By James Haught
Maybe 2020 is a turning point — one that won’t be clearly visible until the future. Maybe it marks the end of the four-decade epoch when the white evangelical “religious right” had enough power to tip American elections to the GOP.
White evangelicals fought fiercely for Republicans this year. They gave about 80 percent of their votes to President Trump and strongly favored conservatives in state elections. These born-again fundamentalists have shrunk to only 15 percent of America’s population, but they’re so politically intense that they were 28 percent of voters who went to the polls. Undoubtedly, they tipped some marginal states to the GOP, causing early Democratic consternation on election night. But they couldn’t swing the whole nation. And maybe — with the relentless decline of religion — they never can do so again. Let us hope.
The rise and fall of right-wing, born-again politics is a significant episode in America’s history. Until after World War II, many fundamentalists shunned government, choosing to ignore this world and focus on heaven and hell instead. But white evangelicals — the most racist element of society, some research says — were jolted by several breakthroughs that threatened their vision of America as a Christian “city on a hill” favored by God.
Victories by the civil rights movement and integration of public schools upset conservative white believers. So did the loss of tax exemption by Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school that first banned blacks, then forbade interracial dating.
Halting of school prayer in the 1960s — followed by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision — coupled with the rise of feminism — and gays coming out of the closet — and the sexual revolution with racy magazines and movies — and the end of censorship and “blue laws” — these and more made white evangelicals feel their country had turned against them. It drove them into politics.
First, evangelist Jerry Falwell launched the Moral Majority to mobilize redneck religion behind the Republican Party. Then evangelist Pat Robertson followed with the Christian Coalition. Election after election, born-again white faith was turned into a huge political machine. GOP strategist Karl Rove helped spur this powerhouse to elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980. Later, it put George W. Bush into the White House.
In their heyday, around 1990, white evangelicals were one-fourth of America’s population. Their soaring political clout meshed well with the “southern strategy” of former President Richard Nixon, who exploited Dixie racism to shift Sunbelt states to the GOP.. The combination of Jesus and white supremacy produced a conservative political juggernaut.
However, a demographic tide began to flow left. America started losing its religion. People who say their faith is “none” became an amazing sociological phenomenon, suddenly doubling in the 1990s, then climbing rapidly to one-fourth of the populace. Among young adults under 40, the churchless ratio is much higher. This godless group generally holds compassionate, liberal political views and has become the largest faith segment in the Democratic Party base.
Meanwhile, religion suffered relentless decline. White evangelists fell from one-fourth to only 15 percent of the public. Respected “mainline” Protestants lost enormously, and Catholics were battered by never-ending pedophile scandals.
Rising “nones” and sinking born-agains have far-reaching political implications — boosting Democrats and eroding the GOP. Many researchers have traced this sociological shift.
Was 2020 a watershed point, when the “religious right” slipped too far downhill to be decisive in forthcoming elections? Keep your fingers crossed and hope that the future will confirm this blessed prospect.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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Image Credit: James Haught.