There’s an old observation about America that goes something like this: If the most religious nation in the world is India and the most secular nation in the world is Sweden, then America is a nation of Indians governed by Swedes. Its population is largely religious, but its leaders are a largely secular elite.
To the extent that this claim was true 20 years ago, it highlighted a significant challenge. An elite disconnect from popular will and popular experience breeds alienation and mutual contempt. But now imagine a different reality, one in which America is becoming Indian and Swedish at the same time, in different places. It’s less true than it used to be that the United States is largely religious except for a secular elite. It’s more true that the United States is transitioning into large-scale secular and sacred enclaves. Thus, secular elites who express scorn or disdain for orthodox Christian religious faith and practice aren’t disconnected from popular will. They’re expressing popular will.
I’m thinking of course of the latest battle in the dogma wars. In 2017, California senator Dianne Feinstein famously told Catholic judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett, “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern.” Also in 2017, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders grilled an Evangelical Christian nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget over his beliefs about the differences between the Christian and Muslim faiths.
In December, Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono and California senator Kamala Harris asked Catholic judicial nominee Brian Buescher a series of hostile questions about his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization. They zeroed in on the Knights’ opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, two positions that are entirely consistent with orthodox theology across virtually every branch of the Christian faith.
Inquiries into religious affiliation and belief violate the Constitution. Article VI expressly forbids any religious test for public office. But if we think conservative condemnation of Harris, Hirono, Feinstein, and Sanders will make a dime’s bit of difference, we need to think again. America is changing, and in many American jurisdictions, opposition to Christian orthodoxy isn’t the mark of elite alienation, but a progressive badge of honor.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center published a comprehensive survey of the religiosity of American states, and the numbers are striking. Americans have substantially different faith practices (and exposure to churchgoing Christians) depending on where they live. As a rule, Democrats come from states that are substantially more secular. The secularization of white Democrats in particular is proceeding at an accelerating rate, and as it continues, progressive politicians increasingly view orthodox religious Americans as if they’re a foreign tribe of superstitious extremists.
I’m writing this piece from the state of Tennessee, the third-most-religious state in the nation. According to Pew, 73 percent of Tennessee adults are “highly religious,” and 51 percent say they attend religious services weekly. I’m just north of Alabama, the nation’s most-religious state, and close to Mississippi (second), Louisiana (fourth), and Arkansas (fifth). The Bible Belt is very real indeed.
Now, let’s look at the antagonists in the dogma wars. Senator Sanders is from the 48th-most-religious state in the United States. Only 34 percent of Vermont adults are “highly religious,” and a mere 21 percent say they attend church weekly. Feinstein and Harris are from the 35th-most-religious state, and Senator Hirono is from the 41st-most-religious state. In not one of those states, each of them dark blue, are a majority of adults highly religious.
Let’s not think for a moment that such religious separation combined with political polarization breeds either religious knowledge or religious tolerance. Instead, ignorance and bigotry are the coins of the realm. One of the fascinating aspects of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case was the idea expressed in the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s hearings that baker Jack Phillips’s religious convictions were insincere, a mere pretext for underlying bigotry against LGBT Americans. Or consider the eagerness of Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson to pursue florist Baronelle Stutzman when she refused to make a custom floral arrangement for a gay wedding. Ferguson bypassed normal legal procedures to go after Stutzman directly, pursuing a legal claim that could ruin her finances. (If you’re wondering about the religiosity of Colorado and Washington, they’re 41st and 44th most religious by the Pew metrics.)
It’s time to face facts: In large parts of the country, religious intolerance is popular. And indeed, conservative anger against religious intolerance may well serve to make that intolerance even more popular, given our nation’s negative polarization. After all, politicians increasingly become heroes merely by attracting the right enemies, and facing down Christian conservatives can put a star in a progressive politician’s crown.
The Christian task is to defend our unalienable rights vigorously without deceiving ourselves into believing that the defense of our liberty is the principle challenge of our time. In fact, reversing the cultural decline of Christianity would do more to preserve religious freedom than any conceivable Supreme Court case. In the battle for faith, the courtroom is the last line of defense. It’s the Great Commission that will renew the nation we love.