The American conservative movement has embraced secular rhetoric in recent years, but religious tendencies are still strong. Liam Glen writes on the conflicting spheres of religion and politics.
The Religious Right, which seeks to implement Christian morality through government policy, has held a grip on American politics since the 1970s. Its decline, however, has been a topic of discussion for some time now.
The old culture wars seemed to fade away when Donald Trump – with all of his “New York values” – became the face of the Republican Party.
Debate over LGBT rights and secularism has taken a back seat to immigration and political correctness. It is difficult to preach about family values when the President’s unrepentant crassness has become his main selling point.
This would fit a trend. In Western Europe, right-wing populists have put religious traditionalism on the back burner.
France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen prefers use Catholicism as a symbol of French heritage rather than literal belief.
In the Netherlands, arch-Islamophobe Geert Wilders takes the ahistorical idea of Judeo-Christian civilization a step forward. He talks about the superiority of “Christian, Jewish and humanist traditions,” in an apparent attempt to be inclusive of everyone who is not a Muslim.
The secular right in America, however, is not quite ascendant. President Trump’s lack of piety has not impeded his close relationship with Evangelical leaders. And recent events demonstrate the power that religious activists still hold over the conservative movement.
The Paranoid Moralists
This much was clear in Attorney General Bill Barr’s address to Notre Dame College. Over its course, he blamed depression, drug use, violence, and a range of other social ills on “the new secular age.”
Embracing his conspiratorial side, he claimed “This is not decay; this is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshalled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia on an unremitting assault against religion and traditional values.”
Barr stopped short of advocating government enforcement of Christian morality. But it is not clear why else the head of the US Justice Department would see it necessary to lecture law school students and faculty on the evils of secularism. Ironically, the theme of the talk was religious freedom.
The incident reveals a deep-seated paranoia and religious fundamentalism in a high-ranking government official. Not to mention a complete lack of empirical reasoning. Under his worldview, one wonders why secular societies like Sweden, the Czech Republic, or Japan have yet to collapse.
A similar incident occurred around the same time with conservative pundit Ben Shapiro – lauded as the “cool kid’s philosopher” in the New York Times for his rhetorical appeal to facts and logic.
For this reason, Shapiro does not often speak loudly about old culture war topics, but he could not contain himself after Beto O’Rourke advocated revoking tax exempt status from institutions that oppose same-sex marriage. Shapiro went on a two-minute rant threatening to meet O’Rourke “at the door with a gun”
These could be taken as simple ramblings if they did not come from such powerful people. Barr is one of the highest-ranking members of the US government. Shapiro represents the new face of the conservative movement that is supposed to know that things like open homophobia are now uncool.
They have shown, however, the motivations behind the old culture wars are not quite gone.
Demographics and Destiny
America has a far greater reputation for religiosity than Europe. It is only reasonable that its populist movement would take on more religious undertones.
The truth however, is somewhat more complex. In 2017, Gallup found that religiosity was still strong associated with conservatism, but not perfectly. 20 percent of Republicans were not religious, and Trump supporters constituted 28 percent of the non-religious demographic.
This may seem like a small fraction, but when elections are decided by single percentage points, it is significant.
Extreme rhetoric seeking to impose certain religious belief in the public sphere no longer wins a national electorate. But the Religious Right still has institutional power among the party elite, not to mention many voters.
This has led to a strange situation. Republican figures no longer make religious social conservatism a centerpiece of their campaigns, but they also have no fear expressing such views to their core audiences.
But all indicators say that the secularization of society, which Barr so fears, will continue. And it will be increasingly difficult to reconcile the Republican Party’s different interests. The question is whether the Religious Right will be able to continue wielding its influence, whether it will fade into irrelevance, or whether it will fight back against the secular elements of the party.