We all could feel it. The 2016 election cycle was strange and not in a good way. It had a bad smell to it.
In “Breaking Faith,” from the April issue of The Atlantic, Peter Beinart examines the religious and political trends happening in America right now: declining church attendance, the twilight of the old culture war, the rise of Trump and Bernie, and secular political fights.
On Facebook, I noted the following takeaway points from the article:
- The left won the “culture war,”
- Nominal Christianity is dying quickly, and
- The political fights between right-wing secularists and left-wing secularists will be nasty and brutish.
A quick note on secularism. “Secular,” “secularist,” and “secularism” are tricky words because they are used in many ways and definitions vary. In this article, Beinart uses “secular” to mean no allegiance to a traditional, organized religion. It’s a short-hand, though imprecise, way of saying, not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.
The twilight of the culture war and declining church attendance have not brought about a new day of peace. No, human nature is what it is. There is no solution for discord this side of the eschaton.
Beinart notes, “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.”
The average American’s religious identity is sitting in the background gathering dust like great-aunt Gertrude’s old KJV Bible, while other traits, like ethnicity and national origin, fill the void. Today’s partisans find their purpose in extra-biblical sources.
Read Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari’s famous Breitbart.com essay, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.” It contains five references to “tribe,” seven to “race,” 13 to “the west” and “western” and only one to “Christianity.” That’s no coincidence. The alt-right is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age. Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. As a college student, the alt-right leader Richard Spencer was deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously hated Christianity. Radix, the journal Spencer founded, publishes articles with titles like “Why I Am a Pagan.” One essay notes that “critics of Christianity on the Alternative Right usually blame it for its universalism.”
Beinart sees a similar trend on the left. According to a recent survey, 73 percent of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. 73 percent! Not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders’s popularity was fueled by Democrats who do not attend religious services.
I am old enough to remember when there was such a thing as the “Christian left”!
Black activists, meanwhile, are discarding the spiritual motifs, such as the biblical exodus, that motivated the civil rights leaders of the last century.
African Americans under the age of 30 are three times as likely to eschew a religious affiliation as African Americans over 50. This shift is crucial to understanding Black Lives Matter, a Millennial-led protest movement whose activists often take a jaundiced view of established African American religious leaders. Brittney Cooper, who teaches women’s and gender studies as well as Africana studies at Rutgers, writes that the black Church “has been abandoned as the leadership model for this generation.” As Jamal Bryant, a minister at an AME church in Baltimore, told The Atlantic’s Emma Green, “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the Church.”
. . .
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.)
These are frightening trends. Say what you will about the failings of the Christian church, it was a unifying and moderating force in American politics. At the end of the day, accountability matters, and Christians are accountable to their God. To whom and what are the members of the alt-right and the new left accountable?
Beinart concludes the article on a dark note. “For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”
Future political fights will be nasty and brutish. This postmodernism looks a lot like premodernism. The future is the past. The historian is the oracle.