Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.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.Beinart says the phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining the rise of Trump:
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.I can see that. The all-caps comment-thread yay-hoos and the talk-show hosts who served up a daily dollop of protectionism and ire at some ill-defined "elite" were not inclined to couch their arguments, such as they were, in the language of tradition and the centrality of transcendent faith. It was all about disappearing jobs and the search for objects of resentment.
Beinart goes on to document how black America is less religious as well. African Americans under 30 are much less inclined to claim religious affiliation than their elders. This plays itself out as an absence of church leaders among prominent figures in today's racial-politics arena:
Critics say Black Lives Matter’s failure to employ Christian idiom undermines its ability to persuade white Americans. “The 1960s movement … had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church,” Barbara Reynolds, a civil-rights activist and former journalist, wrote in The Washington Post. “Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement.” As evidence of “the power of the spiritual approach,” she cited the way family members of the parishioners murdered at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church forgave Dylann Roof for the crime, and thus helped persuade local politicians to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds.
Black Lives Matter’s defenders respond that they are not interested in making themselves “respectable” to white America, whether by talking about Jesus or wearing ties. (Of course, not everyone in the civil-rights movement was interested in respectability either.) That’s understandable. Reformists focus on persuading and forgiving those in power. Revolutionaries don’t.
Black Lives Matter activists may be justified in spurning an insufficiently militant Church. But when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.So if that's the lay of the land, or an approximation of it, doesn't it look like the buzz-saw rancor and deep polarization are about secondary matters rather than the vital questions that ought to preoccupy us? If the issues at the heart of the culture war are "settled," is it not now just a case of various tribes elbowing each other out of the way for a place at the table?
And what of the prospects for the flickering flame - or is it dying embers? - of the truth that Christians know?
Rod Dreher has addressed this question in his new book The Benedict Option, and in an interview with NRO's Kathryn Jean Lopez:
ome years ago, upon becoming a father, Rod Dreher — formerly a colleague of mine on staff at National Review – noticed that Christians “seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.” Now, in a post-Obergefell country, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists,” he writes in his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.
“Don’t be fooled,” he adds, “the upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.” He writes The Benedict Option “to try to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time.” We talk about the Option — and Saint Benedict, too.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Your book was causing controversy even before it was out. What’s your pitch to people who think they already know what you have to communicate?
ROD DREHER: A number of people are under the false impression that The Benedict Option is a call to head for the hills. It’s not. The book is about the crisis of Western civilization and Western Christianity, and about how believers living in this post-Christian culture can respond faithfully to it. We are not called to be monks. Our vocation is to live in the world. But how can we do that while facing challenges that Christians have not had to face for 1,500 years? Pope Benedict XVI said that we are living through a period of disruption comparable to the fall of the Roman Empire. I think he’s right. That’s why I say we lay Christians of the 21st century need to look at how St. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century responded to the collapse of his own civilization. There are lessons for us there.He's unsparingly stark in his take on the current juncture, asserting that even institutional Christianity has been hollowed out:
LOPEZ: Why are you at peace with being called an “alarmist”?
DREHER: Because the times really are alarming! I mean, we have a lot to be alarmed about. In addition to the considerable geopolitical turmoil in the world today, the state of the churches in the West is weak. The faith is flat on its back in Europe. We have long considered the United States to be a counterexample to European secularization, but research over the past ten years is conclusive: America is now headed down the same declining spiritual path. The Millennial generation rejects religious belief in percentages never before seen. Older Christians like to comfort themselves by saying that the young people will come back when they get older. It’s not really true.
Plus, the content of the Christian faith that people actually profess has decayed dramatically from its historic orthodoxy. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team have documented exhaustively that among younger Americans, the faith is only nominally Christian in terms of its content. They have cast aside coherent, biblically consistent Christianity for a shallow, feel-good counterfeit that Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This is not the kind of Christianity that will endure — but this is the Christianity that most Americans hold. In my travels to Christian colleges, both Evangelical and Catholic, I hear the same thing from professors: Our students are coming to us from churches, families, and Christian schools knowing next to nothing about their faith. Contemporary American Christianity is a house built on sand.
So we really are faced with the reality of exile status.
And in the larger society, even though some will still talk a good game about community and civic bonds and the fostering of goodwill, the reality is that nearly everybody, within all camps and on both sides of the basic divide, really embrace veneration of self as the core value driving their words and actions.
The Author and Perfector of our faith still has the last word on the matter:
"Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes."