The top of the front page headline story in the Denver Post in yesterday's Sunday paper proclaimed that the Colorado Republican Party was putting social issues on the back burner to focus on the economy, noting:
• A wider acceptance, or political indifference, to formerly taboo topics such as gay marriage.
• A realization that the GOP must broaden its appeal after drubbings in the past three elections in Colorado.
Social issues were rarely mentioned when nearly 400 Republicans gathered at Keystone last month to hear from candidates for U.S. Senate and governor. . . .
Statistician Nate Silver, who operates the FiveThirtyEight blog, points out that at the national Value Voters' summit last month, abortion ranked first among issues of concern to straw-poll voters, getting 41 percent of the vote.
Protection of religious liberty was second with 18 percent, and opposition to same-sex marriage was third at 7 percent.
Two years ago at the same event, sponsored by the Family Research Council, gay marriage was the top choice of 20 percent of the attendees.
GOP consultant Mike Murphy, in a Time magazine essay in June, said the party needs to be more socially libertarian, especially toward gay rights, to attract young voters.
"With changing demographics come changing attitudes, and aping the grim town elders from (the movie) 'Footloose' is not the path back to a Republican White House," Murphy wrote.
Faith Gets Mushy
I don't usually think much of the Parade supplement in the Sunday paper (I call it the "Stupid Pages" because its analysis is often shallow), but its poll on spirituality described by Christine Wicker in her story "How Spiritual Are We?" was notable for showing the mushiest Christian scene in the United States that I've seen after following these polls for decades.
The poll showed that 69% of Americans believe in God, 7% aren't sure if God exists, 5% don't believe in God, and 19% have some other answer to that question. About 12% don't believe in an afterlife. About 12% say no religion is valid.
About 23% don't pray outside religious services, and about 25% don't believe it's a parent's responsibility to give children a religious upbringing. About 24% see themselves as "spiritual but not religious." About 22% say that religion is not a factor in their lives; another 22% said that religion was "in their lives but not particularly important." About 41% of Americans say that religion has too often led to war and suffering. About 50% say that they attend religious services rarely or never. 59% say that all religions are valid and 58% think that religion and politics should not mix. About 22% would consider converting to another religion, and 82% said that they would consider marrying someone of a different faith.
About 12% of people say only their religion is valid, and only about 11% of people pray because they feel that God expects them to pray. About 15% say religion should be a key factor in political decisions. About 17% of Americans would go to a spiritual leader for guidance with a problem. About 30% of Americans say they attend religious services once a week or more often, although probably only half of them are telling the truth. About 45% see themselves as religious, but one-thirds or more of them don't attend religious services weekly. During the recession, more people are going to religious services less often than are going more often, and only one in six people have changed their religious attendance in the Great Recession.
In sum, historically tiny ranks of hard core non-believers now rivals the number of hard core people of faith. Less than half of Americans are definitely religious (perhaps closer to a third), while almost a quarter of Americans have dropped out of organized Christianity.
The beliefs of the majority of Americans are in line with the doctrines of Free Masonry and the Baha'i: God exists, all religions have validity, and religious toleration is best. This isn't the outright secularism that has become dominant in most of Europe, and is the leading alternative to the dominant faith in both the Islamic world and Israel. Only about a quarter of Americans are secular to that extent, those who are actively non-religious make up only about half of them, with the rest simply being overwhelming apathetic about religious belief systems as coherent as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Younger people in areas where hard core Christianity was once dominant are assimilating the more amorphous national culture. Outside those places, middle aged people have already done so.
Churches Are Changing
The nature of the religious institutions that are vital is changing as well. Evangelical Christian denominations are losing ground to post-denominational mega-churches. Most of these mega-churches are conservative Christian in outlook, but their focus is returning to the traditional role of mainline religion in American life, towards inward self-improvement and family harmony, rather than political action. Many people have taken those "Focus On Your Own Damn Family" bumper stickers to heart. Churches are organized around personalities, not creeds.
Even in churches that remain affiliated with religious denominations, worship is changing. The idea of dressing in your "Sunday best" has become an anachronism. The music in many churches affiliated with traditional denominations has leaped from 15th-19th century hymns to electric guitar era Praise bands and spirituals not seen outside black churches and Pentecostal churches a generation ago. But, that change is kinder and gentler than the "charismatic movement" description that early observers of these changes thought that they were seeing a decade ago. "Casual contemporary" (an echo of adult contemporary radio) better describes the trend. For many religious Americans, the church is no longer the repository and defender of tradition. Relevancy has trumped a desire to be connected to history.
Relative freedom from political agendas and tradition allows churches to de-emphasize religious doctrines that no longer work in the contemporary moral climate. A church without a creed or extensive written doctrine is less pressed to confront disconnects between fundamentalist Christian articles of faith and the widespread American value of tolerance.
Migration And Faith
When churches cease to be reservoirs of cultural identity and protectors of traditional values not shared by the national establishment, they don't profit in the same way from responding to the threat that establishment culture will subsume what it protects.
Immigrant churches start to lose their identity when the children and grandchildren of immigrants assimilate (and a pause in immigration fostered by the Great Recession allows assimilation to outpace immigration as a driving force in immigrant communities).
Perhaps, Evangelical churches outside the South are the functional equivalent of immigrant churches, and will likewise lose potency outside their core region as descendants of migrants from the South assimilate. Southern Evangelicals who migrated to places like Southern California, Colorado Springs and North Dakota as part of the military-industrial complex are now either seeing their children and grandchildren assimilate, or being drawn back to economic opportunities in states that used to have stagnant economies.
Meanwhile, a whole generation of economic migrants to the South has put a dent in the hegemony of the Southern Evangelical Christian identity. Simply having mainline Christians, secular people and more Catholics in your community in appreciable numbers encourages a more tolerant outlook, even if it doesn't immediately lead to conversion or shake people's faith. The effect is the same, but more subtle, than the effect of having large numbers of gays and lesbians come out of the closet, making them part of "present company" and no longer mere abstract concepts.
A pendulum that swings back and forth from conservative to liberal views is a common and powerful historical metaphor. Indeed, it is particularly powerful if you view the pendulum as the kind of free standing weight on a cord swinging back and forth that precesses around the circle, slightly realigning its extremes of right and left with each new cycle, that you see in the Smithsonian. Without a kicker, however, the pendulum's swing also grows less intense with each cycle, spiraling in towards the center.
We are on a liberal swing in American politics that got Barack Obama elected with a solid Democratic majority in Congress, and we won't remain there forever. Every revolution prompts a counter-revolution. The Reformation spawned the Counter-Reformation. The Classical Music of the Enlightenment gave way to the Romantic Music of the Nineteenth Century. Emancipation was followed by Jim Crow segregation and lynchings. The formality of the Victorians gave way to the gender bending fashion of the flappers. The social unity embraced by the New Deal was followed by division of the Red Scare. The anti-establishment Hippies were followed by the hyper-establishment Preppies.
But, when conservatism comes back in vogue in a few years or a couple of decades, it won't repeat itself precisely as it did in the last cycle. Opposition to gay rights has deflated. Abortion has lost its potency as an issue, despite the fact that many in the conservative social movement still care. The future is too fuzzy to allow us to discern the nature of the next big social issue. Perhaps the social class divisions that bristled intensely after World War I will retake center stage. Perhaps there will be a movement to restore stability to heterosexual marriage. Perhaps there will be a "men's movement."
More likely than not, the defining issues of the next wave of conservatives are barely even on our radar screens right now. How many people had any consciousness of gay rights as an issue a month before Stonewall? How many people would have predicted the Civil Rights movement or the Cold War in 1944? Who would have predicted the imminent creation of a massive social safety net and comprehensive regulation of the financial industry in 1928? In 1853, the United States President was a member of the Whig Party and the Republican party didn't exist; in 1861, the President was a Republican and the Whig party was moribund.
As the 20th century dawned, Christianity was firmly associated with progressive social activism, and remained so through the Civil Rights movement. Who would have predicted that at the dawn of the 21st century, that it would have been seen as a bastion of conservative social activism?
The conservative social agenda is ripe for redefinition. The movement has no towering leaders. The current crop of conservative political and religious leaders have become so inconsequential that people are inclined to see talk radio shock jocks as the movement's leaders. But, they aren't visionaries. Neoconservatives want to get off the bus. Libertarians don't know which ship to buy a ticket on. Religious movements are learning the benefits of decoupling themselves from politics. It is moments like these when order suddenly emerges from chaos. In the meanwhile, however, the old social conservatives may quietly fade away.