probably die off
When one group’s power declines, and when they feel their very identities and thus existences are on the decline, it’s understandable that these groups will remobilize and muster all of the fighting power they can in order to stave off the inevitable. But “inevitable” is the operational word here. The battle between the sacred and the secular is like a pendulum that swings left to right, but always a little more to the left and a little less to the right with each iteration.
As technologies continue to improve, increasing life expectancy and access to healthcare, decreasing infant mortality and death by accident or design, the guarantees of the church will be no longer sufficient to solve the problems that remain. Same sex marriage is legal in many countries because when human beings no longer have to worry about daily threats to life they can focus on social problems. It took millennia but many countries have gotten there, despite the best efforts of the church.
But death too is inevitable. Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts drives home the point when he reminds us of this fact. Paradigm shifts don’t happen over night. They take a lifetime or more. People holding outdated beliefs will eventually pass away, reinforcing the beliefs of the modern dated beliefs. And as the evangelical down the street musters as much power as he can, he will eventually die. He will be replaced by a grandchild that is at least somewhat more liberal than the grandparent.
If we look at Inglehart’s 1997 analysis each generation tends to be more liberal than its predecessor. Again, modernization appears to be the explanation for the process of social post-modernization. The child does not struggle as much as the parent did as a child; therefore, the child grows up more concerned about their neighbors’ problems than whether or not they will survive through the night. And their children too will have more concern for their neighbors than their own self preservation.
To sum: Evangelical reactionism is an understandable and explainable phenomenon. At worst, we should have seen it coming. But it in no way denotes a real return to sacred values influencing politics, but rather an ebb to a flow. As long as the US continues to modernize technologically then there’s no reason to suspect religion’s long-standing downward trend in the US will reverse itself.
That is, unless, the president makes use of his enormous nuclear strike button. Then it’s safe to say religion for many will be one of the few salvations they have left in the US.