How the Relationship Between Church, Culture and State Actually Works
In the last few days, the punditry has been talking about the link between de-Christianization and the rise of white nationalism on the political right. As usual, the punditry touches on an extremely important topic, but ends up dancing around the real issues, for reasons of either ignorance, ideological blinders, or political correctness making them too hesitant to fully admit to what is actually going on.
Peter Beinart released a long piece in the Atlantic which kicked things off. Some excerpts:
Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”
That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.
When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.
But non-churchgoing conservatives didn’t flock to Trump only because he articulated their despair. He also articulated their resentments. For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were. (This may be true in Europe as well. A recent thesis at Sweden’s Uppsala University, by an undergraduate named Ludvig Broomé, compared supporters of the far-right Swedish Democrats with people who voted for mainstream candidates. The former were less likely to attend church, or belong to any other community organization.)
Rod Dreher’s post at the American Conservative responding to Beinart’s article draws exactly the wrong conclusions:
Read the whole thing. It’s important. It’s a confirmation of a line Ross Douthat had a year or so ago, telling the left that if they didn’t like the Religious Right, just wait until the see the Post-Religious Right. I’m getting anecdotal reports from readers and from acquaintances that young people with smartphones are not only streaming pornography, but also getting massive doses of political extremism on their devices. One source who sees the boys in his conservative Christian high school embracing white nationalism speculates that the megachurch Christianity of these high school seniors is not facing the reality of the world around us. If true, then the pastors and other religious authorities in these kids’ lives are simply not forming them as Christians to live in the post-Christian world that we have.
The idea that white nationalism is a cause of, or a direct reaction to, de-Christianization is ludicrous.
There is an accepted mainstream view in America about how politics should work, which has been handed down to us by our liberal elites. This worldview holds that politics is a completely separate thing from culture and religion, and that there is a sort of wall which magically divides the three from each other. In the case of politics and religion, we call this “the separation between church and state.” In the case of politics and culture, it’s encapsulated in the popular saying “You can’t legislate morality!”
Like much else that comes from the left, this is at best naive and at worst another malicious lie designed to confuse people. Here is the truth: politics, culture, and religion are all inextricably linked and cannot be separated from each other.
For example, one of the common cultural fabrics of Western civilization has been the idea of “Christendom.” This idea of religious-cultural unity helped unite the various countries of Europe against foreign invaders, including their traditional enemies, the Muslims. who constantly feuded with Europe until the last few centuries. For much of the history of the West, the line between church and state was very fuzzy, with the Pope and the churches wielding enormous political power.
While the church is often held forth as some sort of unchanging and eternal bastion of conservatism, in fact, it’s subject to cultural growth and change like every other institution, and also responds to state and cultural pressure like every other institution does. While it’s more conservative than most institutions and harder to change given its size and age, this doesn’t mean it’s immune from outside pressure. The church has been under pressure from the left for decades now, and organized Christianity as a whole is beginning to collectively melt under that pressure.
This pressure has been for the church to disassociate itself from state and cultural matters and focus only on “matters of the spirit.” The problem is that organized religion has always been about more than empty praying, empty ritual and philosophizing about the universe. It is not an accident that Judaism and Islam, for example, have rules about how to conduct yourself in day to day life, what you can eat, and how you are expected to behave.
Particularly with Islam, if you stop obeying the rules, there are serious societal consequences – you face social pressure ostracism from friends and family, violence, and even outright murder. Many states have the tenets of Islam coded into state law as well; look at the poor treatment of women in Muslim countries as an example of this. In contrast to Islam, where it is a way of life, the left believes (or professes to believe) that religion is something you do for a couple of hours on Christmas and Easter, and then you go home and forget about it.
Since these churches cannot really provide people direction in their day to day lives, people are drifting away. This process has accelerated as more and more churches have embraced the current prevailing cultural norms in the West – in other words, socialism. Why go to church to hear what the left wants you to do? You can just turn on the six o’clock news, watch Jon Stewart, or log on to the internet.
Instead of religious norms, societal pressure is almost entirely centered around conforming to left-wing social and behavioral norms. While modern leftism doesn’t have a strict catechism that is written down, the consequences of deviating from fashionable tenets of leftism are often severe, as Brendan Eich learned, and as Trump supporters frequently learn when confronted with violent, left-wing mobs.
The state has taken the place of God. Men like John Oliver and other noteworthy left wing pundits have taken the places of church priests and scholars. Social justice warriors act as religious police and cultural enforcers, and are often given unofficial societal permission to take actions that would be otherwise illegal (how many left wing rioters ever face serious consequences?).
Racism, xenophobia, and lack of environmental consciousness are the mortal sins of the day. Hate speech laws are the new blasphemy laws. The left has very strong ideas about what foods you should be permitted to eat and even about how sexual relations are to be conducted. Modern leftism conducts itself much like a religion. The only real difference is the language they use to describe what they do.
I believe the reason for the rise of phenomenon like the alternative right, Ron Paul libertarianism, garden-variety nationalism, and white nationalism is an ongoing search by people who have become unmoored by their cultural roots by the far left and are looking for an answer to the question, “How should I live, and what kind of society do I want to live in?” The election of Trump and the rise of nationalism as a major political force indicates that a huge portion of the country are unsatisfied with the new pseudo-religion of state worship that the far left has created, and perhaps even a majority.
How many leftists, after all, live the way they demand others do? Anyone can log onto the internet and see how celebrites, almost all of whom are left-wing, live. They can see pictures of the huge, not-very-environmentally friendly houses they live in, the rich foods they eat, and the sexual behavior that they engage in. While times were good, the left could get away with this kind of hypocrisy, but eight years of economic stagnation and hard times are bringing festering resentments to the surface.
Why do I think I’m right? The United States is not the first country to go in this cultural direction. The Soviets tried all of these exact same things during the era of the USSR, which was stereotyped in the idea of the New Soviet Man. They failed miserably and ruined their country in the process. Every time socialism has tried this sort of thing, it has failed, and it is going to fail in the United States as well. We are already seeing the cracks forming.