America’s Religious Revenge: Or, What We’re Doing Wrong

I’ve been arguing for years that as the US shifts more towards secular policies, displacing historically sacred values, and as the religious population in the US slowly dwindles, a religious (namely, Christian) reaction will most likely occur. Well, we’ve entered the terminal phase of the Christian right, and I was demonstrated correct. But the religious revenge was not inevitable, and it was partly due to us—citizens and the like that eschewed our Christian brothers, sisters, and neighbors without bringing them into the newly-established secular order.

In this post, I will argue what I believe went wrong, its consequences, and what we can still do to close the divide between the sacred among us and the secular. Please note that this post addresses members of the Christian right who value their faith over all else, even the well-being of American citizens. All other Christians fall outside the purview of this post. Secular Christians are not the referent objects.

What Went Wrong

For centuries Christianity has slowly been losing its monopoly of policy in America. We’ve gone from Biblical prescriptions for the enslavement of human beings to a country where the idea of slavery upsets even the stomachs of most Confederate flag-waving, Richard Spencer-sympathizing alt-righters (but obviously, not all of them). We’ve shed the Biblical view of the nuclear family. Women received the vote and the ability to collect a paycheck. The pulpit lost its say in the court over many matters abortion. And the institution of marriage, while long being a secular, legal status, has finally shaken itself free of Biblical binds.

These and many more things occurred because society changed. We no longer needed religion to protect us from death. Advances in medical science filled that role. We no longer needed churches to feed our most poor. Free market capitalism, secular soup kitchens, and the sensitive heartstrings of the middle and upper classes compelled sharing because they could; technological innovations made possible by innovators’ greed for a bigger paycheck made food cheaper to grow, raise, harvest, and transport, which reduced the costs imposed on us. We can now share without fear of starvation. Our life expectancy has increased dramatically, thanks in large part to medical advances that greatly reduced infant mortality. No longer does the church need to promise us reunions with our departed infants so long as we tithe. The list goes on.

We are now almost exclusively secular, whether we know it or not. If we pray, we usually pray for the trivial. Our prayers do not call for bountiful rain to grow our summer crops so that we can survive the following winter. While many of us might pray for serious matters (e.g., father’s cancer), at worst most of us pray for our cousin’s speedy recovery after breaking a leg in a car accident. Most of us, and for the vast majority of our life’s struggles, we need not the church. But that is the problem as perceived in the eyes of the sacred. Even if we are religious, we are secular.

I don’t know the precise numbers, but let’s assume that 20% of Americans, despite their good health and prospects, rely on the Bible for total life guidance for one very important reason. They might not need it to make sure their children are fed, but they need it because it is the physical embodiment of their identities.

These are Christians who’ve been raised from a small child to identify with their Christian communities above all things. The inhabitants of their churches, from the pastors, rectors, or priests all the way down, make up their extended families. Their communities represent belief and blood (metaphorically). They’ve invested everything into this identity. They are a Christian first, father (mother, etc.) second, and American third.

Remember, these are people who sympathize with Abraham when God instructed him to kill Isaac. This is not to poke fun at them; I’m being serious.

But the fact is many of us did poke fun at these Christians. We went on message boards and lambasted beliefs in fairy tales. We tweeted at individuals who believe in a literal six-day creation. We mocked beliefs that contradicted what we know to be true about the universe and reality. Hell, I maintained this blog.

But even worse, when society turned against the Bible, we left the Christians behind.

After Obergefell v. Hodges, the majority of Americans celebrated without considering the traumatization we’d just inflicted upon a sizeable portion of our community. We’d just shattered their identity as being special in the eyes of God and worthy of a special gift from God: the holy sacrament of marriage before the Father. This signaled two things to our Christian neighbors.

First, it signaled that the Courts and the US society did not identify with them. They’d lost power and their support structure. Second, it signaled that the world was leaving them behind. We felt no need to include them in future discussions about the direction this country will move, and they took notice of this.

The Consequences

One of the unfortunate side effects of the human condition is that we seek confirmations of our biases, especially if our biases protect our identities. The alt-right developed because a bunch of white guys believed their “white culture” was being erased by immigration and race and cultural acceptance. Something similar happened to the Christian right.

Their communal attachments grew stronger. If the US’s identity no longer included the Bible, then they would have to double down their beliefs in a communal sense to avoid the unfortunate realities of cognitive dissonance. Our jeers knit the ties tighter.

This is compounded by our oversight to bring Christians into the new social order. Rather than asking what bakers needed we called them bigots (rightfully so) and moved on without them (wrongfully so). This helped to exasperate their fight or flight responses, which drove them to throw their full weight behind the only presidential candidate they believed would eschew the secular majority to protect them. Our failure to bring Christians in is especially interesting because we’ve demonstrated that we are able and willing to bring in people of minority religions.

What We Can Do

Despite the fact that I have a long history of mocking people for untenable beliefs, I’m beginning to cringe when I read articles lambasting people who believe silly things. It’s not their beliefs that are dangerous; it’s what they’re willing to do with those beliefs. And it appears to me, they are willing to do very damaging things to a secular majority population that mocks and ignores them.

Right now we are trapped in a downward spiral, where the Christian right supports a harmful policy, and the secular society ridicules them, forcing them to double down on their support for harmful policies.

And the truth is that, as our society continues to shift left (as all societies do), they will eventually literally die off. But we cannot wait that long. Therefore, I have some prescriptions.

There needs to be more of a concerted effort among policymakers and voters alike to understand how solving one problem might exasperate another problem (the Type IV error in logic). Yes, we want same-sex marriage, but Obergefell caused a flood of attacks against Roe v. Wade in an effort to preserve a decaying identity. How can a secularizing society make room for Christians? The answer is: by listening to them. Actively listening. If we do that, they’re much more likely to listen to us.

Why do they believe so wholeheartedly that abortion is an unacceptable alternative to carrying a fetus to full term? Why do they believe transgender people should only use restrooms assigned by birth? What is it about their religious background that makes them upset to see two people of the same gender married?

Look, they’re not going to give up their beliefs just because they are outdated. We need to make them feel welcome, despite their beliefs.

This in no way means accepting harmful beliefs; rather, it means making sure those who hold harmful beliefs feel welcomed in the American society. People are far less likely to harm people who make them feel like part of a family, and that’s what we are, right? One big, giant dysfunctional American family.

In the end, barring some cataclysmic event that plunges the earth into the dark ages, the secular society will win. But in the meantime, life will be significantly more bearable if we pay attention to the needs of our neighbors.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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